Marketing Communication Anthropology: Social Branding, Media Machines, Netnography The blog of Robert Kozinets, USC communication/marketing professor

July 24, 2007

The Conquering

Filed under: Marketing News & Insights,Marketing Science — Robert Kozinets @ 2:08 pm

I think that I shall never see

A blog posting as lovely as a poem.

Okay, that doesn’t rhyme. But some days a poem says it all for me. And today is one of those days.

This is an old poem/story that I wrote when I was an MBA student, ah the good old days of exams, job interviews, and beer kegs. I was trying to capture how the war & battle metaphor pervades the practice of marketing, for good and for ill. Thank goodness there are no battles in academia (yeah, right!).

The Conquering

We tarried long in darkness, bundling ourselves in obsessions, packaging delightedly the compulsion to package in brightly colored boxes, with ribbons and bows, papers and cards to feed to the dying off of the Light. Lest we die, go off without honor and remembrance.

Naked out we went, bereft of indulgences of niceness or acrimony. We were Warriors Supreme. Our Mission was simple. Market Share, and Dominance, and nothing less.

Ragged and hungry, we stooped by flickering fires to tell stories of Vision and Values, Conquerings and Challenges on the night before doing battle. We caught our falling souls in time to justify clinging to one another as something inspired and honest and reminiscent of truths of whose wholeness we’d always rightfully been contemptuous.

And then the battle creek raged with the fire of our uplifted swords, and the Consumers, though they fought, were caught unaware and died in droves, in gutwrenching pain, and we sang our butchering battlecries up to the stars and hightowers that flickered like honey moons skyscraping starlight in our eyes. And no one heard us but the Bankers.

And there was terrible trembling in the air as, in yearling blood, the ghastly debts for our campaign were finally paid.

July 23, 2007

Adult Entertainment Brands in the Age of YouTube

Filed under: Branding,Innovation & Creativity — Robert Kozinets @ 3:27 pm

Revolutionary times happen in every industry as technocultural change keeps on keeping on. Everyone knows that the Internet has seriously deflated the traditional adult entertainment industry. Adult entertainment once upon a time made major profits printing airbrushed pictures of beehived babes on dead trees. Along came videocassettes, along came cable, and then boom, along came the Internet as a major challenge. How those brands have adapted and not adapted to the changes wrought by technoculture might provide some food for thought for all media companies facing major challenges from rapid technological change among their consumer bases (and that’s just about everyone in the media).

A few years ago, I did an interview with BusinessWeek magazine about the Playboy brand (see the article here). I said that the brand and the bunny icon had some residual appeal, however, a kind of kinder and gentler sexuality that had some kitsch appeal. I thought at the time that a positioning around playful sexuality made sense for Playboy, and indeed, with the Hefner name attached to Playboy, it seems like they can’t move too far from their emotional roots. Playboy is like Adult Disney, it isn’t particularly threatening, dangerous, or perverse. Once it moves into Hustler’s terrain, the brand is, um, screwed.

That’s where the marketing insights of Christie Hefner really seemed to shine. Playboy followed the lead into all forms of New Media–they’ve had to. Although Playboy is the mainstream brand, Playboy Enterprises has built its Spice brands into a hardcore heavyweight. Catering to divergent needs with different brands, Playboy is able to maintain a mainstream corporate brand that offers porn to the masses (and the masses are loving, it by the way, as this recent popular machinima YouTube video attests). And with Spice, they also have a complete range of offerings to satisfy many adult tastes. Diverse tastes, legitimacy concern, multiple brands. I called it “decoupling” in the BusinessWeek article, and Christie Hefner called it the use of a flanker brand. Whatever you call it, it made good sense to me.

The results seem to bear out that this strategy makes sense. I see the Playboy brand around, adorning women’s jewelry and clothing, more than ever. Although we don’t often acknowledge it, sexual repression is alive and well in our contemporary society, and it inspires resistance. Clearly the brand’s meanings of an open, guiltless, approach to sexual pleasure have resonance with young and old.

