A More Detailed Explanation

Imagination and Careful Rethinking

It is the premise of what follows that the Labour Movement would benefit significantly from seriously studying modern marketing theory and methodology so as to ultimately adapt, if not occasionally adopt, the marketing process, philosophy and method to help it achieve some of its goals.

The dramatic decline of union membership in the United States and the recent downward trend in Canada, Free Trade, globalization, the neo-liberal credo and the rise of unbridled individualism compel unionists to carefully rethink many of our assumptions and to start devising new imaginative approaches to the challenges we face.

No one can deny that modern marketing methods have successfully sold consumers an astounding variety of goods, services and even ideas, through the sophisticated and subtle use of a wide range of strategies. The success and efficiency of these methods are indisputable.

A Tool Serves the Person Holding It

However, marketing is basically a "tool" that, like other tools, serves the interests of "whoever" is wielding the tool. In the hands of multinational corporations, the mass media and mainstream politicians it should come as no surprise that it is used to further "their" objectives.

It is conceivable, indeed logical, that on certain occasions, some union campaigns could benefit by judiciously exploiting the vast amount of knowledge and experience of modern marketing, and hence better reach "our" objectives in campaigns undertaken in the pursuit of labour's own unique goals.

Today, marketing as a "tool" is used by hospitals, universities, political parties and an ever growing number of nonprofit organizations. The United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, amongst others, has been using it regularly in their boycott campaigns over the past number of years.

A Forthright Definition of Marketing

Nowadays one reads and hears the word "Marketing" regularly in the mass media and in everyday conversation; however, depending upon the speaker or author, it can and does have a myriad of meanings. It is thus imperative to precisely define what we mean by the term.

In my Masters (MScA) thesis, Redefining Marketing: Self-interest, Altruism and Solidarity, I explain the self-serving and ideological nature of most mainstream definitions. In place of these many obfuscations, I argue that one should call a spade a spade, and I thereby define marketing as follows:

Marketing is the planned attempt by an organization to cause a designated behaviour to occur or not to occur in a non-captive target public, without any actual or potential resort to coercion by the organization.

Marketing is Not Inherently Good, or Bad

However, throughout the Twentieth Century, and in the overwhelming majority of its applications today, marketing has had as its implicit objective the realization of maximum returns for a profit-seeking company, and naturally, the carefully formulated programs have been designed accordingly.

Yet there is absolutely nothing that prevents one from using marketing techniques and substituting other objectives, such as increasing union membership, developing union bargaining strength or expanding union influence on social or political issues.

At first glance, many labour unions might be hostile to the idea of marketing, per se, as it is often associated with Madison Avenue, exploitative advertising, glossy promotions, feverish salesmen and hucksterism.

But, lest we be misled, these are only "applications," albeit sometimes unscrupulous ones of marketing theories and techniques. They in no way represent anything "inherent" about the marketing process, philosophy or method, itself.

The Myth of Marketing Creating Needs

An oft heard criticism of marketing states that it "creates needs" amongst consumers. I would argue that this rebuke is a superficial one and unfortunately misses the point.

Marketing research, central to the marketing process, does indeed "identify" consumer needs. However, once this mass of raw data on the market is collected, the marketing professional working on a corporate account "selects" which of the consumers' many needs to act upon.

Only those consumer needs which can be satisfied at the "least cost" and "most profit" for the corporation will be addressed. New needs have not been "created", but rather given a "priority" over perhaps other more significant and relevant needs. It is here that the "tool" is subjugated to the interests of corporate profits.

Marketers have never claimed that they seek to satisfy the needs that the consumer values most, but merely one or more of admittedly numerous needs that he or she may have.

An Analogy with the Computer

An analogy with computer technology is relevant here. When it first appeared, many trade unionists were opposed to its introduction, predicting an important loss of jobs and an increasing invasion and control of workers' lives. The first fear is still hotly disputed, while the latter, we have discovered, depends upon "who" is programming the computer and "to what purpose".

Trade unions, as organizations, have used computer technology to their advantage. Meanwhile, the Internet, on which you are reading these lines, is likewise simultaneously home to Subcommandante Marcos and Neo-liberal ideologues.

Marketing, like the computer, has a down side, but also a positive potential ... It all depends on "who" is using it and to "what" ends!

The Components of Marketing

Some of the major concerns of marketing professionals and a few of their principal marketing techniques include:

... to name only a few.

Almost every one of these many techniques and concerns has analogous applications in a trade union environment and in the context of labour's many responsibilities and goals.

Who can deny, for example, that trade unions are unequivocally and continually interested in "persuading" all kinds of people to behave in ways that they might not be inclined to do on their own.

Marketers Work Hard to Get Their Results

The best modern marketing practitioners execute highly sophisticated and efficient campaigns for two key reasons:

  1. they give a central place in all of their thinking, planning and conduct to the "concept" of marketing;
  2. they create, maintain and use enormous pools of information and knowledge to help them identify and understand their target clients and the best ways to reach them and get them to do what they want.

They do their homework and leave little to chance.

There are No Patents on Marketing Techniques

All of the surveys, studies, knowledge, experiments, interviews, statistical analyses, research and information; as well as the techniques, strategies and practical applications of modern marketing are within the reach of the Labour Movement.

