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12/01/2009 Are You a Responsible Marketer?

I read an article this weekend by Paco Underhill, author of "Why We Buy" and "Call of the Mall" in which he wrote about our (U.S.) changing retail culture. I'm a big fan of Paco's and I used to buy his "Why We Buy" book for all of my colleagues. I think it's one of the very best books aimed at understanding consumers.

In his article Underhill points out two somewhat distressing trends. The first is that our past culture of vehement consumer spending is over and that our addiction to retail is going through a painful withdrawal and treatment phase. That habit will not come back soon. The second is that the decline in spending combined with the bonanza of online information means that stores need fewer and fewer sales people. Why talk to someone when you can look up 3rd party reviews in an instant on your phone? Of course fewer jobs mean even less spending power, etc., etc.


All this got me thinking: What responsibilities do we marketers have in all of this? You'd think that with fewer goods sold, we'd have fewer marketers but the opposite seems to be true. There seems to be more marketers than ever right now, thanks to the digital revolution. Do more marketers actually make the system more efficient, rather than relying on fewer more expensive options?

The bigger question, though, is if people spend less, and there are fewer of them who even have money to spend, does that impact what we marketers do, which is in essence try to increase sales? One way to answer this is that the plethora of marketers now aims to make sales costs more efficient through targeted digital media. I don't know if that's completely true, but it could be.

Do we ever accept the fact that people will buy less and encourage them to do so? The only time I remember doing this was when I did work for the utility Green Mountain Power. We built some very good interactive tools to help people lower their electric bills. You'd think that would mean less money for the utility, but the reality was that if they could keep peak energy use down, they'd be more profitable, not less.

I'm sure not many of us are having this conversation with our clients, though. And if we did, what would we say? If we say, "You have to market to lower profits," our clients might simply show us the door.

Efficiency, especially around digital, is a great place to start. It will hurt the marketing big guys and help the marketing people taking risks.  But it doesn't answer the question of how what we do digitally may, in and of itself, be part of the job-loss problem.


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