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January 14, 2004

Existence precedes essence: Lessons for Future Customer Innovation 

An intriguing article by James Ogilvy can be found in the latest edition of Strategy+Business, entitled “What Strategists can learn from Sartre” (registration required). Ogilvy’s thesis in a nutshell is that as individuals become more and more self-determining, independent and unpredictable in the post-modern era (i.e. they have discovered existential freedom and they are no longer bounded by expected norms and behaviours in keeping with their past behaviour or pre-defined ‘essence’) so marketers and business in general must adapt and respond by creating a capacity for “existential strategy” and “customised innovation”. I’ll let Ogilvy explain,

“The old production economy was predictable because it operated in the realm of necessity; it produced goods and services people needed, and those were relatively stable. The new economy plays in the realm of freedom; it produces goods and services for a customer who is not bound by needs. The old economy called for strategies built by engineers who could calculated according to predefined laws. The new economy calls for strategies created by existentialists who understand freedom. Most important of all the old economy operated at a regular pace, in the clockwork time of industrial production. The new economy lurches forward and backward in some new kind of time that was anticipated by the existential philosophers (Sartre, Heidegger etc..)”

Now it could be argued that an important aspect of the "paradox of choice" is that our ability to "rediscover ourselves" in individuated, existentialist terms has come about precisely as a result of the increased choices made available to us by the market economy. Of course, marketers will always argue that choice is the real killer value delivered by the seller-dominated marketing system. Without choice, people will not be as empowered as they are to achieve freedom in the first place. As Alan Mitchell writes in Right Side Up, “Choice is the marketers trump card. It sweeps away all the bad stuff, the inherent flaws and waste.”

But does it? If one part of the equation puts people in control – ubiquitous connectivity and information accessibility - there is another part that is taking us out of control. That is because while choice has proliferated in order to serve customers every need, people often lack the expertise and the time to evaluate all the choices. More information is only useful on the occasions when we want it and there are times when marketers and business simply overload us with choice.

Ogilvy acknowledges this and makes a clarion call for businesses to respond by acknowledging the role of existentialist thought in strategy-making..

.. "existentialism is a philosophy that stresses the importance and robustness of individual choice. In a world where it sometimes seems as though there are too many choices, and too little authoritative guidance in making those choices, existentialism provides a viable approach to strategy - perhaps the only viable approach"

By this he means that just as you and I can determine our own future free of any predefined essence or stereotype (our class, education, trade, income, material wealth, birthplace,parents), so businesses can do the same. They can embrace the foundations of existentialism to escape from the constraints or corporate essences of the past (industry sector, product line, marketing mindset, attitude to customer value, organisational structure etc etc) in order to embrace new and totally different possibilities for the future.

Ogilvy then goes on to define five principles of corporate existential strategy:

1. Finitude (or making hard decisions because you can't do everything). This is concerned with making strategy trade-offs where you have to say "No" to certain options otherwise you are not making strategy. This fits with our own personal need to shake-off excess and the curse of plenitude!

2. Being-toward-death - "If you think your life is not finite, if you think you're immortal, then you may act as if you've got time for anything. If you follow the existentialists in dwelling on death however, each day of your life will gain both preciousness and a sense of existential urgency", Ogilvy writes. To get by, firms need to paint vivid future scenarios of their fit in a changing world. Being toward death provides the immediate motivation to take the actions necessary to avoid corporate strategy decay and ultimately death. This is exactly what The Support Economy aims to achieve... the arguments in which are borne of the paradox of our existential freedom, the surfeit of choice and complexity thrown up by the market economy and the need for firms to innovate around distributed capitalism to embrace these opportunities before they die a slow death ...

3. Care - The concept of "Care" is used by Ogilvy to denote how firms need to be concerned with breaking free of their past, and to care enough about change to reinvent themselves. I think however that his analysis here is a tad too firm-centric. As he points out, "care is a feature that differentiates human beings from purely cognitive, Cartesian creatures. Sure, we think, we calculate, we cogitate. But we do so in a way that is different from how computers do it". The problem with most business strategy is that it is precisely founded on a technical rationalist justification for human behaviour where people become an object(ive) in the firms personal goal to create value for itself. The concept of "Care" should therefore be used, I argue, to denote how organisations need to adopt a more human-centric, participative dialogical view of relationships and real human needs, not just one focusing on what the organisation cares enough about.

4. Thrownness - This, Ogilvy says, is concerned with just "how far" it is possible to change. He argues that firms should understand their past and core competencies, "know them, use them and don't forget them" yet at the same time, avoid "coasting on the extrapolations from the past". It takes "a dancing existentialist" to see the vast possibilities of the future.

5. Authenticity - Finally, Ogilivy includes one of our favourites in his five principles of existentialist strategy. Authenticity, he suggests is not about being true to yourself, "but also openness to the possibilities of the future - not just one possibility, but several possibilities. Feel free to reinvent yourself and your company for an uncertain future", Ogilvy writes.

So what can we make of all this? I agree with the essence (pardon pun) of what Ogilvy is saying. Whilst corporations plough a familiar furrow, individuals are changing and morphing into new forms, creating new needs, building new connected and authentic relationships and generally bypassing the corporate line. In terms of marketing segmentation for example, the all-too-convenient method for boxing consumers into common groups for CRM and other business applications, people are effectively leaping out of one segment and into another as they seek to fulfil different, sometimes the same, needs.

For businesses, one way to address this unpredictability is to 1) acknowledge and 2) build a powerful new capacity for customer innovation; one that moves out of their "own box" and into new realms and possibilities for creating (or co-creating) more personalised customer experiences and solutions. Only then can organisations play a more meaningful and connected role by helping people to live more meaningful, authentic lives - or in other words, creating positive context....
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