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Marketing for Competitive Advantage
Herbert Jack Rotfeld
Myths and Legends of the Modern Marketing Concept
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This is a draft from the book when it was not yet published by my friend and Marketing colleague from Auburn University in Alabama, Professor Herb Rotfeld. It is copyrighted by him, and I reproduce it here with his permission. You may not cite it without permission from the author, except in your paper for this course. Herb Rotfeld has been a role model and inspiration to me in my efforts to examine my doctoral area of study from a more critical point of view.

Marketing is a very difficult topic to discuss with people working in other fields since everyone seems to be a self-proclaimed expert on the subject. After all, they have been shopping and exposed to advertising their entire lives. They see it and therefore they "know" it. And they're all critics. Even at social gatherings, marketing people find the introductions followed by all sorts of virulent complaints.

I am reluctant to say I am a Professor of Marketing or that I teach advertising courses. Total strangers quickly seem to blame me for the advertising they don't like. When visiting New Zealand, even bus drivers or the clerk at the souvenir store asked me what I thought of a then-current commercial for Toyota trucks in which the characters repeatedly say "Bugger" (a word of questionable and profane etiology that recently had been the basis for complaints before the national self‑regulatory Advertising Standards Association).

"Where do I work? I'm a faculty member at the university."
"Really? What department?"
"Uh..... business."
"Oh, I'm interested in business. What do you teach?"
[Pause. Reluctant response] "Marketing and advertising."
"I'm sorry, but I have nothing to do with those. They weren't my fault." 

Sometimes they grab my lapels and complain about cigarettes targeting children as if I personally wrote the campaign plan.

As one of the most visible of business practices, marketing is criticized by almost everyone, from social critics to government lawmakers to political pundits. Audience manipulation, offensive products and cultural destruction are among the social ills often laid at the feet of the marketing business. I still find that some students in my classes say they had enrolled because they want to learn how (not "if") advertising manipulates people's behavior. Even Time magazine had a cover story about the various tricks and tools of marketing, illustrated by a metaphorical picture of a consumer dancing on a marketing man's puppet strings.[1] Supposedly, consumers are controlled by the mind manipulation of marketing planners, or so many people believe.

Admittedly, a half century ago this near-paranoid view of marketing power fit what leading business people believed under their own views of marketing theory and practice. At that time, marketing was seen as selling; if the product wasn't selling, the marketing people were not doing a good job. We thought that political propaganda drove the citizens of every nation; the first widespread efforts in the late 1930s to study how and why mass communications and persuasion works were impelled by a concern that we needed to find ways to inoculate the vulnerable citizens of free nations against the much feared (and fearsome) powers of Nazi propaganda.

Today, marketing people know better, or so we hope. Twenty-five years ago, a documentary interviewer asked noted advertising man George Lois how it felt to have so much power over consumers' minds. But his response is that advertising is not mind bending because, as he put it, "No one is that good." The fact is that no one can be that good.  After decades of research, it is generally realized that marketing practitioners can only wish they had the power business' critics presume they possess. In reality, they don't.

The criticisms might be voiced by people with limited knowledge or understanding of marketing theory and practice, but these criticisms are often generated by examples of what I have come to call misplaced marketing, in that people who could or should be making marketing decisions are misplacing their focus on basic perspectives that should be followed.

The marketing concept

An oblong piece of plastic on my desk with a curved bottom and a flat top can be spun on its axis. But because of the way it is weighted, curved and balanced, you can only spin it counter-clockwise. Even though is a plain‑looking piece of plastic, appearing as complicated as a common thumb tack, inexplicably it will resist spinning in the other direction. If it is shoved clockwise, it starts to spin, then wobbles, hesitates, and reverses direction. Similarly, with free consumers in the marketplace, as long as a marketing planner knows the way people want to go and understands why, he or she can try to encourage them to go faster or slower, or try to start them moving in the first place. Trying to get them to move in ways they don't want to go will only result in failure.

