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How to harness the power of marketing for a better world

Rajesh Chandy says marketing can teach us much about human behaviour – and we can use it to help transform the lives of millions

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In 30 seconds:

  • Because marketing focuses on growth, it creates employment and offers products and services that improve lives
  • This can make a huge difference in emerging markets, where personal and professional futures are inextricably linked
  • Business and entrepreneur-led growth is palpable in places like India today
  • To make change possible, we must first ask what the purpose of a business is and why should it exist.

Could better marketing really be the key to a better, more sustainable world? For Rajesh Chandy, Professor of Marketing, Tony and Maureen Wheeler Chair in Entrepreneurship and Academic Director of the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development, the answer is a resounding yes. “When we begin to consider the possibilities of marketing’s impact beyond simply improving a firm’s financial performance, we see how it has the power to be a real driving force for change,” he says.

This belief is the inspiration for Better Marketing for a Better World (BMBW), an initiative Professor Chandy co-founded with Christine Moorman, T Austin Finch Sr Professor of Business Admininstration at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University; John Roberts, Scientia Professor at University of New South Wales Business School; and Gita Johar, Professor of Business at Columbia Business School.

Serendipity and setbacks

Growing up in India in the 1980s, the young Rajesh Chandy felt he had few options. “It was a different India from the India of today. The expectation for a person like me was that you would either become an engineer or a doctor.”

He studied engineering, but never felt completely sure of his choice. “I wasn’t a bad engineer, but it didn’t come naturally. I could do it if I worked hard, but it never gripped me. I never had that intense interest.” He knew if he was to succeed he would have to compete for a scholarship at a Western university. “I was studying for the GRE [the Graduate Record Examinations; a standardised test that is an admissions requirement for many graduate schools], but at the same time I was learning about social movements and becoming involved in student politics. These things gave me a glimpse of what was possible.” He also began studying for the GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) to do an MBA programme, despite believing he would ultimately have to remain in engineering, where most scholarships were offered.

His life might have been very different if his exam board had not refused to share the results of the GRE exam because the answers had been leaked. “We’d all already taken the exam, so they told us we could either resit or get our money back. By then, I’d already had the results of the GMAT and knew I’d done quite well. So, off to business school I went.”

After winning a scholarship to a graduate school in the US, he left home when he was 20. “It was the most fantastic adventure. It was my first time on an aeroplane.” Was it a culture shock? “One thing that surprised me was how hard it was to send a telegram. We had a phone at my grandparents’ home, but the elephants were always knocking the telephone poles down, so my family made me promise I’d send a telegram when I arrived. Of course, when I got to America, people only sent them for birthdays or other special occasions. Nobody knew how I could send one home, so I wrote to them by letter.”

Studying business gripped him in a way that engineering never had. “Being able to think in such broad terms really excited me. I just love how enigmatic we are as humans; how mysterious our behaviour is. Business is a great way to explore that.”

Taking inspiration from emerging markets

Over a decade later, it was a similar stroke of fate that introduced him to Tony and Maureen Wheeler. He had been promised a chair at London Business School and the first one that became available was the chair endowed by Tony and Maureen Wheeler, founders of the Lonely Planet guidebook company, with a focus on entrepreneurship and emerging markets. “Preparing for my inaugural lecture forced me to start looking at the world through a different lens, which is where things got really interesting.”

He had been working with large organisations in Western countries, but threw himself into his new field. “If you ask someone which country they think is home to the most entrepreneurs, they might say the US or somewhere else in the West. But look at what that word really means. An entrepreneur is someone who starts their own company, who takes on risks, who doesn’t have a boss. It’s emerging markets that produce the highest numbers of these self-starters. The US actually has one of the lowest rates of self-employment in the world, just 6.5%. In the UK it’s about 11%. If you want to see high levels of entrepreneurship, look at emerging markets. Over 90% of people in South Sudan are self-employed. In India it’s 79%.”

For Professor Chandy, the numbers highlight the importance of thinking about marketing as a force for change. “We’re always asking ourselves how businesses can do good. By paying appropriate taxes? By giving money to charity or creating a foundation? Really, the most beneficial contribution any business can make is by creating employment or by offering products and services that improve lives. Given its focus on growth, marketing can make a huge difference on both these fronts. Of course, the difference you can make in emerging markets, where people’s personal and professional futures are inextricably linked, is that much bigger. The profound impact of business and entrepreneur-led growth is palpable in places like India today compared to the India in which I grew up.”

These entrepreneurs highlight an important distinction. “Too often when we talk about marketing, we’re thinking about people who have ‘marketing’ in their job title. But much of what these entrepreneurs are doing is actually marketing. Just look at the Brexit bus. No matter what you think of the message, there’s no denying that that’s successful, impactful marketing.”

Can better marketing make for a better world?

The BMBW initiative was launched in 2021 via a special issue of the Journal of Marketing, for which Professor Chandy collaborated with Professor Christine Moorman of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. The pair had, with Professor Jeff Inman of the University of Pittsburgh, co-chaired an international conference on the same topic in 2017. “It was phenomenal,” he explains, “it really felt like the event satisfied an enormous hunger in the field.”

When Professor Moorman subsequently put herself forward to be Editor in Chief of the Journal of Marketing, part of her pitch was to commission a special issue of the journal, investigating whether, when, and how marketing contributes to a better world. Professor Chandy and Professor Moorman joined forces with Columbia University’s Professor Gita Johar and University of New South Wales’ Professor John Roberts, and put out a call for submissions. The response was again staggering. “It was the biggest response the journal had ever had. In a way it was quite overwhelming. Each paper can take years of an academic’s life and we knew we could only accept a tiny percentage of submissions.”

The BMBW platform now serves to “build community and support the development and dissemination of knowledge on how marketing can improve lives, sustain livelihoods, strengthen societies and benefit the world at large.” It runs events, forums and training sessions for academics and marketing professionals of all kinds. Professor Chandy credits the support of the Wheeler Institute for making BMBW possible. “Without the infrastructure, people and skills the Wheeler Institute was able to offer us, we would never have been able to get this platform off the ground.”

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“The most beneficial contribution any business can make is by creating employment or by offering products and services that improve lives ... marketing can make a huge difference on both these fronts”

The dark side of marketing

BMBW also tackles what he refers to as “the darker side of marketing”. “As academics, I believe we have a responsibility to not just promote positive change, but actively interrogate bad practices. As authors, we can do this by studying the impact of harmful marketing. As editors, we need to be publishing and prioritising work that properly investigates the damage bad marketing can do.”

One of the special issue pieces examined the impact of plain cigarette packaging on people’s smoking habits, for example. However, Professor Chandy believes there is still more work to be done. “There’s a long way to go. But one of the most motivating things about being an editor or having a platform like this is being able to legitimise these conversations and encourage other academics to speak out.”

He also believes we need to rethink what business really means. “For change to be possible, we must change not just how we look at marketing, but business. What is the purpose of a business? Why should it exist? These are the questions we need to be asking.”

Addressing these fundamental questions includes assessing business school curricula, too. “Business schools have a very important role to play. Many organisations are solely focused on profit maximisation, and far too many business schools have absorbed that objective. But that can’t be all we teach.”

And business students today are interested in much more than learning. “Increasingly, organisations won’t be able to attract top-tier talent if they don’t offer some sense of purpose beyond the day-to-day role. Graduates today aren’t just looking for a job, they want to feel they’re making a wider contribution.”

What caused this dramatic shift? For Professor Chandy, the answer lies in expansive economic struggles. “There is a huge sense of dissatisfaction among many graduates and young professionals. The economy is clearly not working for everyone. Inequalities are accelerating. Something is not right.”

These observations have prompted him to help launch two new elective courses at London Business School. ‘Digital for Impact’, which he co-teaches with Professor Costas Markides, is an experiential learning course in which teams of students work as consultants to entrepreneurs in Africa.

‘Innovating for Impact’, which he co-teaches with Dr Nick Hughes (an LBS alumnus and founder of the M-PESA mobile money service and the M-KOPA energy service), applies insights from recent research and practice to examine how innovators can improve economic, social and environmental outcomes.

A more collaborative future

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic making in-person collaboration almost impossible for much of the last year and a half, Professor Chandy has continued running events through the Wheeler Institute. If anything, he believes the move to online working has benefited many of their endeavours. “The best work happens when we can bring people from distant contexts together. Western business leaders meeting with villagers in developing countries, for example.”

Far from making these unlikely parings harder to form, he believes our reliance on platforms such as Zoom and Teams has helped remove many distractions. “Before we were using Zoom, we’d have well-meaning business executives turning up in rural areas in SUVs with their whole entourage. It’s hardly the most natural way of engaging with people. Moving online was a great leveller in that regard. Suddenly it’s just two people on a screen.” Does he believe those changes are here to stay? “I’m very optimistic about the future,” he replies.

Professor Chandy is also still teaching and supervising PhD students. But while he enjoys sharing his passion for better marketing with them, he doesn’t encourage students to simply follow in his footsteps – a lesson he learned the hard way. “My PhD supervisor, Gerry Tellis at the University of Southern California, is a famous academic. I was completely starstruck but it was disastrous. I tried to fiddle around the edges, just building on his work, and ended up spending two years going nowhere.”

But this early setback taught him the importance of finding a niche. “I say to my students now, you have to try and do something original. If you want to do what I’m doing, you should have started 10 years ago. Find a new story, one you really want to tell. If you can do that, you’ll care enough to handle the setbacks.”

What excites him now? “So many central assumptions about businesses are being questioned. Not just by academics, but by society in general. What is the point of a business? Who should businesses be accountable to? This is a really exciting period of fermentation – so many ideas are bubbling away.”

It’s the fact that developments in business can bring about wider change that continues to motivate him. “The issues that are important to businesses right now, like tackling climate change, could transform the lives of millions. Who wouldn’t want to be involved in that?”

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Rajesh Chandy is Professor of Marketing; Tony and Maureen Wheeler Chair in Entrepreneurship; Academic Director, Wheeler Institute for Business and Development at London Business School

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