Sprezzatura for brands

by Rob Horning

7 May 2007


Grant McCracken, an academic who went over to the dark side to become a marketing consultant, had a post about how brands could profit from working in some ambiguity and interpretative possibility into its advertising. After citing 15th-century courtier Castiglione’s notion of sprezzatura (cultivating the air of naturalness; a bit of a paradox) and fop forerunner Beau Brummel’s happy fashion accidents, McCracken encourages marketers to make brands into something like “round characters” from a fiction workshop:

What we want are brands that invite our involvement and then reward it.  Involvement takes complexity and the willingness to open the brand to a variety of interpretations and the possibility that some of these interpretations will prove a little insipid.  What we are doing here is buying sublime brand moments at the cost of some that are ill formed and unsuccessful.  Let us try out Castiglione’s and Brummel’s advice. I mean, we keep saying that marketing is a conversation.  Perhaps its time to make brands creatures worthy of talking to.

Sprezzatura means not getting caught trying too hard; McCracken wants brand builders to seem not to be trying—he wants them to act as if what the brand becomes is a matter of indifference to them: “Sales? Who cares. The brand must become what it wants to be.” The brand will manage itself spontaneously in the minds of eager consumers, who will make it into what it must be to survive. McCracken never questions the benevolence of branding, never doubts that they enrich our lives and that brand equity is manna from heaven, not value expropriated from elsewhere.

The argument McCracken makes seems like an argument in the same mold as Steven Johnson’s case that TV is more sophisticated and its viewers are performing all sorts of high level mental operations in parsing the plot of 24. The complexity engages consumers rather than puts them off, and their brains are so adapted as to not regard this complexity as difficulty; instead they process it as pleasure. McCracken is also advocating a less instrumental approach to marketing, to make campaigns rich with detail and emotive potential but to not have a precise goal—in other words, to make them like character studies.
But brands are not characters; they are not sentient beings, and they can’t hold up their end of a conversation. I’m highly skeptical that marketing is a conversation—it’s a one-way conversation at best and it’s not a very sophisticated one: “Use our crap, it’s cool!” Marketing is a medium for a communication between buyers and sellers, and its purpose is generally to mask asymmetries in information that make buyers generally wary.

Whatever subtleties come out of marketing usually come from marketers’ attempts to adapt to the ways consumers actually use their products in spite of how they are marketed. But this in turn undermines the usefulness to the consumer, who (if he is pursuing cool) is trying to distinguish himself and stand apart from what advertisers hype. Perhaps this is what McCracken means: advertising should be deliberately misleading so that users of the product can more easily feel as though they have outwitted the marketing to penetrate to some authentic usage of a product that reveals the user’s uniqueness in the face of the mass market object.

Anyway, the main objection I have to all this is the idea that brands can come to stand in as people, that we might forget that brands are mediums and anthropomorphize them. That’s why adding brands to friends lists on MySpace seems so creepy to me. Once brands could be indicators of specific qualities, but now they are so fluid in meaning that they obfuscate the nature of the products they represent, and signal something altogether independent of the goods. When brands are ascribed human traits, it masks their true function (signaling that makes status concrete, makes class more impermeable) and gives them a phony agency that conceals the actual operators behind them.

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