Is marketing honourable?
January 18, 2012 10:39 AM
Ever wondered what marketing is really all about? When I did my CIM (Chartered Institute of Marketing) Diploma, the first session was dedicated to defining the term. Officially, according to the CIM at the time, marketing was "the management process responsible for identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer needs".
Fired up as I was with all the enthusiasm and rebelliousness of youth (I was 27, I think), I took issue with this. Come on. Let's be honest.
That's simply not true.
Marketing is about helping to sell more. It's doing what you need to do in order to make it easier for the sales guys to close the deals. It's greasing the wheels of commerce by creating desire for products, communicating in a certain way that makes more people like your company and your brand.
Over the following weeks, I was gradually persuaded that I was wrong. In its purest form, marketing is about meeting needs, they told me. To an extent, I understood and came round, albeit reluctantly, to their way of thinking. After all, a market only exists where there is a need on one side and a product/service that meets that need on the other. The process of marketing brings the two together. I can live with that.
But this purist definition still annoys me because we don't live in a perfect world, and such clean definitions don't really work in practice. And I was reminded of this when I visited Starbucks this morning.
We all know that Starbucks is held up as a shining example of the "customer comes first" ethos. If your coffee is slightly imperfect or late, they swiftly give you a voucher for a free cup next time, no questions asked. They allow you to stay in their nice warm store for as long as you want. They give you free wi-fi. They smile and generally look after the customer. They're nice people.
But dig a little deeper and look at the marketing machine behind the smiling barristas, and there is a more brutal commercialism at work.
Free drinks - and benefits galore!
A large sign greeted me on entry at my local Starbucks in Teddington. "Free drinks and benefits galore" it says. Now I already had a Starbucks card, because it meant I got a few perks. A free drink when I bought coffee beans. Free whipped cream. All the important stuff.
So I was keen to find out how my experience of Starbucks was going to improve. But it soon appeared the new scheme put me back to Square One in terms of accumulated loyalty benefits. Not only did I have to buy a million coffees before reaching 'Gold' status, but even then I couldn't get the same benefits. Sorry Sir, we're not doing those any more.
Now I don't have a problem with this. Of course, Starbucks has to turn a profit. And if tweaking the loyalty scheme is the tool they use to improve the success of their business they can and should do it. Reduce the cost by giving less away, boost revenue by making people pay for the whipped cream instead of giving it away as a perk.
But does this count as marketing?
Thinking back to my CIM lecturers, I can't help wondering what they would say. Did Starbucks identify, anticipate and satisfy my need? Or did they take a long hard look at what they needed to do to keep me satisfied enough to keep buying coffee?
Let's not be naïve. Marketing is about meeting needs. But that's only part of the story: it's also about the planning, the comms, the technology and all the other tricks that we can put in place to make the customer comfortable with the idea that your brand is meeting their needs more effectively than the competition. And if this involves a bit of smoke and mirrors in order to create the impression that you're giving something when you're really taking it away, that's OK.
Or is it? Part of me wants to be honourable, ethical and transparent at all times. But part of me wants my role as a marketer to have a real impact, which means not being afraid of commercial realities.
Or maybe the CIM just did a great marketing job on me ...
What do you think? As a marketer, do you represent the customer's interests? Or the brand's? Or do you cheerily start each working day, confident that you are doing both? I'd love to know.