Marketing Above the Noise: Achieve Strategic Advantage with Marketing that Matters

by Linda J. Popky

Grounded in fundamentals and guided by strategic objectives, Linda Popky puts the hype around social media and big data in perspective. “It’s time to move the discussion away from today’s latest hot marketing tools and tactics to what really counts: convincing customers to trust you with their business—not just once, but time and time again.”

I like the author’s analogy of climbing the wrong mountain. “Companies rush to get out ‘on the mountain’ as quickly as possible… without considering the overarching strategy… But, shortly, they realize they haven’t targeted the correct customers. Their message isn’t resonating with their key audience… This wastes millions of dollars. Even more importantly, it squanders time, resources, and energy. While an organization is off climbing the wrong mountain, consumers have moved on or competitors have stepped in. There isn’t always the time or resources available to go back for a mulligan.”

To make sure you find the right trailhead, Popky presents her Dynamic Market Leverage Model: strategy, products, communication, market analysis, operations, and sales channels. “These eight principles are really timeless truths for marketing.”


In addition to these market-based (external) factors, Popky adds five internally-oriented momentum factors: organizational commitment, resources, people, technology, and environment.


Good marketing focuses on customers. “It’s all about them, not you… The better you know your customers, the better you can target your offerings to meet their needs—ideally, before they even realize they have those needs. The more targeted you can be, the less time and money you will spend on wasteful marketing activities that don’t reach the right people anyway.” The author defines customer as an individual, not a corporation. “You may sell your services to large commercial banks, but ‘the bank’ doesn’t buy your offerings. An individual within the bank makes the purchase decision… You’ll also want to know the context of the typical situation in which your clients typically find themselves. Are they in growth mode? Are they cutting costs? Is this a turnaround situation?”

Marketing and sales need to work in harmony. “If marketing opens the door to customers, it is sales that closes the process… One of the most effective ways I’ve found to get sales and marketing working in sync is to put marketing people on the sales team. Have them participate in sales calls. Let them sit quietly and watch what customers say and do in real-life situations… Marketing produces the messaging and campaigns that give the sales team the air cover they need to sell products and services… It means listening to what sales reps say they are encountering on the ground on a daily basis. It means using this intelligence to create helpful tools such as reference stories, testimonials, and use cases. And it means having these available in a wide variety of formats—including text, audio, and video.”

“It takes a long time to build a brand reputation… and a short time to destroy it.” The book features a disastrous transformation of the JCPenney brand. The firm hired Apple Store superstar Ron Johnson as its CEO. “Sixteen months and more than $1 billion in losses later, Johnson was out… Brands are not built in a vacuum. They require a strong brand promise that resonates with an organization’s target market… Marketers who get above the noise understand they need to adapt techniques to their specific situation, not adopt them wholesale.”

“The way a company treats its employees is mirrored in the way those employees then treat customers, and in the way customers view the company. That’s why the actions, attitudes, and behaviors of your customer-facing employees can make or break you.” In a bit of a small-world surprise, the book includes a story about Shawna Suckow, author of two other books I have reviewed. Suckow lost her laptop computer on a Southwest Airlines plane and wrote an article in an industry publication to praise the above-and-beyond service she received from the employee who recovered it for her. Popky adds, “If you think this story could happen on any airline, let me tell you it is not likely to be United,” which discourages employees from any variance of standard operating procedures. The book includes a quote from Michele Vig of Caribou’s Clear Coffee which I think nicely summarizes the difference between Southwest and United: “Brand is culture and culture is brand.”

“While some aspects of marketing are timeless, those pieces that have changed over the last few years have transformed the marketing equation… There’s a new approach to delivery, data, demand generation, and drivers. There’s also a focus on conversations, content, and communities. In addition, there’s a new paradigm for looking at media channels, based on these new realities.” The book discusses each of these areas.

“The new reality of the Web allows us to go back to the way things were in the old days: it lets us have conversations with real people using real voices… Organizations that rise above the noise solicit customer input, good and bad, and they act on it to improve their performance and drive their marketing… The one thing that’s less desirable than complaining customers is unhappy customers who don’t complain… Don’t squander your brand equity by sitting on input, good or bad, that can help drive your organization forward.”

The author explains four categories of media channels (paid, owned, earned, and shared) and notes, “In September 2013, Nielsen found that 84 percent of consumers worldwide trusted word-of-mouth recommendations (earned media) from friends and family above all other sources of advertising.”

There’s certainly been a lot of hype around metrics and analytics in recent years. “Knowing a metric went up or down two points isn’t relevant to marketers, unless they know what to do with that information. Metrics done well set you free, because the measurement process itself provides a structure within which you can work. The team knows what they are being measured on and why it matters. Metrics provide a means to make midcourse corrections… Far too often, I see situations where marketers are measuring everything that moves—whether or not these metrics are relevant to moving the needle for the business.”

“You’ll meet people who believe that today’s marketing decisions should start and stop with data. The problem is that we can’t abdicate decision-making responsibility to the analysts. Their job is to dig deep and uncover the hidden gems in the landscape, not to determine whether this is the right business for the organization. Data leads to information, which leads to insights. But even with great insights, we still need people with the right judgment and business acumen to make decisions.”

“Underlying all of this is the need for clean, quality customer and market data as the core for market analysis efforts… Big Data doesn’t necessarily mean clean data. Garbage in is still garbage out. Starting form an inaccurate or false premise will lead you down the wrong path, and it wastes precious time and resources.”

There’s also been a lot of hype around social media in recent years. “If you listen to many marketers, you’d think that marketing in the twenty-first century is driven totally by social media.” However, a June 2014, Gallup report “noted only 5 percent of more than eighteen thousand U.S. consumers polled said social media had a great deal of influence on their buying decisions… Gallup found this to be true across all age groups—including millennials.” Facebook may have over a billion users, but that doesn’t mean these people “are using Facebook accounts in the context of your business.” Popky adds, “Social media have developed an excellent set of listening tools. The key focus on listening means that you have to stop talking long enough to hear what’s being said.”

I like what Popky says about failure and innovation. “Too many organizations tout creativity and innovation as buzzwords for their culture, but when push comes to shove, they are relentless in punishing failure… We need to accept that not all initiatives will succeed. Rather than scapegoating those involved with efforts that didn’t pan out, we need to learn what worked and what didn’t so we can apply that learning to the next project… Fail fast and move on. That means it’s important to start small and pilot innovative campaigns first… If you encourage people to go out on a limb, you can’t saw the limb off behind them.” This reminds me of a Thomas Edison quote: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

“It’s important not to overwhelm your customer with too many: that includes too many messages, too many choices, and too many product offerings that appear to be competitive or at cross-purposes. All that does is raise the noise factor for your customers… A few strategic programs done well are more valuable than a whole slew of initiatives that just add more noise to the system… Below a certain threshold, dollars are simply wasted. It’s been proven that most consumers need to see a message seven times within a reasonable time frame before they will take action… On the road to marketing success, consider strategy the road map and execution the vehicle. Financial resources are the fuel.”

Popky, Linda J. Marketing above the Noise Achieve Strategic Advantage with Marketing That Matters. Brookline, Massachusetts: Bibliomotion, 2015. Buy from

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