Consumer behavior is often mysterious. It’s hard if not altogether impossible to determine why certain products become iconic (the iPod) and others disappear without a trace (the Newton). It’s also hard to figure out why people latch on to certain brands over others, and the degree to which the phenomenon is driven by advertising.
A brand we never heard of can suddenly become an indispensable reference point for orienting ourselves in our culture—it’s sometimes hard to remember that people even drank coffee before the advent of Starbucks, but they did. It’s just that the brand transformed the experience thoroughly, at every level of society, even for those who wanted nothing to do with gourmet coffee. These transformations seem inevitable after the fact, but entrepreneurs are always trying to instigate the next one, even though these events give every indication of being sui generic by nature.
Bertrand Cesvet, Tony Babinski, Eric Alper, Sid Lee
How to Create Stuff People Love to Talk About
(Financial Times Press)
In the ultimately inexplicable triumph of certain brands, marketing consultants smell opportunity. Marketers ultimately profit from the confusion and ambiguity that surrounds consumer behavior, as it allows them to perpetually explicate the mystery, which is always refreshing itself with new perplexities in the success of left-field products. To explain these anomalies, consultants can always promise a company a new set of answers, confident that they will be able to sell yet another set of solutions a year or two down the road, when advertising trends change anew.
Currently, the rise of user-generated content and personalization of pre-existing material on the internet (“Web 2.0” in media-business argot) has made consumer-driven buzz the hot advertising technique, fomented by the popularity of The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell’s analysis of trend-spreading. Marketing gurus now tout ways for making consumers “brand evangelists”, who will spread the magic of a product through their social networks, aided and abetted by online social networking. It helps if companies can make their brands into pseudo-personalities that people might friend on MySpace and “interact with” on company websites. These forces, if harnessed properly, are the current panaceas for any ailing brand.
Conversational Capital, by Bernard Cesvet, chairman of the marketing consultancy Sid Lee, and two other marketers, partakes of this quackery. The book draws heavily on the firm’s good fortune in promoting Cirque du Soleil and attempts to isolate memorable aspects of that brand for universal application—things like establishing ersatz rituals associated with the product, conjuring a mythic back story, making goods seem exclusive, and giving them some weird quality that people might be inspired to talk about—hence the conversational in the book’s title.
Sensing the hype about Web 2.0, the authors, in a sure indicator of ad-business demagoguery, venture a blanket statement about what consumers really want: “Consumers no longer want to be spoken to (or at), even if it entertains, amuses, or challenges them. They want to be invited into a process of interaction and discovery.” But such platitudes are meaningless without any elaboration—in this instance, some exploration of what consumers are supposed to want to discover, and a reason for why consumers want to engage in this process other than because technology makes it possible.
With so many empty generalizations floating through the pages, the book seems full of suggestions that are self-evident (It’s a good idea for a company to deliver what it promises? Really?). But it would be unfair to expect too much insight from Conversational Capital. It’s a business book, and like most other books of the genus, it’s edited so that it insults the reader’s intelligence at virtually every turn and restates its same meager points over and over again as if sheer repetition will amplify their significance and make them somehow more true. The big idea that animates Conversational Capital—that it’s great for companies when they make products that consumers like to talk about—is not exactly on par with the discovery of fire or the wheel (or even Dianetics), but nonetheless the authors spin it out into 21 chapters of oily marketing-guru claptrap replete with unnecessary sidebars and patronizing discussion questions.
Much of this material is redundant and it all ultimately has the effect of leaving readers too numbed and too tired to remind themselves yet again of the shallowness of the case the authors are making over and over. Particularly annoying is the book’s tactic of boldfacing perfectly mundane terms like mass-marketing and exclusivity and encouraging readers to go online for definitions. This is part of a general ploy to make the book enact the techniques it recommends, underscoring a conceptual problem with the authors’ thesis that they seem content to gloss over, namely that contrived efforts to generate consumer participation are often more irritating than involving.
This is a shame, because this problem is worthy of careful attention. Do contrived attempts to make products meaningful to consumers at a level beyond sheer functionality actually inhibit consumers’ ability to make meaning from them? The authors declare that “personal stories are currency in the modern world” (as if narrative hadn’t existed before), and that we spend that currency to shape our identity. They would like to teach companies how to have us tell stories about products when we intend to talk about ourselves, because we have come to invest so much of our identity in the things we consume.
But the marketing efforts that the authors encourage companies to deploy—the “eight engines of conversational capital” they brandish repeatedly—seem just as likely to interfere with a brand’s ability to mean what users choose and thereby meet their communicative needs. New York Times columnist Rob Walker, whose book Buying In explores some of the same ideas as Conversational Capital (only with infinitely richer analysis and insight), calls that capability of brands to mean different things to different consumers “projectability”. He points to the Hello Kitty logo as the epitome of this trait. “Hello Kitty stands for nothing,” he points out, therefore she is open to interpretation. “This is precisely how an ‘ambiguous’—and let’s be frank: meaningless—symbol comes to stand for nostalgia to one person, fashionability to another, camp to a third, vague subversiveness to a fourth.”
