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The Purpose of Marketing

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"You need to understand the purpose of marketing," said a successful CEO mentor of mine, with stern compassion. He'd invited me to meet him, and since I'd just finished my Ph.D., he asked me about my work. I went on for about 15 minutes about my dissertation, which focused on getting clarity on our values in the context of decision-making, before he dropped this gem in my lap (paraphrased): "This world is a noisy place, and people gift you a short amount of time with great difficulty. You have no right to steal their time by rambling and being unclear. To honor their time, you must share your deepest truth as directly and clearly as possible. Now, in a single sentence, I will summarize your work. Your work is about helping people align their decisions with their core values!"

It was the most simple, succinct, accessible, comprehensive and beautiful description of my research. More importantly, I started to wonder, what is marketing really about? I realized that I'd been filtering my understanding of marketing through my own biases and to reexamine this question, I had to ask a more fundamental question, "Do our beliefs create our experiences, or do our experiences create our beliefs?" A professor of mine once shared a three-step exercise he did at a retreat that provides insight into this question.

In the first step, he was asked to look at a sculpture with intense love and note his experiences -- he found grandness, beauty, simplicity and many other "good things." Then he was asked to look at the same sculpture with intense hatred. He noted paint peeling off, problems with symmetry and many other "bad things." In the third step, he was asked to look at that sculpture with neither love nor hatred. At this point, he realized his beliefs were completely swaying his experience in the previous two steps, and was convinced of something powerful: by making the polarities of his perception explicit, he was able to release their subconscious hold. As a result, the quality of his third experience was poignantly clear, and he was able see things more as they were. We can understand marketing more truly by adopting this method.

Belief: Marketing is Good: Take the example of the Buddha, an expert marketer of grand ideas -- he never delivered his message in the same way to everyone, instead tailoring it to the occasion, with mindfulness of his listener's ability to access his message. He focused on asceticism with the monks, on being a good householder with householders, and building a strong republic with kings. Gandhi and Martin Luther King were also legendary marketers in recent times. Gandhi made full use of the pen to take his message of nonviolence and commitment to truth far and wide. His short phrase, "The fragrance remains on the hand that gives the rose," was his philosophy of marketing. His vision was that of providing people a way to constructively channel their frustration with a great injustice. Be it spinning cotton at home or making salt from the sea, he connected a great pain with a simple, yet great action. These examples have one thing in common: the marketers did their marketing without any expectations of personal gain, and had in their hearts the well-being of those they wanted to serve.

Belief: Marketing is Bad: This was a viewpoint I held for a long time. I remember reading Robert Cialdini's Psychology of Influence for an Organizational Behavior class; the book horrified me with its depiction of what goes on in marketing -- its study of human habits for the express purpose of manipulating people into buying things, regardless of actual need. Cialdini described our tendency to fall into repeated patterns with a succinct phrase, "Click, whirr." That is how mechanistic and predictable we humans tend to be. For example, marketers know that we respond to kindness and gifts, so they bombard our mail with gifts goading us into purchases. Over time, we develop a thick skin to avoid being sold on something, although researchers find that we are less successful than we might think.

Marketing As It Is: When I consider the things that I've desired and acquired, I wonder, why am I bored with many of them quickly? It is usually because I discover that these things are severely limited. So then, what I'm really seeking is limitless satisfaction. There are those who are skeptical about this and say, "there's enough for our need, not enough for our greed." What if there were enough for our limitless wants? What if we could really have limitless satisfaction?

The trick is that limitless satisfaction cannot be achieved with anything that is limited. Now, there is nothing mysterious about limitlessness -- anyone who has meditated deeply and felt something separate from their thoughts has tasted it. Those who have not meditated may also have tasted it, by entering "the zone" at work or in sports, where their effort seems effortless. Or by giving or receiving overwhelming unconditional love. Or by giving up on a complex problem only to have an elegant solution float in front of their eyes.

In all these experiences, we don't remember the "I," however briefly that may be, and this is where it gets intriguing. What emerges from this space is a creative impulse grounded in abundance. In every experience that has been marketed to us, this is what we have really been looking for. A connection to our own limitless creativity. We are deeply joyful when the connection is made -- and deeply sorrowful when it eludes us. Ironically, we can only perceive this limitlessness when it is limited through our creations, just as light can only be perceived when bounded by darkness.

It's a game. We enjoy this play of placing limitations on ourselves and then breaking these limitations over and over again to discover that we cannot be limited! Going back to the CEO's message, we can now restate the truest purpose of all marketing: it is a game of inviting others to access their unlimited creative nature by sharing our creations with them, and doing so within the limits they've placed on their time.

Of course, not everyone sees it this way. There are marketers who have exploitative and deceitful intent -- wouldn't blindly accepting their invitation amount to falling into a trap? An ancient Indian tale inspires us to deepen our awareness. Whenever sages would grow powerful in their practice of connecting with their limitlessness, the lord of the senses, Indra, would feel terribly insecure and try to disrupt their practice. When all material pleasures would fail, Indra would send sensuous beauties to distract them. Most would succumb, but not all. As the story goes, one sage was invited by Indra to attend a dance by his most beautiful dancer. As she proceeded to dance, she also started to strip, and to Indra's delight, the sage swayed wildly, saying, "Take it off, take it off." This continued, and soon there was nothing left to take off. Indra was certain that he had knocked the sage's mind off of limitlessness. And then, he noticed strangely that the sage continued to sway and utter, "Take it off. Take it off."

The stunned silence from Indra and his dancer marked their recognition of one who pierced through the limited into the limitless. By being established in his own limitlessness, that unknown sage transcended all judgments and words, and effortlessly marketed a timeless possibility: it is always possible to see the limitless in our own limited experiences. Are we game?

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