The question as to whether marketing is an art or a science has been asked and answered for many decades as the marketing profession continues to develop. While the once robust debate has waned over time, this is still a relevant question. It has far reaching implications on how we understand and practise marketing.
In the post-world war II era, many professions developed fast as industrialisation gained momentum. Most sciences were firmed up and established themselves as respectable professions with strong regulatory regime and documented requirements. Marketing scholars wanted the profession to be viewed as a science so that it could be considered as prestigious as the other established sciences like medicine.
Art or science?
In the end, what we have today is one of the most open or liberal disciplines. Realistically, anyone can practise marketing whether or not they have been academically and professionally trained. Reality has muted the debate. In Kenya, marketing remains one of the least regulated professions. It is easy to enter and exit the profession without much scrutiny or consequences.
Art and science can be defined in complex terms but for this article we can adopt the easier definitions. However, these easy definitions are not simplistic. They encompass a lot in demystifying both science and art. Simply put, art is “to do” and science is “to know”.
The art of marketing is concerned with practising the profession in the corporate arena, while its science is concerned with generation of knowledge in the academic and consultancy arena.
The tragedy in the practice of marketing occrs when doing does not involve knowing. While that is more likely to harm the business, it can also harm the society. When crooked characters employ marketing strategies and tactics to sell harmful goods and services to society or even engage in a campaign of falsehood and misinformation, the profession is defiled and its honour diluted.
There are many cases in which quacks have abused the profession. For instance, we know about the pyramid schemes which left death and destruction in their wake. Untested ideas were packaged and promoted as investment products. Another company engaged in a robust marketing campaign selling land which only existed in its advertisements. There have also been many complaints of people hoodwinked into buying insurance products without understanding what they are getting into. They only realise something is amiss when unexplained deductions appear on their payslips. By then it is too late to have any refunds made.
Implications of the debate
Entrepreneurs need to understand that marketing is not practised in a professional vacuum. Often, marketing has been harmed by the narrow prism in which it has been viewed as beginning and ending with selling. Many small and medium enterprises confuse marketing with selling thus limiting their growth by failing to benefit from the science of marketing.
In its scientific form, marketing provides evidence based approach to decision making. On the contrary, practising marketing as a pure art results in endless trial and error with a steep learning curve and injurious impact on the company’s profits and financial sustainability. Decisions once made can’t be easily reversed the way an artist erases a wrong mark on a canvass.
The science of marketing involves conducting research to inform decisions. It also involves informed application of theory wherein theories that have been developed across the decades are brought to life in decision making. Marketing models and predictive analytics inform the practitioners so that they do not have an intellectual blank cheque whereby anything goes.
Why marketing is both an art and a science
Marketing is a profession with a very significant creative component. The most important concept for any business is differentiation. How can you stand out from the crowd? How can the consumers see real difference between what you are selling and what competitors are offering?
As such, great marketers are the ones who create superior product offerings and communicate the same most effectively to the target market. Thus, it is not a straight forward issue like applying accounting principles and procedures.
Despite this, creativity must be tempered with knowledge if the results are to be sustainable. If the marketer relies on creativity alone, there is great risk of short term progress with little long term value. In the long term, what will endure is that which is deeply rooted in knowledge rather than the outcome of a single light bulb moment or genius attack.
Interactions between art and marketing
Various marketing activities involve application of art. For instance product design, branding, packaging and even creation of physical evidence in service marketing. Furthermore, various marketing skills require artistic creativity for better impact. Such skills include communication, negotiation, selling and even strategy implementation.
Art disciplines such as performing arts (music, poetry, drama, film, dance etc.) and visual arts (drawing, painting etc.) are required in marketing communication. Nonetheless, the application of these arts requires professional guidance when being used in marketing context. There are many players who perform such things to aid marketing yet they have little knowledge in the profession. This sadly minimizes the impact of their work and in some cases even ends up doing harm than good. A good example is the Aromat advert that became the butt of all manner of online jokes due to its low believability value.
There are also operational realities that make marketing lean further on the art side. The environment in which marketing is practised is too dynamic to be simplified into a golden formula. For instance, there is no rule that can adequately prepare one to respond to adverse legislation such as the so called Mututho laws.
One has to adapt creatively to survive in an ever changing environment. Also marketing is about dealing with human behaviour. While psychology helps marketers predict human behaviour to some extent, one still needs creativity to influence human behaviour.
When it comes to certain products, consumers may not always know what possibilities exist towards meeting and exceeding their needs. This often happens in the tech world where the product developers lead the customers towards new discoveries. Also value is a complex concept.
Consumers attach value both to aesthetics as well as other objective aspects of products. The marketer has to combine both the science and art and ensure that the product not only meets the needs, but also excites the customers due to its sleek looks while doing so within affordable price range.
Interactions between marketing and science
The marketer in his or her work must deal with complex psychological issues. Many models, laws and theories have been developed and proven to work over time. The good thing about marketing is that there are no restrictions and you can creatively tweak these in practise. However, such re-engineering needs to be done carefully and in a limited scale.
Failure to apply science in marketing has seen even large corporations make serious marketing blunders. When Safaricom recently reduced the data bundle expiry period from 120 days to a maximum of 30 days there was an outcry that forced the decision to be reversed though the maximum period was still lowered to 90 days. We know from a scientific point of view that while implementing negative changes, it is advisable to do so in small instalments rather than all at once.
A minimalist approach to negative changes such as price hikes or variation of service terms is the scientific answer to such.
This ensures the negative change does not shock the system resulting in irrational protests and loss of business. The goal necessitated by the negative change will be achieved at lower cost to the company. Also, the company has a chance to recover quickly from the impact of such change.
When art is overemphasized in marketing, there is tendency to circumvent the professionals and adopt a “do it yourself” approach ostensibly to save costs. There is also preference for a narrow definition of marketing functions. The company can’t benefit fully from marketing because it does not invest well in it and when it tries, it does so grudgingly. Yet from a scientific point of view, the relationship between say advertising and sales is largely proven and underinvestment in advertising will impact on the sales.
Marketing is both an art and a science. Entrepreneurs need to appreciate that marketing has a science side which requires
application of knowledge to back action. The idea that the entrepreneur can practise marketing himself without recruiting capable and accomplished professionals is dangerously naïve. The cost of doing the right thing may be known and evaded because it is seemingly high, but the cost of doing the wrong thing is hard to know and it maybe manifested when it is too late to recover.
Entrepreneurs who fail to establish an approprate exchange rate between the art and science of marketing will no doubt fall by the wayside. If they survive, business to them will be an eternal struggle and they will never rise to the fullness of their potential.