Attempts to update the four Ps are embarrassing – they’ve endured for a reason
Whenever a marketer sets out to improve, augment or adapt the four Ps, they reveal the absurdity of the exercise and reinforce why product, price, place and promotion remain the core concepts of the marketing mix.
I have a four-year-old. At some point after she was born we read that it was good for young children to enjoy as much rough and tumble in their early years as possible. So, we encouraged it and ended up with the game of ‘Angry Mountain’. It’s not a complex game. I lie on the bed just before bedtime and my daughter sneaks up and beats the shit out of me.
As she got bigger it got to the point where it was getting painful, so I have been gradually leading her away from Angry Mountain. We are almost there. But sometimes she misses the physicality of it. Every now and again when I am watching TV or having a beer or looking out of a window she will sidle up and punch me in the balls. Obviously, I love my daughter. But these occasional moments of unexpected suffering test that love.
That’s how I also feel about my 30-year relationship with marketing. From the very outset I never loved anything so much. But on a regular basis marketing will test my love with the occasional blow to the extremities. These blows land with such force that, for a few seconds, I genuinely question my affection.
The most common disciplinary groin pain I endure comes from our industry’s recurring need to refashion the marketing mix. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that, at any moment in time, there will be a marketer somewhere on the planet drawing a bold red line through the words ‘four Ps’ and replacing them with something – anything – else. Our heresy is as common as it is dumbfounding.
Masterclass | With saturated markets and competition for consumers' attention, @oatly's @johnschoolcraft, @MeUndies' @jlowenstein1204 and @iex's @kategunning discuss using unconventional strategies and emotive storytelling to stand out. #ChallengerBrands https://t.co/8SQBnOQ4j6 pic.twitter.com/eeT9ag5NZA
— Adweek (@Adweek) February 24, 2021
Adweek was making my balls ache last week with its virtual masterclass on challenger brands. One of the speakers – Jeremy Lowenstein, the CMO of underwear brand MeUndies – contrasted the four Ps of product, price, promotion and place that are taught to marketers with the “real” four Ps of marketing, namely: purpose, performance, personalisation and (deep sigh) pride. Just give me a moment.
I can get into a lot of trouble with marketing snowflakes when I suggest this kind of thing is inane nonsense. If the person proposing the silliness has fewer social media followers than me I am a “bully”. When they have more followers I am “targeting famous people” to build my brand. I cannot win. So, let me tread as gently as I can here (not my forte). I am sure Jeremy is a fine marketer and an even finer human being. But when you propose a change in the marketing model and sign your name next to it, you should expect some scrutiny and possible pushback.
And his proposal is – ahem – pants. This ridiculous and achingly naïve list begs to be challenged. I’m certainly fascinated how a CMO can run a successful marketing operation without being involved in product development. Is there no need to connect the market MeUndies is targeting with the underpants it is trying to sell them?
And I’m missing exactly how or where the brand will achieve its sales. Is it selling direct? Through wholesale? What retail channels will it sell through? How does it manage channel conflict? Or is that not part of marketing’s remit anymore at MeUndies? Does pride and purpose sort all that out magically?
And, while the brand has an impressively premium price point, I assume the CMO and his marketing team were not involved in setting it. They were just focused on performance and personalisation and left the pricing decisions to the manufacturing, sales and finance people.
The four Ps
When Jerry McCarthy completed his marketing PhD at the University of Minnesota in 1958 the discipline was at a crossroads. For decades, the discussion had been about the general role that marketing should play in the corporate world and its position as a science. It was the era of Wroe Alderson, the ‘father of modern marketing’, and a period in which the theory of the discipline was at the fore. Professor McCarthy, a former rock salesman, was a more practical thinker. When he won a Ford Foundation Fellowship to attend both Harvard and MIT in the autumn of 1959, he used part of that precious gift to write Basic Marketing – a simple, managerial guide to doing marketing well.
Central to McCarthy’s approach was the marketing mix – the four conceptual areas of marketing decision-making. It is crucial to note that the marketing mix is not the totality of marketing. McCarthy and those who followed him always meant the four Ps to represent the controllable levers that a company operates to satisfy its objectives in the marketplace.
Put more simply, the four Ps summarise the tactical considerations of what a company wants to do. When I taught MBA students I would always refer to them as the “four tactical horsemen of the marketing apocalypse”. They encompass the tactical decisions but not the steps in the marketing process upon which they are predicated – namely diagnosis and then strategy.
