Marketing I, Part 1: Introduction: Part VIII of "Learnin's From My MBA" Series


If I had to define marketing, I'd say it meant figuring out what your customer wants and how to get it to them. The dictionary definition is a little different--"the part of a business which controls the way that goods and services are sold." But if you think about it, they both mean the same thing.

If you think about either definition for a second, you'll also realize that they're both broad. Almost anything a company does could be considered "controlling the way that goods and services are sold." In fact, some people would argue that marketing is business, and that business is marketing. Many huge marketing-focused companies even have their research and development departments, and all the scientists who work for them, as a subset of their marketing departments--after all, once you've figured out what your customer wants, the next marketing step is making it!

In any case, scientists are old hands at marketing. Every time you write a grant, apply for a job, or give a presentation at a conference, you are doing marketing. In some cases it's marketing your research projects. Sometimes it's marketing your theorems and ideas. Other times, it's marketing yourself and your capabilities.

But this shouldn't be a big surprise--the concept of marketing is as old as religion, and about as ubiquitous. Although the methods and concepts change, the basic principles stay the same. Marketing contains four such principles, and in the next 4 weeks, we'll be exploring each in turn. They are traditionally described as "the four P's," and consist of "Product," "Promotion," "Pricing," and "Distribution" (as my Prof put it, the "P" in Distribution is soft). But for those of you who can't wait till next week to get started, I'll give you a brief description of each right now.

Product Strategy involves figuring out exactly what the customer wants and inventing, or creating, a product that will give it to them. It's about figuring out what your product actually is and how to classify it, or differentiate it, from the other products on the market. This facet of marketing also considers how to keep a customer once you have them, or, in MBA-speak, how you are going to create loyalty and "brand equity." A good example of product strategy from the science world is figuring out how to market yourself when applying for a job: Are you a bioinformatics expert? A biologist who has experience programming? Or a programmer who has experience with biology? In many cases, the "product" you choose will depend on the job you apply for rather than your actual qualifications--especially if your qualifications can be "spun" in many different ways. Thus, the part of your job search that involves figuring out what the employer wants and "creating" it for them is Product Strategy.

Promotion Strategy involves figuring out how you are going to advertise and sell your product. Traditionally, the two biggest parts of your promotion strategy are your "push" strategy and your "pull" strategy: A push strategy consists of getting the product "in the face" of consumers--getting it on the shelf, getting salespeople out hounding people, and making it so that the only product the customer can get their hands on is yours. A pull strategy consists of advertising your product such that the customer starts demanding it or selecting it over other choices. Using the same analogy of the job search, are you going to use a push strategy of putting out 500,000 applications, calling and visiting job sites, and hounding employers until you get the job you want? Or are you going to use a pull strategy, getting your name and reputation out at conferences, giving talks, and publishing prestigious papers, and getting prospective employers to call you? Of course, the ideal would be to do both, but that would take more time than you have in your day. The key to promotion strategy is figuring out where the optimum balance is for your product and applying available resources to it: If you're a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, pull is all you need. But if you're brand-new to the field, but you're eager and ambitious, you might not use a pull strategy at all--because no one has heard of you, and it would take more effort than it was worth.

Pricing Strategy is the most underestimated part of marketing. Simply pricing your product based on how much it costs you to make it is downright foolish: The price you set determines, to a large extent, the perceived quality of your product. The crazy thing about price is that choosing one that's too low can be just as damaging to your sales, and to the perception of your product, as choosing one that's too high. Trying to estimate how many items you're going to sell at each price point can be an art, and an important part of the calculations used to figure out how much you should charge for what you are selling. The job search is a good analogy here, too--it can be just as hard to get a job paying $30,000 as a job paying $70,000. The real issue is figuring out where you want to be and picking the job, or the perception of what you have to offer, to fit that goal. For example: If you're looking for a postdoc in industry but are more than happy with the salary of a university lab, it might just work against you--you may be perceived as an academic and therefore not suitable for the job and the upward opportunities it offers.

Distribution Strategy is determining how you are going to get your product to your customer. How many levels are there in the distribution channel, and what does each level need (in terms of incentives) in order to get your product to the final consumer? How much inventory will you need at the wholesale and retail level in order to get your product on the shelf? Where are you going to sell your product, and how? These are the types of questions distribution strategy attempts to answer. Here the job-search analogy doesn't work as well: The distribution system for your résumé is often the mail. But would it be more efficient to use FedEx? Is it worth the cost? Or would hand-delivering your résumé be a better idea?

As you might expect, there are more science applications to marketing than simply getting a job. In the next 4 weeks, we will be discussing these four areas of marketing, using other examples, such as that of a small biotechnology company trying to sell a preexisting product. We will look at each aspect of marketing in more detail and learn not only the concepts but the tools and calculations you might use to analyze and evaluate each of these marketing decisions. So stay tuned!

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