Is Marketing The Devil’s Art?

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The latest blog post is written by Martin Williams, a member of UWE’s Applied Marketing Research Group.


In 2012, I was the Sales & Marketing Director at the ecological attraction and charity the Eden Project. I wrote an email to my colleagues on the Leadership Team proposing we do some market research. My boss, co-founder Sir Tim Smit, emailed me a reply in which he said “Marketing is the Devil’s art”; I wrote back “I thought that was rock ‘n’ roll” but it got me thinking. I left Eden the following year, but working there had made me interested in sustainable and ethical marketing and I wanted to keep exploring this area. Is marketing really the work of the Devil?

I gained my Masters in Marketing at UWE in the early Nineties and, to me, the discipline was fundamentally about meeting customers’ needs. After leaving UWE, I worked in bookselling for Bertelsmann before moving on to LEGO, where I held lots of different roles. Nothing in my experience suggested marketing was ruining the planet, but over time, I became aware that not everyone shared that view. I wondered how the principles of marketing could improve the world and set out to find some answers, interviewing people smarter than I am to unpick this issue.

I started with Tim, the first interviewee on my blog at thedevilsart.com and the man who unwittingly launched me on my journey. I asked him why he thought marketing was the Devil’s art and he told me it was because “it’s about temptation without necessarily concerning itself with the substance.” I wanted to explore this idea of temptation further, and although I’m not particularly religious, I managed to speak with the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, who felt that an issue with marketing was that, beyond pure temptation, it often created a feeling of anxiety, “a spiral of competitive, anxious self-doubting and rivalrous mentality”.

Conversations often turned to marketing’s role in driving consumption. Tim said that another reason he felt marketing was the Devil’s art was because “I think it has been used to create market forces that are currently out of control, which means we have a global economy that is dependent on consumption, that we know we can’t sustain.” When I interviewed Richard Hall, author of Brilliant Marketing, he argued that marketing is less effective at doing that than marketers like to admit!

Nevertheless, a key theme throughout the conversations was one of growth, and the role of marketing in driving it, on a planet of finite resources. Rowan Williams said “we just have to keep asking the question ‘Growth for what?’ or ‘Growth in what?’”. For John Grant, Anita Roddick’s former agency head and the acknowledged expert in sustainable marketing, the answer is rather like managing a forest where “as new things grow, other things have to be chopped down and that’s government and society’s job”. For Chris Hines MBE, co-founder of Surfers Against Sewage, growth isn’t bad per se, the problem is “consumption-based growth” and pointed to the Circular Economy as a possible solution, often using different business models, such as renting goods instead of selling them.

The answer to Rowan Williams’ question ‘Growth for what?’ might be business purpose. John Grant told me that if your work has “been in the service of something, you will end up feeling that you’ve left something worth doing behind, as opposed to just a series of humorous lucky escapes and get rich quick schemes”. The social entrepreneur, Liam Black, co-founder of Fifteen with Jamie Oliver, cautioned that “purpose might get you into the conversation, but what will keep you there is the quality of the product.”

For several of my interviewees, however, one issue is that, in the words of Smit, “often people casually start to use the word ‘consumer’ as opposed to ‘people’”. TED speaker Jon Alexander, founder of the New Citizenship Project, told me that seeing others as people first can be transformative: “Rather than just ‘What can people buy from us?’ you ask ‘How can people be part of it?’”. Jon feels digital marketing is part of the solution as it promotes interaction: “In a society dominated by the internet, you have that kind of network diagram, many producers, many consumers, many different interactions, and fundamentally you have a many-to-many society.”

So is marketing really the Devil’s art? Whilst a champion of the discipline, Hall said that “it isn’t necessarily and always a force for good, of course not, because it can be used as Goebbels used it for his own purposes to great effect”. Rather, it’s a neutral thing – Liam Black told me “Take this glass. I could drink water out of it, I could give a glass of water to the homeless guy outside, or I could smash you in the face with it. It’s not the glass, it’s what use that’s put to. I feel the same way about marketing.”

What gives marketing its power is the ability to tell stories. Chris Hines said “So is marketing the Devil’s art? No it’s not! It’s an art. If the Devil uses it, then stuff the Devil – we can do better. And if you’ve got a good story and you’re using the art of marketing, you’ll win.” Last word on the subject must go to Tim Smit again, who told me “I think that marketing is the only thing that can save the human race right now, by giving us a different vision of ourselves to live up to.”