Indeed, the Labour Movement merely has to decide to master and adapt those methods to its unique social and altruistic goals, while filtering out those aspects which we may find objectionable.

The Marketer's Target Consumer
is also a Union or Potential Union Member

The target consumer of the modern marketer is also a union or non-union worker. In many ways, the Labour Movement is in competition with other institutions in our society for that consumer-worker's money, loyalty and perhaps most important - his or her time !

For example, when the major television networks invite the consumer-worker to spend an evening in front of his or her television set, while his or her union has called a general meeting for the same evening, the consumer-worker must choose between two competing behaviours.

It is not being suggested here that the Labour Movement employ the same tactics as profit-seeking corporations. However, it is crucial for us to realize on what terrain we are doing battle, and that the methods of our competitors are at times far more powerful and productive than ours.

Many of the multinational corporations' successes, and this according to their own "gurus", is due to the pre-eminent place occupied by marketing in their strategic thinking, planning and conduct of business.

It is also not being suggested here that the Labour Movement is ignorant or insensitive to the above factors and techniques, and this is not meant to imply that nothing is being done in this area either.

On the other hand, much much more could be done to better achieve our goals.


Despite our commitment to union solidarity, labour unions certainly admit and even aim to defend the differences and distinctiveness of humankind. We are not carbon copies one of the other and one cannot satisfy all of the people, all of the time.

One of modern marketing's primary strengths is acting precisely upon this premise by tailoring unique products, services and approaches to unique market segments.

I would argue that the Labour Movement should be less concerned with improving its "overall" image in the "general" population, (often viewed and expressed by critics and friends alike in the most abstract terms) but rather more intent on identifying "distinct" segments or publics in the community, and subsequently, tailoring its services, message, style, tone etc. to each of these different groups.

In other words, we should have differently nuanced objectives depending upon which group or "segment" of the community we are dealing with, and hence appropriately different approaches.

A Modest Model of Labour's Four Target Publics

I would argue that four unique publics or segments each have a specific "functional" relationship to the Labour Movement:

  1. Those people and organizations that regulate, publicly evaluate and limit our activities: e.g. Government labour bureaucracies, arbitrators, the judicial system, politicians and the media.
  2. Those many people who work and are involved daily in making the wheels of the Labour Movement turn; e.g. full-time paid staff, elected union officials and activists at various levels of the union.
  3. Labour's potential allies; e.g. popular organizations, such as tenants' rights organizations, womens' and peace groups, environmentalists, church groups or anti-poverty groups.
  4. Labour's target market or consuming publics: the unions'dues-paying members, dues-paying non-members and non-member union sympathizers potentially disposed to joining a union.

Marketing is more than Advertising

Over the past few years, many labour unions have discovered the Wonderful World of Advertising. It is no longer unusual to see and hear paid union ads on TV, on radio or in the newspapers.

But advertising should not be confused with marketing. Mass Media Advertising is merely "one" of the many techniques used in modern day marketing. It is also one of the most expensive marketing techniques, and not necessarily the most efficient, dollar for dollar.

Indeed, some marketers would argue that some of the best marketing campaigns have deliberately avoided mass media advertising.

All too often, advertising agencies, or marketing professionals hired to work on union campaigns, are not intimately aware of how the Labour Movement works, its sensitivities and strengths, and particularly its goals.

In the same manner, union people are often unaware of the whole range of services and possibilities that advertising has to offer, and in a more general fashion, they ignore the vast panoply of marketing tools available and the uses that can be made of them.

Principles need not be sacrificed, nor the essence of the union message changed, when one targets specific audiences and takes their specific characteristics into consideration when devising a marketing strategy that aims to reach, influence or persuade the largest, most appropriate and most attentive audience.

Evaluate, Evaluate, Evaluate

Finally, "clearly measurable" and rigorous communications and strategic objectives must be established in union campaigns, much in the manner that is done by advertising and marketing professionals.

The zealous preoccupation of marketing professionals with meticulous goal-setting may seem to conflict with labour's instinctive aversion to time and motion studies, bottom line management and the obsession with productivity.

However, the important distinction must again be drawn that the value of goal-setting depends upon "who" fixes the objectives and "what" objectives are being set.

A Summary: The Essence of Marketing

The recognition of distinct publics or segments having each a specific functional relationship to the Labour Movement, as well as a meticulous sensitivity to the particularities between them and amongst each of them, is at the base of the marketing "approach," suggested here.
Based on this recognition, methodical attention must be paid to the nature of each of the various segments, as well as their particular needs and wishes.
Hence strategic decisions should be adapted and tailored to reach each of these unique target segments in the most appropriate way so that ultimately they will freely choose to act in a way that will contribute to strengthening and enhancing the labour movement and helping us achieve our goals.

Please continue reading on about Marketing and boycotts, as well as union organization or membership participation campaigns; or Allen Gottheil's detailed explanation of marketing's relevancy to unions, his answers to some  FAQ's; and union clients in the marketing domain, other union clients; and finally his work experience and education, or return to the introduction on the first page.

If you have any comments, suggestions, brickbats or bouquets ...
Or, If your union organization is planning a major campaign ...
Please do drop a line to: Allen Gottheil: allengottheil@sympatico.ca

copyright © Allen Gottheil, 1999
Montreal, Canada
Tel: (514) 481-7270