Why Marketing is Increasingly Polarizing Everything

 

Trump. Kanye. Kaepernick. Miracle Whip.

What do these things all have in common? They’re polarizing. Just the mention of them probably stirs up strong feelings in you, one way or the other.

Wait. Miracle Whip?

Yep. Whether you love or hate Miracle Whip is perhaps the defining debate of our decade.

Okay, maybe not. But it turns out that Miracle Whip – which I always thought of as the condiment counterpart to vanilla – is a polarized brand, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review.  And far from being aghast at the thought, Kraft Foods, the maker of Miracle Whip, embraced the polarization with gusto. They embedded it in their marketing.

I have to ask – when did it become a bad thing to be vanilla? I happen to like vanilla. But I always order something else. And there’s the rub. Vanilla is almost never our first choice, because we don’t like to be perceived as boring.

Boring is the kiss of death for marketing. So even Miracle Whip, which is literally “boring” in a jar, is trying to “whip” up some controversy. Our country is being split down the middle and driven to either side – shoved to margins of outlier territory. Outrageous is not only acceptable. It’s become desirable. And marketing is partly to blame.

We marketers are enamored with this idea of “viralness.” We want advertising to be amplified through our target customer’s social networks. Boring never gets retweeted or shared. We need to be jolted out of those information filters we have set on high alert. That’s why polarization works. By moving to extremes, brands catch our attention. And as they move to extremes, they drag us along with them. Increasingly, the brands we chose as our own identifying badges are moving away from any type of common middle ground. Advertising is creating a nation of ideological tribes that have an ever-increasing divide separating them.

The problem is that polarization works. Look at Nike. As Sarah Mahoney recently documented in a Mediapost article, the Colin Kaepernick campaign turned some impressive numbers for Nike. Research from Kantar Millward Brown found these ads were particularly effective in piercing our ennui. The surprising part is that it did it on both sides of the divide. Based on Kantar’s Link evaluation, the ad scored in the top 15% of ads on something called “Power Contribution.” According to Kantar, that’s the ad’s “potential to impact long-term equity.” If we strip away the “market-speak” from this, that basically means the Kaepernick ads make them an excellent tribal badge to rally around.

If you’re a marketer, it’s hard to argue with those numbers. And Is it really important if half the world loves a brand, and the other half hates it? I suspect it is. The problem comes when we look at exactly the same thing Kantar’s Link Evaluation measures – what is the intensity of feeling you have towards a brand? The more intense the feeling, the less rational you are. And if the object of your affection lies in outlier territory – those emotions can become highly confrontational towards those on the other side of the divide. Suddenly, opinions become morals, and there is no faster path to hate than embracing a polarized perspective on morality. The more that emotionally charged marketing pushes us towards the edges, the harder it is to respect opinions that are opposed to our own. This embracing of polarization in non-important areas – like which running shoes you choose to wear – increases polarization in other areas where it’s much more dangerous. Like politics.

As if we haven’t seen enough evidence of this lately, polarized politics can cripple a country. In a recent interview on NPR, Georgia State political science professor Jennifer McCoy listed three possible outcomes from polarization. First, the country can enter polarization gridlock, where nothing can get done because there is a complete lack of trust between opposing parties. Secondly, a polarization pendulum can occur, where power swings back and forth between the two sides and most of the political energy is expended undoing the initiatives of the previous government. Often there is little logic to this, other than the fact that the initiatives were started by “them” and not “us.” Finally, one side can find a way to stay in power and then actively work to diminish and vanquish the other side by dismantling democratic platforms.

Today, as you vote, you’ll see ample evidence of the polarization of America. You’ll also see that at least two of the three outcomes of polarization are already playing out. We marketers just have to remember that while we love it when a polarized brand goes viral, there may be another one of those intended consequences lurking in the background.

 

 

In or Out: It’s Really About Making Sense of the Market

My fellow Insider, Maarten Albarda, tackled the inhouse vs outsourced question a few weeks ago in a thoughtful column. Today, I’m trying to repay thoughtfulness with additional thought provocation. The topic, I suspect, touches on the increasingly disruptive nature of marketing strategy.

