Is Marketing Wicked?


Depending on who you are this question will probably mean something different to you.

A person who was born in the 1990s might think I was asking if marketing was a ‘good thing’, perhaps a cutting edge career, something to really aspire to. On the other hand someone who has doubts about the value of consumersim and the ethics of materialism might think I was asking about the moral basis of marketing thought and practice. The sort of concerns that can be found on websites such as Marketing Ethics and Criticism

Both are likely to disappointed. The question is really about how marketing is understood by marketing professionals and the notion of ‘wicked’ refers to the types of wicked, complex and ambiguous phenomena first characterised by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber in their 1973 paper Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.

A crucial aspect of their idea is that ‘wickedness’ isn’t about how difficult something is per se. The opposite of wicked problems are tame problems. Tame problems are often hard to solve but they use familiar tried and tested problem solving methods to crack them. The example that is often given is the game of Chess. Chess presents ‘tame’ problems. The challenges presented might be difficult but how the pieces move, and how to solve the challenges is essentially the same time after time. This is the sort of thinking that people use when they’ve had alot of experience in a particular business sector and are often heard to claim that they know everything there is to know about the business. Wicked problems can’t be solved in the same way. They involve situations with multiple causes, they have multiple explanations provided by stakeholders with different opinions and values and according to Michael Pacanowsky in his article Team Tools for Wicked Problems they “involve us in dialogue that includes our definition of the problem, the algorithm we try to invent or employ, the information we consider relevant, the solution we find, and the outcomes we ultimately achieve. Wicked problems necessarily have an interative nature to them”

Classic Marketing Management schools us in the belief that the business environment whilst dynamic and changeable, can be tamed and controlled through the application of the principles of ‘scientific management’. The ideas of Rittel and Webber imply that the business environment isn’t ‘tame’ (routine and familiar problems and solutions). Marketing Executives are constantly faced with ‘wicked’ (supriseful, complex, unfamiliar situations requiring innovative and imaginative solutions) too. And they look like this…

1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.(we can’t simply say it’s a sales problem, a pricing problem, a distribution problem etc)

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule. (unlike tame problems where you clearly know when you’ve ‘cracked’ it, for e.g.we can’t say for certain that ‘we have sorted our Service Marketing strategy now’)

3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse. (this implies power and politics have a role to play in decision making too)

4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.(obviously a worry for those who depend on the scientfic method of experimentation to test and control variables in order to inform their decision making)

5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly. (So if we change our sales structure we have changed our business environment and we now have to deal with a new reality)

6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.

7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.

8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.(forget looking for a root cause, its impossible to find)

9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.(what glasses are you wearing? the world through brass glasses is very different to the world through silver and gold glasses)

10. The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

With these things in mind, now think about the classic linear rational approach to Marketing Planning that is put forward in the majority of standard text books. The marketing plan is ‘sold’ as a solution for structuring complexity. A method that if correctly followed will reveal the best course of action. All you have to do is plug data into the planning algorthim and out pops the solution!

Business Schools are churning out marketing managers bred on this rational systematic problem solving methodolgy, but as Pacanowsky says “Linear problem-solving methods, with the attendant assumptions they make about problem definition, information, and solution, are often insufficient for the task” Might this be the reason that Marketing Plans are merely ‘shelf-ware’ once they have been written? They don’t actually solve the problems they were intended to solve!

To end on a contemporary note. Take a look at how marketeers are trying to understand and make sense of Social Media. There are multiple explanations, its not easy to pin down, some people are trying to ‘tame’ it by fitting into classic processes. Often people will tell you just ‘how complicated Social Media is and hard it is to explain to the CEO what it is all about’. Its difficult to test and measure. Its in a perpetual state of trial and error. No one really has the answer.

Marketing is wicked, isn’t it!

Links to articles (will need journal subscriptions):
Team Tools for Wicked Problems
Strategy As A Wicked Problem

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Is Selling The New Marketing?


Pick up any classic marketing text and one of the first things you are told is that ‘marketing isn’t selling’.
Not only that you are told that selling only has a bit part in the whole marketing performance, and that marketing done properly means selling isn’t actually required.

On the other hand, walk into any business and get talking to the staff and one of the first things you are often told is that ‘this is a people business’. That people develop trust between one another and that they buy from people who help them solve their problems.

