Sitting on a shelf in the hotel bathroom, I found something the size of a business card. There it is to the right. The card reads:
This reflects a couple of things at work in marketing and capitalism:
1) the movement from utility to meaning
Capitalism used to be about making and selling things, useful things. Marketing helped sell these things. The sale was about trumpeting the usefulness of the thing. Marketing was about information. In the 1980s, some of us, following the lead of Syd Levy and Irving White, proposed a broader view. Goods were about meanings, meanings the individual could use to help construct the self, the home, the personal world.
2) the movement from the sale of objects and services to the sale of experiences.
Capitalism used to be about making and selling things. Marketing helped sell these things. Now marketing imagines grander things for itself. We can thank Pine and Gilmore and their book, The Experience Economy, for this development. Things are mere props, part of the theater the brand supplies.
3) the movement from engagement to the restorative.
The real deliverable, this approach says, is relaxation so deep it amounts to restoration. To dive so deeply into an experience that the world falls still. To detach from the furious pace of contemporary life and reset all our activity clocks to zero. In the words of hotel wisdom, to become "grounded" again.
4) the movement from the mundane to the enchanted.
Several companies with whom I have worked can hear the siren call of the new age movement. They now to seek to offer the consumer something like enchantment. They see the consumer climbing to spiritual heights, establishing contact with planetary harmonics, and/or their inner child. (This is enough to make my inner child throw a tantrum, but never mind.)
Thus does marketing accommodate the changes taking place in our culture. Thus does our commerce stay in touch with our culture.
And while these lofty missions are pursued, many marketers wrestle with the problem of commodification: the ability of competitors to duplicate a product and shave its price. Brands turn back into products. Margins begin to shrink. A newly powerful channel (Amazon.com on line and Wal-Mart at the mall) demand discounts and more price cutting. Margins grow slimmer still. Before long, competitors are locked in a "race to the commodity basement."
Many brands are caught between hell below and heaven above, between the nether world of commodification and the intellectual challenges and profit opportunities that come from selling meanings, experiences, restoration or enchantment.
We might even go so far as to say that the marketer is caught in a great chain of being. In the Renaissance case, here’s how the "chain of being" worked. At the apex of the hierarchy stands God. God is pure intelligence. Next in the hierarchy are Angels, creatures who have pure intelligence. Then came earthly creatures: Saints, the hierarchy of the church, blessed with elevated intelligence. Man, stood in the middle of the hierarchy, a kind of linch pin, capable of intelligence, but always distracted by the passions and inclined to error. As we continue down the hierarchy, we move ever further away from intelligence. Animals have no reason. Inanimate objects are insensate. (This is imperfectly remembered, sorry.)
In this hierarchy, man was mobile. As he exercised his reason, as he devoted himself to spirituality, he moved upwards in the great scheme of things. As he refused his gift of reason, he moved downwards, becoming finally like unto a beast.
Marketers are mobile too. As our brand succeeds, we move upwards into the realm of ideas, concepts, experiences. If we hold parity, we play a game of optimization, tinkering with our positioning, but without resources to contemplate experiment or much in the way of risk taking. As our brand fails, we descend into a commodity hell, we are destined to slug it out with promotions and channel play.
We are caught between heaven and hell. The higher we climb, the closer we get to the realm of pure idea. The more we are called upon to exercise a our intelligence, creativity and strategic sense. The lower we fall, the closer we get to something brute. We are now in a reactive mode. (This is of course unfair. Plenty of brain power and strategic sense is called for here. I am letting the metaphor do the talking here.)
Could there be a great chain of being in the marketing world?
Lovejoy, Arthur O. 1950. The Great Chain of Being: the study of the history of an idea. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. (acknowledged here with all due apologies for my imperfect recollection and liberal use)
McCracken, Grant. 2005. Culture and Consumption II: markets, meanings and brand management. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Pine, Joseph and James Gilmore. 1999. The Experience Economy. New York: Harvard Business School Press.