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Marketing: the potent skill of managing perceptions.

There is a somewhat cynical saying in marketing that 'if you can't improve the product, you improve the package.'

Certainly, packaging - the fifth P' of marketing - is becoming an increasingly powerful tool in the marketer's hands. How often have we seen a product advertised as being somehow better because it is now in new and improved" packaging or "now in a new flip-top package for added convenience'? We suspect that the product inside is much the same as before but, nevertheless, we are still lured to the Holy Grail of the cash register, with new and improved package in hand.

Of course, in some cases, the package really is a selling feature, a major benefit for the customer. Because of product tampering, the manufacturer of one of the world's leading pain relievers developed a safety seal. Almost every other manufacturer of pharmaceutical and other consumer products followed suit. Here, however, the consumer really did buy for the packaging. It gave him security and peace of mind as added benefits to the ones already provided by the product itself.

Marketers pay close attention to packaging, and not just because it costs so much - often 10 times as much as the product itself. Packaging either encourages or discourages buying. just as your pricing makes a statement about the way you see your product and the way you want your customers to see it - so does your packaging.

And packaging obviously does not mean just an attractive box with bright colors. Packaging is, quite literally, the whole environment within which you create, display, and sell your product. The cleanliness of your trucks, the landscaping of your plant, the materials-handling options that you use, your signs, corporate colours, and graphics all spell packaging in one form or another. As such, the discipline is of vital importance to marketers who need to take advantage of whatever competitive edge their packaging can provide.

The sixth P" of marketing is positioning. Like packaging, it is fundamental to the way in which your products and services are viewed in the marketplace what position or market niche they fill.

You automatically make some decisions about positioning when you develop your market plan. The type of product or service you offer, its price, quality, service support, warranty all make positioning statements. Where and how your product is displayed affect a customer's perception of its worth, and the calibre and reputation of people who talk about your latest product or service make a definite impact on the position you hold in the marketplace.

Positioning influences not only the specific niche (or series of needs) that you can fill, but also improves or impedes your ability to continue to do business successfully. In the war for market share, your position is the piece of ground you occupy and must continue to hold if you wish to prosper.

If you have successfully developed a market plan and conducted a situational analysis, then you should always be aware of what both the competition and basic market forces are doing to your position. The maker of electronic typewriters will soon find itself muscled out of business by a company making lap-top computers - unless it shifts its product, market niche, and position. Thus, a position is never static, and organizations that fail to pay attention to it usually pay the price.

Every marketer brings his or her biases to the table when a market plan is developed. Some believe that product quality is the most important factor, others that pricing can spearhead the marketing assault. Some think good packaging can create market share, while others place great emphasis on promotion. (Promotion, price, place - the distribution of product or service - the management of which is the cornerstone of a marketing plan were all discussed in last issue as the first four P's- of marketing.)

Increasingly, marketers are now being influenced by the seventh P' of marketing, perception. Their credo is that managing perceptions - the way people think and feel about your company - is the most potent marketing skill of all. They state that no matter how good your product, how competitive your pricing or bright your store's front window, all are valueless if a customer's perceptions of the company are negative or ill-informed.

We could play a game in which we toss out the names of several well-known organizations. Instantaneously, we would form an image of them in our minds either positive or negative - depending upon our perceptions.

That image often takes years for us to shake, so ingrained do perceptions become in our consciousness. No matter how often the mail arrives on time, for example, householders in most developed countries believe they have poor mail service. History may prove that Richard Nixon was a great, perhaps visionary president; to most people he remains Tricky Dick, tainted forever by Watergate. Canadians have recently seen how one organization failed to change the perception that its tuna was tainted or poisoned, while another persuaded customers that a drug that really had been poisoned (through no fault of its own) was still trustworthy. In both cases, perception management, or the lack of it, dominated the mind of the market. In the words of the flower children of the '60's, "Perception is reality. - Perception is as powerful a force inside an organization as in the marketplace. Children brought up to think of themselves as failures, or bad," often make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. A company that cannot manage perceptions in the market often ends up with disgruntled, unproductive employees in the plant. The company that sees itself as successful, honest, entrepreneurial, and effective usually becomes those things over time.

Far too often, marketers tend to concentrate on the other P's" of the market plan, the ones it is relatively easy to get a fix on.

They believe, with some justification, that if they do a good job on those P's," then people will have a positive perception of the company.

But, in so doing, they often neglect a vital added dimension of marketing, the actual hands-on, day-by-day management of perceptions. this is the ability to create a mission for the company and an environment in which every employee - and ultimately every customer - lives the mission and believes it. It is the ability to build public relationships, not public relations. One deals with people, the other with newsletters and the annual report, and the first is a great deal more difficult.

Finally, it is the ability to see ourselves as others see us and, of equal importance, to ensure that others perceive us the way we want them to.

Marketing without managing perceptions is like being the proverbial emperor with no clothes on. You may look great or you may look terrible. Either way, no one is going to tell you.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Canadian Institute of Management
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Barrow, Peter
Publication:Canadian Manager
Date:Sep 22, 1989
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