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Baruch Spinosa and the Allure of 'Things Excellent'

In the closing of "Ethics", his most influential body of work, Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinosa proclaims poignantly, “But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”

Fast-forward over 300 years later to Carmel, California where a fantastic object of desire from the early 1960’s captured the imaginations of auto enthusiasts and rekindled discussion on things excellent, difficult and rare. In 2014, The Bonhams Quail Lodge Auction successfully sold a Ferrari 250 GTO Berlinetta for a record price of $38.1 million US dollars. Per Baruch’s definition, this Ferrari was indeed rare (it is reported that 36 were made), difficult (this was the pinnacle of automotive performance in its day, and one owner of the vehicle was killed in an accident while racing the car) and excellent, as the ownership and racing history embellished the credentials of this machine – a purpose built racer developed by the legendary Enzo Ferrari and his engineering lieutenants, Giotto Bizzarrini and Mauro Forghieri in conjunction with the design house of Sergio Scaglietti.

The frenzy of desire that these objects churn up are on sight to see auctions across the world and reverence those objects has been influenced by the art world, where skill and rarity are especially prized.

So what drives our appreciation of ‘things excellent’? How do our perceptions on scarcity lead to the type of desire that has boosted the market for art and automobiles to record levels? Incidentally, some financial and automotive analysts have suggested investing in vintage Ferraris rather than Ferrari stock in an impending IPO for the company. The appreciation of executing something difficult isn’t hard to understand. Exceptional performance that can be discerned either quantitatively (as with athletes or engineers) or qualitatively (as with musicians, artists and designers) is in itself rare. To have a singular ability to execute beyond the mean is noteworthy and sets up perceptions for excellence.

Al and Laura Ries refer to the phenomenon of ‘singularity’ through the lens of Branding: “A successful branding program is based on the concept of singularity. It creates in the mind of the prospect the perception that there is no product on the market quite like your product.”

Psychologist Pauline Wallin Ph.D. who has studied behavior and impulses confirms this sentiment: “When something is difficult to obtain (or forbidden) you immediately pay more attention to it. Heightened attention can escalate into obsession.” As Al and Laura Ries have detailed, the concept of singularity also drives desire – this is again confirmed by Dr. Wallin, “Perceived scarcity - When something is scarce or in short supply, its perceived value increases. You want it more because you think other people also want it. If you’ve ever bid at auctions or on eBay, you know the experience of that last-minute excitement as you watch the bids spiral upward. “

The Ries’ continue to illuminate the concept of singularity by expressing what happens when countervailing forces come to bear, “Can a successful brand appeal to everybody? No. The same concept of singularity make certain that no one brand can possibly have a universal appeal. Yet, broadening the base, widening the appeal and extending the line are all popular trends in marketing. The same forces that try to increase a company’s market share are also the forces that undermine the power of the brand.”

Surely the skill required to execute Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” or to have engineered and created the Ferrari 250 GTO is impressive, but the singularity of the achievement adds to the allure. If the Ferrari were produced in larger, mass-market quantities, surely the value of each car would be lower today, because as Baruch pointed out, excellence is both difficult to execute and also rare.

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