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Reading the runes: on belief and believing in marketing management research

It's not necessary to believe what someone says in order to take what they say seriously.

Yes, it could be a quotation from the life and times of a confirmed misanthrope. It excites images of the behind-the-scenes plotting usually attributed to politicians, heckling hacks and battle weary libel lawyers. Stark images are conjured up of people saying one thing and doing another; of figures appearing to behave with lumbering stupidity in public, and with great wit and intelligence in private; of nothing being what it seems to be; of some things being able to be said and not done, while others can be done and not said; and of talk and action not necessarily being consistent.

The phrase is in fact drawn from the findings of the Crown Investigation, conducted by Lord Clyde, into the Orkney child abuse scandal. It refers specifically to the conduct of the social workers who were involved in that tragic affair. Their conduct was severely criticized on the grounds that they did not appreciate the difference between believing what someone says and taking what they do say seriously.

It strikes me that this statement contains important insights into the world of marketing management research and I wonder if, under gentle prodding, it might yield those insights.


What meaning might we draw from this remark? Is it reaffirming the role of the dispassionate professional, whether social worker, doctor, lawyer, or marketing researcher as one who, from a respectable distance, should listen and advise clients on the basis of an immutable and transparent objectivity? This message is perhaps most obvious. But, going beyond this, there seems to be another message which has a finely tuned ironic touch to it.

In the world of marketing ideas, as often depicted in the erudite pages of the EJM, it is said that marketing management has, among other things, to do with the behaviour of people in organizations of various kinds. It is also said that such organizations exist because they help us to achieve things that we could not achieve alone. They bring us together in networks of dynamic relationships. Through the medium of those relationships we collaborate so that our individual goals can, where we so chose, be subordinated to those of the collective. We then must co-ordinate our individual actions in order to achieve organizational goals. Communication provides the means by which ideas to do with such co-ordination are expressed and heard. Organizations have structures, systems and procedures that facilitate communication and control and hence co-ordination.

It is also said that, like individuals, organizations also think and act. Typically, certain people are authorized to carry out the first task and others the second. The first group articulates ideas to be realized by the second group. Ideas are first thought up and then given expression by senior marketing executives as a signal for particular action to be taken by others. In this way, thought precedes action. So thought precedes talk; talk then precedes action; and action and talk must be consistent if organizational goals and norms are not to be subverted; and so one group of people will act in accordance with the desires of another.

Some of us might say that this simple notion is complicated by economists who posit the idea of competition, i.e. where several organizations produce similar goods for a given set of rational purchasers who would prefer to pay less than more for those goods. Organizations are seen as productive entities concerned with efficiency. And so marketing management is said to be concerned with how to achieve an efficient, co-ordinated, action producing organization through using the devices of organizational structure, processes and ideology.

This simple model of marketing management might strike a chord with many EJM readers. Underlying it is a basic concept of organizations, and those who populate them, as rational decision makers who think first and then act - whose feet are controlled by their head. The maxim from the front line of the social services seems to throw this model into some disarray on at least four related counts. Perhaps readers can think of more?


Rationality is often portrayed as some grand transcendental thought process to which we should all aspire as a basis for our actions. To be sure, it is an instrument which, if correctly employed, helps us to draw inferences from given premisses, without inconsistency, and about which other people would agree. But, is there only one grand rationality, only one way of seeing things? Perhaps in the material world of physical objects, yes. But, as the maxim suggests, not in the social world where there is discourse and interaction. If there was, would we ever need arbitration courts and anti-discrimination laws to regulate so much of our lives?

Choosing the premisses that underpin any chain of reasoning is a human responsibility and in social and organizational life choices will accord with the individual's reading of a given situation and vice versa. How often, in negotiated situations with students, colleagues, managers, customers, suppliers, financiers etc., have you thought "why can't he just see things the way they are? He doesn't seem to understand that the truth of the matter is that...".

Is Lord Clyde's remark reminding us that the truth of the matter is that the way we see things is the way we believe them to be, not necessarily the way things are: i.e. believing is seeing, not seeing is believing? Kant once said that we see things not as they are, but as we are. So the behaviour of the important other, the student, the colleague, the participant in your research, the supplier, the customer, the financier is hardly irrational. Everyone behaves rationally within their own understanding of a situation. Their behaviour will always make sense to them, even though when seen through the eyes of some other person it may not seem rational.

Is it then not naive to expect that other people will automatically see things the way you do? R.D. Laing once wrote that the range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. Is it not also naive to believe that your view of a social situation is capable of fully representing it; and that as one person you have the percipience to see all the various facets and subtleties of issues as others involved in the same situation will? What are you failing to notice? As a parent, a researcher, a manager, a teacher, a friend, a colleague? You have to continually ask yourself this, because as Laing also remarks there is little we can do to change, until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.


If you should not expect automatically to see things the way someone else does, and if it cannot be guaranteed that others who work with you in an organization will necessarily always see things the same way you do, what then does it mean to manage marketing? A difference in opinion cannot simply be reconciled by the crude use of power: i.e. through exercising the authority vested in your position to take decisions unilaterally, without consultation, or to coerce subordinates into conformity, perhaps by means of the threat of sanction.

Yet, power is a function of dependence. We form organizations because we cannot achieve certain things alone and we depend on the co-operation of others. So, to the extent that others think they depend on us, we have power over them; and to the extent that we think we depend on others, they have power over us. Power is defined in the context of a marketing relationship and it flows at least two ways. Ordering people around in the style of the despot is surely marketing management of the last resort. It may work as a short-term measure. But, in the longer term its influence will be divisive and will undermine the basis of co-operation and goodwill on which organizations are said to depend. It is also a denial of the views of others and of their potential to contribute to the development of the organization.

Lord Clyde's remark reminds us that believing what someone says, rather than taking it seriously, is an abdication, made in the Orkney case by social workers, of your powers of engagement in the construction and negotiation of social situations.

Thought preceding action

So, if people see things differently and have different agendas, and the crude use of power as a way of resolving conflict is ultimately self-defeating, what then does it mean to manage marketing?

It is often said that, in addition to being able to read organizational situations, marketing managers have to be good communicators. Through careful observation, listening and reading, people in organizations are said to be better able to understand where their colleagues are coming from. The idea is not simply to seek to influence the actions of others through telling them about your views. In other words, to seek to influence their opinions and beliefs by providing them with your interpretation of information that they may, or may not already have at their disposal.

Letting the facts as you see them speak for themselves is not guaranteed to persuade people that they are better informed as a result, nor that they should acquiesce to your point of view. It is not guaranteed to influence their actions. Merely communicating your understanding of the facts is a necessary, but rarely sufficient, condition of changing the views of others: the belief that it is has its origins in the idea that people will take what is said at face value, irrespective of who says it; and that they will make the same sense of the facts as you do. In other words, communication is a one-way process; the medium has little bearing on the sense made of the information being communicated; and the message has only one interpretation!

Yet, communication is itself a form of interaction by means of which people make sense of situations involving other people. Who says what and the words they use make it unlikely that any statement is open to one, and only one interpretation. Communication is about finding a common understanding of a situation, and a form of words to depict this understanding about which groups of people can find a measure of agreement.

In our organizational lives, most of us appreciate that we must learn to decode the words, or read the runes being used by someone else in any form of verbal or written communication. It is not so much what someone says that matters, but who says it and how they say it. We are also likely to be more sensitive to the organizational priorities revealed by the actions people take, including what they say, than those enshrined in formal organizational procedures. And so the context within which interaction occurs is important.

It might then misrepresent what occurs in social situations to say that people independently form their own thoughts and opinions before taking any action on them, such as communicating them to someone else. This view presupposes that cognition always precedes action. Karl Weick (1988) has coined the phrase "how can I know what I think until I hear what I say?" to imply that action can precede cognition and focus it. In social situations he believes that it is through interaction and discourse that the seeds of thoughts are sown which then become preconceptions that partially affect subsequent action. In this way the unintended consequences of communications become central to the marketing management process and not peripheral to it.

As social spaces where people interact, organizations are constructed, or enacted in social terms, not through the hierarchies and formal procedures that are often used to represent them. Marketing management is then about framing an interpretation of the organization itself; i.e. about actively engaging in the social construction of the context within which people, their concerns about themselves and their work are given meaning. It is about actively engaging in the construction of the conditions within which a creative and dynamic organization can be realized. But, before you can change things and create something new, you must first understand the conditions of possibility of the organization as it is. They reside less in the formal procedures, systems and structures of an organization than in the symbols and display behaviours of the tribe that inhabit it.

So it is not enough just to listen to the ideas of others, or to be able to put your own ideas across to someone else clearly. You have to engage in a penetrating discourse which requires you to take what someone else says seriously, and to understand why they say it, but not necessarily to commit yourself to belief.

Ideas and action are not always consistent

So, where does that leave us? Organizations are staffed by people who see things differently and have different agendas. Resolving conflict by means of power is not tenable in the long term. Communication is not simply about the transference of information, but of the co-creation of meaning. Meaning is created through interaction and discourse. Managers manage the context by engaging in the process of constructing and reconstructing meaning. Well, what else is marketing management about?

It is a truism to say that people typically say things they do not mean, or that they mean things they do not say. How often have you construed meanings in what someone says that later, with the benefit if hindsight, i.e. reflection on their subsequent actions, you discover to be wide of the mark. As Brunsson (1992) argues, drawing connections between talk and action in organizations is an arbitrary move. But, there is an automatic expectation that there will be a consistency between the ideas that talk concerns and actions that are taken; i.e. that it is possible to say the same things as it is possible to do. The desire to see such consistency is expressed as a norm that we impose on people and where they fail to live up to it we see them as flatulent posturers, hypocrites and even liars. This is a situation many marketing managers face because what can be talked about cannot always be translated into action, and what can be done cannot always be talked about.

Brunsson (1992) reminds us that many discussions of ideas occur in arenas which are disengaged from action. They often give rise to opinions expressing desires and norms rather than facts and forecasts. Wishes may be presented but not implemented because concrete actions demand more resources than the organization can commit. Yes, talk is cheap and action dear. But, such talk plays an important symbolic role in terms of presenting the organization as striving towards the norms and expectations of a particular institutional group. Think how important it is in the UK these days for businesses to be seen to be dynamic and customer-led. In public the job of the marketing manager is often to perform display behaviour which is consistent with this norm and so to talk the dynamic, customer-led business into existence, even if the private truth is something else.

In other situations marketing managers may find themselves having to present the face of the caring, environmentally friendly organization. In this situation they will suffer under the pressure of inconsistent norms, to do with being dynamic and customer-led and profitable, while also being socially and environmentally responsible. It may then be easier to implement actions which are inconsistent with social and environmental norms, than to acknowledge them, or defend them in open discussion. And so in some situations, what can be done and what can be said will be difficult to reconcile.

Organizations are typically presented as being rational, efficient, customer-caring, environmentally and socially responsible, competitive, aggressive and profitable entities. Yet, they cannot work as they are presented. How can they possibly reconcile all those different norms? So, they must be being represented in a way which is different from the actions they take. What people can say they intend to do is heavily regulated by expectations and norms, while their interpretations of what they are doing, or have done, is not. And so representatives of organizations will often present a case which displays good intentions, even if unacceptable actions have previously been taken.

It is then likely that marketing managers will find themselves in difficult situations where what they can say they do and what they do do are different. The official truth that can then be referred to in public may deviate from their own experience of the situation. The skill of marketing managers in managing the context is then to present themselves, not necessarily as the organization acts, but in a manner that corresponds to the appropriate norm. The astute manager is alert to the demands of different situations and knows when display behaviour is called for and what norms operate, and when concrete action needs to be taken.

Organizations may be pulled in different directions by the competing pressures of various stakeholder groups and lobbies. Finding a point of equilibrium, a temporary resolution, is a difficult balancing act at the best of times, made all the more so by the scrutinizing presence of the media - as in a crisis, such as a product recall or imposed withdrawal. Marketing managers need skills in dealing with such situations.

So, we seem to be left with the view that marketing management is about understanding the difference between taking what someone says seriously and believing what they say, and being able to act on this. It also seems to be about being alert to what you can say in different situations and knowing how to decouple what you do say from what gets done. Is this committing us to a much more politically informed model of marketing management?

Douglas Brownlie University of Stirling, Stirling, UK


Brunsson, N. (1989), The Organization of Hypocrisy: Talk, Decisions and Actions in Organizations, Wiley, London.

Weick, K. (1988), "Enacted sensemaking in crisis situations", Journal of Management Studies, Vol. 25 No. 4, pp. 305-17.
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Title Annotation:marketing management research
Author:Brownlie, Douglas
Publication:European Journal of Marketing
Date:Nov 1, 1997
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