Along with many others I rail against the persistent use of the word ‘consumer’ by business, the media and even government. We are not, none of us, merely consumers, we are sentient, we are people. Consuming things is a by-product of our existence, not our defining characteristic or our purpose. Despite the confected faux regard for ‘consumer power’ or ‘consumer rights’ there is something inherently disrespectful and patronizing about referring to people as ‘consumers’. We are, on some occasions, customers, everyone is in some ways, on some days, someone’s customer. That’s fine, it conveys the idea of a willing transaction, an adult-to-adult relationship based on mutual interest. There is no context, in my view, where the word ‘consumer’ could not be more respectfully replaced by ‘customer’ and many where ‘person’ or ‘people’ would work just as well. Labelling people as ‘consumers’ implies that our only usefulness to the state is as units of labour to produce and units of consumption to justify ever more production. We’re just like the human batteries in ‘The Matrix’, Winston in Orwell’s 1984, put on earth to support the system, ‘Big Brother’.
Consumers? You might as well call us ‘eaters’, ‘breathers’ or maybe ‘hungry, needy oxygen-users’.
If we buy into this idea of ourselves, even if only in part, as ‘consumers’ we are also giving license to a system that encourages us to consume more and more and more. Creating demand for ever improving products and services is the bedrock of liberal capitalism, a Western system that has done far more good than harm and as the old line goes, is better than the alternatives. Creating excessive consumption is bad. People know the difference, people have come up with the idea of a more circular economic system to limit waste pollution and over-depletion of finite resources. Consumers consume, just like gamblers gamble. People know when to stop.
So can we please confine the term ‘consumer’ to Room 101? Let’s just incinerate it. We are customers and/or we are people. Now we can turn to the far more dangerous threat to our humanity. Our real purpose is to provide data. We are fast becoming ‘Data-Cows’. Justin E.H. Smith is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris. In a recent article for The New Statesman he rather depressingly concluded that one’s job is irrelevant, whether professor or production worker, our role is to generate data.
………… it is growing ever clearer that the true job of all of us, now, is to be milked for data by the provisioners of online content.
What we do now, mostly, is update our passwords, guess at security questions, click on images that look like boats to prove we’re not robots. We are trainers of AI and watchers of targeted ads.
Justin E.H. Smith: ‘Meritocracy and the future of work’ The New Statesman, April 2021
The logical conclusion of this is that when enough data has been milked from us it will all be uploaded to machines and humanity will have served its purpose. Sounds like a Sci-Fi plot – worryingly life has a habit of imitating art. And the on-ramp to the brave new, de-humanized world has already been unveiled and not just by Zuckerberg. On this very day the technology company, Improbable, has just raised £150 million to build M2, an infrastructure for the Mata-verse bringing together work and entertainment into a virtual, fully online world where all we will do is spew out yet more data for learning machines to manipulate.
To cut a swathe through history, we evolved from a repressive feudal economy to a more open, liberal capitalist economy though the ability to earn our own money and have control over how we spent it, overthrowing the Barons in the process. The new Techno Barons (or governments as in the case of China) can return us to subservience if we do not have control over the data we generate and how it gets used and monetized. We have to fight for this, we need to support the new platforms that enable us to own and transact our own data (you can check some of them out here) and in the meantime we need to resist any and every effort to get us to share our data with people who will exploit it to their, not our, benefit. Whenever you can, don’t give your email address, don’t sign up, refuse permission, block the cookies, use VPN’s.
We need to be able to hold up our hands, when we choose to, and declare ourselves a person of interest with opinions, ideas, preferences and purchasing power unique to us. We are all interesting because despite what the data & behavioural scientists tell you, despite what the algorithms predict, we make surprising choices and act out of character. We think, we have ideas, we create.
You are not a consumer, you’re more than a data-cow, you are a person of interest. Your data has great value, own it, and use it on your own terms.
I have finished the first draft of my latest book. It needs more work but here is a teaser.
In every corner of the globe concerns over climate change, pollution, resource depletion and environmental degradation are now taken very seriously especially, but not exclusively, among the younger generation. Governments and the business world have had to respond to this and for the most part they have. We have green energy policies, more responsible and sustainable sourcing, production and distribution, recycling infrastructure, to highlight just a few aspects of sustainability. Maybe not as much as we need to meet the climate change targets but a lot more than we had and moving in the right direction. Sustainability is mainstream in almost everyone’s thinking almost all of the time. But we are missing something, quite a big thing – excessive demand. We are buying and consuming too much, not everywhere, not among the ‘other 3 billion’ who live in abject poverty, but in the developed world we buy too much stuff. We are, as part of the drive towards sustainability, aware of waste as an issue but we have not tackled the root cause of this – marketing.
$1 trillion a year gets spent on persuading us not just to buy but to buy more than we need and this causes enormous waste both physical and obvious and hidden, ignored. We have not tackled the demand-side wastage and marketing’s role in that, so we are fighting the climate change and environmental battle with one arm tied behind our back. This book tries to lift the lid on that and offer an alternative, Deliberate Marketing – a more responsible approach that addresses marketing generated wastage but not necessarily by reducing profits and enterprise value. Because we also waste a lot of money on unnecessary marketing so we can cut that out too.
My argument in a nutshell are as follows:-
Rooted in free-market economics, the purpose of marketing is to sell more, more, more. This produces vast amounts of excess consumption and waste. Some waste can be recycled but that takes 50% of the resources it took to produce in the first place. Less unnecessary purchases = less recycling.
Sustainability does not focus enough on the demand side.
It is possible to reduce excess, irresponsible demand and the waste it produces without necessarily reducing profits or enterprise value.
We are not looking to impose austerity and fight human nature or progress. Just 5-10% reduction would be game-changing and reducing wasted marketing can more than offset the commercial risk of doing so.
We need a better more deliberate and connected way of doing marketing and a better way to measure and account for all costs.
There are strategies to reduce waste and safeguard commercial success. There is a simple process a business could follow but it needs to be holistic, looking at the whole business model.
Deliberate Marketing – think of it as marketing that makes you proud, socially and professionally.
The book offers a point of view on how to reduce wasted marketing and reduce marketing generated waste. It highlights areas to focus on to achieve this and suggest a process for D-Marketing. The objective is to generate interest, to start the conversation and pose some challenging questions. It is not offering ‘an answer’ or ‘a blue-print’, that’s impossible without looking at a specific business in a specific category. But here’s an interesting thing about waste, once aware of it, a well-intentioned person or leadership team finds it hard to ignore. There is no study to back this up, merely a lot of circumstantial evidence, but the majority of waste is probably down to thoughtlessness, a feeling of powerlessness and/or an assumption that it’s someone else’s responsibility. As a species we are sentient and most of us have a conscience. If we are aware of waste, if we think we can do something about it and it is our responsibility to do so, we will. At the very least we will try.
The audience for this book is business in general, and marketers in particular. Its purpose is to make people think about waste and believe there is perhaps something they can do if they try.
I normally write about business and marketing and what is wrong with both. This leads me into economics and its more recent lack of social purpose – I blame Behavioural Economics – and I end up with a bit of philosophising. A good friend who is always gracious enough to read my work commented on a draft of my latest eBook and asked if I had been influenced by the philosopher Hannah Arendt. I hadn’t, I’d never heard of her but am now reading some of her work (we are more than just a production or consumption unit, we need to be socially engaged). His comment prompted me to try working the other way around for a change – start with the philosophy and work back to business and marketing. So here it is, strap in, it’s a long read (10,000 words).
If there’s something strange In your neighbourhood Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters!
If there’s something weird And it don’t look good Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters!
Is it time to call for the Philosophers?
The lyrics of Ray Parker Jr. taken from his song ‘ Ghostbusters’ for the film of the same name. If we’re unhappy about the state of the world, things look strange and weird, we’re concerned and worried about the future, it don’t look too good, we are about as likely to call for the philosopher as we are to call for the Ghostbusters. But we should (call for the philosopher that is, not the exorcists).
When we meet someone who we want to get to know we might ask them what they do. If they told us they were a philosopher what would we think? Most people would not have a clue what being a philosopher really meant or what it involved but notwithstanding would assume it related to some kind of naval-gazing academic job. QI – quite interesting but not really relevant to everyday life or global challenges.
