[Interview] "We need to have a proper democratic debate about marketing"

Émile Hooge, partner at Nova7, tries to redirect traditional marketing towards a more sustainable and social trajectory, through what he calls ‘demarketing’ strategies. With him, we discussed a commons-based economy, new ways of creating value and how to create new types of relationships with one’s customers.

In the past few decades, marketing has had its shares of scandals. Among others, it’s been criticized for trying to mislead customers, for being sexist, for creating addiction, for promoting greenwashing and pushing people to overconsume. Is it why you coined the term “demarketing” or “dismarketing”? To take your distance from traditional marketing strategies?

There has been a lot of lucid criticism targeted at marketing but it is mainly focused on dysfunctional or unethical practices, very rarely challenging the role of marketing itself. If they take the Anthropocene seriously, companies need to rethink their relationship to markets and consumers. For a company, operating in the “critical zone” doesn’t just mean trying to limit their impact on the environment, it is not just a difficult period we need to overcome because inequalities are rising, it is not just a tough problem to solve. We are realising that we actually live in a world which is radically different from the world we used to live in 15 years ago and compagnies need to take that into account when they build their strategy, and especially their relationship to concrete markets. Fifty years ago, Philip Kotler and Sidney Levy introduced the term “demarketing” to describe a company’s efforts to reduce demand in markets where there is overdemand. Using the classical marketing mix (product, place, promotion and price), a private firm or a government entity can discourage demand for certain goods or services which actually harm the environment, the public’s health or wellbeing. But I coined the term “dismarketing” to offer a more radical shift from traditional “marketing” practices: changing the mindset and the process rather than just using the same tools for a different purpose. There is a semantic difference but also a practical difference and I believe some companies, and some marketers, are actually considering this kind of shift.

In the course you gave in the MSc, you talked about Patagonia, for instance.

Exactly. A few years ago, Patagonia launched an advertising campaign asking people not to buy their clothes. You could actually see pictures of coats reading “don't buy this jacket”. Had it only been advertising, it could have been seen as plain greenwashing to create a buzz and lure consumers into buying more of their clothing because it sounds cool, and environmentally friendly. But what’s interesting is that they didn’t just do that. They also implemented a product care strategy with online tutorials and repair shops for customers to come and learn how to repair their Patagonia garments. The company could even have gone a step further by not selling the jackets they don’t want customers to buy and by changing their relationship with them altogether. Nevertheless I think this tactical move is a first step in transforming the way people are attached to their clothes, and perhaps this could lead to a whole different business model for Patagonia, and a more sustainable relationship between people and material goods.

There aren’t many examples of companies who are really moving in that direction. Some are beginning to understand how and why marketing and markets are dysfunctional but it is very difficult to radically redirect your strategy, especially all by yourself. I believe that companies need to imagine some new approaches to markets and consumers, because from a strategic point of view, that’s what organizations need to sustain in the Anthropocene. But if they don’t start experimenting now and build alternatives step by step, process by process, to radically redirect their business models and marketing, well, they’re going to disappear progressively. Dismarketing is part of this redirection process organizations need to adapt, become more rooted in the earth and embedded in society.

What’s interesting with dismarketing is that it allows you to talk about marketing practices as well as markets. Dismarketing doesn’t just mean dismantling marketing but it could also mean dismantling markets.

I think those are two different aims but we need to deal with them simultaneously.

First, I personally believe markets are not necessarily a problem per se. Markets existed way before the Anthropocene or even Capitalism, in the Mesopotamian cities of the third millennium b.c for instance. Markets are one way of organising exchanges between people, and it’s not necessarily a bad one. They have many advantages, stimulating social life, allowing people to access goods and services that are really useful for them but that they couldn’t produce all by themselves, etc. Having said that, every society is a combination of different modes of exchange: you find communal shareholding, gifting, household caring, solidarity mechanisms through modern States, etc. Today market exchanges are dominant and tend to become overwhelming, invade all aspects of our everyday lives and even lead to the Earth system dysfunctioning. Some markets work almost autonomously, without any relationship to living beings, whether human or non-human! This doesn’t mean we have to scrap markets altogether but it means we have to find ways to re-embed markets into society and to re-ground markets onto the Earth.

