Rethinking Marketing Scholarship from a “Better Marketing for a Better World” Perspective

Journal of Marketing Editorial Staff


Key Takeaways

Learn more about the Journal of Marketing Special Issue, "Better Marketing for a Better World."

Deadline for Submissions ​is June 1, 2019​​​​​​​​​​​

During special sessions at the 2018 Summer AMA and ACR conferences, leading scholars discussed what research in their areas would look like if they adopted a Better Marketing for a Better World perspective. Below is a summary of what they shared: ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​


Michael Ahearne, University of Houston

Sales is an interesting area for the “better world” topic. Recent data from North America show $1.2 trillion spent on salesforce, versus $165 billion on traditional marketing and $35.9 billion on digital. This is an area where more research is needed on how to do things better.

In 1982, Saxe and Weitz distinguished between sales-oriented and customer-oriented behaviors. A sales orientation is focused on short-term outcomes and closing the deal. A customer orientation, however, is focused on the long-term relationship and value creation. Several studies have been conducted documenting this difference, but little has been done in practice to change these behaviors in many organizations.   

The market is shifting in this direction. Today’s customers are more informed; there is a greater symmetry of information. When you buy a car now at a dealership, you have information in advance and don’t have to rely only on the information provided by a salesperson.  How has this shift in information symmetry changed the way salespeople sell?  Are salespeople now held to a higher ethical standard?  

About 20 years ago, researchers were anticipating that the internet could reduce sales jobs. Rather than sales disappearing, transactional business has moved online, and valued-added business occurs through salespeople. Industries like automotive sales now make most of their money from long-term customer relationships (e.g., by selling financing and service).  So companies are now asking, is it advantageous to sell in a customer-oriented way? How do you diffuse that mindset? 

Control systems and incentive structures may encourage attitudes and behaviors that align with a customer orientation. Ultimately, such approaches may foster schemas that promote such behaviors even in the absence of such institutional components. In an era in which employees, including salespeople, tend to move quickly between firms (i.e., job-hopping), they may view a long-term customer orientation as disadvantageous. However, a customer orientation could be a panacea for many firms, helping to reduce the revolving door phenomena by encouraging salespeople to establish stronger ties that create incentives to stay in their current role. 

Finally, sales is foundational in emerging markets, and building sales skills is important to helping people in such markets flourish. Sales presents an opportunity for individuals to develop entrepreneurial pursuits that can enrich both their own lives and their communities. Firms entering emerging markets should arguably consider how to jointly maximize the welfare of individuals, communities, and the firm by identifying and training people with high sales potential. 

Researchers may further consider the extent to which great salespeople in emerging markets are born versus made, as well as examine the broader societal benefit of success in sales. For instance, there may be specific characteristics of new salespeople in emerging markets, such as characteristics of their social networks that translate into both personal benefit and communal benefit. Furthermore, creating sales opportunities for men versus women, or for larger versus smaller families may have different implications both for the recipients of these opportunities and the social groups to which they belong. These are just a few examples of how we might consider the power of sales to benefit lives within emerging markets. Given the importance of emerging markets to the myriad of firms seeking opportunities for growth, now seems an especially suitable time to consider these types of questions​.


Pradeep Chintagunta, University of Chicago

How would research in the quantitative area be affected if we took a “better-world” perspective? The “Three Cs” is a framework we can use to think about this issue: 1) Context, 2) Counterfactuals, and 3) Corporate actions. 

First, context entails leveraging existing research in marketing and applying it to develop knowledge in a new context. For example, prior work has examined the impact of customer referrals as a marketing tactic, investigating the effect of conditional or unconditional incentives. Translating this into a question with “better world” implications, we studied treating patients with tuberculosis (TB) in India. It is very expensive to detect new cases of TB because the health care system is not set up to do this, but because someone with TB is able to recognize the symptoms in others, we found that it was more efficient to leverage the existing patient base to identify new patients. 

Second, counterfactuals entails applying the tools of structural modeling to an outcome pertaining to consumer or societal welfare. For example, in recent work Kim, Ishihara, and Singh studied the Donorschoose platform, which allows teachers to crowdsource donations for classroom supplies. The platform experienced a huge uptake in adoption following the recession, and the authors used counterfactuals to quantify the relative influence of budget cuts separately from peer effects. 