There was a time when being a philosopher was a very big deal. Plato, Aristotle, Socrates were the rock stars of their time, as important if not more important than Kings and Emperors because the most powerful force in the world was, and still is, ideas and philosophers had ideas about life and how those ideas should govern what we do. The ideas that came from a long line of philosophers have shaped our world. Ideas from the Greek philosophers like Plato (Demo-cracy, the power of the people) and many of the ideas that followed from some well-known names like Machiavelli (the end justifies the means), Karl Marx (class conflict) and perhaps, outside academia, the less well known like Rousseau and Locke (nature versus nurture), John Stuart Mill (freedom means doing what you want as long as it does not harm others), Wittengenstein (the world is not ordained, it is what we make it), Jean Paul Sartre (belief in God is a distraction, life is absurd, our choices define our lives) remain highly relevant to the challenges we face. Do we believe in the power of the people and what do we mean by that (what political system works best)? Do the ends justify the means – in an emergency like a pandemic are governments free to do whatever they think right even if it curtails our human rights? Are we free to pursue any lifestyle, any gender we want? What does ‘not harming others’ mean? As people are we able to break free of our background, is how we’re nurtured and taught more important than our basic nature? Is God a distraction, is life whatever we choose to make it, can we change the course of nature and history? Or is there a higher force with a pre-ordained plan?
Philosophers are very careful with language. They need to deal in precise definitions because misunderstandings can undermine an idea or argument. This accounts for the naval-gazing reputation because philosophers will take a long time to debate the meaning of everything, even the meaning of the word ‘idea’ or ‘argument’ let alone morality, ethics, nature (Wittengenstein was particularly hot on this). There are many rabbit holes down which one can disappear as one wrestles with different philosophies.
However, there is one definition that does need to be made clear, the difference between philosophy and religion. Philosophy is concerned with ideas about life, its meaning and how it should affect behaviour, what we do, in all aspects life. The product of philosophy is therefore an ideology, a system of beliefs. Theology is the study of God and religion, a system of beliefs based on ones understanding of God is what you get from a theologists and religious leaders.
Philosophers and their ideas were once more powerful than Kings and Emperors (philosophers like Socrates were killed for their beliefs) but arguably more powerful than either were Religious Leaders.
It is not true to say all philosophers were or are atheists. The majority have been either atheists or agnostics, at the very least they have questioned religion and religious belief, it was their job to do so. Aristotle and Plato believed in God (define God – a higher power?). One of the things that got Socrates into trouble was that he was more inclined to believe in one god rather than ‘The Gods’ which contradicted the prevailing religion in his day. Jesus, whatever else one believes about him, son of God, Messiah, prophet, was also a philosopher and he definitely believed in God.
Philosophy is neither framed nor constrained by religious belief. Theology is both framed and constrained by whatever one believes about God. It might offend the religious to say so but any set of ideas by which one lives is an ideology or a philosophy however, in theology or religion any challenge to the ideology, any gaps in knowledge, any inconsistencies, any lack of evidence or proof is explained away by faith. One might say that a religious theology is basically a set of ideas full of holes plugged by faith. There is nothing wrong with faith, it is essential to us, we cannot function without it. If we trust nothing and no-one we are unable to do anything. We cannot live our lives questioning everything. We need some faith in our relationships and the future to make life worth living. On the other hand we have to question some things, we can’t just rely on trust and faith, we have to require proof on occasions. No-one would trust a scientist if they just guessed. No-one should trust a philosopher if they plug the holes in an argument with faith or religious belief. But that is an atheist’s point of view.
Religion in all its forms is still the dominant ideology in the world. The majority of people on the planet identify with one or other of the major religions such as Christianity (30%), Islam (25%) or Hinduism (15%). So if you believe in God and Religion then in times of trouble who are you going to call? Ghostbusters, or Priests, or Imams or any religious leaders and they will have a point of view on how to deal with life’s challenges. But it might require faith and might be light on proof. Their thinking will not be as intellectually rigorous as a philosopher and yet most people no longer seem to appreciate the importance of philosophy and philosophers. A casual search on Google threw up the following list of modern day philosophers.
Linda Martin Alcoff.
All are highly respected in academic circles and among the bon pensant but none are exactly household names. Jordan Peterson and Steve Pinker have a wider notoriety but they were added to catch the reader out. They are psychologists not philosophers.
It could be that contemporary philosophers haven’t added much to the thinking of ‘the great philosophers’ but as has been pointed out beyond Plato, Aristotle and Marx few of ‘the greats’ are well known outside academia. Speaking of which, in American universities Philosophy is the 89th most popular major accounting for less than 0.2% of all students (one in every 500) so not that popular.
Philosophy is not seen as mainstream, it is seen as academic in the popular sense of the word which is to say not relevant to real life and real life problems and this at a time where we face some very big real life problems.
We are just emerging from a global pandemic and the biggest shock to the global economy ever seen.
The gap between ‘the haves’ and ‘the have-nots’ is wide and getting wider
The Geo-political tectonic plates are shifting, we are closer to global conflict than at any time since 1945
We face potentially disastrous climate change
We are just starting to see the impact of AI and robotics which will have the biggest impact on society since we invented the wheel using opposable thumbs
Now more than ever we need philosophy, a belief system with fully joined up thinking to guide our actions and decisions but now more than ever we think philosophy is academic, irrelevant. We have religious ideologies but as ever they seem conflicted and literally in conflict, with each other and with political ideologies (essentially totalitarianism or democracy).
We could do with a modern day Plato or Aristotle or Socrates.
Where did it all go wrong for Philosophy?
The answer is ‘The Enlightenment’, the period that roughly spans the 17th and 18th centuries. This is also known as ‘The Age of Reason’ an explosion in the pursuit of knowledge that spread ideas across the world from science to human rights and liberalism. At the epicenter of this were people like Sir Isaac Newton and Adam Smith. The culmination of it was the French (and maybe the American) Revolution. Not everywhere and to varying degrees, the Age of Reason saw the further separation of State and Church that had begun in the Renaissance. This is very important because it gave space for ideas to develop outside religion and the old world order. It was also the period where philosophy started to fragment.
We think of Sir Isaac Newton as a scientist but in his time he was known as a mathematician and natural philosopher. He saw himself as pursuing a branch of philosophy, one that sought to make sense of the natural world and the physical universe as part of general exploration of the meaning of life and the way the world worked. His particular area of philosophy placed value on observation, measurement, experimentation that would become known as Science. Just before Newton died Adam Smith was born, he went on to write ‘The Wealth of Nations’ and is known as the father of economics but he too saw himself as a philosopher focused on a branch of philosophy that was becoming known as political science (the word ‘economics’ as we know it came along 100 years later, until then it was an aspect of political science).
In ‘The Age of Reason’ philosophy fragmented into a lot of other disciplines and it continues to do so today. By the time we entered the 19th Century we were paying far more attention to Science (in all its forms), Politics, Economics as well as Geography, Medicine and the Arts of course. By the end of 19th century and into the 21st Century we had Sociology, Psychiatry, Psychology, Anthropology – Philosophy’s Big Bang expansion continued as all the other disciplines fragmented into further specialisations. To bring the fragmentation of philosophy right up to date we now have Behavioural Science and Behavioural Economics that have been enthusiastically embraced by politicians, economists, sociologists, psychologists (if not always enthusiastically embraced behavioural science is at least taken into account by any modern day thinker).
In all this complex and dynamic jigsaw of social and physical sciences Philosophy has lost its clout. The plethora of specific disciplines do not ladder up to a higher philosophical ideology, on the contrary they seem dislocated from philosophy. It is almost as if there has been another kind of Renaissance, a separation not between State and Church but between philosophy and science, both physical and social science. In plain English, by diminishing the role of philosophy we have diminished our ability to do joined up thinking. We know that politicians do not have all the answers, we know neither do economists or sociologists or psychologists or populists or despots. Some might believe religious leaders do but there is no evidence that they do. Another way to look at the difference between (most) religious ideologies and an atheists philosophy is that the latter deals with this life and this world, religion is as much, if not more, concerned with the next life.
However, both religion and philosophy trump the more dislocated, agnostic branches of social and physical science because they have a point of view, a belief system, an ideology not just about how the world works but how it should work. Both religion and philosophy have a purpose which is, to use a popular term, to be the best version of ourselves in the best of all possible worlds. The joined up thinking has a strategic objective.
What did the Renaissance do for you?
