I don’t like conventions. Doing things, for the sake of doing them. I start these letters off with “I hope you are well”, which is a conventional way to start a conversation or exchange. Let’s make it useful, shall we? Check-in for a moment with yourself, and see how you are feeling. I wonder if it would be a good idea to train ourselves to actually do this whenever someone asks “how are you?”.
Did I ever tell you that I studied Marketing in uni?
In my undergrad, I did a double degree in Business and in what was called “Science in Information Technology”. There was no real reason to call it this; it was honestly vanilla IT (although I am sure there was a marketing reason here). The business subjects we had to do included accounting, finance, economics, management and marketing. Out of all of them, marketing by far was the most fascinating. In contrast to accounting, which can become rote memorisation and dry paperwork, marketing was an exploration of the human mind. I liked to call it applied psychology.
There was something perverse though, we were delving into how minds work, and harnessing a deep understanding of how we think and behave... so we can sell more stuff? So we can get people to buy things that they probably don’t even need?
There has to be a better way right, a better use to all of this? Right?
At the time, the problem of Climate Change was on the forefront of my mind. As far as I could tell, we already had the technical solutions and expertise required to radically cut down our emissions, and it was all now just about getting people on board. I saw Climate Change as a problem of human psychology, and therefore one that marketing was poised to address.
Later on, when becoming interested in spirituality and meditation, it became clear that much stress, anguish and unnecessary suffering in the world arose from people chasing after things that they didn’t need to be happy. What if our understanding of how to marketing, and how to influence people could untie these knots?
“We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”
Dave Ramsey, apparently
After all, much of what is done under the banner of marketing is responsible for this.
There are people out there, right now, sitting in a room trying to figure out how to get people to part with their money, buying things they do not need. There are people whose very livelihoods depend on having others waste their time, energy and finances.
“With all apologies to my friend Matthieu Ricard, a shopping mall full of Zen monks is not going to be particularly profitable, because they don’t want stuff enough.”
Daniel Gilbert, in his TED Talk
Our economic engine, as it is, seems to depend on people being ill-at-ease in their lives and seeking relief in the various products and services that are on offer. I have no doubt that the marketing efforts made by businesses are in part responsible for binding us to this cycle of this dissatisfaction and temporary relief.
In some cases, we go as far as to manufacture problems, to keep the production lines running. I remember feeling flabbergasted in high school when I learned about planned obsolescence. I was so used to the idea of technology improving over time, that I was stunned to find out that washing machines used to last a lot longer than they do now. Apparently, there was a time where they could easily last a few decades. Nowadays, they tend to only last five to ten years. To learn that this was considered a feature, not a bug, felt like a dark plot twist to a movie I didn’t want to watch. We design many of our machines to break after a few years, so that people will buy more, and the system can go on churning — what a tremendous waste of time and energy!
Why are we using our knowledge in such a perverse way?
There simply isn’t a reason this has to be the case.
Why not use the same marketing principles to keep people happy? Why not use them to empower everyone to behave in ways that will improve the lives of themselves and others?
I once told a friend of mine in university that I was studying Marketing, to which she responded “isn’t that manipulative”?
The answer I gave in short is this; not necessarily.
Much like a knife can be used to wound or simply cut vegetables, marketing is ultimately a tool that can be used for good or for ill.
In this piece, I want to make this clearer.
Goodness and Badness
When I talk about good marketing and bad marketing, I don’t mean charitable marketing and for-profit marketing. The “badness” that we associate with marketing is that it is manipulative, I believe this is all-too-often the case in practice but not inherently so.
Have you heard of the term “chugger”?
During university, I remember walking around the city in between lectures (the campus was scattered across a few streets amid the CBD), a person stopped me and started asking questions about my drink. I was confused for a bit, but soon he started telling me that for the price of a drink every week, I could be helping children have access to clean water.
It became clear to me then. I had run into a chugger: A Charity Mugger.
A person that ambushes you in the street and tries to extract money from you (but all for an apparently noble cause).
(My go-to line when I run into a chugger, is to as soon as possible say, “nothing you say here in front of me here will get me to give you money”. I mention that it’s unlikely that their cause is the best altruistic use of my money and that even if it were you would probably need more than the twenty minutes you have to make your case. Listening to a random person on the street isn’t the best form of research, after all.)
My point here, is that when I talk about good marketing vs bad marketing, I am not talking about where the money goes, but the relationship between the marketer and the consumer.
What makes marketing bad is the deception and coercion in its messaging. Does being exposed to this information help you or hinder you? Is your life better or worse off because you have seen it? These are the questions we must ask to untangle the two.
Words go by many meanings. A person can denigrate marketing as the cause of all our ills, or extol its virtues in harnessing human creativity all without having a clear picture of what it is.
I like to fall back to the formal definition I was taught in uni:
Marketing is communicating value.
I want you to linger on that definition for a few moments.
Those of you, cynical that there can even be such a thing as good marketing should consider it:
- In Marketing, a product is a good, service or idea.
- All products aim to solve a problem that the consumer has.
- You have problems. There are solutions to them that you don’t know about.
- Hearing about these solutions, is something you absolutely should want.
- Therein is the value of marketing. Communicating this value.
In case you haven’t followed me: Is there anything that you are happy you have bought
If you answer yes here, it goes to follow; you would have been worse off if you hadn’t found out about it. Marketing — that is; communicating value — has improved your life.
Imagine you had chronic migraines for all your life, and that there was a pill you could take that nullifies perfectly. Now imagine you could buy it over-the-counter and it’s been readily available for over a decade. The role of the marketer is to make sure that you know about it, it is to save you from ten years of meaningless headache.
