Saturday, January 26, 2008

Planner as speculator or second thoughts on forecasting

I’m pretty sure I’m on record for saying that I haven't had much use for trend studies in general and trend forecasting in particular. The majority of services that track cultural trends I’ve looked into don’t do much but draw big general conclusions from a few observations. For me, they provide a perfect storm of irrelevancy: slim data, shaky conceptual frameworks and obvious conclusions: Families are time-starved! Everything is going mobile! Green is in!

The most suspect of these vendors/services don’t do anything but scan the press for “news” on the latest events and use the frequency of these press releases as evidence of a trend, conveniently forgetting that PR designed to create a trend is not really the strongest evidence that behavior is actually changing.

What I used to say in response to various vendors who tried to sell me their culture-watching services is: I don’t try to predict the future. Describing the present is hard enough.

Lately, however, I’ve found myself more involved in projects which demand various sized bets on future behavior. In my old job, as head of planning at a biggish agency, most of the questions were versions of: does it make more sense to launch this latest giant TV at X price and when we do, how should we talk about it to attract the people who are most likely to buy it.

These days as a so-called strategist at a smallish company, the questions frequently sound more like: we’re building a product that will allow people to watch their own digestion processes--from stomach to small intestine--in real time. We’re sure this is going to be big. Health is big. Diet is big. Indigestion is big. We also have the technology that allows people to broadcast this imagery to their friends on their websites. Should we move ahead with this project? And if we do, who do you think would be most interested in sharing medical imagery on their websites?

An extreme--though probably only barely--example to make the point: I’m frequently finding myself being asked to speculate on target motivations for new categories of behavior--behavior that doesn't exist yet--at least not as general consumer behavior. Undoubtedly, scientists have been watching their own digestion in real-time for years. But not as consumers. This isn't something we’ve all been doing or wanting to do, just going online to check on the state of our G-I tracks. It’s new or newly accessible technology which either will or will not create a consumer habit.

How can we know whether this will catch on? How do we make a guess good enough to pay for? Since that’s really two different questions and this is getting long, I’ll save my two different answers for next post. In the meantime, please share all your recipes for divination and soothsaying

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Hybrid culture week II: the ideology of irritation

So the whole hybrid experience has me thinking about brand ideology again. In an earlier post, I expressed skepticism about the use of the term in marketing, suggesting it was either redundant (all advertising is ideological in the classic sense of supporting the socio-economic structures of the ruling class) and/or hyperbolic (in the sense that it thrived on competitive viewpoints rather than needing to crush them to function).

But I’m wondering now if some of these non-traditional purchases might constitute something like—following Barthes reality effect—an ideology effect. Not ideological in the classic sense, but ideological in the sense of disrupting people’s unconscious or semi-conscious assumptions about their consumer purchases.

In a country where 70% of the GNP is made up of consumer spending, I don’t think many people would disagree with the fact that our standard of living depends on getting people to keep spending. Our culture is a consumer culture in a deep (base and superstructure) way now. So, when we refuse to spend (see Freegans) or divert spending into consumption limiting purchases (like hybrids) we are doing something that comes close to an ideological effect.

After a few weeks of hybrid driving and hybrid comments and people sending me articles about hybrids, I’m starting to think that one very visible and perhaps measurable marker of an ideological act or purchase or brand is that it makes other people all defensive and shit. The brand stakes out a territory that “raises to consciousness” the unconscious or semi-conscious motivations behind other purchases. "You eat animals?"

Now Doug Holt and the rest of the crew at Amalgamated have expanded this definition to include any brand that expresses a “provocative cultural ideal, a view of how society should be.” Holt's definition of cultural branding, elucidated in his post-Marxist cultural analysis How Brands Become Icons, avoids being Althusserian but only barely so. The shadow of the "Ideological State Apparatus" hovers throughout the book. One of the many great charms of reading Holt's book is watching him use one of the last centuries most astringent critiques of consumer capitalism as the foundation for a theory of brand building.

Holt claims that the source of a truly “iconic" brands power (Budweiser, Harley Davidson, Coke) is the brand’s ability to reconcile cultural contradictions, the contradiction between the life we want to be leading and the socio-economic reality we are trapped in. In other words, powerful ideological marketing creates a compelling cultural fantasy that reconciles us to our lives of quiet desperation sitting in cubicles, standing in assembly lines and enduring airport security humiliations. Through the ritual act of consumption, the brand allows us to experience, however briefly, the life of a motorcycle riding rebels, or a Xtreme sport hipster, or a cool guy hanging out with our guy friends, running cover for one another as we are pursued by needy girlfriends. True, indeed.

Holt would say that my Prius purchase serves my contradictory desires to maximize my earnings (and participating in a commuter culture to do it) while still feeling like I’m doing my part to preserve the environment. I can have my cake and eat it too. Feel all smug--giving a synergy-hybrid-drive-silent-finger to all the Hummers on the road while still earning enough to take my family to Vail. True!

I can't disagree. But I might also argue now after two weeks of ideological car ownership that the clearest sign that a brand can claim ideological status is when it pisses someone off by suggesting their purchasing habits (and the values that underpin them) aren’t just wrong, but bad.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Sunday Afternoon Reading: Mistaken premises in Proust

Context: Marcel learns that Albertine is dead, then sometime later, he gets a telegram that he thinks is from Albertine saying that she is still alive. Later, another set of events leads him to the conclusion that this second telegram wasn't from Albertine at all, a realization which causes him to expound on the fact that we are all always making these kinds of mistakes, misreading everything with absolute confidence in judgment:

"We guess as we read, we create; everything starts from an initial error; those that follow (and this applies not only to the reading of letters and telegrams, not only to all reading), extraordinary as they may appear to a person who has not begun at the same starting-point, are all quite natural. A large part of what we believe to be true (and this applies even to our final conclusions) with an obstinacy equalled only by our good faith, springs from an original mistake in our premises.
--[my italics] The Fugitive, trans, Moncrieff, p. 671.