Historians will point out that the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment was only made possible by the Renaissance that preceded it. This is undeniably true, the period of cultural rebirth that took us out of the Dark Ages laid the foundations for the explosion of enlightened ideas and not just because of the separation of State and Church. Some very important things happened in the Renaissance that have echoes in the situation we find ourselves today. Guttenberg invented the printing press in 1440 which allowed the spread of ideas but what ideas? At the heart of the Renaissance, the catalyst, was a revival of interest in Ancient Greek philosophy. Without going into details there had been a major shift in the Geo-Political tectonic plates with the Fall of Constantinople as the Byzantine empire gave way to Ottoman empire. This forced the migration of Greek and Latin scholars seeking to flee the conflict and they took with them precious documents containing the writings of the ancient philosophers. Aristotle, Seneca and others and their ideas came back in fashion. Contemporary scholars in the West (that is West Europe) wanted more than just to understand the great ancient philosophers they wanted to exceed them and take the thinking further.
The traumatic wars of the past, the ones that followed in the 17th century and, as some have suggested, the Great Plague of 1665 shook people out of an acceptance of the old order, acceptance held together by superstition, fear and an unquestioning faith in God and King/Queen. It created curiosity about the possibility of a better way to live, better ideas to live by. It created the fertile ground where new ideas, founded in ancient wisdom, could take root, and Guttenberg provided the means to spread them far and wide.
Looking at the situation today, we have had major shocks – wars, plagues, financial crises – our tectonic plates are shifting. We have the internet which creates an ability to share, and access to, ideas on a far greater scale than print. We face existential threats, we are questioning the old order. Is it time to revive an interest in philosophy? Should we start by revisiting the ancient Greek philosophers?
The Wisdom of the Greeks
To defend the idea that the solution to present day problems lies in revisiting Ancient Greek Philosophy is going to require some simplification both in framing the challenges we face and summarizing the ancient philosophical insight that might be of relevance. The argument so far is that philosophy has been side-lined. Philosophy as an overarching ideology (or set of guiding principles and beliefs about how life should work) fragmented into a host of different and often dislocated disciplines such as politics, economics, sociology, psychology etc. The first two, politics and economics, are the dominant forces in shaping our world but they have lost any connection to an over-arching philosophy. This disconnection really began after the end of the Cold War, at the end of 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. Up until then both politics and economics were connected to two opposing philosophies, Marxism and Liberal Capitalism (both of which trace their roots all the way back to the Greeks).
Marxist philosophy believes in a world with no class structure where everything is owned collectively and everyone receives according to their needs and contributes according to their abilities.
Liberal Capitalism believes in private ownership, letting the forces of the market determine who wins and who loses within a framework of personal liberty.
This is a very simplistic summary and it can be made even simpler. In Marxism the State runs everything for the greater good, in capitalism individuals are free to get ahead, free to get rich.
[The schism depends on ones view of human nature, the role nature versus nurture, what ‘social contract’ we should have with each other and the community or state, subjects that were central to the work of Philosophers like Rousseau, Locke and Hobbes.]
However, the Marxism versus Capitalism debate has been and gone. There are really only three political philosophies and they are in real time conflict because they are so very different.
Democracy – power to the people: USA, Europe, India and others
Autocracy – power for the few: China, Russia, Myanmar and others
Theocracy – power in the name of God: Islamic States like Iran where State and Religion are united
In these three political systems we can see a connection to three different philosophies on effective government, and this was very clear to the Greeks. They understood autocracy and theocracy, they’d endured them, so they came up with democracy.
What is less obvious is the connection between these political philosophies and a philosophy or point of view on life and people.
Is life all about service or is it about seeking pleasure and having fun?
Do we work to earn the right to have fun?
Are we inherently greedy and selfish so we need a rule-based society?
Or are we basically decent and just need society to allow us to be free top grow?
Is there a ‘we’ – are we all the same or are we all different?
Is it inevitable that we form tribes based on self-interest and identity?
The Greeks understood and wrestled with these questions. Crucially they, the philosophers, believed two things. Firstly, it was important to think about how we should live, not just get on with living. Secondly, in thinking and discussing these issues it was important to do so constructively and with civility.
To create a bridge between the wisdom of the ancient philosophers and our challenges (as they did in the Renaissance faced with the same need to come up with even better ideas for a better society) let us break this down to 3 basic questions:-
Is life about service or pleasure or both?
What is the best political system (based on how similar or different we are)?
What is the best way to debate this?
With this in mind let’s see what the Greeks can teach us.
Stoicism and Hedonism
We use the words stoic or hedonist to describe people. A stoic person is someone who soldiers on uncomplainingly in the face of adversity. A hedonist is someone just out to have fun, a person who thinks life is all about seeking pleasure. By inference a stoic puts their service to a cause or to others before themselves and their own comfort and happiness. A hedonist is all me, me, me.
In fact Stoicism and Hedonism are both schools of Greek Philosophy, there is a lot more to them and they do not necessarily contradict each other.
Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium and championed by other Greek philosophers such as Epictetus right through to Seneca, a Roman philosopher, and the philosophizing Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Stoics believed in living a virtuous life in harmony with nature. They saw nothing inherently right or wrong in wealth or pleasure but they believed true pleasure lay in virtue and because of this they believed one had to be emotionally resilient to misfortune – being virtuous is not easy. Would we, today, be better off living a more stoic life? Should we not be teaching this to our children? Is this not an antidote to the over-sensitive, virtue-signaling yet decadent and self-oriented culture some people perceive to be the root of our moral decline. Isn’t living in harmony with nature what it means to be green and sustainable?
What about Hedonism? The earliest champion of hedonism, earlier even than Socrates, was the Greek Philosopher Democritus although it wasn’t his main thing. He is better known for his theory that the universe is made up inter-connected atoms, so he was the world’s first atomic scientist. However, he also believed that we should be joyful and cheerful. Many different schools of Hedonistic philosophy followed with some differences of opinion but they all believed it was right to pursue pleasure and avoid pain and suffering. What is not so well understood about hedonism as a philosophy, a misunderstanding that accounts for it becoming synonymous with decadence, is that pleasure could be found in many ways. It could be found in doing work you enjoy, in serving others, in being virtuous. A hedonist believed for example that if there were two ways to travel to a destination why would you not choose the one with the best views? Again this seems very relevant to our world today and not in conflict with stoicism. Study after study shows that we find most pleasure and happiness in having good relationships with those we care about and not in stuff we buy and accumulate. Noel Coward famously said that work is more fun than fun, that the happiest people are those who get paid to do what they enjoy so much they’d do it for free. Is this not what we try to tell our children, find your vocation in something you care about, a job that brings you pleasure?
Lesson number One from the Greeks – pursue a life of stoicism and hedonism.
Fighting for Democracy
We give the credit to Plato for coming up with Demo-cracy – power of the people – as a political system but in fact it was an idea that percolated and circulated among several Greek philosophers, including his famous teacher, Socrates and his famous pupil, Aristotle. Plato just happened to write it up in a book, The Republic. Like stoicism and hedonism the true meaning of democracy has been corrupted and dumbed down over the years. Today it means everyone gets to vote for who they want to govern them, so government is, in theory at least, accountable to the people it serves. We skate over the issue of who gets to vote, it is all adults although maybe not those in prison. Adult means over 21 years old in some countries, 18 years old or even 16 years old in others (16 year olds can vote in Argentina, Austria and several other countries – they were allowed to vote in the Scottish Independence referendum).
In Plato/Socrates’ view only Guardians, the minority who were educated for much longer than the majority Artisans, should be allowed to vote. They voted on behalf of the less educated artisans but they were not an exclusive elite. The child of an artisan could become a Guardian if they showed the aptitude. In Plato’s democracy there was, crucially, equality of opportunity. It was one system of democracy and there are now many, many others. The USA, UK and France would all see themselves as the epitome of democratic political systems and yet the system for voting is radically different in each country. USA has a very bizarre and arcane system that dates back to the end of the civil war and the need to avoid the hegemony of the Northern States over the Southern States. It is a collegiate system where different states are allotted a different number of votes. The determination of this allocation is fairly opaque. This system means that a Presidential candidate can poll more votes than the opposing candidate but can still lose the race to the Whitehouse.
