False dichotomy of the month: marketing “vs.” design

24 Feb 2009|Steve Diller

This winter, I’ve been teaching a “Marketing Insights Studio” course in California Academy of the Arts’ new Design MBA program. The idea of a design-oriented MBA may surprise some people, but the logic is impeccable. Just like we have MBA programs that specialize in marketing, like Northwestern’s, or finance, like the University of Chicago’s, it makes sense to train business people with a focus on the design of experiences and offerings. What’s surprising about the course for me is the ubiquitous suspicion of marketing from students who in fact are the unwitting inheritors of marketing ideas.

The great theorists of modern marketing, like Philip Kotler, argued that “marketing” is about the delivery of what people want, through the “4Ps”- product, placement, promotion and price. It’s not a huge jump to see “design” as, in some sense, a successor discourse to Kotler’s idea of marketing. Current design discourse bulls-eyes on human needs. It takes a more sophisticated approach to reaching people than the old 4Ps, focusing on a full range of touchpoints that have evolved considerably as technology has opened new opportunities. It also takes a more socially-aware approach to people’s needs.

One can see “marketing” as Kotler envisioned it as a “libertarian” approach to consumer needs- let’s find out what you want, and then provide it, as long as it’s possible to make a profit at the same time. “Design,” in contrast, takes more of a “social democratic” approach to consumer needs- let’s find out what you want, determine how that can fit into a sustainable, socially-beneficial approach, and then provide it. Profit would be a key measure of our success.

While, objectively, marketing and design are cousins, if not parent and child, many of my students see them as opposites. Most come into the program believing that “marketing” is about manipulation. They equate it with sales and promotion alone. In contrast, “design” is about meeting human needs, fashioning offerings that make the world and each person’s life a bit better. The problem with this mindset is that it ignores the importance of “tainted” activities like sales and promotion in delivering experiences to people, and consequently risks limiting the effectiveness of designers.

When my students read Kotler, most are shocked to find that marketing is also about human needs. After they get over that, they seem to recognize that stodgy, manipulative old marketing may not deserve the reputation it seems to have these days. More important, though, they realize that marketing still has important things to say to designers about how to reach people. Making use of all the tools at our disposal to meet needs, in a holistic manner, is design’s inheritance from marketing. It’s also the challenge marketing, and our customers, set for all of us.

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