Nothing mystifies CEOs and business leaders more than marketing. There are some very good reasons for that.

First, it’s more art than science, so success metrics are notoriously subjective and amorphous. Second, the field is full of fluff and mediocrity, if not downright incompetence. And that gives marketing a bad name.

I’m fond of saying that marketing is like sex: everyone thinks they’re good at it. Of course, they’re not. But in most cases, the CEO or whoever marketing reports to lacks the expertise to know who really is good at it and who’s full of it. Which is unfortunate, since marketing is absolutely critical to business success.

David Packard, the iconic co-founder of Hewlett Packard (HPQ), famously said, “Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department.” Moreover, in his seminal book on high-tech marketing, Silicon Valley legend Bill Davidow wrote, “Marketing must invent complete products and drive them to commanding positions in defensible market segments.”

There’s nothing subjective or amorphous about either of those statements. The truth is that marketing is both one of the most important and one of the most difficult corporate functions, and that’s a tough combination. It’s also why business leaders and CEOs who leave marketing to the marketing department are not doing themselves, their investors, or their employees any favors.

Marketing is key to gaining market share, increasing profit margins, and growing revenues. Business is all about marketing. The two are more or less synonymous. Sure, it is possible to maintain a competitive advantage without understanding marketing, but you need a near monopoly to do it, and that’s no easy trick.

Over the decades I’ve had the good fortune to work and compete with many of the world’s technology giants. It was a tough proving ground, to be sure, but it gave rise to seven rules of marketing that I think every current or aspiring business leader should know. Some are new, some are old but explained in a new way, and some debunk popular myths.

Brands win. Contrary to popular belief, branding is not about names, logos, or advertising. It’s about reputation. It’s the sum total of your customer’s perception of and experience with your company: its people, products, and services. Many say the Internet age killed branding, that social media leveled the playing field. That’s a myth. More information and increased competition make reputation even more important – nobody has time or patience to deal with crappy products and bad customer service.

Differentiate or die. If you can’t distinguish your company and its products versus the competition in a way that’s meaningful to customers, you’re doomed to slow and painful market share and profit margin erosion. Just look at Netflix or HP and you’ll get the point. Incidentally, just because you say you’re different doesn’t make it true. A value proposition only works if you can say it with a straight face and customers agree.

Strategy is everything. Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you may not get there.” No kidding. If you have no goals, no vision, no unique strategies, and your organization isn’t focused and aligned to achieve them, you’re going nowhere fast. How you strategically position your company and its products is everything. And yes, you have to execute flawlessly, too. What can I say; markets are unforgiving.

You can never afford to lose a customer. There’s a lot of confusion over cause and effect in business. To me, it’s simple. There are three major stakeholders in a company: investors, employees, and customers. The first give the second money to make and sell products the third will buy. If you lose the customers, employees lose their jobs and investors lose their money. “The customer is king” is fundamental to any business.   

Your word is your promise. Communication is a powerful tool that can make or break a product launch or an entire company, yet most executives consider it an afterthought. Especially now – in an era of communication overload where the emphasis is on frequency and volume – it’s more important than ever to control the message and the delivery. Apple does this more effectively than any company on Earth, courtesy of the consummate marketer, the late great Steve Jobs.

You only need a focus group of one. Divining products that will delight customers and beat the competition is a really tough job. Companies often build what they think is cool and hope for the best or rely too heavily on focus groups that have no idea what they want because it simply doesn’t exist yet. In reality, most breakthroughs are usually the result of a simple idea by an individual or a small team.   

Innovation is not invention. Innovation isn’t necessarily coming up with a novel idea, but coming up with a product people can use. Also, first to market is rarely an advantage. That’s mostly an observation, but if I had to come up with a reason, it’s that technology is so complex that it usually takes several iterations for the right combination of function, features, ease of use, and price before the market takes off. Just look at the first successful smartphone makers: BlackBerry and Nokia. Where are they now?

One more thing. Marketing may be more art than science, but great marketing isn’t quite as rare as a Picasso. At least, it shouldn’t be. If you give it the priority it deserves, it won’t be. 

Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.

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