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.