Companies keep selling marketing credo short

Marketers have been repeating the same mistakes for decades, despite preaching that they are putting the consumer first, says Alan Mitchell

For how long have marketers been preaching the mantra: “Find out what your customer wants and give it to him”? Back in the Twenties, Alfred Sloan of General Motors embraced consumer research as a way of combining the “practical experience” of customers with “the technical experience of General Motors engineers and production experts” to bridge “the gulf between the customer and those responsible for guiding the destiny of the institution.”

Henry “Buck” Weaver, GM’s research pioneer, later wrote that this great project was all about “recognising the ultimate consumer as the hub about which all our activities revolve.”

In 1952, General Electric announced proudly that it was “introducing the marketing man at the beginning rather than the end of the production cycle… [to give marketing] authority in product planning, production planning and inventory control as well as the sales, distribution and servicing of the product.” Five years later, GE’s market research guru John McKitterick wrote that “the principal task of the marketing function… is not so much to be skilful in making the customer do what suits the interests of the business, as to be skilful in conceiving and then making the business do what suits the interests of the customer.”

Soon after, Pillsbury joined the swelling ranks of consumer goods companies dedicating themselves to the marketing concept. “No longer is the company at the centre of the business universe. Today the customer is at the centre,” it declared.

Decades later, Harvard Business School’s Professor Theodore Levitt was still banging the same drum. In his 1983 book The Marketing Imagination he counterpoised “marketing” and “selling” as: “Selling focuses on the needs of the seller, marketing on the needs of the buyer. Selling is preoccupied with the seller’s need to convert his product into cash, marketing with the idea of satisfying the needs of the customer.” Again, company after company announced their allegiance to marketing.

Yet, 15 years later, Peter Drucker was still complaining that the marketing message hadn’t really got through. “Marketing teaches us that organised efforts are needed to bring an understanding of the outside, of society, economy and customer to the inside of the organisation and to make it the foundation of strategy and policy,” he wrote in a Forbes magazine article. But “marketing has rarely performed that task. Instead it has become a tool to support selling. It does not start out with ‘who is the customer?’ but ‘what do we want to sell?’ It is aimed at getting people to buy the things that you want to make.”

And only a few months ago, the UK’s great marketing teacher Professor Malcolm MacDonald was complaining in his Institute of Direct Marketing Annual Lecture that companies still routinely define markets in terms of what they happen to make, rather than in terms of what different groups of customers want.

Do you see a pattern emerging here? Why is it that the great and good of marketing keep on returning to exactly the same theme – only to repeat it afresh, like a stuck record, five or ten years later? Is it that the marketing mantra is such a deep, universal truth that marketers of every age naturally find themselves revisiting it? Or is it that something is getting in the way of marketers actually practising what they preach?

A new book, The Support Economy by Professor Shoshana Zuboff of Harvard Business School and venture capitalist Jim Maxmin, suggests very strongly that it is the latter. The very way “make and sell” organisations create wealth for consumers, also creates the “chasm” between producer and consumer that marketers spend all their time trying to close. The rhetoric of consumer focus and closeness is not the solution. It’s a symptom of the problem.

The modern corporation operates according to what Zuboff and Maxmin call “the standard enterprise logic”. This “assumes that value is created by producers in organisation space (the internal world of the organisation) and lodged in the products and services they sell. Transaction value is [then] maximised as firms seek the most profitable terms in their exchanges with end consumers, thus perpetuating adversarialism existing between the buyers and sellers.”

The very term “consumer”, in other words, encapsulates why “consumer focus” hardly ever delivers the results marketers dream of. Companies following the standard enterprise logic routinely commit “little murders” where the convenience, efficiency and goals of the organisational machine take precedence over those of the individual, thereby killing the very relationships they are trying to build.

So what’s the answer? According to Zuboff and Maxmin, standard enterprise logic companies are perfectly suited for mass production and exchange, but there are certain dimensions of human value – such as “sanctuary”, “voice” and “connection” – which they cannot address. Sanctuary is about psychological self-determination – owning my own choices, controlling my time, shaping the quality of my own experiences. Voice is the expression of uniqueness and self-worth – the ability to tell my own truth, rather than buy the “manufactured identities” offered by brands. And connection is all about authentic community.

They are forms of value that cannot be made in factories and sold in shops. They can only happen in what Zuboff and Maxmin call “individual space” rather than “organisation space”. The big growth markets of the future, they suggest, will revolve around this individual space, or “deep support” where “the purpose of consumption is life itself – the acquisition of the time and support necessary to pursue a life of psychological self-determination”.

These markets for deep support will use today’s products and services, but only as ingredients of a much broader and more inclusive value offering. They also require the development of new consumer “advocate” business models, whose job it is to source and integrate the necessary products, services and information around the needs of each individual.

Difficult stuff? Absolutely. Zuboff and Maxmin don’t show how to build such new business models – the future stuff is speculative. But the analysis does have one great merit – it forces you to think.

Alan Mitchell,


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