Scholarly Insights: Marketing and Society
Most of us were fortunate enough to be raised in homes where we did not want for food, clothing, shelter, or other basic amenities. Of course, we may have wanted more or different items according to our developing tastes and social aspirations, but for the most part, we rarely went to bed hungry or lacked shoes, coats, or four walls to protect us from the elements. However, at least anecdotally, we are aware that our circumstances are far from ordinary. While some of us feel out of touch without the latest iPhone, much of the world has no access to the most basic technology or the Internet. We might have to tighten our belts when saving for a home or paying college tuitions for our children, but few among us miss several meals a week or only eat rice at most mealtimes. These differences seem extreme as well as remote.
If poverty and deprivation in goods and services sounds like it might be a marketing problem, it is! Look at it from our disciplinary perspective: there is an extensive worldwide market for both necessities and desirable products that go unfulfilled on a daily basis. Can our expertise in segmentation, differentiation, distribution, communication, and resource usage and accumulation help to solve a vexing social problem that defies easy answers?
The answer is a resounding yes! Let’s look at a good place to start. Does your firm make goods or perform services that are available to some but not all potential consumers? If so, what is barring their access? The next step is to consider possible roadblocks, such as price and distribution, which can be overcome with modifications in sizes, quantities, packaging, and delivery strategies. When we use our expertise for serving potential deserving customers in this fashion, great things can be accomplished, especially if we consider the impact of our products on their quality of life rather than targeted measures of satisfaction.
Marketers who work in areas associated with consumption adequacy are particularly important to poverty relief. These product categories include provision of nutritious and sufficient foods, clothing consistent with local environments and tastes, safe and adequate housing, preventative and corrective health care, and opportunities for personal growth such as education and job opportunities. Knowing who needs what can make all the difference.
For many people living in developed nations, having access to such items seems like something that would naturally occur. Yet we know that restrictions exist in all nations on earth despite relative affluence. The solutions offered by governments alone have helped, but their leadership often lacks either the will or the expertise to ensure that all people live reasonable lives. Maybe it is time we come forward and look to public-private partnerships to do the job!
These partnerships would bring resources of government and industry together so that helping citizens reach consumption adequacy as a way out of poverty can occur. Funding will always be an important issue, but marketers can ensure public money is used in effective and efficient ways that are consistent with business practice. Getting the right products to the right people at the right time is our claim to fame. Now we can do it for society and the marketplace!
One example is the influx of homeless teens into Portland, Oregon, in the late 1990s. A growing number of runaway and throwaway boys and girls were fleeing bad living situations and moving to the city from within and outside the state. They inhabited a defined neighborhood and were using drugs, panhandling, and selling their bodies on the streets. The government and the few nonprofit organizations were quickly overwhelmed, and the business community sounded the alarm that the situation needed attention. I was part of the professional team assembled to address this growing problem.
In a combined effort, a committee of all interested parties came together to develop a system of services that were based on input from these teens as well as those closest to them such as social workers and other counselors. While local governments together could only muster about 25% of what was necessary for its implementation, the business community and other parties from the private sector also provided needed resources as well as leadership for at least one of the four service providers. The result was a mixed bag, but it was the first time that these constituencies got together to try to solve such problems.
Once the support community got an opportunity to meet and converse with these teens, they changed from depersonalized impediments to business to young people facing a number of serious threats to their survival. At this point, classic marketing took over: what are the diversity of needs that must be filled so that they can safely pursue better lives? What goods and services must be delivered (e.g., when, in what particular order, and in what quantities) so that the goal of their reintegration into society can occur? Among current (and potential) service providers, who has the relative advantage in their delivery? Marketing to the rescue!
Procter & Gamble
Larger organizations, like Procter & Gamble, have also dabbled in the poverty marketplace on occasion. At one point, I was invited to speak to executives at an internal development event as to how they might better serve lower socioeconomic customers. From conversations with various managers, as well as eventual visits to dollar stores and other retailers that sell regularly to this group of people, it became clear that their helpful focus was on finding ways to scale down current products so they were more affordable. Smaller quantities? Less packaging? Fewer graphics?
These good intentions were an excellent start, but even giant consumer products firms like P&G need to move away from the belief that every consumer views their offerings through the same set of lenses. Consistent with homeless teens, is the way people desire and experience goods and services consistent across all ages, lifestyles, incomes, educations, etc.? Of course not; segmentation and differentiation strategies have told us as much for several generations now! The future of serving impoverished consumers will surely require our marketing toolbox to be fully utilized in novel ways.
There are no easy answers to solve poverty in the United States or around the world. Many of us have heard the refrain that “the poor will always be with us.” It is likely true that differences in relative access to markets and resulting life satisfaction will vary across people, location, and time, but the vast chasm that exists between the haves and have-nots can be remedied, in part, by using longstanding marketing strategies and tactics that ensure goods and services are widely available to those who need them, not just those who can afford them. If we do not come to the table, who will fulfill our job? Let’s turn at least some of our attention to people in need and make the world a better place for all!
Also see the Kinnear Award-winning article by Ronald Paul Hill and Kelly Martin
Hill, Ronald Paul and Kelly Martin (2014), “Broadening the Paradigm of Marketing as Exchange: A Public Policy and Marketing Perspective,” Journal of Public Policy & Marketing,” 33 (Spring), 17-33.