Thinking about the Future of Brands, and Humanity

The Future of Brands and Humanity_2 The Future of Brands and Humanity_2   I was recently asked by my lovely colleague, Susan Fournier, to write a chapter for her book examining Consumer-Brand Relationships. That notion of relationships was so endlessly interesting and worthy of exploration. I had to say yes.

So I thought about this topic and what was so interesting to me. And I thought…hey, the future of these relationships is something that we would like to be able to predict. Can we do that prediction in a cultural sense, then? What would that mean?

The Future of Brands

And Also of Humanity

 

What would it mean to go beyond anthropology as study and writing to anthropology as action, as a practice, as a reclamation of a set of rituals?

For the idea of ethnography has for a while been to learn practices, to actually do and seek to become like the member of the culture, a full participating member.

In order to predict the future of brands, I will use a range of techniques, and combine them, I thought to myself.

I will think of this as a performance, an artwork, an experiment, and a marketing demonstration. Promotional material for my personal brand, in other words.

And at that moment it struck me, like a bolt out of the deep deep blue. ANTHROPOLOGY

 

The union of these two elements, these social media elemental opposites–the corporate brand online and the personal brand online, this is the future of brands.

And I sought from there to find some data with which to explore this idea, and I chanced upon Textualized Prediction HISTORY: some great candidate books, including

  • UBIK, Eye in the Sky, and Perky Pat’s Stigmata that Matter: each by Philip K. Dick
  • Down and Out in The Magic Kingdom: by Cory Doctorow
  • Idoru and All Tomorrow’s Parties: by William Gibson

NETNOGRAPHY BOOK COVER_APRIL29_14_2NETNOGRAPHY BOOK COVER_APRIL29_14_2I chose to start my work on this topic here, thinking about one of this group of books, as I also contemplate, in public and private, the content for the new netnography book, a book that will be crowdsourced more than anything I have ever tried before

(although much of academic work is, in fact, crowdsourced, which is why it often reads like a crowdsourced text).

In the next blog post, I not only tell you what I am writing about. I start to reveal it to you in the freshest first draft…why not?

Let us begin to try to answer these questions about the future of brands, and along the way of course, of humanity itself.

Human history. And our humanity itself as a quality of Being Human. And then, to reward my loyal readers, I begin to weave in a whole other plotline. One I hope you will follow on CNN as it breaks major marketing news (or does not–a null hypothesis!) in headline form for social media brilliance by a marketing professor who tests the limits of academic theory at the current time. Or not. NETNOGRAPHY BOOK COVER_APRIL29_14_2

Target is Coming to Town

target2.jpgThe retail consumer in Canada is finally going to catch a break. After putting up with a dreary, outdated, ho-hum retail market for decades, in which retailing has consistently been about 20 years behind its US neighbors, there are changes afoot.

First came Costco. Great success.

Then Wal-Mart. Big success.

Then came the Apple store. Monster success.

Then Victoria’s Secret. Looking gooooood.

Now, Target. Minneapolis, MN-based Target Corp has just announced a deal to acquire the leasehold sites for up to 220 locations from Zeller’s Canada.  They plan to open 100 to 150 Target locations across Canada during 2013 and 2014, after investing about $1 billion in improvements and upgrades. And hiring a load of happy Canadians.

I have been using Target as an example of excellence in branding, target.jpgcustomer service, and retail delivery in my marketing classes for years. They have been outstanding competitors in a tough marketplace, and they have managed to maintain a lower-price higher-quality positioning that has proven nearly impossible for Wal-Mart to beat. As a consumer, I always felt that Target provided a far superior shopping experience to most other retailers, including Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart was about price, Target was about the experience.

