Philosophy for evaluating products, consumer responses and marketing


BY ROBERT YOUNGBLOOD

IT would come as a great surprise to the bulk of the philosophers surveyed in this book that their ruminations form a philosophy of branding, one that offers counsel to marketers. 

Summarising, or at least skimming over, the main points of thinkers ranging from Heraclitus to Popper, Thom Braun, director of the Marketing Academy at the Dutch consumer goods giant Unilever, argues that their insights on grandiose matters – existence, say, or truth or God – serve well for evaluating products and consumers’ responses to them and their marketing.  

But even in the final chapter of this slim volume, Braun struggles to defend this premise, which sounds much like an undergraduate’s tentative thesis for a term paper. “Philosophy has a role in branding – because branding is primarily about the way people think,” he writes, before adding, “And, who knows, if there are any philosophers out there who agree with that suggestion, then perhaps branding will become a legitimate subject of philosophical enquiry.”  

Perhaps indeed, and in the meantime, Braun takes the leap. But what can the great Western philosophers tell us about thinking – and “truth” – that will help marketers, and by extension, the investors who must pick winning branding strategies as they decide which companies will succeed? 

Some schools of philosophy can bend from pure thought to branding better than others, much as is true of any attempt to make practical use of pure philosophy. The more modern, the easier the path, especially when the philosopher addressed consumption directly. But that points out such glaring omissions as the works of Marx and Rand, though probably to many a marketing director’s relief. 

So how exactly do such varied conclusions as Descartes’ rationalism and Rousseau’s primacy of nature tell a marketer how to hawk a product – and an investor whether the plan will succeed?  

In the above two examples, Descartes’ contribution is reduced to, “At a simplistic level ... I think (identity), therefore I drink Coca-Cola.” Rousseau leads to the conclusion, “People like to associate with other people in sharing the big feelings, important values and strong emotions of life.” Existentialism requires “us at least to explore where a brand might go if it were given charge of its own existence. And yes, I realize that this could turn out be a bit like Frankenstein’s monster.” 

Such extrapolations may seem a bit facile, and much of the book has a crowd-pleasing feel to it. But Braun finds a thread unifying Western philosophy, at least where branding is concerned, and that is a need for rigorous and constant examination of a product and the campaign used to sell it.  

From Heraclitus’s ever-changing river, proof that nothing is constant, to Popper’s certainty that nothing is certain, Braun hammers home the point that marketers can never be complacent, that a brand can never be left alone. While the direction to action is clear, the form of action varies with each chapter.  

But using a philosopher’s criteria for a marketing campaign is a fairly complicated way of making sure of controls that common sense would dictate. Of course, one can read Hegel, or even the four-page synopsis of his writings in this book, to learn about how critical it is to be aware of one’s Zeitgeist while planning a market campaign – or one could just look at the many real world examples of companies that were too far ahead or behind their times. Whatever grand advances Hegel provided that can be used in running a marketing campaign, they are surely more complicated than Braun suggests. 

Even if glib overviews of the leading luminaries can help marketers and investors, Braun leaves out many thinkers whose works are perhaps less immediately obvious as philosophy but is more directly concerned with persuasion and nature, like Skinner, Machiavelli or Sun Tzu. - IHT 

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