Marketing Philosophy


Properties, products and the philosophy of marketing

Do you ever look at things and go “hmm, I wonder what makes this the thing, and I wonder what makes it a thing“? People have, for a long time. The problem of what makes a thing what it is was tackled by people as removed from modern life as Socrates and Plato. Ancient Greek philosophers believed that objects possessed two types of characteristics: essential and accidental, the former being properties that the object cannot do without, and the latter being more or less dispensible. Consider a dagger like this one below.

Look at that beauty! Mughal dagger from the 17th c. Source: Museum of Islamic Art

What makes it a dagger? It’s not the jewels, because there are other daggers without any jewels on them. It’s not the sheath either because storage is only a concern if your dagger is a piece of art or has some sort of personal value to you. Even the handle is not essential since you can stab someone perfectly fine without it. You’d hurt yourself in the process but that only goes to prove its effectiveness as a weapon. So, these are all examples of accidental parts of a dagger. The only essential one is the blade. A dagger that is all blade would still be a dagger.

Well, that’s the crude gist of it at least. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a lot more to say on the matter, and (as usual with these things) I’m not qualified enough to argue about the merits of each philosopher’s interpretation of the essential-accidential distinction. There’s another fascinating branch of philosophy that deals with the idea of substance, and bundle theories abound there as well. Amazing stuff.

That said, it’s not all philosophy today. The idea of products as bundles of characteristics is actually quite useful to a marketer such as myself.

A philosphy of marketing

“What is marketing?” is how every marketing textbook begins, and “what does a marketer do?” is how every single marketing professor has tried to begin a course. It’s cliche, boring and unhelpful. More importantly, nobody ever gives you a convincing answer. Everybody asks the question, but nobody answers it. I think the reason it cannot be understood in the traditional marketing paradigm is that marketing has never fully admitted that it is not art. Or science. Every few weeks, some or the other normie tries to summarise this into a “a mix of art and science” style response. Many of them (I’m looking at you, Seth Godin) have even made a career out of this blithely stating this truism.

It’s neither. Marketing is neither art nor science. The utility of this way of thinking is that once you realise that marketing is separate from these two, you see that just like art, science, knowledge, language and all the others, you see the need for a philosophy of marketing. It’s a category of its own, and in my opinion, it’s more closely related to language than to either art or science. Marketing, like language, works on rules and procedures. Unlike language, however, there’s value in conformity and in non-conformity. Neither art nor science place the same kind of emphasis on non-conformity and innovation as marketing does. Whereas art and science propagate through replication, marketing only propagates through innovation: nobody would have bothered about digital marketing if there wasn’t a need to explain the difference between new marketing and traditional marketing. Change is essential to the continued survival of the industry. At the same time, marketing cannot function without conformity, discovery and reflection. In this way, it’s once again closer to language and philosophy of the mind.

And so, we see the link to the philosophy of substance. One of the most important foundational axioms of marketing is that products are bundles. It’s such a simple concept, but it is rarely ever taught in marketing courses. Why does everybody see a car differently? Because they all focus on a different feature of it.

Let’s consider the classic VW Beetle ads from the 60s by DDB.

How Volkswagen changed the face of advertising | Wallpaper*

Why did this ad work? Because it focuses your attention on one thing: the iconic shape of the car. Don’t like the shape? No problem, they’ve got you covered.

How Volkswagen changed the face of advertising | Wallpaper*

In others, the ad focuses on something else: the specs (see below).

1960 VW Beetle specifications and technical details | Volkswagen ...

So why does this happen? Because a car – every car, not just the Beetle – has many parts, and thus is many things. A car is a bundle of seats, wheels, engine, roof, trunk, the people inside etc. It’s hard to say which parts are essential to a car since there have been cars without seats, a traditional steering wheel, wheels, engines, roof, etc. Pretty much anything you think may be essential has probably been substituted or removed at some point, and so there’s no use in dwelling on the essential-accidental distinction.

Marketers make money by exploiting the fact that products are bundles. A good salesman sells a car to an old guy by selling the auto-open door and other accessibility features; to a thrillseeker, he stresses the horsepower; to a mother he shows off safety features and counts the number of airbags inside the car.

Here, the more astute might say “oh that’s just sales. Marketers don’t just talk about the function. They sell you on feelings”. I’m coming to that.

Products as bundles of services

Objects as bundles of properties is a fairly old idea. Nobody doubts that a car has many features – that’s why spec sheets exist. But a good marketer sees the feeling and emotion associated with each feature. So, products are more than just bundles of functional parts – they are bundles of emotion.

