Marketing, Much Like Democracy, Is Good for You (Yes, Really)

Think About It: Politicians Should Treat Citizens the Way Marketers Do

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Marketing is much maligned. Consumer advocates say it's deceptive and intrusive. Sociologists contend it encourages self-centered materialism. Cultural critics argue that it saps civic spirit and political involvement.

Marketers, preoccupied with individual campaigns, have done a poor job of rebutting these critiques.
Equally beneficial
The six benefits that marketing and democracy deliver to society are very similar.
What do you say to the cynics who claim that marketing is bad for society? Is it enough to try to distinguish good marketing from bad? Or to point out that you have to search hard to find individuals who think they consume too much or would prefer fewer choices?

These are weak, defensive responses. To answer the question with positive arguments, we investigated the broad impact of marketing in modern, industrialized societies. In a new book, we compare the consumer marketplace with our political marketplace. Turns out the benefits that marketing and democracy deliver to society are remarkably similar.

Improving quality of life
Marketers give consumers information. They offer consumers choice. They want to engage consumers, to earn their interest and loyalty. Most marketers seek to be inclusive, to bring quality and innovation to the masses. A marketer's success depends on an exchange with a customer and subsequent consumption of goods and services that satisfy needs and improve quality of life.

These six benefits are equally relevant in democracies. Democracies depend on informed citizens participating in the political process and making choices among political alternatives. Democracies promote the welfare of all citizens and enable them to be included in political decision making. Indeed, it can be argued that the practice we get as consumers each day in the commercial marketplace makes us better, smarter citizens.

The marketing mix encompasses all of these benefits. Marketing communications accelerate information sharing and new-product adoption. Information makes consumers aware of the choices that suit their needs and thereby stimulates consumption.

Pricing is a key determinant of exchange value. Marketers ensure that products and services are priced at levels that provide value to target consumers as well as profit to producers.

Wal-Mart democracy
Efficient distribution and logistics systems enable exchange. Products reach broad audiences of customers faster and more cheaply than ever. Wal-Mart may be disparaged, but its mission of bringing low prices to everyone is democratic and inclusive.

Product diversity provides freedom of choice and allows consumers to express individuality.

Marketing inherently engages consumers. The creativity in marketing communications, good product design and enjoyable retail experiences all bring fun to our lives. A world without marketing would be a world of sameness, commoditization and inertia.

Bad marketing engages customers as well, with resulting negative word-of-mouth. That's one of the democratic niceties of marketing. Everyone can have an opinion about the latest product or this year's Super Bowl ads. Marketers welcome the risks inherent in being part of the conversation. After all, nothing worries marketers more than when no one is interested in discussing what they have to offer.

Of course, marketing can be abused. But sensible marketers, the vast majority, know that respecting the customer is key to a profitable long-term relationship.

Responding to desires
The scope and impact of aggregate marketing activity cannot be underestimated. It contributes enormously to economic development. In the United States alone, 17 million people hold marketing, sales and customer-service jobs. Marketing's customer focus directs economic activity such as product development toward value-adding innovations that respond to individual desires and improve our quality of life.

Marketing supports the pillars of democratic society. Advertising funds our diverse media, including the internet. These advertising-supported media give citizens access to information about political figures, policies and programs. Marketing know-how helps public policy-makers change citizen behaviors by, for example, encouraging seat-belt usage or good nutrition.

Moreover, the billions of mutually satisfying exchanges that occur daily in the commercial marketplace are part of the glue that builds the trust and respect that hold society together. The top national brands and global brands offer a consistent level of functional product quality and innovation combined with emotional appeal. They adapt where needed to local preferences, but they attract the loyalty of millions of consumers because they deliver the same good customer experience to all.

Starbucks more rewarding
It may even be argued that the commercial marketplace is more attentive to diversity and more democratic than the political marketplace. For the 80% of American adults who are not political junkies, relationships with brands such as Starbucks (the "third place") and BMW (the "ultimate driving machine") are more rewarding than associations with political parties.

Instead of treating citizens merely as taxpayers, donors and voters, politicians ought to treat citizens as well as marketers treat their customers by focusing on how they can better deliver the six benefits common to both marketing and democracy.

Check it out: 'Greater Good'

Excerpts from "Greater Good: How Good Marketing Makes for Better Democracy," by John A. Quelch and Katherine E. Jocz, Harvard Business Press, 2008.

"We believe that marketing itself is marketed poorly and that the social value created by the 17 million Americans who are employed in marketing deserves more credit. The fault is largely with marketers themselves. They should be more conscious of the social importance of their work and of the moral principles that underpin their daily decisions. Marketers are most comfortable judging marketing as a business practice, where the issue is how well a particular marketing tool, technique, or process helps a business meet its objectives. But marketers also need to consider the impact of marketing on individual consumers, the marketplace and society."

"Politicians constantly sell themselves to raise money to fund campaigns, and their marketing efforts diminish rather than enhance marketing's reputation. This is especially true of politicians who harness marketing tactics such as negative advertising to achieve short-term results at the polls. In contrast, commercial marketers must earn the consumer's vote at the cash register every day. With decades of experience, they therefore view marketing as a long-term investment to boost their brands' reputations. They rarely indulge in negative comparison advertising with their direct competitors, knowing that consumers respect brands that offer positive reasons to buy them. What is needed in the political marketplace is not less marketing but better marketing. Politicians need to understand that marketing, practiced properly, is grounded in the concept of a fair exchange that builds trust."
John A. Quelch is senior associate dean and Lincoln Filene Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. He also serves as non-executive director of WPP Group. He blogs at
Katherine E. Jocz is a research associate at Harvard Business School. Previously, she was VP-research operations at Marketing Science Institute.
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