This short definition & explanation of misplaced marketing is an abstract of chapter 1 in Adventures in Misplaced Marketing, by Herbert Jack Rotfeld (Westport, CT: Quorum Books, 2001, copyright by author).

Myths and Legends of the Modern Marketing Concept

A microbiologist I knew years ago always liked to describe the latest dead end in his research by saying that, "Under carefully controlled conditions, organisms behave as they damn well please." An oblong piece of plastic on my desk with a curved bottom and a flat top can be spun on its axis. But because of the way it is weighted, curved and balanced, you can only spin it counter-clockwise. Even though is a plain-looking piece of plastic, appearing as complicated as a common thumb tack, it inexplicably will resist spinning in the other direction. If it is shoved clockwise, it starts to spin, then wobbles, hesitates, and reverses direction. Similarly, with free-willed consumers in the marketplace, as long as a marketing planner knows the way people want to go and understands why, he or she can try to encourage them to go faster or slower, or try to start them moving in the first place. Trying to get them to move in ways they don't want to go will only result in failure.

The so-called "modern marketing concept" presents an approach for all product and service planning that takes into account a world in which people have more in common with my obstinate plastic or my friend's unicellular lab organisms than they do with puppets on strings. In short, marketing people can't sell a product unless there is some underlying initial consumer interest or inclination. In theory, the modern marketing concept combines all facets of the product design, price decisions, where the product is available for sale, personal selling and mass communications with an orientation to "satisfy consumer needs and wants." (That's the modern marketing mantra: "satisfy consumer needs and wants.")

Unfortunately, the language of the modern marketing concept can be misleading. It could be read to imply values it does not possess. Marketing trade associations and college textbooks say that marketing is satisfying consumer needs and wants, making it seem as if "real" marketing is above reproach and positive. When U.S. started the modern wave of business criticisms thirty years ago, many educators and practitioners did not understand the problems the critics raised. Many still don't. Marketing experts (both practitioners and educators) were heard to say, "Since we are satisfying consumers, 'consumerism' [as consumer protection was called in the 1970s] isn't really a problem for us."

Even the best reading of such a view presumes that all firms follow this marketing orientation. Many don't. The often ignored fact is that many firms fail to ask basic marketing questions of "how," "why" or "if" people might be interested in the planned product features or advertising messages. Instead of considering audience views of the world, the managers practice ethnocentrism. Instead of trying to anticipate customer problems, systems are set for convenience of employees. And (more dangerously), while doing a good job using marketing tools to focus on key customer groups, they ignore potential critics' complaints.

Even if all businesses did adhere to the marketing orientation for every decision, it would not necessarily also be true that many firms satisfying consumer needs would also serve the interests of society at large. From a societal point of view, what many consumers "want" are not necessarily what they should be getting. And even if marketing practitioners all worked to satisfy consumer needs AND those of society, when some organizations do a good job of marketing their goods or service or ideas, many of business' critics wish that the marketing was not involved (because we do not want firms to do a good job of selling, say, cigarettes).

Starting with the marketing concept, the definition of "misplaced marketing" consists of two prongs that are both broad and simple. First, marketing can be misplaced in the sense that it is "lost" or missing when a business, government agency, non-profit organization or other group could (or should) follow the basic dictates of a marketing perspective but does not. In these instances, marketing tools or tactics are used without reference to a strategy or customer-based perspectives that a marketing orientation would require. Second, marketing can be misplaced in the sense of it being used in the "wrong" place. In these instances, it could be "properly" used and applied for a product or service, but amorally, in that the context or products or marketing benefits for consumers might be detrimental to a societal interest or, at least, detrimental to the interests and values posed by critics of business practices.

When I coined the term "misplaced marketing," it was to be a broad perspective for all times that marketing could be misplaced because it is misapplied, misused, abused, or simply the focus of social criticisms. Of course, many firms can be (and are) successful by following a production orientation, depending on either market power or luck. Government and non-profit organizations do not need to be successful in the business sense, but the public might be better served if they did not misplace marketing perspectives in planning activities. And in many cases, firms might be better off (at least in the public relations sense) if they did not use all marketing tools since the marketing could readily become the focus of public criticisms or products or services that various activists do not like. The modern marketing concept might say to "satisfy consumer needs," but misplaced marketing shows that marketing practice does not always put the concept to its best use. And, in the end, consumers or society are not "satisfied."

Misplaced marketing gives a perspective for analysis, a basis for studying problems and situations.