Marketing and well-being: A possible paradox, or a paradox of what is possible?
Institutional Communication Service
3 April 2019
by Luca M. Visconti, Full professor of Marketing and Director of the Master in Marketing and Transformative Economy, USI Faculty of Communication Sciences
The wisdom of marketing is as old as men. Throughout the centuries it has been imperative to improve exchange relationships, understand the needs of others, efficiently communicate, and innovate.
Marketing as a subject has however more recent roots: the first definition of marketing was formulated from an idea of the American Marketing Association (AMA) only in 1935. Following the great depression of 1929, politicians and companies decided to turn this general knowledge into a science with the aim of preventing another Black Tuesday.
The science of marketing has had a tremendous effect on economy in less than a century. It is currently estimated that one third of graduates in management have embarked on marketing-related careers and that about half of the price paid for goods and services is used to cover marketing costs. It is expected that global marketing investments will reach 1.3 billion CHF per year by 2010, almost twice as Switzerland’s current GDP.
Beyond its economic impact, marketing has also influenced major socio-cultural changes, such as the birth of consumer society, and the introduction of a symbol-driven economy (the so-called brand economy) Although the effects of these changes are not exclusively negative, it is clear that marketing is linked to an economy of waste, to the exploitation of natural resources, and to the marginalisation of those who have, and therefore spend less money.
During a time where it is believed that the next Black Tuesday is approaching, the Master in Marketing and Transformative Economy kicks off at USI Università della Svizzera italiana: a two-year specialisation on the role that marketing should/could have today, while taking into consideration its power and the risks involved.
It is easy to summarise what is new in this programme, which is also, to our knowledge, unique on an international scale. The Master suggests a different answer to the question that has always been the foundation of our discipline: “What does it mean to be customer oriented?” According to the AMA, which embodies tradition and orthodoxy in the field, being customer oriented means steering the company’s activities towards customer satisfaction. As marketing and society change, marketing experts have constantly identified new levers to satisfy customers. During the ‘70s a switch has been made from product marketing to service marketing, implying that customers were more interested in the intangible part of an offer. From the ‘90s onward it was believed that consumers were more attracted to the experience rather than the product/service itself. Nowadays emphasis is put on sharing experiences (e.g. on social media), on their claimed authenticity or, again, on their customisation. Not to mention the great discussion on how the experience is now distributed over a variety of on- and off-line points of contact between the company and the customer (the so-called 'customer journey'). This traditional approach, however, has never called into question the ultimate goal of marketing - customer satisfaction - even though over time it has identified different levers to achieve it (product, service, experience, sharing, brand, etc.).
In contrast with this tradition, we propose a different objective than customer satisfaction: personal and societal well-being. The concept of well-being is fairly recent in marketing (it worked its way into the field timidly about 10 years ago), although it is already of great interest to researchers and managers. We must warn against the risk that pairing marketing and well-being could become an extreme attempt to dignify a discipline that has received increasing criticism over the last three decades (at least). That being said, a serious discussion on how well-being orientation could reform marketing is convincing for several reasons.
First, to think that marketing practice and marketing research should aim at the well-being of clients and society invites to consider the interdependence between individual choice and its effect on the community. For far too long marketing has taken into consideration only the customer’s individual needs, an attitude that new technologies have fostered (today, each customer is potentially treated as a distinct target).
Secondly, the concept of well-being is multidimensional. In other words, personal and societal well-being comprise different aspects, such as economic, social, emotional, physical, spiritual, environmental, and political well-being. This means that companies could augment their customers' well-being by acting on other levers than economic well-being. As we witness, pursuing a constant increase in economic well-being is associated with over-consumption, with repercussions not only on environmental sustainability, but also on new forms of poverty as per 'social poverty' (the sentiment of being poor for having less than others have).
Thirdly, targeting marketing objectives to well-being opens up to countless business opportunities, as it allows companies to rethink their role as socio-economic actors. For example, a moving company tries to move personal belongings in a fast, convenient, and safe way, in order to gain customer satisfaction. Should the same company think in terms of customer well-being, it would come to the conclusion that moving is much more than bringing objects from one place to another. Said company could therefore offer new services such as support in finding a home and/or school for the children, help in filling out administrative papers related to the change of residence, etc.
Lastly, a marketing strategy oriented towards customer well-being could turn out to be a more socially responsible way of doing business. Too often corporate social responsibility has served as an armour to protect business transactions, while giving them a reformed appearance.
In sum, the Master in Marketing and Transformative Economy simply posits that marketing has made the pair marketing-well-being paradoxical. Far from having all the answers, the programme aims at bringing together some of the best experts and international students, with the goal of getting them involved in a critical discussion on marketing and how this discipline can become a transformative lever for today’s economy and society. In short, on how the pair marketing-well-being could become a plausible paradox.
The original version of this article, in Italian, is published in Ticino Welcome magazine (n. 61, March-May, pp. 178-179)