Human marketing

Abu Jandal was a hardened warrior. A former chief bodyguard of Osama Bin Laden and a mujahedin who truly believed in his cause, he had little fear of death. To his interrogators, holding him captive in a Yemeni prison after 9/11, he was a recalcitrant, uncooperative figure bent on lecturing them on the righteousness of jihad every opportunity he had.

Fighting a war against terror holds an interesting paradox. The words themselves conjure up a herculean battle and stakes that justify all means. In that context the enemy easily becomes dehumanized and the toolbox that could be used to pry useful information out of a captive tends to contain implements designed to inflict pain and suffering.

This is an article about marketing which is why it’s so important to understand the dynamic that is in effect in a setting where potentially anything goes. Those interrogating Abu Jandal had to find a way to make him cooperate with them. A captive, held in a box, understands that he is intimately tied to his captors through a shared sense of facts. They are both engaged in a war that is framed by a common understanding of specific facts. Their individual interpretation of the facts however differs and that places them on opposite sides with conflicting aims.

It’s a mind game where a captor can gain the upper hand and frustrate his interrogators to the point that any kind of relationship breaks down. At that point each participant in this relational exchange will have lost; retreating to using ploys of last resort: the interrogators will use torture, the interrogated will hold on as long as possible and then say anything in order for the torture to stop. The casualty here is the truth.

The reason both parties value truth is because it enables them to define reality. Reality provides them with an irrefutable anchor from which stem the facts that give value to their respective existence. Without truth there can be no reality. Without reality there can be no facts. Without facts there can be no perception. Anything goes. The lies of the captive vs the lies of the interrogators. Lies hold little value beyond the ability to manipulate the moment. At a fundamental level lies negate the existence of captive and captors and reduce each to meaningless pawns in a sordid game of power and expediency.

No one can live like that.

What Abu Jandal’s interrogators noticed was that he never touched the cookies they gave him to accompany his meals. Looking carefully into his past history they discovered that he suffered from diabetes. One of his interrogators took it upon himself to source cookies for diabetics and offered them to Abu Jandal. It was a small act of kindness that acknowledged one human being by another. That became the bridging point that enabled Abu Jandal to cooperate with those who’d captured him and, over a period of weeks, provide them with the information they needed.

It seems inconceivable that two apparent enemies can come to a common understanding and cooperate in a setting that is explicitly designed to be hostile and unfriendly and a carefully crafted, expensive marketing campaign that promotes a product or service that people need, can fail to achieve any kind of bridging point between a brand and its audience.

Trust and Identity

To make the leap from terrorism and interrogation to marketing and branding we need to understand that the background they share is identity and trust. More specifically, in order for any kind of relational exchange to take place we need to establish trust. Trust is built through very specific, calculated actions that, at some point take into account identity and authority.

Identity is a construct that reflects our particular values and beliefs and our awareness of self (agency). Authority is a multi-faceted construct that leads to obedience. There are deep, historical issues to take into account here, not least the Holocaust in Nazi Germany and Milgram’s famous if somewhat flawed experiment.

The notion of unity presents us with the idea that when we become conscious of differences between others and ourselves and find the similarities that bind us our consciousness of the connection leads to more acceptance, cooperation, liking, help, trust, and, consequently, assent. Abu Jandal cooperating with his captors is a powerful example of this. Coca-Cola marketing a sugary drink as a pathway to equality is another.

What’s The Message?

The message here, and it is a powerful one, is that there are fundamental aspects to our humanity that cannot be changed no matter where we are, what we become, what we believe or what we do. Those aspects enable us to connect at a deep, personal level even if we happen to find ourselves at opposite ends of an ideological spectrum.

Those connections are human, heartfelt and allow us to feel trust towards each other. Marketing’s traditional rational approach that “stimulated demand” by factoring customers’ needs and wants needs to transform into one that helps customers understand a brand better, make them like it, and increase the likelihood of their wanting to do business with it. That is a very human thing to do and it has become the defining edge of doing business.