This week, while giving a presentation on marketing to an audience of investors, I introduced myself as someone who has serendipitously found his way from engineering into technology, venture capital, early-stage business management, coaching, and latterly into marketing.
An audience member whispered to me afterwards that she, too, had trained as an engineer (civil, in her case, chemical in mine) but is now enjoying a career in marketing. She was grateful to hear someone else admit to following a similar path.
Her whispering made me uncomfortable. What was so bad about this choice we had made?
Several professions are widely regarded as desirable—even honorable—pursuits; among them engineering, which, as a mathematically-minded youth, I chose to study and spent the first decade of my career applying.
Marketing is not one of those professions.
Whether by connotation, reputation, or discrimination, associating oneself with marketing evokes a mixture of reactions, ranging from a raised eyebrow to a wince to a frown.
This is especially true when you have abandoned a more prestigious career path.
Why would someone forego engineering, with all its potential to do good in the world, in favor of marketing?
Why would someone forego engineering, with all its potential to do good in the world, in favor of marketing, pronunciation of the latter dripping with disdain?
Ironically, in my case, because of the potential it affords me to have a positive impact on the world.
Today, I’m going to make the case for marketing.
In the paragraphs that follow, I’ll briefly describe some of the ways that I see marketing acting as a force for good, as well as how each can be manipulated to cause harm, and what it means to be an ethical marketer.
Neither the list nor the arguments for and against are complete; I’m here to write a blog post, not a manifesto.
Nevertheless, I hope it might encourage you to view marketing in a more favorable, impactful light.
First and foremost, marketing is about educating consumers about products and services, and helping them make informed decisions.
In a world where the onslaught of information is overwhelming, even to those who are digitally savvy, companies can provide valuable information about the challenges they seek to solve, the options available to someone facing such a challenge, and how to go about choosing the right one.
On the flip side, such information can be skewed to unfairly promote certain products, leading to misinformed consumers. For example, selective highlighting of product features can mislead customers about their real value.
An ethical marketer must find a balance between giving an advantage to the organization whose solutions they represent and acting in the best interests of the end user.
Which brings us nicely to marketing’s ability to foster competition, ensuring that consumers have a variety of choices.
Competition stimulates companies to outperform each other, producing higher quality products and more cost-effective solutions.
However, excessive marketing by large companies with massive budgets can drive smaller players out of the market, leading to monopolies that reduce consumer choice.
Ethical marketers must balance their employers’ desire for growth against the health of the overall market and, once more, the interests of the end user.
Mentioning the health of the market reminds me that marketing fuels economic growth.
By promoting goods and services, it encourages transactions and consumer spending.
This generates revenue and can also lead to job creation.
In the aftermath of market upsets—for instance, a recession or pandemic—marketing plays an important role in stimulating recovery by drawing consumers out of their shells and enticing them to buy.
The downside, of course, is that this can lead to overconsumption and excess debt.
Aggressive advertising campaigns during holiday seasons often result in consumers spending beyond their means.
Influencer marketing drives consumers to purchase things they don’t need for reasons that don’t matter in pursuit of ideals that are often far from ideal.
An ethical marketer remembers that their goal should be to sell things to people for whom they are a good and necessary solution.
In addition to its impact on the economy overall, the marketing industry itself creates a multitude of jobs.
These range from market research to content creation to advertising and data analytics.
An estimated 350,000 people hold marketing positions in the U.S.
A global search on LinkedIn returns over 10 million profiles related to marketing.
Much like other sectors, marketing has been profoundly impacted by the digital age, which has altered both the form and frequency of marketing communications.
Search optimization, social media, mobile internet, and the ubiquity of video streaming have all spawned service industries that employ millions of people around the world.
This has a positive impact on the economy, especially in nations previously disconnected by geography and access to technology.
Yet, it can also lead to exploitation, with workers facing unfair pay and conditions.
Ethical marketing must not ignore these issues simply because we live in a world where low-cost outsourcing and remote staffing are the new normal. Out of sight must not mean out of mind.
Marketing isn’t all about selling—although demand and revenue generation are two of its primary deliverables.
Companies also use market research to understand consumer needs and preferences, as inputs to product development and innovation.
This cycle leads to improved goods and services that enhance consumer lives and, recently, reduce their impact on the environment.
On the negative side, chasing consumers’ desires can also lead to unnecessary product iterations, causing wastage and consumer fatigue.
Examples include fast fashion, next-day delivery, and the rapid release cycle of smartphones that drives up electronic waste.
Ethical marketing should separate consumers’ primal instincts—the desires promulgated by their ancient ‘lizard’ brain—from legitimate aspirations to improve the quality of their lives and those of their fellow humans.
Speaking of our fellow humans, marketing can be a positive force for social change.
Vividly illustrating the harm of legacy solutions while promoting the virtues of newer alternatives is an essential step in shifting the mass market.
Introducing diversity into marketing gradually imbues the audience with positive images of that which was negatively stereotyped
Introducing diversity into marketing campaigns gradually imbues the audience with positive images of that which was previously negatively stereotyped.
For example, campaigns around body positivity challenge societal beauty standards.
But, when used irresponsibly, marketing can also perpetuate harmful stereotypes; for example, ads that reinforce gender roles or racial biases.
Marketing can promote healthy lifestyle choices, such as exercising and eating well to help combat health crises such as diabetes and obesity.
Conversely, it can also be used to market unhealthy products, like fast food or alcohol, that contribute to those same health issues.
An ethical marketer actively seeks opportunities to nudge their audience in the direction of positive social change—albeit within the constraints imposed by corporate policies on activism and political involvement.
At a (usually) less contentious level, marketing can help raise awareness about important social issues or public health campaigns.
Consistent and properly designed campaigns can help shift public perceptions and behavior. For example, anti-smoking campaigns have proven effective in reducing tobacco usage.
Such marketing is often the work of non-profit and non-governmental organizations.
However, such “PSAs” can be harmful if used manipulatively.
Examples include businesses that use greenwashing to appear environmentally friendly while engaging in unsustainable practices, and politically motivated marketing that includes misinformation about the causes and effects of issues affecting large numbers of people.
It seems frivolous to mention ethical marketing in the same sentence as politics, but it’s important to recognize that marketing itself is not to blame for the manipulation; it’s the politicians and their election committees who decide what messages to convey.
The ethical marketer must decide which messages they are willing to help spread, and from which, in good conscience, they must distance themselves.
Finally, let’s turn back the clock and reflect on the role that trade, in all its forms, has played in the development of our cultures and civilizations.
Since the dawn of modern civilization, marketing has helped to spread cultural ideas and practices, fostering understanding among diverse groups.
This leads to the blending and recombination of ideas, which carry our understanding and achievements to new heights.
However, on the negative side of this argument lie cultural appropriation, where elements of culture are used outside of their original context, often without proper attribution, and stereotyping, stirred up by nationalism and xenophobia.
Ethical marketing must strive to represent each culture in context and with respect.
Educating, informing, guiding, and helping are key traits that I have mentioned throughout this post, in which we have skimmed the surface of numerous important marketing values and debates.
It is the potential to deploy these behaviors for the betterment of consumers, the market, the economy, society at large, and our human race that, in my mind, positions marketing alongside the most reputable and respected of professions.
Any profession can be manipulated for personal gain, to exploit, and to cause harm. This is as true for corrupt lawyers and malignant engineers as it is for unethical marketers.
As marketing becomes ever more critical to business success, so its statue among the professional ranks should continue to rise.
Hopefully engineers-turned-marketers won’t have to whisper about their career paths for too much longer.
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Image credits: Adobe Stock