The freedom to choose.
Now I understand.
Marketing is so much more than efficiently offering products and services to people that they want. Marketing is a fundamental process to a free society; it is a Right.
Marketing and brands offer consumers choice; without choice, there is no freedom. Conversely, a repressive society must limit marketing because it would cultivate an appetite for choice, desire, and citizens (rather than the state) wanting to be in control. That is the true meaning of brands and advertising; they are an essential part of the fabric of a culture built on freedom.
What opened my eyes to the larger societal contribution of the practice of marketing was interviewing (with the help of Sheila Terry, formerly of Kraft) six people of various generations who grew up in essentially brandless worlds; The Soviet Union, Hungary, Poland, and Cuba. What was their life like? What happened when brands became available to them either in their country or because they emigrated?
State-run economies were the antithesis of a consumer-driven economy. In fact, as Sheila concluded, “consumers, as we know them, did not exist in these cultures; consumer as boss would be unthinkable in a supply-driven economy.”
Listen to how people described their experiences.
About choice and availability:
Cuba was a world of restrictions; here (in the US) we have possibilities.
You had a ration card…one pair of shoes, so many panties; half a pound of meat every month (Cuba)
You had to decrease your desires (Hungary)
If you saw a queue, you got on it. You would wait 1-4 hours and maybe not even get anything.
Sometimes you would even buy things you didn’t need just because it was available. (Soviet Union)
Rude service. They were better than you. They were in possession of what you wanted. (Soviet Union)
About product quality
Everyone assumed products from other countries were better because we knew life was better elsewhere (All)
Produce in government stores was rotten. Although it was 6-10 times more expensive, 35% of fruits and vegetables were bought in private markets. (Soviet Union)
About shopping experience
What was shopping like? Imagine hundreds of identical bottles of vinegar on the store shelf (Poland)
Was it really a brandless world?
Patrick Hanlon, author of Primal Branding, states that brands are so important because “we all want to believe in something greater than ourselves”. What I’m about to report supports that.
One of the most interesting findings from the interviews was how people created their own “brands.” Country of origin became a brand. In countries where life was known to be better, it was assumed that products from those countries were better. In the Soviet Union, the factory where something was made became a “brand” as certain factories were known to make better products.
In addition, people would seek out brands by visiting other countries or speaking with relatives who emigrated. For example, Hungary borders Austria and even before privatization, “We were going to Vienna for better brands and products. “
Certain brands were available and were highly desired. For example, “We all wanted to buy Levi’s jeans because it symbolized freedom and a better way of life” (comment from a number of those interviewed).
When markets opened up
Markets began to open up in the East Bloc, around 1990. Again, I was a little surprised by what people had to say.
“Brands started to enter Russia in the early 90s, but it took a while to realize what was happening.”
“When brands first came to Poland and advertising started we had to see if changes were permanent. People were suspicious at first—was thisa government trap?”
While some were amazed by this new Technicolor world (“You could excite me with a package of gum—all the colors, packaging”; “We would dress up to go to McDonald’s”), it wasn’t as new to others. Many had already sought out brands from relatives living abroad or by traveling.
Others suffered from culture shock as lack of choice. Struggling to buy the basics, and reusing everything possible was built into their DNA forever, it seems.
Dr. Nicos Rossides, CEO of MASMI (a firm that specializes in marketing research in Central and Eastern Europe) wrote, “The intense and rapid changes that accompanied this transformation were both exhilarating and unsettling, with citizens from ex-communist states able to travel freely, express themselves openly, vote for their leaders, and own businesses and land for the first time. What is more, they could now have a bewildering range of choice from among tens of thousands of competing brands – provided they could afford them. However, the values, beliefs and norms that entire populations were accustomed to and used as a gauge as to the appropriateness of daily actions – their moral compass – became largely irrelevant, causing a great deal of anxiety and disorientation, particularly for those …(other than)…the younger, more open and receptive people.”
Living in this country, it’s easy to take freedom for granted and not see how blessed we are that we have the freedom to choose. Why do you think that the internet has given us access to the accumulated knowledge of mankind and the long tail of choices at any hour of the day or night? Because, when barriers were removed (blue laws, service costs, etc.), that is what people wanted and what marketers were able to provide.
Is being in Marketing a worthy profession? “Oh, you’re in marketing”, or “Oh, you’re in advertising?” (implied ‘ugh’ follows). Well, I beg to differ. Our most important rights are based on our freedom to make our own life choices which are activated daily by the options that marketing and media give us. Think about the force for democracy that Twitter (a marketer) was in Iran during the elections. Marketing is every bit as noble as the medical profession, or education, or being an environmental scientist. We are all equally essential to the human condition.
Some in government want to “nudge” choice. Legislators who think they know better than we do are attempting to use taxation to dissuade advertising and consumption of certain products. Seems logical; why “allow” people to make BAD choices? Well, I hope they read this blog. As you restrict choice, you move closer to a world our interviewees will find familiar.
Feel the stories of people who grew up in cultures without choice where daily existence was defined by deprivation rather than hope. Freedom is spelled C-H-O-I-C-E, and that is the importance of marketing and brands.