Marketing's Identity Crisis: Confusing Promotion With Purpose

Roughly put, there’s more to branding than being top of mind.

I remember discussing with a friend a few years ago, about what it is that I’m doing. Jokingly he said: “I know what you do, you’re one to sell things they don’t need, to people who can’t afford it. You’re in marketing.” 

If his opinion didn’t bother me, what stuck was that he believed that what I was doing was marketing.

More recently, I came across someone who, similarly, did not understand the relative role of marketing in regard to branding. So I decided to research and write on the topic.

Although I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there was more to marketing than filling in the dreadful 4P’s of the marketing mix, using SWOTs to define half-baked strategies or the we-create-tribes bullshit… What struck me the most, is the underlying feeling that the marketing community —and marketers in general— appears to be trapped between advertising (to make his/her company visible) and sales (to make his/her company money). 

An uncomfortable in-between that often seems to come with a side of shame.

The origin of marketing

For the academics that might read this article, let’s do a quick review of the etymology of the word. For the others, jump to the next chapter.

In Latin, the verb mercor means “to trade or to buy”, from which mercatus is directly derived. Mercatus means “commerce, market or marketplace”. Market ─and marketing─ stems from this Latin root.

To a certain extent, there’s a parallel to be made between modern marketing and the commerce of early civilizations. Thousands of years ago, traders gathered in markets to exchange goods, now we run e-commerce. They engaged in conversations, shared stories, and built trust with customers, now we pay influencers to connect to our audience at a more personal scale. So, in a sense, marketing today continues this legacy (adapted for the digital age of course).

A side note before moving on, for those that confuse marketing and brand.

The word 'brand' ─and its derived term 'branding'─ stems from the Proto-Germanic word brandaz and find echoes in the Nordic language in the word brandr. Both mean “to burn or burning”, and further in time relate to the practice of burning a mark on their products (e.g. leather goods) or properties (e.g. cattle) with a hot iron. 
The word 'mark' (hear also marque in French) is a bit misleading (meaning: in the context of this article). Unlike marketing, it has its origins in the Proto-Germanic word marka and derives directly from the Latin margo, meaning “border/edge/delimitation sign” (sign is the keyword here). It then evolved and crossed with the Frankish markon which means “to mark with the foot”. Early examples of brands and marks are farmers branding their cattle or the guild marks left by masons on dressed stone in public buildings or churches. (More to come in an article on the evolution of branding).

Marketing in today’s world

Admittedly, when it comes to marketing as we know it, we’re looking at a relatively new field of research and expertise. Philip Kotler ─one of the fathers of the discipline, whose book “Marketing Management” (now in its 16th edition) was first published in 1967─ defines marketing as: “The science and art of exploring, creating, and delivering value to satisfy the needs of a target market at a profit”. A statement that’s a bit mystical and quite broad in my opinion, and somehow radiates God complex.

In defence of Philip Kotler (and his book that dates back from the pre-internet age), there was a need to formalize marketing strategies and tactics. Undoubtedly his work has been widely influential in making marketing a true academic discipline. It helped businesses look beyond sales and profit with a more consumer-oriented approach. But calling marketing “the science and art of creating and delivering value”… give me a break.

Now I know how this reads. Brand strategist with a branding agency is pissed off at marketers who step on branding’s toes. 

But researching Kotler’s work further, the reality of what it takes exactly to do marketing kicks in: “It defines, measures and quantifies the size of the identified market and the profit potential. It pinpoints which customer segments the company is capable of serving best and it designs and promotes the appropriate products and services”. 

In short, marketing is: customer segment and target audience definition, market research, and advertising of a product through the right channels.

This fits with the experience I had, in previous jobs. The CMOs I’ve seen were mostly neck-deep in Excel, sales data and audience statistics… they were not painting the world a better place. That’s not the job of a marketing manager.

So if I had to give an objective definition of modern marketing ─without traumatizing the marketing syndicate I hope─ it would be this one: “Marketing is the bridge between brand and customer.”

The marketer's guilt and the quest for more

Ask someone on the street to define marketing and you'll likely hear “ads”,“sales” or even  “communications”. Standard depictions that, more often than not, are adorned with less commendable qualifiers such as “deceitful”, “manipulative” or “unethical”. 

