Ten Countries and $200 Billion Later…

By the former Chief Marketing Officer of Walmart, Paul Higham

I suspect that most 13-year-olds are curious about their future—I know I was. One day, my mother brought home a little black and yellow hard-backed book called Careers (I’m not entirely sure of the title, as this was nearly 50 years ago). I found a quiet place and devoured the book.

The book covered many career possibilities with a two-or three- page description of each career detailing the skills and education required for it. I skipped most of the chapters after two or three sentences until I got to the chapter on Advertising. I felt like I’d been struck by lightning. The skills required were not only the very things I was interested in, but I was good at them. There was nothing said about math, and that sealed the deal. Any business that used words, pictures and ideas was clearly superior to doing arithmetic forever. This was the career for me.

Thanks to my Mom’s gift, I never gave casual or serious thought to what I wanted to be when I grew up. In fact, that career focus influenced the elective courses I took in High School. I chose my minor studies of Psychology and Art well before I registered as a college freshman. When I went to college, I only had one major, and if I could choose my course of study all over again knowing what I know now, I would keep it the same.

After I completed the required course work in Advertising, I began to realize that I didn’t know very much, and since it was time for me to get a job, I was horrified by how much I didn’t know.

The first half of my career, I became a relentless student of what others in my field said and did. I learned methodologies, processes and measurements from great thinkers and practitioners within the advertising business. It didn’t occur to me that if all I did was what everyone else did, I limited my potential to “the norm.” Safe, but average. Not a very exciting prescription for business or career success.

As my business responsibilities grew, my bosses continually pointed out that business outcomes or results always trumped the most sophisticated marketing processes—my safe harbor of “best practices” and advertising measurements were meaningless if I didn’t actually grow market share for my company. What good were low-cost CPMs if they didn’t build the business?

Only in light of the expectation of growth and profitability did I realize what was really important for a marketing executive: Growing the business! Fortunately, what I had studied and learned was useful to my new philosophy, but it was just the beginning of a more rational practice of advertising and marketing.

One of my first steps was to hang a quote by Shakespeare in my office: “What’s past is prologue.” What was next was far more important than what I knew, and the process of figuring that out made my career.

I was recruited from Target to be the CMO of Wal-Mart in 1989, a dream job for a marketer. Wal-Mart was firmly focused—obsessed, really—on customers and stressed the importance of respect for the people who came into their stores. That became my bully pulpit.

Of course, expectations for results were intense. I had to figure out how to influence people to choose Wal-Mart more often than our competition. And, believe me, the competition was good.

In this super-charged environment, I realized that to be chosen, we’d better be worthy of being chosen: The priorities of our business would have to be the priorities of our existing and potential customers. We had to become an observably-better choice to customers.

I learned that in spite of the “branding” trends, businesses didn’t make brands—they made “things” or provided services. Brands were just convenient symbols for people’s experiences with those goods and services. If we wanted to have customers for life—not customers for this week’s circular—we’d have to do things differently from other marketers, different from conventional wisdom.

We could never tell customers what to think or say. I learned to respect and celebrate those people kind enough to shop in our stores. In fact, I learned to give a voice to the beliefs and experiences of our customers. And I learned that research was really about honestly listening to what customers thought and wanted, and sharing the results with employees of the company so that they felt part of fulfilling the expectations of customers.

This new “against the grain” advertising and marketing strategy changed the way that we did things like buy media, communicate our advertising message and demonstrate our devotion to our customers in our stores.

It was so much simpler than the uber-trendy, go with the flow, complex, scientific methodologies that I believed were so important. It required a lot of discipline to disavow the premise that customer-centric marketing was enough. I hung a sign up in my office—something that I wrote for a meeting—to remind me that our customer’s priorities, not ours, were most important: “It takes more effort to keep things simple than it does to allow them to become complicated.”

Ten countries and $200 billion later, I was at a meeting of the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association board of directors where we listened to this wonder-kid share some very big and well-articulated ideas about marketing to us over lunch. Though ridiculously young to know the lessons that had taken me most of my career to learn, BJ and I were drawn together in a friendship that has celebrated learning and ideas.

In fact, as I mark five years of retirement from Wal-Mart, I’m pleased to say that BJ and I still make time to share ideas and talk about new life lessons we’ve learned and how they apply to marketing. You can imagine how pleased I was to get an advanced read of his current big idea, Why We Talk. I hope that you’ll recognize the truths and wisdom contained in this book. This information will challenge what you believe today and may be hard for you to read. While adopting some of these ideas will be difficult, it will be worthwhile for your enterprise. Whether you’re a marketer or a CEO, this book can help you prioritize your go-to-market strategy around what customers want and hopefully, make your business much more talk-worthy.

This post is an excerpt from our book Why We Talk: Seven Reasons Your Customers Will—Or Will Not—Talk About Your Brand.

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