Why is a handmade candle generally considered better than a manufactured one?

The materials and quality may actually be exactly the same: the same candle wax, the wick material, the same kind of burn. So it can be puzzling why most people seem to think highly of one while thinking less of the other.

Or think about music. There’s a reason that disco-pop music made today might be more highly valued than disco-pop music made during the 70s. The newer was clearly made with deliberate design, knowingly using a genre convention to do something artistically. Disco-pop made in the 70s was following a trend and repeating a pattern already much (some would say inexplicably) in demand.

For any kind of product, there is a last invisible element that can one apart from another: craftsmanship. For my purposes, I’ll define this craftsmanship as an approach to the process of creation which involves greater-than-typical levels of complex human design.

What makes craftsmanship interesting is precisely that it’s invisible to most of us. We aren’t usually flies on the wall in recording sessions, paintings, or basketweavings. We have no direct way of knowing that something is made with craftsmanship, aside from hearing the story told by the seller.

Given a choice between two roughly equal products why do we choose the craft-made over the other? I don’t think it’s because additional labor is inherently valuable. But I do think that intangible things like “care” and “craftsmanship” let us attach meaning to things. They are parts of the stories we tell about the goods and services that give us life. And stories and meaning do make things more valuable in most of our eyes.

Look at any religion or political system or tribal tradition that has ever existed. Within these belief frameworks, ordinary physical objects take on symbolic power to represent and channel the experience of important values. Sometimes they can be pieces of stone or wood, pieces of cloth, or pieces of metal. And yet we attach meaning to them because there is a story behind them – that stone is a monument to liberty, and that flag is a remembrance of courage. Say what you will about the usefulness of these stories, but they are clearly powerful motivators.

We shouldn’t be surprised that people use the same stories – this time about an approach called “craftsmanship” – to attach meaning to the song, cup, painting, chair, shirt, coffee, etc. that they buy.

What does this mean for us?

Economists are right to question the localism of the “buy local” movement and the efficacy of the fair trade movements – both marketing campaigns attempting to tell a story about the kind of things people should by. However, when economists take the full “rationalist” approach of only allowing for valuations based on finished quality or and utility, they miss some of the most important “irrational” motivations people have for choosing preferences. These include stories.

Beauty and meaning, as invisible and “irrational” as they can seem, will always be factors in peoples’ subjective valuations and choices. And that means stories will always be a part of what people carry home with them when they buy things at the store. As a human, as an amateur philosopher, and as a marketer, I find that fascinating.

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