Did a dictator write your marketing playbook?
The Art & Craft of Behavioural Psychology — and how to know when it’s a tool or a weapon.
Have you seen “How to become a tyrant?”
It makes for an equally fascinating and disturbing crawl through human psychology exploring the lives and playbooks of historical dictators such as Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Joseph Stalin, Muammar Gaddafi, and Kim Il-sung.
The plotline of how to become a tyrant:
Everybody wants absolute power to transform society to their liking and proceeds to explain how such power can be obtained and sustained.
I’m a huge fan of documentaries on Netflix, and also of reading widely and broadly about a topic.
One of the best books and then by extension best documentaries I’ve enjoyed is Surveillance Capitalism — by Shoshana Zuboff, and the Social Dilemma documentary that explores many of the topics that came up in Shoshana’s book.
This article is my piece de resistance on the way marketing happens in the digital and rapidly evolving world we live in.
I’m relatively new to marketing.
When I got started, I did all the things I’d been taught that works, FOMO, scarcity, time pressure. These in particular never felt right to me, and when they don’t feel right they don’t work because you are out of integrity with yourself.
I learnt that lesson thankfully after my first launch, and I started to understand what my clients wanted from me, what I wanted to give, how I wanted to show up.
I’m under no illusion that I can fix what’s wrong with marketing, to claim that and mean it would be a massive contradiction in what I’m sharing today.
What I believe rather, is each of us ought to own the fixes we need to protect our rights both as consumers and as responsible businesses owners, to show up as our authentic selves without masks and gimmicks that serve to undermine our long term credibility.
I’m now about to create a link between two ideas that you possibly haven’t yet.
The principles of coaching (mastering self) is highly linked to the principles of marketing psychology (mastering others) because they are rooted in the same foundations — identify the psychological pattern, then modify it.
I’m going to tell you a bit about how coaching works below.
Life is empty & meaningless
My first experience of coaching psychology and performance training was at the age of 24.
I was based in Trinidad and Tobago and the company hired a coaching firm to work with high performers. I learnt a quote from the trainer that stayed with me since then:
Life is empty and meaningless, but it is empty and meaningless that it is empty and meaningless.
The quote is referring to our continuous quest for meaning, and for truth. It argues that neither of those masters exist. We spend our lives seeking them out however, and it renders us susceptible to someone else’s truth.
I grew up with Adventist grandparents, an Anglican mother, plus many friends of Roman Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, and Jehovah’s witness faiths.
Because of the diversity in my influences, I was more willing to stew on this life is empty and meaningless phrase, because I found the idea of suspending judgement easier than many, until I understood what was happening beneath the surface.
Fast forward 1 year and my partner at the time was the king of self-development, using the frameworks of others. His favourite Self-help Book of all time — Think and Grow Rich — is a book that acts as the modern day bible of much of what we see in the self help space today.
But that book and many others are flawed.
I’ll revisit this idea in a moment.
I learnt much from the books my then partner shared with me, and later on I sat with my best friend, pen, paper and a subscription to Oprah’s live your best life, to sketch out our own plans for the rest of our lives.
It was 15 years ago, and I still have the list. I aced everything that I could control at least once.
- 💚Take care of my parents and loved ones.
- 💚Build a home.
- 💚Get to senior management.
- 💚Complete an MBA.
- 💚Travel the world.
- 💛Financially Independent Retire Early (let’s come back to this one, as my perception of retirement has radically changed)
- 💚Start a business.
- ❤️Meet a great guy get married, have kids (clearly out of my control)
- 💛Lose weight. (did it for a while, lost it, did it again, lost it again)
Some notes on the list:
In my experience, there’s power in giving yourself love, when when you don’t achieve long term success on something.
FIRE — Financially Independent Retire Early — Learned this from a friend, and possibly from reading Robert Kiyosaki when I was very young, but today I see this differently. I’ve retired from “employment” but I will spend the rest of my life as long as I’m healthy working for causes I believe in.
Body dysmorphia and loving yourself aside, it’s important to acknowledge in your goals that sometimes health goals may need some external support to develop better long term solutions.
I’ve met the love of my life, and I’ve decided that my life with him is enough. (For now!).
Conclusion : Coaching for Performance and Transformation works
Coaching to manage self, is one of the most powerful tools in anyone’s tool kit.
The challenge, of course, is designing for sustainability into the lofty goals we create for ourselves, and that’s the failure of much of the self help we feed ourselves these days.
Ray Dalio once wrote that you can achieve anything you want, but not everything you want. The laws of physics simply wont allow it.
The Sustainability Story
Sustainability as a concept has many legs, and the most comprehensive codification of that is in the UN 17 Sustainable Development Goals. It’s impossible to optimise them all simultaneously, but there will always be a better fit than we have right now, so we must keep striving toward an optimal place.
