When Marketing is a Bad Idea

by Rob stam

Most of the people who come into our office at Navigate are looking for one thing: growth. And they want a marketing strategy and supporting assets such as websites, brochures, and videos to fuel that growth. In some situations, the business is ready for marketing and we can instantly get to work. But in many cases (I’d even dare say most cases) growth is the worst thing a business could pursue.

It’s a common occurrence: I’ll be meeting with a client and at some point I’ll tell them that I’d like to help them build an organizational chart and budget before we get started on the marketing. The response is typically a puzzled expression and the question: “What do structures and numbers have to do with marketing?” “Everything.” I tell them. “I can’t in good conscience help you grow a business effectively until we’ve first built the business correctly.”

It’s not always an easy thing to hear. By nature, marketing feels like a step forward and a momentum generator. Putting a halt on that takes the wind out of the sails, so to speak. But marketing before the business is prepared for growth can actually be a step backwards.

To make sense of this, we have to begin with the basic, foundational principle of marketing: marketing is storytelling.

Every marketing company under the sun says that effective storytelling is at the heart of a great marketing campaign, which is true. Let’s say you’ve done that: you’ve hired a marketing company and you now have amazing marketing assets and a strategy that deploys your story in a compelling and interesting way. People are drawn to your business and as a result revenues increase.

It’s after the growth happens, however, that the real storytelling occurs. No matter how great your marketing story is, the real story is the one your customers tell. Online reviews, social posts, and word-of-mouth referrals (or warnings) are the actual story of your business. No marketing campaign you initiate will be more powerful than the story the marketplace tells about you.

And this means that if you are not ready as a business—with the structure, staff, and processes in place for that growth to occur—your customers will not be telling the story you want.

Real marketing is not a story you tell, it’s a process you create that results in a story the market tells:

Story is an expression of value > Value is a result of process > Process is a result of structure.

This is called “Building to Market,” i.e. building your business in a way that prepares you to grow once you start marketing. All marketing stories are stories of value. They articulate whether a business (or product) can, or did, deliver something of value, worthy of the investment made by the customer. Value is only delivered when proper process and structures are in place. Processes and structures only happen when business owners take the time to build them, ensure they work, and put the right people in place to maintain and evolve them.

Above all of that, though, are the numbers. None of this matters unless you take the time to do the math for how much money it actually takes to manage those processes and deliver the value to your customers. Until you know what it actually costs to run the business, you can’t determine how much business you can, and should, pursue—and how much, and how specifically, you should invest in marketing.

Before you spend a penny on marketing, ask yourself this: do you really know what happens if it works?