What the Pleasure Paradox Can Teach Us About Great Marketing

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(With Christmas Day only a week away, I wanted to write a post with a holiday theme. Unfortunately, I lack the creativity to write a clever (and poetic) post based on “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” or something similar. This post does, however, make the point that marketers can achieve great success by truly serving their customers and prospects. That message fits the season. Happy Holidays!)

In life and in business, some of our most important goals are best pursued indirectly. All of us want to be happy, but the reality is, we can’t achieve happiness by trying to be happy. In the disciplines of philosophy and ethics, this principle is usually called the paradox of hedonism or the pleasure paradox. The pleasure paradox is the idea that happiness can only be acquired indirectly. In his autobiography, the philosopher John Stuart Mill described this principle in the following terms:

“But I now thought that this end [happiness] was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness . . .”

Victor Frankl described the pleasure paradox even more succinctly:

“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself . . .”

Business success is obviously different from personal happiness, but variations of the pleasure paradox also exist in the world of business. In Obliquity, John Kay called one of these variations the “profit-seeking paradox,” which holds that the best way for a business to maximize profits is not to seek to maximize profits.

Although they never used the term, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras described the profit-seeking paradox in their best-selling book Built to Last. Collins and Porras compared the long-term performance of several pairs of companies in the same industry. In each pair, one of the companies (the “visionary” company) had achieved exceptional long-term financial performance, while the comparison company was just average. Collins and Porras found that profit-driven companies were less profitable than companies that were driven by other goals. The authors wrote:

“Visionary companies pursue a cluster of objectives, of which making money is only one – and not necessarily the primary one. Yes, they seek profits, but they’re equally guided by a core ideology – core values and sense of purpose beyond just making money. Yet paradoxically, the visionary companies make more money than the purely profit driven companies.”

By now, you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with marketing. Most marketers would say that the ultimate goal of marketing is to drive revenue growth. But like profit, revenue growth is a goal that is best pursued indirectly. In today’s marketing environment, there is a “revenue-seeking paradox,” which holds that the best way for marketers to drive revenue growth is to stop focusing directly on revenue growth as the ultimate objective.

Jay Baer captures the essence of this paradox in his best-selling book Youtility. Baer argues that the key to successful marketing is to make marketing useful to the recipient. He defines “Youtility” as “massively useful information, provided for free, that creates long-term trust and kinship between your company and your customers.” The underlying message of Youtility is that you will achieve greater long-term marketing success by intentionally promoting less at the point of customer interaction – that revenue growth is a by-product of the help and usefulness you provide.

The revenue-seeking paradox runs counter to the conventional wisdom of marketing that’s existed for decades. So, it’s not likely that most marketers or other business leaders will rush to embrace it. But those who can put helping above selling will achieve the greatest marketing success.

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