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For my last case assignment in marketing at Krannert, I was asked to develop a strategic plan to market myself. The challenge seemed simple and straightforward, but I had no printed case material to study, nor any stated objectives or parameters. In a lot of ways, it was a profound assignment, and one I took much too lightly. 

As I look back now with the benefit of 30-plus years in marketing management and consulting, it's painfully obvious to me that I, like most of my fellow students, was falling into a common trap - beginning to implement an ill-defined plan with no strategic underpinning and a fuzzy set of objectives. Without tables and graphs of sales, market share, and profit data to analyze, and having no prior experience with such an open-ended and unstructured case study, most of us were at a loss. Yet ironically, the subject of the assignment is probably the most important career-related issue most people will ever face. 

Many people don't even recognize that marketing and marketing strategy are central to planning their career paths. Improper planning can lead to dissatisfaction and high turnover rates. Consider the following data from the most recent Statistical Abstract of the United States:

  • More than 27% of the workers in our country have been with their current employers for fewer than 12 months.

  • The average worker in the United States today changes employers once every three to four years - and that tenure is decreasing every year. (If the current trend continues, the figure will drop to less than 36 months by the time this year's freshman class graduates.)

Even if some people have been with the same employer for 10 or more years, they are outnumbered considerably by those on the other side of the mean, who've been at their workplace for just a year or two. These basic facts reflect some fundamental changes in our society and have a number of implications regarding the way we make career decisions and evaluate job options.

The sociological changes include the evolution of a range of individual needs and values over time, the considerable shift of a global marketplace environment from a manufacturing orientation to a service-based economy, and the rapid development and commercialization of new technology.

Corporate values and cultures are changing, too. A new spirit of entrepreneurship has created a demand for new skills and new kinds of expertise faster than our education system can adapt and turn out qualified workers to meet the demand. 

It's fascinating how these changes have affected the way individuals market themselves to their next employer. They behave more as though they're selling a consumable product - like soap, or toothpaste, or breakfast cereal - rather than a long-term, durable, high-value item - themselves. Most people change employers more often than they change cars. Every few years, they have to mount a new marketing campaign.

Unfortunately, the most important phase of the marketing effort - the planning phase, when the person determines the strategy that will guide everything else - almost always occurs when he or she is out of work, dissatisfied with current circumstances, or preoccupied with something else. It's a wonder that anyone has found a career that suits him, fulfills his need for self-actualization, and gives him the psychological (and financial) rewards that motivate him to put in a full workweek, month-in and month-out.

To ensure that you are following the right strategic approach, you must be aware of the planning process from beginning to end. Basically, it consists of three fundamental marketing steps: Understand your customers; understand your product (you); and position yourself properly.

First, you have to understand your customers, the base of potential employers who could utilize your services. Go beyond the annual report or the company Web site. Talk to customers, suppliers, former employees, even competitors. "Mystery shop" for the company's products or services as though you were considering a purchase. Ask people what they know about the company, what image they have of the company as an employer, a supplier, or a customer. This process will take several weeks at least, and possibly months. Dig deeply, because what you learn will form the basis for your decision. And it will form the basis for your marketing campaign, if a company is the right target for your efforts.

Next, you need to understand the product - you - in the same way that your target audience will perceive it. You'll need to carefully and accurately position yourself so you'll have an honest and positive "brand image" that customers, i.e., potential employers, will notice and value, and that's in sync with their needs and values. This doesn't mean you'll reinvent yourself for each company you're considering. You have to be yourself and be honest about your background. It does mean that you need to be careful to select prospective employers who appreciate, value, and reward the same things you're able to deliver. It makes no sense at all to try to fit a square peg (you, your skill set, and interests) in a round hole (an employer's culture and immediate needs). 

Once you know yourself and your audience, you can communicate the positioning - your "brand image" - in a memorable and persuasive way. Demonstrate the key benefits you'll bring to the employer. Show a sample of what the company will get if they hire you.

The beauty of identifying the right target audience and positioning yourself properly is that the marketing plan is clear from the beginning. Your cover letter, resume, interview preparation, and everything you do to land the job are consistent with and supportive of the positioning, which is in turn based upon the solid foundation of your strengths. Therefore, you don't have to try to be someone you're really not in order to please your customer.

Proper positioning gives you the opportunity to give your prospective employer a "trial size" sample of how you think and how you'll perform as an employee. Do some original research before the interview and bring some value to the employer's business before you're actually hired. 

When a friend was preparing to interview for a sales job with a regional food-products manufacturer, she actually visited a dozen supermarkets and conducted a mini-survey of in-store conditions for their product and that of their major competition. She reported observations about the packaging, amount of space allotted to each item, retail pricing, condition of the merchandise, comments from store personnel, and point-of-sale merchandising materials. She even noted interesting promotions and packaging innovations from other product categories and made a few recommendations about how the company could improve its presence (and sales) in supermarkets.

She did get the job and is now a vice president with that company, heading up the sales and marketing functions. She demonstrated very dramatically who she is, what she could do for the company, and how committed she was to going beyond the conventional "call of duty.

"Every marketing plan starts with these basics - understanding the customer (or target audience), understanding the product and its "fit" with market needs, and effectively and consistently communicating and demonstrating a well-thought-out positioning. It's no different if you're selling consumer packaged goods, high-tech business-to-business applications, services, political candidates - or yourself. The fundamentals of good marketing don't change. 

I only wish I'd fully appreciated all of this when I worked on that Krannert marketing case assignment years ago and began my own career.

Share your thoughts on career planning, submit an anecdote or two on how your career has developed, or offer advice to others embarking on a career by e-mailing Melanie Hahn, editor, at mhahn@pmc.purdue.edu Your submission may be considered for publication in a future issue. Krannert Magazine also welcomes suggestions for future alumni guest columns.

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