Mark Ritson: Marketers have forgotten the meaning of marketing’s most basic principles

There is no consensus around when the formal discipline of marketing actually began. For British marketers it is common to cite 18th Century businessman and potter Josiah Wedgwood as the inventor of modern marketing. More accurately, most scholars point to America where the first marketing courses were offered back in 1905 and where the first marketing textbook was published a year later.


Irrespective of the exact date, it’s clear that marketing is now more than a century old. Age confers many advantages – not least acceptance. Thirty years on, I can still remember the look on my beloved English teacher’s face when I told him I was off to Lancaster University to study Marketing and not Oxbridge to read English. “Marketing!” he exclaimed with the horrified look one might use on being told of an intended career as a heroin dealer or African warlord. “Marketing!”

Those days are thankfully over. But gentrifying marketing confers other risks. As our discipline ages and the concepts of marketing become established and embedded into the lexicon of everyday life, we risk forgetting what their original definitions meant and how we were supposed to apply them. Let me give you three very real examples.

Exclusive. It’s a word so beloved of modern marketing it has become paradoxically widespread. Traditionally the term has come to be associated with anything that carries a premium price. Now, you can buy exclusive ice creams or children’s toys or doorknobs (as I discovered last weekend). It’s all patent nonsense, of course. An exclusive brand is not simply one that fancies itself as such or one that attempts to charge more than its rivals. To be truly exclusive a brand must only appeal to a tiny minority of the market and then steadfastly reject all others. To be exclusive, at least in its original meaning, is to say to vast swathes of the market: ‘Piss off, I reject you from my brand and will do everything in my power to keep you out.’ Exclusivity demands that the traditional four Ps of marketing are not harnessed to generally maximise sales across the whole market but rather as a weapon that turns off, shuts down and closes out most potential buyers. There are very few genuinely exclusive brands left in the world but Ferrari is certainly one of them. I say that not because of its high prices or high quality, but because its most recent offering – LaFerrari – was only available to customers who already owned at least five previous models. That’s exclusivity for you.

Differentiation. At some point in the last fifty years the concept of differentiation became so generic that it was absorbed into every brand plan without exception. Let’s be clear what differentiated means – it means to walk a completely different path that no other brand in your category understands, let alone can replicate. A truly differentiated brand requires three key ingredients: a tight and distinctive positioning, a creatively charged set of executions and a brand manager with balls the size of watermelons – metaphorically speaking. To be differentiated is to take an axe to your category and exclaim: ‘Fuck it, let’s break everything.’ Again, there are few brands in recent years that one can point to as truly differentiated but I would hold up Benefit Cosmetics as a proper example. The world of beauty has become so serious and so very boring but Benefit is the differentiated exception. I defy you not to smile when you encounter them next.

And finally there is brand loyalty. It has become the custom to identify any customer that purchases your brand more than once as a ‘loyalist’. Alas, as most young agency types eventually learn, two consecutive nights of lovemaking does not a relationship make. To truly qualify as a brand loyalist in the original, intended meaning of the word is to exit the category and refuse to satiate your need because your brand of choice is not available. It’s an increasingly rare phenomenon these days but it still happens. My favourite (correct) definition of brand loyalty came from the former CEO and chairman of Heinz who once explained his idea of brand loyalty for his brand: “A shopper goes into a supermarket looking for some beans. There’s no Heinz. She comes out without any beans.” Could it be any simpler?

So there you have it. Marketing is an old profession these days and so are many of the concepts within it. But remember their original intent. There’s more power and direction in their traditional form than you might expect.