Are You Engaged in Substantive Marketing?

Your leaders might say they believe in marketing, but is their support more than symbolic?
Substantive Marketing

Despite how much marketing has changed over the years, some long-standing arguments remain relevant today. Such is the case with an article titled “Trappings vs. Substance in Industrial Marketing” by B. Charles Ames, which was first published in July 1970, in which Ames argues that industrial firms have not made the commitment to substantive marketing because they are too content with superficial “trappings,” or symbolic gestures toward the importance of marketing.

In the article, Ames argues for the importance of substantive marketing by setting the stage: businesses of the time were facing increasingly challenging circumstances. These included a push for international expansion that required marketers to develop new techniques to reach new audience segments. Coupled with that was increasing dependence on technology, although Ames admitted the marketing sector had more failures than successes when figuring out the best ways to apply it.

He also wrote of his experience interacting with marketing executives who had made significant marketing investments but felt unsatisfied with the associated payoffs. Let’s explore how Ames breaks down his argument regarding trappings vs. substance and look at how the content still applies today to industrial marketer’s struggles to realize substantive marketing.

Trappings Don’t Bring the Necessary Change in Mindset

Ames mentioned several things company executives tended to focus on when launching their industrial marketing plans. They were:

  • Expressions of support from executives, via materials like speeches and annual reports
  • Activities surrounding creating a marketing department, including hiring salespeople and managers
  • The creation of new administrative mechanisms, such as market-based reporting and formal marketing plans
  • Increasing budgets for marketing efforts, such as research, advertising and staff training.

Ames clarifies that he does not think these focal points are entirely without merit. However, he asserted that they alone are not enough to bring about the mindset change necessary for realizing substantive marketing that yields successes.

More specifically, he wrote, “The typical organizational and administrative steps taken in most companies are trappings; they fail to accomplish this shift in attitude. And without this shift in attitude—companywide—the most highly developed marketing operation cannot produce any real results.”

Sufficient Substance Is Not Present in Many Marketing Plans

Ames calls attention to several issues at the management level that persist and keep companies too dedicated to trappings rather than substance. First, he writes people at the management level often fail to understand how marketing applies to industrial companies. Additionally, he wrote that if managers grasp the concept of marketing, they don’t make the decisions and take the actions needed to help it work inside the company.

Additionally, Ames said managers frequently fail to implement the administrative measures that will help marketing efforts succeed. He reiterated that when at least one of these problems exists, companies will likely fail in moving forward with substantive marketing plans.

Trappings vs. Substance and the Four Key Industrial Marketing Dimensions

Ames explains that pursuing industrial marketing does not mean setting up a dedicated department for that activity. He also mentioned that it doesn’t necessarily entail boosting short-term profits, increasing volume or trying to cater to everyone in the market.

He clarifies, “Rather, marketing in the industrial world is a total business philosophy aimed at improving profit performance by identifying the needs of each key customer group and then designing and producing a product/service package that will enable the company to serve selected groups more effectively than does its competition.”

Ames continues by defining and exploring the four dimensions of industrial marketing:

  • Targeting improved profit performance
  • Identifying what customers need
  • Finding customer segments that increase competitiveness
  • Offering appealing products and services to customers

In short, Ames believes that substantive marketing comes from having a customer-centric focus. Other people through the years have taken inspiration from Ames and come up with a slightly different definition.

For example, Michael Collins, author of a growth-planning handbook, said, “I describe the substance as a way of growing by continuously finding new customers and market opportunities and to invent the new products and services that will give the company an ongoing competitive advantage. In short, the substance is defining where the company will go in the marketplace and how it will achieve the growth it wants.”

How Can We Focus on Substantive Marketing Today?

Many of the main points in the trappings vs. substance argument Ames makes align with modern priorities related to understanding the customer, solving their pain points and offering products and services that help them meet goals. Fortunately, identifying what customers want is arguably easier now than when Ames wrote his piece.

That’s largely due to social media, which has helped drive the growth of numerous industries. Current or potential customers can ask questions, react to posted content and give product feedback, all on social media. That means social media profiles can be excellent starting points for understanding what people want and responding accordingly.

Marketing professionals have also recently pointed out that today’s business representatives must strive to get to know their customers’ mindsets. That means anticipating their desires and concerns, as well as their questions.

Consider an example where a company sells an industrial packaging machine. Successfully marketing it to the target market requires understanding what features customers want it to have and what drove them to consider this product in the first place. However, marketing teams must also identify what might cause those customers to feel uncertain or need clarification. Together, those aims comprise a practical approach to substantive marketing.

Trappings vs. Substance: Where Does Your Company Fall?

It’s unrealistic to assume an industrial company’s marketing efforts will be all trappings and no substance or vice versa. After all, Ames himself didn’t say trappings are useless. However, you can use this overview to understand if leaders in your organization might be focusing too much on the wrong things, overlooking customers in the process, and impeding your ability to deliver substantive marketing.


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