Marketing for the Future

It wasn’t too long ago that most business school students made a clear distinction between marketing and finance (or economics or accounting).  Finance was for folks comfortable with numbers, who were analytical, who wanted to deal with ”hard facts.” Marketing was all about “soft skills” and didn’t have much quantitative content. It was more “creative” and “intuitive.” My, how things have changed!

Marketing is no longer the “softer, easier” counterpart to finance and accounting. Over the past 25 years, the field of marketing has morphed into one of the most data intensive and analytically driven fields there are and quantitative skills have become an essential element in any marketer’s tool kit.

So what has changed? Why has marketing become the new haven for quant jocks? In a word – data.  The growth of new technologies and the explosion of data that they permit have completely changed the face of the field. Google, Amazon, Iphone apps, your supermarket loyalty card – everyone is tracking what you do and buy, who you talk to, what you say, and where you go. Digital technology in your phone, your car, your credit card, and thousands of other places allows companies to collect and store data that would have been only a dream just a few short years ago.

Today’s marketing is what turns this data into information, turns information into insights, and turns insights into action plans.

Does this mean that marketing no longer requires creativity and that all marketing decisions can now be distilled directly from the numbers? Not at all. In fact, one could argue that today’s marketers need even more creativity and a greater willingness to think outside the box than ever before. Asking the right questions, deriving real insights from data, and turning those insights into marketing plans and products requires broad thinkers, not those who are content to simply “follow the pack.”

So, what are the skills and domains that today’s marketers need to master? I think there are several:

1)    Data analytics. There is no question that today data is king. It drives the marketing decisions in nearly every industry and in firms of all shapes and sizes. Understanding how to collect, analyze, and present data is the new foundation for marketers. They are no longer the “poets” in business schools, but have definitely joined the ranks of the “quants.”

2)    Design thinking. The ability to turn customer insights into new products and services is increasingly a key element in a marketer’s toolkit. How will the consumer use the product? What is most effective user interface? How can we design the product for both ease of use and ease of manufacture? Understanding how consumers react to design, color, function, and form should inform your marketing strategy and marketers at all levels should have some understanding of these concepts.

3)    Consumer psychology. Understanding the customer has always been the goal of marketing professionals and most successful marketers have a deep understanding of consumer psychology and behavior. This hasn’t changed with the explosion of data. Turning the data into real information and insight requires not only the ability to analyze the data, but to analyze the thinking going on behind the data. Successful marketers combine the data and the psychology. They use their psychological insights to analyze the data and use data trends and anomalies to assess customer psyche.

4)    Social Media. Marketing communications today is all about social media. Traditional media channels have been declining in use for years. Understanding how to market through Google, Twitter, Instagram. or whatever new product will launch tomorrow is an indispensable skill. Understanding how consumers use and react to these media forms can give you a leg up on your competition.

5)    Marketing and communications strategy. Of course, marketers still need to understand the traditional skills that they have always relied on – advertising, communications, pricing, and distribution. These skills have not become less important in this era of “extreme data” but they can be informed by and improved by the insights provided through the data.

Business schools have responded to the challenges faced by this data explosion in a variety of ways. Most schools have expanded their coursework in data analytics and marketing research.  Some have gone so far as to develop concentrations or majors in data analysis. On the design front, business schools are increasingly tying up with schools of engineering or design to create programs that focus on how to create and market product and services that are functional, good looking, and that truly delight the customer.  Social media marketing is now an integral part of any discussion of marketing communications.  Finally, schools of all sorts have recognized that many of these concepts are best learned by doing – not simply by reading a textbook.  More and more schools now offer experiential programs to develop these skills – analyzing real live data sets, developing actual products for a client, creating social media marketing plans for everything from student conferences to local businesses.  Students now have an amazing set of opportunities to really hone their marketing skills. (You can see how Chicago Booth approaches these issues at

So, as you consider a career in marketing, recognize that the field is vastly different from just a few years ago. It is both more data driven and more creative and requires both “left brain” and “right brain” thinking. The most successful marketers will be able to combine elements of both.



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