Finally, corporate actions can be leveraged to assess better-world outcomes. For example, when CVS stops selling tobacco, we can examine the impact of these actions. From a consumer perspective, how much does it lower smoking? From a firm perspective, what is the advertising effect? Do nonsmokers demonstrate increased interest in the chain?


Ajay Kholi, Georgia Tech

What is a better world? A better world may be construed as one in which suppliers and customers/consumers (1) make better decisions, are healthier, and have a better quality of life, and (2) reduce waste and use assets more efficiently. 

What is better marketing for a better world? First, it may be construed as targeting currently unserved or underserved customers/consumers and developing underprivileged collaborators such as new channel partners. 

Second, BMBW may be viewed as implementing a marketing mix (4Ps) aimed at accomplishing the above-noted two characteristics of a “better world.” This lens suggests several research ideas: 

To help reduce waste, research could examine organizational factors that lead to marketing spending spillovers to non-target customers/consumers. To improve asset utilization, research could identify factors that lead consumers and firms to contribute their assets to the sharing economy, and/or to use others’ assets in the sharing economy. 

Better social marketing (marketing of ideas related to healthful living, pollution reduction, and so on) could help improve consumers’ quality of life. Research could examine the relative effectiveness of alternative messaging channels across different segments. For example, microfinancing works in part by leveraging peer pressure to assure loan repayments. Are similar mechanisms more effective in encouraging people to adopt healthier practices? Are digital devices that deliver messages at the “moment of truth” more effective than other forms of messaging? 

Research that might identify signals or cues of fake information, especially in cyberspace, could help customers/consumers make better decisions, and improve their quality of life. 

We know that negative advertising works, unfortunately. However, can we encourage more positive advertising by understanding conditions under which promotion-focused messaging is more effective? Can we identify individual, organizational, and market factors that discourage salespeople to be dishonest with customers?


Cait Lamberton, University of Pittsburgh

To have better marketing and a better world, we need to interrogate our understanding of what the “market” economy is—and to determine when the “market” economy holds or fails.

Our research, taken together, makes clear that many conventional assumptions about a market economy are flawed—in our current economy, there is weakening dominance of private ownership, significant government involvement, massive market inefficiencies, and self-interest is not the sole motivator of behavior. Further, competition in many major sectors is practically nonexistent (e.g., Google, Facebook, Amazon). 

What is a better way to think about our market? The currency now is data and information, which is being extracted from our purchases and digital behaviors. Consumers create these data, but they are not compensated for it. A better metaphor for this reality may be an extractive economy. 

Extractive economies, which occur where a resource is being mined, provide some benefit to the area where the extraction occurs. These economies offer major growth opportunities, but also certain pathologies. For example, extractive economies such as oil boomtowns show high degrees of binge behaviors, such as binge drinking and eating. We see the same phenomena among always-connected consumers, who may consume (and produce) large amounts of digital content in a single consumption episode, but in excess of that sustainable to have a balanced life. 

Better metaphors allow us to better examine the consumer experience as it actually exists, to reconceptualize exchange in the reality of the system that we actually occupy. For example, topics such as charitable giving and subjective well-being can seem peripheral to marketing, but these are critical aspects of extractive economies. Just as nations that base their economy in extraction have to devote considerable efforts to ensuring the well-being and community health of the indigenous peoples whose lives are shaped by extractive infrastructure, we have a responsibility to attend to the well-being and social health of the “digital natives” from whom massive amounts of value are being gleaned. Just as extractive economies benefit from careful stewarding of their resources and long-term thinking, we should approach our research with an eye toward the dignity of consumers and effects over time, rather than taking a short-term or one-shot focus. If we do these things, we can do marketing that not only better reflects the exchange experience in the present economy, but also helps individuals in this economy to flourish in the long run.


Vikas Mittal, Rice University

As scholars if we stretch our minds and our thinking about what marketing is, we can engage organizations and scholars from nontraditional fields. My belief is that if we want to really contribute these new areas, we need to look outside in, not inside out. A better world is out there looking for marketing to become more relevant. Here are some projects I am working on that adopt this perspective.  

First, hospitals have ethics committees to provide consultation to patients, physicians, and administrators with difficult issues.  When ethics committees are utilized, compliance is higher and outcomes improve. This research utilizes scenario-based surveys to understand when health service providers are more or less likely to utilize an ethics committee. This project includes physicians, ethics scholars, and professors from strategy and operations management. Hospitals don’t see this project as marketing because it’s not selling—but it’s helping improve clinical outcomes, patient compliance, and provider satisfaction.

