In this book a professor looks at what millions of businessmen do every working day and business journalists are writing about all the time - marketing. It could be dull, dull, dull. But Harvard Business School's Theodore Levitt has the knack of a good academic: He examines an enormous jumble of material (in this case on selling practices) and finds trends, theories, and ideas that often have a feeling of freshness - or at least leave one saying, ''I hadn't really thought of it that way.''
Mr. Levitt is an idealist but with a sense of pragmatism. ''The purpose of business,'' he writes, ''is to get and keep a customer. Without solvent customers in some reasonable proportion, there is no business. Customers are constantly presented with lots of options to help them solve their problems. They don't buy things, they buy solutions to problems.''
This isn't a new idea. Professor Levitt said it himself in ''Marketing Myopia ,'' a 1960 Harvard Business Review article that has become one of the best sellers among many Review reprints.
But it is a useful reminder for executives caught up with quarterly profit statements, perhaps allowing their companies to turn out shoddy products or services. He writes: ''. . . to say that profit is a purpose of business is simply morally shallow. . . . If no greater purpose can be discerned or justified, business cannot morally justify its existence. It's a repugnant idea, an idea whose time has gone.''
Professor Levitt has great respect for the leading practitioners of marketing - corporate executives in the capitalist democracies. ''Indeed,'' he writes, ''awed admiration is what any intelligent and fair-minded analyst will come away with when he studies the large corporations of our times. For he will note its extraordinary efficiency, flexibility, agility, and internal diversity; the dedication and remarkable good spirits of its vast variety of employees; its attention to quality in what it does and to fairness in how it behaves; and the studiousness with which it approaches major undertakings.''
Taking any reasonable combination of desirable attributes, no other institution, either private or government, can come ''anywhere near'' these these big companies, he asserts. Moreover, he maintains that these corporations are widening their lead over ''lagging imitators'' in the noncapitalist world.
''Capitalism simply works better, and anybody who argues the opposite does just that. He argues. He simply doesn't have the facts.''
That's high praise, although possibly from a biased source, since the Harvard B-School ranks as the top training ground for American corporate executives. Yet , if you do make mental comparisons of the top corporations in the country with other institutions - the federal government, state and local governments, schools, charitable institutions, and so on - there's something to what Mr. Levitt says. Perhaps big business can afford to hire the best talent, or possibly the reason for its relative quality is something else.
Levitt goes on to talk about how business can win and keep the necessary customers, giving fascinating examples of marketing that have proved either a success or a failure.
One chapter discusses ''the globalization of markets.'' That trend is no secret, of course. Anyone can see Toyotas and Mercedes on the street, watch foreign movies, buy Perrier water or a Hong Kong shirt. But why is this happening? He explains: ''A powerful force now drives the world toward a single converging commonality, and that force is technology. It has proletarianized communications, transport, and travel, making them easily and cheaply accessible to the world's most isolated places and impoverished multitudes. Suddenly no place and nobody is insulated from the alluring attractions of modernity. Almost everybody, everywhere, wants all the things they have heard about, seen, or experienced via the new technological facilitators that drive their wants and wishes.'' The result is ''homogenizing markets everywhere.''
And, Levitt says, people everywhere want the most advanced things in terms of functionality, quality, reliability, service levels, and price competitiveness. ''Gone are the days when you could sell in the less-developed world last year's models or the used equipment you took as trade-in at home.''
He adds: ''Gone, too, or going rapidly, are the accustomed differences in national and regional preferences regarding product or service features. Now in all the respects the world levels up in all places to world-standard commonality.''
From my observations about the world, that statement exaggerates the situation. Yet there is that trend.
Levitt maintains that this commonality means an end to the multinational corporation, as he defines it, and the appearance of the global corporation. The difference between the two is that the multinational corporation ''adjusts with accommodating care'' its service or products to the presumed conditions in each country in which it operates. The global corporation produces at low relative costs the same product for sale in the same single way in the entire world, or major regions of it.
''Increasingly in our homogenized world trouble will stalk the company that lacks a clarified global focus and is inattentive to the simple economics of simplicity and standardization,'' he writes.
Again he has a point, but it seems overstated.
There are other worthwhile themes in the book. He looks at how service activities - automotive repair, travel, commercial lodging, entertainment, restaurants, shopping, and the like - are being ''industrialized.'' The managerial rationality long applied to industry is being more often applied to services, producing specialization and low-cost abundance. He notes how business attempts not only to ''differentiate'' consumer goods, but also industrial goods and services.
As consumers, we are used to companies emphasizing the differences between their soap, coffee, pickles, or chickens from those of other companies. We may be less aware of what business does to make its products or services ''different'' for wholesalers or industrial buyers. That difference will not only be in the material product, but in such ''intangibles'' around it as banking services, cleaning services, and freight hauling. The customer, he suggests, must be reminded of the value of such intangibles.
The book is largely a collection of articles Professor Levitt has written in the Harvard Business Review or elsewhere, and is thus a bit disjointed. The last chapter, dealing with improving productivity in service industries, seems inappropriate for a book mostly about getting and keeping customers. Perhaps it was tossed in to provide the right length.
Nonetheless, for those who are not regular readers of the Review, this book is full of interesting marketing ideas. It may even partly explain why so many times we find advertising irritating. Studies show consumers are not bothered by ads of products they use; but they may be annoyed by ads pushing things they don't use (those not wearing dentures probably won't like denture powder ads), can't afford, or don't want. He also reminds us: ''Nobody is ever irritated by anything without his own consent.''