I’ve already learned a lot from running my blog, and it’s made me think about what I do and its impact on the world. This post is just an amuse bouche, but I get into a lot more depth with my interviewees at thedevilsart.com and there are more interviews coming in 2022.

Applying behaviour change techniques to the COVID-19 pandemic

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Alan Tapp, Professor of Marketing at Bristol Business School, UWE Bristol, is currently advising local government on how behavioural science and social marketing theory can be applied in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In February 2021, Professor Tapp was briefed by South Gloucestershire Council Public Health & Wellbeing Division, and Public Health Dorset which serves Dorset and Bournemouth, Christchurch, and Poole, to use his expertise in behaviour change to inform local government activities aimed at encouraging compliance with COVID-19 regulations. The project focused in particular on social distancing between 16-29-year olds, an age group deemed less likely to adhere to government advice on social distancing.

Professor Tapp directed a qualitative research study to better understand the attitudes and behaviours of young people at the height of the second wave of the pandemic in the UK. Alan commissioned YouGov, a well-known polling company, for this work. YouGov undertook online mini-groups with 3 or 4 respondents and an online forum that allowed a larger group of 20+ respondents to write down their experiences of the pandemic and their lives, and then move to their views about how they and ‘other people’ behave.

The findings from this study, which highlighted how young people felt demonised and targeted by the media, informed Professor Tapp’s brief to Public Health Dorset’s advertising agency to create a communication campaign specifically targeted to this age group.

One element of the communications campaign developed by the agency was a set of 45-second videos for YouTube, Facebook, and other social media platforms. A key consideration was that the campaign needed to be informative, authoritative, and credible, but also simultaneously engaging and interesting so as to encourage liking and sharing.

One of four ‘Know the Risks’ videos aimed at 16-29 year age group
Thank you video, from Public Health England

Following on from this project, Professor Tapp is now engaged with a second project regarding the willingness of the public to self-administer regular lateral flow tests. This project is aimed at all UK adults, as authorities are trying to increase the take-up of testing and asking people to self-isolate if they have a positive result. This is being met with some reticence from the public because, while the down side to testing and self-isolating is obvious (potential loss of income and freedom just as legal restrictions are reducing), the benefits are much less clear. Whilst there is always the appeal to people to test for the good of others rather than just themselves, in self-contained societies such as the UK this is arguably less likely to be successful than a campaign based on self-interest.

Professor Tapp is directing a second stage of research to fully understand the extent of resistance to self-testing. Once this has been discovered, another creative campaign to encourage the public to engage with testing will be created as we transition into the cold and flu season of Autumn and Winter.

As this project progresses, Professor Tapp is really keen to share findings with other regional authorities as he really believes there is a strong need for greater data sharing and transparency so that we can all benefit from research such as this.

To find out more contact Alan on alan.tapp@uwe.ac.uk

Playing the blues- the cocreation of happiness

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Professor Tim Hughes’s experience of playing and performing blues music got him thinking about how an individual’s happiness or subjective well-being is often co-created with many other people. Given a long-term interest in co-creation of value Tim, together with Associate Professor Mario Vafeas, have recently been examining co-creation of happiness as an area that is not covered in the existing marketing literature.

In a recently published article in Marketing Theory, Hughes and Vafeas discuss co-creation in a musical context. The sound coming from an instrument depends on the quality and set-up of the instrument and the skills and feel of the player (co-creation with instrument suppliers and technicians). Learning an instrument is often facilitated by regular lessons (co-creation with tutors or video material on the internet). In performance, a feeling of happiness is co-created with the audience and experienced in applause and feedback. Music clubs are typically social events involving connecting with other people relating strongly to co-creation of well-being.

From face-to-face to digital

Then came the 2020 pandemic, resulting in sustained lock-downs, limiting face-to- face interactions and leading to an unprecedent change in the behaviour of much of the population with the widespread use of digital platforms, such as Zoom, for interacting with each other. This prompted Hughes and Vafeas together with Dr Ed Little to conduct a research study aimed at exploring individual’s co-creation using digital platforms for work and leisure interactions in relation to these individual’s perceptions of their own happiness/well -being during lockdown periods. The research which has not yet been submitted for publication, involved two stages, initial interviews to explore respondents’ views which then informed the development of an online questionnaire for the second stage of research. The survey in the second stage resulted in 178 useable responses.

