Tag Archives: marketing

This is what we do to dreamers

memobottle+manLet’s say you are starting a startup and today you are standing in front of a venture capitalist.

With impatience in his voice, the VC says,

“Tell me again exactly what your enterprise is for. How are you going to create value?”

This is what we do to dreamers.

Because the answer to this question almost always comes to you in a mad conceptual scramble for the simplest, most obvious, most literal statement of what your enterprise is “for.”

You stand, you deliver:

“Our product will help people solve problem x for consumer y cheaper than competitor z.”

Whew!

But not so fast. Because now you are wedded to it. Every time someone asks, you are obliged to repeat your simplest, least interesting statement of what your company is for.

It’s the opposite of poetry. Every time you repeat your “value proposition” it gets more obvious, practical, functional, literal, uninteresting and unbeautiful. Your dream is withering.

In the summer of 2015, Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, insisted, against all measures and most opinion, that U.S. productivity was actually up.

The trouble, he suggested, is that we can’t see these gains because we are using old measures. When the GDP measure was developed in the 1930s, Hal observed, it focused on things like steel and grain. The improvements that come from Silicon Valley are harder to see.

Radical Hal. No, call him Heretical Hal. This was the beginning of the end of capitalism as a blunt object, as a search for mere utility. This was an opportunity to free ourselves from those people who see the world as a solutions to problems, and the more pragmatic and practical the better.

But we can’t complete this heresy until we begin to make certain value visible. We need to show how our enterprise will create value of a social, cultural, human kind. We will have to show that Uber is not merely cheaper than a taxi cab, but a richer, more human way to discover a city. (I set aside the labor issues for another time.) We will have to show the Airbnb is not merely a cheaper hotel room, but that it is a richer, more human way to discover a city. As it stands, and as far as capitalism (and Uber and Airbnb themselves) are concerned, this remains “dark value.”

Sometimes dark value is revealed, but typically this revelation comes late in the process. Ideas happen, capital is made added, enterprise springs into the world, innovations are rolled out. And then someone says, “Er, what about marketing?”  Planners, strategists, creatives, designers, ethnographers are summoned to contemplate this poor, beaten creature.

With any luck the post mortem goes pre mortem. The innovation springs to life, it’s coat glossy with new meaning. But often even this creative genius can’t do anything for the “innovation.” It is beyond all hope. It is designed to solve a problem that no one cares about because it adds virtually nothing to the world. “Whiter whites” are a death mask.

But sometimes these creatives discover, invent, conceptualize dark value. And the consumer will say, “Oh, that’s what it is. You kept telling me what it’s for. No, that I like. I can live that.”

By this time of course it’s all up stream. The creatives are working with something that’s mostly formed and they are working with people who really in their heart of hearts think “all the creativity stuff is really just icing for the cake. It’s the sizzle that sells the steak.  It’s the stuff you have to say to persuade the consumer to buy a product that frankly should have sold itself on the strength of it’s functionality. I mean, really, what is the matter with these people.”

What if we started looking for and working with dark value from the very beginning?

And if this sounds like a good idea, please consider buying my new book Dark Value here. It’s a bargain at $2.99.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Leora Kornfeld for engaging me this morning with a useful email. And thanks to many people on many media who have offered encouragement for the Dark Value project.

The image is from this website.

The ‘wicked grin’ test (as a new creative measure)

How do you know when something in our culture is really good?

I think it’s when it makes us grin a wicked grin.

This is one of those: Dave Chappelle does imitation of Prince and Prince uses the imitation for his album cover. Dave becomes Prince. Prince becomes Dave becoming Prince.

For post-modernists, this is ‘signs circulating.’ Fair enough but not very interesting. It doesn’t explain why we grin wickedly.

It’s the relocation that does it. Daveness taking on Princeness. Princeness taking on Daveness as Princeness. These are meanings in motion. We grin wickedly because we can’t believe that Dave dared attempt Princeness. It’s not temerity that gets us. Dave is free to make fun of a genius like Prince. That’s the privilege of his genius.

No, what makes us grin is astonishment. How did Dave do it? How is that possible? Daveness and Princeness share a claim (and a proof) of genius, but they come from very different parts of our culture.  They are in a sense incommensurate.

