Not long ago, I was having a quiet lunch with some backpackers in the lazy fishing village of Mamallapuram, India. The topic of our occupations came up. It turned out I was seated with a cook and a schoolteacher from Britain, an architecture student from Sweden, a conceptual artist from France with her boyfriend, and a French factory worker employed by Airbus to paint its planes.
“So, what do you do?” the Frenchman asked me pleasantly when it got to my turn. Let me stop right here to say that if you have been in this business long enough, you know what is coming next. As much as I would have preferred to keep chatting about the heat, Deli-belly, and Barack Obama, I knew it was time to take my whoopin’. I put down my Kingfisher, straightened up in my seat, leaned forward, looked him in the eye, and said, “I work in marketing and advertising.” Then I sat back.
“Advertising!” he sputtered, almost choking on his calamari, “I heet advertising!” Strong words, I thought, for a man who makes his living painting forty-foot logos on airplanes. The Airbus Artist went on to explain why. He defined my work as the business of selling lies, manipulating children, violating public trust, degrading social norms, cheapening culture, and perpetuating the global expansionist agenda of big business at the expense of honest folk (like him, of course).
The thing is, the plane painter is not alone in that perception. In addition to the other four backpackers, a recent Gallup poll shows that most Americans would rate advertising practitioners among the least honest and ethical professionals on the planet. It’s a sad commentary when, in the midst of an economic meltdown, one’s chosen profession ranks below lawyers and bankers and even those working in whorehouses in terms of perceived ethics and honesty.
So there I sat, with my good name besmudged with the shameful slime of advertising and, no doubt, the blood of countless innocents around the globe.
But I had time on my hands and so I decided to defend. I explained my take on why some marketers go astray, starting with supply and demand. We, the consumers, have demands. We expect companies to make products to fit those demands. Most companies try to do this. However, the majority miss the mark because they are out of touch with consumers. When the inevitable happens, a company can find itself with a lot of product (supply) that doesn’t really fit any need in the market (demand). To get rid of the stuff, they must then make demand fit supply. That, in essence, means manipulating people.
There was a time (think Mad Men) when this approach defined marketing. It's still done, no doubt. But today, it is less necessary to do and harder for companies to get away with.
I think the turning point was in 1981, when Jack Trout and Al Ries’ Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind was published. It looked at marketing from the consumer’s perspective and underscored the importance of understanding that point of view. Notice I said “turning point” and not “tipping point.” The tipping point is still years off. However, I have seen a growing willingness among marketers to invest in the research required to understand their customers and keep in touch with markets. This is especially true among marketers who are branding internationally. That is why I was sitting in an Indian fishing village in the first place.
Lame marketing has never made for a sustainable business plan. But, you could profit from it long enough to make it worthwhile before being discovered. That’s changing too. The penalties for losing touch with your consumers or deceiving them outright have grown a lot steeper and swifter with each addition to the world’s two billion Internet subscribers. Irrelevant or unethical advertising is increasingly called out and the brand penalized in the court of public opinion. Soon, it simply won’t pay to be disengaged or lack ethics.
As righteous marketers, I’m sure you don’t work like that – at least not intentionally. As I see it, our mission as marketers is to help companies reach a state of Marketing Nirvana. Here’s a formula for ethical branding, which may be a good place to start. It requires CEOs to align four simple things: reality, profile, perception, and aspirations.
Do that and you’ll have reached Marketing Nirvana — a state where your brand is (reality) what you say it is (profile), which is how people perceive it (perception), which is how you were hoping they would perceive it (aspirations). That state will generate sustained profit. This is an ideal win-win situation that is never actually realized in its entirety, but one that ethical brands perpetually strive for.
“... And that is what we help our clients do at the The Duffy Agency,” I told my French detractor. He pouted, cocked his head and said, “cool.” I’m not sure if he was convinced, or if he was just signaling a stalemate so we could both step down from our respective soapboxes dignity intact.
Despite popular sentiment, I’m proud of my career choice and of the contribution my company makes to commerce and society. Still, it is clear that we (both client and agency) have a lot of damage control to do on marketing's public image. It begins with how we work. I believe the Marketing Nirvana approach is a step in the right direction. I also believe it is the most profitable way for companies to build sustainable brands. If it makes sense to you, or even if you think it’s just more marketing BS, I’d like to hear your opinion.
Sean Duffy is a founder of Duffy Agency, the digital marketing agency for aspiring international brands. Sean has over 25 years of experience working with strategic marketing in Boston, San Francisco, Stockholm, and Copenhagen. In addition to his involvement with Duffy Agency, Sean is a frequent speaker on strategic international marketing and online brand management. He serves also as Lecturer and Practitioner in Residence at the Lund University School of Economics & Management and as Mentor in their Masters Program in Entrepreneurship. Sean is an active member of TAAN Worldwide where he has served two terms as the European Governor. He is also a speaker, blogger, Twitterer, and is on LinkedIn. With offices in Malmö and Boston, Sean splits his time between Sweden and the States.