(Self)Serving Marketing

Marketing overview of a Pepsi Ad

Marketing is a fascinating subject to learn. For someone who does marketing for a living, it becomes a point of view, a way of thinking about the most trivial things. Just like a used car salesman can find a positive side to the worst car out there, an experienced marketer can find a convenient spin on any questionable product specification. It’s a feature, not a bug, remember?

Back when I was in college, I was 100% sure that marketing was going to be my career choice. I mean, how could someone not be in love with it? All the creative work, all the mental exercise it takes to be good at this job seemed so fascinating. Mind you, my college years overlapped with the “Mad Men” release, as well as social media popularization. I was hot and ready for a long, productive, and, hopefully, innovative career.

Oh hello, just strolling down the street towards my bright future, ready for another day of creative overthinking

Oh hello, just strolling down the street towards my bright future, ready for another day of creative overthinking

And then the actual learning began. To learn any craft, one has to memorize terminology, boring definitions, and complicated abbreviations, and that was alright. But what put me off was actually the part of learning that I was looking forward to the most – it was case studies.

Maybe I got a bit cynical and negative in my way of thinking by my sophomore year, but every single successful case study seemed to have involved a good portion of “fake it till you make it”, as well as “how do we reframe information that customers don’t like into something they’d be ok with”.

Moreover, once you learn some of the information, you can’t turn the time back and simply ignore it. Let me give you just a few examples to show what I mean:

  • It becomes unappealing being a customer of a fast food chain restaurant that is really a real estate company. There’s a solid chance that they care more about location and bottom line lease payments rather than quality standards or even humane treatment of their employees.
  • It’s tougher to shop a female lingerie brand once you learn that their primary target market is :gasp: men buying for women. Once you realize that they sell a particular image rather than actual lingerie, you understand that their focus is not on quality/comfort/sustainability or whatever else that is important for human women, but mostly looks, which is important, but by far not enough.

To summarize and generalize, this is what marketing feels like nowadays: it’s a creation of an image, a feeling of what a product might give to you (conditions and restrictions apply), rather than selling and describing an actual product. And it might have been an ok thing to do, but it has come to such a filthy, vain state. Companies sell makeup as a solution to low self-esteem. Businesses reframe protest as a friendly get-together involving sweet soda drinks. Products claim to solve all our problems, be it acne, self-doubt, or absence of life purpose.

Kendall Jenner Pepsi Ad

Pepsi PR On-Set With Kendall Jenner on February 4, 2017 in Bangkok, Thailand. Brent Lewin / Getty Images for Pepsi

I think it’s very beneficial that companies get called out for such behavior nowadays. It doesn’t happen all the time yet, but it still feels like the light at the end of a tunnel. Even though humans will always buy products that are marketed to cover their needs, hopefully, it will help to see them described in a more realistic way.

In my opinion, being a marketer means being responsible. While it’s perfectly fine to describe what problems will disappear once they are solved with a particular product, painting one’s life as grim before and blissful, problem-free after is not ethical.

I like Seth Godin’s perspective on this topic in his latest book, This Is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn to See. It describes a difference between shoving a product or service down customer’s throats no matter the relevance and outcome, and careful assessment of clients needs that involves developing of a precise, very particular solution-based marketing for a product. He claims that it’s way more beneficial for a product to have a smaller devoted following that is happy, rather than a wide dissatisfied customer base that will never transform into a returning customer.

This is Marketing by Seth Godin

This is Marketing by Seth Godin

Returning customers, as well as positive product reviews, matter as, sadly, ethical approach alone doesn’t pay the bills. However, frequent buyers do.

In conclusion, it gives me hope to see marketing take a more serving approach. It is refreshing to see that smaller companies do well with their smaller target demographics. My passion for marketing has been rekindled a few years ago when I realized that a business doesn’t have to appeal to everyone – instead, it can take a more elegant approach by having a small, devoted tribe of like-minded people that find a solution in this business’ product. There’s no race to the bottom as is doesn’t make any sense to fight dirty for a tiny fraction of population whose needs have already been solved.

I’m looking forward to finishing Seth Godin’s book. I only started listening to it a week ago, and it already provided plenty of food for thought. More thoughts on his book are soon to come!

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