Marketing’s Great Chain of Being?

Grant_spa_3 Pam and I stayed in a NYC hotel this week.  She was recovering from surgery in Manhattan and we didn’t want to move her.  (The surgery went well and she is recovering nicely, thank you.) 

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:


Create rituals for yourself

Rituals help ground us, especially when we feel out of control.  A ritual can be as simple as going for a morning jog or enjoying an evening bath. 

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 ( 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.

11 thoughts on “Marketing’s Great Chain of Being?

  1. jkh

    quite true, quite true.

    german sociologist gerhard schulze – who brought the ‘experience society’ on the map in the early 1990s – in his latest publication speaks of an overall “aesthetic of arrival” in western consumer cultures – opposed to the classical modernist aesthetic of a dynamic and open progress with reference points that are only behind you or flying by your window on the motorway.

  2. jkh

    that by the way is also why he says the simplistic and zen-like apple design is such a success.

    design wise apple’s products are products of arrival and contemplation – no matter how ridiculously the company has speeded up their innovation cycles.

  3. jkh

    so the apple success formula would actually be: “selling arrival again and again”. – culture in quite a meditative loop in fact.

    no wonder they over the years now actually get away without drastic changes in design.

  4. jkh

    which of course also means that the only problem we have when buying a new ipod or new mobile phone which basically is what to do with the old one, that basically looked and felt much the same.

    our ever growing personal graveyards of old ipods, mobiles and laptops are the only thing that is of little sophistication in this equation.

    maybe jobs should next work on how to dematerialize the old product the minute we purchase the new one. – because shopping we want!

    the meditative loop of consumption would be perfect.

  5. jkh

    which means undoubtedly that life in a hotel is perfect. here everything is being replaced and refilled by invisible hands. – no waste, no traces of yesterday ever to be seen.

    a brand new life. just like the old one. only brand new.

    here is to the blessings of rituals.

  6. jkh

    as i have been asked, here is a little more on schulze’s “aesthetic of arrival”
    (first of all – it is not a thought that he elaborates in his last book but in “die beste aller welten” (the best of all worlds) 2003)
    where in most of the 20th century we lived in culture of linear progress in the 21st century this predominant drive forward (faster, higher, further) gets a new companion. and this is ‘a culture of arrival’. — where does that notion of arrival come from? – to schulze it lies in the new possibilities of the individualized society. linear progress of modernism has lost its halo (he of course wrote about this already in depth in the ‘erlebnisgesellschaft’ – ‘experience society’ (1992)) and now instead of society as a whole following one paradigm we have many more possible and legitimate options for the individual. – this now brings ‘arrival’ as a strong second theme onto the agenda.

    whereas the 20th century was about progressing and leaving behind – the 21st century is about progressing and arriving at the same time.

    culture – and cultural progress – does not get slower, but it gets essentially ‘wider’ and ‘broader’ – and integrates ‘halt’, ‘reflection’ and ‘self-awareness’ – all things that in the last century were for wimps only – as normal and desirable aspects into almost everybody’s everyday life.
    schulze says that this naturally will change marketing, advertising and product design significantly.
    he also says that a trend towards simplistic design can be read as an aspect of this ‘culture of arrival’.

    schulze however does not use the term ‘aesthetic of arrival’ – that like all the rest of the above is pure hilgenstock – nor does he elaborate on apple or the ipod especially.

    he says though that integrating both aspects “arrival” + “progress” at the same time will be the predominant challenge in 21st century consumption and marketing.

    unfortunately schulze’s books – with the exception of the ‘erlbnisgesellchaft’ are not available in english. – but hey, as in the 1970 and 1980 all german books on marketing and management were basically copied from the us-american originals, i would see absolutely no problem in turning this brain train around and pick some pearls of schulze and others. – and i guess that is also what Pine, Joseph and James Gilmore. 1999. The Experience Economy. have done in parts too.

    personally i would possibly be open for co-operations like this.

  7. jen_chan, writer

    The card was a brilliant touch. To find something that seems personally created for you never fails to impress. But I’m much more intrigued with this so-called chain of being. The idea is really interesting and it makes one wonder which side we are sliding to these days. Could there be a great chain in the marketing world? Honestly, I think there is something like that going on though not everything is in black and white after all.

  8. Fabrizio

    There is a growing interest, in marketing and design, about the emotional and experiential side of consumption, with books such as Norman’s “Emotional Design” of GobĂ© “Emotional Branding” on the top list. The shift from use to meaning in marketing dates back to the good old days of semiotics; here in Italy we were all caught up by Semprini’s works on the symbolic role of brands, but the tools used to generate and manage this “competition of meanings” remained the traditional 4 ps reducing the mangerial impact of this shift.

    In terms of the hotel example, the card explains how to use conventional products (still the 4 ps at work) though reducing the value of a seamless customer experience that, I assume, might not need explainations or rules of conduct but might flow freely thanks to the look and feel of objects and enviroments that surround the user. In this sense, marketing is still lacking of a strong set of tools to enable customers to go through very personal experiences and is still very focused on the promotion of ordinary, functional products, through some emotional communication. In other words, selling experiences is a completely different ball game from selling products through emotional communication, don’t you think so??

  9. pnautilus

    Yes. And I don’t mean maybe. Pick any industry and you will see the Saints, the men, and the animals. Success lies in one extreme or the other. You either offer an experience that pulls your earthly commodities into the realm of the heavenly, or you slog down into the pits to duke it out with Walmart. The problem now is that work-a-day marketers are promising heaven to too many companies, and delivering what amounts to little more than expensive noise.

  10. srp

    Meanings are tied to identity. Identities vary across people. Some identities are uninterested in the meanings of a given product category but are very interested in others. Other identities rebel at the idea of consuming meanings promoted by people trying to sell them things. Still other identities pride themselves on ignoring all but considerations of utility. The trick is figuring out what the population of identities looks like in your product category and then understanding how given marketing moves will either attract or antagonize each identity type. Probably there will be some tradeoffs, because fuzzing up the meaning to cover everyone will weaken the pull and cause a descent down the chain of being. If you can’t fuzz too much, you have to antagonize or leave cold some elements of the population in order to appeal to others.

    Don’t kid yourself, though–superior utility is still a killer argument. The iPod is gorgeous and easy to use and has a huge set of compelementary hardware and software. Its rivals aren’t and don’t.

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