And they just made themselves (for a moment, in a way) commensurate. This makes our minds happy…and our faces grin. I think it is at some level it makes our brains happy. Meanings attached to one thing now, astonishingly, belong to another. We can feel gears turning in our heads.

Dave and Prince have brought meanings together that are normally kept apart. And we thank them for this semiotic miracle by grinning our admiration, astonishment, gratitude. Who knew our culture could do that.

We make a lot of culture with acts of unexpected, unprecedented combination.  (I have tried to map this process for contemporary culture in a book called Culturematic.)

Indeed, wicked grinning should be the new objective not just of comedy and album cover design, but of branding, design and advertising. We used to slavishly obey the rules of official combination (aka genre). Now we bore people with this predictability. If the user, viewer, consumer, audience can see where we’re going, they won’t come with us. (Susan Sarandon did an interview yesterday on Charlie Rose in which she said precisely this.)

Compare a culturematic to old fashioned marketing. The ad man and woman came up with a blindingly obvious message, stuffed it into one of the mass media (3 network TV, magazines, newspaper, radio) and fired it at the target over and over again until our ears bled. Everyone just wanted the “persuasion” to stop. This was cold war torture. And the worse part of this torture was how completely unsurprising it all was.

Every thing changes when we assume that our “consumers” are clever and interesting, and, chances are, making culture on their own. This means first that they can see the grammars we are using. Second, it means that they are looking for culture to make their own, for critical purposes and creative ones.  Culture creative, assume you are talking to someone has smart as you are. Assume you are talking to someone who can do what you do. And go with the idea that we have no hope of success unless we are making content that makes people grin wickedly.

Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green have invited us to embrace a new slogan: “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” The idea is that a message will die unless people take an act hand in distributing it by social media. I am proposed that before we apply the Jenkins-Ford-Green test, we apply “wicked grin test.” Forget the focus groups and the audience testing. Just show your work to someone and look at the expression on their face.

brand runners?

jw-joss-scifinowIf the brand is changing, how about branders?

I’ve been reading about “show runners” lately, and I thought, “hey, why not “brand runners?””

I’m not saying “let’s invent a new position.”  I’m saying, let’s ask marketing people to think about themselves in a new way.

So what is a show runner?

Scott Collins of the LA Times offers this definition.  He calls showrunners “hypenates:”

a curious hybrid of starry-eyed artists and tough-as-nails operational managers.  They’re not just writers; they’re not just producers. They hire and fire writers and crew members, develop story lines, write scripts, cast actors, mind budgets and run interference with studio and network bosses. It’s one of the most unusual and demanding, right-brain/left-brain job descriptions in the entertainment world….[S]how runners make – and often create – the shows, and now more than ever, shows are the only things that matter.

Also, see this illuminating clip from a documentary called Showrunners here.

I think a “brand runner” might look something like this.  Managing a brand is a task of fearsome complexity, keeping track of all the traditional brand meanings, auditioning all the new ones, speaking to many segments not just a couple, identifying and tracking all the coming trends (both the blue oceans and the black swans), making the brand bold and clear even as it becomes in places delicate and obscure, reaching out to a variety of meaning-makers and organizing and articulating their work, changing the brand architecture strategically, tuning the brand message in real time.  Brand running  could a lot like show running.

Most of all, the brand runner metaphor suggests that we would work with the brand in a constant but highly variable process.  Lots of big thinking.  Lots of fine tuning.  “Running a brand” seems somehow closer to the present truth than “managing” it.  The metaphor assumes that creativity is the first order of business.  Out goes the “business as usual” notion that brand management suggests.  Brand running would be less about business and more about creativity, and a constant, collaborative creativity at that.

At the Brand and Brand Relationship conference this week, we ended with a panel discussion lead by Susan Fournier and including Aaron Ahuvia, Eric Arnould, Anders Bengtsson, Markus Giesler, and Jonathan Schroeder and yours truly.  It’s wrong of me to speak for them….so I will.  I believe you could feel a certain pressure of speech or ideation in the room.   There were ideas waxing, threatening to overtake our trusted orthodoxies.  Or maybe not.  I love that moment when you can feel things “melting into air.”  And I think they were.

In any case, (new job description or no) perhaps we could think about the brand as something being constantly pitched, green lit, put into  production, crafted as an idea and a reality, with scenes, episodes and seasons, hammered out with producers, writers and actors with whom it is being thought and rethought, as it keeps melting into air and precipitating back into the life of the consumer.

