How to Actually Use the 4 Ps of the Marketing Mix

Using the 4 Ps of the Mar­ket­ing Mix as a prac­ti­cal guide to nail posi­tion­ing, rather than just a list of ingre­di­ents for cre­at­ing a prod­uct.

6 min read

the marketing mix for startups

You’ve no doubt heard of the mar­ket­ing mix.

Back in 1960, Jerome McCarthy added to the con­cept of the mar­ket­ing mix by call­ing out four Ps.

He described how com­pa­nies could con­sis­tent­ly artic­u­late and posi­tion them­selves, their brands and their prod­ucts along four dimen­sions: prod­uct, price, pro­mo­tion, and place.

The mar­ket­ing mix has become a sta­ple of aca­d­e­m­ic mar­ket­ing ideas. Ubiq­ui­tous in mar­ket­ing cur­ric­u­la along­side Michael Porter’s Five Forces and the Lav­ige-Stein­er Hier­ar­chy of Effects Mod­el, the four Ps of the mar­ket­ing mix and their descen­dant vari­ants are spread in uni­ver­si­ties from hith­er to yon.

And it’s most­ly taught and talked about all wrong.

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The marketing mix

Before we go any fur­ther, we need work­ing def­i­n­i­tions for each of the four Ps.

Product

Is your prod­uct the best? Does it deliv­er the ben­e­fits bet­ter than com­peti­tors? Is it com­plete in terms of under­stand­ing the cus­tomer’s job to be done?

Price

The sim­plest of the four to describe. Are you priced low­er than the com­pe­ti­tion?

Promotion

Are you bet­ter at sell­ing than oth­ers? Are there ben­e­fits to your dis­tri­b­u­tion mod­el? Do you deliv­er ancil­lary val­ues as cus­tomers buy from you that sur­prise and delight them? Do you lever­age the psy­chol­o­gy of sales, events, free gifts, add-ons, and deals? Do you make your cus­tomer feel smart by let­ting them learn and play a game of BOGOs, rewards, loy­al­ty points, coupons, Google Ads, or Monop­oly spaces?

Place

Do you win at dis­tri­b­u­tion? Do you have stores, vend­ing machines, pow­er aisles, or web­sites placed in the most con­ve­nient or ubiq­ui­tous loca­tions so your cus­tomer can get your prod­uct when and where they want it?

Since the orig­i­nal, addi­tion­al Ps have been pro­posed, strech­ing the num­ber to five, sev­en, or even eight Ps.

I’m going to include the fifth, peo­ple.

People

people in the marketing mix

There’s an argu­ment to be made that the val­ue-add from your peo­ple can be lumped in with one of the oth­er four. For instance, if you train your employ­ees to give out­stand­ing ser­vice, isn’t that just an exten­sion of your Prod­uct? Or, if you depend on a cadre of high­ly skilled sales­peo­ple, isn’t that the same as Pro­mo­tion?

All the same, I like includ­ing peo­ple as a fifth P because there is a human com­po­nent that I don’t think can be sim­ply boiled down to one of the oth­er four. Ulti­mate­ly mar­ket­ing is human beings talk­ing to oth­er human beings about trans­ac­tions that make our lives bet­ter. I think the so-called war for tal­ent among tech com­pa­nies shows a recog­ni­tion of this at some lev­el.

It’s some­what pop­u­lar to add Process, and Phys­i­cal evi­dence to bring the total to eight Ps. An argu­ment can be made for exam­ple that com­pa­nies like Ama­zon or Wal­mart are more com­pet­i­tive due to their fanat­i­cal com­mit­ment to process effi­cien­cy.

The Process cer­tain­ly con­tributes to how these com­pa­nies deliv­er their val­ue to the cus­tomer. But I’m not con­vinced that Process is actu­al­ly a main dri­ver for why cus­tomers buy from them.

Adding a bunch of extra Ps takes a core prin­ci­ple and turns it into fash­ion. Self-con­grat­u­la­to­ry mar­keters look down their noses at the poor folks still using last year’s 4 Ps mod­el. In actu­al use, I find very lim­it­ed util­i­ty in adding process and phys­i­cal evi­dence because they seem to be tak­ing the focus from mar­ket­ing artic­u­la­tion of val­ue to the cus­tomer, and focus­ing the mod­el intro­spec­tive­ly to how the com­pa­ny is run—and the four Ps mod­el is not about oper­a­tions, it’s about psy­chol­o­gy.

So, I stick with 5.

From @cmo_zen, “The mar­ket­ing mix is not about oper­a­tions, it’s about psy­chol­o­gy.” #mar­ket­ing #mar­ket­ing­mix #posi­tion­ing Click To Tweet

Posi­tion­ing 101

I said most peo­ple teach and talk about the four Ps all wrong.

