The 20th century was, amid other things, the century of marketing. It began with the first formal marketing courses being established, such as on ‘The Marketing of Products’ in 1905 at The University of Pennsylvania. Marketing thinking and practice developed over a period of decades, but the core components of ‘modern mainstream marketing’ thinking were largely in place by the end of the 1970s. Marketing had its philosophy which centred a company’s efforts around the needs and wants of the customer as the means to deliver profits and growth. It also had an emphasis on research to understand the customer and the marketing environment, which allowed for the effective targeting of a customised ‘mix’ of marketing variables at specific segments of the market. Although marketing thinking has continued to evolve since, reflecting the evolution in the social, technical and cultural environments, the core ideas of ‘modern mainstream marketing’ have proved remarkably resistant to change. Many new and/or ‘post-modern’ notions of marketing emerged to address the perceived shortcomings of the mainstream discipline.
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Badot et al. (2007) identified seventy different generic (as opposed to sector-specific) forms of ‘new’ marketing which were proposed between 1985 and 2005. These new forms of marketing were generally not very different to the established mainstream, and largely involved focusing efforts more around particular market segments, communications approaches or company capabilities. There were only two sets of ideas about marketing that went beyond adjustment and enhancement to fundamentally challenge the dominant marketing paradigm. The first set of ideas addressed the disconnection between current marketing practices and the ecological and social realities of the wider marketing environment. This group includes macro-marketing, societal marketing, ethical marketing, green marketing, environmental marketing and eco-marketing. Macro-marketing sought to address and integrate concerns about the social and environmental impacts of marketing activity and the relationships between markets, regulation and social welfare. It tried to systematically consider the inter-relationship between marketing and society with an emphasis on the (often unintended) impacts on environmental quality and societal welfare. This ‘big picture’ view of marketing has, however, remained a field of academic interest for a specialist few, whilst the mainstream field has become increasingly focused on the technical minutiae of marketing.
The various types of environmentally, ethically or socially orientated marketing which emerged typically sought to accommodate social and environmental concerns into existing marketing principles and practices. These concerns were recognised as having the potential to generate opportunities and threats within the marketing environment, and superior social and environmental performance was recognised as a strategy option to generate competitive advantage. This resulted in many successful niche strategies competing on a platform of social and environmental excellence, and it increased the sensitivity of larger companies to the need to be perceived as good corporate citizens and to avoid negative headlines linked to social or environmental impacts. What such strategies have failed to deliver is real change in marketing thinking or substantive progress towards more sustainable consumption and production.
The second set of ideas promoted a shift of focus away from products and the commercial transaction with the customer, and towards the relationships formed and maintained with customers. Grönroos’ (2007) book, ‘In Search of a New Logic for Marketing’ opens with a chapter entitled ‘Marketing – A Discipline in Crisis’. The crisis described is caused by the failure of marketing thought and practice to evolve, so that a marketing executive time-travelling forward from fifty years ago would be quite comfortable working in a contemporary marketing department (albeit with a little catching up to do about digital media). As Grönroos phrases it: ‘Mainstream marketing continues to be orientated towards doing something to customers, instead of seeing customers as people with whom something is done.” He proposes an alternative vision of marketing as a process of managing relationships with customers rather than of facilitating exchanges with them. In doing this, it shifts the focus away from the marketing of products to customers, and instead emphasises the delivery of value to them. Grönroos is not the only scholar to draw such conclusions; others have described the discipline as suffering a ‘mid-life crisis’ or being ‘stereotyped on a derelict foundation in commodity- like textbooks’.
The challenges to the conventional mainstream from relationship marketing and from eco- and ethical marketing have each progressed ideas about how marketing should be conducted, and what it should encompass. The authors argue that to contribute to sustainable development, the next logical step in marketing’s development is to merge those two sets of challenging ideas to create a new concept of ‘sustainability marketing’ as set out in Figure 1.