A microbiologist I knew years ago always liked to describe the latest research problem in his laboratory by saying that, "Under carefully controlled conditions, organisms behave as they damn well please." What is true for his microbes is more true for people. Successful marketing planning a practice has to take consumers' behavior tendencies into account.

Some people might believe that marketing people pull consumers' strings. Many people think consumers are controlled by marketing or advertising, but they're not.  At best, marketing people try to find those "buttons to push," they want to predict exactly how those potential customers will jump.

The perspective that has become common and repeated ad nauseam in literature for our trade associations and textbooks, what they refer to as "the modern marketing concept," presents an approach for all product and service planning that takes into account a world in which people have more in common with my obstinate plastic or my friend's unicellular lab organisms than they do with puppets on strings.  In short, marketing people can't sell a product unless there is some underlying initial consumer interest or inclination. In theory, the marketing concept combines all facets of the product design, price decisions, where the product is available for sale, personal selling and mass communications with an orientation to "satisfy consumer needs and wants." (That's their mantra: "satisfy consumer needs and wants.")

At its core, it shifts the basis of planning from production followed by sales efforts. Instead, it directs marketing planners to first assess how and why a people make various decisions. Those assessments, in turn, are the basis for designing products, setting prices and then doing other efforts at providing consumer information or persuasion.

Some critics try to admit to this limit to marketing power, but then assert that all‑knowing marketing people have studied people and know exactly which of consumers' mental buttons to push to get the desired response. And yet, this power is also intrinsically limited. The best available predictions are very difficult, weak and uncertain. After decades of studies of consumers and market analysis, the most heavily researched predictions are still providing only weak correlations with actual outcomes. Even among the most successful of firms, even with extensive research and planning, the majority of their new products or service innovations fail to entice customers to make a purchase.  In theory, the marketing concept as a planning perspective increases the likelihood that a firm will be successful, but it is far from a promise of certainty.

But the perspective of making decisions based on consumer interests gives a way for viewing customer-firm relations. This is not to overstate the power of the marketing concept -- is not a guarantee of marketing success [2] -- but it does give a basic perspective that recognizes the limits of marketer power and, at the same time, a focus for analysis of marketing problems.

The down side to this world-view of marketing theory and practice is that when U.S. started the modern wave of business criticisms thirty years ago, many business educators and practitioners did not understand how it had ramifications for their work. Many still don't. The American Marketing Association says that marketing is satisfying consumer needs and wants, making it seem as if "real" marketing is above reproach and positive.  Marketing experts were heard to say, "The marketing concept says that we should 'satisfy consumer needs,' so since we are satisfying consumers, 'consumerism' (as consumer protection was called in the 1970s) isn't really a problem for us."

Though it must be noted that saying "We are just providing a service that people want" sounds the same as a drug dealer, a pimp or the Prohibition-era gangster, Al Capone.

Irony notwithstanding, even the best reading of such a view presumes that all firms follow this marketing orientation. Many don't. The often ignored fact is that many firms fail to ask basic marketing questions of "how," "why" or "if" people might be interested in the planned product features or advertising messages. Firms often make what should be marketing decisions simply because the manager found it interesting.  Instead of considering audience views of the world, the managers practice ethnocentrism. Instead of trying to anticipate customer problems, systems are set for convenience of employees.  And (more dangerously), while doing a good job using marketing tools to focus on key customer groups, they ignore potential critics' complaints.

Even if they all did adhere to the marketing orientation for all decisions, it would not necessarily also be true that many firms satisfying consumer needs would also serve the interests of society at large. And even if they did all satisfy consumer needs AND those of society, when some organizations do a good job of marketing their goods or service or ideas, many of business' critics wish that the marketing was not involved (because we do not want firms to do a good job of selling, say, cigarettes).  What many consumers "want" are not necessarily what they should be getting.