In France they take account of the voters second choice so you can become President by being a popular alternative choice but not most people’s first choice. The UK has a representational system, you vote for a candidate to represent your area and in effect you vote for their party or vice versa. This means a party can assume government with a relatively small minority of the total vote. So when we say, as many of us do, we believe in democracy, what exactly do we mean? Who gets to vote? Why? How do they vote? Why?
A lot of people will say they’re not interested in politics let alone philosophy. However, a lot of voters, close to half the UK population, were really upset by the Brexit result. A lot of people in America were appalled by Trump winning and the other half were disappointed he lost, an outcome that was reversed at the next election. Yet none of those people seem to question the political system. If the UK had used anything close to the USA or French voting system (and/or let 16 years old vote as they did in the Scottish Independence Referendum or insist on a 60% plus majority as they also did in that referendum) the result would have been to remain in the EU. If Americans are concerned about a choice between Trump and Biden they should question their democratic political system that delivers just these two alternatives.
Democracy needs to be debated, not the idea but the application. Perhaps Plato et al had it right all along. Giving power to people, making government accountable to the public, does not mean everyone gets to vote but if not it must mean everyone has the same opportunity to earn the right to vote. We are relying on our governments to address the issues of the day, we need to pay more attention to how we vote them in and out.
Lesson Number Two from the Greeks – democracy is better than the alternatives and worth fighting for, but we need to define precisely what we mean by democracy.
Civil Constructive Debate
The Greek philosophers seemed almost as concerned about how an argument was conducted as the issues being debated. In ‘Republic’ Plato uses a very specific technique to set out the arguments. It is written as a discussion between his mentor Socrates and various other people using constructive questions to stimulate critical thinking and advance the discussion. Examples of a Socratic question are:-
What did you mean by that, could you explain it further?
Could you give me some examples?
Are there circumstances where your argument would not apply?
Is there an alternative point of view?
This way of discussing, exploring and developing an argument is known as ‘Socratic Discourse’.
As time went by philosophers became even more precise about different types of argument.
Eristic This is where you seek to dispute someone’s point of view. You are not trying to find the truth, you are trying to prove you are right by proving the other side is wrong.
Didactic This method of debate is intended to educate someone. You know the truth and you are just trying to get the other person to see the light.
Dialectic This is a discourse between two or more people with different points of view who wish to arrive at the truth through reasoned argument.
In a dialectic argument one person sets out their point of view, their thesis. The person sets out their opposing view, the anti-thesis and the objective through constructive discussion and debate is to arrive at a conclusion, the synthesis, one that is stronger than either the thesis or anti-thesis (not a compromise, a better and more informed idea).
Having a number of ‘existential’ challenges – climate change, growing economic disparity, clashes of ideology, AI and robotics – is scary enough but what is even scarier is our inability to discuss them thoroughly, constructively and with civility. Social media, soundbites, echo chambers, fake news, identity politics have created an unhealthy polarisation of views and robbed us of our ability to discuss issues ‘Socratically’. With no dialectic debate we are left with eristic and didactic argument – ‘I’m right, you’re wrong, let me put you right’. Worst still if we disagree with someone (or an institution) on one issue our views on everything are cancelled, a platform for debate is removed from us.
That the world has problems is not the concern, problems can always be solved, if by no other means then by changing the rules and assumptions. That the world seems to be losing the ability to discuss and debate constructively and effectively is terrifying. It is often impossible to test out and prove a solution, strategy or proposed course of action, even in science and law, it is only possible to test the assumptions on which it is based. To do that you need to ask the right questions.
Lesson number Three from the Greeks – argument is good, not knowing how to argue and ask the right questions so as to get to better answers is bad.
Some important caveats
This is a very simplistic overview.
It only refers to Western philosophy, there is a wealth of forgotten wisdom in eastern philosophy. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are very important, so are Lao Tzu, Buddha and Confucius.
Neither the ancient Greek nor the ancient eastern philosophers had to contend with technology. In their day technology and scientific discovery progressed slowly, today their evolution is exponential.
However, the intention was to create a renaissance in our appreciation of the importance of philosophy and demonstrate the relevance of over-arching ideas not just about how the world works but about how it should work so as to solve the challenges we face,. The hope is we re-establish the idea of philosophy as the superior discipline able to connect and guide politics, economics, psychology and technology. Philosophy should guide all social, physical, natural and technological science, it should frame everything, but these four are highlighted because our ‘playbooks’ predominantly come from them.
The importance of philosophy to everyone and everything.
If we meet someone and want to get to know them what do we do? If the meeting is face to face whether consciously (or cognitively) but more often unconsciously we look at them and weigh them up according to our assessment of their socio-demographics. Are they young or old, do they look well off or down at heel, male, female (or non-binary)? We also weigh them up by their appearance and demeanour – smartly dressed and smiling or tattooed, wearing a hoodie and sullen. We will take in lots of other visual cues as to which ethnic group they come from, any other signs or badges that indicate with whom and which community or interest groups they identify.
This takes just a few seconds and so far the person has said nothing. In the process of this initial assessment we will, with unconscious bias, have bought to bear all our prejudices whatever they may be. There is no point in trying to turn off prejudice we are primordially programmed to make hasty judgement based on heuristics or mental short-hands. Without this ability we could not live or survive – if you hear a rustle in the hedgerow you jump first, ask questions later.
So we will have an initial opinion of the person. Then we might ask a few questions probably starting with ‘what do you do?’ or ‘what’s your background’. We will use the answers to these questions to confirm, modify or challenge our initial assessment but unless we are an open-minded and self-disciplined person more often than not we will listen more to the answers that confirm our prejudice. Is this someone I can trust, someone I’d like to spend time with, is it someone I want to hire? Is it someone whose views are worth listening to?
It would be far better to cut to the chase and ask them:-
“What is your philosophy on life?”
Assuming they were prepared to answer you honestly and assuming they understood what the question meant you would know very quickly whether the person was someone you want to get to know, hang out with, hire or trust.
If the tattooed, hoodie wearing, sullen looking youth, with a Millwall Football Club scarf replied, “My philosophy on life is that you are happiest if you work hard at something you feel makes a difference to other people and you should not give in to adversity” you might warm to them.
If the smiley, besuited ‘gent’, with an MCC tie replied, “You only get one shot at life, I think you owe it to yourself to grab what you can and have as much fun as possible” you might not warm to them, or perhaps you might.
We tend to like people who have a similar outlook on life to ourselves even if their interests and background are very different. A shared philosophy is able to cut through prejudice.
From people let’s turn to business. A company will share their mission statement and often their values, they might even share their strategy. With credit to Simon Sinek who popularised the importance of ‘why’ in corporate endeavour it has become fashionable for a business to state their purpose. All of this allows us to infer a lot about their basic philosophy on business but it is still inference. Only a few corporations or institutions will share their philosophy on life and how that relates to their philosophy on business. If they don’t share their philosophy then they are hiding something or they haven’t thought about it deeply enough, so there isn’t really anything public or explicit or thought-through that guides their actions.
Some might think this is unfair, if a business shares its purpose and its values, does that not tell you pretty much their belief system, their ideology? No not really.
It’s been left quite late in this essay to define what philosophy really means but it is relevant now in order to highlight the difference between an individual and an organisation or collective. An individual can be expected to have a philosophy (which might come from their religious belief, we will return to that shortly). In this sense philosophy is a thing, an ideology, a set of beliefs by which one navigates life’s choices and challenges. You can have a philosophy without being a philosopher.
Literally philosophy is a ‘love of knowledge and wisdom’ and in this sense it is an activity, a constant search to understand more about the world, how it works, how it should work, one’s role in that. When it comes to an organisation like a business, they may have a philosophy in the same way they may have a strategy, but just like strategy, philosophy is also an activity, a constant desire to know more and adapt as the world evolves. For a business, if you are in any way a stakeholder, you want to know not just what is their philosophy now but also in what way are they trying to develop it. Philosophy comes before strategy and everyone knows that strategy evolves as circumstances and society changes. So philosophy should be an activity not just ‘a thing’.
Let’s use a real example, Vodafone, the European and African Telecommunications Business to illustrate the potential for philosophy in business. From their web site this is their mission statement.
Vodafone mission statement is: “To connect for a better future and our expertise and scale gives us a unique opportunity to drive positive change for society.”
