What does "marketing" actually mean and what is it for?

It's a straightforward enough question, but not one many of us dwell on for too long as we race toward execution. This means we lead perilous professional lives in comparison to our colleagues in finance, sales and beyond, with their more concrete sense of self.

Doing marketing without first establishing what it is for is a kind of corporate hara-kiri. Fogginess of purpose encourages marketing’s practitioners to stray into irrelevant foothills. It hands its critics and naysayers a long length of rope. The boardroom can be an unforgiving place if your scope is misunderstood. If marketing doesn’t know what it is for, then how can it be trusted?

Happily, this most basic of questions has not only been tabled again recently – perhaps most spiritedly, by a new generation of marketing leaders at last month’s ISBA conference – but has already prompted some reputation-enhancing soul-searching.

So what is marketing for? Faced with a question like this, most planners’ instinct is to be philosophical rather than practical. Happily, my pocket client and business partner Phil Rumbol (ex- of the client woods) boasts complementary skills. His immediate version? "To stimulate demand."

Now, the marketing profession doesn’t necessarily need one universal, unbending answer to this question. It is much more important that "What is marketing for?" is asked at the level of the individual organisation, so that it can then align behind a common purpose, expectation and metric.

But perhaps it really is that simple. Marketing exists to stimulate demand. It certainly clarifies a distinctive and business-critical role for an allegedly frivolous activity. For there are no orders to be taken, no products to be shipped, no invoices to be sent and no wages to be paid in a business that fails at demand-creation.

It is also a sobering "magnetic North" when marketers, agencies and – yes! – even planners get lost in the minutiae of workshops and wordsmithing. As cross-checks go, there can be few better than asking ourselves whether what we are doing will genuinely stimulate demand, or whether there are other ways we might go about the job of demand creation more directly or powerfully.

That said, and at the risk of gilding a perfectly good lily, there is one word that I would add to this version of marketing’s mission. To cement its strategic importance and to guard against misunderstanding that marketing is in the purely tactical business of demand-creation (which brings its own problems), perhaps we might best think of its role as "sustainable demand-creation". Or rather – since the word "sustainable" now carries such an ethical charge – to conclude that what marketing is for is to stimulate ongoing demand.

Great brand-builders have, of course, been doing this for years, consciously or otherwise… we have found no more efficient way of stimulating ongoing demand. Nonetheless, at a time when most businesses are crying out for growth, it might make sense for us all to revisit and re-state the hidden assumptions behind what we do, and to stand loudly and proudly as the folks who create demand.

Laurence, is a founding partner of creative agency 101 and co-founder of Fallon London. He writes a column for The Sunday Telegraph, blogs for Manage­ment Today and is an honorary fellow of the IPA.

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