Marketing Virtue

by Chris Kenton on April 3, 2005

It’s not very often that I talk about politics or religion when I’m writing in a business forum. There are plenty of other places to go to get that kind of insight and opinion, to which there’s not a lot for me to add. But the outpouring of emotion following the death of the pope has been fascinating to ponder, and I think there are a few connections to business and commerce worth thinking about.

I can’t say I’ve been a cheering fan of what many Catholics refer to as the Roman Party. Like any powerful institution made up of human beings, it has a lot of flaws that bear real scrutiny. But I suspect there’s a profound social value in having in our midst a strong institution that views time in the span of hundreds of years, rather than 4 fiscal quarters, and that places the dignity of life above the pursuit of a dollar.

When I see the images of millions around the world paying their respects to Karol Wojtyla, I suspect it’s not so much about his policies and positions as it is about the legacy of a man who didn’t shrink from power, but had the strength to sustain a vision of human dignity for a lifetime without tripping over the trappings of power. Whether or not you appreciate his policies or his legacy, it’s hard to ignore the integrity and perseverance he brought to a very human struggle with some of the most difficult challenges of our time. We no longer seem to really expect or demand integrity as a quality of our politicians, our business leaders, or our cultural stars. But when we see it, I believe the better part of us remembers its value.

I’ve seen a few of the over-produced media obituaries for Pope John Paul II this weekend. Such a self-conscious sense of having a ring-side seat to history. I think there’s something lost when we reposition the man as superman, so unlike us that his struggles almost seem like a stage device–as if the struggle is more symbolic than real. But I also suspect we need to market virtue to ourselves; we need to distill the essence of integrity, enshrine it, and package it for the masses in a language we all understand, to be consumed as a clear and universal truth.

In a real sense, Karol Wojtyla has become a product. In the coming weeks, his brand will move untold millions of dollars in the name of commemoration. It’s easy to be cynical about this, but if it makes you stop for a moment in the middle of your business life and think about what you stand for and what you’re willing to do about it, it’s worth it.

We could do worse.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason Kerr April 3, 2005 at 8:39 pm

How meaningful is it to market virtue? Can it even really be done. It seems like the ease of access to marketed virtue under-impacts the cognitive dissonance that would change behavior. Does that make sense?

Oh BTW, sorry about blogclogging your recent “brand” post. By all means delete the duplicates at your convenience (just leave the one where I actually filled out the contact info).

Chris April 4, 2005 at 2:14 pm

Yikes. I can see this one becoming a philosophical tar pit, but it’s a good question. Clearly the pope, like all luminaries, is marketable (how many millions did his book generate?), and his death is the kind of blockbuster event that will push news readership and associated advertising through the roof. How many commemorative issues will we see in the next few weeks and months? How many books? How many DVDs? How many Franklin Mint coins or plates?

But that’s just the mechanics of our economy at work. What’s interesting to me is what is happening on a social level. This will sound like a ridiculous comparison, but to me it’s kind of like professional wrestling, with our caricature masks of good and evil–the same pattern that goes back to our formulation of myths and literature and even history. We have a need to distill the archetypes of human behavior down to their essence, and to enshrine them in the body of a living example, which we then further distill, and burnish through the stories we tell.

How is it meaningul? How does it change behavior? Why do we tell stories at all? I suspect it’s a fundamental drive to make sense of the world around us, and that we bend any useful tool to the task whether we do so intentionally or not. In that sense, modern marketing through the media is not only an economic boiler, it’s an heir to myth and literature.

I’m sure that’s not an original thought. But it’s interesting to me to see the pattern of what we are doing on a social level with the tools of media and marketing, and how some small thread of that carries through the daily work we do as marketers–shaping stories, trying to influence, making things resonate for as large an audience as possible.

Jason Kerr April 5, 2005 at 3:02 am

The Neuroscience of Marketing Virtue

“MAKING SENSE OF THE WORLD IS NOT JUST A FUNDAMENTAL DRIVE. It’s the unavoidable physiology of the brain. The survival-based primary function the human nervous system is FIRST to perceive patterns in the world around us and intuit their meanings–and THEN to make timely decisions and carry them out efficiently.” From “The Neuroscience of Fantastical Branding” on my Brandlessness blog

More on a practical defense of the fuzzier side of marketing here: http://jasonkerr.typepad.com/brandlessmarketing/2005/04/the_neuroscienc.html

BUT, BUT, BUT all of the “what if’s” and “this is like’s” have absolutely no meaning if they are not tied to practical behavioral outcomes that directly impact fincancial results.

FOR THE SAME REASON I question the lasting impact of the Virtue-Marketing surrounding the death of the pontiff. I can’t help but wonder what the media and marketers will connect this to in the real world.

I picture a lot of human-interest pieces where the reporter closes with some quasi-philosophical question or some parallel of, “It really makes you think, doesn’t it?”

Yep. And that’s all. I think all of this will really make a lot of people think, and it will ultimately make a lot of people say, “Hmmm…yeah,” and that’s about it will do.

The really meaningful Virtue Marketing connected with the Pope took place while the man was still alive and immersing himself in crowds of everyday people. He shook hands, and he touched people in need. The least of those interactions will have far more lasting impact than the most sensational broadcasts or the best-selling merchandise ever could.

Chris April 5, 2005 at 8:53 am

To be honest, I’m not even sure what we’re arguing here. My commentary was about the incredible integrity of a man who held the reins of tremendous power. Our real-time filtering and packaging of that story is both poignant and disconcerting, given that the tools of modern storytelling are also the tools of marketing. On the one hand, I can see what people point to cynically as the abject commercialism of such an event, but on the other, I think we’re simply using the tools we have at hand to make sense of the world–ie: “marketing virtue to ourselves”.

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