Less public knowledge, more private meaning (lessons for politicians and brands)

This is a part of a map of London drawn by Fuller (aka Gareth Wood).

Wood says that he created a map to show his relationship with the city over several years.

“It’s about documenting a particular time and experience.”

Wood’s map of London ends up being a personal document.

Of course personal is the last thing that maps are supposed to be. They are supposed to come from official sources and authoritative parties. In an almost magical act of abstraction, they remove everything that has anything to do with anyone. There are millions of people in London interacting with the city in many millions of moments. Mapmaking is meant to make all that disappear. We give you London, all place, no time, all place, no people, all place, no particulars. At all.

Something in us now recoils from this abstraction. Authoritative meanings are on the run. But of course we will continue to need maps of the old fashion, abstract kind. Chances are we will never use Wood’s map actually to find our way around London. (Though that’s a pretty charming idea and it’s easy to imagine a guest who is very late for a dinner party giving as her plaintive explanation that her Fuller map is “really not all that helpful when you get right down to it.”)

But more and more we like a world that vibrates with particularities. Public knowledge seems a little thin. Authoritative versions of the world seem a little unforthcoming if not positively stingy. Surely, we think, the world, and especially London, is more interesting than this.

This shift in expectation runs through us with big consequences. Political figures must learn from it. Romney seemed very “official map.” Obama seemed somehow more particular.  (Though he never did get all that personal.) Hillary is very official map. It’s as if so much of what makes her personal plays to her disadvantage that she wants to get abstract and stay that way. Every politician needs to solve this problem. How to show the real person, the authentic individual, even when everything in them screams to keep the image airbrushed. In his strange, deeply stupid manner, Trump has addressed this problem.

Things are easier in the world of the brand.  Every brand has been struggling to make itself less official and more particular for some time. This means letting in the consumer and the world in ways that were once unforgivable. American brands used to be very abstract indeed. But they are (marginally) less alarmed about making the transition away from abstraction. Out of the USP into life. I always thought Subaru has done a nice job of this.

It’s a good exercise for a politician or a brand. If your present self is a formal map of who you are, what would Gareth Wood’s version look like? Creatives, planners, brand managers, campaign managers, please let me know if you try this and it works.


For more on Wood and his map, see the excellent coverage by Greg Miller here.

10 thoughts on “Less public knowledge, more private meaning (lessons for politicians and brands)

  1. Tom Asacker

    I don’t know. As Orwell wrote, “We have a hunger for something like authenticity, but are easily satisfied by an ersatz facsimile.” IMO, Trump’s not connecting because he’s “authentic,” but rather because he is tapping into a powerful, collective emotion. And the same is true of successful brands.

    1. grant27

      Tom, thanks!, I think we want to “see in” to the brand, we don’t have to see everything, but we are done with polished surfaces and bland generalities. We want to see that someone is home. This isn’t perfect authenticity. But it’s more authentic than the alternative.

  2. amysantee

    For me, your post recalls the technique of mental mapping that I learned about in grad school. In this technique, people visualize the community where they live in map form, identifying places and experiences that others may not think of, notice or find important. The (co-)interpretation of these maps is used in the creation of new community-centered grassroots efforts that are likely more effective because they are grounded in how people see the world around them, not how some outside entity sees things. This translates exactly to what you said about brands and politicians and how being more genuine, personal and empathetic can help them more effectively engage with their audiences if they base their efforts on their audience’s reality, culture and experiences rather than their own (or some unvalidated assumptions.)

    1. grant27

      Amy, I don’t know this exercise but it sounds useful. Hopefully we are more genuine (and not as Tom points out, less crafted) and we shift from it being “all about us” to being “largely about the consumer.” This would leave us in a good place, I think. Thanks!

  3. Julie Ann Wolfe-May

    … think you’ve definitely hit on something of a new citizen world order here mister G. What has evolved is an inverse relationship whereby over a recent period of time, say, in the years since early 2000s, AS technologies and communication opened up and people connected en masse and in a myriad of new and highly ‘personalized’ ways… At the same time many Politicos (certainly the Harper gov’t is a perfect example) insulated ~ pretty much locking themselves from view and becoming media-selective extremists… And popular icons /influencers /gatekeepers along with the big corporate brands (think Nike and LuLuLemon, or in Canada Roots…) all streamlined their offerings and wares down to fewer choices, and fewer categories, and reduced catalogues overall.

    1. Grant Post author

      Julie Ann, thanks! and some of the fault must belong with consultants who buffed and polished (Zambonied?) the political message until it shone like the sun but no longer illuminated much of anything. Thanks for reading.

  4. Mauricio Mota

    Grant, this was very inspiring and made me think about the whole political crisis in Brazil through a completely different lens. And since we are developing a new TV show that takes place in Atlanta and that will rethink the “city concept”, this was very inspiring

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