Four friends go out for dinner. One is an accountant, one is an engineer, one a financial analyst in the City, and one is a marketer. Before you read on, close your eyes and imagine what each one of these dinner guests looks like.
The images you have just conjured up in your mind are probably very similar to the stereotypical images that most people have about different professions.
The accountant is boring. The engineer is a bit of a geek. The financial analyst is rich and greedy. And the marketer?
The marketer is more tricky.
Most industries acquire a stereotype for their employees over time. Marketers, however, still accrue a wide range of associations. While these associations are almost exclusively negative, they have yet to coalesce around a particular theme or identity. I call it the dinner party test. When someone inevitably asks me what I do, I tell them I am a professor. This is usually very positively received around the table. The inevitable second question, ‘Of what?’, then leads to the response, ‘marketing’. I then encounter an almost tangible change in the atmosphere around the table, somewhat akin to the onset of a Russian winter. Silence ensues until someone finally clears their throat to compliment the host on the wine choice.
We are bastards you see. Bastards in both senses of the word.
Bastards because marketers do not have a clear parentage or heritage that informs society as to how we should be perceived. Bastards because nobody likes us, trusts us, or wants to spend time with us. It has always struck me as ironic that a profession whose watchwords are image, positioning, brand, and communications, has been unable to manage any of these concepts with respect to the perception of the marketing role itself.
The problem stems from the public and the mass media’s complete ignorance of marketing’s function. I have always prided myself on giving a very good opening day lecture on our MBA program to introduce students (many of whom have negative preconceptions) to the beauty of marketing. I end the session by pointing out that marketing is really the most simple discipline of all: we find out what people want, we ensure it gets made, we then make it available to our customers in a manner which also generates a return for our stakeholders.
If the public understood this we would enjoy a far more positive image within society. Unfortunately this true vision of marketing is boring and not half as newsworthy as the negative stereotype of an industry perceived as faceless, invisible manipulators of the mind.
This dominant stereotype of marketing is, of course, nonsense. Even if you manage to hoodwink the public in the short term, any good marketer knows the secret of business is to deliver on your promises and to build up long-term relationships with existing satisfied customers. Perhaps some marketers really do manipulate the public, but they do not stay in business for long. So let us be proud. Let us defend the industry we love.
And let us point out the boring, but essential, truth of marketing: we are here to offer you what you want, not make you want what we offer.
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