Archive for March, 2010

Grant McCracken

Hmmm. I smell a juicy topic. Courtesy, once again, of the anthropologist of consumption, Grant McCracken.

In his most recent blog post, McCracken asks why our culture tells such horror stories about our economic system, capitalism.

And it’s true. In a way. Although I do think that, in some corners, some households, some rooms of our bastions of higher learning, a different kind of story about capitalism is being told. But mostly to capitalists, or wanna-be capitalists.

Yet, as McCracken points out, capitalism is the unsung hero (because he’s not classically heroic) who owns a handful of dry cleaning shops, that’s employing people’s moms and dads and sponsoring little league teams and, at the same time, keeping us all in freshly-laundered duds.

Kwakiult spoon clearly designed to drive consumption

I wonder if this whole demonizing of an economic system that, from empirical evidence, is at least currently preferred to any other in most parts of the world, isn’t due to a bigger rift in how we see ourselves and our culture.

Because an economic system is just as much a cultural artifact as a building or a symphony or a set of  dishes. It’s as much manufactured by humans as any other part of what we call culture. And yet, in a way that strikes me as historically unusual, the economic system is deeply separated from many other parts of our culture, and neither sees itself as beholding to or dependent upon the rest of our swirl of human meaning. And our human lives.

Capitalism is not integrated with the rest of culture in the way it should be. If it were, it wouldn’t be seen as alien in the first place, and it wouldn’t act as if it’s not dependent on both the natural and human eco-system which it occupies.

Blatent consumerism supported by Aztec corn god

My guess is that part of this comes from specialization. When a person wants to go into business they study business. They don’t necessarily study philosophy, religion, history, biology, literature, music, dance, theatre, and all the other contexts in which business lives. In other words, business students don’t study the culture and the environment which business is supposed to serve. It’s seen as having its own laws, its own purposes, which are centered on creating profit for shareholders.

Whereas, throughout human history (and pre-history, we may suppose), the economic system is a means, not an end in itself.

Likewise, those who don’t study business feel victimized by this alien system that seems to be serving no one they know and doesn’t have a regard for non-business things.

To me, this is what the whole new values-based branding model is all about. We are finally trying to re-align our economic system with our larger cultural needs, as well as the needs of the planet. And not just our material needs, but our spiritual needs as well.

Which is what makes this moment in branding particularly exciting for me. As it should be for you. For all of us.

– Doug


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The bees are buzzing

We just created this nifty little device for monitoring conversations, tweets, media reports, etc. on certain topics. We call it “The Buzz.” Right now we are monitoring electric cars. And not just the big brands, but rather some of the innovative upstarts. Check it out here. Go ahead, click on a bee and see what happens.

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OK, yeah, it’s a useful idea, this whole “brand butler” trend, as reported on trendwatching.com. Essentially it says, make yourself useful. Do something on behalf of your customers that they’d like done for them. Build an app that helps people find ATM machines, etc.

A really good idea, no question. But what is all this serving serving?

Because if you’ve got a brand that people don’t connect to on a deeper level, it doesn’t matter that much if you just give them an app they like. They’re going to say Thanks and then patronize your competitor who’s done a better job of articulating a set of values and then living those values, day in, day out.

No one is fooled when a loser does you a favor. They’re still a loser.

It’s so discouraging to read yet another article telling people the one thing they should do this year. Suggestions like this don’t go to the root of the problem, which is: if you’re not already thinking this way, you’ve got bigger issues. You probably don’t have a clear, deeply-held set of values driving everything your brand does. You’re probably still trying to manipulate people into buying your products or services.

You’re still thinking in the old model. And it’s dead, folks. Patrick Swayze. Fess Parker. Even deader.

The biggest problem with the whole brand butler idea is that it’s a tactic, it’s not a strategy. A strategy is when you have a big picture plan which is being served by such tactics. A strategy is turning your brand into a meaning-making machine and delivering substance to your audiences. A strategy is adopting the frame of mind that would lead you to say, “So what can we do on behalf of our audience? Do they need help finding ATMs?” Because once you’ve taken on that frame of mind, you will naturally be doing all kinds of things which could be called brand butlers.

A tactic is when someone in the room says, “Yeah, we otta get one of those things, those brand butler things, y’know? ‘Cause people like those things.”

If you’re creating brand butlers strategically you’ll know why you’re doing them. You’ll know what they serve. Which is your brand’s values, and the people who identify with those values – and with your brand.

– Doug

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Well, it’s up.

Our new web site. A web site that more accurately suits our clothes, as they sometimes say about the weather. A web site that is the seed of something new. A web site that is a process, rather than a product.

Our new site is simply divided into ideas and people. Everything we do or care about certainly fits under one or the other category. We’ve launched with just enough content to give visitors a sense of where this web site is going. But it’s the future content that will make it complete.

In fact, it will never be complete. How perfect.

We’ll be adding the ability for readers to comment on everything, and for every employee to add to it at whim. Our dream is to make it a web site driven by collaborative content creation, by contributions of you, our readers, and by time and the changing world.  Our hope is that this becomes an ongoing conversation.

Next step is to get our content management systems built so that anyone within the agency can add content at any time. Content which will invite you and other readers to add to it. And the comments component, so you can join in. We want this site to be a real-time dialog about what we’re thinking about and how we do things here.

Eventually the blog will be folded into the site, so that people can blog from within it. But for now it’s still separate.

Hope you enjoy what’s there already, and recognize that we’re really not even showing the potential that’s inherent in the design yet. But we’re working on that.

– Doug

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David Burn, who writes an advertising blog called AdPulp, has just posted an interview with me talking about Portland and advertising and such. His blog offers an important perspective on this business of ours and is another way to keep up with what’s going on in adworld.

Thanks for the opportunity to ramble, David.

– Doug

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GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical giant, recently launched a campaign against cervical cancer. They built a web site, helppreventcervicalcancer.com, to support this effort. It imparts facts and dispels myths about HPV and encourages concerned women to ask their doctor about vaccines to prevent cervical cancer. The glaring omission is that the site (not to mention the Oscar ad) make no mention of the fact that GlaxoSmithKline are the manufacturers of Cervarix, the leading vaccine. GlaxoSmithKline may be saving lives by creating this “public service,” I don’t know, I am no medical expert. I do know this strategy certainly raises ethical questions about how pharmaceutical companies get information out to consumers. Why should we, the consumer, trust that this information is correct? This tactic is an easy way for GlaxoSmithKline to raise awareness that results directly in increased interest in their product without having an ad that spends the last ten seconds listing off all the risks of taking their drug. Pfizer has recently set up a similar site for Fibromyalgia and, guess what? the company has a drug that treats that. This appears to be the new approach for drug companies to market their wares.

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Put some Dentyne in your purse, bitch!

How many of you were watching the Oscars when they announced they were going to talk about the absolute necessary items which any woman needed that night, and the challenge of getting them into one of those little purses? And how many of you watched with a weird curiosity, with a hope of getting some kind of small human insight into what a person attending might be going through?

And then how many of you were pissed off to discover that it was really just a ploy to plug Dentyne Ice? How many of you felt duped, fooled? I sure did. As soon as she started talking about Dentyne Ice while pulling it out of the purse, I knew this was a commercial.

Fact is, with a bit of thinking the people responsible could have made a really positive impression on behalf of Dentyne instead of making me hate them for insulting me. If the episode had felt like more of an accidental reveal of a product, how much more powerful would the whole thing have been? As long – and this is a crucial warning – as long as the whole little episode was actually a legitimate peek into reality – legitimate yet the breath enhancer just happens to be Dentyne Ice. No verbal plug. Play it as information, rather than a blatant attempt to sell.

You can be pretty sure the women at the Oscars (and the men) were all in fact packing something for their breath. So it would have been essentially true.

Yet I can just hear someone, probably the client, saying “If we’re paying this much to show our product I want her to say our name, too! It’ll sell more gum.”

Right. In your fantasies, you stupid voice.

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