Vodafone believes in connecting and empowering people for the better. It also focuses on socio-economic progress and protecting the planet. Additionally, the company also focuses on becoming the favorite brand of its customer. It does so by continuously raising the bar in providing a delightful experience, cutting-edge service, and meaningful innovations. Here are the main components of Vodafone mission statement:
Inclusion of all: Vodafone believes in inclusion for all and providing a set of opportunities for growth to all. This includes bridging the boundaries in our society so that everyone can contribute to the best of their ability. The company also focuses on creating gender equality by opening opportunities to women. It also connects 10 million youth to learn digital skills educate themselves and get employment. It connects and empowers people and communities.
Establishing a digital world– Through its digital services, the company wants to contribute towards growth, economic prosperity, and sustainable development. This is an important aspect of Vodafone mission statement. To ensure that everyone gets a fair opportunity in this fast-paced digital age, it wants to enhance the accessibility of technology so that everyone can take advantage of this change for betterment.
Planet / Environment care- Further, it also makes efforts to become the most-valued company by leading smartly and meeting the government’s standards while ensuring minimal environmental impact. The company is working towards reducing greenhouse emissions by 50%, using renewable sources of electricity, and ensuring that e-waste is tacked in the best way minimizing environmental impact. These green initiatives of the company reveal that Vodafone takes its responsibility towards the environment is as important as its expansion plans and profitability.
What does this tell you? Not much really. They are big, they think what they do, i.e. connectivity, can make the increasingly digital world a better place and they believe in diversity, opportunity and saving the planet. That is pretty much what their competitors say about themselves too
In 2019 Vodafone were rated as the worst mobile phone network in the UK for the 8th consecutive year. If they want to be the favourite brand and offer ‘a delightful experience’ they are not doing a great job in one of their biggest markets. On the other hand in the same year in South Africa, where they trade as Vodacom, they were rated the best. So Vodacom/Vodafone are a bit patchy, their ‘mission and values’ do not seem to be working very consistently. Might this be because they are confected?.
We will leave that question hanging…………
Most businesses will set out the following:-
Our mission is…. and what will follow is some way of expressing what winning looks like
Our purpose is…. and what will follow is some expression of a higher purpose that makes the world a better place
We believe in…..
……and what will follow normally cover the following:-
We care about our customers
We care about our people
We care about our communities and the planet
We believe in opportunity and innovation
And of course we care about making money…..responsibly.
Now look at these 3 business philosophies.
Business A – We believe the most important thing in life for most people is to have a job that is fulfilling, where you feel valued and where you can develop your full potential. So as a business our focus is our employees, we care more about them than anything else. We believe that will make us a successful business (if you measure success in terms of long term market place success) because employees who feel valued, who believe in what they are doing, who feel they can reach their potential, give great service, come up with better innovations, are committed and loyal etc etc
Business B – We are a business and we are amoral as regards society or the planet. Not immoral, knowing the difference between right and wrong and choosing the latter if it suits you, we are amoral, we don’t care about right or wrong. We let the lawmakers deal with that and we just operate to the letter not the spirit of the law. Our only role is to make as much money as we possibly can for our shareholders, they can use the profits any way they want. Let them invest in the planet if they want, not our issue. We are a meritocracy, we hire and promote the best, we don’t care about diversity. We’ve found that high performance teams are more diverse but diversity is not our objective, performance is.
Business C – We make widgets, we love making widgets, we are passionate about it. Our only goal in life is to make the best widget we possibly can and we are never satisfied, we always think we can do better. We don’t care about making money as long as we make enough to keep on making better and better widgets. We don’t care about our people unless they are as passionate about our widgets as we are. We think the world would be a better place if everyone just did what they are best at and kept trying to get better at it.
Three very different philosophies on life and business. So here are three questions, ceteris paribus:-
Which business would you want to work for?
Which business would you invest in?
Whose products or services would you be most likely to buy?
And here is a supplementary question – do you think that these three businesses with these three very different but very clear philosophies would take decisions with more or less consistency than Vodafone? Of course they would, so in fact each one is a better investment and will deliver better products or services. They will also be a better place to work depending on one’s personal philosophy. The worst place to work is where the Senior Team say one thing – “we care about customer service” – and do another – “we make the most we can for us and our shareholders”.
What else would we want to know about a business beyond its philosophy? We would want to know how much they loved knowledge, how curious they were to learn more, in what way they invested in that in terms of people and money. How committed are they to the activity of philosophy? Do they for example have a head of Philosophy on the board (because if they are not on the board with the CEO’s ear they are not taken that seriously).
The job of Head of Philosophy in Business
Every business has a boss, typically given the title Chief Executive Officer, or CEO. Supporting the CEO is a leadership team with various organisational permutations comprising roles and titles. However organised and titled the key people will have accountability for the most important assets and capabilities of the business (in no particular order):-
People – Human Resources
Money – Finance
Know-how – R&D, Production and Operations
Reputation (often called Marketing)
So who is in charge of philosophy? There will often be a head of strategy either as a direct report to the CEO or reporting though the finance line, the CFO, chief finance officer. Given its importance there should be a ‘Chief Philosophy Officer’ unless of course, like Emperor Marcus Aurelius the CEO takes on this role themselves.
Does this sound fanciful or just plain daft? McKinsey don’t think so and they are very smart and not given to fancy. They have just launched a new publication authored by three of their partners. This is the introduction to the promotion for the publication:-
“There’s one question that guides the best CEOs as they build relationships with their organization’s stakeholders: Why? Why does our company exist? Why are we relevant to our stakeholders? Why are our stakeholders relevant to us?
Embracing the “why” mindset leads to practices such as clarifying and operationalizing a company’s social purpose, finding often surprising areas of common ground with stakeholders, and staying elevated during times of crisis, according to McKinsey senior partners Carolyn Dewar, Scott Keller, and Vikram Malhotra, as they talk about their forthcoming book, CEO Excellence: The Six Mindsets That Distinguish the Best Leaders from the Rest (Scribner, March 15, 2022).”
Sounds like they are talking about philosophy.
So should the CPO, or the CEO if they assume responsibility for the big ‘why?’ questions, have studied philosophy at University? How would a degree or masters in Philosophy prepare you for the world of business? Very well indeed. The core activity in running a business or a function within a business is forming and critiquing arguments. “Were we to invest in this way, these would be the outcomes that support our overall goals”. The study of philosophy is the single best way to train oneself to break down an argument, understand and challenge the assumptions, debate and challenge meaning and intent in a constructive way. The philosopher is the best joined-up thinker (so strategy should report through them not the CFO) they are also the very best at considering unintended consequences. In business most attention is paid to the goals and objectives, the intended consequences, so every business, government, organization of any ilk should have someone who takes it on themselves to consider unintended consequences, since that is what causes them to underachieve or fail altogether.
The job of the Chief Philosophy Officer should be to develop the philosophy of the business, articulate it clearly, ensure it is informs every function and every decision (not least strategy), consider unintended consequences and lead the ongoing exploration into how the philosophy needs to evolve as the world evolves.
Yes, business leaders should have studied philosophy. Everyone should study philosophy, it should be taught in schools. Whatever else philosophy teaches you, it teaches you what woolly thinking is and how to avoid it.
Philosophy is relevant to business, to government, to any organization, even a football team. Sir Matt Busby was the legendry manager of Manchester United in the 1960’s, one of their most successful periods as a club, especially impressive as they had had to rebuild after the Munich Air Crash where many key players and staff lost their lives. In January of 1969, the unthinkable happened, Sir Matt Busby retired and left the club. The Guardian wrote an article paying tribute to the great man with the headline:-
“The most philosophical footballer”
The Guardian and many others recognized that what distinguished Sir Matt Busby was the deep thought he gave to the game, the foundation for his philosophy about football that guided everything he did. The same thing has been noted about some other successful sports coaches, it is not so much what they do as the philosophy behind what they do that makes them successful.
People will have a point of view about British politics and British Prime Ministers, including the current incumbent, Boris Johnson. Are our politics to be admired? Who were the best Prime Ministers? It’s debatable. What is factual is that for the most part they had a classical education, mostly in Public (that is to say the top Private) Schools. Most studied philosophy and history at some point, some majored in PPE – Politics, Philosophy and Economics. John Major did not, he was an exception being state educated and without a university degree. His predecessor, Margaret Thatcher also went to a state school in Grantham and from there graduated with a degree in chemistry at Oxford. However, she had a strong philosophy on life, a very clear ideology, that for better or worse was the compass by which she navigated every political challenge. It was a philosophy she inherited from her father, a Methodist Shop Keeper, and it was a philosophy recognizable as Stoic. Her philosophy strongly influenced Boris Johnson but not as much as his education at Eton and Balliol Oxford where he studied Classics and was a member of the Bullingdon Club. Boris knows his philosophy and history, both modern and ancient, and might be said to be more of hedonist than a stoic?
