Theodore Levitt's "Marketing Myopia" Applied to Libraries

by Ken Willmott

How can a company ensure its continued growth? In 1960 "Marketing Myopia" answered that question in a new and challenging way by urging organizations to define their industries broadly to take advantage of growth opportunities. Using the archetype of the railroads, Mr. Levitt showed how they declined inevitably as technology advanced because they defined themselves too narrowly. To continue growing companies must ascertain and act on their customers' needs and desires, not bank on the presumptive longevity of their products. The success of the article testifies to the validity of its message. It has been widely quoted and anthologized, and the Harvard Business Review has sold more than 265,000 reprints of it. The author of 14 subsequent articles in HBR, Mr Levitt is one of the magazine's most prolific contributors. (Harvard Business Review, September/October 1975).


At first glance Theodore Levitt's thesis, as argued in his paper Marketing Myopia seems targeted towards goods-producing industries that are profit driven and it is easy to see how such an industry might suffer from a lack of vision resulting from a rigid product orientation rather than a more flexible customer orientation. Since libraries are strictly service industries with financial health not dependent upon profit margins dictated by goods produced and sold, and since libraries, as service industries, must by nature be relatively "customer" orientated, there may be a tendency to dismiss Levitt's argument as having little relevance for libraries. Such a position, however, would only serve as one more example of the "myopia" Levitt warns against. Libraries, like the railroads or the movie industry, to cite two of Levitt's examples, may well be "endangering their futures by improperly defining their purposes" (Levitt 1975, 27). The question to be addressed in this paper is how libraries should define themselves, and their purpose, in light of the kind of analysis put forth in Levitt's paper. Since different libraries serve different consumer bases it may well be necessary to adopt different strategies for the process of self-definition and, accordingly, I will look at special (corporate), academic and public libraries in order to determine if this is, indeed, the case.

Corporate Libraries

Ellis Mount defines special libraries as "those information organizations sponsored by private companies, government agencies, not-for-profit organizations or professional associations" (Mount 1990, 2). As such, they might be considered as part of the Research & Development arm of the parent organization with an existence tied to the financial health of that parent organization and a definition largely derived from a larger corporate definition. Since definition is largely in the hands of executives removed from the daily operation of the library, marketing, in Levitt's sense, mainly involves the library justifying its existence within the larger organization. For this reason corporate libraries must be particularly diligent in the "watchfulness for opportunities" (Levitt 1975, 27) and such an opportunity might, in fact, be present in the unique positioning of the special library to influence the definition of the parent organization. Since "information" is the product of the special library, it seems reasonable that, in so far as the special library can define itself, it do so with an eye to combating any insularity that may exist among the company executives that make up part of the library's client population. Corporate libraries can function to combat Levitt's "myopia" by being constantly vigilant with regard to the information for which they are responsible and by striving to maintain a broad company vision through recommendations based on perceived client need; a need that the client him/herself may not recognize. In this way special libraries can exhibit some of the "managerial imaginativeness and audacity" (Levitt 1975, 27) that Levitt credits with having originally made the railroads great.

Academic Libraries

Like special or corporate libraries, academic libraries are attached to a parent organization whose mission statement will largely influence the definition of the library itself. Unlike corporate libraries, however, the focus of the academic library will probably be much broader and its user base larger and more diverse in its skills and needs. Furthermore, the long-standing tradition of universities may well contribute to an ill-founded sense of security on the part of library personnel who should be on guard against what Levitt calls "product provincialism" whereby "an apparently assured...demand tends to undermine a proper concern for the importance of marketing and the customer" (Levitt 1975, 39). For these reasons customer-orientation is particularly important for the academic library and in defining itself it must constantly strive to view itself "as a customer-creating and customer-satisfying organism" (Levitt 1975, 177).

Public Libraries

As V. Pungetore points out in "Public Librarianship", "Public libraries are unique in that they have no parent institution within which to function" (Pungetore 1989, 27). Left on their own, public libraries must struggle for true self-definition and in so doing they run a greater risk than corporate or academic libraries of "endangering their futures by improperly defining their purposes" (Levitt 1975, 27). The struggle and dangers are abundantly clear when one considers that in 1987 the Public Library Association published Planning and Role Setting for Public Libraries in which eight possible roles for a public library were described. In 1993 Kenneth Shearer reported that most public libraries had little difficulty in defining their primary role as "Popular Materials Library" largely because "...the Popular Materials collection role contributes most substantially to gross circulation counts and apparent (italics mine) success" (Shearer 1993, 196). Interestingly, a survey using the same eight roles was conducted about the same time in an endeavor " assess the public's opinions about the importance of the various roles of the public library in the community" (D'Ella and Rodger 1994, 23).

The results clearly showed "the most important roles of the public library in their own communities are to support the educational aspirations of the community and to provide access to information to the community" (D"Ella and Rodger 1994, 27). Clearly the library and the users were at odds. As in Levitt's auto industry example, this seems to be a case of failure to recognize the difference between marketing and selling with definition focused more on the needs of the seller (apparent success through circulation) rather than on the needs of the buyer (education and information). In addition, the transition from print resources to new information technology represents a further trap for public libraries. As described by Levitt, "Companies have attempted to 'serve' customers by creating complex and beautifully efficient products or services that buyers are either too risk-adverse to adopt or incapable of learning how to employ--in effect, there are now steam shovels for people who haven't yet learned to use spades" (Levitt 1975, 179). In their rush to embrace the future, public libraries must always be mindful of the needs and abilities of their constituency, eschewing "bells and whistles" in favor of "Customer-creating value satisfactions" (Levitt 1975, 177). Clearly, for the continued success, perhaps even the survival, of the public library, customer orientation is vital in any process of self-definition.


It should be clear that Levitt's analysis, with its stress on marketing, speaks to libraries in spite of the fact that they do not all operate as product-producing, profit-driven entities. Without the guidance of a parent organization, public libraries clearly have the most difficult task in self-definition. Adopting a strategy of self-definition through customer wants and needs, however, can go along way toward ensuring continued success for any library, be it corporate, academic or public. While user needs may differ between the various types of libraries, the basic premise of customer orientation is sound for all libraries. Since Levitt first published his article in 1960, it is somewhat distressing to see that libraries, and in particular public libraries as recently as four years ago, still seem confused about their own identity.

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D'Ella, George and Eleanor Jo Rodger. "Public Opinion About the Roles of the Public Library in the Community: The Results of a Recent Gallup Poll." Public Libraries 33 (January/February 1994): 23-28.

Levitt, Theodore. "Marketing Myopia." Harvard Business Review (September/October 1975): 26-180.

Mount, Ellis. "Special Libraries and Information Centres: An Overview." In Special Libraries and Information Centres, 2nd ed., 1-28. Washington: SLA. 1990.

Pungetore, V. Public Librarianship. N.Y.: Greenwood, 1989.

Shearer, Kenneth. "Confusing What Is Most Wanted with What Is Most Used: A Crisis in Public Library Priorities Today." Public Libraries 32 (July/August 1993): 193-197.

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