Marketing is not a “hard science.” Why do scientists treat it like one?

By David Chapin




Scientific disciplines are often concerned with a complete description of an issue, while marketing is typically concerned with communication. When scientists engage in marketing, their training can lead them to over-communicate, which can be detrimental to their marketing goals. This article explores this phenomenon, identifies the ‘big mistake’ that most companies make, and provides guidance to avoid that mistake in marketing efforts.

Scientists as Marketers

Life science companies often start with an interesting discovery on the lab bench. A clever researcher notices something. Add in an angel investor or two, and suddenly you have a fledgling company and an all-too-familiar mix: too many responsibilities, too little cash, and too few people. Suddenly, scientists can be thrust into marketing roles.

And who better to fill the role of marketing evangelist than that observant researcher? After all, scientists understand the technical details. They can best explain the fine points. But the switch from a scientific role to a marketing role is not one that is particularly comfortable, particularly for those who are used to chromatograms, poster sessions, or refereed journals.


The word “Science” has many definitions. One is: The systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation. Another is: A branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws. Indeed, the word “Science” is derived from the Latin root scientia, meaning knowledge.

Science is continually pushing back the boundaries of the unknown by asking questions. Often these questions are not easy to answer. Out on the frontier of knowledge, clear answers can be difficult to discern. The questions must be sophisticated to tease meaning out of the ‘background noise,’ and the answers can be subtle. And, of course, in the pursuit of understanding, the answers lead to still more questions. The unspoken desire is, of course, to answer every important question, to provide a complete understanding.


There are many definitions of marketing. One of the classic definitions originated with work done in the 1960s at Harvard Business School. Professor Neil Borden identified the “Marketing Mix” as actions that a company could take to influence consumer behavior. Professor E. Jerome McCarthy identified the components of the Marketing Mix as the “Four P’s” (Product, Price, Place and Promotion). Gaps in this theory were identified, particularly as applied to the service economy (e.g., CRO’s) and other “P’s” have since been added (primarily by Booms and Bitner). Currently many experts agree on seven P’s, which are summarized very briefly here:

Product – the actual goods or services, including aspects such as warranties or support.

Price – the price of the product or service. Remember that the price does not have to be completely monetary (e.g., ‘opt-in’ distribution of information, in which some personal information must be exchanged to receive other information the ‘purchaser’ considers of value).

Place (or Placement) – the distribution and retailing of the product through segmented channels (online vs. retail, demographic segmentation, etc.).

Promotion – the branding, promotion, publicity, and advertising of the product or service.

People – the people that are involved in the production, delivery and consumption of a product or service.

Process – the mechanisms by which services are delivered or consumed.

Physical Evidence – the ability and environment in which the service is delivered. This is particularly important for service organizations that deliver intangible results, as they provide a way for customers to develop perceptions of the offering.

This Marketing Mix is deliberately broad, and allows a very complete description of all the activities involved in the transfer of goods or services from the producer or seller to the consumer or buyer.

We consider marketing to be the identification of a need in the market place, and the matching of a product or service to that need at a profit.

There is a large difference between this more formal description of marketing and the more colloquial understanding shared by most Americans, which focuses on the promotion and selling of products or services. This understanding of marketing fits in the single “P” of Promotion in the more formal description above.

For the purposes of this newsletter and the ones that follow, we consider marketing to be the identification of a need in the market place, and the matching of a product or service to that need at a profit.

Is Marketing a Science?

Whatever the definition used, almost all scientists would agree that marketing is not a science. While great strides have been made in describing human behavior in the marketplace, the ‘general laws’ of human behavior are not really laws, not in the same way that the ‘laws of genetics’ are laws. Human behavior is not universal, and observation and experimentation in the marketing sphere rarely yield strictly reproducible results.

Many marketing experts would disagree and claim that marketing is a science. Rather than attempt to referee this rather pointless argument, I’ll take the position that while marketing may be a social science, it is definitely not a ‘hard’ science.

Science seeks to understand, while marketing seeks to sell. Science seeks to describe, marketing to communicate.

One of the clearest ways to distinguish Science from Marketing is to examine their respective goals. Science seeks to understand, while marketing seeks to sell. Science seeks to describe, marketing to communicate.


These goals: description and communication, are fundamentally different. The goal of description encourages, and in many cases demands, completeness. For example, the investigation of RNAi is rapidly expanding our understanding of the expression of proteins, and a complete picture of protein expression, and therefore human health, is incomplete without an understanding of RNAi. This example is especially pertinent because we don’t yet understand how RNAi works in its entirety. And we seek a complete understanding of RNAi both for the sheer joy of the intellectual pursuit, and to better understand its impact on human health.

This drive for completeness, for total understanding, for the ability to describe a mechanism down to the smallest detail, is built into the discipline. It shows up in many ways. For example, when reviewers submit comments about journal submissions they point out the unanswered questions in the authors’ work; they want to complete an incomplete picture.  It also shows up in the regulations that govern much of the drug development industry; the FDA requires a large measure of completeness, and is not shy about asking for additional information.

Marketing, on the other hand, is a discipline focused not on knowledge and description, but on communication. Communication rarely needs to be complete to be effective. In fact, complete communication is often less effective. If this sounds contradictory, just ask yourself if you have ever told a date (or a friend or spouse) too much information. Communication that is complete is often less effective.

From a marketing standpoint, saying less can be more effective than saying more.

