Story time: aka commerce gets more cultural

Shipwreck_by_turner I had the honor of doing a call with Jerry Michalski and Pip Coburn on Monday.  Jerry and Pip focus on "interactions between technology, business and society" and their Monday telephone "broadcast" looks at this topic from many points of view.   

To prepare myself, I scratched out these notes to clarify what an anthropologist (or at least this anthropologist) has  offer to a group like theirs.

1.  I am interested in culture and commerce, especially as they intersect.

2.  One of the things you see from this "picture window" is the arrival of new kinds of capital (cultural, social, intellectual, moral) and new kinds of exchange.  This may or may not herald the arrival of a "gift economy."

Or to put this another way: Since the 17th century we have seen culture get more commercial.  Now we are seeing commerce get more cultural.

3. Here’s a story that means to illustrate what I mean by cultural and social capitals.

In 2000, a client asked me to study rum in the Maritime provinces of Canada (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI and Newfoundland). 

I did my ethnographic research.  I conducted a couple of focus groups and many one-to-one interviews.  I asked men in middle age what they thought about alcohol, drinking alcohol, brands of alcohol, pubs, bars, parties, the whole "rum" package. 

The first finding, the one just sitting there are the surface of everything else I learned, was that Maritimers are great talkers, that they have a fantastic collection of stories to tell, and that Martimers are especially active as talkers when active as drinkers.  (Duh.)

Well, so, was this first finding something I could use, or was it merely an interesting observation, fun to know but not so very useful?  I decided finally this finding ought to be the point of strategic and tactical departure.  We needed to find some way of getting the brand involved in all these talkers talking.

My recommendation was that the brand ought to hire a handful of out-of-work actors, train them in the art of story telling, and set them into bars and pubs to tell a spell binding story.  It was important that this was a bar that the story teller had never been to before, and that he never went to again.  I wanted to make the story the original "mysterious stranger," a man for whom no information was forthcoming.  I wanted maximize the oddity of the event.  (I once had a brother-in-law who was such a good story teller he routinely make  the bars of St. Andrews fall completely silent and abjectly worshipful.  This guy, David Joy, was my model, I think.)   

I wasn’t entirely clear how to feature the brand.   Making it part of the story would be too obvious.  It would diminish the magic of the story telling at a stroke.  Standing everyone a round of the brand was possible but still trying to hard.  The art of this deal was to evoke the brand without damaging the story telling.  I decided finally that it would be just about right if the story teller merely ordered the brand for himself. 

The idea was to create a cultural capital.  That’s what a story is.  Naturally it had to be a good story, something with stormy seas,  calamity, heroism, inexplicable outcomes, ghost ships, nature on the rampage, phantoms, pirates, princesses, Leviathans of the deep, etc.  Just a telling of Turner’s Shipwreck of the Minotaur (pictured above) would do.  The idea, or one idea, is to tell a story that resonated with the best stories of this maritime culture.   

But it wasn’t just the story told that was key, it was the story telling.  We wanted the actor to be tall, dark and handsome.  We wanted the event to be rich in story but otherwise poor in detail.  By withholding the identity, the motive, the mission of our story teller, we were inviting other story tellers to leap into action.  In an oral culture this rich, staffed by story tellers this good, I felt certain the the bar would soon teem with many, conflicting ideas about who "this guy" was and why he had come to tell his single, perfect story.  Nature abhors a vacuum. So do talkers.

So, the idea was to have the brand gift the community with a story told and the provocation of the story telling. The oral tradition on the Maritimes was now richer by one story and provoked to make up still more stories.  And with every story told, the social capital, the connections between story tellers, will be augmented.  (We can posit a crude metric here: the more talk that flows between talkers the richer the connections between them.  The higher the quality of the talk and the more vivid the telling, the richer the connection.  The more and the more richly we interact, the deeper our social capital.  This social capital is fungible it can be spent in times of crisis and in aid of those in need.  As you can see, I am sketching as I go.  This is what precisely what needs working on and I suggested to Pip and Jerry that we find someone to sit out out to the desert in a benign version of the Manhattan project.)  Thus does cultural capital begets social capital in moments of exchange. 

I am obliged to tell you that the client absolutely hated this idea.  He actually looked at me and scowled.  (In the corporate world, in my experience, this very rarely happens.  In the interests of good relations, everyone’s a cipher.)  Part of the problem is that in those days we didn’t have the concepts we do today.  The other problem is that marketing for spirits has a long traditional of deep stupidity.  A favorite tactic is to paint an RV with the colors on the brand, put a really big image of the logo on the side, and fill it with cheerful, buxom women.  By this standard, sending in poetic story tellers may have looked like a college prank, or perhaps an anthropological self indulgence. 

