January 3, 2022

What is Marketing?

Scott Corbin

A few years ago, around the time when I started my first job in marketing, I was having dinner with a friend. In between sips of wine, he looked at me and said, “So, like, what do you do? I’ve always thought marketing was kind of a ‘dirty’ word, not really something that people are proud of.”

I appreciated the friend’s candor. After all, “marketing” has come to mean different things for different people. For some, when they say “marketing,” they use it primarily as an epithet, something to knock a product down a few notches. Something with little real substance. “Oh that thing? It’s just marketing.”

For others, hearing “marketing” might trigger memories of friends inviting them to their house under the auspices of spending time together, but then when they open the door they feel like they’ve been brought into the inner sanctum of a consumerist cult: a circle of other unsuspecting friends sitting cautiously around a totem of consumerist goods, be it essential oils, fitness products, or leggings.

This was underlying my friend’s question. What is marketing, and why would you want to pursue a career in it?

Making Friends

My reply went around these misunderstandings and got back to basics. “Fundamentally,” I said, “marketing is about making friends.” Here’s what I meant.

At its most basic level, marketing is the middleman between a product, good, service, or thing and a person who is in need of the aforementioned product, good, service, or thing.

Marketing is the kind word from a friend about a local farm who produces excellent cage free eggs. It’s the word of advice about which car seat or stroller to get between a seasoned mother and her first-time-pregnant friend. Marketing is the recommendation of the responsible plumber when the pipes freeze. It’s the “that book changed my life” over drinks between old friends.

Fundamentally, marketing is about making friends. In this case, between a person with a need and the product that may change their life.

The Need for Honest, Healthy Marketing

Is marketing also about maximizing profits? Well, yes. And too often this desire can impact marketing in a way that dehumanizes the end consumer and leaves them feeling taken advantage of. This too is marketing.

What’s needed, however, is not the end of marketing, but rather honest, healthy marketing that recognizes the human touch behind the dollar sign. Truly good marketing respects the consumer, values their humanity, and strives to market to them like a friend, not a money pot.

For that reason, I told my friend that I was not ashamed of my newfound profession. In fact, the further along I went in my career, I began to see the importance of integrity in marketing, whether in advertising copy, design, or email.

I began to see if that marketing is a tool. It can be used for good or for ill. It’s up to the marketer to decide which path they’ll take: soulless profit maximization or making friends.

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