As Maarten points out, when we think about bringing marketing inhouse, we also have to consider unintended consequences. But those fall on both sides of this question. What is probably a bigger question is how the company defines marketing. Because the answer to that question is not the same as it was 20 or 30 years ago. There, marketing was predicated on the assumption that the market was a fairly static and linear entity. But today, we are discovering that the market is complex, non-linear, adaptive and dynamic. And that discovery dramatically impacts the whole in-house vs outsourced question.

Maarten is absolutely right when he outlines many of the speedbumps (not to mention gapping chasms) that can lie on the path to bringing marketing inhouse. The reason, I believe, is that everyone involved is considering this plan based on the above-mentioned assumption. They aren’t factoring in the disruption that’s tearing the industry apart. And whether you’re continuing down the agency path or bringing marketing in house, you need to factor in that disruption. By doing so, you necessarily have to bring a different perspective to the decision and the things you have to consider.

Given the highly dynamic nature of the market, I believe there are two essential loops that have to be part of any marketing plan today. One of these is a robust and externally focussed “sense-making” loop. I’ve written about this before, in the context of search marketing.  The concept is borrowed from the fields of cognitive neuroscience, artificial intelligence and psychology. This shifts the fundamental precept of marketing, from that of crafting an internal strategy and executing it to a waiting market to that of constantly monitoring the evolving nature of the market and responding in real time. Strategy is still vital, but rather than an executable plan that plays out over multiple years, it’s a “frame” (to use the terminology of sensemaking) that has to be continually validated and – if necessary – updated. The other loop is a nimble and fully “tuned in” response loop. The two play together. One informs the other. They are also highly iterative. They have to continually be updated.

So, in considering this, one has to ask – are these loops better situated inside or outside of the organization. There are pros and cons on both sides of the question. Theoretically, for sensemaking, I would say the advantage lies on the agency side of the table.  Agencies should find it easier to maintain an objective, external focus. They also have the advantage of having “sensing” antennae over multiple clients, giving them a bigger and less myopic data picture. The challenge may come in matching the data to the existing frame. The frame – or strategy – is the nexus between the market’s reality and the marketer’s reality.  It is here where an agency may lose its advantage. Maarten rightly states that a company decides to bring marketing in-house, “these decisions have far-reaching consequences across the wider enterprise that impact working methods, required internal and external support structures, capital investment, HR policies, IT investment and talent, etc.” But I would argue that this should be true of marketing regardless of whether it lies within the corporate domain or at some agency boardroom table. Given the “real-time” reality of today’s marketing, it should be fully integrated into every aspect of the business. Siloes just can’t cut it. That’s a difficult integration when all the players are at the same table. I suspect it might be impossible when those players are at different tables within different companies.

One has to deeply consider the motivations for bringing marketing in-house. As Albarda notes, if it’s just cost saving, that’s a false economy. Control is also cited. That is getting closer to the issue, but it’s using the wrong language. Control is impossible. Responsiveness is a better label.

The motivation for bringing marketing inhouse should be exclusively to build the most robust sense-making and response loops possible.

 

The View from the Other Side

After a life time in marketing I am now sitting on the other side of the table. Actually, I’m sitting on all sides of the table. In my newest venture it’s just me, so I have to do everything. And I don’t mind telling you I’m overwhelmed. These past few years have given me a whole new appreciation of how damned difficult it is to be a business owner. And my circumstances are probably better than 90% of others out there. This started as a hobby that – with surprisingly little direction from me – somehow grew into a business.  There

Is no real financial pressure on me. There are no sales numbers I have to hit. I have no investors to answer to. I have no debt to service. My business is very limited in scope.

But still – somehow – I feel like I’m drowning. I couldn’t imagine doing this if the stakes were higher

It’s Hard to Find the Time to Build a Better Mousetrap…

I’ve always been of the opinion that the core of the business and the marketing of that business should be inseparable. But as I’ve learned, that’s a difficult balancing act to pull off. Marketing is a vast black hole that can suck up all your time. And in any business, there is just a lot of stuff that requires a lot of time to do. It requires even more time if you want to do it well. Something has to give. So what should that something be? That sounds trite, but it’s not.

