5 Qualities of Exceptional Marketers

What Attributes Define the Best of the Best of the Marketing Industry?

In a bold and highly unprecedented move, tech giant Apple sponsored a TV commercial in the 1980s that ran only once—during the 1984 Super Bowl. Technically, the company’s “1984” ad ran twice. The second time was on KMVT, in Twin Falls, Idaho, on Dec. 31, 1983, in order to qualify for consideration for that year’s awards. The decision to air the 60-second spot—which heralded the debut of the iconic Macintosh—just one time was smart, calculated, and downright gutsy. And it worked.

“Don’t let anyone ever tell you not to take a risk you felt in your gut is the right move.”

Nightly news programs across the country rebroadcast the ad, which played on George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, garnering millions of dollars in free publicity for Apple, and the über-brief but highly effective campaign resulted in a flood of customers to electronics stores the following Tuesday to purchase the new desktop computer.

Courage and a willingness to take risks worked in a big way for Apple CEO Steve Jobs in the 1980s and beyond. These traits, as well as a few key others, are still relevant for marketers today, and they can be the differentiators between a run-of-the mill marketer and a cutting-edge difference maker. How do these qualities set exceptional marketers apart?

1. Be Courageous

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Jennelle Tilling, KFC’s global chief marketing and innovation officer, told Campaign US that a willingness to take risks and even fail should be viewed as a positive. “At [KFC parent firm] Yum!, we often talk about the kind of people we want to bring into the company: individuals who are smart, with heart and courage,” she said. “I think those first two traits are easier to come by. We tend to work with a lot of intelligent people who care deeply about others. Courage—i.e., risk taking—is more elusive.” She recalled a time when she had to pull an expensive campaign midway through its run. She knew it was the right move, but it entailed uncomfortable discussions with board members and franchisees. “Don’t let anyone ever tell you not to take a risk you felt in your gut is the right move,” she said. “And if, in fact, you fail, it’s OK to acknowledge that failure. Dust yourself off, gather your learnings—and risk again. That is what courage is all about.”

In order to navigate the increasingly complex world of SEO/SEM, paid ads, social media, print, analytics, and market research, a skilled team is essential.

Back to “1984”: If Jobs and his audacious marketing team hadn’t had the foresight to run their singular ad, which was aired by CBS during the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII, they might have missed a golden sales opportunity, not to mention the awards the spot has amassed over the years, including the Grand Prize award at the 1984 Cannes International Advertising Festival and Advertising Age’s 1980’s Commercial of the Decade.

2. Go Above and Beyond

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Exceptional marketers are tuned in to what their customers want and need, and they’re not afraid to give them exactly that—and more. Zappos founder Tony Hsieh keyed in on this principle early on. Hsieh built the online footwear site without making a huge investment in traditional media. What he and his team did do was give customers the type of services—free shipping both ways, upgrades to free overnight shipping, and a beyond-generous 365-day return policy, not to mention first-rate customer service— they valued, and that set Zappos apart from its competitors. With a customer-centric focus like this, it’s no wonder Zappos has grown into a highly profitable online retailer that now sells not only shoes for the whole family but also clothing, accessories, handbags, and luggage. Hsieh told Forbes, “Our business is based on repeat customers and word of mouth. There’s a lot of value in building up our brand name and what it stands for. We view the money that we spend on customer service as marketing money that improves our brand.”

Southwest Airlines is another brand that not only has taken bold stands but that also has made it a practice to go the extra mile, so to speak, for its customers. When other airlines announced they would start charging passengers to check their luggage, Southwest adamantly embraced its Bags Fly Free policy. “A lot of people have been trying to pickpocket and nickel-and-dime their customers,” Kevin Krone, the company’s head of marketing, told the New York Times, in 2010. “We don’t think it’s right.” The company’s stance ended up being a good move not only for Southwest’s customers but also for the company’s bottom line. Southwest’s revenue increased by $1.6 billion in the first half of 2010, compared to the same six-month period in 2007. Southwest chairman and CEO Gary Kelly, who called rival airlines’ luggage fees “a gift,” has been instrumental in guiding the company in numerous unconventional directions that have all been for the benefit of passengers. The most recent Southwest campaign—“Transfarency”—touts the absence of bag fees, change fees, and hidden fees, and continues the airline’s tradition of making flying a little less onerous for travelers.