Second, providing internet access to students is a common marketing practice among schools, especially in public schools. Schools raise money to do this, but then have no way of knowing if internet access helps or harms student success. So the question is, what is the effect of a marketing intervention on the outcome people care about?  The most fascinating finding (using data from more than 5,000 schools in Texas) is that internet access does increase SAT scores, but also leads to more disciplinary problems, and these are greater in more racially integrated schools. We need further research to understand why this occurs. 

Finally, a project on liver cancer outcomes. If a liver condition is detected on one screening, then there is a second screening critical for determining risk for cancer. But many patients never go to the second screening, even when it is paid for by insurance. The doctors asked us, can you help us market this? We created three random groups from the patient database (control, postcard only, and postcard plus a phone follow-up). We found that postcard and phone follow-up saved more lives and lowered the total cost of healthcare. 

By becoming more ingrained and relevant to the teams—hospitals, schools, and cancer clinic—we not only improved marketing, but also used marketing knowledge to improve the world.


Koen Pauwels, Northeastern University

My contribution in this area is on marketing democracy. I see two major ways we can contribute. 

First, democracy is in decline. Over the last decade, democracy has been decreasing worldwide, even in countries we think of as stable democracies. Previously, we didn’t have to market democracy because democracy was linked to economic progress. Now, the west is in an economic downturn, whereas China is on the rise. There is an increased confidence in authoritarian leaders. The perception has changed. If we believe in democracy, there is a need to market it. 

Second, good governance requires that voters, the press, and policy makers have good information. Do we have any empirical evidence on the prevalence and impact of falsehoods in offline and online ‘news’? Can we offer guidance to policy makers on which kind of statements help or hurt their chances of election? 

To answer this we need good data. For example, in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the offline polls showed Clinton ahead but the online USC/LA Times Daybreak Poll accurately predicted Trump’s win. When Trump spoke out against authority his offline and online polls went up. When Clinton she spoke in favor of the system, her offline polls were flat but her online polls went way down. 

For brands, if you take a political stance, does it help or hurt you? Recent data from Engagement Labs shows that online and offline word of mouth diverge when companies take a political stance. When Delta broke ties with the NRA this year, online sentiment went down, but offline sentiment actually went up. This effect was even stronger for MetLife. 

If you care about political society, marketing can help us understand how to advise policy makers and brands who engage with policy.


Linda Price, University of Oregon

I have waited a long time for this call for a special issue to come to fruition. I don’t see this just as a special issue, I see this as a change of conversation. In this way, I agree with Len Berry and others who contend, “The purpose of marketing is to offer a higher quality of life. Firms that do that are rewarded.” We should ask of ourselves, how can we help firms do that?

My thesis is that a deep understanding of complex, dynamic consumption practices is key to alleviating the world’s most important and intractable problems. If you look at all the world’s major problems, they either are triggered by—or implicate—the presence or absence of consumption. Moreover, in a world where technology is outpacing human adaptation, marketing can offer answers to the question of how we learn faster and govern smarter. 

Considering the costly enterprise of doing rigorous research, shouldn’t we as academics ask ourselves: Is the value of what we have written and the time it took commensurate with our salaries? Or would we make more of a difference working in a soup kitchen? 

Doing research to alleviate the world’s problems can feel difficult because we get intimidated by the scope of issues such as global waste, world poverty, and changing climates. However, small things can make big differences as they accumulate through systems. For example, I am currently trying to give up single-serving plastic water bottles, which we know are a major source of global waste. This turns out to be complicated and difficult. But by understanding consumers, and disrupting behavior in small ways, we can create good solutions. Marketers can give me what I need to get rid of those bottles. 

Bike sharing is another example. As a practice, it may be changing environments for the better, but it also has unintended and sometimes negative consequences. For example, helmet use drops when bike sharing. Similar to buying single serving plastic water bottles, bike helmet use is a small thing, embedded in a changing, complex infrastructure. 

Our challenge is to better understand the ramifications of such seemingly simple consumer practices in ways that are embedded, dynamic, and complex, and do not bifurcate consumption and production, but treat people as both producers and consumers.  By embracing the complex and central role of consumption and the market world in global well-being, I know we can do research that helps answer how marketers can make a better world.