This passage made me think of a lot of things in our biz--broadly defined--from the challenges of having a debate/discussion with anyone who doesn't start with the same premise (E.g., See post below on the difficulty of articulating a distinction between two kinds of online experience) to a larger point about research companies who, because they are in the business of prediction, refuse to admit when they made a mistake (based on wrong or out-of-date premises) until they absolutely have to. I'm thinking of course of our pollsters in N.H. who are still scrambling to explain their failures. (race, the alphabet, weeping women, those contrarian NH'ers) Wouldn't the much more interesting and useful action be to admit that our old premises are no longer accurate and start working on adjusting the model accordingly?

I think I've posted before on this but maybe it's repeating: one of the questions I always ask researchers/testing companies/trend-spotters/insight-mavens is "Tell about a time when you were wrong and how you adjusted your model/premises to adjust to the new data?"

I haven't receive a good answer yet. Really, not one. It's one of the most annoying (and counter-productive) features of the business culture. You can never admit to being wrong without putting your livelihood at risk. Which means, of course, it's quite difficult to shed those old premises.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Digital strategy: utility vs experience

Responding to an Adage article about the limits of interactive agencies to "manage brand strategy," David Armano posted a manifesto in early December on what he thinks digital agencies need to do to lead brands into the glorious future.

He makes a lot of reasonable points, but much of it covers familiar territory: collaborate, pursue great talent, pay attention to detail, think holistically or, as he puts it, "outside the browser." More interesting to me are the implicit challenges he's responding to: the fact that most digital agencies continue to be positioned as executional vendors rather than strategic partners. Part of the problem seems to be industry wide. I've written previously about the tendency of clients--or anyone--to pigeon-hole talent within narrow frameworks: from creative agencies, to digital agencies, to design firms; identities which are hard to transcend once they've taken root.

But part of the problem might also be an unclear definition of what being "strategic" means in the first place in a digital context. (To be fair, it's a confusing, overdetermined term in even general shops, having at least three different levels: business, marketing and creative/advertising). But judging by the supportive and robust comments on his post, it's pretty clear what his colleagues think it isn't. People who "don't get it" are people who think the internet is just another media channel. No argument there. From my perspective--a convert to the power of user experience--the internet is redefining our expectations for all consumer experience. But I'd be eager to see someone articulate the key strategic challenges facing digital brands in the coming year.

Here's one for me. On most web-based brands I'm working on now, one of the key questions is whether the site should create a rich multi-dimensional experience or whether it should optimize a functional utility. In other words, should they do one thing really (search or sell or aggregate or deliver content) or should they try to create a experience surrounded by context and detail. Here's yet another way to put it: every brand is now fighting for every consumer's most precious resource: time. What's the best way to own that precious unit of time? By helping them get something done really well and fast and hope they will do it over and over again, or engaging them in something more immersive and engaging? Most digital visionary types seem to favor the experience route, if only because it leads to more interesting work. Engineers tend to like to make elegant utilities. But lots of consumers seem to like segmenting a range of behavior across a variety of sites, rather than wanting to get all immersive in one.

One of the things that those of us who study consumer behavior (whatever you call us) need to start understanding is how different consumers are behaving on the internet in relation to this utility <-->experience continuum, even though that language still isn't precise enough to clarify the nature of this particular strategic challenge.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Making a statement whether you like it or not: buying cars II

One of the more annoying features of our consumer economy—about which I have no right to complain since it’s my proverbial bread and butter—is that your purchases often make stronger public statements about your identity than you intend. I don't even have my new car yet and already my friends and neighbors are getting their backs up. “There was an article,” one of my neighbors said as we stood in the street next to her idling Tahoe, “that those hybrids aren’t all they are cracked up to be….”

My first reaction was: I’m going to enjoy this car.

My second was: Now I know how vegetarians feel. They might be making their decisions for any number of reasons but their dietary choices almost inevitably generate a defensive reaction among their fellow meat-eaters, as if they’d given up meat for the sole reason of making the rest of us feel guilty.

Check out some of the postings on Edmunds' (or other forums like this one in which hybrids are called hippie cars and car-guys revel in the end of the tax rebate) if you want to hear how heated car-enthusiasts get about people who—like myself—might choose a particular car because they don’t care much about cars. Or rather because they care more about buying less gas than they do about horsepower. Do I think I'm going to single-handedly solve the geo-political energy crisis? Nope. Would I prefer to buy less gas than have 200 horsepower and 4wd? Yes. It wasn't really that complicated a decision.

The whole moral panic that the purchase of a hybrid (or any semi-unconventional consumer choice) can generate seems a phenomenon worth further exploration. There has, of course, always been social pressure motivating our consumer choices, without which the whole term "badge brand" would not exist. But it seems our rapidly warming planet (among other things about which more later) has created a new room for moralizing consumer choice in a way we haven't seen in awhile and reminds me of nothing so much as the culture wars I endured as a graduate student.

Not making a moral judgment myself here so much as a marketing one. Researchers have recently been attentive to the rise of what they call value-based choices, but most of the work I've seen simply asserts that more consumers are responding to these pressures without detailing how these pressures interact with other forces and motivations. I'd be curious to hear about how the experience of value-based choice evolves over time, for example, in relation to backlash, the brand's ability to maintain moral credibility, the endurance of this credibility, etc. It's probably out there. I'll go looking for what I can find now.