The most important finding is that respondents who used digital platforms gave significantly higher wellbeing scores than those who did not. This finding applied both in terms of relatedness, that is the individual’s sense of connection people have with others and in terms of eudonic wellbeing, that is their evaluation of their self -actualisation and functioning. Human relationships are highly important to human happiness but the pandemic lockdown severely limited the ability for people to meet up with others in the traditional face-to-face manner that they have been able to for most of their adult life-times. The use of digital platforms went some way to make up for this. Comments on the role of digital platforms related particularly to the connection to family and friends and the ability to maintain some social activities. Despite this, interaction through digital platforms was rated significantly lower than face-to-face interaction for both work and social meetings. While digital platforms were effective for getting things done, they were seen as lacking the emotional connection with other participants of face-to-face.

What about the future?

A consideration of the role of co-creation in human happiness poses important questions for social policy in the light of the social challenge of loneliness and exclusion amongst aging populations. A better understanding of the role that digital platforms have in supporting the co-creation of happiness has potentially significant implications for the future. On a personal note. Tim Hughes continued to perform to virtual audiences on Zoom throughout the pandemic lockdowns, taking part in sessions that involved both local, national and international participants. Tim feels that this opportunity greatly helped in maintaining his sense of well-being over the period and indeed led him to connect with other performers who he would never have met face-to-face.

Why personality matters

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In the recent furore around Cambridge Analytica’s political marketing, much of the attention focused on ethics.  Yet, the company’s approach was based on some really interesting academic studies examining differences in consumers’ personality traits. 

There are many ways of describing a person – or in marketing terms ‘a consumer’.  Often we use demographic descriptors such as gender or age, and maybe also geographic details such as country of origin or even postcode.  Yet, when describing a person we know, often we use words to depict a person’s character.  This can also be referred to as a person’s personality.

During research in the 20th century, researchers examined the words used to describe personality and discovered that many could be distilled down to just five basic characteristics known as personality ‘traits’: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.  Each of us has a different level of each trait, giving us each a unique personality.  These traits in turn have been shown to each correlate with specific behaviours.  For example, my recent literature review on extraversion and social media showed that there are particular types of behaviour that are more likely for those higher in extraversion.  

Based on a systematic search (i.e. a trawl through 1,000s of papers on this topic), this literature review identified 182 studies linking extraversion and social media behaviour.  The findings of these previous papers showed several trends, such as ‘extraverts’ being likely to use social media, extraverts spending more time using one or more social media platforms, and a higher likelihood that extraverts regularly create content.  The findings also show parallels to known offline behaviour associated with those higher in extraversion, such as a desire for social attention and a tendency to display positivity.  

Based on information that consumers make available to platforms such as Facebook and Google, marketers now tend to know a lot about consumers.  Modern ‘microtargeting’ methods then enable marketers to pinpoint the consumers they intend to reach with marketing content such as adverts.  Although currently it’s difficult to know exactly which personality traits a consumer scores highly in, it is often possible to estimate likely traits based on behavioural information, and then produce appropriate content .

Microtargeting is of course an area of marketing itself that some consumers feel uncomfortable with.  Cambridge Analytica also came under fire in particular for the methods it used to obtain data apparently used in its campaigns.  Yet, where permission has been expressly granted, microtargeting on the basis of personality traits is an interesting area of innovation for the marketing industry, and one that consumers ought to be aware of.  Of course, it is also an intriguing topic for future research as we explore the potential effects as well as the ethical limits in the eyes of consumers.

This post was written by Tom Bowden-Green, Senior Lecturer in Marketing and member of the Applied Marketing Research Group at Bristol Business School, UWE Bristol.

Successful Client-Agency Briefing: Mission impossible?

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In a survey I conducted a few years ago, I was keen to discover what agencies thought about the quality of the briefing process. The results were disconcerting, though not surprising. For example, asked to score the statement ‘Clients are good at writing briefs’, with 7 as strongly agree and 1 as strongly disagree, the average score from 150 completed questionnaires was 2.88. Similarly, the average score for ‘The brief provides the information we need’ was 2.85. Essentially, both scores are the wrong side of the midpoint of the scale. These scores matter because the briefing document and briefing process are fundamental to agency effectiveness and efficiency. The brief provides direction, information, and scope. The adage ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’ was never more germane.

