April 11, 2016

Confucius Was An Adman

We have been browbeaten into the belief that the key to happiness and success is to find our “authentic self” and follow the path our “authentic self" leads us to.

This is the mantra of every self-help guru, unemployed “life coach,” and public broadcasting blowhard.

Ancient Chinese philosophers weren’t so sure. Confucius and other Chinese thinkers, who lived over 2,000 years ago, believed life was a disorderly mess, always changing, and that each of us was an untidy shambles always changing along with it. They weren't convinced that there really was an "authentic" self.

An interesting article in The Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago by Dr. Michael Puett of Harvard and Dr. Christine Gross-Loh, authors of a new book “The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life,” presents us with a whole different view of how happiness and success may be achieved.
“...we shouldn’t be looking for our essential self, let alone seeking to embrace it, because there is no true, unified self to begin with. As Confucius understood, human beings are messy, multidimensional creatures, a jumble of conflicting emotions and capabilities living in a messy, ever-changing world… Looking within is dangerous.”
There is an important lesson here for the advertising and marketing industries.

Like humans, brands are living things in an impossibly messy world. The idea that there is one “authentic” or “essential” nature that a brand must forever live by, and that this nature is best described by a set of words written by largely unimaginative people is a pernicious disease in our industry.

In a post several years ago I wrote:
"Avoid the tyranny of strategy. Strategies are not written by God. They are written by planners, researchers, account execs, clients and other mildly retarded mortals. Good creative people often have a better feel for the problem than the committee that wrote the strategy."
By the time our creative people have received an assignment, 90% of the potential for truly imaginative thinking has been beaten out of it by a brief that imposes deadly drivel about the “authentic, essential” nature of the brand.

As the article in question states:
"...consider these subversive lessons of Chinese philosophy: Don’t try to discover your authentic self; don’t be confined by what you are good at or what you love. And do a lot of pretending."
Brands that die are not brands that refuse to jump on every new technology and marketing gimmick. They are brands that steadfastly refuse to entertain the idea that they might be something else. 

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