What gives rise to these emotion? When a Coke ad (see below) shows people feeling energized, does that evoke a similar feeling of satiety in you? : 1973 Coke Coca-Cola Refresher Course-History-English ...

Only a naive person says “absolutely!” If watching an ad made you forget hunger, McDonald’s ads could cure world hunger. But they haven’t because ads only remind you of a certain emotion, in order to induce the need for a service. In the case of Coke, it’s the service of quenching your thirst. In the case of a car, it’s the service of transporting you from one point to another. So, the source of all effective marketing is in fact this one simple reductionist axiom:

Products are bundles of services

That’s it. To be an effective marketer, you only need to understand that a product simply performs a bunch of services. It’s a placeholder with no value when it is not performing the exact services that a consumer wants. What is a car? It is any object that transports you, provides social space, shelter during a thunderstorm, saves you from a polar bear (if need be) and lets you and your chosen other get funky when you have nowhere else to go etc.

But but, you say: that could be any number of things – a train, for example. I agree. A well-designed train can perform nearly every service that a car can. And that’s why younger people no longer feel a strong need to buy a car, a trend that has led to plateauing car sales in Europe. Why bother buying a car when a train does the job? That rationale is why car ads are increasingly using “prestige” as a selling point in their ads. Why are car ads so same-y these days? Because every one of them shows a polished, upper-class guy (and it’s nearly always a guy) driving around and feeling proud. Or they appeal to masculinity. And they end up looking like this:

Nissan GT-R Ad from Europe |

Yawn. We’ve ended up with boring ads like this because every other service of a car is being performed by something else. The novelty has worn away and marketers are running out of services to market. The only issue is that they don’t see it.

Want to meet someone? Why bother, use Zoom.

Want to look cool? Here’s an iPhone, for a tenth of the price.

Want to be a man? Here’s a gym membership.

Want to show you care about the environment? Here’s a train ticket.

That’s why this is such a powerful concept. And that is why products are bundles of services.

Culture Philosophy

In defence of sophistry

What does it mean to be wise? Does it mean the state of having acquired the singular, platonic truth of “wisdom”, or is it more about acting in a way that shows thought, measurement and deliberation? Or is it more than that: a way of living and thinking where you hold multiple wisdoms at once without reconciling them and reducing them down to one broad, generalized wisdom while also acting in a thoughtful way?

I think it’s more of the latter. I think that there is particular value to seeing every side of an argument, staying undecided even if you lean towards one option. For example, is abortion about the mother’s right to free choice or the child’s God-granted right to life? You can argue this way and that until the sun goes down and not reach a conclusion because the argument isn’t simply about the death of an unborn infant, it’s also about bodily autonomy and a sense of control over what your future looks like. You cannot make a teenage rape victim to give birth to a baby she cannot physically bear just as much as you cannot allow a woman to abort a fetus that’s one week away from delivery. There are other arguments for and against, but the point here is that when it comes to the abortion debate – like any other social issue with real consequences – it helps to have a sympathetic view of where each argument comes from.

Just to be clear here, I’m not saying that both arguments are equally valid or that they’re both entitled to state support. I personally think that complete choice should be the starting point and you then make concessions based on extenuating circumstances. Say the mother’s too old or too young to bear the child safely. Then, doctors should be able to recommend an abortion. Likewise, in the case of the mother opting for an abortion, if there’s real potential for damage to the mother – which seems to be the case for abortions in the late third trimester – then the surgeon should be required to counsel the mother about this. More importantly, there should be better sex education in schools and accessible prenatal counselling to forestall such unwanted pregnancies in the first place.

For me, the worth of an argument lies in the value of the action it produces. In normative ethics, I’d like to be classified as a “consequentialist“. In some situations, consequentialists are derisively reduced to being “hedonists”. I think that’s a bit of a misnomer because Western philosophers and ethicists overuse that word. I like the Sanskrit term charvaka instead. Apart from the geographical separation, the key distinction between the two shools of thought is that while hedonists believed in the doctrine of “eat, drink and be merry because pleasure is all that matters”, Charvaka philosophy is much broader in its precepts: it’s a mix of hedonism, moral relativism and materialism all packaged within a stoutly atheistic framework. It’s by far my favourite branch of Indian philosophy and you should definitely read this quick introduction to it – it’s like 4 pages long and takes about 10 minutes from start to finish.

