Marketers are in the business of creating intangible value. We learn its craft through creating emotional connections made possible by consumer insights. For many businesses, intangible or perceived value is the  biggest asset they have (hello Google and Coca Cola).

Of course this isn’t the whole story. Marketers also communicate the functional benefits of products, otherwise known as the ‘real’ value. This is the type of value that’s easy to communicate, for instance the product is faster, cheaper or lighter.

However it seems that the former value, perceived value, gets a bad rep. I sometimes get the impression from friends that they view the creation of non-functional value to be somehow dishonest. As if marketers create a smoke screen that cheats people into buying a product.

You might not be surprised to find that I disagree. Of course, like any tool, marketing can be used for good and bad. However I don’t believe that creating intangible brand value in unethical in principal.

By using the placebo as a metaphor for brand, Jeremy Bullmore makes the point brilliantly in his essay, ‘Plonk and Placebos’:

The placebo effect, though still in part mysterious, is clear evidence that there exists an amazing complexity of mind-body interaction. Placebo treatment, measurably, changes the function of the brain. Expectation can and does affect actual therapeutic performance. … This is not just ‘in the mind’: they actually contribute more, and measurably, to the reduction of pain or anxiety or whatever condition the placebo has been claimed to alleviate.

More than any other form of measurement, placebo experiments demonstrate the real power of The Brand.”

Bullmore shows that intangible value can be as powerful as ‘real’ value for delivering satisfaction. The crux is that ‘real’ and ‘perceived’ value are artificial constructions. In reality, our brains don’t differentiate between the two and therefore as marketers, neither should we.

But I would go further. I think we should actively strive to create more intangible value and less ‘real’ value. Why? To create more ‘real’ value we need more physical resources – more nuts and bolts. In comparison, to create more intangible value we require more ideas and creativity. Therefore in a world where physical resources are finite but our hunger for economic growth is unquenchable, surely our most ethical option is to pursue intangible value?

Photo by Klesta/Flickr/CC BY 2.0