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Why Do We Assume More Equals Better?

by Rob Dietz

Choosing a college (not to mention getting in) can be a trying experience, especially for the nerdier souls among us. In my case, I had absolutely no plan for what to do with the rest of my life, so I selected a big university that offered degrees and classes in everything. I figured that I could explore several branches of knowledge, take a few detours down unusual alleys of academia, and figure something out for my future along the way. That’s how I ended up in Marketing 101 as a freshman. And reflecting on the offerings of that class, I’m pretty sure the whole thing was based on an erroneous assumption.

Before attending the class, I didn’t really know what marketing was. In fact my preconceived notions about marketing came mostly from cartoon characters who inhabited the Technicolor landscape of sugary breakfast cereals: Count Chocula, Tony the Tiger, Cap’n Crunch, the cuckoo bird who becomes agitated in the presence of artificial choco-balls, and the leprechaun who refuses to share his bounty of marshmallows with sugar-starved children. The class was structured around the 4 P’s (product, price, place, and promotion), a mnemonic to remind students that a marketer has to consider an awful lot of stuff to sell a product. Much to my disappointment, neither the professor nor the textbook entered the realm of children’s breakfast cereals, but we certainly did explore case studies from other sectors to get a sense of what makes a successful marketing strategy.

What feats of marketing can differentiate these two seemingly identical products? Wouldn’t this be the most instructive marketing case study of all time?

The first and most carefully considered case study was the United Colors of Benetton. It was all about “branding.” We studied how the company had used international flair and bright colors to sell lots and lots of clothes. The point for us students was to learn some things about branding that might help us blossom into successful marketers. Looking at that class in the rearview mirror today, I see that a faulty assumption formed the foundation of everything we studied. Let’s call it the BIG ASSUMPTION. Simply put, the BIG ASSUMPTION is that more is better. Without question, the Benettons of the business world should always sell more, and marketing techniques should be used to achieve that outcome.

Why is the BIG ASSUMPTION always there, and why does it go unquestioned, especially at a university with a big-name business school? It all has to do with visibility. The upsides of successful marketing campaigns — of selling more — show up right in front of our faces, popping with bold, Benetton colors. When you sell more, you get more money. And more money gets you more perks — more jobs, more toys, more status, more choices about where you live, what you eat, and what you wear. This lesson gets ingrained in our thinking and worldview from an early age. By college, I certainly understood it.

I used to go to the ATM in the student union to take out cash for food on the weekends (the dining halls were closed on Saturdays and Sundays). On one such occasion, I stuck my card in the machine, entered my PIN, and hit the button for “account balance.” The machine spit out a slip of paper that reported my life savings at $11.43. Next I punched the buttons to request a withdrawal of $5 (that way, I’d still have $5 for the next weekend). While the machine was taking its time to count all those bills, I noticed a pile of discarded account slips strewn atop the machine. I sifted through them while the ATM continued to sift through its stacks of cash for my $5. Many accounts were of the 5-digit variety — lots of rich kids at college. As I prepared to go searching for the best deal on noodles, I couldn’t help but think what sort of gourmet meals I might be able to get with a 5-digit account instead of a 5 dollar bill.

So it’s really quite simple. The assumption to which marketing students (and just about every participant in the economy) submit is this:

More sales (through more marketing) = more money = more consumption of goods and services = better lives.

But blind submission to this assumption generates plenty of downsides. If Benetton keeps selling more, and Kellogg’s keeps selling more, and GM, and Sony, and Exxon, and Apple, and Wal-Mart, and on and on, we find ourselves bumping up against the limits to growth. But the consequences are much less visible. It’s hard to notice the climate warming. It’s hard to notice species going extinct. It’s hard to notice the drawdown of aquifers. It’s hard to… (ok, ok, you get the point). The downsides of accepting the BIG ASSUMPTION are less visible than the upsides, but there’s also another problem. The upsides accrue to a select few, while the downsides accrue to society at large. As Benetton sells more and more shirts, it makes more and more profits. Its employees enjoy higher salaries and more status. At the same time, it does not suffer the consequences from increased emissions and use of natural resources — someone somewhere else, often sometime in the future, feels the pain. In essence, the economy operates by concentrating benefits and diffusing costs, especially for those businesses with the most successful marketing departments.

To debunk an assumption, especially one with the visibility problems of the BIG ASSUMPTION, you have to study. You have to learn about the concealed downsides. For the BIG ASSUMPTION, that means studying ecology and understanding (to the extent we can) the science behind environmental systems. The author and activist Bill McKibben is certainly someone who has done his homework. His studies have led him to question the BIG ASSUMPTION. On the first page of his book, Deep Economy, he writes:

For most of human history, the two birds More and Better roosted on the same branch. You could toss one stone and hope to hit them both. That’s why the centuries since Adam Smith have been devoted to the dogged pursuit of maximum economic production…  But the distinguishing feature of our moment is this: Better has flown a few trees over to make her nest. That changes everything. Now, if you’ve got the stone of your own life, or your own society, gripped in your hand, you have to choose between them. It’s More or Better.

I vant to sell you crud!

More Count Chocula actually makes everyone worse off, except of course for the few people who manufacture and market Count Chocula. By the day, it becomes more and more obvious that it’s time to replace the outdated fixation on More with a modern appreciation of Enough. The challenge is to configure the economy in such a way that people and organizations can pursue Better instead of More. Maybe we can start by overhauling Marketing 101.

