Why ‘marketing’ is the wrong metaphor for development communication


The widespread use of the marketing metaphor in development communication may be limiting the impact of research for development. It reflects a deficit model of communication that denies agency to the people with whom we wish to communicate; it contributes to the further commodification of science and the further undermining of public trust; and it denies exploration of potentially more useful and productive metaphors. Development communicators need to seriously examine the assumptions underlying the marketing metaphor aAnd consider alternative metaphors more in line with recent developments in social networking and complexity theory.

Development communication
 The term ‘development communication’ was first coined in 1972 by Nora C. Quebral, who defined it as: “the art and science of human communication linked to a society’s planned transformation from a state of poverty to one of dynamic socio-economic growth that makes for greater equity and the larger unfolding of individual potential.”  Today, thousands of communications professionals work full or part-time for international development agencies, international NGOs, foundations and large “research for development” institutions. All of them are working hard to “get their message out there”; many of them using the discourse of marketing without fully appreciating the implications.

The magic of marketing

 For many development communicators there is something inherently appealing about the idea of ‘marketing’ their work. All around us we see compelling evidence of how effectively ideas can be marketed. The qualitative difference between one pair of running shoes and another may be marginal, but people will pay hundreds of dollars for a pair of Nike runners, Calvin Klein jeans, or a Gucci handbag. In our modern world, the signifier (the brand) has come to have more meaning and value than the thing it represents. Surely, if development communicators can apply the same principles to ‘selling ideas‘ they must reap similar rewards in terms of ‘brand recognition’ for their project, NGO or research institution.

 For development communicators, the discourse of marketing functions as an effective metaphor. On a practical day-to-day level, the language of marketing seems to work in terms of describing what development communicators do (e.g. selling ideas) and how they go about achieving their goals (e.g. defining target audiences). There is also a certain élan to be had in adopting the discourse of marketing. To speak with knowing ease of key messages, media channels and audience segmentation gives the craft and its practitioners a patina of legitimacy and business acumen.

 In terms of how we think and act, our conceptual system is fundamentally metaphorical in nature. A metaphor is a comparison. We routinely compare one entity to another to convey meaning more effectively. We refer to “the father of modern biology (ideas are people); we say “science has many branches” (ideas are plants); “an astounding rate of new ideas” (ideas are products); “it’s important how you package your ideas” (ideas are commodities). 

 Metaphor structures both our mental life and our behavior. Consider this well known metaphor for education: “The mind is a candle to be lit, not a vessel to be filled.” An educator with a metaphorical concept of mind as ‘candle to be lit’ will develop a curriculum and employ teaching and testing methods much different than one who sees the mind as ‘vessel to be filled’. Because metaphor is so much a part of how we think and act, because it has such power, we are well advised to reflect on the metaphors we use. “A metaphor not only explains by making the abstract concrete and familiar, it also enlivens by engaging the imagination through a relationship between things seemingly alien to each other.” 

 Development communicators may usefully employ the concepts and tools of marketing and revel in the glamour of the discourse, but there is great danger in confusing or conflating communication about science or development with the selling of products and services. So bold and striking is metaphor that it is sometimes taken literally rather than as a comparison. Development communicators may be confusing the marketing map for the scientific territory. 

Needs, wants and deficits

The Chartered Institute of Marketing defines ‘marketing’ as: “the management process responsible for identifying, anticipating and satisfying customers’ requirements profitably.” Does a publically funded research institution or an environmental NGO with stated goals of poverty alleviation, the creation of international public goods, and the conservation of endangered species have ‘customers’ in the same way a multinational food company has customers? The short answer would be ‘no’, but development communicators need a name for the people they are trying to engage with, and a term like “target audience” facilitates internal planning and action. However, what we name a thing matters a great deal. Are we “selling ideas to investors”, or are we “in dialog with partners”? To paraphrase Confucius, “if names are not correct, thought and action will not be in accordance with the truth of things.”

 Inherent in all definitions of marketing is the concept of deficit. Companies selling goods and services believe they have something that customers need or want. In today’s global economy, a good deal of marketing research is directed as much towards the creation of needs and wants as to the discovery of what needs and wants were already there. Either way, customers are in a state of deficit: they lack whatever it is the company can supply. The concept of deficit is also at the core of modernization theory, which is the cornerstone of development communications.

