Category Archives: Marketing Watch

Church, state, and the new rules of marketing

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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.


Thanks Rick Liebling for the head’s up.

New media fundamentalists, how will they react to the revolution in TV?

Maurice_Levy_2008I read with interest  remarks by Maurice Levy (pictured) on how he thinks about life after the failure of the Omnicom -Publicis merger.

“We have a strategy, and we will accelerate that strategy. It calls for strengthening our digital operations to reach 50% of our revenue [from 40% currently], and investing in big data and accelerating the capabilities we have in integration.”

Levy knows much more about the industry and about Publicis than I ever will and I defer to his greater knowledge.  But I have to say these remarks sent a chill through me.

There’s no question that the digital revolution continues and that it will change everything we know about marketing, advertising and communications.

It is also true, as I have been laboring to show the last couple of days, that there is a revolution taking place in old media as well.  TV is changing at light speed.  (See posts here, here, and here.)

It looks as if Levy is concentrating more on the digital revolution than the TV revolution.  To be sure, this is a bias that has swept through the advertising business.  A new generation came up, insisting that it was now going to be all digital advertising all the time, that the 30 second spot was done for, and that TV was now just another victim of the technological revolution. New media fundamentalists scorn old media and especially TV.

(Just to be clear, I am no old media apologist.  My book Culturematic assumes new media.  No culturematic is possible without new media as a means and an end.)

The trouble with new media fundamentalism is that it misses what is perhaps the single biggest story concerning popular culture in the last 10 years.  Against the odds, and in the teeth of the hostility of the chattering classes, TV got better.

And this revolution means several things.  That consumers as viewers are getting steadily smarter.  That they are now accustomed to and expectant of a new order of story telling.  I think it’s far to say that old media is still better at telling stories than new media.  This is another way of saying that old media (both TV and advertising) may have been trailing new media…but that they suddenly caught up.

I know some readers are going to take this as the voice of reaction, an attempt to return the old order to former glory.  So just to be clear.  I’m NOT saying that old media is better than new media.  What I am saying is that those who now diminish old media because of the rise and great success of new media are missing something.  And just to be really clear: as cultural creatives, as content creators, whether they like it or not, new media fundamentalists can’t afford to make this error.  They are after all in the business of NOT MISSING THINGS, ESPECIALLY THINGS AS BIG AS THIS.  Sorry for shouting, but there is a new media orthodoxy in place and shouting is sometimes called for.

And no, this is not an argument that says advertising was perfect just the way it was.  There is work to be done in the world of old media, lots of work.  Remember when the ads on a show were often better than the show? These days have mostly passed.  Now the ad surrounded a show looks shouty, simple minded and a little clueless. Like it doesn’t know what is going on around it.  Like a revolution took place and the brand and the advertiser didn’t notice.  Oh, if there is something that is NOT ALLOWED in the branding and advertising business, it’s not noticing.  

So it’s not as if anyone wants us to go back to old media circa Mad Men and the 1950s.  Old media must now evolute as ferociously as new media.  To catch up.  To keep up.  That revolution on TV tells us that our culture is changing in ways no one anticipated at speeds no one thought possible.  And anyone in the communications game (using old media or new media) is going to have evolve in something like real time.

Our culture is becoming a hot house.  Those who want to contribute will have to flourish to do so.  It makes me think of that Wieden and Kennedy moment after a recent SuperBowl.  W+K had floated that Old Spice ad and as they looked at the tidal wave of online content they have provoked, they thought, “Damn.  Better get on this.”

A group of them retired to a building somewhere and just started turning stuff out.  Call and response.  Call and response.  Real time marketing.

This may be where we are headed.  There are so many things in play, and they are moving at such speed, concatenating in ways we can’t anticipated, this is perhaps not the time to up your digital bet, Mr. Levy.  In this very dynamic world, we want to use all our media all the time.

My Contagious Interview

Paul Kemp-Robertson was kind enough to interview me for the British magazine called Contagious.  He was following up on the FutureFlash conference at which we both spoke in the spring. 

Here is the first page. 


Here is the second page:


Thanks again for Paul for including me in the pages of Contagious.


Kemp-Robertson, Paul.  2008.  Abandon ‘Consumer,’ An interview with Grant McCracken.  Contagious.  Volume 16. Third Quarter, pp. 28-31.

Marketing reimagined: revolutionary implications of the Watts-Thompson reply to Gladwell

Fast_company_masthead Last night I went to the Fast Company office in New York City to hear Clive Thompson interview Duncan Watts.

Duncan Watts (a research scientist at Columbia and, for the moment, Yahoo) argues that "influencers" are less influential than Gladwell’s Tipping Point model would have us believe.  He argues that news travels as readily through ordinary people as influential ones.  This means that our world is not "hub and spoke," with some individuals acting like O’Hare and the rest of us like Cleveland or, pause, Dayton.  No, as Thompson put it, networks are  democratic.  We are just as likely to "get the news" from a friend as we are from an networking paragon.

The argument seems to me compelling.  And these two, Watts and Thompson, make superlative pitchmen on its behalf, the first as a cautious but quietly charismatic academic,  and the second acting on the evening as a kind of "key light," stepping in occasionally to make certain points "pop."  But it also seems to me that the Watts criticism should not be given rights of free passage anymore than Gladwell’s argument.  (The latter is now used so freely that it threatens to become the marketer’s all purpose conceptual tool.)  We must resist the temptation to generalize.  (Occasionally.)

