With more time as of late to ponder such things, I’ve come to the conclusion that today’s marketing — defined by the American Marketing Association (AMA) as “the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large” — is inherently broken.
And when I say broken, I do mean as defined by Oxford Dictionary as “having been fractured or damaged and no longer in one piece or in working order.”
I’ve held this “marketing is broken” view for some time.
And here’s why.
There are many reasons I absolutely feel this way but the more notable reasons focus on the following observations made from within the marketing field over the past two decades:
1) In with the new, but not yet out with the old ancient
While marketing today has become more technology-laden and data-centric than ever before, rigid and traditional marketing mindsets of long gone yesteryears still do prevail amongst many in marketing leadership roles, often in counterproductive marketing ways.
Now, having said that, I do not mean that some aspects of classical marketing thinking aren’t well-intended or shouldn’t be leveraged or considered, but what I am saying is that — in my experiences — there are many marketing hat wearers who are inflexible and outdated in their marketing thinking, thus they are incapable or unwilling (or both) to be more fluid in their interpretations or understanding of what marketing is (or isn’t), what marketing should be (or shouldn’t be), and how marketing should be (or shouldn’t be) administered.
Yet, no matter how hip or old school one’s marketing thinking is or might be, what it should NOT be is stagnant. Marketing should not be a doctrine that must not be deviated from but rather it should be a living, breathing aspiration from which adjustments and refinements to approaches and concepts should be regularly reviewed, adjusted, and re-aligned as necessary to suit the highly unique needs of both a brand and its constituents.
2) Consumers rights be damned
As marketing processes rely further and further on highly imperfect, data-driven processes set out to behaviorally surveil “target markets” with tracking bots and spiders, tenacious cookies, pervasive algorithms, and immersive artificial intelligence in their sacred quest for personalization, brands tragically sacrifice — intentionally or not — consumer rights to privacy, often putting consumer data in great peril for security breaches and more.
I have a great deal more to say on this subject, which is — in it of itself — a total rabbit hole of discussion meriting its own post (or series of posts, for that matter). But one thing I want to make clear is that I’m not averse to responsible marketing technology. In fact, the breadth of my marketing career has been as a marketing technologist and technology advocate. But I strongly believe that the goodness of marketing technology for a brand or organization cannot and should not come at a great cost to the consumer. The basis of personalization does indeed offer some utility and coveted conveniences, but the excessive, by-default data harvesting and invasive consumer behavior surveillance that has become all too ubiquitous are, bottom line, not right and not ethical.
3) The multidisciplinary pile on has no end in sight
I remember in the early to mid-2000s when marketing job descriptions began to include things like “strong design capabilities are a plus.” Thus, the indication there was that in addition to the strong communications backgrounds, marketers who were ALSO DESIGNERS would have an advantage. A few short years thereafter, marketing job descriptions tacked on the desire (and in some cases, the requirement) for candidates to ALSO possess (some) web design/development skills. By the 2010s, marketing job descriptions further requested that most candidates have social media marketing capabilities. And in the past few years, marketing job descriptions now tout marketers should possess data-centric skills, often listing requirements specific to data analysis, data reporting, data tools, and the like.
Now, I realize that not all marketing descriptions ask for everything but the kitchen sink, but you’d be surprised at how many open marketing jobs kind of do. I also realize that marketing times and marketing technologies are evolving, therefore it’s natural and expected that marketing roles would also evolve and iterate. But some of the skills a good number of marketing roles require or desire are, by and large, their own career fields with professional tracks. To some degree, it’s unrealistic that “a marketer” will or can be all such things; otherwise, what’s the role of specialization? This latter question speaks more to the role of what marketing is or isn’t within an organization, which I expand on more below.
But first, I’d like to say that in my own experiences as a marketer, I’ve worn many, many hats. I’ve been a public relations person, a UX/experience designer, a brand manager, an applications and product developer, a communicator, a marketing technologist, a social media strategist, a graphics and information designer, a content strategist and writer, a digital marketing strategist, a creative director, a search engine optimization expert, a paid search consultant, analytics and performance specialist, a video producer, and more. So if anyone gets the whole, cross-pollinative nature of what marketing is or does, it’s me. I have direct, first-hand experience in seeing and understanding that in the marketing field, many disciplines tend to overlap and intersect.
