The Nova Theory of Customer Relationships

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What’s this weird picture up here?

I had a great discussion a couple of days ago with Lois Kelly. Lois Kelly is a thinker, blogger, author and consultant who works in the area of online community as well. She’s written a book called “Beyond Buzz” which was just awarded a gold prize in the 2008 Axiom Business Book Awards in the Advertising/Marketing/Public Relations category. She also and has her own excellent blog called bloghound.

We were talking about the changed in customer relationships that have happened over the last decade or so, as technology has empowered more and more consumers, allowed them to organize with one another, and given them a voice where the didn’t have one before. I started free-associating and I came up with the metaphor that consumers were like business’s “mute slaves” for decades. Obedient and silent recipients of marketing. And then, gradually, but apparently suddenly from the company’s managers point of view, they were overcoming their muteness, starting to talk back, to resist, to assert their power.

And that’s sort of scary to most marketing and brand managers who really don’t know how to handle these changes, under what Lois aptly called their “command-and-control” mode of interaction.

After the conversation, I was thinking about that classic movie, Planet of the Apes. The feral woman that Charlton Heston encounters, and who later becomes his bunkmate is named “Nova.” As in ready to go nova. Ready to burst. She’s wild-haired and matted, mute: an obvious animal. Heston/Taylor keeps trying to civilize her, teach her to speak, starting with her own name.

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In the second movie, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, his linguistic lessons finally pay off and Nova finds her vocal chords. Of course this is a very symbolic act. The whole idea of finding voice is all about organizing, overcoming oppression, becoming resistant as a group of community. The great social theorist Albert O. Hirschman even used the term “voice” to refer to a special kind of social resistance.

Consumers as company’s long-time mute slaves. For a long time companies just put out their products, moved their advertising through the mass market, got them on the shelves and the consumers obediently bought the goods. They behaved. They were at a comfortable distance. When we wanted to hear them, we paid them a few bucks, brought them into a focus group, hid behind the one-way glass and they obediently spoke.

“Talk, Nova, talk.”

Then we could turn off the volume, walk out of the room, and the voice was gone. Nice, neat, clean. But now they were actually teaching each other to speak, they were sharpening their tools and skills, they were making fun of our brands, they were making their own parody ads, they were finding our emails, they were reaching out to us, starting to knock on our doors. It’s not Planet of the Apes. Oh no. Oh no, it’s Night of the Living Dead. Our brains, they’re out to ear our brains.

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So much of what is happening with many companies sordid attempts to cope with newly empowered consumers fits into this strange metaphor. Companies are using legal means to try to gag consumers, to put the muffle back on, to shut them up, get them to stop, turn them back into the obedient slaves of the good old days. Remove the threat. Stop the conversation. Make them listen. Make them behave.

So maybe that mute slave metaphor has some deeper roots to it after all. Or maybe I was just watching too much weird stuff about Eliot Spitzer. Who knows?

5 Comments

  1. rahulio March 28, 2008
  2. Jeff Podoshen March 31, 2008
  3. pablosan76 June 9, 2008
  4. Robert Kozinets June 16, 2008
  5. pablosan76 June 16, 2008

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