But according to Conversational Capital, goods must be hyperengineered in order for consumers to want to start talking about them. They must come with a prepackaged myth and “overdeliver” a specific sort of satisfaction meant to overwhelm customers and leave them gushing with gratitude. That consumers would contrive their own private way of being satisfied by the goods and intensify that satisfaction by keeping it personal and private is a possibility Conversational Capital doesn’t consider, as this removes consumer pleasure from the arena of marketing.
From the authors’ point of view, this personal pleasure is useless. If you are not blabbing about how good a time you had at the circus, then you obviously didn’t have a very good time at all. Cesvet and his cohorts want to convince us that unless we will shill for the things that give us joy, we are not really enjoying ourselves.
Victims of Hype
Image (partial) from Geary Diary.com
Unlike hucksters like Cesvet, Walker is not interested in clarifying a marketing strategy worth mimicking (or browbeating readers into feeling ashamed about shopping) so much as tracing the ways consumer needs are identified, assuaged, manufactured, and dignified—exploring the different ways commercial and personal values influence each other. In Buying In, he recognizes that consumerism is our culture’s means to resolve what he calls the fundamental tension of modern life: “the eternal dilemma of wanting to feel like individuals and to feel as though we are part of something bigger than ourselves.” We want to be recognized for our individuality, but that itself is a socially constructed ideal, disseminated through brands and products that we rely on to flesh out what we want our own lives to mean to others and, via that route, ourselves.
Walker, too, points out that we use goods to tell stories about ourselves to ourselves (and not merely to communicate status, as it can often seem), and recognizes that only goods with social currency (a boldfaced term in Conversational Capital) are capable of convincing us. “We are thirsty for meaning, for connection, for individuality, for ways to tell stories about ourselves that make sense,” Walker writes. “Meanwhile, what brand makers generally have to sell is a pretty good product that is hardly equipped to fulfill those needs.” So commercial persuasion is deployed to bridge that gap and conceal the inadequacies of consumerism as a means to quench that thirst.
The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are
Goods must become a language with a grammar and vocabulary we all acknowledge, so, for example, I can reflexively believe that you’ll understand what the songs on my iPod are supposed to say about me. Marketing (for better or worse) is the means by which this product language is, for the most part, made and distributed in a mass society.
Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s distinction between the langue, the language system, and the parole, a specific instance of signification, is relevant here: Ads are generally incoherent at the parole level, but that helps establish the hegemony of the langue—reinforcing the rules by which we can make and convey meaning out of brands and branded goods. A good example is how nonsensical TV commercials dissolve logic in the particular instance so that an illogical form of persuasion can reign in all of them. An individual ad that makes no sense is dismissable, but the climate of irrationality serves all of them well, leading us not to question the absence of causality in the ads and to use the free associational techniques promulgated therein in our own efforts to persuade others and ultimately ourselves. Only within that nonlogical system is the idea that brands connote lifestyles not utterly absurd, and because the shorthand is so useful, we all become complicit in supporting it. We need the tools for making social meaning.
Given that dependency, it’s no surprise that consumers cooperate with marketers, as marketing affords us an opportunity to participate more directly in what is self-evidently one of the most pervasive public discourses in our society. When we collaborate with advertisers, helping spread their messages, we capture that elusive sense of being a part of something bigger, and we get to feel like we are behind the curtain, with our hands on the controls, rather than being the target. It’s like being on reality TV rather than watching it.
People want to participate in branding and marketing because the viable alternatives for shared sociality, social participation, have been disappearing, in no small part because of the marketing culture itself—anywhere an alternative arises (say, aspects of the lost culture of clubs and organizations chronicled by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, or an authentic grassroots lifestyle or organically developed subculture—Walker highlights the skateboarding culture of Southern California detailed in Dogtown and Z Boys) marketing agents swoop in to co-opt it.
The tactics of Conversational Capital are meant to enhance the participatory tools, but they run the risk of functioning instead as agents of co-optation. The authors are at great pains to try to distinguish what they are advocating from generating buzz, which they see as superficial. “Buzz is often manufactured and depends on media for its impact,” they write. “Conversational Capital is embedded in the experience itself and relies on peer-to-peer conversations.” But little support is given for this assertion; it’s just how they would prefer their own hype-fostering techniques, which are also manufactured and conveyed through the media, to be perceived.
They want to take credit for what people will say to one another about a product but disavow the methods they recommend for starting those conversations, which are all they can really claim to have control over. And those methods are likely to generate consumer resistance to the degree they are recognizable as methods—as manipulations. No one likes to feel manipulated, particularly in the midst of identity construction. We don’t want to be seen as victims of hype.
