Marketing, Markets & What do we actually study?

682px-system_boundarysvgOne of my colleagues at a conference recently surprised me with the rather bold statement, that the study of cultural differences in purchases wasn’t really marketing at all – but “outside the field of marketing”. This was an interesting remark – especially, as it reflected very much an ongoing debate about what is marketing. The problem is that there is no clear definition of this subject called “marketing” – and different organisations and scholars describe marketing in different terms. For example, in their forthcoming book, Thorson and Rogers describe marketing as “referring to everything done to promote a brand (…), i.e. the ‘4Ps'”. Similarly, though somewhat broader, the CIM puts it as: “Marketing is the management process responsible for identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirements profitably.”, i.e. not just being by the 4Ps (a good analysis of the CIM definition can be found at Canhoto’s blog). However, even this (slightly) broader definition of the CIM is not without critics. In the Handbook of Marketing Theory Araujo and Kjellberg make a compelling case that marketing as a discipline has actually suffered by focusing too much on defining itself as being a set of mostly transferable tools (for example, the 4Ps) – rather than focusing on the (variable) function that marketing performs. In other words, their view of “market-ing” is not trying to find the optimal use of the various tools a marketer uses, but rather to examine what practices contribute to the formation of a “market”and how “agents” (such as organisations, consumers, regulators etc) within the market both shape and become shaped by the market. Thus, in their view “market-ing” includes the tools to identify, anticipate and satisfy customer requirements – but also includes the study of how the interactions of the various actors in return change and shape the arena in which they operate. They argue that the move in the 1970s to study the use of the 4Ps/commercial marketing tools outside of for profit marketing (for example for non-profit, social marketing etc), while intended to broaden the discipline, has in reality had the inverse effect; it created a discipline focused on generic tools and techniques – but not the research of the markets it is supposed to study. This wider definition of marketing certainly encompasses, for example, the question of how culture shapes the marketing field – but also implies that the various agents in return shape the culture. For example, take a recent study of shopping malls in India: this scenario raises the question of how do the malls change within the host culture as well as change the host culture and change the interaction between different actors involved with the shopping malls (e.g. customers, operators, shop owners, local politicians). The more “conservative” view of marketing would put such studies mostly outside the pure “marketing” field. But would this not leave a fundamental gap in the field? Namely the societal impact of the techniques that are used to “create” a market, i.e. the impact of of the shopping malls on the market? And moreover, if we push such studies to the sideline, does this not lead to an uncritical stance towards using marketing techniques – and refusing to study (or even acknowledge) the potential negative effects of these techniques?

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