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Friday, 06 July 2007

How an Obscure Trappist Monk Changed my Career

By David Wolfe of Ageless Marketing

A few years ago I went to a weekend storytelling retreat. We were first treated to stories performed in the West African Gullah tradition. In this tradition, which was brought to this country in the time of slavery, the storyteller tells her story in segments separated by a chorus echoing the theme of the segment. That weekend, the chorus was a quartet of gospel singers. Not an eye in the audience remained dry upon the conclusion of the story told by this very noble looking woman of African descent.

Next, we heard a historian who specialized in the antebellum South (the retreat was in Charleston, SC) speak of stories and their role in society in that era of southern history.

Then came Joseph, abbot from a nearby Trappist monastery. The good man of the cloth delivered a brilliant lecture on story telling and its role in the spiritual life of people. I asked him, “What is spiritual? How do you define it?” He answered with exquisite simplicity: “When the unseen intrudes on the seen.”

But that was not what he said that burrowed so deeply into my brain that it remains as fresh and invigorating a thought as it was when Abbott Joseph first expressed it.

He led up to that seminal statement by first talking about the role of storytelling among great leaders, starting with Jesus. The abbot, who looked more like he belonged on Wall Street than in a monastery, summoned up the names of leaders in great cultural upheavals (Martin Luther King, Jr.) as well as in business, politics, and other fields of human endeavor. “It is their ability to connect with people through their storytelling that elevates leaders above the mundane to become great leaders,” he told us.

And then he uttered six words that changed the way I looked at my profession – marketing. He said:

“Storytellers help us process our lives.”

Instantly I knew that nearly everyone in marketing had it wrong. They were following a vision of marketing that was false and too often immoral because the sanctioned purpose of marketing is exploitation. Reminiscent of feminist Andrea Dworkin’s charge that men objectify women, marketers objectify consumers, stripping them of their essential humanity and reducing them to metaphorical notches on the butt of a rifle.

Even the august American Marketing Association gets it wrong. It’s definition of marketing:

“Marketing is an organizational function and a set of processes for creating, communicating and delivering value to customers and for managing customer relationships in ways that benefit the organization and its stakeholders.”

Talk about objectification!

When I heard Abbott Joseph’s declaration, “Storyteller’s help us process our lives,” I knew that the only morally defensive role for me as a marketer was to help customers process their lives. Meeting a quota of sales should not be a marketer’s objective. The sales will come if the marketers has done a first-class job of helping customers process their lives.

I’ve recently co-authored a book that talks a great deal about companies that help not only customers process their lives, but all their stakeholders. They strive to endear themselves to all their stakeholders, hence the name of the book, Firms of Endearment. Most of these companies have become household names: Southwest Airlines, Costco, Whole Foods, Harley-Davidson, Ikea, Patagonia, and others.

While it didn’t make it into Firms of Endearment, hardly a better example exists of a company coming to understand the value to every one of helping customers than Unilever. Through its personal products line, Dove, it is helping women to see beauty in a new light with the idea of dissolving any dissatisfaction they my have about their looks. More recently, through its new Pro-aging line of personal products, Dove is helping women feel more comfortable about their age.

I owe much to Abbott Joseph. He helped me see what I had not seen in more than three decades in marketing.

To the degree that I influence others into embracing the idea that “The main role of a marketer is to help people processes their lives,” I will have shaped what I would consider to be one of the more important elements in my legacy.

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Once again a simple phrase, a simple idea, somehow has the power to change a life! Great story!

If only today's Church, at large, could learn the same lesson, being a vessel for Christ instead of selling itself....

Thank you so very much.

Sometimes the simplest concepts are the hardest to grasp. I'm impressed that David Wolfe grasped the Trappist Monk's concept so quickly and applied it to his life.


Do you remember an advertising Guru from many years ago named Dr. Dichter?(sp?). He had the very same thoughts that you have regarding helping people process their lives. He was often called on by the huge Advertising agencies to tell them why their current campaign for some large customer was not working. Sales would be plummeting after what the agency considered to be a clever and informative commercial.
Once, they did an ad for Samsonite Luggage in which to prove the strength of the suitcases, they dropped them from an airplane and noted that the luggage was still in pretty good shape after the fall. But,sales fell dramatically and Dr Dichter was called in. His explanation for the drop in sales was that folks don't like to think of ANYTHING falling from an airplane. They figured that if their luggage was plummeting to the ground, they would be right behind it. They stopped that commercial immediately and sales picked up again.That's helping people process their lives.
I enjoyed reading your post and look forward to reading your book.

I have been reading your blog for some time and been impressed with the approach you take to marketing. Glad you keep putting forth a far more logical and intelligent approach to marketing. Your definition of the term, marketing, is much more appropriate than that the Assoc. uses.

Thank you all for your kind comments, and Joared, thank you for being a loyal reader of my blog. I do appreciate the comments you post to it from time to time.

And Nancy, yes I do remember Dr. Dichter. He is widely considered to be the father of motivational research whose research led to, among other things, Barbie and Exxon's "Tiger in the Tank."

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