Watts’ arguments seems to me to apply to the network as "transmission device," i.e., when it serve as a way of moving something from one place to place in the network.  In this case, one link is pretty much as good as another.  But clearly networks sometimes serve as a "thinking machine"…as when ideas ricochet from blog to blog, and the wisdom of crowds assembles itself to identify the problems we care about and the answers we think plausible.  In this case, surely, links are not all created equal.  In this case, Clay Shirky’s opinion matters much more than mine.  (The bastard).  And so it should.  (The bastard.)

Never mind.  Even in this narrow form, the Watts-Thompson argument has revolutionary implications for the world of marketing.  If their argument is true, it feels like we are looking at a turning point, not a tipping one.  Many marketers thought that Gladwell’s model gave them a way to "game" the diffusion effect.  All we had to do was influence the influencers and entire markets will fall before our approach.

There is always a substantial part of the marketing community looking for that open sesame, the magic formula, the hidden panel, the hot button, the wand and incantation that will allow them to trick the consumer.  These marketers are in effect looking for a cheat.  In the place of an intimate knowledge of the consumer and the market, in the place of a superlative productive or service, they look for a shortcut.  Let’s call these people "mechanistic" marketers.  They want to "operate" the consumer automaton by divining the secret levers within. 

How grim.  If marketing learned anything in the 20th century, it is that consumers are smarter than this, that there are no tricks in any case, that the world is not about process, it is stubbornly about content. If the marketer wants influence, the solution remains what it has always been.  The answer is to build great products, brands and messages.  It is these, and not "memes" or "viruses," that capture attention and prompt choice. 

It turns out, hey presto, that consumers like things because they like them, not because someone told them to like them.  Consumers like things because these things are a lot like consumers themselves: smart, creative, interesting, lively, topical, winning or otherwise engaging.  And if the consumer doesn’t like a product or a service, it doesn’t matter how hip, authoritative, or viral we make them or our agents.  They don’t like them.  End of story.

Mechanistic marketing threatens to be cheap trick marketing.  Worse than that, it threats to be lazy and insulting marketing.  It’s diminishing, not just to the consumer but also to the marketer. There is no substitute for getting to know the consumer, building products and brands they care about, making and managing meanings well.

Well, forgive my bad temper and the eagerness with which I embrace this point.  Clearly it is self serving of me.  If Watts is right, it’s good news for anthropology.  Now the first objective of the marketing game must be to get to know consumers and the culture from which they come. Why is this a lesson we have to keep learning?  When do we learn to resist the siren call of the cheap trick and simply apply ourselves to thoughtful, passionate, engaged discovery?


Thompson, Clive.  2008.  Is the Tipping Point Toast. Fast Company.  Issue 122.  February. here

Product placement and the FCC

Img_2608 Kevin Martin, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission says he wants to examine product placement on TV.

"I believe it is important for consumers to know when someone is trying to sell them something and that is it is appropriate for the commission to examine these issues."

Hmm.  The thing about product placement is that it’s not clear there is any selling going on.  Marketers are so unhappy about being TIVOed out of existence that they are happy merely to get things on TV.  They don’t get to control how products appear there.  They don’t get to build a brand proposition.  They don’t actually make a pitch of any kind.  They merely to get the product on TV.  Marketing, it’s come to this. 

As I say, there’s no selling going on. 


Teinowitz, Ira.  2007.  FCC May Examine Product-Placement Rules: Chairman Kevin Martin Proposes Inquiry as Networks, Marketers Increase Integration.  Ad Age.  November 29, 2007.  here

Celebrity sighting

Faith_popcorn_by_riccardo_vecchio_i I think someone said of Gerald Ford that he had the ability to make people around him less interesting. 

I had the chance to watch Faith Popcorn at work today, and I was impressed with her ability to do the opposite.

Everyone seemed to get a little smarter, a little more imaginative.  Clients, participants, the BrainReserve team, all boats rose on the  charismatic tide.

Ms. Popcorn managed somehow to oxygenate the room.  You felt you had permission to think ambitiously, to cast the net wide, even as something in her clarity made you understand that sloppy thinking or intellectual self indulgence were not to be indulged.


To Riccardo Vecchio and the Stanford Medicine Magazine for Vecchio’s remarkable rendering of Popcorn.   You may see the image in its original context here.

Marketing’s Great Chain of Being?

Grant_spa_3 Pam and I stayed in a NYC hotel this week.  She was recovering from surgery in Manhattan and we didn’t want to move her.  (The surgery went well and she is recovering nicely, thank you.) 

Sitting on a shelf in the hotel bathroom, I found something the size of a business card. There it is to the right.  The card reads:


Create rituals for yourself

Rituals help ground us, especially when we feel out of control.  A ritual can be as simple as going for a morning jog or enjoying an evening bath. 

This reflects a couple of things at work in marketing and capitalism:

1) the movement from utility to meaning

Capitalism used to be about making and selling things, useful things.  Marketing helped sell these things.  The sale was about trumpeting the usefulness of the thing.  Marketing was about information.  In the 1980s, some of us, following the lead of Syd Levy and Irving White, proposed a broader view.  Goods were about meanings, meanings the individual could use to help construct the self, the home, the personal world. 

2) the movement from the sale of objects and services to the sale of experiences.

Capitalism used to be about making and selling things.  Marketing helped sell these things.  Now marketing imagines grander things for itself.  We can thank Pine and Gilmore and their book, The Experience Economy, for this development.  Things are mere props, part of the theater the brand supplies.

