The Marketer’s Dilemma

This is a video from The Story of Stuff that was released for World Water Day (3.22.10). It gives a brief overview of some of the problems surrounding the developed world’s obsession with bottled water. We buy tons of the stuff, the supply chain is terrible for the environment, almost none of the bottles get recycled, and then there’s the sheer ridiculousness of it all. Bottled water. They took something that we get super cheap, bottled it, and sold it to us.

And therein lies the problem. They manufactured demand for bottled water. They implied that other water wasn’t as good or safe to drink. This is different from making people aware of something that fits their demand (i.e. I’m going to buy bread anyways, you may as well try to convince me your bread is better). This is manipulating people to want something they don’t need. Worse yet, it’s manipulating people to want something they don’t need and already have. Unlike most luxury goods, which people don’t know they need until you tell them, this is something different. Imagine telling someone that they need a foreign made Lexus, instead of the brand new one they already have, that doesn’t drive as well and costs 2000 times as much. That’s what’s been done with bottled water.

For marketers, this represents a challenge. How do you know when you’re presenting something to people who could benefit from what you’re offering? Most of marketing is ‘manufacturing demand,’ so how do you know when it’s becoming unethical? It’s a fair question. If you’ve got some awesome new web service that will save people money or do something better, then you should market it relentlessly so people know about it. If you’ve got some awesome new social media site that people have never heard of or expressed a desire for, that’s fine (people will decide whether it’s worth their time on their own). If you create demand for something that people already have but convince that it’s inferior to what you’re selling, you’re either the greatest marketer ever, or a terribly unethical person.

It’s important for marketers to pay attention to what they’re doing and stick to what they’re comfortable with. If you’re marketing something you truly believe in and that will make the world a better place, well then get out there. If you’re marketing something to increase your market share and to sell things that no one needs, well then I don’t envy you in the least.

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