Love & Marketing – Inspired by Erich Fromm


A few days ago I felt moved to bring my favorite book down from the shelf.  There are some big changes going on in my life right now.  I just left the marketing agency I helped co-found six years ago for a visual marketing startup called Tailwind.


In The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm doesn’t have a lot of good things to say about marketers and their contribution to what he saw as an overly-materialistic society (way back in 1956).  The principles in his book aren’t meant to be leveraged for business success like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.  This book is about the neglected art of actively loving ourselves and other people.  By trying to adhere to its principles I believe we can stand out as leaders who care, do better work, connect more meaningfully with the brands we represent, and communicate more impactfully with people.

Fromm makes the case that we’re thinking about love all wrong.  “Most people see the problem of love primarily as that of being loved, rather than that of loving, of one’s capacity to love.  Hence the problem to them is how to be loved, how to be lovable.”  He observes that to attract love we try to be desirable through some combination of physical attractiveness, success and being popular.

To a marketer, of course, that all sounds like second nature – it’s positioning.  The perennial question, “How is our product different from the competition?”  There’s certainly a place for that in marketing, but these differences are often not what really motivate buying and customer loyalty.  Human beings just aren’t that cerebral in their day-to-day decision making, it takes too much effort.  We rely, more often than not, on cognitive shortcuts like habit formation and gut reactions.

Every year about 20 million people take a trip to Walt Disney World at considerable effort and expense.  Have all those people really weighed their options, considered all the resorts in all of the tourist hotspots in the world?

Clients that I’ve worked with in the Disney ecosystem suggest not.  They report that people go to Disney World because they have an emotional connection to the Disney brand, to the characters and stories that inhabit that world.  They plan their trips without really considering competing options.

Nothing wonderful is ever birthed in this world without love, and that goes for every character, every story, every ride and every experience in Disney World.  Disney is a brand that has loved itself fairly consistently for generations, that has labored in love over sketches and scripts, piano and keyboard keys.

You don’t even have to be a customer of Disney to feel that love.  Watch a Disney movie at a friend’s house, play a game on, window shop one of their stores – your world is richer for Disney and you haven’t spent a cent.  This kind of strategic generosity can be used by nearly any brand and underpins modern marketing concepts like inbound marketing and community building.

Pixar invested $30 million dollars in their first full length movie, Toy Story, the first ever full-length computer-animated feature film.  They gambled the company’s existence on the ability of an unknown cowboy and a space ranger to create an emotional bond with audiences.  They poured love into their cast of characters, into the story and the cutting-edge technology needed to realize their vision; they took the bold move and they loved first.  They weren’t trying to calculate how to be loved, they were concentrating on the product, pouring love into their labor, and they became beloved.  11 years and 6 hit movies later they were bought by Disney for $7.4 billion.  

The market is such a powerful concept that it informs how we think about more than just commerce.  Erich Fromm believed that the market mentality had bled through to realms of human activity where it has no business.  He observed people approach love as though they were a product looking for the most equitable exchange.

“I am out for a bargain; the object should be desirable from the standpoint of its social value, and at the same time should want me, considering my overt and hidden assets and potentialities.  Two persons thus fall in love when they feel they have found the best object available on the market, considering the limitations of their own exchange values.”

We commoditize ourselves, or, if we’re especially good, we brand ourselves.  The methodology of the market has become so all-pervading that we estimate our self-worth based on what others are willing to exchange for us.

When evaluating the Tailwind job offer I filled up a spreadsheet with pros and cons, worked out that joining any startup comes with risk, that I’d get stock but be making less money, that I’d be managing fewer employees with a less clear path to career growth.  In the end I ignored all of that and went with my gut, because Tailwind offered what gets me fired up most – the potential for massive personal growth.  And if I push a little deeper even, I thought I could be even happier.

Ultimately it matters less how you come to your decisions than that you commit fully to them.  Much like with marriage, now that I’ve made a commitment, in order to be happy I must put that spreadsheet of pros and cons aside and set about actively loving the one I’m with.

To love is a choice.  

“People think that to love is simple, but that to find the right object to love  – or to be loved by – is difficult.”  

Not so.  Finding the right object to love is easy, we are surrounded by them all the time: we should love ourselves, our family, and all those we come into contact with.  The same goes for businesses, who should love themselves, their employees, customers, and all people.  Love extends to all people because love is an orientation, it can’t pick and choose its object.  If you think they’re not worthy of your love then you don’t yet have a loving orientation.  

