How sociology trumps economics in marketing

Markus Giesler is a rock star in the world of business academia. Literally. An associate professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto, Giesler, 37, was named one of the world’s 40 best business school profs under 40 by the management education website Poets & Quants. (He is also […]


Markus Giesler is a rock star in the world of business academia. Literally. An associate professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto, Giesler, 37, was named one of the world’s 40 best business school profs under 40 by the management education website Poets & Quants. (He is also a member of the German rock brand Rocksoldiers. See? A real rock star).

The piano-playing prof spent 10 years operating his own record label and recording studio in Germany before swapping the music biz for a life of scholarship. He received his PhD in marketing from Witten/Herdecke University in Germany and was a visiting scholar at Chicago’s Kellogg School of Management from 2000 to 2003, before joining Schulich in 2004.

Giesler, who also consults for Apple, Google and BMW, specializes in the study of market system dynamics. Going against the traditional marketing grain, he uses a sociological rather than an economic approach to understand what drives product success. (Hint: it’s not about consumer needs.) Read on for a look inside a brilliant marketing mind and discover how Giesler’s research could be a game-changer for your marketing strategy.

How sociology trumps economics

Marketing’s roots are in economics, psychology and rational decision making, says Giesler. “So all marketers have to do is good research to understand what these needs are, and then satisfy those through innovative market offerings.”

“I turn this on its head by saying needs are not actually out there for us to discover… The success or failure of any product, any industry, is largely a question of how these needs are culturally established and enacted.”

What marketers can learn from Botox

During an eight-year study, Giesler looked at how negative brand images influenced the market creation process for Allergan Inc’s Botox. Giesler explored how there are more actors involved in creating a market than just producers and consumers. In traditional marketing theory, “innovations succeed or fail largely on the basis of how well consumers understand the benefit this product or innovation has for their own lives,” he says. “So Botox would automatically be a success because it’s cheaper than plastic surgery and it’s more efficient than makeup. But that doesn’t explain a lot of resistance that people experienced towards Botox.”

“A lot of companies struggle with this marketing paradigm that promises it’s so easy to just captivate consumers on the basis of producing these amazing campaigns and amazing products,” says Giesler. “But [marketers must] consider a variety of more important sociological variables and other stakeholder groups that have the potential to shape and change your commercial success.”

Giesler showed how Allergan was able to successfully counter negative images about Botox (like “frozen face” and “deadly poison”) by altering its marketing strategy several times over the years. “In the traditional understanding, branding is a matter of consistently hammering your attributes into the consumer’s head,” says Giesler. “That’s what Botox did differently by frequently shifting its brand message in accordance to emerging negative brand images and meanings… So not being consistent obviously is a key to brand success. And that doesn’t come naturally to many marketing managers.”

Why Apple won and BlackBerry failed

When the iPhone came out, it was antidote to Blackberry’s capitalist, corporate image and embodied creativity, play, social and communication. “There is a climate in [Blackberry] that systematically kills any sense of understanding the product beyond its engineering parameters. And that is the death knell to any company dealing with technology,” says Giesler.

What Apple understood is that “technology is never just about what the technology does or allows you to do. It’s all about what societies valorize and appreciate in a particular historical moment in time.”

For example, Apple’s latest campaign for the iPad, “What will your verse be?” weaves the technology into existential, cultural and political concerns that don’t have much to do with iPad’s fast processor or great encryption system, says Giesler. “All these things are secondary to how the iPad is made indispensable to being human in this day and age.”

Perhaps Blackberry should have taken a page from Botox. “The whole problem with Blackberry is they continued to believe in how amazing their products were, all against the backdrop of a society that had long lost the faith in how Blackberry was an identity-enhancing brand,” says Giesler. “Instead of counteracting this tendency by developing a new emotional branding strategy, Blackberry continued to hammer the same attributes [such as] efficiency, security and corporate productivity.” As the Botox example shows, “it pays off to increasingly change your emotional branding story and adjust it to changing conditions in society.”

Don’t ask “why” with brands

Using BMW as an example, Giesler says consumer research might try to get at the root of why people like the brand. But that’s the first mistake. “Whenever you ask someone a ‘why’ question, it’s probing for rational attribute-oriented benefits within a brand,” says Giesler. “The answer you will get will always be a simplification of what’s really going on.” Marketers are obsessed with rational concerns about consumer behaviour, but the real motivations for consumption are much more deep-seated. “We need new methods and a new understanding of branding that builds on more intimate forms of knowledge rather than, ‘BMW: it’s sporty, it’s elegant and it’s dynamic.’”

This story originally appeared as “Inside the Mind of Markus Giesler” in the April 2014 issue of Marketing. Subscribe now, or to check out individual issues, check us out on your iPad.

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