If a lot of British politicians and of course politicians around the world have at the very least an appreciation of philosophy, they are not woolly thinkers, how is it that so much policy is woolly and ineffective? The answer is that Politics is their guiding light, the acquisition and exercise of power which can distract from what is right, according to one’s philosophy, to what wins support and votes in order to retain power.
In criticism of Behavioral Science (and Economics) and in defense of Religion
Aside from Politics the other dominant forces in shaping our world are religion and economics. In the development of economics from as far back as St. Thomas Aquinas (who saw himself as a theologian) through to Adam Smith and Marx (who saw themselves as political philosophers) and Keynes or Friedman there was always an explicit social purpose. Economic theory was developed to create a better, fairer society based on a view about what that was, a philosophy. Today we have Behavioral Science, the study of actions and behaviour, that has spawned Behavioral Economics. The only purpose of economics is to create growth – make more, sell more, get more. A better understanding of what people do based on hard empirical data offers the chance to game the system to one’s advantage. Economics seems to have lost any connection to a higher purpose (to be fair this is not true of Islamic Economics). The word ‘behaviour’ says it all, it forces a bias towards the way things are rather than a philosophy for how they should be. We can argue the words, the order, the priorities but this is offered as Straw Man for a better world:-
Purpose – as far as possible everyone in society should feel they have some purpose in life. (Historically the economists described this as full employment based on an efficient division of labour.)
Well-being – we should aim to achieve a widespread sense of well-being that will in part be achieved through purpose but will also require social care. (In the past this would be expressed as adequately funding a welfare state)
Opportunity – create the means for self-improvement and the ambition to seek it. (AKA Education, which actually means ‘to bring forth’)
By now it should be clear that these have roots in philosophy, particularly those highlighted. Any economic theory should be oriented explicitly to these kind of goals. People’s current behaviour should not be accepted as a constraint – understand, measure, analyze behaviour by all means but use this as a window to a better world, a springboard not something to exploit and manipulate . When it comes to AI and Robotics do we want to upload Behavioral Science, this is how it works now, or philosophy, this is how it could and should work?
The 2021 BBC Reith Lectures were delivered by Stuart Russell, a British born Computer Scientist now at Berkeley and a leading thinker in AI. He painted a terrifying picture of the implications of AI and robotics on human society unless we act with moral purpose, which requires a philosophy on the kind of society we want to create, the best version of humanity. We will not get this from “Behavioural Economics” because it is devoid of philosophy and amoral.
As noted above Margaret Thatcher’s ideology came from her Methodist father rather an any study of or appreciation for philosophy per se. Islamic economics is neither capitalist nor Marxist, it is significantly different to either because it is guided by religious belief and ideology as to what society should be, not what it is. There is a role for religion.
In Plato’s Republic the majority of people were artisans, educated until they were 16 years old. The minority were Guardians who went on to be educated in philosophy (in the fullest meaning of this, the meaning of everything) until they were 30 years old. It must be re-emphasized because it is so important, that one’s parentage had no influence on whether one went on to be a Guardian, there was equal opportunity. (Studies have shown that children of the educated classes have an advantage in life but that is a failing of the education system, with the same early education it does not need to be that way).
That split between the artisans, the people who get on with things, and the guardians, the shakers and movers, makes sense in today’s world. Most people have neither the interest nor aptitude to be deep thinkers, they just want to get on with life. This is where religion has a role to play. A study of comparative religion shows great similarities, almost a perfect overlap, between all the religions in terms of their values, their beliefs, their philosophy on life.
The importance of family and community
Helping those less fortunate
Respect for others – treat people the way you’d like to be treated
Hard work and service over self-gratification
All religions also have a faith in a ‘higher power’ so while the importance of the beliefs the purpose of which can be rationalized if needs be, nonetheless they have to followed out of respect to a higher purpose whose purpose may not always be clear or explicable. Put another way most religions require either the humility to follow the rules or the fear of retribution if you don’t. Either way, just do it and trust it will work
The Zoroastrian Religion has a marvelously pure mantra – good thoughts, good words, good deeds. If you are not a deep thinker this works really well as a life philosophy. Just try it.
If, however, you are a deep thinker, an iconoclast, a potential shaker and mover, unquestioning religious adherence is not enough. George Bernard Shaw put it beautifully:-
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world, the unreasonable man adapts the world to himself, therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man”
Progress requires challenge and that cannot exclude religion or philosophy. Progressive people challenge everything, they are free-thinkers.
There is no study to prove this, but it seems fair to suggest that the majority of shakers and movers, today’s guardians, are not that bound by religion. Most are atheists or agnostics, not all but most. They need philosophy not religion because the former does not plug holes in knowledge or evidence with faith and it is not undermined or perverted by conservatism, extremism and outdated superstition and ritual. Again, this is an atheist’s point of view.
Philosophers are very disciplined about definitions. Language is the medium through which we form and share ideas so we need to be precise about the meaning of words, and we need to recognize that words often have more than one meaning. To save the reader the chore of looking it up here are the three meanings of the word philosophy:-
The study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence
A theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour.
From Greek, the word ‘philo – sophy’ it literally means “the love of wisdom”
It would seem that now is a good time to revive interest in Philosophy, a new renaissance of enlightened thinking, if only among the guardians. We should have learned this from history.
I’ve taken my idea of Demarketing from my eBook “So What’s wrong with Marketing” and turned it into a case study for Business Students. Even if people reject the premise that we need Demarketing I think the exercise of thinking it through will enrich one’s view of marketing in a sustainable world. Anyone interested in using it let me know.
The Demarketing Challenge
In my eBook “So what’s wrong with Marketing” I put forward the idea of ‘Demarketing’, the re-purposing of marketing to reduce consumption.
“Marketing was developed for a world of economic growth. Its purpose, however you dress it up, was (still is) to make people ‘consume’ more. That’s why marketers refer to people as ‘consumers’. The problem, it would appear, is that we can’t just keep on consuming, wasting and depleting resources at the expense of our planet. There is no ‘Planet B’. So that presents something of a difficulty for marketing in the future – can it, should it, survive in a world where we need to persuade people not to buy what they don’t need or can’t recycle? Instead of marketing, should we not think about ‘demarketing’?”
Summarised like this demarketing makes absolute sense. We cannot just continue to invest $ trillions to persuade people to buy more stuff than they need and more than we can cost-effectively recycle or, in whatever way, re-engineer to be sustainable. And yet governments around the world (of varying political persuasion) for what they would say are sound economic models continue to strive for GDP growth to lift people out of poverty and improve the quality of life. Can the idea of buying less co-exist with the imperative to increase economic output? At a micro level can a company’s board of directors persuade their shareholders to support them if they wish to invest in suppressing demand? Investors move their money to wherever gives them the highest returns. Perhaps it might work if all companies faced legislation that required them to fully cost their products to take account of all their environmental and societal impact (no business currently directly bears the cost of the full life-cycle and total impact of their products or services on e.g. waste disposal, health, infrastructure, they just pay tax in a largely one-size-fits-all fiscal system and many avoid even doing that if they can). But it would be hard for a government to be re-elected on a manifesto that includes proposed legislation limiting what people can buy and raising prices. Demarketing might sound like the right thing to do, but how to do it is the challenge.
Nonetheless there are signs of positive movement albeit more in the name of CSR and sustainability rather than specifically this idea of actively demarketing. Blackrock, the behemoth of private equity, now insist all its investment portfolio have coherent CSR and sustainability programmes. There are a growing number of ethical funds like FirstPlanet, dedicated to investing in businesses that can deliver financial returns and build a better world. More and more big businesses like Ikea, Unilever, even Amazon have moved CSR and sustainability from something they should do ‘as well’ to being central to their core purpose. All for the good, but there aren’t many like Patagonia who spend money on ads asking people not buy their products unless they really need them and who offer free repairs to make previous purchases last longer (they will even repair competitive brands if you ask nicely).