 Modernization theory emerged from post-WWII concerns of mainly US economists and policy makers about unrest in newly emancipated nations and the threat of Soviet expansionism. Theorists first created a category of nations known as ‘Third World’ or ‘developing’, made a diagnosis of the underlying causes for why they were not yet ‘developed’, and proposed a simple remedy: changes in ideas will result in transformations in behavior:

“…cultural and information deficits lie underneath development problems, and therefore could not be resolved only through economic assistance (a la the Marshall Plan in post-war Europe). Instead, the difficulties in Third World countries were at least partially related to the existence of a traditional culture that inhibited development. Third World countries lacked the necessary culture to move into a modern stage. Based on this diagnosis, development communication proposed that changes in ideas would result in transformations in behavior” (Waisbord, 2000). 

 Development communicators embarked on a decades-long mission to “transmit” information and “modern values” through mass media to modify behaviors according to development objectives. Beginning in the 1960s, development communicators started borrowing ideas from the new field of social marketing. Social marketing derived from political and social forces that put pressure on large corporations in the United States to be more socially relevant and socially responsible. It was a marriage of considerable convenience.

 Social marketing is the application of commercial marketing techniques to promote certain social behaviors deemed to be ‘good’ (if the aims are deemed to be ‘bad’, it’s generally called propaganda). The tools of social marketing have been used with great success to influence changes in thinking and behavior related to a range of health and safety issues in both developed and developing countries (smoking, seat belt use, drug and alcohol use, safe sex, birth control, etc.). Its appeal to development communicators was and remains its affinity with underlying assumptions about deficits and the role of information in changing minds and behaviour.

 Deficit thinking is much in evidence in development communication still. Researchers and development communicators who claim to speak for them insist that it is their duty to “influence” policy makers by providing them with the information they lack. When policy makers stubbornly refuse to be influenced, they may concede that their information wasn’t “packaged” appropriately, but the underlying deficit assumption is seldom challenged, i.e. researchers have superior or new ideas without which policy-makers will be able to make the right decisions.

 The concept of deficit plays a role in the process of commodification as well. Commodification is the transformation of [social] goods and services, or things that may not normally be regarded as goods or services, into commodities with a money value. Scientific information is increasingly deemed to be a good. Baskaren and Boden (2006) argue that:

 Knowledge is a major commodity in rapidly expanding global “free market” economies. Such knowledge includes that derived from the social activities that we in the West call “science”. The processes of globalisation and commercialisation have prompted a paradigmatic shift in the organisation, funding and nature of Western science during the past two decades or so. Western science has been transformed from an activity that took place in the “Independent Republic of Science”  to one that is corporatised, marketised and commodified, whether it takes place in the public or the private sector. Previously, scientists were conceived of as the producers of open, codifiable knowledge (often at public expense) for the public good. This knowledge production work was undertaken in return for public standing and recognition. In contrast, science is now usually an activity undertaken to produce knowledge that furthers the private commercial aims of globalised corporate actors.

 The commodificiation debate is nothing new. The tensions between the market, the community and the individuality is as old as civilization. Adam Smith advocated free trade because he believed it would put an end to the religious wars that had plagued Europe for 400 years. Others, like Justus Moser, Hegel and Marx, believed that the ‘capitalist market’ destroys local community structures and social cohesion . The debate continues today in the context of the globalization of knowledge once considered public goods. The pressure on research-for-development organizations to demonstrate ‘impact’ in terms of value for money can be seen as a reflection of the commodification of knowledge.

How discourse colonizes thought and action

 To illustrate some of the points discussed above, I examined a corpus of publically available documents published by the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and several of the research institutes that work under the CG umbrella. I chose the CG system because  a) at the time I wrote this article I was employed by the corporate communications unit of one of these centers, which gave me the status of participant observer; b) the CGIAR and its member institutes see their work as research-for-development, i.e. their research is measured in terms of how much impact it has on agricultural productivity and poverty alleviation; and c) the CGIAR system is in the midst of a major reorganization and hence an examination of the basic assumptions underlying their communications strategies is timely and potentially useful. The corpus comprises mainly documents on communications strategies and strategic plans available on the Internet. Not all the centers are represented in the corpus and there is no assurance that what was available is the most up-to-date version.

 In the table below, the first column shows excerpts containing marketing terms taken from documents produced by six of the 15 CG centers. The second column is an interpretation of what those excerpts reveal about basic assumptions in terms of marketing models and theories of communication. Center designations have been concealed in the interests of anonymity.