But along all these roles I played and hats I wore, I repeatedly found that I was (and still am) a bit of an anomaly. I haven’t met many marketers — across my 25 years thus far — who have filled this many marketing shoes along their professional marketing journeys, no matter how cross-pollinated their own paths may have been. As such, I am of the belief that the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink kind of candidate is a rare occurrence and, to a large degree, unrealistic to attain for most.
4) Everything is marketing, not just marketing. This being the case, then **what is** marketing?
Today, every nook and cranny of an organization is, directly and indirectly, a part of marketing. When a receptionist answers an incoming call, that’s marketing. When an employee speaks at a conference, that’s marketing. When human resources interviews a candidate, that’s marketing. When a customer service rep helps support a disappointed customer, that’s marketing. And that’s because every single touchpoint a non-employee has with a brand, that is a marketing moment capable of creating both immediate and latent marketing opportunity.
Taking this a step further, for years there’s been an increasingly blurred line between Sales and Marketing. I’ve seen all kinds of scenarios to this end, starting with organizations who church-state the two disciplines with a delineated VP of Sales (or Business Development) and a corresponding VP of Marketing. I’ve also seen the hybrid approach, where Sales and Marketing co-exist under job descriptions responsible for “accountable marketing.” Last but not least, I’ve seen organizations do away entirely with the formal marketing function and disseminate marketing-related tasks across multiple positions.
What this says to me, on the surface and in particular, is that marketing as a formal practice is highly individualized per brand. What works in one organization may not work as well in another. But even more broadly, I suspect, is that the process(es) of marketing is always in a rather state of flux, at least in comparison to other traditional professions society has inherited, such as accounting, for example. No matter how many years go by, the technologies may improve, but at the end of the day, accounting is accounting is accounting! A debt is classified as an accounts payable, and incoming revenues are considered as accounts receivables. These basic accounting tenets have withstood the financial winds of time.
Yet in the marketing profession, the traditional four “P’s” (which stand for price, product, promotion, and place) fluctuate not only with the natural passage of time and evolving consumer and market trends, but also within organizations as well. As a result, marketing — both as a field and as a practice — is not as grounded and is subject to far more interpretation than not, which ultimately makes the “What is marketing?” question a bit more open-ended.
5) Dehumanization of customers
Last but hardly least, there’s marketing’s steadfast tendency and emphasis on corralling and labeling groups of customers as “target markets,” “audiences,” “end users,” “marketing segments,” and other stoic terms, which ignore the fact that all these groups are real human beings and living members of a broader society. The endless marketing need to classify and organize humans by convenient demographics or behavioral characteristics is not necessarily “bad,” but robotically describing human beings as “target markets” or as “market segments” often dehumanizes the reality that paying or potentially-paying customers are ALSO human beings, motivated by a litany of other non-quantifiable factors such marketing labels disregard or dismiss altogether.
(As a side note, this is one of *the* very reasons I’ve been highly drawn to the media psychology field, where one of the key goals is to help HUMANIZE our intersections with mediated technologies, but more on this at another time).
My marketing career first began in 1995. That was 25 years from today and 9, 125 days ago from this moment, at the time of this writing. I think I’ve seen a LOT in my marketing days and this post comes from a place of yes, healthy scrutiny, but also sincere curiosity in seeing how the profession of marketing will continue to evolve given the challenges I’ve outlined.
It is my humble opinion, given what I’ve witnessed in my marketing lifetime thus far, that the AMA’s formal definition of what marketing is (as shared in the first paragraph of this post) may benefit from being revisited, both by the AMA and brands alike. I won’t purport to know what the AMA’s, or anyone’s for that matter, marketing definition should be; that’s not my place. But I do believe it may be a worthwhile effort to ponder the matter far more, and perhaps such spirited discussions may yield new marketing definition ideas and aspirations worth consideration.
A most welcome discourse, I think, especially in light of our dramatically changing marketing times.