What is marketing?

What is marketing?
Judie Lannon

Most people in marketing or marketing services tend to find their jobs interesting and enjoyable and consider the question in the headline absurd. But largely because of confusion as to what marketing actually is and does, few appreciate just how important it is. Marketing is widely thought to be synonymous with selling, to be confined to advertising and communications, to be some kind of add-on function and, in some quarters, to be a malign influence. This issue of Market Leader is dedicated to examining why we think marketing is important – but also in the interests of broadening the subject, what the criticisms are.

Now that there is broad political consensus that capitalism is the most efficient economic system, the argument has moved on to what kind of capitalism we should strive for. Some years ago, Charles Hampden Turner and Fons Trompenaars published Seven Cultures of Capitalism, an analysis of how capitalism operates in seven diverse national cultures including Sweden, Japan and the US. Their thesis was that capitalism isn’t value-free. How it is practised is a function of the beliefs and values of the culture in which it operates: from the individualistic, less regulated version practised in the US and UK to the more consensual capitalism of Germany and Sweden. The virtues of the former, eg innovation, are believed to be worth the downsides – primarily inequality.

But becoming like Sweden is fairly unlikely. Anglo-Saxon culture is not likely to change that dramatically and regulations will be tolerated only so far. But what could happen, as Hugh Davidson argues in this issue’s lead article, is that consumers increasingly have the power to make capitalism work better. The marketing principle, properly executed, creates and guarantees fairness. Where it barely exists, such as in the financial sector, exploitation is inevitable. This argument is underlined by economist John Kay’s Viewpoint piece.

David Jones describes how many companies are reshaping their strategies to serve customers, the environment and their bottom line. Michael Bayler paints an even more dramatic picture of consumer power in his analysis of the digital world.

Advertising is increasingly criticised for promoting an unhealthy, unhappy preoccupation with material goods. Jon Alexander and Rory Sutherland debate the two sides of the argument, while Hugh Burkitt argues that marketing needs rules, but these must be revised to accommodate changes in social attitudes and beliefs. Anthropologist Grant McCracken describes the role of marketing as ‘managing meanings’ in the form of brands – meanings that culture creates, moulds and transforms.

This is just the beginning of the debate: there is much more to say and we welcome contributions for publication in subsequent issues.

This article featured in Market Leader, July 2012.