Using marketing practices to realize public values

Clive Barnett & Nick MahoneyBy Clive Barnett and Nick Mahony

Market segmentation methodologies are increasingly used in public policy, arts and culture management, and third sector campaigning. As one element of the growth of customer relationship management, or CRM, the use of segmentation methods is part of a broader trend for organisations to make use of new digital informational technologies to generate strategically useful data and knowledge about their customers, clients and constituencies. Despite the widespread use of segmentation methodologies in the strategic thinking of public as well as private organisations, the organisational dynamics of adopting and implementing segmentation practices remains under researched. The application of segmentation methods in non-commercial settings, including but not limited to the public sector, depends on the taken-for-granted normative assumption that market segmentation is a basic, necessary, and effective stage in developing successful marketing strategies.

In our recent Policy & Politics article Marketing practices and the reconfiguration of public action, we investigate the shared and contested understandings of the public benefits of using segmentation methods in non-commercial settings in the UK since the early 2000s. We found that segmentation methodologies are applied to a wide variety of issues, from development communication to transport, including the targeting of public health initiatives, the planning of climate change policies, and scoping the nature of communications markets. Our analysis included examples of the use of segmentation methodologies by several UK government departments such as the Department of Health, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), and the Department for International Development (DFID), as well as other public sector organisations such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the Arts Council, and the National Trust and the Worldwide Wildlife Fund (WWF). Our analysis rested on three related assumptions:

  • We should not presume in advance of further research what the effects of segmentation practices are on the fields of policy and advocacy in which they are deployed;
  • These practices are not best approached as legitimising straightforward shifts from collective, public values to private, individualistic values;
  • The analysis of the deployment of marketing practices needs to approached with the aim of seeking to understand what changes the use of these methods are meant to bring about in specific fields of action.

From our analysis, the proliferation of segmentation methods in non-commercial fields should be seen as one part of a process whereby the means and ends of public action are reconfigured. Methods, techniques and theories from marketing and management fields are used to help organisations achieve a variety of public ends. These include improving diversity, increasing social inclusion, ensuring value-for-money, and enhancing participation.

Our analysis suggests that the increasing use of segmentation methods is indicative of the emergence of a broadly shared problematization of public action. It reflects a widespread idea that organisations are faced with the task of being responsive to differentiated publics while maintaining obligations of collective stake-holding or universal access. This balancing act is, in turn, shaped by a range of imperatives which organisations are expected to enact: the efficient use of resources, legitimacy of activities, concerns with accountability, and imperatives of inclusion. With respect to each of these values, the promise of segmentation methods is to allow organisations to differentiate publics more accurately.

Our research found that segmentation methods are used to generate stable images of individual and group attitudes and motivations, and that these images are used to inform strategies that seek to either change these dispositions or to mobilize them in new directions. In the process of applying segmentation methodologies to help define organizational strategies, different segments of the population are identified as bearing particular responsibilities for public action on different issues.

The proliferation of marketing techniques is often interpreted as indicative of a shift from public values to ‘neoliberal’, individualised values in organisations. In contrast, we found that the deployment of segmentation methods is often associated with a differentiation of agency across a range of issues: for example, different segments of the population are identified as bearing particular responsibility for leading on sustainability issues, or for leading changes in attitudes towards climate change. It is here that further research needs to be focussed. Our recommendation is that, rather than supposing we already know what the effects of the adoption of marketing practices in non-commercial settings will be, further investigation is required of how the adoption and implementation of segmentation methodologies leads to the differential attribution of agency between professionals, experts, and different ‘public’ subjects.

If you enjoyed this blog, you may also be interested to read Market size, market share and market strategy: three myths of medical tourism.

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