Culturematic, new media, and marketing

Ticket Monday, I reported my recent culturematic experiment, the tweeting of my train ride from Chicago and Detroit.   Today, I thought I'd look at the marketing implications.

Specifically, can a culturematic help a marketer help a client?  Can it help build the brand?  Can it help the brand participate in culture?

I think the reply is emphatically "yes."  This culturematic, performed on an appropriate scale, would do good things for Amtrak.  (And if there's a brand that needs good things, it's Amtrak.)  In a more perfect world, Amtrak would be commissioning people to take train rides all over America, "phoning home" with new media of every kind.

Most simply, my trip to Detroit acts as "proof of concept."  There are lots of people passing between these two cities, and I am guessing that many thousands of them never think to take the train.  The train is so little thought of it doesn't appear in the choice set.  Actually, there is no choice set.  Everyone just takes the plane.  Surely following a stream of tweets from the train helps change this.

But this stream of tweets does something more than inscribing the possibility of train travel between the cities.  It demonstrates the pleasure of the trip.  I can imagine the ethnographic interview with which we would guiz the consumer about taking the train from Chicago to Detroit. 

There would be a pause, a frown, a hand to the chin, and then the hesitations, 

"Gee, I don't know.  The train…  I mean, doesn't that take forever and break down all the time.  And isn't it filled with dubious people?  And… And… And."

In the absence of knowledge, doubts proliferate.  The train strikes some of us as the very symbol of the old industrial regime, untouched by computers and the genius of Google programming, a great lumbering beast that travels from inner city to damaged suburb, a technology that is one snapped bolt away from joining the rust belt through which it travels.

"Train travel?  No, I don't think so."

My Tweet stream is not a literary or an anthropological accomplishment, but it does communicate how much fun the train is, the pleasures there are to be had there.  I think the stream also communicates that train travel is ecologically virtuous and that it is a great place to get work done.  In point of fact, this tweet stream sets up a contrast that sings the praises of train travel over air travel on virtually every particular.  Not bad work for such an inexpensive marketing enterprise. 

You might well say that the train is a bad example of marketing with new media…because it is so very well suited to the commercial proposition in question.  Train rides unfold over time, and they are rich in reportable experiences.  They are in this way peculiarly tweetable.  Which is to say, you can't market jeans, Coke, or movies this way. 

This might be right.  On the other hand, I think it would be pretty interesting to hear some tweet their day from the point of view of their Levi's.  I would like to hear from a Tweeter who has taken the point of view of a carbonate soft drink sitting on the shelf of a glass refrigerator in a Mom and Pop convenience story.  What about hearing from someone who has taken one of the persona away from a movie and is now living it in the street?  And indeed, any product or service that is experienced-based or oriented should be able to call on twitterers.  See for instance the recent experiment in which the philosopher Alain De Button spend a week as writer-in-residence at Heathrow airport.

A lot of marketers now seem to think that Twitter is really just a name game.  What we want is to "infect" people with a "virus" that forces them to repeat brand name in their tweets in an outbreak of consumer enthusiasm.

How dreary!  How very like the 20th century model of marketing which seeks not just sales but dominion.  If we are sincere in our claims of interest in the consumer's participation, cocreation, and fuller engagement, a culturematic of this kind might be just the thing.

6 thoughts on “Culturematic, new media, and marketing

  1. Mary Schmidt

    Excellent analysis of the “virus” mentality. And, “dreary” is the perfect word. So much of marketing makes me tired these days.

    So (once again) it’s the experience not the product – which product marketers forget at their peril, particularly in the “new” social media.

    I picked up Amtrak info at AAA (another old travel related organization that could use better marketing.) and was pleasantly surprised to see it really doesn’t “take that long” to travel by train versus plane (particularly given all the challenges and issues of air travel these days.) It’s an overnighter to LA for me, for example. So, I”m already planning some train trips, staying in the “deluxe” bed suites, and spending less than I would on airfare and hotels otherwise (and far less aggravation). I may even have to start tweeting!

  2. Rick Lindemann

    Just took a train from Chicago to Effingham, Illinois (about 3.5-4hrs south) for $21. I could barely have driven it for that and I got an extra 4 hours of work done instead of staring at the road and being frustrated by construction. Amtrak could definitely use an upgrade in their marketing, but the service they offer is great.

  3. peter spear


    this is simply beautiful stuff. as a regular amtrak rider down to the city, my relationship with amtrak is about as ambivalent and conflicted as i can think of. and yet i am constantly amazed as the pieces of little magic that arrive in train travel.

    if marketing is the effort to breathe life into an idea, i can think of no better tool than the culture matic.

    (i also liked that your original post, if i remember correctly, had kind of a steampunk aesthetic)

  4. srp

    The problem for Amtrak is performance, not image. The image is a reflection of the reality.

    The funniest expression of this occurred on a tour bus in St. Petersburg. Our wonderful Russian tour guide told us of her love for America and how she had managed to arrange a trip to the US a few years before. We all went “aww” as she described the warm professional courtesy she received from American travel agents thrilled to help a former Intourist employee discover the land of her dreams. We all chuckled as she talked about cajoling her non-English-speaking husband into the trip.

    Then we all gasped in horror, spontaneously, when she mentioned that she had booked on Amtrak to go across the middle of the country. “Not Amtrak!” we groaned as one, aghast at the bad reflection this would cast on our country. Our fears were well-founded in part; her train broke down in the middle of Nebraska and she was stranded there for a day or two. On the other hand, her sweet disposition rescued the mood on the tour bus as she went on at some length about how friendly everyone was in the Nebraska town where Amtrak had unceremoniously dumped her.

    Maybe forgiving Christians acclimated to communist-level service quality are the best possible customers for Amtrak.

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