For The Greater Good
Explaining the Criticism
Marketers aim to satisfy the needs of consumers at all levels of income wherever they live in the world, surely a worthy goal. Why then is marketing criticized so often? And why do marketers offer such little resistance? There are two main reasons. First, marketing is not a profession. Second, marketing is not a science.
Unlike accounting, law, or financial planning, marketing is not a profession. Anyone can call himself or herself a marketer. The absence of entry barriers allows for greater creativity, imagination, and new ideas. But the flip side is that manipulation and deception of consumers by irresponsible marketers happen. Absent professional exams and codes of conduct, abusers of the marketing toolkit are subject only to the sanctions of the marketplace and the law. The vast majority of marketers are honest and respect their customers but, collectively, they need to work harder to expose and shut down the charlatans. At the same time, critics of marketing conflate their objection to harmful products such as tobacco with hostility toward the marketing toolkit harnessed to present them to the public. They also tend to overestimate the level of intentional deception and the vulnerability of consumers. As advertising icon David Ogilvy famously said in an earlier era: “The consumer is not a moron. She is your wife.”
Perhaps marketers would be more self-confident about their contributions if marketing were a science with clear dos and don’ts. But marketing is as much art as science, as much right brain as left brain. Many chief financial officers might still agree with John Wanamaker’s famous adage: “Half my advertising is wasted. I just don’t know which half.” But our understanding of what works in marketing, how and why, has advanced greatly in the last 20 years. Low-cost data analysis enables marketers to understand what level and mix of incentives will produce behavior change, even down to the level of the individual consumer. Marketers have no interest in annoying consumers by delivering messages to those who are not interested in their products or services. It is now possible for chief marketing officers to calculate return on marketing investment and to report regularly to the corporate board progress against three or four brand and consumer health metrics that can predict subsequent business performance.
Even with these advances, marketers still do a surprisingly poor job of marketing, well, marketing. They do not appreciate, let alone articulate, the economic and social benefits of marketing. Marketplace exchanges are based on mutual trust between buyers and sellers. They create value for both parties. The billions of successful daily marketplace transactions are an important part of the glue that holds our society together. Good marketers offer consumers choices. Choice stimulates consumption and economic growth and facilitates personal expression. Good marketers provide consumers with information about new products and services, thereby accelerating their adoption. All these benefits are routinely overlooked as the 17 million Americans engaged in marketing, selling, and customer service go about their daily work contributing brilliantly to our quality of life.
Professor John Quelch and research associate Katherine Jocz of Harvard Business School are coauthors of “Greater Good: How Good Marketing Makes for Better Democracy” (Harvard Business Press, 2008).