In other words, marketing activities can be "misplaced" because the marketing tools are  misused, misapplied, abused or simply the source of social criticisms of business activities.  In every instance, the firms that misplace marketing could be financially successful while some present or potential customers are dissatisfied.  Social groups that use marketing tools never discover how (or if) their public information campaigns fail.  Government agencies often don't ask marketing questions to the detriment of the public groups they are expected to efficiently serve.

The modern marketing concept might say to "satisfy consumer needs," but misplaced marketing shows that marketing practice does not always put the concept to its best use. And, in the end, consumers or society are not "satisfied."

Successful "marketing" without the marketing concept

It is part of the business' conventional wisdom that the "smaller" or unsuccessful firms that might still just look at marketing in terms of selling and all "SUCCESSFUL" firms practice the marketing concept, or so many think. Yet there exist many examples of products or services that do not follow the "marketing concept," but instead, provide features in terms of what designers or engineers say they can produce.  For them, marketing remains just selling.  Marketing gets "misplaced" because the planners or managers don't ask how the product or service could meet consumer needs.

In these cases, marketing can be misplaced in the sense of "lost."

There exist many examples of products or services that do not follow the "marketing concept," but instead, they misplace it and provide features in terms of what designers or engineers say they can produce. When marketing remains just selling, the theory and perspective get "misplaced" because the planners or managers don't ask how the product or service could meet consumer needs.

Such examples are not hard to find. Everyone has looked for a product with certain features and "settled" for something short of what they want. It is not uncommon to hear the store manager state he or she "knows" the customers, so certain products are never stocked. "They're not interested in that kind of thing," the inquiring customer is told, though the manager never tried stocking it and no one ever sought other opinions. Some are bad service. Sometimes it is a managers seeing rules as more important than service, as when customers of retail stores test doors a few minutes before opening and walk away, while employees mill about inside the store waiting for the clock to chime on the hour for the posted time. Sometimes features are added to a product mix because an engineer thought it would be simple and inexpensive to do, not because anyone thought it made the product more desirable for consumers. And some examples are just plain corporate or engineering stupidity: expensive electronic items often have simple parts like batteries or lights that are expected to die but are nigh impossible to replace; service hotlines are often not so hot. And some offensive ads are just bad messages, the result of business stupidity or ethnocentrism.

Of course, a product is more than the sum of its physical features and a good sales job changes the product itself.  And maybe the people who can't find exactly what they want are just out of step with the rest of the marketplace.  There might not be enough of them to be considered a viable target market segment -- maybe virtually all potential purchasers want the unavoidable features of, for example, stereos with AM radios, portable digital radios with clocks, wrist watches with several alarms and minivans that fill every inch of space with seats.

Misplaced marketing does not mean a business will fail, especially if all competitors engage in the same activities. But when advertising is done without any idea or direction of what it can or should accomplish, the business is wasting money. And misplaced marketing makes for unusual perspectives of businesses toward their customers.

People from the U.S. are notoriously bad at this, as we try to ram our products down the rest of the world and claim "unfair" when it isn't bought. We misplaced marketing so we are more ethnocentric than international. U.S. companies often send products to other countries with features designed for satisfying customers in our domestic market without consideration of special concerns of consumers in other nations, as if what satisfies consumers in the U.S. provide the same values around the globe.

When marketing should have been used

In another sense, marketing gets lost by arrogant ignorance. As I noted at the outset, everyone is an expert, or so they like to believe. Many times, marketing tools are used without any understanding or how or why it should do the job. There are so many efforts in which marketing perspectives could be used, but aren't.

A fellow student in my graduate school classes saw a massive advertising campaign as the solution for every social problem. Public television stations are facing a funding shortage? An advertising campaign would get more viewers for the shows which, in turn, would generate more funding. Too many people not wearing seat belts? An advertising campaign would convince them to change their habits? Too many children in schools trying drugs? Advertising will convince them not to do so. The space program is facing problems in Congress for funding? A public information advertising campaign will show everyone how wonderful the program is for U.S. prestige and new product development.

