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Digital Marketing Education- is it time to refresh the message?

February 15, 2022

Freud? Who doesn't know him? But how about Edward Bernays? He's the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and is one of the most influential people that few outside of marketing have heard of. He is often credited with the thinking behind the modern consumerist culture we know so well. He brought in the psychology to advertising and marketing, courtesy of the influence from his rather better known uncle, and changed things forever. What was previously a marketing world purely of features and benefits, appealing squarely to the rational mind, Bernays brought emotion, identity and desire to the fore.

Much we learn about marketing to this day can be traced back to this early shift. The classic 4Ps (product, price, place and promotion) were skilfully wielded by Bernays and his disciples to, as some said, manipulate the American mind. Cigarettes were rebranded "torches of freedom" and linked to the powerful surge of feminism and a challenge to male authority in the late 1920s. The consumption of products became about far more than what was needed to perform a specific function, such as a machine to wash clothes or a bowl to hold our soup. Consumption became more about identity, emotion, aspiration and so much more.

This revolutionised the way we bought things and what we wanted to say to the world about ourselves. As soon as function was relegated to the lower stages of decision-making, there were no limits to what we might desire to buy. The economist Victor Lebow said in the 1950s that

"Our economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns […] We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing pace. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption."

Marketing comes from this; the linear economic model of make-take-dispose. The ideas of collaboration, regeneration, communicating experiences that do not need to lead to sales: these belong to the new circular economy. Is it time for what we learn in marketing to reflect this new, sustainable society? What broader needs could marketing in a digital world really serve, and who needs these skills?

Revisiting the question: what is marketing?

What do you think? It is hard to step back from post-Bernays trajectory, forget the descriptions we learned in schools and colleges, and evaluate what marketing is at its heart. Empathic communication, storytelling, finding something in you that connects with something in the other, and crafting your message to myelinate that bond. When you strip back marketing to that esoteric function, we can see the potential for a broader appeal.

And broader it can indeed be. Born digital start-ups, digital native learners and new entrepreneurs, Web3 denizens, influencers and those with a message. Everyone has something to say, and not all of it fits the old model. Imagine, then, that digital marketing could begin to think about how to serve this increasingly pluralistic community.

The world can no longer support a linear economic model. Endless consumption is a ticket to disaster. Stepping on each other to get the edge is just fighting for the scraps of a dying culture. So what might marketing look like in a new paradigm? If marketing is both a reflection of and an influence on our society, what might we change about the way we learn it?

New demands on marketing in a circular, Web3 world

In the new economy, where we must reduce consumption, reuse products and repair them, a new type of marketing is needed. In this new world where we cultivate and collaborate on our services and expertise, our mindset also has to shift. Fortunately, marketing at its heart is about creativity.

In a Web3 world, we are no longer stalking users via their cookie crumb trails. Decentralisation of the web means that the user will control their own data. Marketing guru Bernard May tells us that this will mean a more user-centric system, where the focus will be on cultivating direct relationships. Alessandro Bogliari of the Influencer Marketing Factory also thinks that this means marketers focusing far more on storytelling and authentic messaging as a way to connect with users. The scattergun approach of the past is disappearing, and we really are stripping things back to raw, human communication.

Cause marketing, green marketing, social marketing; all relatively established in the marketers' lexicon, but taking on increasing importance in a world where cause and consumption, sustainability, service and social impact are largely intertwined.

Access to users any time in any place might seem a dream to brands looking to connect, but already we have seen a total rejection of the clamouring solicitations for our attention. Generation Alpha is already somewhat immune to on-screen advertising, and once they disappear into the Metaverse, you won't reach them at all. Over and over we see and hear the same thing - people are looking for authenticity, relationships, connection, meaningful substance, collaboration, regeneration and a total reinvention of our concepts of oversight, ownership, what we are willing to pay for and how we are willing to pay for it.

Digital marketing in the future of education

Is education really ready for this? The seeds of Web3 and a circular economy were sewn some time ago, but it seems only a short time ago we saw the first shoots of growth. The executive world still very much demands a course in marketing built on data analytics, social media platforms and solid strategy. There are courses out there like the hugely popular Digital Marketing Certificate Course at the University of South Florida, which have captured and serviced this segment with great success.

As the world evolves rapidly, however, and a new generation of learners arrive with new needs for a new world ahead, what might belong in a revamped digital marketing program for the future? Off the top of our heads, we would say, for starters:

  • A detailed core course element on all things Web3 and its impacts on permission, ownership, trade and relationship building. There are many groups of marketers and lifelong learners sharing ideas informally all over Discord.
  • Impact marketing - not only measuring the old metrics of sales and engagement, but the social or environmental contribution made by the product or service you support. The Digital Impact School is one of many offering this.
  • Community building - community will become much more important a theme, and we see this already reflected in course content such as the aforementioned University of South Florida's Digital Marketing Certificate Program, in which one of the modules helps learners see the value of community both in supporting your initiatives and in the way your initiatives can serve those around you.
  • Storytelling and relationship building - back to basics on the universal structures of narrative and empathy that connect all of us. Udemy have a nice course in this for tomorrow's entrepreneurs.
  • Diversity, Equity and Inclusion - how to use influence to break down structures, preconceptions and positions of power and privilege. Yes...we can do that, as this course by the American Marketing Association (AMA) emphasises.
  • Circular economy and design thinking - how to redesign products and services for a world that must begin to regenerate, as well as being conscious about who and what you promote. "Planned obsolescence" should be a phrase we never hear again. This could also include the new philosophies of collaboration over competition and a real open discussion on how we thrive by working together. Harvard's Sustainability Marketing and Branding offer is a good example of this new field.

Bringing in a new generation of learners

The climate scientist who wants to get her message out. The social leader who wants to regenerate the way their community lives and works together. The entrepreneur who wants to step out of their world of coding and NFT expertise to build bridges and reach other professionals to see where collaboration might take them. The networker and connector who wants to know how relationships can be built in a new technological paradigm.

So many new needs that institutions might serve if their digital marketing offer broadens beyond the Bernaysian. We are at a point where technology changes so fast that we may as well focus much more on the things that never changed- communication, connection and community. It's time to go back and move forward at the same time.

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