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Why marketers must make a difference

Why marketers must make a difference Responsible marketing is about more than just bottomline profits. Professor Nicola Kleyn examines some recent published research on this thought-provoking topic.

In the recent brand marketing Barometer survey commissioned by the Brand Council of South Africa, a number of important themes summarising perceptions of brand owners, brand influencers and brand researchers on the topics of branding and marketing in this country were raised. In addition to the importance of building talent and a requirement for marketers to become more strategic, the need for marketing to have measurable impact on business and to make a meaningful contribution to society were underscored. Although this local survey was focused on brand marketing, such concerns about the state of marketing are certainly not limited to South Africa, nor are they restricted to practitioners. A number of seminal pieces have critiqued the role played by marketing in organisations and more broadly. In 2005, a trio led by renowned academic Fred Webster published an article in MIT Sloan Management Review with the memorable title The decline and dispersion of marketing competence'. After lamenting a number of the issues echoed in the Brand Marketing Barometer survey, the authors concluded that the four main
challenges for marketing management were measuring marketing productivity, driving innovations in products and strategy, building brand equity, and pushing back against short-term thinking. It's noteworthy that much of the focus was on marketing in the context of the organisation.

Beyond short-term contribution Fast forward eight years to a new article published by the same Fred Webster and another esteemed marketing academic, Robert (Bob) Lusch in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science with yet another provocative title 'Elevating marketing: marketing is dead! Long live marketing!' The paper begins with the comment: The discipline, in theory and practice, must move beyond a narrow focus on customers to a broader concern for them as citizen-consumers. This necessitates a recommitment of marketing to its fundamental purpose in society, which is improving the standard of living for all citizens by co-creating value at all levels within a socioeconomic system". Webster and Lusch's comments are mirrored by those of a number of respondents in the local Brand Marketing Barometer survey, who emphasised the need for marketing to go beyond engagement in CSI initiatives in order to make a meaningful contribution to society. Our world is increasingly questioning the contribution of business to society. Labour unrest, an unacceptable standard of living for many people and rising corruption in South Africa underscore the necessity for business to focus on the impact of the social context on its organisations.

Webster and Lusch go beyond the need for marketers to be aware of social consequences. They exhort marketers to think long and deeply about the impact of marketing on micro (firm), meso (industry) and macro (country or global) systems. In no way are they suggesting that marketing should not be focused on enhancing financial performance. In alignment with triple bottom line approaches, they suggest that the scope of marketing's impact needs to widen. Barring those increasingly diminishing voices who suggest that the only role of the firm is to deliver returns to its shareholders, marketing practitioners and academics alike increasingly acknowledge that marketing must create long-term value for customers. Although the concept is logically and emotionally appealing, transitioning to execution is the tricky part.

Webster and Lusch suggest that "exploration of these new frontiers cannot be done creatively and indepth using old maps of the marketing territory." They urge marketers to focus their problem-solving more broadly on issues such as: the aspects of consumer decision-making that lead to weakness in consumer spending patterns; understanding the linkages between weak spending and persistent unemployment; and understanding how rising food and fuel prices reduce consumer discretionary income and spending patterns. In addition, they stress the importance of investigating rising consumer indebtedness and how obesity and diabetes are related to the marketing system. As the authors stress, a persistent focus on short-term customer satisfaction and company performance may be leaving many long-term issues of consumer welfare inadequately addressed. Although I have deep reservations about the article's limited focus on the context of the US, the authors' call for marketers to develop an "elevated marketing concept that specifically incorporates the new economic, social and political environment and its dynamic characteristics" resonates deeply with me. Few CMOs would deny that they are the custodians of customers, but I would contend that very few of the marketing strategies that they develop define long-term customer welfare as part of their purpose. I am not suggesting that marketers progress to advocating a welfare state, however the longer-term impacts of our demand-creation efforts need to factor into our thinking. I echo Day and Lusch's calls to influence customers to effectively develop, acquire and use their resources to enhance their standard of living. This requires marketers to recognise and build their influence on their organisations to use corporate resources that align to building a business that thinks beyond generating cash flow today. As marketers, we have an additional responsibility to build a strong network of marketing practitioners that collaborate to nurture a next generation of marketing talent that is geared to develop marketing offerings that will deliver long-term value for customers and country alike.

Two steps to moving the ball forward The Brand Marketing Barometer survey is one of a number of indications that marketers need to rethink their contributions. Many of the marketing practitioners with whom I interact seem to feel that this is either not their problem, or that they are not empowered to make a difference.


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