This point is missed by so many who have subsequently attempted to ‘fix’ the four Ps. There is often an annoyingly clear sense that those proposing improvements to the concept of the marketing mix don’t fully understand it in the first place. They add ‘process’, for example, and miss the point that the four Ps was always part of a bigger one. In Lowenstein’s case he adds ‘purpose’, a version of brand positioning that should have been tackled during the strategic phase of marketing planning and not the tactical section addressed by the four Ps.
It is unfair to single out Lowenstein, given he is only a foot solider in a giant ignorant army that has marched against one of marketing’s most established concepts over the years, in a mistaken attempt to ‘improve’ or ‘adapt’ or ‘revisit’ the four Ps. Discovering that a marketing concept is 60 years old elicits one of two possible responses. For a well-trained marketer who knows McCarthy’s work and appreciates disciplinary rigour, six decades signals robustness and consistency. But if you are a ‘modern marketer’ – low on disciplinary knowledge and unable to discern the constant evolution of tactics from the broader, unchanging nature of the marketing mission – 60 years is indicative of something that is surely out of date. They are looking around for someone to hold their disciplinary beer quicker than you can say “prepare for pointless-phrase posturing”.
Four different Ps
The most common way this ignorance manifests is through generating four new words, all beginning with P, to replace the original set. This is stunningly absurd for a couple of reasons. First, because there is nothing wrong with the original Ps of product, place, price and promotion if you properly understand them. Of course, they encompass different tactics and issues depending on the era, the industry and the brand in question. But that is one of the strengths of the four Ps, not a weakness.
Second, even if the marketing mix had become less relevant, the ludicrous logic behind coming up with four alternatives that also all begin with P is hilariously dumb. McCarthy was open about the generation of the four Ps back in the day. He started with product and then discovered, to his delight, that two of the other options – promotion and price – also started with P. He fudged his concept a little when it came to distribution which, for alliterative reasons, he changed to place. The odds of coming up with the four Ps was therefore 676 to 1. Product had to start with one of the letters, place was changed to fit with the others, so the probability comes down to the other two concepts both beginning with P – hence 262 or 676.
Long odds but not impossible. In contrast, the odds of finding four new words that all start with P and which all optimally capture the tactical challenge of marketing better than the other lexical options is 264 or about half a million to one. The dunderheaded superficiality of choosing four replacements that all start with P should render any attempt not just redundant but hilariously foolish.
‘We need more Ps’
Believe it or not, those long odds get infinitesimally longer and the outcome significantly sillier when marketers accept the four Ps but then augment them with – you guessed it – more Ps. McCarthy’s original formula was as tight as it was applicable. But why, ask restless marketers, have four tactical levers when we can have more? More is more, after all, right?
Many less astute marketers have added ‘process’ to the mix to create the five Ps. Others also have then added ‘people’ to further dilute and weaken it. But why stop at six when so much potential inanity remains so temptingly within reach? Adding ‘physical evidence’ creates an unnecessary Inspector Morse dimension and gets us to seven Ps. Always better than four, right? But not as good as eight, which is what you get when you add ‘packaging’ – which was part of the product P if you actually bothered to read McCarthy’s model before trying to improve it, but hey ho!
You can add ‘presentation’ to get to nine Ps, assuming, again, you ignore the fact that this P is already baked into both product and promotion. To get to double figures is quite tough because you start to run out of words that begin with P. But that does not stop those determined marketers who add – wait for it – ‘pow’ to their list. Yes, pow, as in ‘kapow!’. Adding philosophy (no idea) gets us to 11 Ps. Putting ‘prestige’ into the list will get you to a 12 P model and, no, I have zero clue how this might be generally relevant to all brands or why it should not be part of the positioning part of marketing strategy.
I can keep going all day. It’s not that I have run out of idiot examples, trust me there are hundreds more. I can take you all the way to 44 Ps – more than 10 times better than McCarthy’s original! But that would mean I would have to include words like ‘pain’, ‘part’ and ‘porn’. Yes, porn.
Fuck the Ps
Given the ridiculous lexical probability of the other two options, there should be relatively more respect for those who suggest alternatives to the four Ps that don’t begin with P. But, again, this respect is quickly lost when you compare these purported alternatives to McCarthy’s original. I got into hot water last month when I wrote about one marketer’s criticism of the four Ps as “confusing, distracting and siloed”. The replacements? Lead generation, nurturing leads, conversion, delivery and retention/upsell/advocacy. Someone save me.