Beyond her simplistic solutions from someone who should have known better -- she had worked in the business for several years before entering the graduate program -- she never really said how or why advertising could or would persuade people to change habits. She misplaced the basic marketing perspective that would first ask if the advertising could serve a role in changing consumer views and, if so, what type of appeals should be used.

This is not an issue of how to use marketing for non-profit organizations. Instead, it is of failures from people whose "solution" is to run an ad or "sell" without any consideration of how or why marketing tools would do the job. In many instances, the term could be "misplaced social marketing" in that advertising campaigns are seen as the solution for social problems. And the campaigns fail.

New Zealand and Australia have been running very strong images of the dangers from drunk driving, speeding, failure to use seat belts and other forms unsafe driving behavior. The advertising messages all say, "Do these things and you will die, or be so badly injured you will be sorry you survived." The ads are very graphic, but their impact on the public is uncertain at best. Reductions in fatal crashes are credited to the campaigns and increases in the death toll are blamed on bad advertising, yet a failure to ask marketing questions means the actual role of advertising is questionable at best. In fact, it is uncertain if any money should be spent on advertising, with available fund instead being spent on better enforcement of laws, but those are basic marketing questions that are not asked.

Similarly, many public interest advertising campaigns have tried to encourage the "at risk" young populations to refrain from unsafe sexual behaviors or drug-use. And when I show sample of the ads to undergraduate students (who, I might add, are the primary target for the spots), they laugh. Many public information campaigns fail because they are created around what the managers want to say instead of an understanding of what would persuade or change the behaviors or a target audience. Arrogant ignorance outweighs marketing planning to the detriment of the campaign's ability to accomplish anything.

Most vexing from a person point of view are those cases in which marketing tools are used because some official thinks "something" should be done. But without understanding just how or why marketing could do a job, they waste money on ineffectual and unnecessary advertising.

In New Zealand, city school districts no longer require children to attend the nearest neighborhood school. Instead, parents could send them to whatever school they think might be doing a better job of providing a quality education (assuming the children could get accepted there). Each school, in turn, is then funded based on the numbers of students that enroll. Of course, the academic leaders of each school now believe that they must advertise to attract students. Just what those ads should say, or if they should be used at all, is never really questioned. Members of the public are appalled that money is spent on advertising instead of education, but the schools feel they must do "something." So they advertise.

Similarly, faced with declining funding from the state legislature, Auburn University launched an advertising campaign. The target was uncertain and the goals, amorphous. To some, it seems that the money visibly spent on advertising raised more ire from the public than a desire to give more to education. But the real problem is that the ads were poorly conceived and planned.

Under this same category we should include the unfortunate story of trade associations that seem more bent on serving internal needs than those of members. The American Marketing Association should know better -- you would think that basic marketing perspectives would be second nature to the leadership given the name of the organization -- but they have been losing members and gaining eternal enmity from those that stay from failing to consider how to satisfy member wants and needs. They have stayed solvent and influential as the oldest and largest association with both professional and educator members, and it publishes the major academic journals and professional magazines. Still, despite these clear benefits, due to the association's marketing failures, people keep quitting.

These failures, to not use marketing or to use it poorly, are clearly lost opportunity. The results are unfortunate and frustrating.

Not all things people want is what they should be getting

The most vexing problem for marketing people comes from those instances when marketing is accused by pundits, activists and public policy makers of being misplaced when it is properly used and applied. Politicians, movie or music producers, cigarette companies, distillers, gun companies, pornographers or others often do a good job of following the dictates of thorough strategic marketing, while many people might wish that, at least for them, marketing was not used.

Instead of marketing, adapting themselves to a marketable image, politicians should be leaders, using marketing theory and practice to, at most, sell their ideas to the public. No "leader" should base policies on a marketing plan, or so we hope, since "leader" should not mean "good reader of public opinion polls." Cultural artifacts should grow from the populace, not be designed as per a marketing strategy, or so we are often told. In addition, to critics of the U.S. marketplace (and to critics of these products in New Zealand, too), guns, cigarettes, pornographic movies and gambling games should not be efficiently and profitably delivered to "satisfy consumer needs," no company should be allowed to maximize its profits with these products, and NEVER should these products even be imagined to be marketed with children as a target segment.

