Recently, I was listening to a Bob Dylan album on my iPhone. While rocking out, I was prompted to rummage through a box of yellowing newspaper articles on entertainers (circa pre-internet). I found a New York Times article from 2002 called, “Bob Dylan’s Unswerving Road Back To Newport,” which traces his merger of folk and rock.
Advertising and marketing professionals would do well to heed Dylan’s example, which reminds us that life does not progress in a straight line. Personal and artistic integrity are underscored by fusion and change, which, in turn, is driven by the tension of a collage of opposites. The point: What is true for Bob Dylan is true for all people.
The Individual Is a Democracy of Disparate Voices
Every person is an amalgam of cashmere and sawdust, love and hate, intention and hesitancy, fear and courage. Yet, the methods of marketing research and the branding strategies they give birth to mainly assume people are one-dimensional stick-figures who answer yes or no to survey questions, see the world as a list of product attributes and respond to hot-buttons as if rats in a Skinner box.
Marketers would be more successful if they did a better job of understanding the soft underbelly of their audiences. The deep sense of unpredictability that people are experiencing has created a mix of contradictory feelings that traditional segmentation studies or demographic categories cannot adequately capture. Marketing has become a quagmire.
We’re “People,” Not “Consumers”
A suggested first step to providing a firmer industry footing to marketing: change just one word in the marketer’s lexicon (and follow-through on its meaning). That word is “consumer” and it must be banished in practice and replaced by “person.” Answers to the present marketing dilemma are not blowing in the wind; rather they are voiced in the authentic narratives of people.
People are artful image-gatherers. They’re smarter and more humane than most marketers give them credit for. People buy into things that fit their personal brand of emotional logic. And, they’re all living what John Updike called, “the gallant, battered ongoingness of life.” Attention and respect must be paid. Life embodies a delicate complexity of feeling that marketers too often trample on.
For example, why ask focus group participants what they like or dislike about a product? Instead, people should be given the time and leeway to spin their tale about their own behavior and experience. They should be allowed to explain how they account for that in the context of how they view life, their life in particular. Only then, can you get to the mundane eloquence on peoples’ minds.
Understand Peoples’ Narratives
To understand people you have to understand their narratives about self, their world and the world at large. Subtexts in this over-arching story concern emotional structures such as time, causality, familiarity, security, participation, power and hope. These stories virtually always display paradox, inconsistency and irony, which must not be eliminated or averaged out by statistical number crunching or “Big Data” assumptions.
The deep Eros of memory and belief, displaying the zigzag of emotion, cannot be authentically represented as numbers on a balance sheet. The irony is, to increase sales and ROI, ad agencies and clients must recognize that life as lived by people is not a rational, straight-line, numeric calculation.
To make great advertising, marketers need to think about real people in real life situations. CMOs and brand managers must go beyond unconsciously assuming that people are but consumers, who, like Dylan’s classic song reads, are “Only a Pawn in The Game,” and realize that people are the only game in town.
Maybe saved and yellowing newspaper articles about creative people can help begin to save marketing and increase the vitality of real people, thus erasing a whole lot of red ink