Nor should we confuse the emotionally charged “falling” in love, the infatuation that two people feel as the barriers between them come down and they experience intimacy, for the permanent state of being in love.

Falling in love is easy, being in love is hard, really hard.  I fail at loving every single day.  

And yet being in love is not something that we work very hard at, despite how regularly and how spectacularly we fail at it.  We don’t see it as an art, a faculty to cultivate, because we’re passive – we see love as something that happens to us, not something we create.  We’ve been fooled by an endless parade of love stories that end with the couple coming together.  We’ve fallen into the habit of skin-deep infatuations.

In marketing, a focus on falling in love over being in love creates marketers who define their profession too narrowly – they focus almost exclusively on attracting leads for the sales team, on sealing the deal.  We should have a more general concern for the wellbeing of customers than that.  Marketers need to be watching every touch point in their customer journey from stranger to lead to customer and ultimately to advocate.  If a customer has a problem anywhere along that journey, with the product say, or with customer service, that problem could deprive the brand of an important advocate, which is absolutely a marketing problem.

Caption: “The special character of understanding in personal discussion with Fromm was the directness and closeness that he established, that he transferred with his attentiveness and his interest in his companion.” – Rainer Funk, Fromm’s assistant
Caption: “The special character of understanding in personal discussion with Fromm was the directness and closeness that he established, that he transferred with his attentiveness and his interest in his companion.” – Rainer Funk, Fromm’s assistant

Advice on How to Love

Fromm’s advice on how to love is straightforward, although still difficult enough in practice for it to be an art.  He suggests that to love actively we must develop the following attitudes.

  • Care
  • Responsibility
  • Respect
  • Knowledge

“Care, responsibility, respect and knowledge are mutually interdependent.  They are a syndrome of attitudes which are to be found in the mature person; that is, in the person who develops his own powers productively, who only wants to have that which he has worked for, who has given up narcissistic dreams of omniscience and omnipotence, who has acquired humility based on the inner strength which only genuine productive activity can give.”

Caption: Erich Fromm and his second wife Annis.
Caption: Erich Fromm and his second wife Annis.

These faculties require the overcoming of ego.  In the final account the narcissist cares only for himself, his responsibility is to himself, he does not respect the object and so seeks only a shallow knowledge of it, only attends to it inasmuch as it can be turned to his benefit.  To love we must get over ourselves.

When marketers fail, it is oftentimes a failure of love.  A failure to care enough about the campaign, a failure to take responsibility for the return on investment, a failure to respect the brand for what it is and not try to force it to be something that would be easier to market, a failure of knowledge – a failure to spend the time and effort needed to really understand the customer, the product or the company, to get to the essence of the brand.

At BigWing Interactive, the marketing agency I’m leaving, I helped the team to refine their cultural values.  I asked the question “What is it that motivates you to get out of bed in the morning and come to work?”  The resulting values demonstrate a lot of love.  The value that resonated most strongly was stewardship, one that encapsulates both care and responsibility.

Caption: At BigWing Interactive’s monthly SPICCEE awards staff are peer-nominated to win prizes, along with a desk magnet for the value they demonstrated
Caption: At BigWing Interactive’s monthly SPICCEE awards staff are peer-nominated to win prizes, along with a desk magnet for the value they demonstrated

Businesses that lack self-love lack internal champions for their brands; their unloved brands wither from neglect.  They leave their customers cold, and unloved customers leech away.  Such a brand is almost impossible to effectively market in the long term.  Who can you expect to love you if you cannot love yourself?


You wouldn’t believe someone if they told you they loved plants and then neglected to water them.

“Love is the active concern for the life and the growth of that which we love.”

BigWing Interactive is owned by the same company that owns the five star Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs.  Coming back from a recent visit our President, Gary Pierson, told the story of walking through the grounds of The Broadmoor when their CEO veered off the path to pick up a piece of litter.  Even though he was the most senior person on the complex, he set the example for every other employee to follow.  He cared enough to get his hands dirty.

Caption: The grounds of The Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs
Caption: The grounds of The Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs

Care takes time and it takes effort, there’s no way around it.  We care for what we love, and The Ikea Effect suggests that we end up loving what we care for.  As Fromm puts it, “Love and labor are inseparable.”