That’s pre­cise­ly because the four Ps are most use­ful when we think about them in terms of psy­chol­o­gy. Posi­tion­ing is a strat­e­gy as native to psy­chol­o­gy as any­thing else we do in mar­ket­ing.

You don’t want to posi­tion your prod­uct in the mid­dle of an axis or along a spec­trum. The best posi­tion­ing is bina­ry; it’s at the poles.

The ora­cles of posi­tion­ing, Al Reis and Jack Trout taught us that posi­tion­ing means describ­ing your­self and describ­ing your cat­e­go­ry in terms where you are #1.

It’s in the extreme ends of the spec­trum that posi­tion­ing poten­cy lives. Sri­ni Rao took this one step fur­ther in his book, Only is bet­ter than Best.

The 4 Ps are not a frame­work for artic­u­lat­ing the attrib­ut­es of the thing you sell. They are a chal­lenge for you to com­mit. They beg you to aban­don medi­oc­rity and the inde­ci­sive mid­dle by going all-in to deliv­er max­i­mum val­ue in just one dimen­sion of the mar­ket­ing mix.

You can­not win at all four.

You must pick one for your main com­pet­i­tive advan­tage.

For exam­ple, it’s easy to tell which P these com­pet­i­tive retail­ers have decid­ed is their core posi­tion­ing strat­e­gy.

Wal­mart: price
Kohl’s: pro­mo­tion
Tar­get: prod­uct

It’s easy to get con­fused. Often price and prod­uct play tug-of-war and in the mid­dle is a match for the cus­tomer’s sense of val­ue.

In fact, any exam­ple you pick has ele­ments of all four.

How can you label Tar­get as “prod­uct,” you say, when they also run pro­mo­tions and often com­pete on price? All three of these retail­ers has thou­sands of stores. Clear­ly they’ve made a com­mit­ment to “place” as well.

But it’s pre­cise­ly in the “mix” that we can lose sight of where the com­pet­i­tive dif­fer­en­tia­tors are. That’s where the temp­ta­tion to avoid com­mit­ting lies.

You can’t win a posi­tion if you don’t take one.

Begin­ners try to pick many at once, usu­al­ly start­ing with price.

Com­pa­nies are focused on build­ing prod­ucts rather than brands. A prod­uct is some­thing made in a fac­to­ry. A brand is some­thing made in the mind. To be suc­cess­ful today, you have to build brands, not prod­ucts. And you build brands by using posi­tion­ing strate­gies…

—Al Reis, Posi­tion­ing: the Bat­tle for Your MindSac­ri­fice, com­mit­ment, and get­ting it right

Look­ing at the mar­ket­ing mix as a recipe for your go-to-mar­ket strat­e­gy is actu­al­ly a recipe for medi­oc­rity. Sim­ply adding a lit­tle of this and a lit­tle of that until you have a unique blend will get you nowhere.

The main thing with the Mar­ket­ing Mix is to decide.

To com­mit.

There is a flip side to mak­ing a com­mit­ment. Sac­ri­fice.

By choos­ing one ele­ment of the mar­ket­ing mix as your fron­trun­ner, you are by default also choos­ing three oth­ers that are not. You have sac­ri­ficed mak­ing the oth­ers your main thing. Mak­ing a choice pre­cludes mak­ing dif­fer­ent choic­es.

And that is the main thing.

Com­mit­ting to one dimen­sion of the mar­ket­ing mix cre­ates con­trast which is at the heart of posi­tion­ing.

@cmo_zen says com­mit­ting to one ele­ment of the mar­ket­ing mix to the exclu­sion of oth­ers cre­ates CONTRAST which is the essence of posi­tion­ing.  #posi­tion­ing #mar­ket­ing #mar­ket­ing­mix Click To Tweet

I hope you found this use­ful. What are your biggest chal­lenges with the Mar­ket­ing Mix? Post them in the com­ments below.


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P.S. You can read more about the prin­ci­ples of com­mit­ment and sac­ri­fice from Scott Bed­bury in his clas­sic, A New Brand World.


@cmo_zen is a blog of micro med­i­ta­tions for mar­ket­ing lead­ers, designed to help them find clar­i­ty and peace in the mar­ket­ing mael­strom.

Published by Chad Jardine

@chadjardine is the CMO @goreact, an edtech company making game film for the classroom. He teaches graduate finance course @uutah and is the coauthor of Pillars of Inflection: Seven Fundamental Strategies for Explosive Company Growth. He accepts a limited number of consulting engagements each year.