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A means to an end: what marketers can learn from philosopher Immanuel Kant.

a means to an end

Philosopher Immanuel Kant said that human beings should be treated as an end in themselves and not as a means to something else.

That’s a bit abstract. So, let’s do some unpacking.

In business and in life, you will run into two types of people –– those who treat people like people and those who treat people as a means to getting what they want.

The people who treat people like people are the ones we want to surround ourselves with and the ones we should ultimately aspire to be. These types of people legitimately care about others, their success and their well-being. While they might not always be the nicest, they’re the realest and aren’t afraid to tell their friends, loves ones, colleagues and clients what they may not want to hear, but need to hear.

This is the type of person and idea Kant is referring to when he says, “Human beings should be treated as an end in themselves.”

Now, on the other hand, there are also people who treat people as a means to getting what they themselves want. They don’t truly care about others but might pretend to care about others, especially if it means they will be able to further themselves, their own success and well-being.

These types of people are generally very charming, sometimes overly charming, leaving people around them with a lingering thought… this person seems ‘too’ nice.

This is the type of person and idea Kant is referring to when he says, “…not as a means to something else.”

So, really what Kant is saying, is to not be a filthy scheming asshole.

It’s sound advice.

Advice I try desperately to follow in my own life and in my own relationships. But, something extraordinarily difficult to follow as a marketer, where much of my success is measured by whether or not I can write words that get people to cough up their hard earned money.

Marketing, in and of itself, is the antithesis of Kant’s philosophy.

No, this doesn’t make all marketers assholes, it just makes us more susceptible to being assholes. When we are marketing to a customer, it’s easy to view the customer as a means to an end (or a ‘sale’) versus an end in themselves.

While at first glance, it might seem impossible, to apply Kant’s philosophy in our own marketing. There are several extraordinarily successful brands living and breathing this philosophy with their customers.

Thee brands living, breathing and marketing Kant’s philosophy.

I will admit. The idea of treating customers like an end in themselves versus a means to an end seems far-fetched and a bit romantic. But, it’s possible. Or, at least Patagonia, Gumroad and Medium all say so…

Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, has told customers to stop buying his clothes. As a die-hard environmentalist and humanist, Yvon wants customers to recycle and reuse versus add to their ever-growing Patagonia collection.

In fact, he wants this so much that he launched the Worn Wear Wagon, a garment repair shop on wheels traveling the United States repairing Patagonia clothes for free. Every single one of Patagonia’s clothes comes with a life-long warranty. That’s the epitome of treating customers like an end in themselves.

Gumroad, a super-simple e-commerce and payment processor for non-tech-savvy creatives, is another lovely example.

Their founder, Sahil Lavingia, wrote a stunning piece about how after experiencing massive failure, he changed the brands focus from strictly “growing revenue” to offering his customers the most amount of value possible.

While Gumroad isn’t a billion-dollar startup, its impact is massive.

They have helped creatives all around the world earn a total of $178,000,000 doing what they love. That’s beautiful. Trust me, I know first hand, I used the platform to launch my copywriting guide.

Then, of course, we can’t forget about Medium, the online publishing platform ran by serial entrepreneur Ev Williams. Unlike every other social media platform, Medium pays its users to create beautiful, authentic, thought-provoking reads. Their tagline says it all… where words matter. The brand could make more money if they didn’t payout their writers. A lot more money. But, like Patagonia and Gumroad, Medium treats their customers like people, like an end in themselves versus a means to an end.

Now, that’s wonderful and all, but how do we apply Kant’s philosophy to our own brand(s) and marketing?

How marketers can use Kant’s philosophy to build stronger more authentic brands.

Applying Kant’s philosophy begins with removing focus from strictly revenue and growth and refocusing it to the customer and perhaps more than this… the person.

It might even require marketers and entrepreneurs making a consistent effort to keep their brands small like Yvon and Patagonia –– I riff on more about this idea in How to build a spaceship, my wild voyage discovering the one person business.

With that said, there are a few questions we can ask as marketers that will help us make this transition from viewing our customers (be it consciously or subconsciously) as a means to an end to an end in themselves…

For starters, we could ask… How can we give our customers more value than they pay for?

I think most Patagonia customers would agree that they get more value than they pay for… every product has a life-time warranty after all.

Next, we can ask ourselves… How can we give people something valuable they don’t have to pay for?

Here at Honey Copy, every human on the planet has access to my blog and my free weekly newsletter. While, yes, I hope they eventually go on to either work with me or buy my copywriting guide, I am confident that what I give away for free is extremely valuable and to I am damn proud of that.

And, finally, we need to constantly challenge ourselves with the following question… How can we be 100% honest with our customers? Be it good or bad.

Shit happens in business. Treating customers as a means to an end is being dishonest with them, hiding facts from them or perhaps even disguising our brands as something they’re not. It’s imperative that as marketers we continuously challenge ourselves and our brands to be real and honest. Not to just be real and honest about the good things but all of the things.

I believe that marketers have the power to make the world a better place by simply building better brands. And, perhaps, this begins and ends with Kant.

By Cole Schafer.


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Cole Schafer