Demarketing is a tough idea to get your mind around and some would argue is not needed. Oxford were early champions of the Circular Economy and this has now taken root in many top academic institutions. The industrial revolution (and the later technology revolutions) were based on a linear economic model – find/process materials, turn them into products or services, get people to buy them, use them and then throw them away to buy something new using the money you earn to help find/process materials, turn them into products or services, get people to buy them, use them and then throw them away to buy something new. While it was mostly Europe and America doing this we could cope with the energy demands and the waste. But with America and Europe, bar the odd recession, relentlessly consuming more and China, India, the rest of Asia catching up and set to overtake them, plus South America (maybe even Africa one day) following suit this linear economic model has become unsustainable, an existential threat. It’s obvious, we need to make a linear model circular through recycling and repurposing. If we focus on this perhaps we can go on just consuming more and more and more. On the other hand, maybe events will overtake us……..
There’s a linearity to the environmental debate too – more people, more consumption, more carbon, more climate change. A great deal of the spotlight is focused on climate change and greenhouse gases. Let’s not argue the science, let’s just go with the consensus, the wisdom of a wise crowd, and accept that we need to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 c-degrees in the next two decades and thereafter reverse it. There are 3 ways to do that – reduce, replace and remove CO2. In this linearity there is no argument against reducing the consumption of carbon fuels, many argue it is the priority. Renewable energy sources may not come on stream (cost-effectively) fast enough, electric cars just push the issue further up the supply chain. There is investment into technology to remove CO2 but nowhere near as much as has gone into alternative energy perhaps because it’s hard to design anything better at removing C02 than trees. But no-one seems to be confident that we can plant enough trees fast enough to compensate for the rise in CO2 emissions, or indeed enough to replace the ones we are cutting down in places like the Amazon. A lot of businesses like Ikea have tree planting initiatives to offset their environmental impact but in the wider context it’s really just a sticking plaster. No, we have to reduce consumption, no argument. Well there is an alternative to this, or at least a different point of attack. We could reduce population growth, like China tried to do (for different reasons), but outside a totalitarian state that would be hard. Or we could reduce consumption of things we don’t need to consume and/or replace consumption with better alternatives, like reducing meat and dairy for plant based foods. Or we could try a combination of all of this?
My argument is – and I hope I’m wrong – reducing wasteful, unnecessary consumption of everything, not just carbon fuels, needs to be in the mix because the alternatives won’t kick in fast enough. There needs to be more Patagonia thinking, we need to stop spending money making the environmental challenge worse, and embrace the challenging idea of demarketing, perhaps not everywhere and not to the same degree for every category, but we need to think about using some new form of marketing to do the opposite of what we have been trained to do, to make people buy less not more.
To take just one example, and apologies to Gillette for singling them out, they forced people to throw away a razor they were perfectly happy with to buy a new razor with more blades (and some little ‘easy-glide’ strip). There are many other things people have been persuaded to throw away in order to buy things they did not really need but that is a choice people can make. Gillette gave us no choice, they took the replacement blades for our razor off the market and their marketing team invested millions of dollars to force us to buy a new razor needing a new type of blade not all of us wanted or needed. Surely that kind of marketing is just plain irresponsible? We are being told to avoid travel where we can for the sake of the environment. With just a little demarketing to reduce unnecessary consumption and wastage we could happily enjoy more guilt-free travel.
Can it be done? Can we square the circle between demarketing and government-led economic growth, between responsible consumption and shareholder returns? Honestly, no-one knows but it might be possible, if only to an extent sufficient to make an impact. It deserves the effort to try, if only as an insurance policy in the event of the other planet-saving initiatives failing to deliver in time. And it can be as creatively and intellectually satisfying as conventional marketing, perhaps more so. Selling more Gillette razors, or beer, or cosmetics, or fashion clothing or washing powder or burgers or biscuits or electronics etc etc is not actually that hard once you know the rules and tactics. Demarketing will be very hard and demanding of the best ‘marketing’ minds.
Select a B2C company you are familiar with, preferably one with a reputation for high marketing investment.
You are to prepare a presentation for the board to persuade them to embrace and commit resources to a demarketing strategy. You don’t have to develop the strategy, you just have to persuade them of 3 things:-
There is a case for demarketing (building on the macro rationale make it specific to this business and category)
It can enhance enterprise value and shareholder returns in the long term
You have some feasible ideas for options to explore
Success would mean they would agree to set up a task force to explore your ideas.
Some starter thoughts
There is evidence that businesses that have really committed to sustainability have out-performed their peer group. Demarketing takes sustainability to the next level.
Enterprise value and shareholder returns are derived from a sustainable profit stream. The same or lower sales does not have to mean lower profits – you can grow share, or raise margins
Strong brands can have a much higher valuation even if they have lower sales cf Tesla versus Ford
Demarketing could result in far more efficient marketing spend “Advertising is the tax you pay for having an unremarkable product”
“What gets measured gets done” – a business committed to demarketing would choose to create better KPI’s that show the link to future returns. Engagement, loyalty, affinity are all believed to correlate to brand strength and from that to enterprise value and shareholder returns
Case studies can help your case – Patagonia is the one everyone cites, is this relevant to your business, what others can you find?
It is hard to imagine what demarketing looks like, some examples of what it could be in terms of customer communications, engagement, events, service etc might help. In what way does ‘good demarketing’ differ from “good marketing” in terms of skills, people, partners, spend?
It would also help to show how this links to, and builds on, other sustainability/CSR initiatives
Are there business model changes that could help make demarketing attractive e.g. direct to customer?
Break the challenge down ito market segmentation. Who/when/where is the opportunity? Reducing consumption can relate to purchase frequency, penetration, usage.
On the CBS show ‘Seal Team’ an elite US Navy Seal unit called ‘Team Bravo’ undertake dangerous missions in scary places taking down terrorists. Conveniently there seems to be one such mission every episode for the ‘Frogmen and Door-kickers’ with not too much hanging around. Think ‘Band of Brothers’ meets ‘Zero Dark Thirty’. Working hand in hand with the team are a military Field Intelligence Officer and a CIA agent. They don’t do much of the fighting, shooting and door-kicking but they are on the ground with them and provide Bravo with the intel they need to plan and execute the missions. This intel comes from the many sources they have at their disposal – databases of baddies, satellite reconnaissance, undercover operatives and lots more besides. They pull all this together under pressure, fast, in real time and their intel invariably proves vital to the success of the mission, particularly when the unexpected happens and new plans and ‘exfils’ (getting the hell out) have to be created. They have Team Bravo’s back and there’s strong mutual respect and trust. They hang out together, go drinking together in between missions and – plot spoiler – one of the Seals has a bit of thing for the Field Intelligence Officer. They are close, tight.
And that’s where ‘Market Research’ is heading. Not just integrated with the operational teams, in the fight.
Here is the briefest of history lessons. Market Research began with ‘mass observations’ of the type the US military carried out during the Second World War. They’d send people to observe the troops in the places they were stationed, observe what they were doing, how they were behaving, pull all the results together and draw conclusions on their fighting preparedness and morale. After the war someone had the bright idea to actually ask people rather than just observe and infer, either in small groups or as part of large surveys using the results to inform commercial rather than military decisions and the modern Market Research Industry was born.
I’ll skip very quickly through the next development which was an explosion of techniques and modelling to overcome the problem that people don’t always make good witnesses on their own lives. The problem is you just can’t trust what people tell you or even what you observe.
Picking through all this research was a job for experts and specialist market research agencies. Companies built up market research departments to translate the market information needs of the business into briefs for the agencies and then help convert their debriefs into actionable insight. Insight was the goal even though no-one ever succeeded in pinning down precisely the difference between ‘a finding’ and ‘an insight’. Lots tried, Procter & Gamble and Unilever, both heavy users of market research, developed several ring-binders full of best practice that sought to explain exactly what an insight was. Hell, even I had a go – discerning, actionable, inspiring, er….. a bit like a good idea, you’ll know it when you find it, although the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Something like that. Despite this slight confusion about exactly how to turn market research into insight, so attractive was the idea of insight (or the insight idea) that Market research departments and experts rebranded themselves as the “Customer/Consumer Insight Team”.