Take me, for example. I decided to offer bike tours. Sound simple enough, right? I had no idea how many permits, licenses and authorizations I needed to have. That all takes time. And it was time I had to spend before I could do anything else.

Like I said, to do things well takes time. Businesses naturally have to evolve. Almost none of us gets it right out of the gate. We make mistakes and then have to figure out how not to make those mistakes again. This is good and natural. I believe a good business has to have a leader that sweats the details, because the details are where shit goes wrong. I’m a big picture guy but I’ve discovered that big pictures are actually a mosaic of a million little pieces that someone has to pay attention to. And that takes time.

The Fear of a Not Doing Everything Right Now

New companies used to have the luxury of time. No one expected them to hit the home run in their first year. Well, Google and Facebook screwed that up for everyone, didn’t they? We are now all supposed to operate within some ridiculously compressed timeline for success. Our business lives are all about rushing things to market, rapid iteration, agile development. And while we’re doing all that, we should also be keeping up with our Instagram posts and building a highly engaged online community. If we don’t successfully do all those things, we feel like we’ve failed.

I’m calling bullshit on that. Most studies done on this subject show the odds of survival for a new company lasting five years are somewhere between 40 and 50%. That’s not great, but I have to believe that given the coin toss survival rate, there are a lot of companies that may not have a fully optimized Facebook business page that have somehow managed to survive bankruptcy. And even the businesses that do wrap it up are not always financial failures. Many times it’s because the founder has just had enough.

I completely understand that. I started this busIness because I wanted to have fun. And while not many of us give that reason for starting a business, I don’t believe I’m the only one. If this isn’t fun, why the hell are we doing it? But juggling a zillion balls knowing that I’m guaranteed to drop many of them isn’t all that much fun. Each morning begins with a dropped ball inventory. It seems that business today is all about reactive triage. What did I do? What didn’t I do? What might kill me and what’s only going to hurt for a while?

I’d like to end this column with some pat advice, some strategy to deal with the inevitable inundation of stuff that is demanding your time. But I’m struggling. I believe it’s hidden somewhere between my two previous points – deal with what’s potentially fatal and try to have some fun. At least, that’s what I’m trying to do.

WTF Tech

Do you need a Kuvée?

Wait. Don’t answer yet. Let me first tell you what a Kuvée is: It’s a $178 wine bottle that connects to Wi-Fi.

Okay..let’s try again. Do you need a Kuvée?

Don’t bother answering. You don’t need a Kuvée. No one needs a Kuvée. The earth has 7.2 billion people on it. Not one of them needs a Kuvée. That’s probably why the company is packing up their high tech bottles and calling it a day. A Kuvée is an example of WTF Tech. Hold that thought, because we’ll get back to that in a minute.

So, we’ve established that you don’t need a Kuvée. “But that’s not the point,” you might say. “It’s not whether I need a Kuvée. It’s whether I want a Kuvée.” Fair point. In our world of ostentatious consumerism, it’s not really about need – it’s about desire. And Lord knows many of the most pretentious and entitled assholes in the world are wine snobs.

But I have to believe that, buried deep in our lizard brain; there is still a tenuous link between wanting something and needing something. Drench it as we might in the best wine technology can serve, there still might be spark of practicality glowing in the gathering dark of our souls. But like I said, I know some real dickhead wine drinkers. So, who knows? Maybe Kuvée was just ahead of the curve.

And that brings us back to WTF tech. This defines the application of tech to a problem that doesn’t exist simply because it’s tech. There is no practical reason why this tech ever needs to exist. Besides the Kuvée, here are some other examples of WTF tech:

The Kérastase Hair Coach

withings-loreal-hair-coach-3-1This is a hairbrush with an Internet connection. Seriously. It has a microphone that “listens” while you brush your hear, as well as an accelerometer, gyroscope and other sensors. It’s supposed to save you from bruising your hair while you’re brushing it. It retails for “under $200.”

 

The Hushme Mask

hushme-voice-masking-470x310@2xThis tech actually does solve a problem, but in a really stupid way. The problem is obnoxious jerks that insist on carrying on their phone conversation at the top of their lungs while sitting next to you. That’s a real problem, right? But here’s the stupid part. In order for this thing to work, you have to convince the guilty party to wear this Hannibal Lector-like mask while they’re on the phone. Go ahead, buy one for $189 and give it a shot next time you run into a really loud tele-jerk. Let me know how it works out for you.

