Why B2B Suffers From Marketing Myopia

May 26, 2015

In 1960, American economist and Harvard Business School professor Theodore Levitt wrote a paper called “Marketing Myopia,” which was published in the Harvard Business Review. In it, he suggests that “businesses will do better in the end if they concentrate on meeting customers’ needs rather than on selling products.”

Certainly a groundbreaking concept at the time. Some believe it was the impetus of the modern marketing movement. In 1983, he added to that by proposing a definition of corporate purpose: Rather than merely making money, it’s to create and keep a customer.

But here we are, more than 50 years later, still trying to get B2B marketers to talk about their customers instead of the products and services that they sell. Are we just incredibly slow learners? We’ve had generations to retrain how marketers think, yet it’s still news to many.

What business are you really in?
Even though the tools and tactics that marketers have at their fingertips have certainly evolved since 1960, it isn’t as if it was impossible to focus on customer needs before the digital world. It was, and will continue to be, hard if we make it that way.

In his paper, Levitt talked about the decline of the American railroad industry, which was tanking fast. He said it wasn’t competition from cars, trucks, airplanes or even telephones that had them in a quandry. It was because they saw themselves in the railroad business instead of the transportation business.

That’s a huge difference. Were they in the railroad business (product-focused) or transportation business (customer-focused)? We know how that story turned out.

Addressing myopia
The foundation of any content strategy is a content mission. People outside of content may know it as a brand purpose. This mission or purpose serves as the north star for everything that you do as a marketer, whether you’re solely focused on content or not. It answers the question: Why do we exist? (For a great read on this, check out It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For by Roy Spence.)

B2B marketers still suffer from myopia because they’re too near-sighted about the work that they do.  They don’t understand the ultimate purpose of their work – to create and evolve a customer.

Not defining your content mission creates a domino effect. If you don’t know the purpose of your work, how can you create an effective strategy? If you don’t have an effective strategy, how can you know who to target (personas)? If you don’t know who you’re targeting, how do you know what to say (relevance)? No wonder there’s a dearth of high-quality content, despite the fact that creating “more” is a goal for most content marketers.

My charge for you is this. Quit wasting time – yours and that of your entire organization – by not knowing the purpose of what you’re here to do. Quit damaging your credibility because you lack focus and can’t tie your work to the business objectives of your organization. And quit giving control of what you do to someone else. You can be the one to ask the questions about the purpose of what you’re trying to accomplish. You can point out that generalized content serves no one. You can step up and get to know your customers better.

Because, if you don’t step up and champion your customers, who will?

About Carla Johnson


Carla Johnson is a world-renowned storyteller, an entertaining speaker, and a prolific author.

Over the last two decades, Carla has helped architects and actuaries, executives and volunteers, innovators and visionaries leverage the art of storytelling to inspire action. Her work with Fortune 500 brands has served as the foundation for many of her books.

In her latest project, Fast Forward Files, she contributes to a larger collection of thoughts by some of the world’s greatest minds -  Shazam co-founder Dhiraj Mukherjee, activist and entrepreneur Heather Mills and behavioral designer, technologist and mental-health champion Peter Trainor. Consistently named one of the top influencers in B2B, digital and content marketing, Carla regularly challenges conventional thinking. 

Today, she travels the world teaching anyone (and everyone) how to cultivate idea-driven teams that breed unstoppable creativity and game-changing innovation.