I had an interesting discussion with Alan Tapp from Bristol Business School who is researching whether marketing can, or should be, seen as a science.
I made two, related, comments.
First, marketing as we know it is an industrial age invention designed to improve the performance of corporations by helping them to sell more, more profitably. This does not generate an ‘objective’ (as in ‘scientific’) perspective. Instead it generates a highly subjective outlook on things. It looks at the world through the eyes, interests and concerns of a particular corporation. What would marketing look like if marketers were employed by individuals to improve their individual market performance and profitability? If marketing were a service to the individual? Would it worry about, and do, the same things? Would it use the same measures of success?
Of course, corporations and individuals use science to help them achieve their objectives, and could you argue that there is a developing ‘science’ of understanding in terms of how to understand and meet people’s needs, and how to communicate with them persuasively.
But I doubt it. For a start, there is a big difference between practical ‘craft’ knowledge – that if you do X then Y tends to happen – and a science where you really understand why X causes Y, in what circumstances, with what limitations, contexts and so on.
And we can’t ever forget the purpose of marketing, which is not to discover new knowledge but help corporations perform better.
The golden contribution of marketing is its focus on identifying and meeting customer needs – which means that the skills and resources of big companies are often deployed in very useful, value-adding ways.
However marketing’s role in this is unfortunately more alchemy than science. Alchemists dreamed of turning base metals into gold. Marketing dreams of turning people – ‘customers’ and ‘consumers’ – into corporate assets by making them ‘loyal’ to the company’s brands. Both are fantasies.
In addition, both alchemy and marketing struggle to disentangle cause from effect. The other side of the coin to marketing’s ‘identify and meet needs’ mantra, for example, is the quest to ‘change customer attitudes and behaviours in our band’s favour’. Companies invest vast amounts of time, money and effort on this forlorn quest, and continually mistake success in one arena (meeting peoples’ needs) with success in the other (changing peoples’ behaviours).
For example: Does a price promotion succeed in changing peoples’ behaviours in favour of a particular product – or does it simply align with what people want (lower prices)? When people respond to an advertising campaign, is it because the message is so powerful and persuasive? Or is it because it’s about something people were considering buying anyway? That’s useful to them, in other words?
Marketers continually mistake ‘alignment success’ with ‘influence success’ – and, drawing the wrong conclusions, seek to invest even more time, money and effort in the attempt to influence or change customer attitudes and behaviours … only to be disappointed by the results.
Marketing will be as successful in changing people’s attitudes and behaviours in favour of brands as alchemists were in turning base metals into gold. The ‘evidence’ they offer for success in moving towards their goal represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what is going on. Very rarely is it actually evidence that they have succeeded in their objectives, it is evidence of something else entirely: not that they have been successful in changing what people think or do, but thatthey have been successful in doing what people want them to do. And their success evaporates as soon as they stray from this simple truth.
Why does this matter? Because we can only grasp the importance of person-centric business models once we have seen through the illusions that continue to underpin ‘marketing’.
- when companies are successful in identifying and meeting needs, they tend to mistake this for success in changing customer attitudes and behaviours. Corporations have a command and control mindset. They can control what goes on inside their corporate boundaries, so why not try to control what goes on outside – in the market – via this special, magical tool called marketing? But people don’t want to be controlled. They want to be in control.
- while some day-to-day marketing activities focus on identifying and meeting customer needs, an awful lot of marketing – communications and branding, for example – is obsessed not with the needs of customers, but with the needs of the company: to sell its products. But people don’t want narcissistic ‘messaging’ from companies. They want honest to god, useful, trustworthy information.
- The ‘identify and meet customer needs’ mantra is actually far more bounded and limited than most marketers dare admit. What it really means is ‘identify those needs that we can turn into profitable markets for ourselves’. It is actually just one part of the agenda of ‘improve the company’s performance’ and ceases to be a driver of corporate actions as soon as it stops fitting this agenda.
Trouble is, not all ‘consumer needs’ are easy to turn into profitable markets for companies. For this to happen the ‘need’ needs to ‘fit’ the company: its legacy skills and infrastructure, and the company’s need to generate economies of scale out of this need. The industrial age company makes its money by producing and selling more and more of the same thing.
Yet in real life, when individuals try to solve problems in their daily lives, the solutions to these problems don’t depend on more and more of the same thing. They depend on the opposite: a combination of just one of many different things. So while the marketing mindset focuses on finding customers for products, the person-centric mindset focuses on finding a range of different products for people. They are looking down the telescope from opposite ends.
When it comes to ‘operating logic’ and goals the two are 100% unaligned.
Person-centric business models are designed to put people in control, using honest to god trustworthy information, to solve the problems of daily live (as distinct to the problems of finding customers for products). For marketing alchemy this is simply a leap too far.
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Marketing, The Persuasion Paradigm