Denso Vacuum Shoes

denso-vacuum-shoe-ces-2017-03“These boots are made for sucking…and that’s just what they’ll do.”

Finally, an invention that lets you shoe-ver your carpet. That’s right, the Japanese company Denso is working on a prototype of a shoe that vacuums as you walk, storing the dirt in a tiny box in the shoe’s sole. As a special bonus, they look just like a pair of circa 1975 Elton John Pinball Wizard boots.

When You’re a Hammer…

We live in a “tech for tech’s sake” time. When all the world is a hi-tech hammer, everything begins to look like a low-tech nail. Each of these questionable gadgets had investors who believed in them. Both the Kuvée and the Hushme had successful crowd-funding campaigns. The Hair Coach and the Vacuum Shoes have corporate backing. The dot-com bubble of 2000-2002 has just morphed into a bunch of broader based but no less ephemeral bubbles.

Let me wrap up with a story. Some years ago, I was speaking at a conference and my panel was the last one of the day. After it wrapped, the moderator, a few of the other panelists and I decided to go out for dinner. One of my co-panelists suggested a restaurant he had done some programming work for. When we got there, he showed us his brainchild. With much pomp and ceremony, our waiter delivered an iPad to the table. Our co-panelist took it and showed us how his company had set up the wine list as an app. Theoretically, you could scroll through descriptions and see what the suggested pairings were. I say theoretically, because none of that happened on this particular night.

Our moderator watched silently as the demonstration struggled through a series of glitches. Finally, he could stay silent no longer. “You know what else works, Dave? A sommelier. When I’m paying this much for a dinner, I want to talk to a f*$@ng human.”

Sometimes, there’s just not an app for that.

Thinking Beyond the Brand

Apparently boring is the new gold standard of branding, at least when it comes to ranking countries on the international stage. According to a new report from US News, the Wharton School and Y&R’s BAV Group, Canada is the No. 2 country in the world. That’s right – Canada – the country that Robin Williams called “a really nice apartment over a meth lab.”

The methodology here is interesting. It was basically a brand benchmarking study. That’s what BAV does. They’re the “world’s largest and leading empirical study of brands” And Canada’s brand is: safe, slightly left leaning, polite, predictable and – yes – boring. Oh – and we have lakes and mountains.

Who, you may ask, beat us? Switzerland – a country that is safe, slightly left leading, polite, predictable and – yes – boring. Oh – and they have lakes and mountains too.

This study has managed to reduce entire countries to a type of cognitive short hand we call a brand. As a Canadian, I can tell you this country contains multitudes – some good, some bad – and remarkably little of it is boring. We’re like an iceberg (literally, in some months) – there’s a lot that lies under the surface. But as far as the world cares, you already know everything you need to know about Canada and no further learning is required.

That’s the problem with branding. We rely more and more on whatever brand perceptions we already have in place without thinking too much about whether they’re based on valid knowledge. We certainly don’t go out of our way to challenge those perceptions. What was originally intended to sell dish soap is being used as a cognitive short cut for everything we do. We rely on branding – instant know-ability – or what I called labelability in a previous column. We spend more and more of our time knowing and less and less of it learning.

Branding is a mental rot that is reducing everything to a broadly sketched caricature.

Take politics for example. That same BAV group turned their branding spotlight on candidates for the next presidential election. Y&R CEO David Sable explored just how important branding will be in 2020. Spoiler alert: it will be huge.

When BAV looked at the brands of various candidates, Trump continues to dominate. This was true in 2016, and depending on the variables of fate currently in play, it could be true in 2020 as well. “We showed how fresh and powerful President Trump was as a brand, and just how tired and weak Hillary was… despite having more esteem and stature.”

Sable prefaced his exploration with this warning: “What follows is not a political screed, endorsement or advocacy of any sort. It is more a questioning of ourselves, with some data thrown to add to the interrogative.” In other words, he’s saying that this is not really based on any type of rational foundation; it’s simply evaluating what people believe. And I find that particular mental decoupling to be troubling.