It should also be noted that not all things consumers "want" are what they should be getting. Marketing might also be misplaced in the sense that satisfying consumer needs might be contrary to those of the greater society. Over two decades ago when the first oil shortages forced car companies to offer more efficient products, the solution was to produce smaller and lighter vehicles. But one U.S. company tried to delay, offering a downsized version of its luxury car line but strongly promoting the still available "original" full-sized gas-guzzling version (clearly for the U.S. market, I often say, complete with rotating gun turret). The affluent consumers who cared not about rising gas costs might have been served, but not the social goal of oil conservation.

Of course, even if critics believe that marketing is misplaced does not necessarily mean it should be banned, but it could be a source of "problems" (or, at least, a basis for criticisms of various aspects of marketing practice). Calling the problem "misplaced marketing" gives a context for understanding mistakes or unintended consequences (though it does not account for events such as heads of American cigarette companies appearing before the U.S. Congress -- as they did a few years ago -- and swearing their belief that nicotine is not addictive and that there is no link between smoking and cancer).

And sometimes, what might be seen as good marketing could be harmful to both the "product" and society. The "product" should not be deformed just to serve the dictates of a marketing plan, especially if those changes reduce product quality while not better serving customers or society. In the marketing of education, schools and universities have often focused on "benefits" other than education, such as sports teams or jobs graduates might try to fill. These might be reasons why some people choose a school, but by presenting these benefits as important, the marketing of education has caused harm to education itself as both parents and students lose sight of the basic values of education itself.

Why "misplaced" marketing

I originally coined the term “misplaced marketing” to help generate student interest in a course, "Legal Social Ethical Environment of Business" in the Auburn M.B.A. program.  Years ago, business schools were directed to teach ethical and social issues with a belief that it would create more ethical practitioner, but business students are more concerned with pragmatic directives on how to be successful. When the program turned the class from a requirement into an elective, I had to tie the discussions into cases and practices of marketing and consumers.  And yet, as the late adman Howard Luck Gossage often said, getting business people to see how ethics is in their best interests is "like telling an eight-year-old that sex is more fun that ice cream."  With misplaced marketing, I was able to frame these important issues in pragmatic contexts of the working environment of business.

And therein lies the interest from a review of "misplaced marketing," be it misplaced because it is misapplied, misused, abused, or simply the source of social criticisms. These are not all marketing mistakes, though it is easy to see where products such as the failed. Apple Newton misplaced marketing while the successful Palm Pilot did not. But the questions it raises can also include apparent successes, so misplaced marketing gets to the heart of seeing what marketing is, is not, and what it can be.

There have been a growing number of criticisms of the marketing concept, saying that it tends to be removed from reality of marketing practice.[3] Many textbooks use it as a starting point of a "history of marketing thought," then seem to ignore it when giving more details on concerns of research and practical applications.

Misplaced marketing gives a perspective for analysis, a basis for studying problems and situations. If the marketing concept doesn't give us a way to deal with ideas, then all we have in marketing is a collection of obvious generalities and wishful thinking with limited apparent business value (plus terms that you won't find in any dictionary). I hope we are more than that.

Herbert Jack Rotfeld
Scholar, educator & iconoclast
Department of Marketing & Transportation
201 Lowder & Lowder Business Building
Auburn University, Alabama  36849-5246

[1]August 2, 1999, p. 39-43.  

[2]Don Esslemont and Tony Lewis, "Some Empirical Tests of the Marketing Concept," Marketing Bulletin, vol 2 (1991), p. 1-7.

[3]Michael Enright, "Marketing Meta-narrative and its Tenets: At Odd With Marketing Realities," Asia Pacific Journal of Marketing and Logistics

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AP/ADMS 4290 3.0 Marketing For Competitive Advantage
York University, Toronto
© M Louise Ripley, M.B.A., Ph.D.