In a conversation I had with Joe Polish (expert marketer and founder of The Genius Network), I realized something unexpected. Marketers think like philosophers. And yet, they seem to study with one another, rather than reaching for philosophy.
If I could hand them all Plato, I would. Specifically, I would hand them a copy of The Phaedrus.
In The Phaedrus, Plato presents a dialogue between the teacher Lysias and his student, Phaedrus, on the topic of romantic love. Lysias explains that there are two types of lovers: the manikos and the sophron. He describes the manikos as a person who is passionate and impulsive, who falls in love deeply, then is carried away by it. The sophron, in contrast, is stoic and rational. Sophrons enjoy companionship but they are not swept up in love the way manikos people are.
Phaedrus then asks Lysias, “which one of the two types is better?”
Lysias explains, when two people who are manikos get together, there will be heights of passion and, most likely, a painful breakup, since manikos people are fiery and impulsive. On the other hand, in a relationship between a manikos and a sophron, there is also discontent, because the manikos always loves more and yearns for a reciprocal love, which the sophron cannot give back; the sophron would also tire of the needs and wants of the manikos.
The best relationship, Lysias says, is between two people who are sophron, as this would ensure a non-disruptive, rational, and mutually content relationship.
Phaedrus then asks, “but what if a person is a manikos? What do you suggest they do?”
Lysias explains, if the person is a manikos, their best option is to fake being a sophron, and to be in relationship with a sophron. That way, they will engage their sophron lover with restraint and likely get the sort of attention they desire; they’d finally get to be the beloved in the eyes of the one they want.
I love this conversation between Lysias and Phaedrus. Phaedrus is so innocent and inquisitive. He just wants to understand how things work! And Lysias, (though I disagree with his advice), is thoughtful and makes a lot of sense. He helps us visit any dynamic in which we long for happiness from a source outside of ourselves rather than trusting that it was within us, all along.
If we’re willing to see the manikos and the sophron as a dynamic rather than as formal personality types, we might recognize that part of the human experience is to be in a state of longing (passionate about what we do not have & compelled to chase it) and that another part of the human experiences is to be wanted (pursued, even once we’re gotten).
Marketing, in many ways, instigates this dynamic. It attempts to cause certain products, brands, people, or experiences to play the role of sophron, while evoking longing on the part of the consumer .
How does a marketer evoke longing? How do they create the relationship of the manikos towards the sophron through creative design and communication?
In the best marketing scenarios, longing was there all along – in the case of the person who perceives themselves as lacking, who might now be exposed to something that purports to be the solution. In more complex marketing scenarios, a sense of lack must first be evoked, bringing a person who previously felt fine to suddenly feel like they could be better.
This is why we don’t like advertising – it can prey on vulnerability and cause a deeper feeling of discontent for a person who’s impressionable or unhappy with themselves. It can also be intrusive and cast a shadow over our lives, making us feel like we’re never quite good enough.
If we’re to empower our human family, marketers today have the opportunity to invent techniques that go beyond the paradigm of the manikos and the sophron, which would have to begin with a new philosophical foundation for understanding human nature – something that attends to consumers’ truer desire to be respected, inspired, and viewed as smart.
Could marketing evolve to a place where those who experience it actually feel happier and more complete, instead of complete – only due to the rush of a purchase?
Another curiosity – is there a version of marketing that would appeal to customers who are already happy and complete, who are free thinking, who cannot be easily made to feel like there’s a void to fill? One solution is to try to convince the happy person that they ought to feel incomplete, but this isn’t good for them. It might make a good customer but it is, fundamentally, unkind.
I’d like to see marketers do more to innovate for this type of business and customer, especially on behalf of businesses like mine who could use marketing approaches that reach our ideal clients – people who are not persuaded by appearances, who are not susceptible, and who do not need to be fixed.
Presently, successful marketing seems to conform to either the sophron tendency, which is to show restraint and confidence through a high value brand, trusting that it’s attractive in its very being, or, it has an underdeveloped manikos tendency, which extends itself urgently and yearns for reciprocity in the form of frequent ads, sales, and promotions. Neither of these work for the business owner that is looking for the ideal client, whose ideal client is too self-aware to be persuaded.
Something else to think about: both Lysias AND marketers of today underestimate the power of the manikos. Yet, the manikos qualities can be integrated into a more high value style of marketing. The idea that the manikos persona is inferior to the sophron persona is biased. Women are more often feeling and sensing, relationship-oriented, and expressive than men are. To recognize the gifts and strengths of the manikos unlocks the door to a whole new opportunity for marketers: What does it look like to have ecstatic love and confident self-possession, both? Whoever discovers this style of marketing will speak to the world of today, which is driven by all genders, and is multicultural and multigenerational.
I think there’s potential to view marketing as something more like matchmaking, with an interest to connect confident, passionate companies with confident, passionate buyers. The question of “how many customers” would be replaced with “how perfect were the customers”. And just as lovers rejoice when they find each other to be a perfect match, marketing would be less about conspiring to get ahead and more about joining together those companies with those consumers who are perfectly aligned.
These reflections on marketing come from my own perspective as a business owner & consumer, not as a marketer. If I’ve wished and hoped for versions of marketing that don’t nudge, undermine, coerce, and woo my ideal clients… if I’ve wished to market in a way that has nothing to do with competition, comparison, or manipulation… I know that many other business owners also have this wish. I hope that the marketers of today will invent a solution to this wish by re-examining the ways we sell, buy, and desire, and recognize that profits are less important than respect to many other business owners besides myself.