Roland Rust, University of Maryland

Marketing can help build a better world in many different ways, some of which are not widely acknowledged in the prosocial research realm. Here are three somewhat overlooked ideas to spark thinking about better marketing for a better world: 

Idea 1: Consumer research should not just be about understanding consumers. Consumer advocacy is also important, for example, via consumers unions, PIRGs, and PACTs. That is, research that furthers the customer interest is important, even if it does not advance our knowledge of the customer. Further, it is relevant to also understand how organizational behavior affects consumers. In other words, understanding how what organizations do affect customer well-being is important, again, even if it does not advance our understanding of how customers behave.

Idea 2: Sometimes marketing for a better world means stopping bad things from happening. This could mean preventing negative occurrences like discrimination in service, privacy violations, or unethical business practice. For example, business practices may produce discriminatory service, even if there is no bigotry.  In addition, privacy violations are a major consumer problem. Big companies get hacked and consumers lose their data, but currently our field is not considering this topic as part of its domain. 

Idea 3: Marketing for a better world is not always about altruism. It’s nice to do nice things for people just to be nice, but often that is insufficient motivation for a company. For example, our field’s previous approach to customer satisfaction was that it was about making consumers happy, just because it was a good thing to do. Then, in my research I looked at how customer satisfaction could increase company profits. The idea of “return on quality” allows a company to improve service not just as altruism, but also as a route to profits. Similarly, research has shown that eliminating group bias in bank lending is actually more profitable. Nothing motivates CEOs like a win-win!


Jan-Benedict Steenkamp, University of North Carolina

When thinking about marketing, we almost automatically think about firms and profit maximization. While this is an important perspective, should we not have the courage to rethink some of our paradigms? Let me just give one example.  I would love to see an article challenging the idea of the profit-maximizing price. There are other models, like the “prix-juste,” or the morally just price to charge. It sets a standard of fairness in economic transactions. This idea may be less absurd than it appears at first sight. When my father studied economics at Tilburg University, considerable attention was given to concepts like the “just price.” So, clearly, it was considered relevant at some time in the not too distant past. This touches upon what I see our field needs—fewer narrow empirical papers and more papers that offer new, broad thinking. This special issue may be a great opportunity to start this process.  

Two applications of marketing for good are marketing by nonprofits organizations and marketing in emerging markets. 

First, nonprofits, whether a museum or a local government, tend to believe that because they have a good cause that people will buy into it. This is not true. Marketing can be done by nonprofits. Did you knew that all the basic tenets of marketing can already be found in the church in the first-century AD? Papers that provide case studies of nonprofit marketing would be useful, because people within these organizations don’t see readily how findings from for-profit companies apply to them.

Second, most of our research is in Western settings, but marketing can make an important contribution to the well-being of the world’s poor. For example, transportation on a scooter has a low environmental impact. However, it is a very unsafe way to transport an entire family. A possible solution is the Tata Nano car, which was a good concept that was poorly marketed and bombed. Our field knows very little about how to effectively market to the 3 billion people in emerging markets—about half of humanity. We need to do more.


Vanitha Swaminathan, University of Pittsburgh

At the center of what we study is the customer, the company, and their relationship. That is the focus of the literature in marketing. Better marketing for a better world means we need to adopt a wider lens.

First, we can consider a broader set of outcomes. Early work in marketing focused on a narrow set of outcomes such as customer acquisition and retention and brand switching and loyalty. By focusing on when a consumer switches from Coke to Pepsi, missed the point that both were bad for the consumer. A broad lens allows us to consider how marketing impacts multiple aspects of consumers’ lives, such as health and subjective well-being. 

Second, we can consumer a broader set of stakeholders. If a company exclusively focuses on one stakeholder, like the customer, and completely neglects another stakeholder, like the employee, what does that mean for performance as a whole? My research found that although cash flow is often better for customer-focused firms, firms that focus on serving both customers and employees maximize cash flow and minimize risk. If we narrowly focus on just one relationship (e.g., customer-firm), we are missing a lot. 

Finally, firm actions that benefit the consumer relationship can have terrible social costs. What costs will discourage companies from practices that have bad outcomes? This can be done by increasing the cost (e.g., taxes, permits for polluting), through voluntary consumer or company actions (e.g., displaying calorie information), or by having consumers pressure firms. For example, consider Tom’s shoes, which donates a pair of shoes for each pair sold. What is the impact of this practice on the brand? Is it just a cost, or is it worth it to the firm? Research can help us answer these questions.


Journal of Marketing Editorial Staff