3) the movement from engagement to the restorative.

The real deliverable, this approach says, is relaxation so deep it amounts to restoration.  To dive so deeply into an experience that the world falls still.  To detach from the furious pace of contemporary life and reset all our activity clocks to zero.  In the words of hotel wisdom, to become "grounded" again. 

4) the movement from the mundane to the enchanted. 

Several companies with whom I have worked can hear the siren call of the new age movement.  They now to seek to offer the consumer something like enchantment.  They see the consumer climbing to spiritual heights, establishing contact with planetary harmonics, and/or their inner child.  (This is enough to make my inner child throw a tantrum, but never mind.)

Thus does marketing accommodate the changes taking place in our culture.  Thus does our commerce stay in touch with our culture.

And while these lofty missions are pursued, many marketers wrestle with the problem of commodification: the ability of competitors to duplicate a product and shave its price.  Brands turn back into products.  Margins begin to shrink.   A newly powerful channel ( on line and Wal-Mart at the mall) demand discounts and more price cutting.  Margins grow slimmer still.  Before long, competitors are locked in a "race to the commodity basement."

Many brands are caught between hell below and heaven above, between the nether world of commodification and the intellectual challenges and profit opportunities that come from selling meanings, experiences, restoration or enchantment. 

We might even go so far as to say that the marketer is caught in a great chain of being.  In the Renaissance case, here’s how the "chain of being" worked. At the apex of the hierarchy stands God.  God is pure intelligence.  Next in the hierarchy are Angels, creatures who have pure intelligence.  Then came earthly creatures: Saints, the hierarchy of the church, blessed with elevated intelligence.  Man, stood in the middle of the hierarchy, a kind of linch pin, capable of intelligence, but always distracted by the passions and inclined to error.  As we continue down the hierarchy, we move ever further away from intelligence.  Animals have no reason.  Inanimate objects are insensate.  (This is imperfectly remembered, sorry.)

In this hierarchy, man was mobile.  As he exercised his reason, as he devoted himself to spirituality, he moved upwards in the great scheme of things.  As he refused his gift of reason, he moved downwards, becoming finally like unto a beast.   

Marketers are mobile too.  As our brand succeeds, we move upwards into the realm of ideas, concepts, experiences.  If we hold parity, we play a game of optimization, tinkering with our positioning, but without resources to contemplate experiment or much in the way of risk taking.  As our brand fails, we descend into a commodity hell, we are destined to slug it out with promotions and channel play. 

We are caught between heaven and hell.  The higher we climb, the closer we get to the realm of pure idea.  The more we are called upon to exercise a our intelligence, creativity and strategic sense.  The lower we fall, the closer we get to something brute.  We are now in a reactive mode.  (This is of course unfair.  Plenty of brain power and strategic sense is called for here. I am letting the metaphor do the talking here.)

Could there be a great chain of being in the marketing world?    


Lovejoy, Arthur O.  1950.  The Great Chain of Being: the study of the history of an idea.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press.  (acknowledged here with all due apologies for my imperfect recollection and liberal use)

McCracken, Grant.  2005.  Culture and Consumption II: markets, meanings and brand management.  Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. 

Pine, Joseph and James Gilmore.  1999.  The Experience Economy.   New York: Harvard Business School Press.

Marketing and convergence

Artbylindatarr A Canadian journalist asked me to comment on advertising in social media.  My reply got more elaborate than I had planned, and I share it with you here.  (Happy to name the journalist in question, if she’ll let me.)


My reply:

Thanks for your note.  Here are a couple of thoughts scratched out in haste while I get ready to go to the airport. 

I think we are beginning to understand that people in their 20s and their teens now live as much on line as they do off, that their lives are shot through with virtual media and digital messages, that their sense of self and group are taking on new structural properties.  As "content creators," and "content consumers," they participate in a new culture and a new economy.  (In the language of my blog work, our world is getting cloudier.)

Marketers and designers are trying to figure out how to find these people and how to speak to them.  Many of the old rules, especially the K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, stupid) logic of marketing no longer applies. 

The old days

In the old days of network television, there were the people who made TV, there were the people who watched TV and there were the people who made commercials for TV. 

Three, quite different groups engaged in three quite different activities. Then something remarkable started to happen.  These activities are beginning to look more and more like one another.  This is what Henry Jenkins would call convergence.

Stage 1

In Stage 1 of this convergence, consumers started to become more like producers of popular culture.  They mastered the grammars and technologies of pop culture and they began to produce like crazy.  (All Your Base Are Belong To Us was an early indicator.  The flood of video that pours through YouTube every day is the latest one.)   Now the consumer and the producers of TV were engaged in something like the same activity.  Both parties are participating in the same culture, as consumers and especially as producers.

Stage 2

Stage 2 is now upon us.  Marketers now understand that they are having to become more like the producers and the consumers of TV.  They too must become producers.  To participate in the new media, they have to begin creating this culture (as opposed to commercial messages, narrowly defined). 

What they can’t do any long is practice is the old model of marketing.  This is one that has the marketers firing big simple messages into the life of the consumers with cannons called big advertising campaigns. Well, there is still a place for big campaigns, but these work not as vehicles of persuasion, but a cultural convictions so interesting that everyone is pleased to watch them, work with them, and send them speeding on their viral way.

