Marketeers, eh. Spewing snake-oil claims to peddle cheap tat that gullible consumers neither need nor really want. These unscrupulous promoters are held in such low esteem that their professional description is suffixed in a derogatory ‘eer’ – just like a ‘profiteer’ or a reckless ‘buccaneer’.
This idea of marketing is so prevalent that there are fields dedicated to ‘ethical marketing’. The presumption is that the default mode of marketing is unethical. I once talked with a well known web designer who insisted that the web was more than ‘just’ a marketing channel, and had held a talk on marketing without being a ‘douchbag’ (a term that I find objectionable on many levels). Again, the presumption was that people involved in marketing are all spammers, liars and tricksters. He even claimed that marketing was only about promoting or selling goods or services, and did not involve meeting the needs of the customer (or user, in the context of our discussion).
Marketing – Intrinsic Ethics
The negative perception of marketing runs deep. But is it fair?
Let’s look at two definitions of marketing – the first from the UK’s Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM):
Marketing is the management process responsible for identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirements profitably
And here’s how the American Marketing Association (AMA) defines it:
Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.
The definitions, at their core, are similar. They acknowledge an exchange relationship – that is, the customer gets something of value in exchange for their payment. The CIM focuses more on the marketing process of market research and satisfying customer requirements. The AMA looks more broadly at the institutions and societal impact of marketing, including ensuring value for stakeholders.
It could be argued that the fiduciary duty of companies to make profit for shareholders overrides ethical concerns. But profit hinges upon the continued relationship between a company and the market, and a marketing-orientated organisation seeks mutual satisfaction.
Unethical practice isn’t marketing
Businesses are sometimes unethical. Payday loan firms such as Wonga, which mis-sold expensive loans to people who couldn’t afford to repay them, is one example.
Wonga and its ilk used the tools of marketing. Daytime TV advertising was highly effective. Its website was bright and clear and easy to use. Copy was well-written and made payday loans sound like an easy and carefree solution to short-term cash shortages.
The usually indisputable Martin Lewis (the ‘Money Saving Expert’) said of payday lenders:
The payday loan industry was built on the back of marketing, not need. They sold people the concept of a need to create a demand, then pushed products.
But it wasn’t marketing.
Marketing is about meeting a need, not presenting a harmful concept as a need. Martin Lewis himself has shown that nearly everyone has better options than a payday loan – from flogging stuff on ebay, better budgeting, claiming benefits or grants, to borrowing from family or, if necessary, a credit card. If there are so many better options, is a payday loan really a need?
Let’s call irresponsible payday loans what they are: usury, extortion and exploitation. Wonga failed in its fiduciary duties by creating an organisation which resulted in the firm going bust.
Marketing should not make you feel uncomfortable, or that it’s seeking to take unfair advantage of customers. If it does then it’s not marketing.
Good vs Bad Marketing
If bad intents aren’t marketing, can we still have bad marketing?
Sometimes it’s easy to doubt the intentions of people. But sometimes things just aren’t executed very well, even with the best intentions.
Good marketing needs to balance the customer needs with profit. Without profit there can be no organisation to serve the customer!
Bad marketing either fails to meet customer needs, despite good efforts, or ultimately fails to make a profit.
This is why marketing doesn’t start with promotion and end with the sale. It’s about the organisation’s entire orientation and focus on meeting customer satisfaction, starting with understanding and anticipating what customer needs are. It continues throughout the customer’s experience with the organisation, through to being satisfied with the end product or service. Post-sale experience matters, not least for reputation, word-of-mouth referrals and repeat custom.
It’s why marketing is a set of management process, not just the narrow promotional techniques that some think of as being the limit of marketing.
So next time someone criticises ‘bad’ (as in evil) marketing, remind them that it’s not marketing.