In an effort to understand why briefing is, more often than not, a flawed process, I interviewed 35 senior clients. Reassuringly, they all acknowledged the importance of the brief, the resources they need to contribute to the process, and their co-creative role in the quality of the outcome. Furthermore, they admitted that agencies did not always receive the quality of brief they deserved. What emerged from the interviews was that clients face tensions emanating from contradictory demands, resulting in a deficit of resources allocated to the brief. They are pulled in two directions and a simple compromise is not always the best solution. Analysis of my research with clients revealed six tensions that, individually or collectively, compromise the brief and briefing process. The benefit of talking to experienced clients was that they were also able to identify potential solutions to these paradoxes.

Attention

In the words of one client: “We’re guilty of cutting corners, not because of laziness but because of a false impression that we’re being efficient. I have so many tasks to complete in a day that the brief is left to the last minute, because it’s perceived as onerous.” Clients grapple with the tension of devoting quality time to writing a brief versus tackling their multitude of daily tasks. The proposed solution was a co-crafted brief, which demands less time from the client. The brief is also superior because the agency can capture the information it needs and ensure client and agency interpretations are aligned from the start. Clients also admitted that they are not always able to articulate what they want in a brief. Talking it through with the agency helps to crystallise their thoughts.

Information

Clients appreciate that without sufficient information the agency is paralysed. On the other hand, they are aware that too much information leaves the agency looking for the needle in a haystack, unable to isolate the essence of the problem. The proposed solution was a jointly developed briefing template that ensures agencies receive the information they need at the start of the project. This approach delivers a ‘complementary’ benefit too. It demonstrates the client’s respect for the agency which helps maintain agency motivation.

Expertise

“I can’t be involved with the agency on a day-to-day basis. I have to delegate and it’s only right for my team to own projects and learn on the job. Inevitably, they will make mistakes.” Clients struggle with the obligation to delegate the task of briefing to juniors versus agency demands to receive the brief from the expert so as to avoid the risk of misinterpretation. Of course, senior managers can monitor the work of juniors, but the more novel approach was for agencies to take control and train juniors in the art of briefing. There is a synergy too from this approach. It builds a relationship with the junior manager and demonstrates agency goodwill which strengthens the client-agency relationship.

Time

“It isn’t how it used to be. I say to my boss ‘If you want a good job, I need six months. If you want a reasonable job, I need three months.’ He says, ‘You’ve got three weeks’.”

Clients acknowledge agencies need a sufficient allocation of time to do a good job, and yet are constrained by tight deadlines. Rather than simply reducing the time available, some clients would invite agencies to strategic planning meetings at the start of the year to make them aware of upcoming jobs. This allows an element of resource planning within the agency and the potential to mull over potential approaches to larger jobs in advance of the brief. This level of involvement and demonstration of trust in the agency has the added benefit of making it feel more like a partner than a supplier.

Autonomy

“You need to give the agency some slack. I have to remind myself to focus on the problem not the solution. If I step into their territory and start being prescriptive, what am I paying them for?”

Respondents depicted a paradox of, on the one hand, conceding freedom to the agency to be creative, while at the same time grappling with the need to provide sufficient direction to ensure the outcome meets expectations first time. The proposed solution is, rather than wait with bated breath to see the agency’s solutions only to risk them being off-target, schedule a series of ‘tissue meetings’ to ensure that respective interpretations of the brief remain aligned and ideas are both creative and relevant. In this way, the process oscillates between periods of freedom and control, keeping the process on track without demotivating the creative team.

Risk

“We might say to the agency ‘Yeah, do some left-field stuff’ but in reality, we aren’t going there. There is a lot of conservative pressure within the organization.”

While clients hire external agencies to access originality, they are constrained by internal stakeholders and pressure to achieve a return on investment that ultimately encourages incremental rather than radical change. This can be incredibly demotivating to agencies who see their ideas diluted until they are unrecognisable. The proposed solution was to encourage agencies to take an 80/20 approach with 80% ‘safe’ and 20% boundary breaking response to a brief. Although the radical ideas are unlikely to be progressed immediately, they can prompt a re-assessment of the brand’s positioning.

What can we draw from this? First, clients are aware of agency frustration around the briefing process. Second, they want to help and are prepared to explore alternative ways of working. However, there is, unfortunately, a ‘but’. The proposed solutions require additional resource investment by agencies. Finally, not all clients are as enlightened as those I was fortunate to speak to. The proposed solutions won’t work in all scenarios. In less-than-ideal situations, agencies have to decide if they can tolerate working with a particular client and if the benefits outweigh the pain.


This post was written by Mario Vafeas, Associate Professor of Marketing & Leader of the Applied Marketing Research Group at Bristol Business School, UWE Bristol.