Love, Friendship And Brands: The Inadequacy of Metaphor
“Love seeketh not itself to please
Nor for itself hath any care”
William Blake, ‘The Clod and the Pebble’
It was serendipity that led to me to open a document lazily filed under ‘Misc.‘ Which is how I came to revisit a piece written in 2010 by Todd May for the New York Times.
Its title is ‘Friendship in an Age of Economics’, and while it was not May’s purpose in writing it, it reacquaints us in marketing- and adland with some much needed human wisdom.
For we are an industry still in thrall to the metaphor of ‘relationship’. The language of ‘commitment’, ‘community’, ‘bonding’, ‘relationship’, ‘passion’ and even (most bafflingly of all) ‘love’, are hard to escape for long.
So it’s worth pausing to consider the nature of our closest relationships.
In the real world.
May reminds us of the truth that while we obviously benefit greatly from our close friendships, their worth lies not in calculable gain and loss:
“There is much that might be said about friendships. They allow us to see ourselves from the perspective of another. They open up new interests or deepen current ones. They offer us support during difficult periods in our lives. The aspect of friendship that I would like to focus on is its non-economic character. Although we benefit from our close friendships, these friendships are not a matter of calculable gain and loss... And while the time we spend with our friends and the favors we do for them are often reciprocated in an informal way, we do not spend that time or offer those favors in view of the reciprocation that might ensue...
Their rhythm lies not in what they bring to us, but rather in what we immerse ourselves in. To be a friend is to step into the stream of another’s life. It is, while not neglecting my own life, to take pleasure in another’s pleasure, and to share their pain as partly my own. The borders of my life, while not entirely erased, become less clear than they might be.”
“To take pleasure in another’s pleasure, and to share their pain as partly my own” - that hardly seems to describe our interactions with brands.
May notes that Aristotle believed there to be three types of friendship: those of pleasure, those of usefulness, and true friendship.
“Those who love each other for their utility,” Aristotle maintained, “do not love each other for themselves but in virtue of some good which they get from each other.”
If we’re going to insist on the metaphor of relationship, let’s be clear what kind of relationship it is.
The metaphor of a relationship based on utility obviously has applicability to marketingland. Both parties are seeking gain. The consumer the satisfaction of his or her needs and wants. And the brand owner money in return for satisfying them.
The metaphor of friendships of pleasure too has some pertinence to how we use and experience brands. Whether our favourite brand of ice-cream is Haagen Daz or Ben & Jerry’s, we’re unlikely to worry whether our pleasure and gratification has been reciprocated. What matters is that pleasure was taken.
But beyond this, we should beware lest our metaphor run out of control. We cannot afford for the language and practice of of 'interaction', 'participation', 'community' and so on lead us to mistake metaphor for fact, and with it the degree of attachment people feel towards brands.
For overestimating the depth of people’s involvement with brands takes our eyes off where both current and future sales revenue comes from.
And our jargon fails us if it leads us to forget that the primary task of communications is not just stoking the fires of passion amongst fans, but nudging the behaviour of the largely indifferent.
But it does something else besides.
The inadequacy of our choice of metaphor becomes starkly apparent when we consider the words of the cultural critic Roger Scruton:
“Friendship... has a function. It binds people together, makes communities strong and durable, brings advantages to those who are joined by it and fortifies them in their endeavours. But make these advantages into your purpose and friendship is gone. Friendship is a means to advantage, but only when not treated as a means. The same applies to almost anything worthwhile: education, sport, hiking, fishing, hunting, and art. If we are to live properly, therefore - not merely consuming the world but loving it and valuing it - we must cultivate the art of finding ends where we might have found only means. We must learn when and how to set our interests aside, not out of boredom or disgust, but out of disinterested passion for the thing itself.”
While I don’t quite share Scruton’s assessment of hiking, fishing, and hunting, ‘disinterested passion for the thing itself’ is a world removed from how we interact with and consume brands. And how brand owners interact with their customers.
So I offer up a plea. Let us not pretend that people’s interactions with the tangibles and intangibles of brands even begin to approximate the nature of our most meaningful relationships.
I don’t mind if marketing- and adland want to colonize swathes of popular culture.
But I do mind when marketing jargon trivializes the idea and meaning of a relationship, confuses lazy language (at best) or narcissism (at worst) for fact, and diverts our energies from what really matters.
Todd May, ‘Friendship in an Age of Economics’, New York Times, July 4, 2010
Roger Scruton, An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Modern Culture