Center (…)’s Positioning and Comparative Advantage (section heading) Business marketing model
  (…)’s ‘brand’ is associated with credible, high-quality analysis, independent thinking, preparedness to tackle difficult and sometimes controversial issues Business marketing model
  (…) will also focus on ‘semi-restricted’ funds through marketing (…) research domains rather than specific research projects Business marketing model
  Given (…)’s desire to have widespread impact from its research, (…) is committed to supporting institution-wide efforts to understand policy processes globally, identifying policy processes that (…) is best placed to influence in each region, and strategically positioning (…) and our partners within these processes Business marketing model
  (…)’s web presence is essential in positioning the Center as a credible and important source of information Knowledge transfer; diffusion of information
Center We assume that a strong brand image helps ensure that (…) work is recognized and respected Business marketing model
  Rather than create new communications delivery systems, systematically use research ‘conveyor belts’ to disseminate news and information and encourage repackaging and recycling of research information Knowledge transfer; diffusion of innovation theory (communications is a technical process; information is a product)
  (…)’s Information Program is responsible for: 5) content, reviews and branding of publications Business marketing model
  (…)’s communications team has come up with two pillars for its program: (1) more relevant and timely products for stakeholders Business marketing model
  Four principles guide (…)’s communications strategy: (1) THE BUSINESS: Generating knowledge products is the institute’s primary business; communicating those knowledge products accurately, quickly, powerfully is the main business of (…)’s communications team Knowledge transfer; diffusion of innovation
Center Communication is the process by which a source sends a message to a receiver by means of a channel to produce a response (effect), in accordance with the intention of the source (feedback) Knowledge transfer; diffusion of innovation theory; the sender/receiver theory of communication
Center Distance and inadequate communications infrastructure have long been major hindrances to carrying out our Mission Knowledge transfer; diffusion of innovation theory
  Science, being largely a technical pursuit, requires skilled crafting of messages in ways that will be understood by, and connect emotionally with, the non-scientific public. Business marketing model(the non-scientific public are in deficit of the ability to understand science unless it is simplified)
  Face-to-face interaction remains the most effective means for influential communications but is impractical on the scale needed to frequently reach our global array of stakeholders. Interactionist theory of communication /diffusion of innovation theory
  Meanwhile, advances in information and communications technology continue to revolutionize the possibilities for raising public awareness Knowledge transfer; diffusion of innovation theory
Center The name of the (…) System was changed to a generic title following a rebranding exercise in 2009 Business marketing model
Center The communication strategy and plan will include a consistent global brand strategy Business marketing model
  The brand strategy will ensure use of brand by stakeholders and ensure compliance with trademark, licensing and copyright agreements. Business marketing model

 Across the board, these excerpts reflect a conventional business marketing model, one in which communicators are “identifying, anticipating and satisfying customers’ requirements profitably.” As the CG system launches its new “mega-programs” approach, it would be worth asking if this the most effective approach to communicating research.

 The current CGIAR change management initiative is the second attempt at ‘rebranding’ the CG system in light of donor demands and a changing external environment. The first such exercise attempted in the late 1990s was to rebrand the CG system as “Future Harvest”. These efforts were to come to naught when, in the early 2000s, “Future Harvest began to go awry a few years later, as implementation of CGIAR governance reforms got under way. New CGIAR leadership and some donors opposed the Future Harvest brand and approach.”

 I would suggest that what “went awry” can be traced back to the adoption of the marketing metaphor as the basis for communication. The CG established a Public Awareness Association (PAA) in 1988 to help science communicators deal with a spat of negative publicity and raise the profile of the CG system. The PAA was initially chaired by a donor representative and also Vice President of Communications at the Rockefeller Foundation. The CGIAR’s longstanding partnership with Burness Communications, a US-based public
relations firm, dates back to this time. Its president at the time was a close
associate of Rockefeller’s VP Communications.  In the early 1990s, an influential Australian science journalist explicitly emphasized the need for the CGIAR to adopt a new and more appealing brand.

 With or without the influence of vice presidents of communications and public relations firms, the marketing metaphor in agriculture is close at hand. Agriculture is much entwined in market processes. It does little good to increase production of livestock and crops if smallholder farmers cannot be linked to market chains, and smallholder famers are themselves acutely sensitive to market forces. It does not follow, however, that development communicators should take a marketing approach to communicating research work on agriculture.

Alternative metaphors and models

 Fortunately, development communicators seeking alternative metaphors and models for communications are not limited to marketing. The tree of communication theory bears varied fruits. Theories of Human Communication, a standard text by Littlejohn and Foss (2007)  lists seven main types of theories: structural, functional, cognitive, behavioral, interactionist, interpretive and critical. Each employs different metaphors and it is instructive to see how a different metaphor leads to different outcomes. Two examples are given below.