Often, considering the saturation of hype in much of modern society, this requires us to make heroic attempts at self-deception, but marketers can help us in this, but not by explicitly urging on us greater brand participation. Instead, the past decade has seen a proliferation of a more nebulous and almost indifferent form of advertisement, what Walker calls murketing—murky marketing. His book chronicles the many different ways marketers have come up with to create new means for getting their messages across, incorporating branding and advertisements into various unlikely corners of everyday life and making it the driving force behind all sorts of spectacles.
Walker argues that our growing ability to click away from ads (through TiVo, etc.) forces marketing to become murketing, a depressingly perverse outcome: The more we are able to shut out advertising foisted on us involuntarily, the more we invite advertising into our lives voluntarily on what we believe are our own terms. Our power to block ads doesn’t decrease the amount of ads we consume; it just makes us believe we direct and control the flow. Brands and marketing have no less force in shaping the public discourse.
So murketing is the ongoing way in which marketing preserves itself as the culture, as the space in which popular culture exists. As Walker notes, “the idea that shared consumer tastes add up to something like a community is a pervasive one.” And the end of marketing, as it has evolved, seems to be to assure that shared consumer tastes is the only community possible, particularly as old ties within communities dissolve under the pressure of globalization, virtualization, and the delocalization of culture.
The most provocative chapter of Walker’s book describes the Conversational Capital gurus’ rivals, the ad firm BzzAgent. Unlike Sid Lee (the consultancy responsible for Conversational Capital), which subscribes to the theory that products can be designed to spontaneously generate word-of mouth hype, BzzAgent recruits an army of volunteer shills who spread the word-of-mouth on command among their social contacts.
That people are eager to volunteer to spread product gossip suggests how we intuitively understand that the most prominent public discourse in our culture is marketing. To speak in that voice is to be speaking with our culture’s most influential voice. Just as we shape our identities with products because we trust the right people will know what they are supposed to mean, we are eager to speak marketing talk because we know it has megaphonic power. We repeat ad slogans with no self-consciousness at all.
Marketing’s pervasiveness has detached it from its function; the climate of commerciality (which has become a proxy for popularity) overwhelms the specificity of the product to be hyped, so the BzzAgents don’t care what they are promoting as long as they are promoting, which gives them something to say that will be socially recognized as significant, relevant to everyone’s lives as consumers in a consumer society. Walker details a few BzzAgents overcoming their shyness through having some marketing pitch to dispense and a means to keep score of how social they are being (making social life into a competitive game). So ordinary conversation between individuals is assimilated to marketing.
“Even in the small orbit of your own social circle,” Walker writes, “knowing about something first—telling a friend about a new CD or discovering a restaurant before anyone else in the office—is satisfying. Maybe it’s altruism, maybe it’s a power trip, but influencing other people feels good.” So we get involved with trends for their own sake, for the sake of influencing itself, not because we have faith in the substance of what we are convincing people of. Likewise, the notion that conversational capital actually signifies the quality of the product being talked about becomes insupportable.
Marketing becomes the medium for social life, becomes the substance of public space. Promotion as an activity supplants promotion as a means. Perhaps in the future, all people will learn to socialize primarily through having something to promote, since it supplies a reason for social interaction after technology has accomplished its chief goal of eliminating that hassle in the name of convenience.
Even as our social interactions are co-opted, we co-opt the methods of marketing to market ourselves. We learn from effective murketing, in which we become the subject of ads rather than the target. We act out fantasies of ownership to promote ourselves rather than learn anything about the goods to convey their usefulness. In this paradigm, the conversational capital accrues to us, not the brands we talk about. We invest ourselves in nebulously defined brands, which seem to be unlocking our creative self-fashioning potential, while at the same time we are basically enhancing a company’s brand equity.
It’s not clear whether this is a fair exchange. It’s hard not to see the shallowness and potential for corporate manipulation in commercial-made selfhood. The problem with all this identity-and-social-recognition consumption is that it negates the space for public action—or rather it reduces all public action to a number of shopping choices. We don’t build a public self through what we do so much as through what we buy and display.
Walker tries to end his book on an optimistic note, evoking the ultimate privacy of the meanings we make of our belongings and how we “pull the wool over our own eyes” with regard to consumer goods to satisfy ourselves that way. And though he posits some alternatives to the dominant consumer culture in the craft movement and unconsumption, the overriding conclusion is that we have no choice but to fashion our sense of self “out there in the marketplace, acting in our own self-interest”—constrained by the tenets of capitalism made universal.
Where once we had conversations, to get know one another and forge reciprocal social ties, we’re doomed to have nothing but conversational capital, a discourse of exploitation in which we’re selling for others if we’re not too busy selling ourselves.