| 20.08.2020

Marketing communication needs a new logic!

Shopping mall and customers walking
We will move from the dominant message logic to a revised logic of learning.

My doctoral dissertation originated in my desire to understand the effects of the cognitive turn in the field of marketing communication from the late 1950s. Cognitivism saw people as active, thinking, meaning-building subjects instead of as passive, receiving objects. The view of learning changed radically, and people came to be viewed increasingly as builders of understanding rather than mere recipients of information, knowledge and messages, as was earlier the case. A constructivist view of learning displaced the previous behaviouristic approach to learning and teaching. The field of education and the school world are still struggling to deal with the impact of this revised view of people. But progress is taking place.

As for marketing, the cognitive turn has become evident in the development of service management, service marketing, relationship marketing, service logic and consumer behaviour research, just to mention a few examples. The fundamental ideas of the Nordic School were also influenced by the cognitive approach. Hanken’s strikingly modern view of people and business was one of the main reasons I applied here. In fact, a professor at the Stockholm School of Economics suggested that I apply to Hanken, despite it being 300 kilometres from my home: “Apply to Hanken, they’re really onto something there”.

Discussions about the scholarly home and theoretical status of marketing research as well as other related topics have been going on since the 1980s. I will not address here whether they have adequately focused on relevant issues, but what is clear is that more and more attention is placed on the customer. Value (co-)creation and customer needs are examples of this. Brand heritage and the active customer in advertisements are other indicators of the modern view of people.


Silence in the field of marketing communication

Unfortunately, discussions have not focused on the premises and view of learning in marketing communication. My search of nearly 21,000 articles in the ten most cited international journals in the field indicates that silence reigns on this topic. An author here, another there may make an attempt, but everything soon peters out in the black space of marketing communication. In Sweden in 2019, investments in marketing communication exceeded those in defence by 50%, totalling some eight billion euros. Silence persists, nevertheless. Activities continue along the same path, without reflection or attentiveness to theory.

The goal of marketing communication is to influence people in the market. Companies have long strived to influence behaviour. To date, the dominant view on influencing has been a behavioural kind: messages in the form of advertisements are expected to generate the desired behaviour. This approach continues in the vein of the stimulus-organism-response model, even though it was deemed outdated over 60 years ago. Perhaps not everywhere, but almost. However, in marketing communication, things continue as before. Nothing has happened. It is true that new channels have emerged, but the thinking nevertheless remains the same. Another aspect that has not changed is that half of the money put into marketing goes wasted. Which half is still unclear. 

My research shows that marketing communication is mainly carried out in the form of a message factory. Announcements are produced and published on the same bases as they were over 120 years ago. Behaviourism retains its grip on the theory and practice of marketing communication. The field follows a message logic, in which advertising agencies and the media jointly exert structural pressure over companies and organisations doing marketing. The agencies and media laugh all the way to the bank, and companies pay the price. This has been going on for a long time and it will continue to do so if the views and expectations placed on marketing communication do not change. The message logic and the dominance that behaviourism exerts over marketing communicators must be abandoned in favour of a more nuanced view of the communicating and learning person. It is by no means a controversial idea – it just needs to reach marketing communication as well.


From a message logic to a logic of learning

One of the questions is which view of influencing is relevant in this field. Marketing communication is part of marketing, the academic home of which has been placed within business economics, which in turn is an offspring of economics. This means that it is influenced by the natural scientific approach characteristic of economics as well as the strive in social sciences to find methods that are both specific to the field and meet the criteria of scientific investigation.

However, since the stimulus-response approach and behaviourism have, essentially, been abandoned, it is time for marketers to take into consideration that marketing communication may also belong to another academic field: that of the humanities. The constructivist view of people has shown us that behaviour cannot be triggered through stimuli alone – people are more complex than that. This complexity is something that the humanities strive to understand and deal with. What this entails is that marketing communication must nurture and master a simultaneous existence in three scientific paradigms: natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities. Paradoxically, this ought to make life easier, though not necessarily simpler.

It would mean that during a single workday, we would speak the language of economics, business, management, marketing and influencing. This poses certain challenges, but it is fully possible. We just need to accept that we have learned a great deal about people and know that they are more complex than the former and present premises of behaviourism, scientific management and scientific marketing lead us to believe. We must also follow the cognitive approach, not only in marketing but also in marketing communication, which will consequently be imbued with a conscious view of influencing and learning. Management’s classic dream of an easy, simple solution to the question of influence in marketing communication will be replaced by a conscious understanding of the communicating, influencing and learning person as well as the implications and consequences of this. We will move from the dominant message logic to a revised logic of learning. The message factory can finally be closed down.

It would be fantastic if we at Hanken could help students, researchers and business through our research, methods and education and in this way help marketing communication benefit from the reform that it rightly deserves. This would also help avoid any more squandering of half the marketing investments.

Sigge Birkenfalk
Doctoral Student



Sigge holds a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in economics from Stockholm University. He has also completed a degree in market economics at Berghs School of Communication, where he has taught subjects such as influencing studies, marketing communication and qualitative methodology for management and marketers for the past 25 years. Sigge worked at the SAS airline carrier for 12 years, as project manager in an advertising company for three years, and has together with his wife, Birgitta, run a company of their own, Communicans AB, since 1998.