Modern marketers can learn a lot from the Scottish Enlightenment

By Rod Gillies

What is marketing? Most definitions emphasise communication – TV, digital, print, posters, PR. But communication is only one part of what marketing should be. Whilst effective advertising is essential, it is too easy for marketing to be pigeonholed as “the fluffy stuff”, leaving the serious work to those ever-so serious people in Sales or Production or Finance.

The best marketers take their remit beyond communication. They apply their understanding of the consumer to every aspect of the business – from where products are sold, to where they sit on shelves, from pricing and frequency of promotion, to how products are made and packaged and disposed of at the end of their life. These key areas often see little marketing input, but such insight can make the difference between success and failure.

Strong businesses put the consumer at the heart of strategy – and put marketers to work on much more than communication alone. This is what good marketers want, but it carries a burden – a responsibility to deliver brilliant thinking.

At The Marketing Society in Scotland we believe enlightened thinking lies at the heart of excellent marketing. And when it comes to enlightenment, marketers based in Scotland have a rich intellectual heritage to draw upon. Whilst the philosophers of the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment clearly didn’t have marketing in mind, I’d say they still offer inspiration for modern marketers (this claim is no worse than Sales Directors quoting Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and surely less of a bombastic business cliché).

Mary Somerville (1780-1872) was a Scottish astronomer, mathematician, and science writer. One of the first women elected to the Royal Society, she has an Oxford College named for her, and features on Royal Bank of Scotland’s polymer £10 note. She is a rock star for women in science, but also provides valuable guidance for marketers. She advocated detached measurement and observation – seeing the world as it is, rather than how we wish it to be. In her words; “The pursuit of truth … can only be attained by patient and unprejudiced investigation”. Such discipline is essential in marketing. If you don’t know what the consumer really believes and how they behave, how can you effectively influence attitudes and behaviour?

David Hume (1711-1776) was a historian, writer, and philosopher. An empiricist and skeptic, he questioned human rationality. He believed people were driven more by their passions than by reason – a position supported by cognitive bias research within the modern field of behavioural economics. 

He wrote “The most lively thought is inferior to the dullest sensation” – a phrase which should be rote-learning for marketers. Does your pack design grab attention on-shelf? Does your advertising provoke an emotional reaction? If you don’t make people feel something, your brand won’t be noticed, and definitely won’t be remembered.

Adam Smith (1723-1790) was another natural philosopher and writer, acknowledged as the father of economics. Whilst his model of free-market capitalism has since been lauded or demonised according to the politics of the commentators, its creation in 1776 remains a landmark intellectual achievement. 

Rather than obsess over Smith’s economic model, marketers should heed his warning to those who become too invested in the models they themselves have constructed. He wrote “The man of system … is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan … he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it”. The best marketing thinking changes tack when the world doesn’t have the decency to comply with the plan. If the only constant in the today’s world is change, we need to create strategies with flexibility and resilience built-in.

If we can take inspiration from the great thinkers of Scotland’s past – from people like Somerville, Hume, and Smith – we marketers based in Scotland can develop enlightened marketing which is grounded in insight, makes people feel something, and is adaptive to change. Such work won’t just deliver better communication – it will put the discipline of marketing where it belongs, at the heart of overall business strategy where it can do the most good.

Rod Gillies, vice-chair of The Marketing Society in Scotland and head of marketing at The Borders Distillery.