Even if marketing is all-too-often practised in a way that is manipulative, or even coercive it doesn’t have to be this way. Marketing truly does serve an essential purpose.
Lies in disguise
All bad marketing is simply lies in disguise.
Apple calls its OS; the most advanced desktop operating system in the world.
I am not sure what “advanced” means here, as far as the marketing is concerned I suspect this ambiguity is a feature, not a bug.
I remember in high school reading about how a company is free to call their product “best in the world”. You can’t sue a company for claiming its work is the best, even when it is demonstrably worse than its competitors. This is considered sales talk. In this late stage of the game, it is common-sense not to take a marketing pitch as an accurate assessment of the product. Buyer beware.
The fact that this has the norm though implies to me that historically lies and marketing have gone hand-in-hand. Marketing aims to change your behaviour, usually to get you to buy something.
- This is already in your interest, in which the marketer simply needs to clearly communicate the value of their product (good marketing)
- It really isn’t, and the marketer is trying to make you believe otherwise (bad marketing)
From this point of view, the role of the marketer isn’t actually to convince you to buy their product. The marketer simply communicates its value. It is the actual value of the product that does the persuasive work.
It’s a relationship
Bad marketing is lies. It is a broken relationship between the consumer and the business. A product should exist to solve a problem that the consumer has, and the role of marketing should simply be to reveal the value it has to the consumer. It is an act of communication, with a sender and a receiver, and like all relationships, it is prone to deception.
Lies and coercion go hand-in-hand. Efforts to try to lock the consumer in go hand-in-hand with deceiving them. At the top of these letters (if you are reading them in your inbox) there is an unsubscribe button, you are free to opt-out any time. These are mandated by law, and the reason is because people were happy to bombard others with emails in the past.
Have you ever been stopped on the street or called in the middle of something and promised that they would only take five minutes of your time? Have you ever been tempted by a free product or service, only to find that it was a bait and switch? Have you ever suffered a mismatch between what you expected and what you ended up getting? Did it really seem like the organisation should have known better?
In my mind, there isn’t a clear difference between the deception that marketers engage in and lying in social and professional settings. In both cases, you have a relationship between people, and in both cases, they are harmed. When you trust the information you receive, either from the news, promotional materials or other people, you become vulnerable to deception and prone to harm. Much like we depend on other people to get through our day, we rely on the products and services we use and will lose out if they aren’t to our expectations. When you trust someone, you should be able to take what they say at face value and safely align your expectations and make plans based on what they tell you. Working together, living together can be of mutual benefit. When we can trust one another, we can have access to each other’s gifts, and we can benefit from our different qualities. If we can’t rely on one another’s word (at least to some degree) we cannot work together, we cannot reap the fruits of cooperation. Marketing is the same way, and bad marketing is simply lies; being unsure of whether we can trust what we hear we are prone to waste our time and energy. However, if we can, it is a mutually beneficial exchange for everyone.
We are better off for knowing about the efforts people are making in solving the problems we may have. There are goods, services and ideas that really can bring us joy and solve problems in our lives, and we are genuinely better off knowing what they are. This is the role of marketing.
I wrote this piece because of my concern that marketing was getting a bad rap in principle, because it has been terrible in practice. As if there wasn’t any good that it could do, that it didn’t benefit anyone. Elon Musk once commented that he didn’t invest in any marketing, viewing it as a waste of money. He only focussed on brilliant engineering and allowed the quality of his work to speak for itself. I appreciate this sentiment, and I like what he had to say to be honest. Yet, the reason we all know about Musk, Telsa and his efforts is because of brilliant marketing — simply not called marketing. I like what he has to say, because the role of marketing should not be persuasion, it really should be the quality of the product that does it. I honestly believe that marketing should be to communicate the value of a product clearly.
- A product should solve a real problem that people have
- The marketer’s role is to make sure that those that have this problem, know that there is a solution to it
The marketing itself can and should, provide value to the consumer. That is; your life should have improved for having seen it, rather than merely your time and money wasted.
This is why I wanted to make the distinction between good marketing and bad marketing.
I’ll conclude by listing a few ways to make this distinction.
- Good marketing simply communicates the value of a product (how it solves the problem), bad marketing tries to push the customer into buying
- Good marketing solves existing problems, bad marketing manufactures problems to be solved
- Good marketing is clear communication and a straight forward relationship, bad marketing involves shades of lying and coercion
- In good marketing, values are aligned and the consumer and business benefit mutually, in bad marketing there is a push-pull relationship between the two (the business is profiting to the detriment of the consumer and vice-versa)
A good product should solve a problem, and good marketing brings this solution to the awareness of those with the problem. That is all.
When writing this piece, all sorts of sparks lit up in my mind about marketing. Despite having studied this in university and spent a fair bit of my spare time watching TED talks and documentaries on it as well as reading books, I have barely at all written on it.
Marketing is everywhere, and our world is marked with the subtle and not so subtle efforts to capture our attention and direct our behaviour. Many people view Google, arguably one of the most profitable and powerful companies in the world, as a search company — but that’s not the case — they are a marketing one. The attention of the consumer is really what they are dealing in.
I am considering covering this more, there is a lot to say on how our knowledge of human psychology and behaviour is harnessed, and how much better it could be.
What do you say? What did you think of this piece? Should I write more on this?
Which letters have been your favourite so far? Which topics have excited you the most?
One of my missions is to bring novelty and joy into your lives, as well as useful information, and it is my hope I am succeeding. Let me know how I am going — I would love to hear from you! (Just hit reply to this email to reach me, if you are reading online then reach me here.)
Thank you again for reading all the way to the end of yet another letter, it because of you that all of this writing is worth it.
Live happily (please),