Doesn’t this strike you as strange? In practice, the arts of social influence, relationship building and service are seen as key. In text books these very same things are relegated to a mere feature of the marketing mix.

Robert Louis Stevenson said “Every one lives by selling something”
It is how things are made to happen. Its how people are persuaded and convinced of the benefits of value propositions. In mass consumer markets selling is invariably the responsibility of marketing communications in business to business it is what happens face to face.

Skilled selling is a strategic necessity for business. Skilled sales people can differentiate your company/brand from the competition.

The September 2009 edition of the European Journal of Marketing carries a special series of articles themed under the title, ‘Sales Evolution and Revolution: The Sales Function in the 21st Century’

Over the last few years Sales has been rediscovered and its strategic importance re-stated. Its no longer necessary to keep sales at arms length as the domain of silver tongued masters of deception. The province of mere functionaries who do the bidding of ‘marketing’. Selling is increasingly being recognised for its strategic value creating impact (see Harvard Business Review special edition on Sales- 84 7/8 2006 -The Top Line by Thomas Stewart)

Susi Gieger and Paulo Guenzi in their European Journal of Marketing article say that academic interest in selling is moving on from what Williams and Plouffe (2007) classed as concerns with motivation, the Saxe & Weitz SOCO scale, relationship building and trust. Most of these issues are now well taped by practioners. Academics need to help in other areas such as scenario, sense-making and forecasting capabilities.

So what is happening with this changing attitude towards Selling then? Storbacka, Ryals, Davies and Nenonen say that businesses now see Sales as a process not just a function, that it is integrated rather than isolated, and crucially strategic not simply operational.

Sales people might be last step of the getting a product to market but they are frequently the first step in getting the market to the organisation. Classic marketing explains what happens in linear rational terms. Everything is about getting your ‘ducks in a row’. Now that might be fine for creating planning documents but it doesn’t reflect what happens in reality. A more systemic view seems more appropriate. Seeing things this way emphasises inter-dependencies and the simultaneous nature of ‘doing business’. As Peter Senge explains, thinking is circles rather than lines is more like reality.

Are you sold?

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Does PR Pay?

brass glasses-chestnut

Klement Podnar, Marko Lah, and Urša Golob have a go at the old chestnut of whether marketing activities (in this case PR) can be linked to economic effectiveness.

Their article Economic perspectives on public relations appears in the lastest edition of Public Relations Review.

They say that “the money spent by the public relations department [is] often criticised on the premise that the future benefits…are uncertain and may not result in higher sales or company growth.”

By examining 5 ways of looking at the relationship between PR and business effectiveness ranging from its role in the social construction of meaning about the firm through to the economic impact of reputation of the bottom line. They identify helpful links between economic theory and PR practice.

Linking PR to economic metrics is feasible and desirable they say. PR can be shown to reduce transaction costs by making reducing the information and search costs of buyers and suppliers. Ultimately PR costs are an investment and investment is a necessary aspect of commerce.

The authors take a close look at various economic theories and how they might apply to valuing PR. They say this approach will allow “public relations practioners to successfully tie communications into business performance”.

I’m still pondering on the how to justify spending 30 minutes writing a blog post in terms of economic value though.

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Why Won’t Sainbury’s Let Me Alone?

brass glasses-greta garbo-sainburys

A friend recently reported a shopping experience irritation during a visit to Sainbury’s. In the middle of a rush shopping trip she was stopped hassled by a member of Sainbury’s staff asking if she could if she was adequately insured.

All in the name of service no doubt. Or is it? When does a marketing philosophy become a marketing mantra? When does a marketing philosophy become a convenient gloss for the real intention of the organisation?

Kurt Lewin said “There is nothing so practical as a good theory”
In other words ideas drive actions.

So what is the idea that is driving the action of Sainbury’s? Back in 2004 Stephen Vargo and Robert Lusch wrote an article in the Journal of Marketing called “Evolving To A New Dominant Logic of Marketing”. In this article they pulled together streams of thought that had been developing over previous decades concerning ‘Service Marketing’ (Gronross et al).

This ‘theory’ has sat in the background quietly influencing marketing strategy and justifying marketing actions. We no longer trade ‘goods’ they argue we are focussed on “intangible resources, the co-creation of value and relationships” So the man in aisle isn’t ‘selling’ anymore he’s establishing a ‘service relationship’ in order that value can be co-created between the moment your tin of tuna is taken from the shelf and placed in the trolley!