3. Lead and Build Teams

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In addition to being courageous and customer-centric, today’s successful marketer must be a clear leader who knows how to build effective teams. In order to navigate the increasingly complex world of SEO/SEM, paid ads, social media, print, analytics, and market research, a skilled team is essential. “It is impossible for a marketing leader to be an expert [in] all these areas,” Steve Olenski wrote for Forbes, citing a list of traits compiled by Gerardo A. Dada. “One of the hardest tasks for a marketing leader is to build a team of specialists that is highly competent, action-oriented, customer-centric, and revenue-accountable,” he continued. “The marketing job never ends: There are always more channels, more opportunities, and more activities than anyone can do. Focus and leadership are key.”

In addition to being courageous and customer-centric, today’s successful marketer must be a clear leader who knows how to build effective teams.

The Harvard Business Review referred to this this trait as “bring[ing] out the superpowers in others.” A 2013 article cited the work of Antonio Lucio, then chief brand officer for Visa, who encouraged teamwork and cooperation by combining “the best of the old and the new.” Lucio told the Review, “The way to create magic is by combining the experience and perspective of traditional brand builders with the energy and innovation of digital natives.” (This is not unlike what Britton Marketing & Design Group does. Members of our various teams work with current clients in this digital age, as explained in an April 2016 blog.) This masterful mix was largely responsible for a groundbreaking Visa campaign for the 2012 London Summer Olympics that used traditional and digital media to connect fans with athletes, and that was expanded upon for the 2016 Rio games to another round of rave reviews.

4. Possess a Few Key Personality Traits

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This one’s a bit more nebulous, admittedly. But many experts seem to agree that exceptional marketers are wired in a way that serves their clients well. Joanna Lord compiled a list for Marketing Land that included the following attributes: humility, accountability, a sense of adventure, an insatiable curiosity, and an appreciation for details. Of course, not every stellar marketer possesses every one of these, Lord acknowledged, but added, “It’s almost odd how many times the top CMOs in the world reference these as what makes them great at what they do.”

A zest for learning and an eye for what lies ahead showed up in a list of qualities that appeared in an article shared on LinkedIn, by Mark Harrington, who wrote, “Given the speed and ever-changing dynamics of the markets, learning about the detailed inner workings of new tactics, tools, channels, [and] approaches is critical for the effective marketer to keep pace. That doesn’t mean you should adopt every new bell and whistle, but testing technologies can help in this learning process.”

Marketers for retail powerhouse Target took this advice to heart, when, in 2015, they introduced the College Registry in response to the looming threat of Amazon’s inaugural Prime Day sales event. Recognizing it could lose traditional back-to-school dollars to Prime Day shopping sprees, the retailer unveiled the new registry option, in early May, getting shoppers to think about back-to-school shopping—specifically for their college-bound students—months before they typically might. Ryne Misso wrote on Total Retail, “The retailer is calling the service a ‘modern-day twist on the classic college care package.’ Target hopes its College Registry will work hand in hand with another digital tool it’s using to innovate the BTS season—Target Subscriptions. This feature lets shoppers place recurring orders on Target.com for everyday essentials to be delivered right to their doorstep.”

5. Be Adaptable

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It’s no surprise that this trait found its way onto multiple lists of key marketer qualities. Changes in consumer behavior and the marketplace are a given, so it only makes sense that effective marketers are willing to adapt. In his Forbes article, Olenski referred to this trait as “smart adaptability.” He pointed out that enlightened marketers recognize the need to change with the times. “As customers change, marketing must change,” he wrote. The playing field has a new look and new behaviors, and savvy marketers now must consider such variables as the widespread use of social and mobile, and the fact that millennials tend to behave differently from other generations.

Along the same lines, it’s critical that marketers know how to shift the narrative to reach consumers in these data-driven times. In looking at ads that went viral in the past decade, Inc. noted, “The best advertising of the decade is the product of this shift—a carefully crafted narrative that tells the story consumers want to hear before they buy.” Two of the viral ads mentioned in the article were Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty,” which gained a huge following by questioning perceptions about female attractiveness, and Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like,” which appealed to men and women with its light-hearted approach and quirky messaging.

And with that, our list of five is complete. But there’s still room for more, because exceptional marketers possess more than these five traits. So stay tuned—perhaps there’ll be a sequel.

Photos: Shutterstock

Marcia Kirlin

Marcia Kirlin

There’s a good chance you’ll find copy editor Marcia Kirlin with her nose in a book, preferably one with paper pages you turn the old-school way—and are occasionally even dog-eared. Gasp!

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