Side note: Ancient Greek philosophy is fascinating and much more interesting than the Western European circlejerk post-Hegel. But even more fun than Ancient Greek philosophy is Ancient Indian philosophy.

But for all that, I don’t think consequentialism has much to do with hedonism. However, it does share some of the same moral relativism as sophists (link leads to a quick intro to sophism). The term has historically been a stand-in pejorative term for someone who has no real morals and can go about selling arguments and speaking to a public gathering about really anyone and anything. Yes, ‘sophists’ used to be separate from ‘rhetoricians’, but that was only for a brief period and nobody cares about that distinction anymore. Sophists were traditionally paid teachers and scholars who taught their students how to argue about a certain topic and how to hold their ground. They had no issues with crossing over to the other side when they saw a better argument, and they did not really care for the scorn society poured on them for this. Sophists were, depending on your standpoint, either “merchants of knowledge” or “tongues for hire”. Either way, they existed to educate, listen, argue and convince.

Of what use is wisdom if you’re going to hoard it and cling to it possessively? So, a wise person has to pass on their knowledge to someone else. If all you do is spout bits of knowledge, you’re not wise; you’re just a mouthpiece. A truly wise person listens more than he speaks. But what if your ideas come in direct conflict with someone else’s? Wisdom requires the willingness and humility to engage opponents and be prepared to concede to a better argument. So, a wise person is able to convince and be convinced in equal measure.

If wisdom is the ability to see everything, defend everything and argue for anything while still being able to defend and preach whatever is important to you, then true sophistry is a legitimate form of wisdom. I’m not saying it’s the ultimate form of it, or the best. Only that any good teacher, advocate and rhetorician is almost invariably a sophist.

Socrates, a sophist?

Here, I’m going to argue that Socrates, despite Plato’s protestations, is a sophist. If you’ve heard this one before, close the tab and go about you day.

Socrates and Protagoras walk into a bar …

There’s precious little we know about Socrates’ life, thoughts and beliefs. However, what little we have seems to make clear one thing: he really hated sophists. But the thing is, that ‘fact’ isn’t as clear-cut as we’ve been led to believe. Most of what we know about Socrates comes from his dear disciple Plato. Plato shits on sophists for their lack of moral fibre and often pits his mentor Socrates against them. In Protagoras (Plato’s work named after the sophist), for example, we have Socrates saying things like this:

If you are ignorant of [what a Sophist is], you cannot know to whom you are entrusting your soul—whether it is to something good or to something evil.

Socrates in Plato’s Protagoras

But if we peel away some of Plato’s own prejudices against sophists, we can start to see that actually, Socrates is indeed a sophist. Even more provocatively, he’s almost a textbook sophist. Briefly, here’s the crux of my argument:

  • In Protagoras and in other writings, Plato never speaks ill of Protagoras, who was a card-carrying sophist and a respected teacher. Socrates himself held favourable views of Protagoras and considered him a mentor.
  • Socrates’ famous “Socratic method” – a technique of inquiry whereby he asked a series of questions to better understand the other person and occasionally to trip them up – is a variant of the sophists’ own technique of using questions as part of their dialectical method. Diogenes Laertius went so far as to state that the Socratic method was actually invented by Protagoras. 2000 years ago, it may even have been a slam.
  • Socrates was known (even in Plato’s works) for being attention-seeking and a bit of a provocateur. While Plato characterised it as Socrates’ way of seeking truth, it’s actually very similar to the sophists, who liked to challenge people to a debate in front of a large crowd and then humiliate them using their own arguments.
  • Like other sophists, Socrates’ arguments and inquiries were not meant to end in any conclusive statement. They weren’t always meant to change anybody’s mind either. Rather, it was mostly an exercise in rhetoric and oratory designed to get a few laughs and make people think.
  • Aristophanes characterises Socrates as a sophist of the highest order. If there’s one thing I’m utterly confident of, it’s that writers of comedy are – by impulse and practice – astute judges of character. So, I’m willing to take his word for it. And it’s not just me: Plato writes that Aristophanes’ “The Clouds” was one reason that the public was convinced that Socrates was a sophist. If people then could be convinced he was, maybe Socrates really was (at some point) a sophist.

Even if you grant that he wasn’t a sophist through-and-through, it’s obvious that Socrates, the Western world’s greatest teacher, was a sophist to a great degree. So, to be a sophist is to be a true disciple of Socrates. To be a sophist is challenge the status quo and embrace the Socratic method for its original use: as a means to living a life of wisdom through argumentation.

If that’s so bad, slap me with a book and call me a sophist because I’m not convinced.