Ask most marketers and you’ll likely hear “telling stories”, “growing businesses” or even “building relationships with customers”. Welp, quite the misalignment.

Does this gap between the perception and the self-definition of the discipline illustrate a simple misunderstanding or outright cognitive dissonance?

I’d say a bit of both. 

According to a survey of hundreds of thousands of employees conducted by CareerBliss in 2011, two marketing roles ended up on the top 10 most-hated jobs list. With in 10th position: Marketing Manager, and in 2nd position: Director of Marketing. This says something about marketers' reality.

If you work in communications and advertising (one aspect of marketing) you know how emotionally-driven human beings are. And for lots of marketers, this knowledge carries an ambivalent feeling of guilt. As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility, right?

Obviously, we’re no longer in the ’60s where marketers are like Mad Men’s Don Draper selling you Lucky Strike cancer sticks. But there’s this latent imposter syndrome. Am I really promoting the next best thing? Is the product I’m putting in front of customers really something they need? Aren’t we all just contributing to an endless consumerist madness? 

Although the discipline is ─at least in part─ about human psychology it’s ultimately about finding ways to influence people’s behaviour as consumers. Think, for example, of influencer marketing, the new fad in marketing tactics. ResumeHelp held a survey around the topic of the most hated and loved jobs… Guess what? Well, right after politicians and insurance brokers are the influencers. People hate them as much as they hate priests and guns/arms sellers, ouch. Jealousy? Maybe, a bit. Probably also because they know they’re getting duped.

All that can trigger negative feelings. Hence marketers seem to often look at ways to broaden the attributes of their discipline. No wonder why ethical or sustainable practices are now the talk of the marketing town. 

It’s about being top of mind

If you follow the marketing discussions on specialized media, YouTube, or LinkedIn, you will notice constant debates between marketers on different concepts: the long vs. the short, traditional vs. digital, differentiation vs. distinctiveness, mass marketing vs. targeting, and so on. Each concept has its own devoted supporters who fervently believe their worldview is the right one. However, one thing has remained a bipartisan goal for marketers and it is brand salience.

Say, you’re invited to a basketball game, but you’ve got no proper shoes. Think about the brand of the pair you would buy. You’re most probably thinking about Nike’s Jordan. Or Under Armour if you’re more of a Warriors (and Steph Curry) fan. 

Now think of an electric car. Tesla? Volvo maybe?

What about an energy drink? Redbull or Monster right? (I’ll allow Prime or ZOA for the youngest here). Yet, did you know that according to the EDE (Energy Drinks Europe) association, there are more than 190 brands on the market? But only a very few come to mind. 

Well, that’s brand salience. It means that people will recognize or think of your brand when they need to buy something: you’re top of mind. 

That is, in essence, the main goal of marketing. Making sure to advertise a brand to the right people, through the right channels, so that your brand becomes associated with your category and offering. In other words, bridge the gap between brand and customer. 

When Jim Stengel, former CMO of P&G, wrote “How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies”, I believe he was searching for what ─in marketing─ he lacked: having impact on purpose. And that impact is done through branding.

About brands, Mark Riston says: “When a brand is distinctive, it looks like itself and ‘jumps out’ at the consumer when they encounter it. When a brand is differentiated it successfully convinces consumers that its offer is significantly different to those of the competition on a range of intended associations or attributes”.

Branding is both, and more. It is the holistic approach that turns purpose and values (think differentiation) into strategy ─that is actionable and adoptable by every stakeholder at one’s company─ and gives it the means (think distinctiveness) to be uniquely visible.

Marketing comes last

An industrial concrete company doesn’t need a marketing team. It is first and foremost selling a product. It needs a sales team, a logistics team and so on. That’s what we call a commodity. Now if this company was to have a deeply rooted belief system on how it should treat its employees, ideals that would define how and with whom they do business, or principles on how to best serve their customers,... then you’d have a brand.

Truth is, for marketing to be required, you first need a product (or a service) and a brand to advertise.

That’s not an insult to marketers nor is it diminishing the importance of marketing. That’s just the rightful position of marketing within a company. Next to all other departments: sales, logistics, human resources, finance, R&D, etc. 

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