But here’s the pitch I would make now, and it is a pitch in the changed world of marketing that might now actually work.  In our story teller scenario, the brand is creating a cultural meaning in the form of a story.  It sends this story out into its brand community, where the local story tellers will convert it into social capital.  These cultural and social capitals return to the brand and augment it as a kind of brand capital.  If we have augmented the cultural and social world of the drinker successfully, we will move drinkers to switch to our brand and to purchase same.  Now cultural and social capital have become a more fungible kind of capital.  Now they convert into financial capital. 

This is a value flight.  The brand releases value into the world by contributing something not for itself but for the community of consumers.  If the brand creates the right capitals, and the conversion chains work successfully, eventually value returns to them.  But this is risky.  There is no easy Smithian calculation here.  It is not possible for the brand manager to judge tit for tat. It’s hard to say how a story will create value for the corporation.  It’s harder to know how much should be invested in the story’s creation. 

4.  It looks as if the old dog of marketing is having to learn a new trick. If we want to create financial capital, we may now have to help create social and cultural capital.  This takes us a way from the old calculations of the marketplace.  We are no longer creating "utility" (or not only creating utility).  We are not making functional goods and services.  We are creating culture and society.  These have always been the off shoots of capitalism.  Here they are the very objectives of the undertaking. 

This is not a comfortable notion for many people in marketing.  We are asking the brand manager to release value into the world without any reassurance it will return.  We are saying that financial value now must sometimes come from complicated conversion chains that include cultural and social capital over which the marketer has no strict control.  But this much is clear.  The days of firing very simple messages repeatedly at monolithic groups of deeply passive consumer with the big cannons of TV, radio and print are over.  If we want the brand to resonate for the consumer, we must make it participate in culture.  We must bring the consumer in.   We must bid them to help us build the brand.  We must make ourselves companionable.  And maybe it comes to that.  Maybe its time to stop being that bore at the party, the blabbermouth in the corner, and step into the role of the story teller. 

This isn’t, in the clue train tradition of Doc Searls and David Weinberger, a matter of conversation.  We have much more to do than merely hold up our side of the conversation.  We are, whether we like it or not, the more active meaning maker in this conversation.  We have to get things started.  And we have to supply the conversations with semantic cues and interpretive riches.  But after that, then, yes, it’s very like a conversation. 

5.  The big questions, the take-aways, for anthropology:

5.1  what are the capitals, cultural and social?

5.2 how do they create one another?

5.3 how do they convert into one another?

5.4 what are the models and metrics with which we can clarify this issue?

I am hoping someone will send us to the desert to think about these issues. 

6. If I’m not crazy about the "conversation" metaphor, I’m also not sure I’m crazy about the "gift economy."  Which this space for more detailed criticism.   

Post script:

During the course of the call, I was complaining as I always do about the embargo imposed intellectuals on the serious study of culture and commerce.  (I have documented this charge in Culture and Consumption II if anyone wants the details.) I believe we are slow now to think about capital and capital conversion because of this embargo.  And this raises the question: what changed?  Why is it ok now to talk about the intersection of culture and commerce?

I caught a glimpse of one of these questions this morning when I stumbled upon this comment from Kevin Kelly on the Whole Earth Catalog. 

Kevin Kelly: The WEC helped rid us of our allergy to commerce. [Stewart] Brand believed in capitalism, just not by traditional methods. He was the first person to embrace true financial transparency. His decision to disclose WEC’s finances in the pages of the catalog had a profound ripple effect. A lot of those hippies who dropped out and tried to live off the land decided to come back and start small companies because of it. And out of that came the Googles of the world.


Kotler, Steven.  n.d.  The Whole Earth Effect.  Plenty Magazine.  Issue 24.  here

4 thoughts on “Story time: aka commerce gets more cultural

  1. srp

    In a way, your storyteller ploy is like trying to create a “sunken ship” in the bar (to use a phrase you’ve employed before referring to people colonizing the carcasses of old movies and TV shows the way fish colonize rusting undersea hulks). It’s an interesting idea.

    Practically, I’d be worried that no one would even notice what the guy was drinking. Maybe he could buy a whole bottle and wave it around during his soliloquy.

  2. Charles Frith

    Hello Grant The roundhouse kick in the face for old marketing you’ve just delivered is for me, in the title part of ‘commerce gets more cultural.’ Thus signaling the welcome demise of culture getting more commercial. I dont know a better way to describe whats going on in these astonishing times. Expect rampant intellectual robbery on that one. It’s Gold!

  3. Rick Liebling

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. This is exactly the sort of idea I’d like to see my clients (including a major alcohol company) embrace. Improv Everywhere is genius because it isn’t done in support of brands, but their remarkable, disruptive cultural events are what brands need to do more of. Give people a memorable story.

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