How to reinvent marketing and make it noble again

To be truly successful, marketers must rediscover their humanity and move away from simply peddling ‘status and stuff’.

marc mathieu

Who invented marketing? Looking back more than 100 years, I get inspired by the vision of a few great men who, for me at least, were the fathers of our craft.

Henry Ford once said: “If I had asked them what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” Thomas Edison is reported to have said: “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles”, and William Lever asked: “Why does a woman look old sooner than a man?”.

These men saw the world not as it was, but as it could be. They lent their visions, their creativity, their names – and ultimately their brands – to the goal of social and economic progress.

I believe that what enabled the Fords, Edisons and Levers of this world to be the pioneers of marketing was their innate ability to see people with a humanity that was empathic, intuitive and authentic. This made them the noble men of their time – the men who understood how a car, a light bulb or a humble bar of soap could make life better for everyone.

Things are different today. Following the golden decades of progress and possibility towards the end of the last century, we entered a period of selling for the sake of selling, a time of status and stuff. To compensate for this model, marketers began to hide behind the ‘tyranny of numbers’ in a mass of reports and processes.We – marketers, advertisers, researchers – cut ourselves adrift from the real world.

By doing so, we lost touch with our sense of purpose and understanding of the real world – and real people – around us. The mothers striving to raise children; the fathers trying to support families; the teenagers struggling to find their identities – these are all people with needs and desires, fears and anxieties, questions and tensions in their lives that have to be addressed.

So, how do we reinvent marketing and make it noble once again? We should begin where our forefathers began, by rediscovering our humanity, starting with empathy, intuition and authenticity.

First, empathy. Consumers determine great brands. Not you. Not me. Them. They decide whether the brand is powerful, iconic and will stand the test of time. And to create something that actually matters to someone, something which is more than a pretty box or a beautiful ad, you have to know consumers.

The numbers, the reports, the analysis are necessary but not enough. You need to know what really drives these people – what are their hopes, their dreams, their fears? What keeps them awake at night? What makes them smile? Because often it isn’t what you think.

Marketers pretend they know the people they serve. We hide behind an idealised version of the person we think buys our products. But when we have taken the time to meet them and ask them the right questions, we are able to create brands that give them what they want and need.

Second, intuition. If we haven’t completely lost our sense of intuition, we have often misplaced it. As a society, and particularly as marketers, it is not something we value or celebrate enough. We’ve been taught to value the numbers. But at the end of the day we need to trust our gut.

We have created a culture that disenfranchises marketers from the fear of failure – a culture that tells us numbers are better at determining the emotions of consumers than we are.

Without our intuition, we are caught in the middle ground, without a point of view, at the mercy of the figures.

Third, authenticity. It’s one of those words that you hear all the time nowadays. Every brand seems to have authenticity somewhere in its strategy. Yet it’s funny that we demand it from our brands, but not from ourselves.

There’s something about owning up to being a marketer that is somehow liberating. Jacques Séguéla’s famous book from the 1970s – Please don’t tell my mother I work in advertising, tell her I play the piano in a brothel – is a perfect indication of what we’re up against.

To rediscover our humanity, we need to turn up to work as the real people that we are, with our own beliefs and opinions on display. It astounds me that we find it so difficult to be human in the place where we make decisions each and every day that will affect thousands of consumers.

I often ask marketers two simple questions. The first one is easy: Are you fired up by your brand? The second question is a bit harder: Are you prepared to get fired for your brand? It’s a test of authenticity. It’s a test of ‘do you really give a damn?’

Ultimately, you have to let empathy, intuition and authenticity drive you. Without them, you will have no real connection to the people you serve as a marketer.

You need to use your own humanity to give people what they want: a better life. That’s real success. And that’s possible.

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