Next? The two D’s. The first is obvious – data, lots of data, big data, so big you need data warehouses and algorithms and all manner of human and artificial intelligence to turn data into information. The second D? “Do” – the advance of technology allows you to get lots of data on what people actually do (as well as where they go, where they get their information etc). With data on what they do you don’t need to rely on what they say they do. But you still need insights for data needs to become useful, actionable information.
Step aside market research agencies, and welcome in management consultancies. They love data and are really comfortable using it as long as this data is of the large numeric kind and requires little in the way of imagination to make sense of it but lots in the way of systems and technology. They are not so comfortable with what we used to call ‘qualitative data’, the soft stuff. Not just focus groups (in fact please, not focus groups) but depth interviews, ethnographic (modern term for mass obs) and cultural insights.
A recent report on trends in market research concluded that qual research is making a big comeback helped by technology to a large degree. Video platforms allow you do a lot of qual and do it cost effectively. So, you kind of get qual in quantity if that makes sense.
I am now going to play one of two “I told you so” cards here for anyone that cares. For the last 10 years as ‘big data’ has exploded I have been banging on about the need to use more ‘qual’ research. Put simply, numbers tell you what, they don’t tell you why. Qual tells you why but with no indication on materiality. Ergo, you need both – something I learned as best practice in my alma mater, Unilever, many moons ago.
There was another very interesting conclusion in this report. Two other trends were identified. Firstly, a trend to do more research/insight/qual/quant in-house. The new technologies often have such good CI (customer interface) they allow business to go DIY.
Secondly, the big new thing is empathy apparently. Business and brands need to build customer empathy. As someone who has always struggled to define the difference between sympathy and empathy, I’m not buying this. I can think of a lot of other ways to nail what is going on here without using the words ‘customer empathy’. Understanding, intimacy, affinity, nous. ‘Customer Empathy’ sounds a bit wokish to me, rather obtuse and a distraction from the real issue. For a long time, people have talked about the balance of power between ‘consumers’ (dreadful word) and brands shifting for a whole bunch of reasons but essentially because of technology generally and social media specifically. We can all share our views, review the opinions of others, get the low-down on anything, anywhere, anytime, maybe even become influencers, the arbiters of taste and choice. The ‘consumers’ are people and they are now empowered. If you already thought it was important to research what they do and think it’s a whole lot more important now and – if you know what you’re doing – easier.
What does this tell us about the future of ‘Insight Departments’ and Market Research Agencies? They have no future in their current form.
The Bravo Seal team don’t want just research, the don’t want just insight, they want intel and they want it as an integrated part of their team from people right there alongside them using every valuable source of ‘data’ they can, interpreted with intelligence, speed and commitment for the mission in hand.
Time to play my second and final “I told you so” card. Whereas you only have my word for the first I have documented proof for the second. Back at the end of 1999 the UK Marketing Society asked me to write a piece on the future of marketing in which I made the prediction that in the future Market Research would become Market Intelligence. It is fair to say a) even a broken watch is right twice a day and b) I did not entirely foresee the full impact of technology but even back then the idea of Intel made much more sense to me that Market Research or ‘Consumer Insight’.
What I did not foresee was that the line between qualitative and quantitative would blur. My model, as I have described above, was based on smaller scale qualitative research complimenting quantitative data by adding the ‘why’ to the ‘what’. I could see how video research platforms can reduce cost, extend reach and therefore allow us to do more qualitative research with the tech also facilitating faster analysis and sharing of findings. But the constraint is that qualitative research has to be moderated – someone, hopefully someone smart, has to ask the questions and react immediately to the responses – ask a follow up question, probe here, dig a bit more there. But what if you could break the link by conducting interviews without a moderator? This is sometimes called ‘asynchronous’ research because you do not have to synchronise a respondent with a moderator. The simple version – which is already used extensively in video recruitment interviews – is just to pop up written questions some of which are ‘open-ended’ (have you got a degree in maths? = closed ended question; why did you choose Finance? = open ended question). Great, you can just share the link, the respondent or candidate can record their answers whenever they choose and you can look at the results whenever you want. Without the need to schedule the interviews you can run as many as you want. As a rough rule of thumb you need circa 50 people in a chosen sample group to be able to get statistical significance. Typically, if you were running a study you’d want 3-5 different sample groups (e.g. young/old/users/non-users). So, if you want to run a study that has 150 – 250 interviews that is going to take several moderators and/or a long time. With ‘asynchronous interviews” you could do it in a day or so. But…. there’s always a but…..there are 3 problems with this.
People respond better (more honestly and fulsomely) to people asking questions compared to an impersonal written question.
With no moderator you can’t change tack according to the responses – you can’t vary the question set, the order, the follow-ups
Somebody has to look at all the interviews – it might take just a couple of days to do them but you have to add on the time to analyse them and remember, video cannot be searched unless it is transcribed into words.
All of this, I’m pleased to say can be solved (to a large degree) by technology.
I’m not going to go in to too much detail because I’m currently working on bringing to market a platform that will do just this. But in headlines:-
You can have humans (recorded) to ask the questions
Using AI you can vary the question set
Using advanced sentiment analysis together with human over-sight you can process large volumes of video
This is a game changer that allows marketing and commercial teams to conduct a small-scale piece of video research then move seamlessly to a larger scale sample to provide not just ‘why’ but the statistical materiality. Or the other way around, start with a broad scale study to identify material issues then drop into more depth exploration. It is much more attuned to what product development teams and ‘user experience’ researchers need to do*(see footnote below). It can be run programmatically, it can offer a cost effective way to do ethnographic – in the moment – studies. It can be set up to run continuously, so the voice of the customer is always there, available to tune into for anyone in the business at any time.
This is next-level market intelligence where ‘qual and quant’ are working symbiotically to bring the customer right to the heart of decision-making, right to the heart of the mission. And all other things being equal, the business that’s closer to the market wins. The Seal teams would love it!
This kind of ‘in the moment’ ethnographic research is even more expensive and even more time consuming if done conventionally. It is easier for digital products or experiences because the product development team and their User Researchers can set up tests and intercept the person at the moments they choose. Someone spends too long on one part of the site – PING – up pops a message, “Having problems?”. Someone gives you a low score in a customer survey – PING – up pops an open-ended question, “What could we improve?”.
But talk to the product development teams or marketing folk, and they’ll tell you what they really want is to see and hear the customer. They want video but they want it in the kind of numbers that allow them to understand statistical materiality. It is much easier to analyse numerical or written customer response, handling video is much more of a challenge. This is frustrating because my research* has shown there is a huge difference between what someone will write in answer to a question and what they will tell you face to face.
This is a real example. The intercept question was probing why a potential customer was failing to sign up and download an on-demand shopping app. When they were asked to write down their answer they said:-
“I found the address form complicated”
When the same person was asked to record their answer on video, with the web page live and visible alongside, this is the transcript of what they said:-
“You asked for my address here, but you didn’t make it clear whether I should just enter my post code or the full address. Then over here you had this map that asked me to move the cursor to my exact location. I did this and then without me spotting it you changed my address and I couldn’t see how to correct that. So I was trying to figure out whether I should just give up or put in a second address in the ‘work’ option but it’s not my work, it’s my home”.
If you were the dev team which would you find more interesting and useful? And would you like to know whether this was just one fat-fingered person or a problem lots of people were encountering?
Here is another real example, this time for a new kind of oat milk. The product was getting great customer reviews and in the surveys they were asked to say what they liked and what could be improved. One written response (typical of many) was this:-
“I really like the taste. Maybe the price could be cheaper”
The same person asked to record on video their reaction to trying the product and whether there was anything they’d improve. This is the transcription:-
“It’s kind of smooth and creamy, like milk. You get a hint of oat but it was not too strong like the others I’ve tried. They were watery and very oaty. This was delicious, something you could just drink on its own. If I had any suggestion maybe just a little too sweet.”
Quite a bit better, a lot more insightful.
Now imagine you that you could see and hear them at every stage of the customer journey. To stick with the last example, recruit someone who is interested in, but has not yet bought, plant-based milk alternatives and set them the task to go to a store, look on-line and then choose one to try other than your brand. When they’ve tried it, they then have to try your brand and compare the experience. They capture a minute or two of video at every stage of this process and you can prompt them with questions at any point.
*By the way, I was not telling the truth when I said this is based on my research. It was based on me, my personal experience with an on-demand grocery app and a new oat milk. The findings sounded very plausible though didn’t they? But I did warn you, you can’t trust what people say they do or what they say they think.