It’s the Humanity, Stupid!

Caravaggio: The Sacrifice of Isaac
I don’t know why I haven’t posted something about this before. I find myself talking about this all the time. Here’s the gist:
Marketing is dead. You can be humans again.
No, really. Not the practice of taking things to market; I mean “marketing, the paradigm”. Marketing, of necessity, has been about dealing with customers at arm’s length. This is a byproduct of the industrial revolution. In order to pass the value of economies of scale to customers, companies had to be big. They had to talk to a lot of people. Since Gutenberg, the only tools available for—indeed the only ways to even think about—talking to a lot of people have been unidirectional. These univalent tools are the currency of marketing. They offer really no meaningful dialogue.

Marketing, of necessity, treats the market as an abstraction. Thus, the customer is an abstraction. I’m willing to wager that people don’t mind being abstracted, they just don’t want to feel like an abstraction. If you’re going to try to convince a friend to try a particular restaurant, you will undoubtedly recourse to an abstraction of that friend to find the right bit of persuasive suggestion. However, when you actually talk to your friend about it, the exchange will be anything but abstract. It will take account of the shared social context, your friend’s non-verbal communications, your desire to share a new flavor, and so on. Most importantly, presuming you are anything like a decent human and you call this person a friend because you mean what is generally meant by friend, you will be speaking from your center. You will be honest. You will be human. You will be you.
This is the crack in the edifice of marketing as a paradigm. It has been there since the beginning, and no efforts to ameliorate it from within the marketing paradigm have been successful. Because marketing was a successful innovation to begin, and because its culturally totalitarian nature took time to manifest, the pressure to solve the problem of its anti-social behavior has only recently become increasingly apparent. Marketing is becoming less effective as it becomes more ubiquitous and people become more cynical. Everybody probably already knows that part.
The internet has changed everything; even though the marketers are still in the dark about it. I like to say that marketers have treated the internet like a television with a keyboard and mouse. That some marketers have been experimenting with allowing customers to create content does little to sway my opinion in this regard. I think the citizen/customer generated content (CGC) thing is a whole lot of fun and illuminating, but it does not constitute the next paradigm.
The next paradigm comes when marketers stop marketing and use these new tools to help their organizations to act like humans. The paradigm within which they’ve been operating hasn’t allowed them to do this. Now they can. Make customer service, research and development, and marketing into an organic whole so that it can assimilate these new tools. Have conversations with customers at every point of contact. It’s not democratizing the market as some have suggested, anymore than you are a democracy when you are trying to persuade your friend to join you at your favorite restaurant. It is about being human. Be accountable. Say no when you have to, but explain yourself. Apologize when you have to. Know when to apologize because you’re actually engaged in a dialogue with those you may have hurt. Give praise to those who do novel and compelling things with your products. Tell incredible human stories.
This is what creative, strategic marketers have wanted to do all along, but the marketing gestalt hasn’t made the path visible. Marketers are relegated to being the veneer of the organization—out at the edge of the process—whereas every encounter with the customer should be directly informed by the center; from the human part of the organization; from its core. The new role for marketing is in facilitating the transformation of companies from distant abstractions to human institutions. It is an opportunity for big ideas; big ideas that the big ad agencies are constitutionally incapable of conceiving.
Whatever you call that role, it ain’t marketing. Maybe it’s anthropology, as the other innovation firms call it. I just call it being human.

2 thoughts on “It’s the Humanity, Stupid!

  1. Well, as has been said before, good design/advertising/marketing can only maximize the selling potential of a good product. As in, you can’t rely on great creative to salvage something of dubious value (the veneer won’t make the chair sturdy, so to speak). So its no surprise that some of the most successful brands operate as “one piece”–all the stereotypical, familiar names apply, from Apple to Nike, but its true. Its not hocus-pocus. Just like a strong body, they’re not segmented, they’re strong throughout.
    Unfortunately, Americans have long loved to segment things, break stuff down into arbitrary categories. Thus most marketing–which isn’t particularly bad, its just homogenized mediocrity, usually stemming from a fear of “being wrong.”
    Of course, “being wrong” is part of “being human.” Consider that Microsoft would never approve advertising like the “Mac / PC” spots because a such a message would alienate certain people…certain people would see it as “wrong.”
    I think the notion of marketers treating people as abstractions is totally accurate; in my own language I’ve naturally taken the overkill route and just called it “dehumanizing.” I see this stuff all the time, especially in agencies without much clue. My personal favorite is the sample consumer, a non-existent but pleasantly named (names like Sarah and James seem to be common) individual cut out from the cloth of “average demographic” and then profiled for the benefit of the client. Its weird, and whenever I’ve had to execute against this I feel like I’m attempting conversation with a mannequin from the James Spader movie.
    I agree that the big agencies are latently incapable of conceiving anything profound, but, they still run things (and maybe just for now, not always). They still command huge sums of money and get most of the press…even as their holding companies make most of their money from so-called “below the line” work, and even though more corporations seem to be questioning what they’re getting out of these antiquated relationships. Perhaps this results from the fact not that people dislike change, but that they often like inertia MORE.
    Or perhaps there’s the inexplicable attachment to recognition and fame that traditional advertising often carries with it. I’m not sure what the ultimate currency is in this world, if its the dollar or the ego, but they seem to me to be locked in an uncomfortably close race.

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