The ludicrous invention of Ps

Is it laziness, ignorance or sheer perversity that leads to the creation of an ever-increasing and redundant pile of marketing ‘P’ words?  It is perhaps a little strange that the names of so many key marketing concepts and tools begin with the 16th letter of the alphabet: think positioning, proposition, personality, planning, portfolio, purchasing and profit as strategic descriptors and point-of-sale, packaging, public relations, premiums, etc. as executional elements.  This far from exhaustive list omits the most obvious and best-known Ps, however.

The 4Ps are one of the underpinning planks of modern marketing and have stood the test of time pretty well, despite a conceptual flaw at their heart.  Jerome McCarthy created the concept in 1960 to describe the key tools, or elements, with which marketers implement their strategies.  In 1981 Booms & Bitner expanded the 4Ps to 7Ps by the inclusion of further elements more relevant to service organizations, although their application to non-service industries as well was soon realised (particularly People and Process, reducing it to 6Ps).  It is important to note that the People element refers to the human element of the service given to customers, not the end customer, and Process refers to the operational aspects of the service.  This then is the classic marketing mix:

The conceptual flaw is the producer-led nature of the concept, at odds with marketing’s customer-led centricity, although it is not difficult to take the customer end of each variable as the start-point.  Some marketing thinkers have attempted customer-led versions of the concept, notably Philip Kotler’s 4Cs (taking the 4Ps above in turn: Customer benefits, Cost to customer, Convenience, Communications), but none have stood the test of time as well as these 4/6/7Ps .

The problem is that the list of Ps is forever being amended: sometimes by practitioners and academics, but more frequently by commentators and consultants with an axe to grind.  Sometimes the additional Ps have relevance and reflect an understanding of the toolkit/checklist-nature of the concept.  More often they are nothing more than a collection of words beginning with the letter P and a vague relevance to any aspect of marketing the author sees fit.  Not only are the words often ridiculous or platitudinous – Performance and Pleasure seem to be favourites – but demonstrate a lack of insight into the role of the 4/7Ps.

An article in the CIM house magazine, The Marketer, recently proposed the four Ps of People, Planet, Pleasure and Profit as a new business model.  It is unclear whether the author felt that her model should replace the traditional 4Ps but it is pretty certain that, unlike the original, it is neither a practical and useful concept for a marketer to use, nor will it last any longer than any of the other revised models over the years.  Similarly, an item was posted on a LinkedIn forum for CIM (Chartered Institute of Marketing) members asking whether Profit should be added to the Ps.  As was pointed out by many members, profit is an outcome of marketing strategies, not an element to be deployed to achieve it, but the poster had many supporters.   Would members of the Chartered Institute of Accountants so blithely start redefining double-entry bookkeeping?

Performance, Passion, Profit, Pleasure, Planet and all the rest are not levers that can be pulled to fulfil the requirements of a marketing strategy and achieve the marketing objectives, however valuable the notions might be in consideration of strategy development.  The apparent lack of understanding of one of the key marketing concepts amongst many of those involved in, and close to the profession, does little to create confidence amongst other disciplines.  It is in part a reflection of the fact that anyone can – and frequently does – call themselves a marketer, without the need for any qualifications.

What relevance does all this have to sustainability?  A profession unsure about one of its key conceptual tools, which has great relevance to sustainability, has a problem in establishing credibility as well as an important handicap in implementing relevant sustainability strategies.  This is in addition to the problem of marketing’s ongoing obsession with communications at the expense of the rest of the marketing mix (the 4/6/7Ps).

Commentators have been looking at the application of marketing methodologies to sustainability for some time, for example Semiosis Communications’ People, Planet and Prosperity, which picks up on John Elkington’s 1995 People, Planet and Profit (coincidentally ‘P’s again) concept, which he developed into the Triple Bottom Line.  These are critically important considerations in the development of a sustainable marketing strategy, but they do not substitute for the practical – deliverables – essence of the classic marketing mix of the 4/6/7Ps.  Rather they are a part of the audit that precedes strategy development, that traditionally includes consideration of PESTLE (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal and Environmental) factors and an exhaustive understanding of the marketplace to which consideration is being given.  They also need to inform the objectives against which the strategy will be measured.

A very pertinent contribution was recently made by Paul Polman, Unilever’s CEO, however.  He posited that Provenance could become an accepted part of the marketing mix.  Not only is this suggestion highly relevant to the development of appropriate sustainable marketing strategies – in terms of requiring an intimate knowledge of the supply chain by marketers – but it reflects a clear understanding of the concept of the Ps and their role in marketing, unlike so many other ‘P’ creators.

The classic Ps still provide a useful framework for marketing in a sustainability context, but there is little doubt that it needs adaptation to be fully fit for purpose.  Those adaptations need to be based upon a proper understanding of the role of the marketing mix, however, rather than a lazy throwing together of words that happen to begin with a particular letter.


About David Whiting

I help organizations to create competitive advantage, build brands and develop new opportunities, in particular by aligning sustainability understanding with customer insights
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