Marketing Myopia and Selling Revisited

One of Harvard Business Review’s all-time best-selling articles is Ted Levitt’s “Marketing Myopia.” It sold 850,000 reprints from its 1960 publication to Levitt’s death earlier this year.

Re-read today, it looks more like strategy than marketing. His claim that the railroads failed to see they were in the transportation business is bigger-picture than what most marketing has become.

The article has aged well—except for Levitt’s aside about marketing vs. sales. Listen to how he defines selling:

“The difference between marketing and selling is more than semantic. Selling focuses on the needs of the seller, marketing on the needs of the buyer. Selling is preoccupied with the seller’s need to convert the product into cash, marketing with the idea of satisfying the needs of the customer…”

Now here’s a fairly typical quote from 2006: Ann Armstrong, in a B2Bonline.com interview about the role of sales at her company:

MB: FCW has an unusual setup for selling integrated media, with general managers for print, online and events working with seven media consultants. How does this work?
Armstrong: The term media consultants reflects a real change in the role of the salesperson. Their first job now is to listen, to find out the customer’s goals and objectives. Then they come back and create an integrated media plan that’s tailored to that particular customer."

The Evolution of Sales and Marketing

Sales has taken a 180-degree turn in the 45 years between those two quotes. Because all products now have major services components, and because of mass customization, sales has usurped the customer focus role from marketing, and the product development role from R&D or engineering. Sales, not marketing, is the source of connection to the customer.

An updated definition of “sales” would position it as the critical interface between seller and buyer in a commercial relationship—not the agent of product flogging in a competitive relationship. Willie Loman, peddlers and hustlers are well out of date, even if many hang on.

"Customer focus” has for too long been turned by marketing types—who increasingly look like finance types—into code for increasing returns to the seller. Meanwhile, in industry after industry, it is the customer relationship contact—a.k.a. sales—which ends up translating the voice of the buyer.

Is Sales the new Marketing?

Update: This post was featured in the Carnival of Capitalists.