This idea of cognitive shorthand is increasingly prevalent in an attention deficit world. Everything is being reduced to a brand. The problem with this is that once that brand has been “branded” it’s very difficult to shake. Our world is being boiled down to branding and target marketing. Our brains have effectively become pigeon holed. That’s why Trump was right when he said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”

We have a dangerous spiral developing. In a world with an escalating amount of information, we increasingly rely on brands/beliefs for our rationalization of the world. When we do expose ourselves to information, we rely on information that reinforces those brands and beliefs. Barack Obama identified this in a recent interview with David Letterman: “One of the biggest challenges we have to our democracy is the degree to which we don’t share a common baseline of facts. We are operating in completely different information universes. If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet than you are if you listen to NPR.”

Our information sources have to be “on-brand”. And those sources are filtered by algorithms shaped by our current beliefs. As our bubble solidifies, there is nary a crack left for a fresh perspective to sneak in.

 

The Decentralization of Trust

Forget Bitcoin. It’s a symptom. Forget even Blockchain. It’s big – but it’s technology. That makes it a tool. Which means it’s used at our will. And that will is the real story. Our will is always the real story – why do we build the tools we do? What is revolutionary is that we’ve finally found a way to decentralize trust. That runs against the very nature of how we’ve defined trust for centuries.

And that’s the big deal.

Trust began by being very intimate – ruled by our instincts in a face-to-face context. But for the last thousand years, our history has been all about concentration and the mass of everything – including whom we trust. We have consolidated our defense, our government, our commerce and our culture. In doing so, we have also consolidated our trust in a few all-powerful institutions.

But the past 20 years have been all about decentralization and tearing down power structures, as we invent new technologies to let us do that. In that vien, Blockchain is a doozy. It will change everything. But it’s only a big deal because we’re exerting our will to make it a big deal. And the “why” behind that is what I’m focusing on.

For right or wrong, we have now decided we’d rather trust distribution than centralization. There is much evidence to support that view. Concentration of power also means concentration of risk. The opportunity for corruption skyrockets. Big things tend to rot from the inside out. This is not a new discovery on our part. We’ve known for at least a few centuries that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

As the world consolidated it also became more corrupt. But it was always a trade off we felt we had to make. Again, the collective will of the people is the story thread to follow here. Consolidation brought many benefits. We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for hierarchies, in one form or another. So we willing subjugated ourselves to someone – somewhere – hoping to maintain a delicate balance where the risk of corruption was outweighed by a personal gain. I remember asking the Atlantic’s noted correspondent, James Fallows, a question when I met him once in China. I asked how the average Chinese citizen could tolerate the paradoxical mix of rampant economical entrepreneurialism and crushing ideological totalitarianism. His answer was, “As long as their lives are better today than they were yesterday, and promise to be even better tomorrow, they’ll tolerate it.”

That pretty much summarizes our attitudes towards control. We tolerated it because if we wanted our lives to continue to improve, we really didn’t have a choice. But perhaps we do now. And that possibility has pushed our collective will away from consolidated power hubs and towards decentralized networks. Blockchain gives us another way to do that. It promises a way to work around Big Money, Big Banks, Big Government and Big Business. We are eager to do so. Why? Because up to now we have had to place our trust in these centralized institutions and that trust has been consistently abused. But perhaps Blockchain technology has found a way to distribute trust in a foolproof way. It appears to offer a way to make everything better without the historic tradeoff of subjugating ourselves to anyone.

However, when we move our trust to a network we also make that trust subject to unanticipated network effects. That may be the new trade-off we have to make. Increasingly, our technology is dependent on networks, which – by their nature – are complex adaptive systems. That’s why I keep preaching the same message – we have to understand complexity. We must accept that complexity has interaction affects we could never successfully predict.

It’s an interesting swap to consider – control for complexity. Control has always offered us the faint comfort of an illusion of predictability. We hoped that someone who knew more than we did was manning the controls. This is new territory for us. Will it be better? Who can say? But we seem to building an irreversible head of steam in that direction.

