In defense of the lost liberal art of marketing

By Published on .

Celebrants dancing during the color Holi Festival
Celebrants dancing during the color Holi Festival Credit: fotojog/iStock

The marketing profession is under siege. We are spellbound by the siren call of data, enamored of newly-discovered portmanteaus like ad tech and martech, and enslaved by impenetrable algorithms. This trend reflects a broader shift. For example, in March of 2018, the University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point announced that it would eliminate a raft of liberal arts majors. English was out, as was philosophy and history. They would be replaced by disciplines like information technology. As a marketer who often writes about technology, this sent a shudder down my spine.

A visionary leader of a great technology business once said that what made the Macintosh great were the musicians, poets and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists. Forrester researched how the human-centricity of Apple has been one of the chief forces propelling the brand from giant-killer to almost-trillion-dollar market cap giant. Steve Jobs never lost sight of the human behind the marketing machine, and what he intuited many decades ago is what our profession has now begun to formalize.

The marketing discipline, long mired in principles of customer funnels and 4-Ps of product, price, place, and promotion, has seen considerable change in the last decade. The hyper-adoption of devices has generated a flood of data, fodder for rapacious intelligent analytics machines. Old marketers have needed new glossaries to make sense of novel concepts like programmatic advertising and neural networks. At the same time, a silent revolution is underway. Building on the works of psychologists and economists, including two Nobel laureates, the marketing community is revisiting the long-held axiom of "if you market it right, they will buy," instead disaggregating the process of consumer choice. And in these elements of choice we see reflected the spectrum of the liberal arts.

There is evidence that the ability of a brand to activate emotional triggers accounts for about half of its potency to influence customers. The capacity to continually remain emotionally attuned to consumers demands a considerable talent for understanding the human factor. Major brands—Adidas, Target, and Google to name a few—have ethnographers on staff. Emerging neuroscience techniques like EEG and FMRI have added a natural science lens to help brands like Honda and Coca-Cola better understand consumer decisions. Being insensitive to history creates blind spots for global brands. Upstart Patanjali has shaken the formidable Indian consumer packaged business of Unilever and P&G business by appealing to a not-too-distant angst of colonial appropriation. Fitting together all these quirky puzzle pieces to render the big picture requires the full breadth of a multidisciplinary worldview.

Technology is a marketer's friend. Data is invaluable. But understanding the humanity of decisions is the lifeblood of marketing. This is about understanding why people do the things they do and using that knowledge to induce these people to act on your behalf. That is the prime directive. As marketers, we should embrace the best that technology and analytics has to offer in support of this directive, but never forget that the soul of marketing and marketers is nourished by the liberal arts of marketing—an expansive view of human nature that is fed by curiosity about the world around us.

Most Popular
In this article: