Posts Tagged ‘Buying In’
Five years ago this month I left the business I co-founded in 1993 — and started over. Some moments I think it was a reckless decision, leaving behind the security of a prospering business for an uncertain pursuit. Most of the time, it feels like the right decision, heeding a desire to reconnect to purpose and passion in my work.
This is the backdrop of R.Bruer Company, my bigger story, if you will. Yes, I provide branding, messaging and storytelling for businesses and nonprofits. Those are my services. My bigger story taps into what I believe matters most in our work as individuals and organizations: helping others add meaning to their lives while engaging them in a larger purpose.
Each of our organizations has a smaller story to tell. Unfortunately, it’s often the only one we share. (more…)
What a different world we awoke to on November 5. For most of us voters, the future looks a little more hopeful, less divisive. For the rest, well, let’s just say not everyone was feeling the love we Obama supporters were feeling.
I’m not certain what this staggering political act by the American electorate means for those of us in business. But I do think voters sent some strong signals our way.
I keep returning to what Rob Walker, author of the recently published book Buying In, calls the “fundamental tension” of modern life: “We all want to feel like individuals. We all want to feel like we are part of something bigger than ourselves.”
Obama personifies this tension. Many see in his achievement the hope and possibility that any individual anywhere can achieve his or her dreams, no matter the odds. Others are drawn to his larger calling to fulfill America’s promise of a perfect union.
Thomas Friedman quotes Harvard University political philosopher Michael Sandel in his New York Times column about Obama’s victory: “Obama’s campaign tapped a dormant civic idealism, a hunger among Americans to serve a cause greater than themselves, a yearning to be citizens again.”
Sandel and Friedman weren’t addressing business directly, but I can’t think of a greater insight for business to take from this election.
With few exceptions, businesses have catered exclusively to our desire to feel like individuals. Our products and our marketing have appealed overwhelmingly to the fulfillment of personal needs and wants through consumption. And because it was good for business, we managed to elevate the role of Americans as consumers above all others, including citizens.
If Sandel is right, Americans want more. Not more stuff; more opportunity to make the world a better place and more leaders who inspire the greatness in all of us. Businesses must recognize the pendulum is swinging away from the all-consuming, me-first excesses of the past quarter century. Those that respect and engage customers and other stakeholders as whole human beings — ready to “serve a cause greater than themselves” — will lead the way in our brave new world.
One great cause is sustainability. Like civil rights, the sustainability movement is a struggle for the ages. From where we stand today, the challenge of preventing catastrophic climate change, healing our natural systems and creating more equitable economies appears as a mountain summit beyond reach. Will the climb be worth the effort? What do you think the civil rights warriors who can now stop dreaming of an African-American president would say?
Several months have passed since Rob Walker’s book, “Buying In,” hit bookstores. Having now read it, I suggest you get your hands on a copy. I recommend it specifically to marketers or anyone else trying to make sense of where marketing is headed and what the consumption behaviors of today’s Americans are telling us.
If you’re looking for wisdom on sustainability, this book may do more to discourage than enlighten. But I believe Walker has given us plenty to ponder when it comes to sustainability, even though it’s not a central topic in his book.
Walker, author of the “Consumed” column in the New York Times Magazine, attempts to decode what he calls “the secret dialogue between what we buy and who we are.” The publisher accurately describes the book as “Part marketing primer, part work of cultural anthropology.” Walker makes a convincing argument, backed by strong reporting and research, that Americans—far from being immune to marketing, as most of us think of ourselves—are in fact “embracing brands more than ever before.” And marketing, while certainly not alone in explaining our enthrall with brands, is doing more than ever to encourage it. Walker writes:
The modern relationship between consumer and consumed—what I’m calling murketing—is defined not by rejection (of commercial persuasion) at all, but rather by frank complicity.
Walker’s term “murketing” blends murky and marketing to describe the blurring of lines between branding channels and everyday life. Marketers, usually referred to by Walker as “commercial persuaders,” are using increasingly sophisticated and unconventional tactics to brand products and companies. Indeed, there seems to be no limits anymore to where and how we might be delivered a commercial message, as Walker illustrates in his explanation of the word of mouth tactics used by new breed marketing agencies such as BzzAgent.
But Walker doesn’t paint a picture of Americans as innocent victims of shameless commercial persuaders. On the contrary, he uncovers numerous examples to show we are often the ones providing a brand with meaning, sometimes far different from the one intended by its owner. And once we endow a brand with meaning that works for us, we become its biggest champions. Walker’s stories of how a factory worker boot made by Timberland became part of the “global hip-hop uniform” is just one of many great examples.
Today’s youth, the most commercially exposed generation ever, may be more aware than any other group when they’re being pitched. But Walker says they are also “most amenable to using brand to fashion meaning for themselves, to announce who they are and what they stand for.” Brands are just a form of useful raw material for expressing identity and creativity. Perhaps because of the ubiquity and familiarity of our commercial culture, Americans return to it over and over to resolve what Walker calls “the fundamental tension of modern life”—how to reconcile our desire to feel like individuals while also feeling part of something bigger than ourselves.
If youth are indeed “a proxy for the future,” Walker’s findings don’t offer much hope that we’ll see a mass movement toward a less materialistic society anytime soon. He describes a cloudy, cluttered marketplace that “makes it dizzingly difficult to walk your talk” when it comes to simplifying life or buying with environmental and ethical considerations always in mind. And perhaps more significantly, commercial objects are what so many Americans use to project the meaning of our lives, according to Walker. “Meaning and value are things we give to symbols, not things we get from them,” Walker writes.
From a sustainability standpoint, what does it mean that material, branded objects are becoming more, not less, important in the collective lives of Americans? I think it asks for a fundamental change in strategy in how we confront consumerism. Attempts to educate everyone to consume less or differently have had marginal success. And that’s unlikely to change if, as Walker argues, Americans use the commercial marketplace to set ourselves apart from the crowd and to participate in something bigger. We must recognize how difficult it will be in the near-term to supplant this central role of commercial goods in our lives, especially when marketers are hell-bent on keeping consumption our top priority.
So if demand for material goods is unlikely to slacken, maybe we need to make the goods themselves our primary focus. If producers make and sell only sustainable products, customers won’t have to think twice about how a product is made. Sustainability will be embedded. That places the onus on manufacturers and those who market their products to take responsibility for the environmental and social impact of what they sell.
I don’t want to let individuals off the hook for what and how much we consume. But pleas to consume less will keep falling on deaf ears as long as the things we buy are how we tell ourselves we matter. Maybe the key to sustainability is how we confront meaning, not consumption.