Marketers understand that if they want a place in the world that matters to consumers, they have to act like these consumers, manufacturing interesting, clever, quirky content that will help increase and speed the mass of messages that pour through the internet each day.  No more firing big fat messages at a stationary target.  Now the idea is to take part. The idea is to converge.

Now, this is not as easy as it looks.  Burger King’s subservient kitchen is to me the limiting case.  It is wonderfully viral.  People were pleased to look at it, and pleased to pass it along.  But it did not have very much to do with the brand.  And the other extreme is to force people to see the brand theme song, as Oreos does.  This has too much to do with the brand.  The secret is a Aristotelian (or Goldie Locks) mid point and this is something we are searching for still. 

Don’t try this at home (on advertising & amateurs)

Cocreation Last post, I noted a problem with cocreation: that it makes marketing about the corporation, not about the consumer.

There is a second problem: advertising made by the consumer is often bad advertising. 

Exhibit A: The Doritos ads that debuted at the Superbowl

Exhibit B: the new Pepto Bismal ads.

These latter are really horrible, like the worst, most embarrassing outtakes from American Idol.  (And this is no doubt the point.  Advertising wants to occupy any new niche created by contemporary culture, especially when it can be played comically.) The PB ads direct us to a website where we may operate the Pepto-Bismal Dance machine…and this is so bad as to invite the suspicion of deep cynicism or new media incompetence.

Not all ads made by consumers are awful.  The Converse spots were interesting.  The Tahoe ads were, I thought, wonderful, because they found a way to let new voices and messages into the ad world. 

It looks like we are forgetting 2 things:

1) marketing is about the consumer, not the corporation

2) advertising is exceedingly hard to do well.  There’s a reason why we have professionals.

Bad advertising is never OK.  Even when it comes from "the people."  The only thing that consumers dislike more than being excluded from the production of popular culture is bad popular culture.  (They will forgive you the first.  They will NEVER forgive you the second.)  Even very gifted creatives and planners have a hard time making great advertising.  What makes us think that rank amateurs have anything to offer? 

Andrew Keen was wrong on every particular, except perhaps this one: Amateurs are sometimes pretty hopeless.  Don’t get me wrong.  I accept what Keen does not:

    Consumer-created content is out there.

    It will change our culture.

    It will change our advertising. 

    Culture and commerce will cohabit here too.

But it’s not clear to me we want to make a direct, unmediated connection.  I don’t think we want consumers making ads directly.  Not when we have trained professionals standing by.


Keen, Andrew.  2007.  The Cult of the Amateur.  New York: Doubleday. 

McCracken, Grant. 2006.  Chevy Cocreation.  This blogs sits at the intersection of anthropology and economics.  April 25, 2006.  here.

McCracken, Grant.  2007.  Cocreation and the real objectives of marketing.  This blog sits at the intersection of anthropology and economics.  September 21, 2007. here.

Post script:

Clearly these are early days and we are still working on the model(s) that will bring cultural producers and consumers together in more egalitarian, participative, cooperative relationships.  Rob Walker proposes one such models, suggesting that we call this process not cocreation, but copromotion. 

Walker, Rob.  2007. Amateur Hour, Web Style. Issue 119.  October.  p. 87.  here.

Death of marketing?

Piers Yesterday Piers Fawkes made history.  Or what might be the beginning of history.  He dropped the word "marketing" from his description of the PSFK Conference to be held iin LA in September. 

It’s possible historians will look back on this gesture and say:

"We believe it started here.  This is when marketing ceased to be "marketing."  This is when they began changing the term and the field."   

Certainly the conditions are right.  I mean, if "marketing" were a brand, we would have redesigned and relaunched it a long time ago.  As it is, the idea stands for an extraordinary bundle of things.  It is a very messy concept indeed, and the practice…well, the practice is even messier.  Getting rid of this idea is a good idea. 

Piers believes marketing has 3 particular problems.

1) ‘marketing’ doesn’t really encompass the solutions that people are generating in business today;

2) ‘marketing’ comes with all the bad baggage that advertising and promotions has generated (e.g. urban spam);

3) ‘marketing’ isn’t accessible to a new generation of creative minds. 
(numbering, and point form, added)

All of this is right.  And new language is called for.  A couple of months ago, following the suggestion of Jerry Michalski, I proposed that we give up the term "consumers" and begin using the term "multipliers." Some people thought this was a good idea for about 3 seconds and went right back to calling them consumers.  It is hard to shift linguistic furniture as substantial as "marketing," and perhaps we shouldn’t try. 

And I am sure there are people who will say it’s "only" language, that it doesn’t matter what we call it.  But changing the term is a potentially a revolutionary thing to do.  Change the term and we begin to change the things it defines and enables, the concept, process and hiring of the corporation and the business school.  Once the term catches up to the reality, the reality is obliged to catch up to the term. 

There are a couple of risks here.  "Marketing" reminds us that we are are not just talking about branding, and the likes of you, me, and Piers sometimes forget to include things like pricing. And when we do this, we marginalize ourselves and create a market for McKinsey.  While we are chasing after big ideas, someone else is collecting the data, crunching the numbers and offering a more deeply informed approach to the problem.

It’s also true that removing a "reigning" term is like removing the head of state.  Good ideas can now flourish but bad ideas can flourish too. When we change this language, we encourage a tower of babel and the rise of still more gurus to lead us to the land of clarity.  Sticking with the old language protects us from the ambitions of our betters and the anarchic tendencies of the mob below.  What is it that Van Morrison said about "no method, no gurus"? 

