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Marketing Criticism, Who Is To Blame?

Due to its close relationship with the customer, Marketing has been often criticized. From being misleading, to exaggerating, applying the corporate view only while focusing on the organization’s benefit solely. This criticism may sound true to most, and is definitely worth to be responded to by marketing professionals.

Before discussing any type of criticism, let’s start by the basics. What is marketing? While reviewing the definition on the web, I found mainly those that refer to marketing as the process by which companies determine what products or services may be of interest to customers, and the strategy to use in sales, communications and business development. The American Marketing Association (AMA) defines marketing as the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.

As the head the business department of my company setting the marketing policy is one of my tasks. I surely do not find anything offensive at the first glance by reading the first definition. Some however may regard this as a proof that marketing exists for the sole purpose of executing a company process that targets customers. The answer to that however is found in the AMA definition, the marketing activity can be initiated by a person and not solely by a company. AMA sets the product as an offering that has value and not as a product or service that may be of interest.

Someone who has an offering (idea, product, belief…) and wants to put it out for the grabs is getting involved in marketing. It is an open invitation to be part of the offering. They can have a simple process or a series of complicated ones, which include communicating, delivering and exchange.  The understanding of this simple definition does not mean that some corporations do not indulge into unethical activities; it simply reminds us that not all those who are involved in marketing are aiming to deceive the public.

Let us take bread as an example. A bakery providing us with fresh bread is likely able to sell more of its fresh bread compared to two days old bread coming from a distant baker if it offers it at the same price. Both are involved in marketing if they want their product sold. They have the product, they defined its price, their products are available at the local grocery stores, and they both informed people of their presence (knowing that the local bakery can focus on its products’ freshness). How can either of those entities be criticized for their involvement in basic marketing?

Let’s take the example a step further. The Distant bakery is really looking into establishing a major market share in the market. Due to its transportation costs it cannot compete on price. It advertises its product as being a natural product that provides a certain amount of energy. By the looks their bread may seem to have this golden color that makes a bread lover drool. However, they decide to ignore mentioning using chemicals to make the bread stay fresh for a longer period of time, or using colorants to give that shiny golden look. All their chemical components may be mentioned on the package but it will be in a chemical terminology that we do not know as simple consumers. The chances are that their sales will go higher by promoting the benefits of their bread.

Are we to blame the marketing for such a manipulative action? Some do, but is it really marketing that caused this or is it the decision makers at that bakery? In this example we could see the manipulative power of marketing when put in greedy hands. The distant bakery did not lie about their products ability to stay fresh; they just mentioned it can without stating how they do it.

From a professional background, I have to state that there is a problem of ethics when it comes to marketing. The origin of the problem is not marketing; it is some individuals involved in the marketing field.

On an individual level, let’s take as an example email scams. How many of you received an email claiming to represent the assistant of a president, the siblings of a diamond dealer, and the son of an ousted official who wants to send you millions of dollars to your account and offering you a generous percentage. Sometimes all what they ask for is your bank account number or a minor amount transfer (compared to the huge amount you will receive) to their account.

Those people are involved in illegal schemes yet they use marketing. Their product is based on their understanding of human psychology and the greed and ignorance of those who fall for it. It is their greed and their manipulative message that is to be criticized, and not their usage of emails as a means to market their product.

On a corporate level, there are too many examples ranging from natural medication to sophisticated electronics. Although some products may be harmful (Some of the “natural weight loss” products for example) while others don’t deliver all what is promised. Marketers in those cases use deception and manipulation. In the case of “natural” products they focus indirectly on the safety of those products without clarifying that some people may be allergic to one or the other, let alone those who use plants that can have a poisonous effect. On another hand many had purchased one electronic item or another promising to deliver so many solutions just to find out that they had to purchase additional accessories before being able to benefit fully from this product.

Neither provider lied about their product, but neither told the full truth either. In either case, I don’t believe that marketing is to be blamed, it is rather the people involved in it and how they are using it. Although developing partial truth about their products they also exploited the weaknesses of other human beings. It is their actions that should be criticized and not the marketing process.

On the other hand, I should point out that marketing is susceptible to such abuse due to its core component: People. Beliefs such as “the end justifies the means” can easily find their way in marketing and it is such beliefs that make marketing vulnerable to criticism. By understanding the role of people in marketing, many criticism issues can be understood and corrected to aim at the individuals rather than the concept itself.  Ethics are as important in marketing as they are in our everyday life. Although we could assume that people live by those ethics, we still have laws to punish those who do not abide by them.

In Islam, trade has its defined ethics. The prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) had said what means that the truthful trader will appear in the Day of Judgment with honest people, the messengers of God, and the martyrs. This shows that being honest while exercising trade is not an easy task, yet it is feasible and it is highly rewarding in the hereafter. In one of the incidents, the Prophet was in the market and put his hand in a bag of wheat to check its quality. He found out that the wheat that was underneath the exposed part was humid due to its exposure to rain. He addressed the trader by asking him why it is as such. The trader was honest enough to answer that it rained on it. The meaning of the prophet’s comment to his answer was “Make it visible so people can see it, the one who cheats us is not one of us” As simple as the statement might be, it sets the ethics in trade making cheating unethical.

Trade made Islam reach Indonesia by following this simple approach. When an Indonesian king asked a Muslim trader why is he being honest in his trade (compared to other traders) the Muslim trader’s answer was that it is due to his religion that forbids him from cheating. The king’s answer to that was that a religion as such deserves to be followed. Over the years Islam got spread in Indonesia because of honest trading.  In a world where greed rules, it is hard to find honest marketers, yet again, it is not the marketing process that is to blame; it is the human behavior that takes it either way.

In future articles i will go through other types of criticism while discussing more advanced marketing applications.

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