The scientific discipline, with its emphasis on being complete, has trained scientists to answer every question. So scientists tend to treat marketing like a refereed journal submission, with citations and footnotes galore. “If only I can answer all their questions, they’ll be sure to buy.” This attitude is particularly prevalent if the purchaser also has scientific training.

From a marketing standpoint, for every audience, however, saying less can be more effective than saying more, particularly when the goal is to help people understand why they might want to buy something.

Buyers’ need for trust

People don’t make buying decisions based solely on information; they buy based on trust. They use information to build trust, but information by itself is ‘trust-neutral’ – it can create trust, or it can destroy it. People only buy in ‘high-trust’ situations. Think about the purchases you make in your own life, and you’ll find this to be true. When you buy food, you trust that the food is safe for consumption; otherwise you wouldn’t buy it. When you buy a house, you trust that the structure is sound, and the information you receive when you pay for an inspection will increase (or decrease) your trust level in the suitability of the house. At the car dealership, you may not trust the salesperson, but you trust the company who made the car to produce a quality product.

Marketing is one way to help establish the trust that supports a purchase decision. And the process of purchasing is rarely a single decision, but is typically a series of decisions, and a series of steps that lead to the final purchase decision.

The big mistake

When scientists (or anyone, for that matter) treat marketing like a discipline that demands completeness, they make one big mistake: they misunderstand the needs of the audience. Purchasers need a feeling of trust in order to take the next step along the steps in the purchasing decision tree and to build this trust, they need information, but only just enough information. Too much information can actually inhibit them from taking the next step.

Web sites for early stage companies are particularly potent examples of this phenomenon. The typical start-up wants to attract money from investors. The typical investor needs face-to-face contact before making a commitment. But rather than focusing on the goal of fostering this face-to-face contact, the typical web site tries to answer every question, and in doing so, actually inhibits the desired face-to-face contact. It is easy to spot these sites; they consist of page after page of information and technical data, over-communicating in the hope of convincing the reader. On the other hand, some web sites will provide just enough information to intrigue the viewer. They recognize that there are some questions that the web site can’t answer, and that there are lots of questions that the site shouldn’t answer. Not if the ultimate goal is to get the prospect to take the very next step along the purchase decision chain.

While web sites are, as I said, a particularly potent example of this phenomenon, they are not unique. Brochures, on-screen presentations (e.g., Powerpoint®), direct mail, email, interactive demos, videos, trade show booths – all of these can suffer from information overload, which comes from a tendency to try to communicate the entire story.

Communicating everything about a product or service ignores the fact that the audience typically doesn’t want to know everything, at least not right away. And even if they did, giving them every answer defeats the purpose of marketing, which is to help the audience build enough trust to take the very next step along the purchasing path.

Ironically, this is especially true if the audience consists of scientists. Research we have done shows that scientists who are considering purchasing a technical product or service consider themselves “immune” to marketing. But this research clearly demonstrated that these same scientists will change behaviors and attitudes based upon marketing messages and marketing activities. The conclusion is obvious: while the scientists we interviewed considered themselves “immune” to marketing, they actually weren’t. I’ll discuss this research more in a future issue, but I’ll share one interesting result now: these scientists reacted against getting too much information too early in the buying process.

How much is enough?

If it is a common mistake to say too much, and say it too soon, then how do you know how much information is necessary, and when it should be provided? The answer to those questions won’t fit in the available space, so let me just say that the answers lie in careful consideration of the needs of the different audience segments you want to reach, and the desired change in attitude or behavior you are seeking.

Provide just enough information to build your audience’s feeling of trust, and to enable them to take the very next step.

How much information is enough? At each step in the purchasing chain, provide just enough information to accomplish two goals: to build your audience’s feeling of trust, and to enable them to take the very next step along the purchasing chain. And then recognize that after they have taken this next step, their information needs will change, so you will need to provide different amounts and types of information as they move along the purchasing chain.

Looked at in this way, it is clear that successful marketing requires a fundamental understanding of how people make decisions as they navigate the purchasing chain, as well as the amount and type of information they require at each step.

Less is more

To increase your marketing effectiveness, recognize that your audience, even though they may be scientifically trained, doesn’t need every possible piece of information in your possession, at least, not right now. So, if you say less, focus on building trust and work to enable your audience to take the very next step, you’ll accomplish more.

The Marketing of Science is published by Forma Life Science Marketing approximately ten times per year. To subscribe to this free publication, email us at

David Chapin is author of the book “The Marketing of Science: Making the Complex Compelling,” available now from Rockbench Press and on Amazon. He was named Best Consultant in the inaugural 2013 BDO Triangle Life Science Awards. David serves on the board of NCBio.

David has a Bachelor’s degree in Physics from Swarthmore College and a Master’s degree in Design from NC State University. He is the named inventor on more than forty patents in the US and abroad. His work has been recognized by AIGA, and featured in publications such as the Harvard Business Review, ID magazine, Print magazine, Design News magazine and Medical Marketing and Media. David has authored articles published by Life Science Leader, Impact, and PharmaExec magazines and MedAd News. He has taught at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC-Chapel Hill and at the College of Design at NC State University. He has lectured and presented to numerous groups about various topics in marketing.

Forma Life Science Marketing is a leading marketing firm for life science, companies. Forma works with life science organizations to increase marketing effectiveness and drive revenue, differentiate organizations, focus their messages and align their employee teams. Forma distills and communicates complex messages into compelling communications; we make the complex compelling.

© 2024 Forma Life Science Marketing, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this document may be reproduced or transmitted without obtaining written permission from Forma Life Science Marketing.

Share This...