I mean, let’s be honest, "marketing" is a brand with an incredible installed based, a lot like Windows.  No one likes it very much, but it makes the world of computers (read business) make sense.  By this reading, we should just stick with orthodoxy.  It might not be very good, but it’s better than its alternatives.

No, let’s not "go along to get along."  This is a revolutionary moment because so much in the traditional purview of marketing has changed.  The old regime has to topple.  It has been hollowed out by the new realities.  We bloggers in the marketing world document it’s insufficiencies everyday.  At the very least, it is, as Piers says, hostile to the new powers of creativity and innovation that are now at large in the marketplace.  We have no choice.  We have to move.   

Did marketing die yesterday?  No, of course, it’s didn’t.  It’s not even feeling poorly.  But you have to start somewhere.  I wonder if Piers just did. 


Fawkes, Piers.  2007.  PFSK Conference Los Angeles: Dropping The worl ‘Marketing’  PSFK.
July 31, 2007.    here

Homer Simpson and the 7-Eleven endorsement debacle

Nighthawks In ten days, on July 27, a dozen 7-Eleven stores will turn into Kwik-E Marts.  The remaining 6400 stores will carry Homer dolls, Krustyo’s cereal, Buzz Cola, Squishees, and pink-frosted Sprinklicious donuts. The Simpsons are coming to visit. 

For me, the joke stops here.  I used a 7-Eleven when living in Boston. It was a shrine to processed food, bad service, aesthetics without mercy, design without shame.  The overlit vacancy of the place gave everything a vaguely radioactive quality. 

Some "light at night" is wonderful.  (Remember how you used to feel about when you were coming home with your parents as lights came on.  Safety.  Comfort.  Joy.) But light at night can also be terrible in its vacuity.  Surely, one couldn’t help wondering late at night in Boston, 7-Eleven is the place that souls come to die.  (One of the interesting thing about Hopper’s famous painting of an all-night diner [above] is that we can’t tell which light applies.) 

7-Eleven was the only game in town, so we put up with it.  But it felt like a place that had managed to capture all that was wrong with the American approach to food, brands and retail.  And when you think about it, this can’t have been easy.  I mean, how do you get something this wrong this often? Somebody had to work at it.  Practice the art.  Perfect the formula.  There, it’s ruined.  Hi-5, everyone, hi-5!   

Yes, it’s very Homer, when you think about it.  Only he could have screwed a corner store up this completely.  But what happens when he comes to visit on July 27th? 

Maybe Homer will fit right in at 7-Eleven.  But if there is a place that can take the joyful stupidity out of Mr. Simpson, it’s this. Because, you see, bone-headed stupidity trumps joyful stupidity every time. 

Maybe Marge and the kids and the spirit of The Simpsons will flourish here.  But if there’s a place that can puncture irreverence and irony, it’s a 7-Eleven.  You see, places that are aggressively irony-free have a way of prevailing over every other form of human wit and creativity.

That’s the 7-Eleven promise to you. 

What I mean is this.  7-Eleven is such a disastrous brand and retail proposition that there’s no way it can save itself with a Simpsons endorsement.  Now, if meanings are going to move here, they can only go the other way: from 7-Eleven to The Simpsons. 

And how sad is that?  One of the most effective enemies of numb skull capitalism will have been damaged by one of the great accomplishments of numb skull capitalism.  D’oh!


Schiller, Gail.  2007.  Discrmininating?  D’oh!  Only 4 ‘Simpsons’ tie-in partners.  The Hollywood Reporter East.  July 6, 2007, pp. 1-2, p. 2.

Prius, not pious (or, hostage rescue in the world of marketing)

Prius_2 This post is about the adoption of the fuel efficient car, specifically the Prius.  I will argue that sales of the Prius (the hostage) are sometimes discouraged by the likes of Arianna Huffington and her supporters (the hostage takers).  I will also argue that this problem can be addressed by the marketer (the hostage rescuer).  To address the problem and the solution we must contemplate diffusion theory, one of the places that anthropology and economics particularly meet. 

Our culture streams with innovation.  But how does "streaming" work? 

Diffusion theories (Simmel in the early days, Rogers in the late) say that innovations "stream" by passing from early adopters to late adopters. Each group has its own motives and its own tolerances for change. Between them, they help draw innovations into the mainstream. 

But how does "passing" work?

Simmel says innovations pass into the mainstream when people imitate  early adopters.  This is the classic operation of the diffusion effect, but there are times when late adopters will not imitate.  This happens when the early adopter flaunts his difference, and rewards himself with self congratulation.  This self-congratulation is read as other-scorn, as if the adopter is saying, "I get it, you don’t."  In this case, the early adopter provokes not admiration but antagonism.  The innovation has been taken hostage.

There is a second case when imitation is not forthcoming, and the innovation is left, in effect, marooned and unassimilable at the far end of the diffusion stream.  In this case, people regard the innovation as puzzling and strange.  Certainly, novelty always has a small current of oddity running through it.  (It would not be novel otherwise.)  But in this case we are talking about innovations that remain opaque, a hostage of another kind.

Simmel’s "imitation" effect does not work in either case.  In fact, the would-be "late adopter" wants nothing to do with the innovation, which remains antagonizing or unsettling.  Or to put this in the language of another marketing model, the innovation is blank of meaning, or inhabited with someone else’s meaning.  Adoption is unlikely.  Captivity is assured.

