יום שני, 27 בפברואר 2017

Big Brands & the Awakening of the Docile Consumer

In the Collective Journey the Peoples’ Voice Now Levels the Playing Field

In The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, we watch various communities wage battle with one another. Some of us wonder whether they can surmount their differences and rise together to challenge the flawed system that placed them into conflict in the first place. In both cases, if they fail, they will either destroy each other, or they will be overrun by the undead.

Over the past decade, we are watching a similar kind of conflict play out in the world of advertising and brands. Big business is facing a new kind of challenge, one never encountered before: pervasive communication.

In this case, a system in place for well over a century has radically changed in just a handful of years. Kodak, Blockbuster, Borders, Time-Warner Cable, Sears; these brands and many others failed to understand the nature of this change, and have either faltered or were wiped from existence.
Foundations of Brand as Personal Expression

To better define what is going on today, let’s take a brief detour to the start of mass media advertising, or as Edward Bernays called it in the early 1900’s, “public relations.”

Bernays, the nephew of world renowned psychologist Sigmund Freud, popularized his uncle’s theories in the United States. But his understanding of the dire underpinnings of Freud’s worldview would become the source of Bernays’ greatest success. To put it simply, Freud saw humanity as tribal, barely out of the cave. Sexual impulses and violence lay just beneath the surface of our civilized veneer. We were savages in suits and ties, engaging in a constant struggle to keep ourselves in check.

Bernays took Freud a step further by concluding that in order to maintain civilization, humanity needed to be pacified. It was the job of government, and especially big business, to satiate people, keeping them docile. The key to accomplishing this would be to make us consumers.

At that point in history, most people purchased goods for their durability and functionality. They bought things based on need. But Bernays taught his big business clients to use broadcast media to tell the masses a different story. It was a story not based on facts, but emotions.
In 1928, Bernays started women smoking by associating cigarettes with freedom and power.

Under Bernays, products and services became manifestations of personal expression. (“I’m a woman, but I dare to smoke because I am a torch of liberty!”) He was the first to place brands with celebrity endorsers, and in movies, the first to make “luxury” an achievable accomplishment to the lower classes. By appealing to our aspirations, he could sell us anything, making us happy, leaving us wanting more. And more. And more. Consumerism grew to become the heartbeat of the American lifestyle.
Bernays: Disrupted

We will revisit Bernays and Freud, and some of the more terrible events of the 20th century in future installments, but for now, let’s look at an example of how almost exactly 100 years later, Bernays’ broadcast model of indulging the docile consumer has finally and permanently been disrupted. The key to that disruption: an entirely new modality of storytelling.

In January, 2006, journalist Benoit Denizet-Lewis posted an article called The Man Behind Abercrombie & Fitch, about then-CEO Mike Jeffries on Salon.com. It was a positive piece about how Jeffries had turned around the brand, generating billions of dollars by hyping semi-nude models and an elite, club-like atmosphere. Deep in the piece, Jeffries made a fateful comment:
“Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny.”

The comment would lay unnoticed, dormant for seven years.

In the 1990s, it would have vanished in the wind.

But nothing goes away forever in the age of the internet. In May, 2013, Ashley Lutz posted a less flattering article about Jeffries on Business Insider called, Abercrombie & Fitch Refuses To Make Clothes For Large Women. She revived the quote from the Salon article.

Those of us who were different begged to differ. Only this time, to paraphrase Freud, civilization had the tools to vent its discontents. The “tribal chieftain” had insulted us, and we were now bold enough to be unkind in our response. So, Abercrombie & Fitch’s troubles began.

The piece had correctly identified the fact that Jeffries (and the brand’s) notions of beauty had become outdated. Bitter complaints flashed through social media, and Jeffries’ quote took on a life of its own.

In what seemed like a matter of hours, thousands expressed outrage. Disdain for the brand started to spiral out of control. Days later, Time magazine picked up the story of #FitchTheHomeless, describing an 8 million-hit viral YouTube video of a writer who was handing out A&F clothing to homeless people on Skid Row in Los Angeles. Within a week, Ellen Degeneres spent nearly four minutes condemning the brand on her nationally televised talk show.

Just over a year later, everything had changed for the company. Jeffries was gone, and as “one of the world’s most hated retailers” Abercrombie & Fitch struggled with a series of correctives. The brand has yet to fully recover.

Like Kodak, Time-Warner Cable, and Sears, Abercrombie & Fitch has failed (and continues to fail) to understand that for the first time, Bernays’ broadcast model of storytelling to the masses is being challenged. Other “tribal chieftains”—American Apparel, Aeropostale, Avon—watched soberly. How could this have happened so quickly?

The “consumer,” the “people of the tribe,” had found the ultimate tool of self-expression, and was not a Marlboro cigarette or fashionably frayed pair of jeans. Brands can no longer simply dance across our screens, casting Hero’s Journey spells before our limpid eyes.
The Novelty of Listening

In the realms of advertising, branding, and communicating to the masses, the Collective Journey posits a radical change to storytelling that is still barely understood by many companies. Story no longer belongs exclusively to an elite set of broadcasters. They are no longer the sole dictators of how we feel about ourselves, what we want, or what we need.

It’s now easy for us to create, easy for us to sell. We can be the brand. Our friends are reacting to us across Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat, and we respond to them. But many brands still don’t know exactly how to play by these new rules.

The problem is, broadcasters have only ever measured feedback in the form of revenue. There has never been any real need to listen to the audience, and so they either don’t want to engage at this level of intimacy, or they are clueless about how to do it.

Instead, brands still interrupt us. They yell at us for 60, 30, 15 seconds, and then a football player smashes into an old lady. Brands make us wait to get back to our content, when there is no reason to wait any more.

In a time of pervasive communication, our stories vastly outnumber the stories of brands. Our stories now entwine themselves around brands; agreeing with them, making mistakes about them, criticizing them, even directly opposing them. We are ignored at the brand’s peril.

What the brand stands for, what it is contributing to the world, and how it engages people have become even more important than its advertising stories, because these are the elements of lasting dialog.

So Bernays’ rigid and monolithic model, his method of pacifying the masses through the promotion of rampant blind consumerism has begun to crack. It’s crumbling, because people have awakened to the power of social media, and they demand to be heard. Story itself has become porous.

With the click of a mouse, we can now find our way into the stories told to us by big business, and we’re learning that our voices can impact their story, their products, and their sales all at lightning speed.

As opposed to the linear, didactic Hero’s Journey employed by brands for the past century, Collective Journey is signified by the rise of porous, fully participative, nonlinear meta-narratives.

These are rivers of narrative that contain corporate and brand stories, but are also fed by streams of personal stories, blog posts, press coverage, tweets and Facebook posts. Companies (and institutions and governments) have begun to realize that these are extremely difficult waters to navigate.

So, we ask ourselves, is there a specific modality to Collective Journey storytelling? Is there a way to get our fundamental stories right, so that they can stand up to waves of scrutiny and chaos? Is there a better way to listen? And in these anxious times, is there an engine at the heart of this model that can improve on Bernays, and possibly even challenge Freud’s most cynical theories?

The answers to all of these questions is, yes. But first, the darkest hour is just before dawn…

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