Responsibility can sound unappealing.  It has the ring of an admonition.  But for Fromm the word does not denote duty, a requirement imposed on one from some external source, it means being ready and able to respond.

“The loving person responds.  The life of his brother is not his brother’s business alone, but his own.  He feels responsible for his fellow men, as he feels responsible for himself.”

We need to take responsibility for the customer’s experience of our brand, for the minutiae of touch points.  We need to recognize that our customers are people, every one of them, and we need to really hear them, and push our organizations to get better for their sakes.

Marketers operate in an ever-changing landscape: competitors jostle, the needs of customers change, tectonic shifts occur to our society and culture that inform everything from the aesthetics of advertising to how different words resonate.  We need to be constantly responding to the big picture as well as the small; testing, analysing and iterating, as well as taking the intuitive leaps, the risks, that become competitive advantages.


A brand is everything and nothing, at the same time fragile and stubborn.  Like culture it is a feeling that is elicited, a feeling informed by a thousand stimulae.  How can a marketer get to the essence of something so complicated, intangible and impermanent?

There’s a great danger here.  It’s one I feel acutely as I move into my new role at Tailwind.  To love we must respect what we love.  That doesn’t mean to feel fear and awe, but to see it as it is and respect its unique individuality.  We must want the object of our love to grow in its own way, to reach its own potential, and not to let our ego get in the way and try to prescribe that growth for it, or turn it to our advantage.  Respect isn’t domineering, it’s accepting.

“Respect thus implies the absence of exploitation.  I want the loved person to grow and unfold for his own sake, and in his own ways, and not for the purpose of serving me.”

Can I learn enough about Tailwind, and quickly enough, to be able to channel its authentic self?  By trying to articulate it will I not inevitably, even if subconsciously, imprint myself upon it?

At BigWing I attempted to instil more respect for our customers by starting every campaign with the generation of a brand brief, customer personas and customer journey mapping.  The function of this exercise, driven by hours of client interviews, was to “understand your brand, your customers, and your marketing goals”.  Account Managers would create the best rendering that they could of the client’s brand and then ask them where they’d got it wrong.

When it worked, it worked beautifully.  It allowed us to approach clients with respect and humility.  But helping clients to define themselves can be dangerous, the client’s attempts to clarify can be brushed over, the reasoning behind our thinking justified.  We could inadvertently put untruths in their mouths.  A chisel can be used to sculpt or to vandalize and the difference may be unintentional, it may be due to something as simple as the respect with which we approach the stone.


In order to take responsibility for something we must understand it.  Our care and our respect should be informed by knowledge.  

As I approach the Tailwind brand I know that they’re a startup and they need me to act fast, but I don’t want to act ignorantly.  I need to know what’s most important for me to understand.  My thinking has crystallized to form concentric circles with the company’s “values” at the center, informing their “culture”, informing their “brand”, which in turn informs their “community”.  I intend to build my knowledge from the inside out, so that Tailwind’s values can permeate all of their communications, ultimately even those that we don’t directly control, like the way the community of Tailwind users talk among themselves.

values culture brand community

Fromm makes a distinction between shallow knowledge and knowledge which is motivated by concern.  In a couple of hours I can know what you say about yourself, but it will take longer to get to the truth.

“I may know, for instance, that a person is angry, even if he does not show it overtly; but I may know him more deeply than that; then I know that he is anxious, and worried; that he feels lonely, that he feels guilty.  Then I know that his anger is only the manifestation of something deeper, and I see him as anxious and embarrassed, that is, as the suffering person, rather than as the angry one.”

During my discovery about Tailwind it became obvious that they would benefit from having more brand artifacts – objects and assets that represent the spirit of the brand.  These would be especially useful in modeling how great visual marketing can benefit brands, even those without physical products.

An obvious brand artifact to start with would be a brand avatar or mascot.  I asked about that during the interview process and the response was lukewarm.  I sensed that the conversation had been had and petered out and I could have left it at that.  I didn’t though, in the next interview I asked more questions and discovered that they already had an unofficial mascot – a beaver – and that I could even see an early rendering of it on the error page of their website.


When I saw the beaver I understood a little better – perhaps the lukewarm response wasn’t resistance to the concept of a mascot, but an acknowledgement that their existing mascot wasn’t working.  