Marketing to the rescue.  Our job is to find meanings for the innovation that are intelligible, palatable and interesting.  To do this, we could assemble a room full of ad agency creatives.  The other possibility is to see if the early adopters have created meanings other than that of self congratulation.

And this is precisely what was done by Heffner, Kurani, and Turrentine in a recent article on Hybrid Electric Vehicles, specifically the Prius.  H, K and T interviewed 25 Prius owning family, almost all of them in California.  (See the link below for the article and a PDF of the article.  I am still in Warsaw and a little under the gun, timewise. Otherwise, I would break it out for you.) 

Some of the results were predictable.  Some owners drove their cars as a badge of environmental virtue.  And predictably some of them intended their cars as a repudiation of the SUVs with which they shared the highway, a kind of "I’m environmentally sensitive and you’re not" kind of message.  (Actually, sometimes the Huffington driver can send a more strident message, something closer to, "I’m environmentally sensitive, and you are an enemy of the planet.") This is of course precisely the problem, and the thing that antagonizes the late adopter and maroons the innovation. 

But Heffner, Kurani, and Turrentine found respondents cultivating other, less divisive meanings.  For one respondent, the Prius was a compelling choice because it meant that America would sent less money overseas, and gain independence from foreign governments hostile to the US.  This same respondent believed that his choice of a Prius "sent a message" to the American manufacturers of cars, chiding them for having been too slow in developing hybrid technology.  It was also a way to punish the American gas lobby. 

This consumer created meaning moves briskly away from environmental issues into political ones, and there is, I believe, a much larger, constituency for this meaning than there is for the environment.  The marketer could take this up and run with it.  Certainly there is something a little Alice-in-wonderland about promoting Japanese cars on the grounds that it’s good for American interests.  But, hey, it’s for the planet, man. 

A couple was enamored of how quiet the Prius was at low speeds.   They called their "stealth mode."  This is really lovely.  This is a couple out for a little drive, noticing something about their car, reaching for metaphor, and coming back with a little bit of drama that makes driving more fun.  It is for them moment the kind of play that couples share.  (Pam and I have constructed a life out of these little moments, as every couple does.)  But in the right agency hands, this is the stuff on interesting creative, which creatives could "air lift" the Prius out of Huffington self righteousness with a single 30 second spot. 

A third consumer saw his Prius as the perfect car for someone in the technology field, in his phrase, a "geek-a-rific" car.  This consumer was concerned that the Prius would identify him as a "tree hugger" and took pains to emphasize the technological advantage of his car by driving it with his foot to the floor.  Splendid.  In this case, the consumer is actively engaged in the very problem that concerns the marketer.  This may not be the best way of addressing the issue, but it reassures us that our strategy is not altogether mistaken. 

There are several points to make here.

1) That the diffusion effect sometimes comes undone.  Imitation is not forthcoming.  The early adopter has hijacked the the innovation, so to make it cosa nostra (our thing), a party to which others are not invited.  Would-be late adopters are antagonized.   Adoption is slowed. 

2)  When this happens, it is up to the marketer to intervene.  Good ethnographic research will reveal other meanings that "work" for the innovation, but do not have the effect of antagonizing the consumer. We are looking for the acts of symbolic "re-production" with which the consumer has reimagined the innovation.  Now, the communications task is to transship these meanings to the would-be late adopter, running an end-run around the cosa nostra, Huffington gang. 

3) I believe this hunt for palatable meanings is the unofficial practice in marketing.  Certainly, it is a part of  my professional practice as a consulting anthropologist.  I spend a lot of time listening to active consumers talk about the ways they have engaged with the product or brand, that these meanings might be build back into the product or the brand. 

4) So there is a way in which marketers honor this strategy in a de facto way.  But it’s not clear to me that theory has caught up here. Mind you, diffusion theory has been shocking neglected, both in the b-schools and the social sciences.

5) We might think of this as an act of hostage rescue.  What we are doing is saving the innovation from the meanings lavished upon them by the early adopters.  In a way this is fully consistent with the consumer centric mission of marketing, and the conviction that our products and services can’t be "about us" but must instead be about the consumer.  Except in this case, when we say it’s "not about us," we are also struggling to make sure the product or service is "not about them," i.e., the Huffingtons of the world.

6) Come to that, I wonder if this sort of thinking might not prove useful for the Democratic party and it’s presidential hopefuls.


Heffner, Reid, Kenneth S. Kurani, Thomas S. Turrentine.  2007.  Symbolism in Early Markets for Hybrid Electric Vehicles.  Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Dais, Research Report UCD-ITS-RR-07-01. here.

Last note:

For those following my travels in Europe, I leave Warsaw today for Kracow, I think it is.  On the other hand, it could be Lodz.  I will let you know when I get there. 

“Mr. Isdell, I have Mr. Buffett on Line 1.”

Img_1078 First, it was Mary Minnick, who resigned as The Coca-Cola Company’s VP of Marketing, Strategy and Innovation.  This week it was Esther Lee, TCCC’s senior VP and chief creative officer.  Minnick went into retirement.  Lee is CEO of EURO RSCG Worldwide.

Two fabulously talented marketers, gone. 

And what happens now? According to AdAge,

Chairman-CEO Neville Isdell assumed oversight for Coke’s strategy and innovation group, and marketing moved under President-Chief Operating Officer Muhtar Kent. … Coke’s North American unit was restructured in March, decentralizing marketing and shifting brand stewardship to newly named president-general managers for three business units.

