The United States has one of the world’s worst records for loss of life and property from fire. With two key challenges in mind – making the public aware of the fire service’s function and the fire problem itself – let’s take a quick trip into the story of marketing in our country, how it has become a caricature of itself and why the latest recession presents an opportunity for marketing the fire service. But first, a story so you understand where I am coming from.
When I was about 22 years old, I worked in a wine-and-liquor store by day and studied at night for a master’s degree in, of all things, the Russian language. An executive from a distributor visited the shop every week. One day, he asked me why I didn’t become a wine salesman. I looked at him and replied, “Selling? I hate everything about it! Don’t insult me by even suggesting such a thing!”
“Calm down, Ben,” he said, “I just thought I would ask. You may not know it, but marketing makes the world go around. It is how people understand how goods and services can contribute to society’s well being.”
A mini-history of marketing
That man was only partially right, in my opinion. Commercial marketing has become such a behemoth that it is difficult to break through the clutter of messages. The good news is that the public has had it with superficial values and conspicuous consumption. I recently read an excellent book called Spend Shift: How the Post-Crisis Values Revolution Is Changing How We Buy, Sell and Live by John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio. The authors note that as a consequence of this recession, people lost not only purchasing power, but trust in institutions, especially big corporations. The driving forces are shifting to interest in deep and positive values like trust, tradition, cooperation and community. What better institution to trust than the fire service, if we manage our marketing – and our image, in particular?
Let’s look at a bit of the history of marketing in the United States to gain a better perspective of the discipline. The “marketing concept,” as it is called, originated at the end of World War II. The country developed marketing management to sell the many products coming off production lines. People needed so many different products, from houses to hair spray, that marketing became more of a sales and distribution system than a communications and service mechanism. The goal was to get products into peoples’ hands. The demand already existed.
Those were heady days for American businesses. Over the next 35 years, the American economy changed from production-driven to market-driven, transforming the mechanism of marketing management into a sophisticated discipline. As communications became faster and information more readily available, the market became more sophisticated and aware of new and different needs.
The new definition of the marketing concept became less linear and more comprehensive, involving a wide array of tools to understand the consumer’s needs, get the message across about how it could fulfill those needs and, eventually, sell product. The company now had to understand what its potential customers might want first and then provide it according to those needs.
Instantaneous communications and even wider availability of information now supports a predominantly service-driven economy. This has created the need for a sophisticated, integrated and comprehensive marketing mechanism serving more specialized markets. This has major implications for emergency services in that the public service market is the entire market in any jurisdiction.
How the public perceives us
In public service marketing, pride and care – not profit – are always the motivating factors. We just want to keep living the passion we have for the fire service. We want to perpetuate our service to the public. We inform the public about our service so that they know what we are doing. When they become educated about what we do and its value, we grow and maintain our support. As we do this, we control our image.
While the use of marketing management is to inform the public about what we do, it also educates the public about what they should do to protect themselves. We communicate to educate. This is a major difference between commercial and public service marketing. This is called “social marketing” and its main use is to change behavior. The curtain is rising; we are on stage, time to go to work! n