Sainsbury’s have evidently bought into the ‘service dominant logic’. Or have they? The rhetoric is about service the reality is exchange. I have something that I want you to buy from me. You have money in your wallet and I want it to be mine, all mine. The ‘sales dominant logic’ of Sainbury’s simply can’t be hidden from view that easily. Psychologically it’s an ideal situation to sell to somebody. The rationalising defences are down because you are focussing on your regular house hold shopping and the distraction of the service stalker makes you amenable vulnerable to sales messages (clever! see Pratkanis The Science of Social Influence)

Surely when someone goes shopping its in their time? What right has a retailer to take your time and take advantage of you simply because you are on their premises? The argument that it simply making you aware of additional services seems rather hollow.

Now, as part of the Brass Glasses service to readers, I’d like to offer you a solution to the in store stalking problem. Of course as critical thinkers you’ll know what I’m up to. So here it is:

The amazing new Garbo badge. Imagine walking around Sainsbury’s without interruption, simply wear this badge and Sainsbury’s staff will know that you “vont to be let alone”

Update October 2009:
Witnessed an OAP approached by an in store sales person selling insurance. The chap was a bit confused. Hardly surprising he was doing his shopping not thinking about insurance. The gentleman was then obliged to discuss his financial affairs in the aisle next to the tinned tuna. How lacking in empathy and courtesy.

I believe this is an unwarranted intrusion into shopper privacy and just because you have walked onto the premises doesn’t mean you should be a target for unsolicited sales propositions.

This is something different I don’t want to try thanks!

Same As It Ever Was?

brass glasses-junior boss

I’ve just picked up a thought provoking post from Kyle Lacy. Kyle draws our attention to the crucial issue of understanding your customer, and in particular your business to business customer.

Your customer base is changing as I type. The people who will take the decision to buy your products and services will increasingly come from so called Generation Z. This is a generation that takes social media for granted. For them it isn’t hip, new, trendy, or cutting edge, its just ‘is’.

This fresh generation of business leaders and decision takers see the world differently to their predecessors, they gather their information differently, they build business relationships differently, they socially influence and are socially influenced differently. These are the Wizards of Oz Z.

If all this gives you the feeling that you that you might be ‘over the hill’ don’t panic. Forrester reckon that Generation X can still play too! This theme also is taken up by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Laura Sherbin, and Karen Sumberg in their Harvard Business Review article How Gen Y and Boomers will reshape your agenda. In the article they point to the internal forces competing to dominate an organisations cultural agenda and how what was once valued in organisational life is undergoing change. To manage the upcoming and outgoing they talk about Time Warners Digital Reverse Mentoring program:

“in which tech-savvy college students mentor senior executives on emerging digital trends and technologies such as Facebook, Twitter, and other Web 2.0 applications.”

For managers who operate from the fundamentals of a critical marketing philosophy the capturing of a deep understanding of the beliefs, attitudes and behaviours of their customers is a continually changing endevour.

Nothing is the ‘same as it ever was’

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Are We Wasting Time With Social Media?

brass glasses-marketing-critical marketing-social media-Wasting-Time-

Web Traffic Secrets has recently posted a collection of videos of Seth Godin in which he discusses the ways in which Social Media can be a waste of time.

Even scratching the surface of Social Media takes time. It takes effort to become familar with blogging applications and the myriad of networking, bookmarking, and aggregating applications that support and interconnect with them. Much has been posted on becoming aware of the dreaded ‘Time Vampire’.

Is Seth saying anything new though? Imagine if I baked a cake today with scant knowedge of cooking, the ability to understand and follow recipes, and ineptitude in the cooking process. If the cake I baked didn’t rise and didn’t taste very nice then I might conclude that ‘cooking’ was a waste of time. Obviously it isn’t.

Take a look at any major management initiative of the last 15 years and the same reasoning can apply. Many management fads have been written off as ‘wastes of time’ when they have been deemed to have failed. Business Process Re-engineering, TQM, Organisational Learning, Searching for Excellence, CRM, etc.

Social Media is no different to any of these. You waste time with them if you don’t devote time to gain a deep and true understanding of their philosophy and intent. You waste time if you don’t devote time to drawing out the value and purpose of the activity. You waste time if you don’t devote time to continually questioning your reasons for doing something.

The only way you will waste time with Social Media is because you have a half-baked understanding of it.

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