Now Isdell isn’t remarkable for his mastery of marketing.  Kent, well, Kent is an Operating Officer.  This means the Coca-Cola Company appears once more on the verge of compromising its marketing.  Isdell’s predecessor, Daft did this in 2000, casting to the winds a deeply talented Atlanta team on the grounds that there were local marketing teams around the world TCCC could fall back upon.

Without marketing, Coke, the product, the portfolio of products, is sweetened water.  Without marketing to create new meanings and to renew old meanings, the brand begins to wither and die.  And I thought TCCC had a go at this recently.  The category, challenged by water, juice, sports drinks, is shrinking.  Competitors multiply.  Pepsi gets stronger.  The little brands grow more numerous and more nimble.  Is this the time for another disaspora of talent?

The field of marketing is undergoing a revolution that takes it out of the stupidities of the old world into strategies that are new, difficult, and ever changing.  (See the post for yesterday, please.)

This is to say that marketing has always mattered to the Coca-Cola Company, and it especially matters now.  Perhaps this is not the time to replace good marketers with non marketers.  I mean, if I were a shareholder and I discovered that the marketing team was being once more diminished, I would not be happy. 

Come to think of it, Warren Buffett, one of the great champions of TCCC investment, is now famous for having encouraged the Gecko ads for Geico.  What happens if he starts to ask questions? What if he phones to ask what happened to the marketers? 

"Mr. Isdell, I have Mr. Buffett on line 1."

Oh, oh. 


Sanders, Lisa and Kate MacArthur.  2007.  Euro RSCG Taps Coke’s Lee as North American CEO.  Adage.  May 2, 2007.  here.

What I think I’m doing in Mexico

Img_1510 What I’m doing here in Mexico City is trying to save marketing.  No, really.

There was a golden age in the agency world when research, strategy and creativity worked together, and brands were build by smart people working in a happy, reckless free-for-all of creativity.  (Like all mythic creations, this golden age is heavy on the happy.)

Take Chicago just before and after World War II.  Lloyd Warner had taken his position at the University of Chicago in the 30s.  (He’d been a graduate student at Harvard in the period 1929-1935 where he was connected both to the Department of Anthropology and the Business School!  Like that’s ever going to happen again.) Even as Warner was writing books like American Life: Dream and Reality (1953), he was doing commercial work.

With Burleigh Gardner and William Henry, he created a firm in Hyde Park on 53rd street called Social Research, Incorporated (SRI).  This group helped create the focus group, brand image, and other staples of the world of advertising.

Over the next two decades SRI helped to revolutionize the field of  market research, transforming its assumptions, methods, goals, and consequences in ways that quickly redirected the world of advertising…according  to Andrew Abbott, chair of sociology at [the University of] Chicago.

By the time I started doing commercial work in the middle 1980s, things had change, the world had shrunk, joy was largely extinguished. An age of iron now prevailed.  Clearly, dark forces had prevailed.  The free-wheeling days of smart people from different fields working together in the creation of novel approaches, this was pretty much over.  Now people would open marketing meetings with "what’s the hot button here?"

What happened?  Certainly, the b-school continued to treat creativity as an off planet activity.  Most brands were controlled by managers who didn’t know or care about the full value that agencies and research could create.  Wall Street was tightening the screws.  And this discouraged longer term thinking and risk taking.  The agencies themselves often demanded that they be left alone to commune with their gods.  The rich connections and accomplishments of the Chicago world were vanishing.   

"Hot buttons!"  What a grim metaphor.  It casts the consumer has a mechanical device for which the operating manual has gone missing.  How to operate this creature?  Say, let get someone to see if there’s a lever or a button?  Look for something blinking.  Send in the researchers and see.  (There is a Ph.D. thesis waiting to happen here.  Where did the hot button theory come from? Who invented it?  What made the world vulnerable to it?  Surely Warner and SRI would have laughed it out of court.)

In the post-Chicago, post-Warner regime, a cycle of diminishment prevailed. Clients asked less of research, research asked less of the consumer, the corporation asked less of the agency, and of course the consumer was diminished most of all.  Everyone was holding out.  Certain kinds of creativity and innovation were dying out.  Sometimes, I lay the fault with the nuclear winter of positivism that prevailed after World War II.  Everyone was trying to be as much like a scientist as possible.  If marketing professionals could have got a way with lab coats, believe me, they would have.  Science has status.  Marketing was imprecise and pandering.  It is worth pointing out here that it was Chicagoans, academic and industrial, who sustained qualitative methods during the nuclear winter.

At some point, things started to get better.  The corporation came to think of the consumer as a more complicating, interesting, intelligent creature.  Sometimes this was a humanizing gesture.  Sometimes, it was merely a  response to competitive pressure.

Funny advertising happened.  This didn’t mean that the agency or the client cared about sophisticated meaning manufacture, but at least both were now prepared to credit the consumer with a sense of humor (instead of button).  This is the era of Cliff Freeman, among others.  The field of design, thanks to the revolutionary efforts of Jay Doblin made a difference.  Now the consumer was to be consulted (not examined).  Stephen King and account planning happened and eventually found its way to North America.  Some of us began to offer ethnography as a new way to talk to the consumer, and eventually P&G happened, as A.G. Lafley blessed the  method.  And under the stewardship of Russ Belk, Rich Lutz, Philip Kotler, Syd Levy, Michael Solomon, Susan Fournier, John Deighton and Al Silk, to name a few, there emerged better models of the consumer. 