I believe that Target has likely come to Canada for a few reasons:

  1. Slowing growth in the domestic US retail market
  2. Fierce competition in the domestic US retail market
  3. Saturation with Target stores in the US (they always stated they were going to saturate the US first before going international)
  4. Lots of cross-border shopping, which would have shown up on their radar
  5. The Canadian economy and consumer market’s resistance to recent economic dips
  6. Stronger than ever Canadian dollar (at par)
  7. Long-term prospects for strong Canadian dollar (petro bucks and the fact that all retail has an arbitrage element)
  8. Canadian dissatisfaction with retail service and choice levels
  9. Weak Canadian retail brands (Zellers? The Bay? Canadian Tire? come on….)target3.jpg
  10. Great brand recognition, awareness, and positive attitude among Canadian consumers towards Target already (who travel frequently to the US)
  11. Target’s convenient format: one-stop shopping for food, clothes (decent ones at that), sports equipment, electronics, toys, small appliances, bedding, kitchenware, linen, furniture, pharmacy and health care
  12. Target is clean. It’s customer service is outstanding.The format of the store, with wide spacious aisles and clear signage, is best in class. The experience–as I said before, and have written about already in some of my retail work–is what Target is all about.
  13. The French pronounciation may or may not have been a deciding element. Repeat after me…Tar GHAY est tres Canadian, eh?

My wife puts it this way: “I feel happy when I shop there.” We have missed the Target retail experience ever since moving to Toronto from Madison. I think that the Canadian consumer is going to richly reward Target for this decision, and the warm and wonderful feelings are going to be mutual. I know in my house we can hardly wait. The slow countdown to 2013 begins. When will they open already? And, oh…

When is The Cheesecake Factory opening in Yorkdale for goodness sake?

Reflections on CCT 2010, Part 3–Publics and Professionalization

russ_belk_and-megan-fox-kinect-at_cct.jpgIn my review of CCT 2010, we’re now up to 10:30am on the morning of Friday, the first day. I chose the session “Who is in Charge Here? Contesting Public Goods.” This was an All-Star session with some of the biggest, most established names in CCT presenting. As well, the topic of the session, public space and public goods, was of great interest to me.

The session started with research presented by Linda Scott of Oxford University on the Goddess Pageant in Glastonbury. Using maps and a lot of on-the-ground video, Linda’s work with Pauline Maclaran showed how the annual Goddess Pageant subverted traditional patriarchal and religious patterns, traversing a traditional Catholic parade path in reverse and temporarily claiming and public space for ancient pagan rituals and modes of being. She also nicely tied success in the ritual to commercial action on the retail strip of the city.

Next was work on street artists across a number of cities in North America and Europe by Luca Visconti and Stefania Borghini of Boconni University in Milan, Laurie Anderson of ASU in Phoenix, and John Sherry of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. This fascinating presentation examined how street art is emphasizing the role of public participation in art and in civic life, showing how what seems a trivial act (painting or spraying on city walls) can be seen as an empowerment of citizenry to claim public space as their own, and to beatify and improve it (or use it as a place to comment on how society could be made better).

Finally Russ Belk of the Schulich School at York University spoke about the tension between private and commercial ownership. Providing a dizzying array of thought-provoking examples (water, eggs and sperm, the military, higher education) Russ expanded upon the ideas in his recent article on sharing in JCR to talk about why privatization was occurring around the world, and what its consequences might be. He linked the Internet to a resurgence of sharing activity and new forms for that sharing to take place. He also sounded a call for more research in this area that could be directed at policy-making in the public interest, rather than simply following the blind path of laissez faire, a social slippage in which everything become commoditized.

john_deighton_or_tiger-woods-at_cct.jpgThis theme of the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the models of moderns Economics was picked up quite explicitly in the lunch speech by John Deighton, the current Chief Editor of the Journal of Consumer Research.

John began his talk, which I found inspiring, pretty much where the last talk, from the 2008 ACR in San Francisco, began. He spoke about the opportunity we had before us in marketing, and perhaps in CCT especially, to institutionalize CCT from a bankrupt economics. He must have said several times during the presentation that he believed the people in the field of consumer culture theory were doing the most interesting and most important work being published in JCR, and in the field of consumer research, today.

That seemed like going out on a limb, sort of like Jacob giving Joseph the magnificent coat of many colors. I am fully expecting our field to thus be abandoned by its sibling disciplines and sold into slavery (perhaps to Sociology or, gasp!, Urban Studies). Well, we haven’t actually got the coat yet.

