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Opinion: The Positives and Negatives of Marketing

Jakki Mohr

blue sky and cloud

Weighing industry pros and cons from a marketing professor’s perspective

Marketing strategy plays an important role in any entity’s success—or lack thereof. Marketing requires astute monitoring of trends across many domains: changes in sociocultural values, emerging technologies that can be tapped (or ignored at one’s peril), new business models based on platforms and the sharing economy, to name a few. Developing strategies that resonate with the firm’s customer base, are in tune with the cultural zeitgeist, and that authentically reflect the organization’s values are essential elements of effective marketing.

When used to its best potential, marketing offers products and services that solve meaningful problems customers face, helps new technologies and solutions achieve their potential, and even contributes to solving social and environmental challenges to create a better world.

On the flip side, I experience more than a little angst about the social and environmental problems to which marketing has contributed. Although the list of such problems may be long, I’m especially concerned about the role of data analytics and increasingly sophisticated behavioral algorithms that contribute to excess consumer consumption, which can generate an endless waste stream of unwanted products, packaging, plastics and trash, leading to environmental degradation.

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This tension is very personal: I teach a course on data analytics, epitomized by using data to better tailor offers to customers to prompt them to buy more. I also have a research stream on the role business plays in restoring degraded landscapes, the opportunity business has to learn from nature in developing sustainable innovations, and new strategies for business to become not just “net-zero,” but net-positive. Business has a responsibility to give back to nature so it can continue to provide the ecosystem services upon which human life is dependent, such as clean air, water, soils, etc.

The clashing of good and bad is inherent in marketing. Marketing can contribute to a better world: framing consumer choices to facilitate healthier lifestyles, using data analytics for important social causes, developing new business models that regenerate and restore degraded ecosystems. Conversely, marketing contributes to unhealthy, unsustainable behaviors: offering fruit-flavored vaping products to children, using data in ways that violate consumer privacy, placing profits before people and the environment.

I believe that in our important roles as teachers and scholars, we cannot and should not be blind to these tensions; rather, marketing professors must illuminate these paradoxes.

For example, in our teaching role, we can prepare the next generation of leaders to recognize and appreciate the positive and negative roles marketing plays in society. We can spark meaningful debate, encourage thoughtful reflection, and offer frameworks and tools to assist in navigating trade-offs. We can urge our students to appreciate interdisciplinary perspectives in other domains, such as ecology, climate science or environmental philosophy, that can inform the tensions. We can encourage our students to develop their own moral compasses and philosophical beliefs, to articulate a point of view in a compelling, persuasive fashion. Essentially, we should equip them with the skills and tools necessary to consider competing demands in a thoughtful way.

In our role as scholars, we can ask provocative questions, develop risk assessment frameworks and consider unintended consequences. The marketing discipline undoubtedly has important scholarly foundations in this type of inquiry, including exploring “the dark sides” of marketing and bringing a public policy, macro-marketing or quality-of-life perspective. In addition, we can look to other disciplines for meaningful theories and methods. For example, sustainability science, theories of deep ecology and social-ecological systems might offer new lenses through which we may inform our study of these tensions.

Ultimately, I look forward to seeing the forthcoming articles in the special Better Marketing for a Better World issue of the Journal of Marketing. This edition signals the obligation marketing scholars have to leverage our skills and knowledge to address the wicked problems facing our world in the coming years.

Jakki J. Mohr, Ph.D., is the Regents Professor of Marketing and the Poe Family Distinguished Faculty Fellow at the University of Montana.