There is a tortured, circular marketing logic these days when people claim that “marketers are no longer involved in pricing or product development” and then come out with this kind of guff which makes the elementary mistake of assuming marketing is just communications. It might be for junior marketers working in companies that make the classic error of ‘advertising orientation’. But this is not a coherent argument for burning down one of the central concepts of marketing and replacing it with a tiny, nonsensical subset of what marketing is for those that don’t understand it properly.
Clearly, most marketers do not exclusively control the price, product development or distribution decisions within their company. Indeed, if you include agencies in the equation, they don’t even solely manage the promotional P either. But it would be damaging to mistake control for influence. Proper marketers working at well-run organisations have significant impact and input across all four levers of their company’s tactics. The four Ps are one of the reasons that they retain that influence.
Make no mistake, if you set price without the input of the marketing team you usually leave money on the table. ‘Cost-plus’ pricing has that effect. When you develop products without marketing, you reduce the chances of product success. The fact a lot of untrained marketers don’t realise this is not a reason to change a marketing model that successful executives have been using for decades. It’s a reason to educate them on how it could and should be done.
It is a similar story for digital marketers, who – intent on making everything in marketing different and modern because, you know, digital – have variously set out to bastardise the four Ps and, in doing so, rendered the exercise and themselves entirely useless. We do not need to change the four Ps because of digital. We need to understand that the constituent elements that make up the four Ps have changed – will continue to change – as time moves on.
The only attempt to refashion the four Ps that I have any time for is the work of Richard Ettenson, Eduardo Conrado and Jonathan Knowles in the Harvard Business Review. Unlike most of the armchair marketing experts, who pulled their new four Ps, 12 Ps, or one Q and six Vs directly out of their respective arses, the authors conducted more than 500 interviews with marketers and customers. They produced the now semi-famous SAVE model for B2B marketers. But, despite their initial agenda to rethink the four Ps, once data collection began, all three authors started to appreciate that the simplicity of the model also masked its applicability and depth.
“It was only once we began to discuss and synthesise the findings from the many customer interviews that we had each done over the years,” Knowles wrote to me earlier this year, “that we reached the humbling conclusion that the four Ps did not need to be replaced, simply seen through a broader lens.” If only more marketers were as humble and empirical as Knowles and his co-authors.
The four Ps aren’t some monolithic process through which marketing magic happens. Good marketers don’t sit down and say: “It’s Tuesday. Today I will do the pricing P.” The marketing mix is a checklist. A way of thinking about tactical execution that helps in the final third of the marketing process. It is beguilingly simple but fantastically applicable. And, as a structuring device, as relevant now as it was 60 years ago.
Try explaining Apple’s market triumphs using the four Ps of product design, price, place and promotion and then try it with all the other wank versions listed above. Explain Amazon’s emergence with the four Ps and then do it with the proposed improved version of purpose, performance, personalisation and pride. See what I mean? The four Ps work. The others don’t.
The P Regenerator
But I get it. I know how little discipline or respect for marketing history most marketers have. And I know how they ache to update, upturn and usurp anything that is six, never mind 60, years old. So my team at the Mini MBA in Marketing have been hard at work. We have created a very modern, entirely digital new tool which we have called the ‘P Regenerator’. This dazzling new marketing tech has cost us millions and will substantially speed up the process of changing and then communicating the new Ps of marketing right across the discipline.
How have we done this? We use facial recognition software and your webcam to assess age, gender and marketing role. Then machine learning and a complex algorithm kicks in to work out your ideal four Ps from the big data we have amassed through advanced analytics. Then we 3D-print the outcome BEFORE YOUR EYES. And then provide an advanced digital media platform that uses programmatic advances in performance marketing to share your vision with as wide an audience as possible. Also, virtual reality and bitcoin.
So, marketer, what are you waiting for? Don’t sit there reading about the late, great Jerry McCarthy and thinking logical, applied marketing thoughts. That’s not what modern marketers do any more. They visit our P Regenerator and start ripping up the foundations of marketing with their own inane, hastily constructed alternatives and then pissing them out all over the internet in a brazen, foolhardy attempt to look like thought leaders.