 Erving Goffman, one of the best known sociologists of the 20th  Century, analyzed human behavior through the lens of a theatrical metaphor. For Goffman, all communication is a form of performance. “All the world is a stage.”

I am suggesting that often what talkers undertake to do is not to provide information to a recipient but to present dramas to an audience. Indeed, it seems that we spend most of our time not engaged in giving information but in giving shows.

 We have all sat through enough PowerPoint presentations to appreciate the difference between someone who provides information (too often more than we can handle in one sitting) and someone who makes a good performance. Goffman’s theory belongs to a category known as interactionist, in which communication is decidedly social in nature. Meaning is created and sustained by interaction in the social group, not transmitted from a sender to a receiver as per the cliché mechanical model of communication. It is the interaction itself that establishes, maintains and changes conventions, roles, norms, rules and meanings within a social group. Farmers don’t adopt a new agricultural practice because they received appropriately packaged information or attended a training workshop. If they change, they do so because a new way of doing things makes sense in the various contexts that frame their lives. Only through genuine interaction can we understand these ‘frames of context’ and only then can we engage meaningfully and communicate effectively. 

 One more example will suffice to illustrate how a different metaphor can provide a potentially productive model for “doing communication”. What if an idea is a virus?

 One of the main concerns of epidemiologists is modeling the spread of diseases. Recently, they have been applying social networking theory with considerable success. Social network analysis (related to mathematical network theory, not Facebook or Twitter) has emerged as a key technique in modern sociology and gained a significant following in anthropology, biology, communication studies, economics, geography, information science, organizational studies, social psychology, and sociolinguistics. A social network is a social structure made up of individuals (or organizations) called nodes, which are tied (connected) by one or more specific types of interdependency, such as friendship, kinship, common interest, financial exchange, dislike, sexual relationships, or relationships of beliefs, knowledge or prestige. Epidemiologists use it to help understand how patterns of human contact aid or inhibit the spread of diseases in a population.

 The notion that ideas behave in a similar way is not new. A field of study called memetics arose in the 1990s to explore the concepts and transmission of memes in terms of an evolutionary model.  A meme is an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. While genes transmit biological information, memes are said to transmit ideas. Perhaps it would be useful for development communicators to think in terms of constructing and tracking memes rather than ‘transmitting messages’.


 Any metaphor development communicators adopt comes with a set of underlying assumptions about how people communicate with one another that will have practical consequences for development communication. If, for example, development communicators decided to adopt either the framing metaphor or “idea as virus” metaphor, development communicators would still have a useful a discourse to work with.

 Too many development communicators who use the language of marketing have never had any formal training in marketing or any real world experience in the private sector. Nor do most realize they are clinging to an outdated paradigm of marketing. In the “old” marketing paradigm, value is embedded in products. A brand is a means of validating the quality of a product (XYZ shampoo is pure and made of the best ingredients). The new marketing paradigm recognizes the increasing fragmentation of market segments and actively interprets brands to appeal to sometimes tiny market segements. Google already presents different content and ads to users based on their ‘click’ history. Finally, corporations spend hundreds of millions of dollars on marketing. Marketing is a central element of the company’s strategic planning process. Research institutes spend a small fraction of their budget on ‘communications’, and communications units are peripheral to strategic decision making.

 Ultimately, it is a question of choice. Do we want to treat ideas as commodities? Do we want to compete for a larger share in a marketplace of ideas? Could we instead choose to see a world in which there is no longer an audience we must communicate to, because everyone is participating in the co-creation of knowledge and an evolutionary learning process that determines which ideas are best fitted to their environment?


Terry Clayton

September 2011


Dawkins, Richard (1989), “11. Memes: the new replicators”, The Selfish Gene (2nd ed., new ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 368, ISBN 0192177737

Lakoff, G. and Mark Johnson. 1981. 2nd edition 2003. Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press.

Littlejohn, S.W. and Karen A. Foss. 2007. Theories of Human Communication, Ninth Edition. Wadsworth Publishing.

Muller, J.Z. 2002. The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Modern European Thought. Knopf, Borzoi Books, Random House, New York.

Quebral, Nora C. (1973/72). What Do We Mean by ‘Development Communication’. International Development Review 15 (2): 25–28. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Development_communication

Russell, N. and Ruth Raymon. Collective Communications in the CGIAR: A Short History of a Longstanding Endeavor. http://www.cgiar.org/pdf/scw_HistoryofCollective%20Communications.pdf Accessed 10 August, 2011.

Waisbord, Silvio. 2000. Family Tree of Theories, Methodologies and Strategies in Development Communication, New York: Rockefeller Foundation.

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