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  • Writer's pictureTeresa Hardwick

Philosophical Marketing: What can Plato’s Republic teach us about marketing?

The world turns on stories, from the story of what money means to the story of what time it is and how we measure it. My theory of storytelling in marketing starts in Ancient Greece. In this post, I will discuss how Plato’s Tripartite Theory of the Soul can be used as a framework to help marketeers reach customers in a more meaningful way.

The Tripartite Theory of the Soul first appears in Plato’s most famous work, Republic. A Socratic dialogue, this work is written as a discussion between Socrates and various other scholars. It is comprised of ten books and draws parallels between the human soul and the political structures of a city. The main discussion of the Tripartite Theory of Soul comes in book nine:

“According to us, one part was the organ whereby a man learns, and another that whereby he shews spirit. The third was so multiform that we were unable to address it by a single appropriate name; so we named it after that which is its most important and strongest characteristic. We called it appetitive, on account of the violence of the appetites of hunger, thirst, and sex, and all their accompaniments; and we called it peculiarly money-loving, because money is the chief agent in the gratification of such appetites.” – The Republic of Plato, book nine, p. 318

Human beings make decisions based on a combination of what we might relate to as the head (intellect), the heart (spirit), and the gut (appetite/desire). These features are intertwined; sometimes overlapping, synchronising, or pulling in different directions. Now, to map these three onto how customers respond to storytelling in marketing:

Marketing stories for the Head

This type of marketing material pertains to the intellect. Things like product technical specifications, ROI projections, performance statistics, durability, and any other measurable benefits. These are rational, scientific, and objectively quantifiable reasons that customers behave a certain way.

Marketing stories for the Heart

For the most part, people care about people. Telling a human story behind a product or service helps audiences connect on an emotional level. This is an aspect of the human condition traditionally leveraged in B2C marketing over B2B, where buying decisions tend to have several stakeholders and are more pragmatic. However, in our modern digital age, the story and character of a company can be of greater relevance in a B2B world than it might once have been. Particularly with greater public scrutiny of corporate responsibility and the introduction of Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG). I’ll cover more on how this marks an intriguing moral anthropomorphism of the corporate entity in a future post!

Marketing stories for the Gut

The term “gut feeling” is part of our every day rhetoric, used to describe when one makes a decision because it feels like the right choice. Speaking to a customer’s gut can be achieved through content that triggers mimetic desire – the human propensity to do/want/say something because other people do. Content such as reviews, testimonials, awards, and case studies, all help to connect with a customer’s gut feeling.

Multi-faceted marketing stories

Appealing to all three is not easy and they can often be in conflict. How often do we make gut-instinct decisions even though, intellectually, other decisions are clearly optimal? Or, let our heart rule our head, or vice-versa?

We all experience these parts of our character in different ratios and balances, depending on our individual personalities. Likewise, customers are influenced by these three to greater and lesser degree. Some people are very pragmatic and will usually use their head, others can be more instinctive and go with their gut, others still are more emotionally driven and follow their heart. Plato reports Socrates as saying that, in regard to the intellect, the spirit and the appetite:

Does not this last reign in the souls of some persons, while in the souls of other people one or other of the two former, according to circumstances is dominant?… And for these reasons may we assert that men may be primarily classed as lovers of wisdom, of strife, and of gain? – The Republic of Plato, book nine, p. 318

To influence the greatest number of people, it is important to create multi-faceted marketing stories that can speak to the full Tripartite Division of the Soul. Considering these three philosophical aspects of the human behaviour that drive decision-making, gives a solid foundation and framework on which to build your brand story.

An exercise in philosophical marketing:

To tell your marketing stories with philosophical insight, conduct a “Tripartite Theory” self-audit of your complete marketing output. Consider whether each element of your output speaks mostly to your customers’ Logos, Thymos, or Eros, and create groups like the table below. This will help you see the strengths and weaknesses of your whole marketing story.

This table shows one way that you might conduct a Tripartite Theory self-audit

Of course, you know your audience best. If, for example, your customers are predominantly precision engineers or data analysts who buy technical products, prioritising marketing stories that appeal to the Logos will likely get more results. Whereas, if your customers are mostly pet owners or retirees, it might be more valuable to tell marketing stories that appeal to the Thymos.

Socrates’ argument is that every person possesses all three of these divisions of the soul, but the one that is dominant will vary from person to person, and moment to moment. As such, whatever your audience, it is always worth having at least something appealing to each of Logos, Thymos, and Eros represented across the spectrum of your output. You never know what people will be most receptive to.

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