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Do marketers have an image problem?

New research demonstrates that the marketing profession has an image problem. Dr Robert Cluley explains why.

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Image: Marketers image problem.

When you think of the marketing profession, what comes to mind?

If you’re a marketer, you probably think that marketing is fundamental to the success of any organization. In all likelihood, you think that you create value not just for businesses, but for society at large. You might well even think that without marketing, economic exchange would grind to a halt, while competition, innovation, and progress stagnate.

For these reasons and more, most marketers see themselves for the champions that they are.

The rest of the world, unfortunately, doesn’t see it quite like that.

After analysing thousands of references to marketers and marketing in three British newspapers, Dr Robert Cluley, Assistant Professor in Marketing at the University of Nottingham, found that the reputation of marketers and marketing is actually in pretty bad shape.

At best, people see marketers as corporate spokespeople. At worse, the profession is associated with ‘aggressive’ campaigning, PR cover-ups, and forcing products on people against their will and to the detriment of all.

Irony of ironies, the professionals who manage brands for a living have a bit of an image problem.

So where do misconceptions about marketing come from, and what can be done to change them? I put a few questions to Dr Cluley about what’s gone wrong, and what can be done to improve the image of marketing today.

Marketers seem to have an image problem. Why don’t they use their skills to market themselves better as a community of professionals?

Of course, there’s many possible reasons. But I think they boil down to two main issues. First, marketers often compete with each other for business and have to justify what they do to the rest of their organizations. So I think they just don’t pay much attention to the wider perception of marketing. In the UK, for example, the professional bodies for marketers such as the Chartered Institute of Marketing and Marketing Research Society are relatively small and powerless in comparison to, say, the American Marketing Association or other professional associations for accountancy, law and so on.

Second, I think that many marketing techniques are often both a poison and a cure. The more successful marketers are for the organizations they work for, the more they risk undermining perceptions of marketing in general. Think about VW. They are a really successful brand who do great marketing. But behind it, they were acting unethically. One way to think about this is as a “system effect”. It’s not the result of what any one marketer does but, collectively, their work does seem to undermine its own cultural position.

Is the reputation of marketers a problem of their own making? Or is it an occupational hazard?

Well, there’s definitively evidence that public trust in most professions is low. What is different about marketing is that, unlike accountants for example, marketers’ work involves changing public perceptions. So they should be able to do something about it. But I am not sure that we can put the blame solely on marketers. In other research, we are considering whether there’s a cultural angle to this. In other words, do we all want to blame “marketing” for the things we do? If I eat unhealthy food, is it easier for me to blame marketing than take responsibility for my own actions? Our results suggest that consumers do use marketing as a scapegoat in various ways when describing their consumer behaviours.

In your research, 37.7% of news reports associate a positive sentiment with marketing, and only 28.6% show a negative sentiment. Doesn’t this mean that the media has, if anything, a slightly positive view of marketers?

You could say that and it would make sense for newspapers – which earn much of their revenue through advertising – to want to promote marketing as a valuable activity. But things are more complicated when you look into the data in more detail. In the study we find that 37.7% of news reports that mention “marketing” have a positive sentiment. But this doesn’t mean that the positive sentiment is related directly to marketing or how positive the sentiment is. It turns out that much of it comes from reports about product launches and the like. I think most people would agree these are slightly positive. But the negative sentiments would more often relate to extremely negative stories such as economic crises, illnesses, product failures and unethical behaviours of firms. We didn’t do it in the study, but if we had coded the reports in more detail, I think that the slightly positive view would have disappeared!

To what extent does your analysis of news reports show us what the general public think of marketers and marketing?

I think it tells us quite a lot. Most media researchers agree that news and popular culture shapes what people think. Just look back at the last few elections or the Brexit referendum – the newspaper someone read had a strong association with their political views and interpretation of current events. Indeed, time and time again researchers have confirmed that the types of TV shows, films and news reports we consume shape what we think is true and what professions do. Perhaps the best indication of this is that marketers use this type of data when trying to establish what people think about their brands!

What can marketers do as a professional community to challenge negative stereotypes about the profession?

I’m not sure there’s a magic bullet but they could definitely do more. The professional bodies such as the CIM and MRS could include these types of issues as a part of the professional training for marketers. I’d be happy to consult them! They could insist that academic researchers focus on the issue, sponsor research and other activities. More broadly, they could think about ways to regulate the activities that give marketing a bad name. Advertising practitioners do this through the Advertising Standard Authority. It’s hard to turn the image of marketing around if marketers continue to do the very things that upset and annoy their customers.

What would you say is the main way in which marketers create value for society?

This depends on our own value system. For me, is there any value in a billboard or a nuisance call – no. But other aspects of marketing do tremendous work. Without marketing research, organizations would not pay as much attention to their customers; without advertising and branding, customers would have less information about the choices available to them; and, to be honest, I think that life is richer for us having brands to relate to rather than boring no label products. Indirectly, marketing offers us all a great deal too and these are things I think marketers should be more proud of. Sponsorships and advertising pay for most of the internet content we consume, the news reports we read, the sport we watch and so on. Rather than hide this, marketers should shout about it.

Image: Dr Robert Cluley.This interview is based on "The depiction of marketing and marketers in the news media" in European Journal of Marketing.

Dr Robert Cluley is Assistant Professor in Marketing at the University of Nottingham.

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