Existence vs. Essence: Sartre and Camus on Marketing

Posted: August 3, 2010 in Conceptualizing the Ordinary
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
Sartre vs. Camus: the two big approaches in Marketing

According to Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existence precedes essence”, according to Albert Camus “Essence precedes existence”. Sartre conceives of human-beings as “thrown into the world” without any sense so if they don’t want to get lost they have to give themselves a purpose, their essence, something to live for.

According to Camus, we are born with certain preferences. So the essence is already there when we come into being. Essence precedes Existence.

I think these are the two main ways to explain the relationship between Product-or Service-Development and Communications, Marketing, and Advertising.

The ideal Sartrian product or service already exists when you decide what you want to do with it, i.e. what you want its essence to be.

Post-it: A false Sartrian product

It could seem like the glue for the post-it stickers at 3M – where the engineers aimed at creating standard glue, but the glue was not sticky enough – was a perfect Sartrian product. But it really isn’t. The product came into being with an essence, it was glue that was sticky enough to make something stick to something else, but not so sticky that it would not go off without a trace if you pulled. It’s only that this essence was not immediately apparent and seen to be useful when the glue was created. The main creative act was not making the glue, but understanding it’s main property (it’s essence) and realizing what it could be used for. Once you understood what it did, you could attach it to paper, and then conceive the communications according to the product’s essence.

Coca-Cola: The real Sartrian product

The real Sartrian product or service doesn’t have any essence, known or unknown, when it comes into being. You randomly give it an essence. So here’s the process that yields Sartrian produts: You create something that doesn’t have any particular purpose or use. Maybe it’s just another soda that tastes ok. Then you start giving it an identity. You call it Coca-Cola or Sprite or Schweppes, you link it to Christmas and to beaches or to a certain sport and certain celebrities etc. and this gives it an identity, an essence.

Soda Pops: The real Camusian product

The ideal Camusian product has been thought through in every detail before it’s given birth. This is what happens with lifestyle-products supposed to fill a niche. You realize that there is a soda pop, a sweet highly alcoholic beverage, “based on Vodka”, with a “Russian” look and advertising, that sells pretty well,  and so you decide to create a similar drink that’s based on, say,  Rum, with a Cuban look and advertising. You determine what the product has to look, taste and “feel” like based on a precise preconceived idea about the niche it is supposed to fill. In this case the essence precedes the existence.

Webservices: Sartre and Camus combined

If a product has a certain complexity, like, say, a website offering a service, approaches are usually mixed.

Take twitter, which was created as a “micro-blogging” service, where people would tell their friends what they are doing. Like on a blog, the default was that everyone could read what everyone else wrote, it was enough to “follow” the other person. You didn’t need her explicit approval (she didn’t have to confirm you as follower like you confirm friends on facebook). But then it turned out that people used the service quite differently. It could be argued that the service’s essence was different from what it’s founders had thought it was. They had created something with a certain idea of it’s essence in mind, but they were wrong. So they changed the question and went from “What are you doing?” to “What’s happening?”

I conceive of my work at hypios mainly as trying to understand the essence of our service and then sharing my understanding with (potential) users. If some element has not yet been specified, we try to conceive it according to what we already learned about the essence of our service to try to maximize its coherence. I might seem a bit old-fashioned if I say that I like it substantial: I find products that actually have an essence which you can discover – rather than just an identity that someone gave it for no other purpose than making it into a succesful product – more exciting.

(an earlier version of this post was published on – the now defunct? – bigstartups.com)

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