The Tyranny of Comfort

by Rob Dietz

When I was a kid, I was on the neighborhood swim team in the summers. No one mistook me for Michael Phelps. In fact, I may be the anti-Phelps. We’re both lean, but while his body is built for buoyancy, mine seems to be designed for sinking. Each year to celebrate the end of the season, the swim team held a potluck banquet and bestowed awards upon the best swimmers. Most years I took home the Coach’s Award, the consolation prize given to the kid who tried hard despite having no chance to win a race. To make matters worse, my nickname as a competitive swimmer was Colonel Mustard. The pool had four lanes. First place earned you a blue ribbon; second place, a red ribbon; and third place, a white ribbon. The obligatory prize for fourth place was a mustard yellow ribbon.

During the season when I was 9 or 10 years old, we had a meet at the opposing team’s pool on a surprisingly cool June evening. My mom and dad sat in chairs on the grass at the edge of the pool deck with other parents rooting for their aquatically gifted offspring. I had just finished a race in my customary place — last. I didn’t have another race for a while, so I went over to where my parents were seated. I was starting to shiver, and it probably showed on my face that I was feeling dejected. Without a word, my dad opened up a towel, wrapped me in it like a mummy, and sat me down in his lap. He used the towel to wipe away my goosebumps, my chattering teeth, and the pain of defeat. I didn’t swim any faster in the next race, but I sure felt a lot better. That evening my dad gave me one of the most memorable gifts I’ve ever received — it was a gift of comfort.

Comfort… the word has a positive connotation; it even sounds pleasant to the ear. It derives from the Latin, comfortare, which literally means to strengthen much. Most people can recall meaningful moments of comfort. But how do we come to appreciate such comfort? How can we be “strengthened much” by such comfort? Only if it comes in response to adversity.

It’s simple to see the benefits of comfortable living. Who wants to lead a life of suffering and deprivation? When you’re hungry, it’s good to have food. When you’re cold or sick, it’s good to have a place to go. When you’re feeling downhearted, it’s good to have the support of a caring companion. We feel comforted when we are able to meet our needs. But there is a limit to the benefits of comfort. If I were to arrange my life with comfort-seeking as the ultimate goal, I would miss out on some of the best stuff.

I would never have felt the warmth from my dad had I not first felt the chill of the pool and the sting of the last-place finish. I would never ride my bike, especially not in the rain. In fact, I might not venture out of doors very often (sometimes the temperature veers dangerously from a comfortable 75 degrees Farenheit). I would never push myself beyond the bounds of comfort to experience what life has to offer. In a lengthy tirade on the subject, Edward Abbey exhorted tourists to exit their vehicles and subject themselves to the wonderful discomfort of the desert (from Desert Solitaire):

“Look here, I want to say, for godsake folks get out of them there machines, take off those fucking sunglasses and unpeel both eyeballs, look around; throw away those goddamned idiotic cameras! For chrissake folks what is this life if full of care we have no time to stand and stare? Take off your shoes for a while, unzip your fly, piss hearty, dig your toes in the hot sand, feel that raw and rugged earth, split a couple of big toenails, draw blood! Why not? Jesus Christ, lady, roll that window down! You can’t see the desert if you can’t smell it! Dusty! Of course it’s dusty – this is Utah! But it’s good dust, good red Utahn dust, rich in iron, rich in irony. Turn that motor off. Get out of that piece of iron and stretch your varicose veins, take off your brassiere and get some hot sun on your old wrinkled dugs… …Yes sir, yes madam, I entreat you, get out of those motorized wheelchairs, get off your foam rubber backsides, stand up straight like men! like women! like human beings! and walk — walk — WALK upon our sweet and blessed land!”

What about the role of comfort in a broader sense, beyond the life of an individual or a family? Comfort seems to have pushed its way to the top of the priorities list when it comes to the economy (maybe comfort takes the red ribbon, a few body lengths behind the blue-ribbon winner, growth). Marketers and consumers share the blame. Ubiquitous ads convince us how much more comfortable we’ll be when we own <insert your favorite overblown, overpriced product here>. And we consistently convince ourselves that we can satisfy our needs by purchasing evermore “comfortable crap.” It’s as if the purpose of the economy is to make sure we’re comfortable.

Is this the American dream?

Blind pursuit of comfort must take some blame for the quandary we find ourselves in. In America, we’re burning through an incredible bounty of fossil fuel, a bounty so energy-dense that most of us fail to comprehend its magnitude. And we’re burning that fuel at a frightening rate to support what Dick Cheney termed our “non-negotiable way of life.” This way of life is centered on comfort. Centered on driving what we want when we want. Centered on powering ever bigger TV screens. Centered on transporting evermore goods along oversized freeways. Centered on consuming any available resource. Perhaps it’s only news to Mr. Cheney (and other politicians before and since), but “unsustainable” will trump “non-negotiable” every time. And America is about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, not the pursuit of comfort.

Like anything else, the pursuit of comfort (both at the household level and at the macro-economic level) requires balance. Some comfort is good. Chasing constant comfort is counterproductive. Another author who’s not quite as hotheaded as Edward Abbey, but just as insightful, has made this point. William Somerset Maugham once wrote, “Any nation that thinks more of its ease and comfort than its freedom will soon lose its freedom; and the ironical thing about it is that it will lose its ease and comfort too.”