For more metaphoric materials, see the Wikipedia entry for showrunners here.

Church, state, and the new rules of marketing

selbst fotografiert
selbst fotografiert

Buzzfeed has leaked an internal report from the New York Times.

I was struck by this passage:

“The very first step … should be a deliberate push to abandon our current metaphors of choice — ‘The Wall’ and ‘Church and State’ — which project an enduring need for division. Increased collaboration, done right, does not present any threat to our values of journalistic independence,” the report says. […]

“It’s the old world where the publisher and the editor work together,” senior editor Sam Sifton, who worked on the cooking project, told the report’s authors. “It’s not lions lying down with lambs. It’s a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship.”

I just finished working a project for Netflix and Wired, and I got to see collaboration up close.

Certainly, this project represents a repudiation of the old “church and state” distinction.  The “state” called Netflix paid for content that appeared in the “church” called Wired.   (And I wrote the “copy.”)

Some people will accept this as the kind of break-through that Jonah Peretti of Buzzfeed has been arguing for for some time.  Others will decry it as the invasion of capital into journalism.  Still others (AdAge’s Michael Sebastian, to be exact) suggested that this story might give us a glimpse of the future in some of the ways that NYT’s Snowfall did.

But there is an anthropological observation to make, and that is none of us (and by “us,” I mean Netflix, Conde Nast and me) appeared to be looking to make this content shill for the sponsor.  More to the point, we were not conflating church and state.  If anything we were being at least as fastidious as the old order.

None of us was looking to amp up the pitch.  No one said, “Grant, can you dial up the emphasis on Netflix, please.”  In fact, the only editorial intervention was the removal of the names of shows that I had used to illustrate the power of the new TV, and this was occasioned by the fact that non-Netflix properties did not want to have their shows appear in a piece sponsored by Netflix.

Why were we being so fastidious?  I think there is a simple marketing answer here.  Any marketing exercise that shills now actually diminishes the power of the communication.  Consumers just dial that stuff out.

We have entered a new era in which viewers, consumers take intelligence and imagination as the necessary condition for their attention.  Shilling is clumsy and overbearing.  It disqualifies itself.   

This is what happens when popular culture, driven by commerce, becomes culture plain and simple.  It has to stop acting like a shilling exercise, or suffer the consequences…and these are immediately exclusion from readerly interest.

“Oh, it’s only an ad.  Next!”

The new rule of marketing says you can’t buy your way into people’s lives.  If you make marketing with scant regard for the way this marketing draws on and contributes to culture, you provoke an instantaneous push back from the consumer.

This must qualify as good news.  Even as the “grey lady” (aka NYT) wonders whether she can risk the conflation of church and state, the world of marketing is finding that it is obliged to be fastidious.  Whew.

Acknowledgements

Thanks Rick Liebling for the head’s up.

Marketing Thuggery: a case in point

Lots of people comment on advertising only to condemn it.  The Frankfurt School lives on like Frankenstein.

But I’m not one of those people.  Generally, I like ads.  They’re little production houses.  They use some part of their culture.  And they create some part of their culture.  This makes them anthropologically fascinating.  (Here’s a post on advertising I recently did with Bob Scarpelli.)

But today I’m pointing an accusing finger at this ad from DirecTV.

“Are my wires ugly.”

“No, buddy, no!  Your wires are what make you you, little man.”

Advertising is often an act of metaphor.  We find a meaning in one part of our culture and place it somewhere else.  Meanings are released.  Humor, sometimes, is occasioned.

Call it cultural arbitrage, as I did a couple of days ago.

So where do you think this meaning comes from?  It comes from the world of disability and the conversation where the father seeks to reassure his challenged son.

You think I’m being too sensitive?  Try asking a father who has had to have this conversation.  Try asking a son who has suffered this anxiety.

And while you’re at it, try exercising a little cultural sophistication.  It is, actually, what you do for a living.

This ad isn’t funny.  It’s an act of marketing thuggery.  It assigns very bad meanings to the brand. DirecTV as a brand that finds humor in disability?   DirecTV as a brand that would play upon the insecurities of a child and a father haunted by both?  DirecTV as a brand that ridicules a family that must confront ridicule as a matter of course?