Secondly, I think some dysfunctioning comes from the way organizations manage and drive those markets. You mentioned earlier that marketing practices could be misleading for customers, create addictions or overconsumption. That’s exactly what we need to redirect and that’s what dismarketing is about.

Isn’t that what we could call more “ethical” marketing? Can an organisation go on step beyond and put an end to marketing altogether?

If you are a company, selling more ethical goods and services or favoring a more ethical relationship to your customers is just a way of improving your marketing strategy. There are many examples of such approaches but the idea of dismarketing is more radical: a company needs to abandon certain marketing practices which are harmful and reallocate its strategy towards a new type relationship with its clients and a new way of creating value.

It reminds me of a discussion I had recently with the CEO of a small consumer goods company. He told me they had been working a lot to improve the energy efficiency of their technology, the ethical sourcing of the materials they use and overall to design a more sustainable product. But it wasn’t enough for him, he was really intent on adapting his company to the Anthropocene and he wanted to build a truly respectful and caring relationship with their clients. Actually, I think he was asking me about dismarketing without mentioning the word and we spontaneously came up with all kinds of practical ideas: switching from an economy of ownership to an economy based on accessibility, experimenting with a subscription model or a pay-what-you-want model, becoming a public service provider and delivering their goods for free to people who need them but cannot afford them, adding part of the ecological cost to the selling price and passing this on to the consumer, or inventing new ways of involving the customers in the co-production of the goods...

You mean, like in the Ikea model where customers are asked to build themselves the furniture they buy?

Well, Ikea is an interesting starting point but it’s not dismarketing. I would actually call it clever marketing! In fact, they sell a product which is not quite finished and make you, as a customer, work for free to finish making it. You go home with a box full of pieces of wood and an instruction manual. There, you are all alone with your assemble-it-yourself product and you don't co-produce anything with Ikea. What I meant by co-producing is much more radical, it means cooperation and working together. It requires totally different skills from the company: Richard Sennett mentions empathy, subjunctive expression, and dialogic conversation. It also allows the company to actually empower its clients, developing their skills to make and repair the products they use. This model isn’t about the trading of goods and services for money anymore, it’s about sharing capacities. And that is why co-production could become an efficient lever of a dismarketing strategy.

But the Ikea example must remind us that a fake co-production process can also be a powerful tool for old-school marketing, transferring part of the workload onto the customer, and even creating some kind of superficial attachment to the “home made” product.

According to me, co-production works as a dismarketing strategy only if it leads to a real change in the valuation process, in the way the different agents assess the value generated through the transaction. For traditional marketing, the value is mainly borne by the good itself, whereas for dismarketing, the value emerges in the form of new skills and capacities which are built collectively. As a customer, if you really get involved in the production process, you acquire the value of the product you bring back home, plus the skills you have learnt in the process. As a company, you have developed an alternative strategy to manage your relationship with the market and your customers. But how does that make a sustainable business model for you? That’s exactly what I meant when I said dismarkerting would create a radical strategic shift. We need to design new strategies and in this case, the company could, for instance, move to a commons-based economy, where skills and know-how are considered as pooled-resources, a common. The company’s role becomes contributing to commons, nurturing the community to protect it from exclusive appropriation, and building market transactions around those resources. This is similar to what IBM has been doing with the Linux open source software for many years now. And there are probably many other alternatives to imagine.

The MSc “Strategy and Design for the Anthropocene” tries to develop tools to inquire into our collective attachments in order to redirect them towards more sustainable ones. What you are saying about customers valuing their product differently is really close to this notion.

Yes it is, probably because I base a lot of my recent reflexions upon Michel Callon’s work. The French sociologist is close to the pragmatist thinkers who have forged the notion of “attachments” and I believe it’s one of the most inspiring approaches to look at marketing practices from outside the marketing discipline itself. Callon does an excellent job of articulating the various research works investigating the functioning of concrete markets in his book L’emprise des marchés [the book has not yet been translated yet into English but it is following up on works he published earlier in The Laws of the Markets (1998) and Market Devices (2007)]. And this is very useful to understand the role of marketing, which formats markets from the inside, constructing, maintaining and transforming them. And I use his framework to explore the potential role of dismarketing, which can dismantle outdated aspects of markets, and recreating new ones more adapted to the Anthropocene.

At the end of his book, he suggests that we need to have a proper political and democratic debate about markets and I believe that is what dismarketing can bring about. Instead of an ideological stance considering markets to be either good or bad, I think we need to lead an inquiry into their framings and to explore alternative ways of practicing marketing, tackling its dysfunctions.

For instance, if a company wishes to step out of the never-ending spiral of addictive over-consumption and over-production, how can it be done, practically? There again, we need to take a step aside to imagine other relationships between consumers and the goods they acquire. That’s another important aspect of dismarketing: instead of constantly pushing new products to consumers, we could consider creating a kind of legacy link where the product would pass from the company to the customer, then on to friends or relatives, and so on. The process creates a different kind of value embedded in the product and a more lasting kind of attachment, that could even go on from generation to generation. This second type of dismarketing strategy leads to reducing consumption of material goods but maintaining (or even increasing) the value of products, when they are exchanged on the market and long after that...

Speaking of reducing consumption, the Calanques National Park, next to Marseille in France, has launched a “demarketing” strategy to bring down drastically the number of visitors during the high season. Isn’t there a risk of doing so to the detriment of the poorest?

This is a good example of what Kotler and Levy explained in their famous paper ”Demarketing, yes, demarketing”: how to use marketing tools to discourage customers from buying products on a temporary or permanent basis. In the case of the Calanques park, nobody benefits from overcrowding, neither the visitors, nor the Park, and of course not the biodiversity. To tackle that problem, demarketing simply reverses the use of the traditional “marketing mix” to make the product (in this case the Park), less desirable, more expensive, less accessible, less promoted. As you mentioned, the risk is to reserve access to the park to a group of happy few who can afford it. In addition, you are offering no alternatives to create a respectful and lasting relationship between the park, the humans who visit it and all the other living things that inhabit it.
Unfortunately, most environmental demarketing strategies use a similar approach and try to include negative externalities in the price you pay to access a site, or to buy a product. So obviously, by putting the price up it reduces consumption but I think it is an artificial way of changing the market equilibrium which basically boils down to calculating the value of nature. And I’m not sure it is an adequate strategy to keep markets as a sustainable mode of exchanges. The mechanisms involved can have surprising feedback loops: Very rich people could for instance privatize the Calanques; limiting the promotion of the park on social networks could lead to a kind of Streisand effect, drawing more attention to the place and attracting unintended visitors; etc.

In your opinion, how could we both protect the Calanques and preserve equal access for everyone?

Well, we could imagine a multi-stakeholder deliberative process, in order to devise how to value the place/product. By doing that, we are politicizing the process, gathering people who work for the Park, visitors, local inhabitants, representatives from the Region or the state, etc. Following Bruno Latour’s Parliament of things, we could even bring non-humans into the discussion. The main challenge is to open up the valuation process and involve all different kinds of valuation agencies beside those marketers from the Park are used to dealing with (local NGO’s, tourist ranking platforms, and European environmental regulatory bodies for example). This opens up space for a third type of dismarketing strategy, based upon a collective valuation protocol.

What last piece of advice could you give to ‘collapsed marketers’ who are aware of the Anthropocene but don’t know how to deal with it from a professional standpoint?

If you feel your marketing is dysfunctional, no longer adapted to the world we live in today, you need to start experimenting with alternatives. You can’t just try to force your way forward, improving your tools or trying to adjust your actions in a more ethical way. Markets have existed before you and will probably still exist at the end of your career, but you have to deal with them in a radically different way and you have space to ask new questions: Can you redefine your relationship to your customers? Who owns the products you co-produce with your customers? How do you set a price? Should you even set a price? How do you decide the value of what you sell on the market? And with whom do you decide? How do you create attachments and within which timescale?

You don’t necessarily need to answer all those questions at once, and change everything all alone. You are not a hero but I think it is a relevant strategic move to experiment with partial alternatives and progressively build these into your business. If you don’t do that the collapse could be hard for your organization and you might have to shut down your factories, make your staff redundant and be very depressed yourself. Whereas if you’ve experimented with alternatives starting now, then perhaps you can prepare for a radical redirection, keep some agency in the system and not just suffer what’s going to happen to you.