Time for a new definition of marketing?

Time for a new definition of marketing?

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Coming up with a definition for marketing seems like a never-ending challenge with no universally accepted definition for the profession. Public relations seems to suffer with a similar inability to define itself too.

I did wonder why having a definition really matters, but in reality a clear definition of a profession is important for those who work within it and to help increase understanding of the profession from outside.

Perhaps some of the commonly held views of the two professions from outsiders come from the lack of clarity of definition (my particular favourites being marketing = sales and public relations = spin).

The UK’s Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) has one of the most commonly cited definitions of marketing:

The management process responsible for identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirements profitably.

Quite succinct, with a balance of what marketers do (“the management process”), who it’s about (“customer requirements”) and why they do it (“profitably”), although the last aspect does ignore much marketing that takes place for reasons that are not about profit, such as in the public and voluntary sectors.

But now CIM is proposing a new definition. According to the coverage I’ve seen (MyCustomer.com, BrandRepublic, themarketingblog, creative match, mad.co.uk) the revised definition is proposed in a new Shape the Agenda paper from the institute, although at the time of writing I can find no reference to it on the CIM website or the Shape the Agenda website.

So, according to the reports, CIM says marketing is now:

The strategic business function that creates value by stimulating, facilitating and fulfilling customer demand.

It does this by building brands, nurturing innovation, developing relationships, creating good customer service and communicating benefits.

By operating customer-centrically, marketing brings positive returns on investment, satisfies shareholders and stakeholders from business and the community, and contributes to positive behavioural change and a sustainable business future.

You what? Having recovered from nearly choking on my coffee let’s look at this a bit more.

As I can’t find a copy of the full white paper on the web I clearly can’t comment on the rationale, but let’s just think about the proposed definition.

The shift in balance of emphasis from management process to customer can’t be argued with. Neither can the catch-all outcome of value creation – which covers the diverse concept of value in the different sectors where marketing plays a role.

The coverage suggests CIM and the report’s author, David Thorp (CIM’s director of research and information), think that the definition will improve outsider perception of the profession. I struggle to see how this is true – I’d suggest most people outside, and a fair number within, the profession won’t have the faintest idea what the definition means.

The combination of such a broad definition that could encompass aspects of sales, public relations, customer services, human resources and organisational development, along with some buzzword bingo classics like “operating customer-centrically” and “sustainable business future”, really doesn’t hit the mark.

The reality is marketers do not operate in a sealed bubble – they have to work alongside professionals in other disciplines to deliver just about anything, but that doesn’t mean that these other disciplines and their outputs are really part of marketing.

To me this all suggests a real lack of clarity of thinking about what the profession actually is. Like PR, marketing is a composite profession, consisting of a number of loosely affiliated disciplines with similar but not identical goals.

With such a composite profession, there will always be internal tensions and debate about what’s “in” and what’s “outside” the definition of the profession. With this new definition it says to me that rather than try to isolate the core essence of marketing and the marketing approach to doing business, CIM is taking the “big tent” approach and trying to encompass every activity in the definition.

For me the only way to come up with a sustainable definition of marketing is to consider what makes marketing different from any of its allied professions – the core essence of the marketing approach that makes it distinct. Combining this with a focus on outcomes – what marketing achieves – would be a better approach to definition.

Sorry CIM, this really doesn’t do it for me.

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stephanedelbecque/

[tags]marketing, definitions, cim, chartered+institute of marketing, buzzword+bingo[/tags]


I work with technology-centric businesses as an interim Chief Operating Officer (COO), consultant and advisor. I created the B3 framework® for scaling technology businesses and I write a newsletter called Build for leaders who are building brilliant companies.