Wow.  Hats off to these marketers for this tone-perfect mastery of contemporary culture, for their virtuoso ability to find meanings and make meanings for the brand.  This is marketing malpractice of the first order.  This is marketing thuggery.

Acknowledgements

Normally, I would name the agency and the creatives responsible for a great ad.  In this case, I will say merely that I think the offending agency is Deutsch.

Tahir Hemphill and the neglected genius of his rap almanac

photo

Last week, I had a chance to listen to Tahir Hemphill at the Office of Creative Research in New York City.

The OCR is 111 Bowery and you walk up two flights, up out of a neighborhood dominated by Chinese grocery stores.  It feels like moving up in space is moving back in time, like you are caught in something Victorian, entering one world secreted in another.  Think something out of Sherlock Holmes’ London.  A delicate, organized world now bursting with, on the verge of failing to contain, the forces that made it.  A little dreamy.  A little strange.

The Center does not disappoint on this score.  You enter to see 8 Oscilloscopes staring at you all in a row.  Back room science.  Wild inquiry.  The pursuit of knowledge running away from academic, professional and commercial convention.

Waiting for the talk to start, I fell into conversation with a guy from the “green tech” sector and for some reason, perhaps that Victorian vibe, we started talking about what great ghosts this building must have.  I was once part of the museum profession and we used to talk a lot about how to get the knowledge of the museum into the world.  Usable holographs were just then appearing on the horizon and surely some day, the green-tech guy and I agreed, every building would have hand-crafted ghosts that wander through and can be relied to tell you the story of the building.  This will be a standard feature of the well-appointed office space.  As in, “Well, I was going to work at start-up X but when I asked them what ghosts they had installed in the building (they have this great warehouse on the river), they just stared at me like it had never occurred to them.  Dude!  Dump the ping pong table and get some ghosts!”

And Tahir does not disappoint.  He started talking about his childhood, about parents who wanted him to concentrate on math and science, how he discovered art, and the talk sort of spiraled out of control like opium smoke rising (to evoke our Victorian theme again).  We were spell bound.  Only.

Tahir is famous for his searchable rap almanac, The Hip Hop Word Count.  I was complaining the other day that in an era of generalists, we are disinclined to dig deep on any given topic.  Tahir dug very deep.  Millions of people have supped from the hip hop well.  Hundreds of thousands have participated in the profit stream that ensued.  But far as I know, Tahir is the only one who actually charts exactly what happened and is happening now.  (This is a little like learning, first, that we have discovered a lost continent and that, second, only one person has mapped it.)

As nearly as I can tell (and this is me guessing) hip hop the most formative cultural trend of the past couple of decades.  It is now part of the cultural vocabulary of every cosmopolitan.  (Thanks to Jey Van-Sharp for illuminating remarks on this theme over drinks after the talk.)  It’s possible that some day we will say that hip hop made us the way people now routinely say that Shakespeare made English and the English.  (Speaking of ghosts, if Shakespeare is witness to hip hop, just how much do you think he loves it?  Very much, that’s how much.  By the way, Shakespeare’s 450th birthday is coming up.)

Tahir Hemphill has been a Fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard and at The Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University.  So some resources have been available to him.  But as nearly as I can tell, he does not have people lined up the block to give him money.  This is distinctly not the fate of those guys who made a Hip Hop encyclopedia called Rap Genius and got bags of dough from Marc Andreessen.  And very wrong.

Really! When you think about how much meaning and value the artistic and commercial world has extracted from hip hop, this is not just wrong but  unimaginably weird.  Hemphill ought to look like a Victorian captain of industry, lauded, celebrated, admired, imitated and the person you go to when you are trying to figure out whether and how the brand or your music or your film can stick its finger in the hip hop socket.  As so many have done.

As it is, he keeps a modest office in a building that is surely the greatest story never told.  Tahir’s office is in the Millionaire’s Retirement Home, a Bronx building created in 1915 (almost Victorian!) expressly for the purpose for giving comfort to very wealthy people who have fallen on hard times.  I know.   The irony is too painful.  Many people have extracted material riches from hip hop.  Tahir is not one of them.  His wealth is all intellectual.

When you are ready to hire the very gifted Mr. Hemphill as your consultant, you can find more about him here.