But John did say that we are over-represented in JCR. If you count the percentage of the ACR membership who are CCT researchers it is twelve percent. And if you count the page space in JCR devoted to CCT articles it comes out to about sixteen percent of all of the articles. So, as John pointed out, that is an extra four over twelve percent, a thirty-three percent over-representation.

So when people tell you not to do cultural research, you can tell them you crunched the numbers and it automatically gives you a thirty-three percent edge. True.

John was asking what made us impactful as scholars. It’s a matter that I have thought about, talked about, and presented on a lot lately. John said he thought that we were publishing the best stuff because this is the stuff that would be remembered in forty years. That’s a pretty high bar. And quite difficult to judge in advance, for certain.

Then, John’s powerful talk challenged us to move beyond journal publications for our legitimacy. He asked “Who among you will have an impact on the way that not just marketing, but management will be done?” As I do, John sees the Field of Marketing changing. Changing into what is anyone’s guess.

But he also said that Harvard Business School did a study of its courses over an, I believe, 80- year or so history. He said many courses and names and disciplines for business education came and went, fashion and fad, boom and bust. On the bottom were two sets of lines that were constant and unwavering. Finance and Marketing. The two core disciplines of all business schools. The rests come and go.

 So the question became how can you do work that will impact management, how management is done?

And from that or interrelated with its answer, another question: how will we, CCT, as a field, professionalize? John highly recommended a book: Andrew Abbott’s The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor

The book was drawn from Abbott’s research about how the American Medical Association had taken over so many disparate disciplines and associated itself with so many phenomena. The example John used was alcoholism (a very appropriate example for our little group), which used to be treated by the clergy and by the police (the former, spiritually, and the latter, punitively). Using “science” and “medicalization,” the AMA declared and pushed the idea that alcoholism is a “condition,” something that required medical treatment by a licensed physician, rather than spiritual guidance. To consolidate power, they got the police on board.

So, what did this book tell us about what we need to do as a field? Again, see my blog post about Gokcen Coskuner-Balli’s excellent opening presentation-the topic is a hot one and the ideas dovetail. I used an article by Andrew Abbott called “The Order of Professionalization: An Empirical Analysis” to get a sense of Abbott’s work, while my book is on order from Amazon.

Abbott’s work argues that there are various stages to professionalization, but that they usually include the following:

  • The rise of association and an Association
  • Control of Work (through, e.g., certification, reviews, fees)
  • Interest in Professional education
  • Pursuit of professional knowledge, and the “Scientific” transformation of knowledge
  • Tangential knowledge
  • Profession dominated work sites

I won’t offer details on these just yet because they are rich concepts that deserve their own posting and further unpacking. However, what seems clear to me after reading Abbott’s work and after hearing John’s interpretation of it is that we do not yet offer ourselves up to relevant decision-makers as offering any kind of advantage. We certainly could, because I think that activities like ethnography or netnography put companies at an advantage. But we do not.

The way that John put it was to ask which areas we, as consumer culture theorists, we could could own. Which practical areas of business or policy-making could we stake out a claim to be better at informing.? I think Grant McCracken has already begun doing this with his work in Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation and of course beyond. And so have Rita Denny and Patti Sunderland with the Practica group and their work.

The bigger question is what jurisdictions or practical areas can we own or make a play for? 

From what I saw at the CCT conference this year, I think we have excellent claims to understand holistically the following areas:

  1. Branding and Brand Management;
  2. Social media in marketing and management;
  3. Retailing;
  4. Consumer Subcultures, Cultures, and Communities;
  5. Consumption Rituals and Marketing
  6. Sustainability;
  7. Consumer Insight, Innovation, and Ideas. 

For starters. 

The key is to find and solve the right problems for the right people. Another nice turn of phrase John offered up was that we need to move from micro explication to macro proscription. We are good as a field at analyzing problems and providing nuanced explanations of what is going on. But we are weak at offering normative proscriptions after that of what to do. What should managers and decision-makers, those who act on the work, do with our knowledge? That is key.

Another incredibly interesting set of sessions. And more review to come (although perhaps not so detailed or it might take until next year to recount them all to you…).