The Marketing Archipelago – a reflection on how we understand the concept of marketing

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If somebody would ask you to explain marketing what would you say? Those of you who are marketing students, scholars, or professionals probably have an understanding of what marketing is, grounded in your own experiences and use of marketing. But marketing has some meaning for many others too, including consumers. Here is the problem: marketing means different things to different people. The end result is a diversity of meanings of marketing that we do not easily recognize but hinders communication.

For some, marketing comes in size S (small): it is equal to marketing communication managed by a marketing department in a commercial setting with the intent to acquire and keep customers. Earlier, this meant focusing on advertising campaigns, nowadays it is based on digital and social media. Marketing is in other words what the marketing department does. Some argue according to this view that sales is not marketing, neither are the other well-known Ps, product development, pricing and distribution (place) in Philip Kotler’s Marketing Management book.

In contrast, marketing in L (large) size considers marketing not as a function but more as a business perspective positioned on a strategic level. This is how marketing has been seen at Hanken since I started my studies in marketing about fifty years ago.  Ironically, then it was the Department of Market Economy and we changed the name in the 80’s to Department of Marketing to align with current thinking. Marketing in L size also comes in the shapes of service marketing and management, customer relationship management, business-to-business marketing; all of these still retaining the idea that marketing mainly has to do with commercial goals and interests, starting from business model design and corporate strategy. These perspectives have been the foundation for Hanken’s research institute CERS Centre for Relationship Marketing and Service management.

Marketing is currently expanding its scope to a XL size: a responsibility perspective where systems in many layers are in focus, sustainability and wellbeing are goals beyond company profitability and success and recognizing all the organization’s stakeholders is considered essential. Transformative Service Research has emerged as movement within service research to address the well-being of individuals and communities, often recognizing those that are in a vulnerable situation. Similarly, the American Marketing Association has recently initiated discussion groups about BMBW (Better Marketing for a Better World) resulting in thematic sessions at conferences and special issues (such as the recent issue in Journal of Marketing). In service and business marketing theorizing about ecosystems are increasingly in focus rather than the focal company. Technology developments have inspired to broaden the perspective on marketing.

In fact, it would be fair to put “marketing” within citation marks to indicate that there is almost no shared meaning of what “marketing” is, although the term is commonly used by many. Depending on whether you apply a S, L or XL perspective on marketing you end up in discussing completely different issues.

To be very practical: how do you describe to a new student at Hanken what marketing is and what you can become by studying marketing, how do you explain marketing to those in organizations that do not have a formal marketing training, and how do you describe to those that have a marketing training that the term is the same but the content has completely changed?

In my view, based on my observations in the last decades, there is metaphorically no single Marketing Island where all marketing people live. Instead, it seems more to be a big archipelago consisting of bigger and smaller islands down to skerries that barely rise above the water. The islands represent different understandings of “marketing”, like business-to-business marketing, service management, service design, branding, consumer behaviour, digital marketing, customer relationship management, macromarketing, social marketing; many populated by several scholarly tribes with different language and gurus. As marketing had a specific meaning when the concept was invented decades ago the relevant question today would be: what is the essence of “marketing” as a phenomenon today, and is marketing the most appropriate term anymore?  

Perhaps one way forward is to reconsider the American Marketing Association’s current definition of marketing from 2017, which is essentially a satellite picture of the proposed Marketing Archipelago; it might be inclusive but not very informative on the ground level: “Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.”

In increasingly dynamic environments where “offerings that have value” is a moving target and organizations continuously struggle to meet emerging challenges, a proactive exploration of new islands might be necessary. In practice this means taking the risk of trying out new perspectives, conceptual frameworks, and concepts to understand emerging changes. Fortunately, CERS is an excellent home base for such expeditions.  

Tore Strandvik
Professor Emeritus