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For The Greater Good

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The advent of commercial radio and, after World War II, commercial television enabled marketers to drive home the benefits of their brands and to announce quickly the launch of new products and services to a nationwide audience. The willingness of producers to build their brands through advertising supported the emergence of a diverse array of media for the American consumer to enjoy. Moreover, these investments in marketing attracted talented businesspeople into the marketing field. Best practices in marketing were documented so its effectiveness improved over time.

By the 1960s, American brands, which had benefited from so much cumulative investment in marketing, were unquestionably the strongest brands in the world. Indeed, many of the entrepreneurs behind these brands had always seen the world, not just the United States, as their potential marketplace. As early as 1905, King Gillette had established a European sales office in London and a factory in Paris. By 1960, not just Gillette but Ford, Heinz, and others were so well known in the United Kingdom that the British thought of them as British brands.

Indeed, at first blush it might seem strange that marketing developed in the United States ahead of Europe, whose commercial culture was far older and more established. But closer examination reveals some clues as to why and how. For starters, the sheer size of the United States required communication with a widely dispersed market. Sharing a common language helped mass marketing efforts as well. What’s more, American culture has always been more receptive to commerce, while in Europe, business or “trade” was viewed askance for centuries. What’s more, within European business, marketing was considerably less reputable than finance. In Britain, to this day, an accountancy qualification rather than an MBA is the standard entry ticket to a business career.

Marketing in the United States benefited mightily from the endorsement of management guru Peter Drucker, who famously stated: “Because its purpose is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two—and only these two—basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs.” Warren Buffett, America’s most celebrated investor, has religiously invested in companies with strong brand names such as Coca-Cola and American Express. Even today, the proportion of company chief executives who have risen through the marketing ranks is much higher in the United States than in Europe.

Beyond American Borders
Europe is home to many luxury brands such as Prada that remain privately owned, often run by family businesses. The principals have no interest in “debasing” their brands by mass-marketing them. In the United States, such companies are rare. In our society, less concerned as it is with class distinctions, the ambition of the American company, private or public, is to maximize profitable growth.

Doing so is not just a matter of profit; it is a matter of duty and also, to an important extent, a matter of ego. The Wal-Mart mission has been “to lower the cost of living for everyone everywhere.” Google’s mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Lenovo, the Chinese-American personal computer company, headquartered in North Carolina, states its mission thus: “We put more innovation in the hands of more people so they can do more amazing things.” These mission statements are enormously ambitious, and, as a result, all the more exciting and effective. They are typical of a society where entrepreneurs are encouraged—and funded—to “think big” in pursuit of the American dream.

The marketers at Wal-Mart, Google, and Lenovo are in the best tradition of Henry Ford and his Model T. They seek to democratize access to their products by bringing good quality to the mass market at an affordable price. And not just the domestic mass market, the global mass market. In his landmark 1983 article, “The Globalization of Markets,” Harvard Business School’s Theodore Levitt wrote that “the one great thing all markets have in common is an overwhelming desire for dependable, world-standard modernity in all things, at aggressively low prices.” Of course, cultural differences remain but these are often exaggerated, and many consumers will sacrifice a perfect product fit if they can come close at a substantially lower price. As Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker contends: “Emotions and drives and ways of thinking and learning ... are uniform across the human species.”

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The article “For The Greater Good” was published in The American (November- December 2008, 2:6, pp72-77)

About the Authors

John A. Quelch is Senior Associate Dean for International Development and Lincoln Filene Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. He also serves as a non-executive director of WPP Group plc, the world's second-largest marketing services company.

In his Marketing KnowHow blog , John presents how-to marketing advice on the ever-changing world of marketing. His writing offers topical and practical advice to markerters of any industry.

Katherine E. Jocz is a research associate at Harvard Business School. Previously, she was Vice President, Research Operations, at Marketing Science Institute.