Actions have consequences, trade-offs, ripples, that create new realities, all the time in our physical world made up of trillions upon trillions of tiny quantum reactions.
Early in my career, I didn’t understand — or perhaps didn’t want to understand how geopolitics developed the world and economic systems we live in.
I believed in the work hard get paid principle, until I travelled the world, and realised there were kids working harder than me in cotton fields, getting paid for a week what I would spend on a mocha in one transaction.
Geopolitics has fuelled greed that knows no limits. It used to be said that in communal societies there is no ambition, yet some of the world’s best innovations have come from those thinking frugally toward solutions for their communities.
The thing about psychology is that it is a tool of mental model and perception augmentation, that can be used for good, just as easily as it can be used to serve the needs of narcissists, psychopaths, and Machiavellians, who exist in our societies in various forms. Psychologists call this the dark triad.
Any form of psychological control without full knowledge and permission of the participants, is tyranny by definition.
Enter How to be a Tyrant.
I am intellectually curious, so I watched this programme and was struck by how much it reflects what’s bad in service based marketing today.
It’s almost as if some businesses copy-pasted their marketing playbook from the likes of Hitler and Gaddafi.
Let’s examine what I mean — Here’s the summary I drew out from the tyrant’s playbook.
1. Set yourself up as the saviour, promising what everyone wants. Be the populist leader, revered and adored by your followers.
2. Seize power, by any means necessary. (step on a lot of toes if you have to — but climb to the top).
3. Control the narrative. Share stories that support the narrative you want, and discredit the stories that do not.
4. Discredit the competition. Bend the truth until it breaks — as long as the competition is neutralised.
5. Eliminate threats. If discrediting doesn’t work, then eliminate it. Make publicly shocking examples of people who rise up against you, by showing your power to all that can see so they don’t do the same.
Have you ever faced such a leader?
When I trained in the psychology of coaching in 2019 (Neuro-linguistic programming), It illuminated with great clarity the psychological pathways of office politics, colonialism, nepotism.
It also illustrated why modern day service marketing processes results in such visceral levels of buyer’s remorse.
Psychology, just like technology, is both a tool and a weapon.
You can use the skills of mental models and frameworks to build and design a more sustainable, fair and equitable planet.
You can use the same models to design experiences oriented to serve your self-interest, or your country’s interest, or your ethnicity’s interests exclusively.
You can use technology to solve massive problems in our world, or you can use technology to control people to your will. This is what we learnt from both the tyrant movie and the social dilemma.
Storytelling is our greatest human skill. It helped us to survive, helped countries win wars, helped us understand history, and helped us improve our science and knowledge exponentially.
It has also been a weapon of mass manipulation when placed in the hands of those who will use it to further their selfish means.
We all have choice.
We can cut away from these formulaic scripts and create our own, or we can be followers and disciples to a cause that isn’t ours.
It’s important to understand that at any point of this journey, you choose.
Even if you are martyred for your choices, know that there will always be other paths you can take to make a difference.
This sort of psychological tyranny is everywhere.
In politics, of course, we’ve seen it play out spectacularly in recent elections within the G7 and beyond. There’s also greenwashing, gaslighting, and so many other ways tyrannical leaders and marketers bend reality to their will.
The reality is the traits that give rise to these behaviours are present in people, and any attempt to change people without consent is an act of tyrannical warfare.
Instead, we could all be more self-aware, and more emotionally connected, to understand what energies we support, and when we support it.
Taking a stand
When I was 18 years old, my friends and I decided we were not going to vote in the national elections because we believed there was no political position or cause presented that was worth voting for.
It turned out on the day, the only one of us who held out and didn’t vote was me. My mother was livid.
I said “mom, what would you like, a daughter who follows the crowd? Or one who stands up for herself?”
I think she was secretly proud of me after that, though she didn’t show it.
I’ve had many lapses in judgement since then, but each of those has meant I had a tremendous opportunity to learn something new about me and the people I choose to have in my world.
Build your own framework
Here’s a new framework for you to consider when building your own playbook so that you act with responsibly for the experience in marketing and customer service that you are creating with your brand.
- Stand for something. A mission bigger than yourself, that helps more people.
- Accept what you cannot change, and change the things you can — Not new news, but still relevant.
- Get emotional intelligence and psychological training, to understand more about people and what they do, and why they do it. Be curious about people. Explore them, because they do reveal themselves to you.
- Share your experiences. They are yours to share and aim to be of service.
- Collaborate and build communities. As much as we need each of us to show up in our individual uniqueness, we need our work product to help our communities.
- Share the journey, good bad and ugly. Let the people decide, no need to manipulate them.
Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.