Marketing talent-mix & social sciences: Look but don’t touch?
Updated: Oct 30
Think of your marketing team's talent make-up for a second. Is skill-diversity a deciding and driving factor in your hires and deliverables? Given that humans are your subjects, do you integrate social sciences in strategy-development? Or do you think there isn't enough of it? If it's the latter, let me try to explain why there should be more of it.
There's no denying that marketing has always had a natural interest in science, and became an area of scientific research in its own right in the latter part of the 20th century (e.g.: Marketing Science for starters). Social sciences, as well as data science, played an important role in this evolution: in how practitioners react to the changes in society, technology and industry competition on macro and micro scales with insight and foresight. In fact, most practical innovation in marketing, insights and strategy are social science-inspired, or directly triggered by it. We can’t discount how valuable learning-through-experience is in the field of marketing, of course. It’s very common that marketing practice leads the way to scientific research and disruption, academics follow up with research to explore the avenues of cause and impact, and the cycle continues. So academia advanced marketing, associated strategy, and research methods (and vice versa) over the decades. There’s an interdependency - if one is lacking, then the other half will not reach its full potential. They need to cross-pollinate.
This symbiosis isn’t a self-sustaining one, however. It needs to be nurtured in theory and practice. Without an endless curiosity about the human subject that is the consumer - and I don’t just mean collect as much data as you can - the players in this interdependence would pretty quickly run out of fuel to propel their respective disciplines. We all know that human psychology and behaviour are contextual, nuanced, mysterious and confusing - and notoriously unpredictable if taken as a static target. It sure is dynamic, and this is why we can’t go by a broad formula to understand social/psychological mechanisms. We strive to stitch together facts and assumptions to find long-lasting sense + relevance in the maze of consumer engagement systems. Without batting an eyelid, marketers and strategists utilise popular or scholarly science day-in, day-out. Hence the long lists of books-to-read we all have, hence the rise of mixed method research and cultural insights disciplines across the board, hence the dozens of talks and webinars we sign up to, hence the curious (and maybe naively brave) folks amongst us who upskill by pursuing postgraduate degrees to further stimulate the cutting-edge, innovative work in the industry.
If this is the case, why don’t we see more social scientists in our marketing, strategy, research teams? And why highlight social sciences in particular – that we should integrate it more intently and actively into our organisations?
For some context around the necessity of a deeper integration, I’d like to give a taster of the perspective it could bring. Let me remind you of the simplified timeline of the 4-way foci of marketing across the last 50 years or so. The focus of marketing evolved because of the diversification of means of mass communication, leading to variance of choice and therefore shifting brand interest from inwards (Qs such as: who are we, what do we offer, can we be better than the other)to outwards into the mind of the consumer (Qs such as: who are they, what do they value, how do they feel). So a few thematic guides developed over time, the 4Ps, 4Cs, 4Es, beginning from pre-mass media era to the digital ecosystem of today respectively. As the ecosystem grew exponentially, each 4-way lens became old-news, but still, best practice guidelines in everything us marketers, insights experts and strategists do.
I hope you didn’t yawn looking at that image. It’s nothing you don’t know, but these themes don’t give us the full picture anymore in the midst of the high speed shifts in the supply and demand of tech advances. The whole industry is chewing the fat of generative AI and what it will do to the “practice” of marketing, insights, strategy development. But consumer brains aren’t as fast as the innovations themselves, because there are individual motivations for deliberation. Diffusion of innovations and adoption is a long-haul journey, dependent on social, cultural, economic contexts of consumer cohorts. So this means that we need to understand the implications of the socio-psychological drivers which we cannot observe with the naked eye, see in hard metrics, big data or conversion models. Yet we all accept that these nuanced drivers exist and they influence our practices. Stakes are high when our strategic tasks are anchored in the realm of individual and social.
We [try to] play catch-up values, emotions, motivations and perceptions around tech innovation such as the hot potato that is AI. Unless we adjust to the conceptual morphology and what all of these connote in the reality of the user/consumer, we will be stuck in a cycle of looking inwards, perhaps out of touch with the broader picture of consumer motivations for adoption of innovation. We may even fall out of love with not just our subjects, but also our jobs. Avoiding this “next-tech-goal post” frenzy requires a different thinking hat, an analytical yet creative one which is social-scientific and motivation-decoding. It means a true diversification of thinkers in the marketing/strategy/product team as well.
Now, back to what this could bring to life. To jump-start some thought into what this approach can deliver, as a social scientist, I suggest that we are now in the 4Is era, especially with new technology propellers in a post-pandemic, engagement-hungry world. The 4Is mean:
Emotion morphed into Intention: Intent is not divorced from emotion, it never was, we’re just focusing on the translation of emotion into intent, it’s first step before action. Emotion is the baseline, intent is its product.