Penthouse’s brand hasn’t been doing nearly as well. Entering Hustler’s space, Penthouse went hardcore and its sales suffered. Channels closed up, and in 2003 its publisher filed for bankruptcy. As Abram Sauer writes in an interesting online posting about the brand for, Penthouse has been restructured and re-launched into the same mainstream segment that Playboy occupies. Like Playboy, Penthouse now features only “tasteful” full nudity and now has at least 11 international editions and a circulation around 350,000. There is little doubt that this brand is struggling, and Sauer opines that Penthouse needs to find its proper customer segment. Which group of people, which set of needs, is the brand going to appeal to?

But I think my initial observations paid far too little attention to the revolutionary changes that technoculture–the combined impacts of technology and culture–has brought. How do adult entertainment brands find and create meaning today in such a rapidly changing, high-demand, instant access, everything available, porn, porn, everywhere world? Consider first some alternatives, like the Suicide Girls, Burning Angel and SuperCult web-sites that spotlight a different type of young woman, exposing a grittier and more realistic, more 3-dimensional view. As you can see in the quick posterview comparison in the graphics above, sites like these seem to cater not only to a different target but to a different aesthetic thank Playboy and Penthouse, and I think that’s important (BTW, I don’t mean to ignore or bypass the many important and worthwhile alternatives to mainstreamy straight porn in this blog, I just don’t have the bandwidth to deal with everything in a focused way this time).

But I think what is going on simultaneously is something even more fundamental than a particular target’s needs not being served. What if parts of the porn industry are shifting, just like parts of so many industries are shifting, into a more communal and do-it-yourself (DIY) model. What if increasing numbers of people don’t have the same taste for professional porn that they once did, and prefer the amateur variety?

What if the porn industry is becoming wikimediated the same way that Star Trek and other media properties are, the same what that YouTube is democratizing the media, and blogs are engaging the news? What if a rising tide of people (yes, people, male, female, and every possible combination) is actually *enjoying* the combination of voyeurism and exhibitionism that they can only get by DIYing their porn?

There are many business models out there for monetizing this trend and its activity. Go check out RedClouds, WhatBoysWant and YuVuTu web-sites, for instance, to see adult entertainment brands that brand themselves around user-generated content. And there is an awful lot of room for free content out there. People seem much happier consuming their porn rapidly on screens rather than slowly on dead trees. What works and what doesn’t in the adult entertainment industry is going to be an interesting lesson that is going to help us understand the nature, appeal, trends, and business models of user-generated content across many other new and old media industries.

July 20, 2007

Harry Potter Secrets: REVEALED AT LAST!

Filed under: Branding,Marketing News & Insights,Word of Mouth Marketing — Robert Kozinets @ 11:53 am

OMG: it happened. After years of waiting for the climactic conclusion to the spellbinding Harry Potter Chronicles, hackers and…could it be…the New York Times done went and spilled the beans before the rest of us have even had a chance to flip open the cover of our freshly-pressed copies. They all die: Harry, Ron, Hermoine, Voldemort. Even Fawkes the lovable Phoenix. Wiped out by a comet crashing into the Earth at a dramatic moment.

No fair! You told us the ending. No fair! Actually, of course, I didn’t. But everyone wants to, it seems.

As Fox News was only too happy to report, the New York Times just published a review of the newest and final installment of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. You can read the NY Times review here. If you want to read the review, feel free. I did and it doesn’t contain any really big spoilers. Ironically, a lot of the stories covering the story that the NY Times broke the story have actually been the ones telling the big secrets (or, maybe more accurately, reporting accurately on how others have told the big secrets: for example, see this other Fox New story about how hard it is to keep the Harry Potter ending secret, which seems to reveal the secret to the ending….).

Yes, this is big news. Everyone wants to know the Harry Potter secret. Everyone wants to reveal the Harry Potter secret. And of course, the biggest group of all wants desperately to keep the Harry Potter secret secret, but also wants everyone who already knows or may know the secret to shut up and keep the damn secret secret.

Isn’t it better to read the ending of the book for yourself than to see it on Fox News, read it in the NY Times, or overhear it in a public bathroom? That’s why the book’s publisher Bloomsbury is on record as being “disappointed” with the NY Times review. Author Joanne K. Rowling is even more emotional about it, quoted by Reuters as saying:

“I am staggered that some American newspapers have decided to publish purported spoilers in the form of reviews in complete disregard of the wishes of literally millions of readers, particularly children. I am incredibly grateful to all those newspapers, booksellers and others who have chosen not to attempt to spoil Harry’s last adventure for fans.”

