Beware the marketing ‘reinventors’

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All I ever wanted to be was a marketer. I did my undergraduate degree in it. My first job was in it. I did my PhD in it. And eventually I became a marketing professor and got to teach it. When not teaching it, I get to go and work in it with other marketers. And for me, that’s a dream come true.

And I feel very referential about my discipline. I loved learning about it. I kept all my marketing textbooks. Kotler for core marketing. Doyle for marketing strategy. Keller for brand management. And when I eventually got to meet these authors at conferences and seminars, I embraced them like the prophets of the field. I was star-struck – because these were the men that wrote the books that charted the course of my discipline.

So one thing that makes me angry is the irresponsibly critical way that some marketers talk about marketing. In other fields the senior members of a discipline become its biggest ambassadors and pass on the knowledge to new devotees. In marketing, our practitioners often become its biggest critics and spend their time obfuscating and refuting the very laws that they are meant to uphold. Rather than reinforcing their discipline, they prefer to reframe, reform, revisit, revise, restructure – “resomething” it.

Take Kevin Roberts. He is one of the most famous marketers in the world. After a lifetime of experience as the head of Saatchi & Saatchi and a host of big brands, Roberts sat down in 2004 to convey some key brand-building lessons in his book Lovemarks. In any other field one might expect a senior practitioner to ruminate on how he applied and executed the strategies of his chosen profession. Not Roberts. He opens his book by trashing the very concept he is meant to be representing. “Brands have run out of juice,” he tells the reader. What follows is an essay on standard branding theory but one that Roberts dresses in a vocabulary of his own invention. “Lovemarks,” Roberts claims are the “future beyond branding”.

To be fair, these denigrators of marketing scratch an itch many marketers often feel

Imagine David Cameron telling the Commons that democracy is pointless. Or your GP informing you that modern medicine is total nonsense. You might become a little concerned. Now imagine the prime minister going on to define a new kind of political system that he defines as “Fabulousity”. Or your GP telling you that he wants to treat you with a mystical new approach he has just invented called “Kajagoogoo”. That’s what many marketers are doing.

There is, for example, a fairly well-known writer who claims to be an expert in marketing who thinks that brand loyalty is “a myth” and that targeting consumers in an attempt to change their purchase decisions is “dead in the water”. That CRM is a “wild goose chase” and that Apple, Nike and Starbucks don’t owe their success to branding.

And while dismissing marketing’s core concepts, that same columnist introduces a whole raft of self-invented concepts. Ideas like “brand generosity” which later, for extra measure, is abbreviated to “brandiosity”. So CRM is nonsense, but brandiosity makes sense?

To be fair, these denigrators of marketing scratch an itch many marketers often feel. Marketers seem to reserve their greatest respect for those who dismiss their own discipline. Maybe it’s because many marketers aren’t actually marketers at all. They did degrees in English Literature or Geography and came to the discipline second hand. Deep down in their core, the heart of many a marketer beats with the frustrated rhythm of an unfulfilled artist or failed psychologist. To these people, perhaps, marketing is something in need of change.

Even thinkers I respect are guilty of it. Professor Stephen Brown wastes a whole Harvard Business Review article inciting marketers to “Torment Your Customers (They Will Love It)”. Mark Earls – who is among the best thinkers we have – devotes a whole book to “Welcome to the Creative Age…and the Death of Marketing”. And they are not alone. Currently on Amazon you can buy nine different books with the title ’Reinventing Marketing’ but there are only four books on positioning.

It’s time for us marketers to stop this destructive reinvention of our profession. It’s one thing to be heretical and counter-intuitive and quite another to deride the profession you represent. The point of being part of the marketing discipline is to be, well, disciplined. That means not ridiculing well-held and long proven concepts. And it also means not constantly replacing them with nonsensical, personal ideas that don’t actually hold water.

I love marketing. I spent eight years studying its theories and laws. And while I appreciate the need to improve and update them, I don’t think we need to throw the disciplinary baby out with the theoretical bathwater. Our profession, like every good brand, must challenge itself to continually improve. But we build our discipline from the great marketing concepts of the 20th century and on the shoulders of the wonderful thinkers behind these ideas. Let’s stop this quest to reinvent marketing, and start a mission to respect it.

Mark Ritson is an associate professor of marketing, an award winning columnist, and a consultant to some of the world’s biggest brands

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