Marketing and Research Consulting for a Brave New World
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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) 

About service:

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.

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9 Responses to “The importance of brands to a free society”

  1. Paul

    So China, which is the kingdom of marketing, brands and free enterprise, must be a free country, right? You being a market researcher, I thought you would know the difference between correlation and causality.. Most democracies have also free trade, but it doesn’t mean that people are free to think or speak just because a country has free trade. Marketing is a way for corporations to be heard. Unfortunately, there are countries where corporations have better rights of expression than individuals. Oh, and BTW, when your advertising convinces these teenagers to drink sugar or those poor folks to take another loan, you are spreading freedom too? Wrong, you can do marketing because you live in a free country, not vice versa.

    • jay

      Choices make us free. Brands exist to manipulate us. There is no freedom in the manipulation of what we want. Its sad to mix freedom with the pert suit of money. A free society is not told anything a lack of choice is not a lack of pursuit of treasure. It is sad to take freedom and make it an excuse for branding

  2. No matter how you spin it, it just makes me feel better about being Canadian. We need to do a better job of appreciating what we have.

  3. Dimitri

    I would agree that abundant marketing does NOT equal free country. Look at what’s going on in Russia right now. You – as a corporation – are free to advertise pretty much any product. The TV, the radio, the streets are flooded with ads. As long as you have the money – you can advertise. But no one is free to say anything against the current regime. In fact, even if you are a powerful corporation but desire to make a political statement/action that is AGAINST the regime – you are severely punished (see Yukos and Khodorkovski). So, it looks like advertising can very well coexist with oppression.

  4. Dimitri

    I think freedom = openness & disclosure of information.
    Advertisement is NOT = openness & disclosure of info.
    In fact, advertisement is frequently concealment of unpleasant/undesirable information and promotion of the desirable aspects of the product.
    In other words, advertisement is frequently a lie – not by commission but my omission.
    Thus – advertisement can very well exist in a non-free country.
    And thus – I am in favor of regulating advertisement.

  5. Joel, nice work! Reminds me of standing in Moscow with my translator staring at the night sky. “It used to be so dark,” he said with feeling. “Thank God for neon.”

  6. Was wondering what you thought of the value of increasing taxes on cigarettes to decrease health risk or imposing a “sugar tax” on soda due to the epidemic of childhood obesity and diabetes? Doesn’t government have a role in improving health? (Eg..I have high blood pressure and had a stroke-I want to know the sodium levels of a product)

  7. Rob

    Hmmmmm. This raises lots of questions I think. Does the kind of choice you describe actually make people free? Does it make them happy? Have you looked at the idea of the paradox of choice? Are people in western free market countries as happy as they should be given the quality of life they enjoy? Was choice the only factor at play in the examples you give from communist states? Is marketing in its modern form really even about choice? Isn’t it to a large extent about encouraging perpetual discontentment? Isn’t it to a large extent about influencing people’s choice to your own ends? Nick Southgate of Grey did a conference paper in 2007 about marketing ‘in an age of superfluity’ – the challenge of working out why people choose brand a over brands b,c,d,e,f,g,h,i,j,k,l and m, when there’s little or no qualitative difference. Only one type of vinegar does sound a bit drab, but the relationship between choice and freedom is more complicated than that.

  8. Joel,

    Just an IMHO observation, but I suspect that the freedom to market is a function of the underlying freedom to create. There might be a decent second-order SEM in there somewhere.

    Best regards,