I kept asking and Tailwind CEO, Danny Maloney, admitted that Barry the beaver originated with an engineer who thought beavers were cute and funny, which they are, but which Tailwind may well not be.  From what I’d learned about the team I suggested that Barry might be more instructive of how they think of themselves as industrious builders than of how they would like the Tailwind brand to be perceived.

I could have stopped at the first resistance and accepted that a Mascot was off the table.  Or I could have circumvented all that knowledge and mandated a different mascot, but without taking the time to understand the team, without the knowledge of how they’ve gotten to where they are, I’d risk alienating them.  I might hurt the culture, which I believe needs to inform the brand.  

Instead I will keep asking questions, respectful of the team and of the brand.  I will try to understand Barry the Beaver from their perspective.  He may be a perfect mascot for all I know, I may just not have been able to see it yet.

Fromm warns against using knowledge alone to try to get to the essence of somebody, since at our essence we are beyond words, indescribably complicated. So it is with brands.  For all the words that marketers put into briefs, all of the style guides we create and all of the strategies we formulate, only at our best do we get to the essence of what it is we’re selling.  

The essence is what we should be trying to capture with our marketing.  Recognizing an authentic essence is what creates an emotional connection between customers and a brand.  You know you’ve succeeded when customers have the same gut reaction to your brand independently.  Until then you don’t yet have a brand.

“Love is active penetration of the other person, in which my desire to know is stilled by union.”

Through care and responsibility, respect and knowledge, I hope to unite with the Tailwind brand and communicate its essence in a way that creates an emotional connection with people.  I’d like to make it easy for people to instinctively get it, and ultimately grow to love it.  

My commitment is to love the brand, help the brand to love itself, to love its customers and all people, because a loving brand can be beloved.

What higher calling is there for a lowly marketer?

Are love and marketing incompatible?

Some people would like to be more loving but are wary they’d be taken advantage of, they feel that love and life in our modern capitalistic society are fundamentally incompatible.

“I am of the conviction that the answer of the absolute incompatibility of love and ‘normal’ life is correct only in an abstract sense.  The principle underlying capitalistic society and the principle of love are incompatible.  But modern society seen concretely is a complex phenomenon.  A salesman of a useless commodity, for instance, cannot function economically without lying; a skilled worker, a chemist, or a physician can.”

Others may feel that love is not a principle that can, or should, be applied to the world of business.  I would argue that business is more about people than it is about profits.  Or, to be more precise, in business people are the path to profits.

If in your heart you believe that profits are all that counts then take the advice from Patrick Lencioni’s excellent book on organizational health, The Advantage, and be honest about that fact with your employees and with your customers – they’ll figure it out soon enough anyway.

There are plenty of examples of businesses that succeed without love.  It can look like success if money is what you believe you seek, but it isn’t.

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” – Mark 8:36

Fromm sees love as the problem of loving, as an orientation, as “a syndrome of attitudes… in the person who develops his own powers productively”.  The loving person will bring that orientation with them to whatever it is they do, be it spending time with their loved ones, volunteering, reading, gardening, a creative pursuit, or a professional one.

The capacity to love demands a state of intensity, awakeness, enhanced vitality, which can only be the result of a productive and active orientation in many other spheres of life.  If one is not productive in other spheres, one is not productive in love either.

Start actively loving those closest to you and you may find yourself loving strangers, express your love through a creative labor and you may find yourself expressing love through your work.  It is not in love’s nature to discriminate.

Caption: “The most impressive element was his interest in the person with whom he was conversing, which revealed itself in a warm, as well as a steadfast, sometimes almost too intensive, gaze.” – Rainer Funk, Fromm’s assistant
Caption: “The most impressive element was his interest in the person with whom he was conversing, which revealed itself in a warm, as well as a steadfast, sometimes almost too intensive, gaze.” – Rainer Funk, Fromm’s assistant

Please consider reading The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm.  

“Erich Fromm is both a psycologist of penetration and a writer of ability.  His book is one of dignity and candor, of practicality and precision.” – Chicago Tribune

Also Recommended – Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm

“As much as any person in our time, he has sought to confront our moral and intellectual dilemmas and to comprehend a humanity that seems resolutely determined to destroy itself… Fromm is, as Gerald Sykes remarks in The Hidden Remnant, one of those people ‘who actually help make democracy work’.” – Don Hausdorff

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *