Thursday, 3 June 2010

Negative Capability in marketing

So I was lucky enough to get to Grant McCracken's Chief Culture Officer bootcamp last week, which was a great opportunity to get under the skin of the research practice that informed the book, and to chat about it with lots of smart people. It also got me thinking about how 'culture', in the sense of the complex and slowly evolving system studied by cultural anthropologists, ties together a lot of separate strands that I've been thinking about for a while.

I've struggled with several econometric models over my career - media planners love econometric models, because they tell you line by line and TV rating by TV rating exactly what has got you to where you are today. So you can plan changes for the future based on very exact return on investment figures. As long as all the other conditions that contributed to the model remain exactly the same. And there was no inter-relation between the factors that you changed. And most importantly of all, that the big unquantifiable chunk of fat value labelled 'the long term brand effect' also remains constant. So the reason I've struggled with them is because this tells us a huge amount about a very small bit of something that we can't change.

There was a lot of discussion at Grant's event about the relationship between data, the known bit that makes up the econometric model - and culture, the unknown that can fundamentally alter the big brand chunk in the middle of the model for no reason that a statistician could predict. And it got me to thinking that if all data is by definition reactive, then maybe culture is defined by its opposition - culture is by definition proactive. This has real implications for anyone selling ideas based on gut feel in a world that is based on data (and if you are involved in doing so then I suggest you read Grant's book!), but it also starts to question why data is necessarily the right thing to do.I've written stuff on here before about the curse of demographics on the marketing world - to summarise the basic argument (inspired like many things on here by Henry Jenkins by way of Faris Yakob) demographics are by definition averages. When all media were mass demographics made sense as they meant brands minimised wastage. Media were scarce (part of why they were mass) so brand ideas in mass media were expensive, and therefore short. Brand ideas had to appeal to a wide range of people, so had to be simple. Wide ranges of people were summarised neatly by demographics.

And now media are no longer scarce, and so are free and niche. Brand ideas need to be rich and rewarding, and demographics undermine this. Someone at the event talked about the concept of the brand as "a bundle of conflicting but complementary ideas", which is not a new concept - it is at the heart of Negative Capability, Keats' belief that the best ideas come from an understanding that not everything can or should be resolved.

I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason
John Keats, 1817

The richness and depth of human nature is defined by difference, not similarity. In the Morality plays popular up to Elizabethan times, characters were stripped of all individuality and distinguishing characteristics in order not to distract the audience from the simplicity of the moral. The radical depth of Elizabethan dramatists like Shakespeare turned this on its head - unearthing deep emotional truths about humanity in the relationships between rich complex characters.

In an culture increasingly defined by the mass personal there is a huge hurdle for marketing departments to overcome in moving from being the home of sweeping industrial scale generalisation to the conduit through which businesses become human, with all the complexity and conflict that that entails. The move from big/simple/single to niche/many/rich is a big first step - not replacing big/simple/single, but understanding that it is only a step to get to niche/many/rich. Because I'd suggest that that's where the fat unquantifiable value is, and the one big idea I've taken out of the seminar is not to always 'reach after fact and reason', but to explore the tension in 'conflicting and complementary'.


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