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What is Marketing?


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What is marketing? It is a question that people who do not work in the discipline sometimes ask (or perhaps should ask). 

The idea of marketing

Once upon a time, in the age of barter, people made stuff that they needed and swapped spares with others to get other things they needed. Although the word 'marketing' was a long way off, they still had to tell people about what they had available and be careful about their reputation. Marketing has always existed. Only recently has it become a formal discipline.

The basic idea of marketing is that it is not enough just to make what you think will sell and then put it in the shop window in the hope of passers-by seeing it and wanting it. If you do this, you may sell a few but it will also mean:

  • Many people will not know that the product exists.
  • Those who see it may not know what it is or what it is for.
  • Those who understand it may not appreciate how it can help them.
  • Those who want it may not be willing to pay what you are asking (or actually think it's a real bargain but keep quiet about this!).
  • The product may actually be of little real value to anyone.

When merchants started selling other people's goods, the need to tell people about the goods increased with the size of their market and the novelty of the goods. As the industrial revolution progressed and markets expanded, the need for marketing increased further.

Marketing as a broad professional discipline only really took off in the latter half of the 20th century, even though principles such as advertising had been used for many years beforehand.


The American Marketing Association defines marketing as:

The activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.

As with many institutions, the definition of their domain is somewhat all-encompassing and consequently rather vague.

A dictionary definition is more precise, although this would make many marketers shriek as it includes sales but excludes earlier activities such as market research and specification of the product or service:

The process of promoting, selling, and distributing a product or service.

In his classic textbook, Kotler (1996) defines marketing with a more distinct concern for customers in a view that highlights an equitable value exchange (which is reminiscent of ancient barter) rather than the more traditional marketing push:

A social and managerial process by which individuals and groups obtain what they need and want through creating and exchanging products and value with others.

A simpler yet wide definition frames marketing as facilitating the difficult space between creation and consumption of products. This includes both pushing new products and developing products that are needed:

Matching supply and demand.

The word 'marketing' is also used as an abbreviation for 'the marketing department', being those people whose profession is marketing.


Marketing can be broken down in various ways. The simplest is to break it into two distinct areas: inbound marketing, which is about researching customers and shaping product designs, and outbound marketing, which is mostly about traditional product promotion.

It is noteworthy that marketing is an active verb without any implied activity completion. This may be contrasted with 'sales' and 'development'. It perhaps reflects the difficulty of the job . as it is not easy to know when you have succeeded. Even if the product sells well, then the Development and Sales people will likely say it was their efforts that made the real difference.

Retail and business marketing are similar, but different. Business buyers are professional and usually know more of what they want, although increasingly retail customers are also surprisingly well informed.

Is marketing just ‘helping sellers sell’? As Kotler (1996) points out, it’s an exchange, so it should also be involved in helping buyers buy. Pushing products blindly can be counter-productive as pressure methods destroy trust, which is a key gateway if you seek credibility. This makes marketing a difficult balancing act and sometimes neutral trust agents need to be employed in some way.

Marketing often includes brand management (although brand managers may well reverse this order) and is concerned with how all aspects of the product and the organisation align in creating a consistent product and customer experience.

The difference between marketing and sales is also often unclear, although broadly sales people go out and find specific customers then persuade them to make actual purchases. This is often done using information and material from the marketing people. Marketing done well creates demand that makes selling much easier.

Marketers may also work all the way up and down the supply chain, marketing to and working with suppliers, resellers and others to ensure a consistency of product and service.

See also

Sales, Brand management, Understanding Markets,


Philip Kotler and Gary Armstrong, Principles of Marketing, 7th edition, Prentice Hall, 1996


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