In her third term as Prime Minister, Margret Thatcher famously said,”… there’s no such thing as society.”

She went on to say, “There are [just] individual men and women and there are families.” (Thatcher was responding to a special interest group that was casting its problems as those of society.)

A few days ago I stopped a particularly frustrating conversation short by exclaiming, “There’s no such thing as the market.”

While I doubt my outburst will garner the same international attention as Maggie’s, I was referencing the same conceptual error: mistaking an abstraction for a thing.

Here’s the context. I was talking to two executives from a car dealership about their website. I was suggesting that the primary objective of the site should be to drive people into the dealership. I was making the point that a car dealership is basically a retail business — meaning that it is likely to get a better return on its promotional activities if they are
designed to drive ‘store’ traffic.

I suggested that they should be trialling some kind of couponing campaign. “Forget about trying to sell cars online; convince visitors to print a coupon and redeem it at your dealership for something of extraordinary value.”

The executives responded (almost instinctively), “Oh that kind of thing won’t work: the market is just too jaded.”

It was at that point that I lost my cool!

It’s so convenient to talk about The Market as if it’s a homogeneous ‘thing’. But it isn’t. The market consists of a large number of people and businesses, all with different objectives and buying motives. In this context, at least, the differences between these people are more significant than their similarities.

How likely is it really that ALL market constituents are ‘too jaded’ to respond to this kind of promotional campaign?

And, if you agree it’s unlikely, then what percentage would need to respond for the campaign to be viable?

This is the question that *doesn’t* get asked when we mistake the abstraction (the market) for the thing (individuals).

In the case of the car dealership, it was easy to calculate the number of people who would need to respond to such an offer for it to be viable: one! (Because the dealership has it’s web developer on retainer, the incremental cost of the necessary changes will be $0.00.)

Obviously, in some contexts, abstractions like ‘the market’ and ‘society’ have utility. But, we must remember that these abstractions are conceptual short-cuts and, like most short-cuts, we take them at our own risk.