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Hell is other People - Existentialism, Branding & Technology

02.12.2011
Matt McNeany

Matt McNeany

Founder and Chief Executive Officer

Amidst the smoke ofmidst the smoke of Gaulloises, the French play-write and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the line Hell is Other People in his play 'Huis Clos' in the 1940s. His point was that (within the philosophical framework of Existentialism) we are all defined by how others perceive us. We may say that we are courageous or entrepreneurial or innovative but it is the judgement of others that defines our 'essence'. Humans, uniquely, can influence this perception only through our actions, never just what we say.

If we fail to act, or act 'inauthentically', that is without conviction, we leave ourselves to the inescapable (and invariably negative) judgement of others. Now, philosophy has moved on but had the Gauloises not finished him off, Sartre could have made a living as a brand consultant in the age of universal technology. Brands have long been able to define themselves. Brand bullseyes established their 'essence' and this was made real for 'others', ie consumers through advertising. A

Brand bullseyes established their 'essence' and this was made real for 'others', ie consumers through advertising. A well crafted line from Ogilvy et al said what this brand was, and how you should feel about it, and indeed even about yourself if you did or did not consume it. Then came the Internet - and the ability of consumers to own the means of communication, and to give ratings and reviews, to blog about how they felt about a brand. Brands' control of their own essence slipped. And then came

Then came the Internet - and the ability of consumers to own the means of communication, and to give ratings and reviews, to blog about how they felt about a brand. Brands' control of their own essence slipped. And then came web apps and iPhone apps, thin clients and web OS, and brands are no longer expected just to say, consumers demand that they do. They act in line with what they say. If they say they are about service, then they provide services; if they say they care about their customers’ health, then they need to demonstrate that with real engagement and authentic action (engagement and authentic action would have been big existential hash tags). So what can the

So what can the extentialists teach us about how to manage brands? Well, a strict reading of Huis Clos could lead you to pessimism (or nihilism); all 3 characters in the play are trapped with an essence or a being that they do not want and can do nothing to change – cowardice, superficiality or aggressive lesbianism (it’s France in the 40s after all) – a bit like your brand getting killed by bloggers and you can do nothing to change. And in fact, the traits of existential angst (what’s it all for? There’s nothing I can do to make it any better) can be seen amongst many brand owners and their agency colleagues. But I prefer to take a much more optimistic view – more Camusian, than Sartrian, if you like. In short, there is little you can do to ‘control’ others and how they perceive you and talk about you. They will do it anyway, some will be spiteful, some will misrepresent you, some will be kind. But by really doing the things you are really passionate about – building a community, driving shareholder value, dancing, whatever – as opposed to

They will do it anyway, some will be spiteful, some will misrepresent you, some will be kind. But by really doing the things you are really passionate about – building a community, driving shareholder value, dancing, whatever – as opposed to saying you are passionate about these things, you will engage those who are interested and want to engage with you. The fact that you have basically unlimited access to everyone in the world should be a huge cause for optimism and opportunity. Build it, be it and they will come. This opportunity does require some courage,

Build it, be it and they will come. This opportunity does require some courage, strength of character (isn’t that the point of authenticity), and like Sisyphus condemned forever to roll the rock up-hill, it may often seem futile. But the message from the cafes of the Rive Gauche to the boardrooms is that you have been given the freedom to act to define what you are (because god and mass media are dead) – and that freedom brings with it a responsibility. Do not act, or act inauthentically and your essence will be defined for you. Conversely, embrace the freedom to act and engage continuously and honestly and you will be continuously re-asserting and re-shaping your brand essence.