Experience morphed into Immersion: Chameleon experiences are sought after in mixed realities and via cross-platform presence (or facilitation) resulting in continuous self-discovery, actualisation and omnipresence.
Engagement morphed into Investment: ‘Showing up’ is not enough, long-haul social/cultural/environmental impact and influence of brands is needed to enable consumer investment (micro-participation enablement for more change makers).
Exclusivity morphed into Imagination: Consumers are itching to imagine better and bigger to overcome the limits of possibilities, which means inclusivity rather than exclusivity - and they clock brands that portray futures/selves as such.
This is just one generalised way of conceptualising the evolution of marketing foci, a social science-led interpretation. All of these themes or lenses are different for different sectors, cultural cohorts, product categories - it can’t cover everything, but they will anchor the broader practice, and yield better applications if you have a social sciences expert in your talent mix. The 4I themes are pointers for discovery, exploration, and research, and the social scientist is an informed-guide to find your way, and fine-tune your approach as you go through the process. I’m sure there are many outside-the-box thinkers that are experienced marketers and enthusiasts of human-behaviour who would take the 4Is to a new level of thought + practice as they read this, too. And they may not be applied scientists but that’s why a strong strategy involves diverse skills and thinkers.
I see the appetite in the marketing and tech industry to integrate new ways of thinking with experts from social scientific disciplines, but are we really acting on this appetite as marketers, innovators, business leaders? This is not unlike the diversity, equality, inclusion drive we see everywhere. Just like we discuss DEI, integrating different thinkers/disciplines should be discussed too, and I think we don’t do enough of it. Why are we irked by people who may challenge our way of thinking in marketing, strategy, insights, product development with a social scientific lens? I think there is this misconception that “new skills”, especially emerging academic disciplines can mean “slowing down” because it means having to innovate in our ways-of-doing. Maybe there needs to be a mind-shift to embrace this - after all, the consumer mind is human, not a machine, and slowing down can help us empathise more.
Now & Future
Recently I’ve been hearing more and more from my connections in the field of research & insights + strategy who are also qualified experts of applied psychology and social/behavioural sciences, like me. A lot of them have heaps of industry experience and some turned to consultancy to have more freedom and variety in the projects they work on. Here’s the problem, though, they can’t find work. It’s not because they are under-qualified, it’s because they are not of the usual marketing ilk or profile recruiters seek. But these people are curators of knowledge and experience in a different way, they think like a scholar but deliver actionable work. But juniors and seniors alike of this profile struggle, this includes me.
The world of recruitment is under too much pressure which doesn’t allow for consideration of talent diversity. There are multiple factors behind this problem: (a) Global budget restraints and associated hiring freezes/redundancies, (b) Lack of awareness and education around what scientific disciplines offer to marketing practice, (c) The illusion that if you work with someone who is a PhD or above, that they will be clueless about the commercial world, and finally, (d) Risk aversion and preference for the conventional safety nets of brand/marketing/insights strategy practice.
These blockers are common in the #opentowork circles in my field, although context, as always, matters. Still, while we can’t argue much about the sad reality of (a) budget restrictions/redundancies, a lot can be said about the other factors I listed above. I personally think that the trio of (b) lack of awareness & education, (c) illusion that commercial experience is more valuable than scientific thinking, and (d) risk aversion in favour of the conventional are slowing us collectively as strategists and applied marketers, but also as leaders. We/You are the people who are behind the ‘brand promises’ made to the consumers... We want to keep them engaged, but we refrain from investing in new talent and challenger thinkers in the talent pool.
This MO jeopardises business and team development, not to mention its short-sightedness. Most importantly, innovation in thought and practice lags or becomes static as a result of dated conventions in recruitment. The industry gets fatigued, consumers get marketing-fatigued as a result. In the meantime, culture thrives in real world social cohorts, technology disrupts platform economy, AI freaks out humans, and then some. In my humble opinion, fearlessness should be the name of the game for marketing, insights and strategy practices and their talent search, not without consideration or caution of course. But definitely by welcoming broad ranges of skills from academia and commercial worlds alike, with people who can think laterally and creatively; with foresight that challenges the status quo; and with the ability to ask harder [organisational] questions without hesitation.
If you are a business leader, a hiring manager or a recruiter, please challenge yourself, your team and your network to be more fearless. Balance out the old-fashioned “can-do the job” hires with “challenger” ones. Update the talent mix in your company. Social sciences facilitate marketing and strategic innovation, different skill sets stretch the boundaries of conventional research and insights strategy, and unusual ways of thinking invigorate organisational culture. Learning (and developing) is a social contagion fuelled by new thinkers/models in the workplace, so enable more of it. Some businesses are already embracing all of this, but sadly, there aren’t enough opportunities out there for applied social scientists to get an opportunity to show their value to change the default shape of marketing talent. Let's do better.