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Philosopher Alain de Botton on how brands can change the world by serving consumers' higher needs


By Sam Scott, former employee

December 7, 2017 | 8 min read

Philosopher and chief executive of The School of Life, Alain de Botton, recently published a think piece entitled ‘Why capitalism needs to change to address the needs of mankind’. At the heart of his vision is the belief that capitalism could evolve into a less materialistic phase, providing that businesses see the light and turn their attention to serving consumers' ‘higher needs’. The Drum’s assistant publisher Sam Scott put some further questions to Alain.

Brands like Coke trade on our desire for happiness

Brands like Coke trade on our desire for happiness

The Drum: Brands like Coca-Cola clearly trade on our desire for friendship, happiness, and so on. But many consumers share your suspicion that most brands are not, as you put it, “devoted to meeting the needs that their marketing people have so skilfully evoked”. Could brands somehow get serious about satisfying these needs, or should they quit pretending?

Alain de Botton: It’s not black and white – many brands have no doubt ‘hijacked’ the purpose conversation or just gone at it clumsily like Pepsi. But for many other brands it’s perhaps a choice where the opportunity is to innovate and grow what they offer. For example, we worked with Capital One, an American bank, to develop a series of workshops for their customers on how to tackle the really tricky emotional topics around money – how to discuss it with your partner, how to get into good habits for saving, and so on. This is a genuinely helpful service and a totally new business area for a bank to pursue.

The traditional division between product or service innovation and marketing is now out of date, and many companies are seeing that investing in nice superficial ads without adapting the core product or service is not a good long term strategy; consumers are getting much more cynical about brands who just rely on advertising to sell a product that doesn’t really help improve our lives – at least in some small way.

In your article you claim that capitalism has (in many parts of the world) met our basic needs, but that it has failed to serve our ‘higher order needs’: love, belonging, self-esteem, self-development, to name a few. To some it might seem distasteful or even immoral to expect private firms to operate within these traditionally intimate, and in many cases ‘free’, domains. How would you go about convincing them otherwise?

The first thing to say is that there are many goods and services available that genuinely meet people’s higher needs, and which do so for a price: things like private psychotherapy, continued adult education, membership to museums and social clubs, and so on. This isn’t new and few find it morally distasteful. So the problem isn’t that it’s wrong to provide for these needs for a fee; it’s that as a society we haven’t yet figured out how to provide for these higher needs consistently and at scale — capitalism is still very young in this area.

These are huge and very pressing human needs (not to mention business opportunities) that have so far been largely relegated in terms of sector to charities, non-profits, and individual providers. Which is really a shame, because larger brands can often provide greater choice and consistent quality – and people’s money would often be better spent on goods and services like these rather than another car or a weekend trip.

Businesses also need to get over their fear that they can’t make money in these areas. We need to move past the idea that when it comes to business we face a choice between making ‘bad’ profit and doing good ‘charitable’ things (often through a CSR team). Often it’s quite the opposite, and companies doing virtuous things by treating higher-order needs are doing a lot better. If you look at Unilever’s portfolio of brands for example – the ones which are to some extent addressing ‘higher order needs’ – even in fairly small ways, are doing noticeably better. In other words – there is money to be made here, and there is good to be done.

You imply that capitalism could evolve to tackle environmental concerns when you write, “If we could just address our deeper needs more directly, our materialism would be refined and restrained”. If the economy were to grow into the higher needs space, might the extraction of natural resources plateau, or even fall, as we realise we no longer want the fidget spinner in the window?

I’m not the only one – many commentators have suggested that the future for many brands might be selling less of better quality stuff. That’s not to say I’m entirely against materialism. Buying some things can help. But I am against the kind of materialism that is unrestrained and does us no good.

If we look at brands like Patagonia or Vitsoe for example, who design their products in such a way that they are intended to last a lifetime, they are environmentally sustainable of course – but they are also emotionally sustainable too in the sense that they that gently nudge us away from an anxiety inducing acquisitiveness.

When goods and services that purport to improve people come onto the market they sometimes generate anxiety around new inequalities – the concern that consumer biotech will create a class of superhumans, for instance. Isn’t it likely that many of the offerings you conceive of will be the preserve of the wealthy few? And because we are imagining products and services capable of altering us at a ‘high’ level, should we expect new forms of inequality between people to emerge?

Of course someone who is on the breadline and struggling for work might have other concerns than self-actualisation; at The School Of Life we know that not everyone can afford everything we do (although we provide quite a lot of our most popular content for free, including hundreds of videos and our new app). But there are still very good reasons to provide these types of services (even when it costs a bit of money) to those who can afford it.

The wealthier are in a way the bellwether for us all – they are showing us a future for all of us to aspire to; what they choose to focus on helps shift cultural values. Those who can afford these services can also have a big influence on the future –their introspection should help generate policies and businesses that are good for everyone.

Ultimately, if self-development is done right we never just develop for ourselves. We also develop in relation to other people and help them too – whether that’s emotionally, socially or in other ways – thereby reducing some key forms of social division and inequality in the process.

Does the concept of a market that serves our needs for things like self-development and belonging presuppose more free time than most of us have? Perhaps many of us remain unfulfilled because we don't have adequate free time to participate in our communities, make and sustain great friendships, explore and develop our talents, and so on?

Of course, but most of us have more time than we think. We spend loads of time on the internet, attending ‘obligations’ we don’t really care about, or working long hours on a job we hate because we’re too afraid to try something new, or dealing with people we find difficult because it’s tricky to set clear and firm boundaries. Sometimes we need self-development in order to realise we’re spending our time poorly – so for many people, making time for self-development allows them to then make time for a lot else as well.

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