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Marketing is not just something you do. It’s a window into the soul of your business

By Chris Brock, Editor



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January 11, 2023 | 9 min read

We are all marketing all the time, whether we like it or not, says Scoop & Spoon’s Chris Brock. Here, he tells The Drum just how much authenticity matters.

Scrabble tiles spelling out 'Who are you?'

Marketing, says Scoop and Spoon, is more about who you really are than what you have to say / Brett Jordan via Unsplash

What is marketing? Is it a product? A service? As an industry, it’s a solution that we offer to customers; something that can be bought and implemented to deliver an outcome. In this sense, it’s easy to see marketing as a tool, like a mechanic’s wrench. Marketing fixes a problem, or fine-tunes a strength, or builds something new. But this view is simplistic, describing marketing as an activity, or action – a thing that you do outside your regular business operations.

But marketing is something that happens even when we’re not consciously ‘doing’ it. It offers a window into the soul of our clients; it’s something that happens in the way they turn up every day. As experts, if our activities to augment this intrinsic personality of our clients are not applied appropriately and with a wider, more holistic appreciation of who they are (and their vision and values), it can do as much harm as good.

What’s your nature?

All too often we see marketing as an add-on activity to promote an organization or its products. But while effective marketing can certainly help businesses achieve their goals, the truth is that marketing is often an unflinching reflection of an organization’s true nature, whether you like it or not.

When a business’s marketing activities are aligned with its values and culture, they can be an effective form of promotion, reflecting the company and its products. Good marketing becomes congruous with the way the organization shows up day-to-day; the company’s values and everyday operations become an almost subliminal part of its marketing.

But when conscious marketing activities are misaligned with these cultures and values, the results can be disastrous, highlighting a broken value system. Just look at the fossil fuel industry, brewer Brewdog, and Pepsi for recent examples.

To most of us, it’s no surprise that big oil’s commitments to clean up are little more than greenwashing, but as recently as last year internal documents from Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and BP, revealed commitments to further fossil fuel exploration. Their very public green credentials were a conscious and shallow attempt to change their image, not to save the world. With their marketing so out of whack with their real priorities, is it any wonder that public perception of the oil industry is so negative? Is it any wonder they are broadly considered to be the ‘enemy’?

Similarly, Brewdog’s reputation for scoring own goals deepened recently when it criticized World Cup host Qatar’s human rights record, while selling products in the country. This follows other cockups such as its pink ‘beer for girls’; its claim that its fruit-flavored beers contributed to your five-a-day, and an internal backlash after employees decried a ‘toxic’ internal culture.

And who could forget, amid the Black Lives Matter protests, Pepsi teaming up with Kendal Jenner to suggest that if protesters merely offered the police a can, it might bring closure to hundreds of years of social injustice? As Bernice King, Martin Luther King’s daughter, commented, “if only daddy had known the power of Pepsi.”

Sure, there’s some mileage in the old saying ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’. Certainly, big oil and Brewdog are rarely out of the news. But if you’re going to alienate a portion of your market, why not do it for the right reasons, and authentically to your brand?

Standing for something

Ice cream makers Ben and Jerry are outspoken on issues including criminal justice reform, the Israel/Palestine conflict, and Black Lives Matter. They aren’t afraid to lose business because of it, even pulling their ice cream from sale in Israel-occupied territories. This may drive some customers away, but by putting their money where their mouth is they have built a fan base of committed customers who will choose them first.

Volvo, meanwhile, pledged to stop producing combustion vehicles by 2030, way ahead of the legal requirement to do so. Apple has committed to making devices as beautiful on the inside as they are on the outside; Lego uses its marketing as an extension of its purpose. Then there’s Patagonia’s pledge to pour all profits into protecting the planet: far more than a marketing gimmick, it’s in complete alignment with founder Yvon Chouinard’s foundational values.

When done right, gimmicks can work. Stand-alone campaigns can hit the spot. Clever advertising sells. Controversy grabs column inches. But if your marketing agenda does not reflect who you really are, but simply who you want to be, perhaps the first task should be to drill down into what you really stand for.

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For oil giants with a commitment to oil, targeting an audience not at odds with this commitment, using authentic messaging, will be more effective than paying lip service to something that opposes who they really are. If they want to clean up their appearance without cleaning up their act first, perhaps that demands a difficult conversation.

Marketing is not just about the messaging you share with the world, but a reflection of how you show up every day. Every action a company takes is marketing; a message about who they think they are. It’s about what they stand for, what’s important to them, how they operate, and what their personality is. Once you get clear on these things, everything else flows.

As marketers, we owe a duty of care to our customers. Before we start brainstorming the next great ad campaign, we should simply ask them: ‘what matters to you the most?’

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