Which brings us to what I think I’m doing in Mexico.  I am in those homes to capture the consumer in some (but not all) of her complexity, to cast the net wide with a series of questions that would horrify the hot button mechanic.  I am asking lots of diverse questions.  I am following the consumer any where she is prepared to take me (by direction or implication).    I am here to advance my clients interests not by finding a hot button, but looking for a match between all of the cultural complexities of the consumers’ life and all the things the brand and the product are or can become. 

Ethnography is pretty good at drawing out the complexity of the consumer.  Not of course in the hands of the bargain basement players or the high-charging methodological pretenders, but when someone knows what they are doing, the method is fecund.  We are going to sit in someone’s home for a couple of hours and listen to them answer a couple of hundred questions.  And every question is potentially a Mississippi.  By asking a simple question, we stumble onto a far tributary and by asking successive questions, we begin to see that we are now moving from detail to "something good."  If we’re lucky, and this only happens once or twice an interview, we end up all the way downstream, connected now to the very delta of this culture.  Now we see what matters.  More important, we know why.  This is the place for the brand to position itself.  This is the place of advantage. 

Will I save the world of marketing?  Well, not single handedly.  But the more we look, the more we find.  And the more we make available to the agency and the client, the better and smarter marketing can get.  Thus does a virtuous cycle replaces the downward spiral.  Everyone gets smarter.  Everyone supplies more value to the next party.  At least, we hope they do. Clients asked more of research, research asked more of the consumer, the corporation asked more of the agency, and all of us, in concert, supply more to the consumer. 

This may seem like an exercise in preaching to the choir.  Surely everyone cares about and has committed to a more sophisticated, value adding marketing!   Um, I’m not so sure about that.  Not if things afoot at the Coca-Cola Company are what they appear to be. Tomorrow, I’ll have a go at this. 


Easton, John.  2001.  Consuming Interests.  University of Chicago Magazine.  here.

The Wikipedia entry for Lloyd Warner is here.

Post script:

For those of you who are following my travels, you will note from today’s photo that I am now in Guadalajara.  It has that splashing light of southern California (whereas Monterrey, especially when overcast, had pewter-ish light, which is of course exactly what the heath calls for).   I am received by matrons of the house with the grace and good humor that I received in Monterrey and Mexico City, but I think here, perhaps, people are a little more relaxed.  Still the numbers are too small to risk a generalization of this kind.  One of the joys of interviewing here is that the rooms are usually breezy and bright, the opposite of the Khrushchev kitchens in which the project began, so little, so hot, so little, so hot.   The question is who will win the foot race, the powerpoint deck or the exhaustion that always descends in the second week?   I have my money on the powerpoint deck.      

Op-ed marketing

Nike_logo Nike ran an ad this weekend in the Sunday New York Times.  It read:

Thank you, ignorance.

Thank you for starting the conversation.

Thank you for making an entire nation listen to the Rutger’s (sic) team story.

And for making us wonder what other great stories we’ve missed.

Thank you for reminding us to think before we speak.

Thank you for showing us how strong and poised 18 and 20-year-old women can be.

Thank you for reminding us that another basketball tournament goes on in March.

Thank you for showing us that sport includes more than the time spent on the court.

Thank you for unintentionally moving women’s sport forward.

And thank you for making all of us realize that we still have a long way to go.

Next season starts 11.16.07.

Well done, Nike.

Contemporary brands must be made to stream with meanings.  Only thus can they remain responsive in contemporary cultures. 

Usually, these meanings come from the three levels of culture:

1. deep foundations

These are meanings that have been in place, defining our culture, for sometimes hundreds of years.  Some of our notions of gender and status have this status.

2. long term trends

These are meanings that are more recently arrived and still forming. With its "curatorial" approach to the soccer world, Nike has taken a strong position here.

3. short term trends

Nike has been active here too, associating itself with the athletes of the moment. 

But by taking on the Imus affair, Nike is actually reaching into a stream of meanings that is brand new.  Naturally, this is strategically challenging.  It is not yet clear exactly where this development will "net out."  So there is an element of risk.  (Though, pretty clearly, most people are quite happy to see the last of this guy.  I know I am.)  And the risk is not just that there might be some residual loyalty for Imus, but also that some will accuse Nike for "piling on."

The trade-off is pretty clear.  The more current the event, the more powerful the meanings and the less stable the proposition.   But as brands come to understand the value of constant renewal, and source more and more vivid meanings to accomplish this renewal, tapping contemporary events may be the coming thing. 

I for one hope so.  Branding was once a "keep it simple, stupid" undertaking.  Dumbing down, and repetition were the order of the day. Happily, brands that persevere with this backward approach are made to pay for it.  I think it’s a good thing that currency is joining complexity as an important instrument for those interested meaning manufacture. Thank you, Nike.


McCracken, Grant. 2004.  Brands as Shadows.  This blog sits at the intersection of anthropology and economics.  November 18, 2004.  [for the "sailing ship" concept of three levels of meanings for the brand.] here.

McCracken, Grant.  2005.  Nike, new branding approaches.  This blog sits at the intersection of anthropology and economics.  March 11, 2005.  [for the curatorial approach by Nike] here.

McCracken, Grant. 2006. The Artisanal Movement, and 10 things that define it.  November 9, 2007.  [as an example of a recent meaning] here.

Thomaselli, Rich.  2007.  Nike builds ad campaign out of Imus Controversy.  Ad Age.  April 17, 2007.  here. subscription required.