Of course, she’s chiding them, but she’s right. On a personal note, my sons and I are big Harry Potter fans. I read the books to my sons until they could read them for themselves, and they’ve each read the series of books over three or four times. But for the last three books, my son has consistently had the ending ruined for him. As soon as my son mentions Harry Potter’s newest book, a “friend” will rapidly tell him, “Oh so and so dies at the end.” It’s like a new sport: Potter-baiting. Of course my son like most kids mistakes this information for “knowing” the ending. Which it both is and isn’t, since the book is an entire journey not a single outcome. But still, my kid has known who dies in the books or what the big mystery thing is accurately before he has read the book, and he’s been rightfully disappointed every time. So this little personal anecdote points out that it isn’t just big newspaper reviewers, hackers, and over-eager Internet posters who are spoilers, but that the “spoiler gene” is widespread. A lot of kids will end up spoiling this new book for each other.

This time through, I reserved a copy for my son, and have told him he can stay up all night, segregated in the house, reading the book so that he doesn’t have the ending spoiled for him. I didn’t realize that we might have to fly him to Namibia and put him in solitary confinement as well…

But from an academic marketing Consumer Culture Theory perspective this is all so very interesting. From a marketing standpoint, Harry Potter has become incredibly successful. My Irish colleague, the brilliant and inimitable University of Ulster professor Stephen Brown has written a lot about Harry Potter’s secrecy methods over the years, including in a chapter for my recent co-edited book Consumer Tribes. One of my favorite articles he has written was “Marketing for Muggles” which he wrote for Business Horizons in 2002. In that article, Stephen emphasized the lockdown security over Book IV of the series, and called it a “sadistic marketing strategy.” He said that the strategy for selling and promoting the book was based upon “unavailability, postponement, absence, and deprival.” We know you want it, but you can’t have it. And yet the book as also, paradoxically “ubiquitously unavoidable”–it and its marketing were (and are) everywhere. Stephen has even written an entire book, entitled “Wizard!” about the major marketing lessons we can learn from the Harry Potter franchise and its marketing.

This is a culturally potent combination, and we’re watching its fire burn and cauldron bubble in fine form right now. In this, the final dawn before the ultimate breaking of the story, Harry Potter’s secret climax is both everywhere and nowhere at once. It is instantly visible and yet its culmination is frustratingly out of reach. We have waited over a decade to find this out, and we want to know the end and we want it now. We can’t wait any more.

Stephen Brown has called this kind of marketing “TEASE” marketing, marketing that torments customers (and they love you for it). He finds its origins in carnival sideshows and P. T. Barnum-esque excesses. I also think that its mysterious, paradoxical qualities give it a mystical religious air. It has what Stephen Brown, John Sherry, and I (borrowing from novelist Alex Shakar) have called “Brand Paradessence.”

And as no one who has read the book has failed to notice, the Harry Potter Septology is a Joseph Campbellian mystical heroes journey made accessible to all ages. How could it not be charged with psychic resonance? And that sort of charge wraps itself around people’s identities, enchants them, drives them: it creates fans.

I’ve also been reading some of psychologist Jacques Lacan’s work and find it very pertinent. Lacan argues that at our core, we are desire, we are bundles of wanting wants. But at the heart of this, what we most desire is to maintain the pleasurable tension of desire itself (which is ego’s wanting to continue to exist, since its own existence is predicated upon desire). We learn at a very young age that we are disappointed when we are fulfilled. And so what we most want is to keep right on wanting. It explains a lot about consumer society and the contemporary self, where people seem to get so much and yet want so much more, to never be fulfilled but to always be seeking. And perhaps that is why Harry Potter has enchanted, beguiled, and bedeviled us for so long. We want to know the end, but, wait, once we know then we won’t want to know anymore. But we don’t want to hear from someone else. And we want to want…so…what do we want?

The hoopla over Harry’s fate (will he live? will he die? go read it yourself and find out!) is desire, consumer society, fandom, mystical marketing writ large. Just as I did with the iPhone, I am loving watching this magnificent contemporary drama unfold.

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