Marketing’s Crisis of Meaning

Buy more stuff. That’s the underlying message in most consumer marketing campaigns these days. Sure, it’s jazzed up with all the bells and whistles that a multi-million dollar sophisticated advertising campaign can deliver, but it’s ultimately it’s a fairly hollow and uninspiring message. Chances are it will drive healthy sales results and might even win advertising awards. But just because it’s effective in moving product doesn’t mean we should feel proud about it.

As a person involved in marketing, I still hesitate to define myself as a marketer.  “Why is that?” I ask myself. To a large extent, it’s because of a nagging concern I have that marketing’s tremendous power is being wasted on frivolous applications. This isn’t to dispute the talent and effectiveness of modern-day marketing – in fact, it’s precisely the opposite. With great power comes great responsibility. But are we as marketers shirking that responsibility?

An Apple a Day Isn’t Good For You.

Consider the Apple iPad advertising campaigns. On one level I find myself drawn along by the remarkable storytelling – the beautiful product design and visuals, the perfectively pitched musical background, the softly persuasive voiceover. Learn a new language, play chess, write on a virtual chalkboard, study anatomy … heck, I would be such a better person if I had one, I must buy one now!

But after taking a moment to catch my breath, I realize I can already do all those things (and more) without an iPad – all that’s missing is the personal commitment to do so. It’s not a technology problem that a whizz bang new device will solve, it’s a question of old-fashioned willpower. When I reflect on how I would actually use an iPad and challenge myself to be honest about the actual benefits, begrudgingly I can admit to myself that Apple is selling me a dream that’s mostly “abstract desire” for the latest cool thing and very little about actual usefulness (let alone self-improvement).

Have hordes of people taken up a new language as a result of the iPad? Is anatomy knowledge booming? Are chalk sales plummeting? I suspect not. But Apple’s sales are rocketing off and our homes are filled with more cool stuff than ever before. And 12 months from now they’ll persuade just as effectively that the old version isn’t good enough and what you really need is the new one.

But what’s the value of selling more “cool stuff”. Not value in the sense of driving sales and delivering ROI, but on a more fundamental level of making a contribution to improving people’s lives and society in general. Western society is addicted to stuff. And I mean quite literally “addicted”, as in a compulsive desire for more, the desperate chase for another hit, and the subsequent crushing low when stuff doesn’t deliver the lasting fulfilment promised. And our unthinking response to this cycle is a belief that perhaps we’re not buying the right stuff, from the right places, in the right way…

So what disturbs me most about the Apple campaigns (apart from how effectively they can manipulate my emotions and thought patterns) is the way they cynically tap into a desire for self-improvement – i.e. what psychologists call “self-actualization” – to sell us more stuff that we don’t need. Apple’s marketers are amazingly successful on many measures … but should they feel proud?

With Great Power Comes Responsibility.

Now above I’ve picked on Apple simply because they’re wildly successful and highly visible. Plenty of other companies similarly use their marketing prowess for less than meaningful ends: appliance retailers moving mountains of whitegoods with sting-in-the-tail interest-free deals; telcos confusing the hell out of customers with unnecessarily complicated and expensive phone plans; alcohol companies developing products that seem particularly targeted at teenage drinkers yet claim to promote “responsible drinking”; banks pushing no deposit or low deposit loans so people can buy over-priced real estate in a misplaced desire to “get on the property ladder”; companies seeking to profit from dubious extended warranties by talking up the risk of product failure; and so on.

The common theme in all this is the use of marketing power to achieve commercial ends in a way that is undoubtedly effective, but leaves a somewhat sour taste in your mouth.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not anti-marketing. On the contrary, I see marketing as a powerful and important tool for organizations: it helps them design effective offerings, build awareness, improve understanding and purchase intent among target customers, and drive the commercial success of their products & services.

Instead, what I’m arguing is that the considerable effectiveness of marketing as a tool for shaping desire and behaviour means that we need to be extra careful how we use it. This is a debate about the purposes to which we direct our marketing energies and about taking responsibility for the outcomes of those choices. After all, just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

This is also part of a broader discussion about the role of business within society and what responsibility business has to contribute to the broader society on which it relies for so many things, including employees, customers, the rule of law, environmental inputs, and so on.

Why it’s Really Useful to be a Doubting Thomas.

As a father of young children, I see plenty of books and TV shows aimed at kids, including Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends – a marketing phenomenon with a never-ending range of spin-offs, premium prices, and huge audience loyalty. But what intrigued me recently in one particular episode was the highest praise that the Fat Controller gives his trains is they were a “really useful” engine.

Kids’ stories aside, this notion of being “really useful” is of vital importance and should be embraced more widely as a criterion to measure our performance as marketers and business people.

Instead of just looking at how much stuff we sold, we should ask ourselves ‘were we really useful?’ Did we use the power of our marketing capabilities for a product or service that delivers a valuable contribution to people’s lives? Or did we manipulate our audience to build up hype and flog them more stuff that they don’t really need and will be out of date in 12 months anyway.

If we’re really useful, we should be able to look back on what we’ve done and feel proud. We should be proud not just of the business results delivered in the short term, but also of the value provided to customers, staff, suppliers and society at large. In short, we should leave a positive legacy.

Really useful marketing is marketing done well and with a sense of responsibility. It’s about identifying and anticipating genuine needs, crafting a value proposition that resonates and delivers useful outcomes, communicating in a compelling yet accurate way, and capturing a fair share of the value created as profit for your business.

To start with, ask yourself the following question: do you sincerely believe that your company is offering real value to people? If you catch yourself feeling defensive or resorting to rationalizations and justifications, that’s a red flag that merits further attention. The foundation of really useful marketing is that you need to be doing something fundamentally useful for your target customer.

Assuming that’s the case, you can turn your attention to the various other aspects of how you conduct yourself as a marketer. Are you guided by a sense of respect for the customer, or do you resort to techniques that unfairly take advantage of them? As with all ethical issues, it’s not always clear-cut in practice:  for instance, when does positive, compelling communication become manipulation? When does premium pricing become gouging? But if you’re guided by a sense of responsibility for those impacted by your decisions, you’re much more likely to make the right call.

Are you a Proud Marketing Professional?

One of the hallmarks of a profession is a code of ethics and commitment to a higher purpose. Since the 5th century BC, doctors have traditionally taken the Hippocratic Oath and committed themselves uphold certain ethical standards in their practice of medicine. Given the life and death stakes in medicine, this commitment is fundamental to the respect and trust that people have for doctors.

When it comes to marketing, one may call oneself a marketing professional but is marketing really a profession? What ethical standards are we committing to uphold in our marketing practice?

Sure, the Chartered Institute of Marketing has a Code of Professional Standards but frankly it has nothing like the moral power or inspiring sense of purpose as the Hippocratic Oath. What ultimately matters is not the specific wording (there are many versions of the Hippocratic Oath) but rather the fundamental and binding sense of purpose and commitment to an ethically responsible outcome.

Marketing may not have quite the same immediate life-or-death nature as medicine, but it does have enormous power to shape the desires and behaviours of billions of people. Will we deny responsibility and insist that we’re just here to help sell stuff and deliver ROI on marketing dollars? Or will we consciously decide to be “really useful” and contribute more responsibly to society?

The choice is ours. Our collective answer will determine whether I’m proud to call myself a marketer.