Raising an Anti-fragile Brand

I’ve come to realize that brand building is a lot like having kids. Much as you want to, at some point you simply can’t control their lives. All you can do is lay a strong foundation. Then you have to cast them adrift on the vicissitudes of life and hope they bounce in the right direction more often than not. It’s a crapshoot, so you damn well better hedge your bets.

Luck rules a perverse universe. All the planning in the world can’t prevent bad luck. Crappy things happen with astonishing regularity to very organized, competent people. The same is true of brands. Crappy things can happen to good brands at any moment – and all the planning in the world can’t prevent it.

Take October 31, 2017 for instance. On that day, Sayfullo Saipov drove a rented truck down a bike lane on Manhattan’s west side, killing 8 and injuring 11 others. What does this have to do with branding? Saipov rented his truck from Home Depot. All the pictures and video of the incident showed the truck with a huge Home Depot logo on the door. You know the saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity? Wrong!

Or take August 11, 2017 when a bunch of white supremacists decided to hold a torchlight rally in Charlotteville. Their torch of preference? The iconic Tiki Torch, which, ironically, is based on a decidedly non-white Polynesian design. Tiki soon took to social media to indicate they were not amused with the neo-Nazi’s choice.

The first instinct when things go wrong – with kids or brands – is to want to jump in and exert control. But that doesn’t work very well in either case. You need to build “anti-fragility.” This concept – from Nassim Nicholas Taleb – is when, “shocks and disruptions make you stronger and more creative, better able to adapt to each new challenge you face.” So, in the interest of antifragility – of kids or brands – here are a few things I’ve learned.

Do the Right Thing….

Like the advice from the eponymous 1989 movie from Spike Lee, you should always “Do the Right Thing”. That doesn’t mean being perfect. It just means that when you have a choice between sticking to your principles and taking the easy way out – always do the former. A child raised in this type of environment will follow suit. You have laid a strong moral foundation that will be their support system for the rest of their lives. And the same is true of brands. A brand built on strong ethics, by a company that always tries to do the right thing, is exceptionally anti-fragile. When knocks happen – and cracks inevitably appear – an ethical brand will heal itself. An unethical brand that depends on smoke and mirrors will crumble.

Building an Emotional Bank account

One of the best lessons I’ve ever learned in my life was the metaphor of the emotional bank account from Stephen Covey. My wife and I have tried to pass this along to our children. Essentially, you have to make emotional deposits with those close to you to build up a balance against which you can withdraw when you need to. If you raise kids that make frequent deposits, you know that their friends and family will be there for them when they need them. The degree of anti-fragility in your children is dependent on the strength of their support network. How loyal are their friends and family? Have they built this loyalty through regular deposits in the respective emotional bank accounts?

The same is true for anti-fragile brands. Brands that build loyalty in an authentic way can weather the inevitable storms that will come their way. This goes beyond the cost of switching rationale. Even brands that have you “locked in” today will inevitably lose that grip through the constant removal of marketplace friction through technology and the ever-creeping forces of competition. Emotional bank accounts are called that for a reason – this had to do with emotions, not rationality.

Accepting that Mistakes Happen

One of the hardest things about being a parent is giving your children room to make mistakes. But if you want to raise anti-fragile kids, you have to do this.

The same is true with brands. When things go wrong, we tend to want to exert control, to fix things. In doing so, we have to take control from someone else. In the case of parenting, you take control from your children, along with the opportunity for them to learn how to fix things themselves. In the case of branding, you take control from the market. But in the later case, you don’t take control, because you can’t. You can respond, but you can’t control. It’s a bitter lesson to learn – but it’s a lesson best learned sooner rather than later.

Remember – You’re In This for the Long Run

Raising anti-fragile children means learning about proportionate responses when things go off the rails. The person your child is when they’re 15 is most likely not going to be the person they are when they’re 25. You’re not going to be the same person either. So while you have to be firm when they step out of line, you also have to take care not to destroy the long-term foundations of your relationship. Over reacting can cause lasting damage.

The same is true for brands. The market has a short memory. No matter how bad today may be, if you have an anti-fragile brand, the future will be better. Sometimes it’s just a matter of holding on and riding out the storm.