George Baltas, Professor at AUEB, is talking to The Astralón Times about education, the evolution of marketing, the new trends, and consumer behaviors.

An expert in his field, Dr. George Baltas, Professor in the Department of Marketing and Communication, Head of the Post-Graduate Studies in Analytical Marketing at AUEB, Warwick University PhD graduate, and President of Greek Marketing Academy, is keenly interested in and a student of consumer behaviors and marketing as the whole, both at a research and educational level. With dozens of publications, scientific papers and awards to his credit, he talks to The Astralón Times about tertiary education in Greece, the new trends and AI, but also about the ongoing adverse socio-economic issues in Greece and abroad.

It’s the start of another academic year. As a member of the academic community, specializing in the field of marketing, what qualifications should a university student be equipped with to enter the labor market, in your opinion?

Marketing offers a variety of different positions of employment, both functionally and industry-wise. In practice, we’re talking about a broad spectrum of work roles and professions connecting a business with its clients and the management of its markets.

However, professional qualifications have changed everywhere, and now new, expert knowledge and skills are required. Technological advancements and the new business environment have rendered marketing much more technical and analytical. Executives and marketers are called to deal with, comprehend and make use of technologies and data which have become a part of their daily work. This means that the labour market demands certified expertise and training in the field of marketing, with specific emphasis on subject matters such as marketing analytics and digital marketing. Therefore, anyone wishing to pursue a career and advance in marketing, needs to have a specific scientific background and absolutely relevant high-level studies. In addition, as the level of studies is not the same everywhere, a lot of care should be given to the choice of the educational institution and training programme. 

Finally, it may be a cliché, but it should be repeated, that personality, a broader education, behavior and the mindset, with which one approaches one’s profession, are also weighing factors.

You find yourself daily in university amphitheatres and classrooms, yet the COVID-19 pandemic brought about distance learning in the fore as the only teaching method possible during that period. Now that we have the option of both distance learning and face-to-face teaching, among other things, what do you think are the pros and cons of each? Also, to what extent will we see the long-term impact of universal distance learning during the pandemic?

Distance learning was introduced in higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic and has been established as an alternative and useful teaching method. Its main advantage is the transcendence of spatial and temporal constraints. Its main disadvantage is the limited educational experience, in the sense that students do not have the experience of a physical presence at the educational institution, or of live social interaction. This disadvantage is, of course, more serious when it pertains to studies where laboratory teaching and practical training are required. Undoubtedly, distance learning is here to stay, and will further develop technologically. I believe that its role in higher education will be reinforced and may become primary in individual sectors such as vocational education and executive training programmes.

What is your advice to the new generation of marketers who embrace future trends but often find it difficult to persuade business management and older senior executives? How can statistical data support their effort?

Quantitative data can help us to support our propositions and to design strategies which are tailored to the market and suit the conditions of the environment.  However, it still remains a huge challenge to change the business culture and the mindset of some executives so that they can comprehend marketing evolution and accept the role technology and data play in designing strategies and their implementation.

How will AI influence the marketing industry, and how will we be able to make good use of it in our daily lives, so that it can function as a tool and an ally and not as our replacement?

Artificial Intelligence will have an enormous influence on the marketing industry and will inevitably have an impact on the division of labour in the profession. It will partially or fully replace humans in a variety of tasks and processes, where the cost-benefit balance will be in its favour, for instance content creation, customer service, optimisation of marketing procedures, automations, etc. It will support and complement humans in tasks and processes of a more strategic, critical and analytical content.

Generally, any predictions regarding the future role of AI remain highly uncertain. The near past has proven that developments take us by surprise and may take an unpredictable turn, as has happened with Generative AI in the previous months. Regardless of what we hope or wish for, history has shown that technology replaces labour when it makes economic sense. We would also be remiss in not mentioning the major ethical, moral, regulatory and statutory issues which arise from the development of AI, and which have so far not been addressed with due attention.

In a recent speech you gave at a symposium on digital innovation and the challenges of leadership, something you said, which is not often talked about in conferences and symposia, has struck me. You referred to Greece and to the fact that since 2009 it has been in a permanent state of crisis, ranging from the economic one, with the recessionary measures implemented during the memorandums, to the period of the pandemic and the recent impacts of the war in Ukraine. How easy is it for someone to venture into business and innovate under these conditions?

Yes, it’s true that Greece has been going through major successive crises, while there’s also the view that we have globally entered an era of permacrisis. In any case, the conditions are challenging and put a strain on anyone venturing into business or innovating. Nevertheless, since the macro-environment is given, we are obliged to adapt to it and operate in a way that suits these conditions. Let us remember that crises always create their own opportunities and promote innovation as they force humans to be inventive and try harder.

In the last year specifically, we have observed extreme cases of expensiveness and profiteering both globally and in Greece, where the measures taken (i.e. Market pass) do not meet the basic needs of the citizens. How do you view these steps, what would you recommend, and what do you reckon will be the influence of these measures in the near future?

Continued price appreciation together with the rigidity of consumer prices despite the recession in production costs have attracted the specialists’ and the public’s attention. At an international level, reputable experts have raised the alarm against an inflation of greed, using the term ‘greedflation’ to describe the disproportionate rise in prices on the pretext of rising costs and with the aim to achieve a higher margin of profit. The exploitation of inflation for greater profit, the downward price rigidity and the disproportionate rise in prices are often indications of insufficiently functioning competition. Oligopoly conditions and high industry concentration favour the appearance of such phenomena.

As far as Greece is concerned, successive studies have already highlighted the influence of large appreciations in the cost of living and consumer behaviour.

❝The majority of consumers have changed behavior and are trying to adjust to an economic environment whose main characteristic is a higher cost of living.❞

The changes driven by higher commodity costs, and which consumers are already applying, include cutting back on consumption, switching to cheaper products and the pursuit of lower prices, deals and discounts before the purchase of a product. These changes adjust purchasing habits to the new inflationary conditions, but obviously don’t solve the problem of expensiveness for the consumers. The fact that continued price appreciation is found in goods necessary for daily life is causing financial pressure and tying up a large portion of household income in very basic consumer spending.

It is worth mentioning parenthetically that the outdated pricing methods, in practice, do not help contain markups. For instance, simply adding a profit percentage to the cost of goods sold or the wholesale price remains a very common pricing method. Thus, any cost increase is automatically passed on to the prices of the goods, without considering its impact on sales volume, sales value and ultimately profitability. In addition, the effects on consumer attitudes towards the product, consumer loyalty and willingness to pay are also not assessed. Simplistic approaches to pricing show the general inability of many companies to leverage modern data and analytics tools in decision making.

In relation to the measures, undoubtedly, in a period of high inflation and noticeable deterioration in consumers’ standard of living, it is socially necessary to have a framework of consumer protection regarding the cost of staples. Measures aimed at enhancing competition, making the market work more efficiently, and controlling pricing practices may be useful. In these difficult problems, we are not looking for a magical single solution, but individual steps which can have a positive contribution, and which, when combined, can bring about a tangible relief to the consumer.