Marketing must embrace selfish gain along with mutual benefit

Instrumentalism is morally bankrupt and outdated. Humans are, by their very nature, reciprocal creatures, and respond to companies that recognise this

It is the job of marketers to stay in tune with the zeitgeist and currently, it seems, the zeitgeist is changing. In many different ways, at many different levels, we are struggling to grope our way out of the traps set for us by an outmoded but hugely influential habit of thinking: instrumentalism.

The instrumentalist attempts to use other entities (be it things or people) as a means to his own ends. A by-product of a century of scientific and industrial advance, instrumentalism’s fundamental teaching is that knowledge is power: that if you really understand something, you can change and control it to your own benefit – and this is what effective action is about. That’s the source of its immense influence. And its limits and drawbacks. Here are some.

First, instrumentalism places too great a burden on knowledge. If knowledge is power – the ability to achieve our ends – then the way forward is to accumulate knowledge. If you understand the nature of iron ore, for example, you can mine it, smelt it and shape it into products that you can sell at a profit. If you really understand customers, you can get them to do what you want them to do: buy our stuff! Yet we can never be omniscient. We can’t predict the future. So “more knowledge” and “better understanding” alone are not enough.

Second, instrumentalism generates adversarial practices. When every entity seeks to treat every other entity as a means to its own ends, trust is eroded and wars, both hot and cold, break out. Adversarial supply chain relations and low levels of trust between consumers, politicians and big business are a by-product of instrumental attitudes.

Third, entities pursuing their own self-interest are not always best placed to make the best decisions. Look at climate change, for example. Working alone, neither governments nor businesses are capable of tackling this issue. To find a way forward, we have to find a way of working together. The challenge is not one of power or knowledge, but as Edward De Bono says, one of design: “how to put things together to achieve a value and a purpose”.

Fourth, instrumentalism places too much emphasis on the wrong sort of calculation. For those with instrumental attitudes, calculating “benefit for me” is their sole concern. Just look at the manic obsession with return on investment in some companies. What is the ROI of corporate social responsibility? What is the ROI of breakfast?

What such calculations miss is the value of benefits whose ownership cannot be claimed as “mine” – benefits such as a healthy environment, which exist only if they are shared. Once excluded from our calculations, they create a world populated by what economist Armatya Sen called rational fools: fools whose attempts to be rational are counterproductive.

Open your mind

Fifth, instrumentalism generates a mindset that sees only two types of entity: subjects that do things, and objects which are done to. What this closes off, of course, is all the potential of mutual exchange and influence: the value of dialogue and co-creation.

Finally, instrumentalism is morally empty. It breeds cynicism. It destroys hope. It makes people miserable.

But what is the alternative to instrumental attitudes and practices? Wishy-washy, bleeding heart do-gooding – which in the end does nobody any good? That’s the choice presented to us by economists who long ago labelled the instrumental behaviour of their invented beast Homo Economicus (the selfish economic atom concerned only with maximising his personal benefit) as “rational”, posing saintly altruism as the only possible – and decidedly irrational – alternative.

But it is a false choice. In reality, human beings are social, co-operating creatures and their natural mode of behaviour is not instrumental but reciprocal. Reciprocity combines both selfish gain and mutual benefit: we pursue our selfish ends by co-operating with others. As selfish co-operators we are forever testing the limits at both ends: when too much selfishness undermines co-operation, and when too much co-operation gets in the way of selfish interests.

Marketing is one of many fields that specialise in this rich and complex art of selfish co-operation. From how to build trusting relationships to reputation management to corporate social responsibility, marketing is in the midst of its own battle between the two philosophies: the instrumental, focused on the technicalities of getting one’s way; versus the reciprocal, the art of prospering together. The outcome of this battle will affect every dimension of business: corporate cultures, definitions and measures of success, ways of working, detailed mechanisms, institutional frameworks.

Take Nike’s response to criticism of the treatment of workers in supplier factories. It started out with a knee-jerk (instrumental) “it’s not our problem” denial. But over 15 years it has embraced stringent internal labour codes (non-financial performance metrics), changed incentives for procurement executives and suppliers (measures and incentives), supported new cross-industry, government and non-governmental organisation (NGO) frameworks and mandatory global standards of social auditing (institutional innovation at a new level), created continuing dialogue with NGOs (information exchange), published supplier names, addresses and details on its website (transparency), and so on.

Selfish or Selfless?

Yes, it has done all this for basically selfish ends: to defend its brand. But the end result has been a whirlwind of innovation in the “how to” of reciprocal ways of working.

In less dramatic ways, most businesses are on a similar learning curve. If we cannot know and control everything ourselves, then we need to share information. So we need to build mechanisms and frameworks which encourage such information sharing. Which in turn involves building trust.

If adversarial relationships destroy trust, we have to find ways of building win-win relationships. If the problem is too big for us to solve alone, then we need to unleash the power of alliances, partnerships and networks. And at every step along the way we need to engage peoples’ motivation.

Ethics is the quest for rules of “right” behaviour: the codes of behaviour that enable people to live and work together. Biologist Edward O Wilson wrote in his book Consilience, “We are learning the fundamental principle that ethics is everything”. Marketing and ethics are not enemies. Good marketing is the application of ethical principles to wealth creation.

Alan Mitchell,


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