Marketers need to take a different approach if they want to earn consumer trust. says Mikko Kotila, Principal at

End of an Era

Consumer spending is now responsible for more than half the global economy and marketing is one of the significant forces driving that trend. But while marketing has driven job creation and other economic benefits, in recent decades some of its practices have become a cause of concern. More than one in four internet users in US are using an ad blocker, with double digit year-on-year growth, and overall trust in media and advertising have reached an all-time low.

A recent study found that only 3% of Americans "completely trust" advertisements, and 50% outright don’t trust the ads they see, read or hear. In an even more concerning finding, PEW reported that only 12% of respondents said they believe advertisers to do the right thing most of the time.

Changes in people, culture and capital markets are increasingly calling for a change in the way marketing is conducted.

Mad Men or Bad Men?

If we argue that a marketing decision often has a negative outcome in the world, even if it may lead to a sales lift or another effect that appears positive, then that decision must have been taken by one person or a discrete group of people.

Thus the impact of that decision – which is negative – is caused by one person or a small group of people. Although organisational structure can drive people to make bad decisions, at a senior level individuals usually have the power to step out of those structures or to reshape them.

Thus while an individual’s decisions are not always dependent on the organisation, the organisation’s decisions are almost entirely made by individual decision-makers.

Our goal should be for marketing practitioners to change individually since an organisational change is merely a reflection of individual change.

Games of Strategy

Over the last 50 years, Game Theory has helped to explain and influence behaviour in virtually every field of commerce and science. This rings particularly true for the marketing practice. Insertion orders, media planning models, awards and promotions are examples of non-cooperative games that are referred to as “zero-sum” games in Game Theory. In short, they are scenarios in which one party can win only at the expense of others.

Zero-sum games are psychologically-speaking difficult for participants. There is the idea that you have to win but at the expense of others. Participants become opponents, and the game becomes non-cooperative.

This creates conditions where it is very hard to make decisions other than those that are focused on meeting individual short-term goals. Thus the marketing industry is trapped in a cycle of conduct that aims towards short-term gain even if it was for the detriment of others. At the very least, we can agree that this is how the public sees it.

By contrast, a cooperative mental process such as cognition is based on the idea that it’s OK to lose every now and then. In other words, the participant makes the notion of the possibility of a loss as one acceptable outcome.

Ironically this should not be too hard to accept, given that no brand wins every time. The important difference is that when we are OK with the idea of losing, we are more likely to develop cooperative ideas and behaviours.

Without this, it will be very hard or impossible for marketing practitioners to hold proper conduct while engaging in their practice. 

Marketing as a Force for Good

The marketing industry needs to understand that the way marketers behave is not only a cause for economic success but that it also has a wider role in human social progress.

First and foremost, marketing must become genuinely about relationships as opposed to just appearing to be about relationships while actually being about transactions.

The basic principle of marketing communications should be that the communication itself already has value. Even if the person exposed to it would never buy the product, they must still have gained some value from the brand interaction.

This is also the true meaning of social responsibility. Socially responsible behaviour understands that every interaction can add value, even those that did not return short-term commercial gain. This can only happen if marketers give up the idea of prioritising short-term gain.

The old non-cooperative approaches are quickly becoming obsolete thanks to the transparency internet have brought to the way brands and their communications impact people.

The positive approaches briefly outlined here, will naturally lead marketing practice to something that has real value to the society beyond mere economic impact.

Free Your Mind

To become truthful, and to earn people’s trust, marketers must adopt planning methods, buying methods and ideas that are cooperative by nature. It could be as simple as choosing to “create new market” rather than “steal share from competitors” a little more than you would have in the past. 

The marketer is in a good position to make these changes. Marketing practice has relied very effectively on the kinds of behavioural change methods associated with non-cooperative mental processes. The marketer has to more or less continue doing the same thing, but with an increased focus on applying behavioural change techniques on themselves.

The focus must also shift away from non-cooperative approach to cooperative approach. In short, the marketer must adopt methods that are associated with cooperative mental processes.

The marketer as an individual has the power to do this within their everyday job, gradually changing over time. The marketer simply has to apply a systemic way to change his or her own behaviour.

Given that the practice of marketing is based on the premise of influencing people’s behaviour, this should be completely within what we can do. As individuals slowly change, the organisations will automatically follow and in turn the organisations that they represent will slowly start having a more positive impact on society at large.