Did Seth Godin Steal My Deal?

The inimitable Harper Reed from Skinnycorp (which owns Threadless), just sent me a rather dire email. The title was “Did Seth Godin just Steal your Deal?” And then there was link to Seth Godin’s new, upcoming book which is called “Tribes: We Need You to Lead.”

Well, gee. I dunno. Seth’s new book is about tribes, apparently, although there isn’t a lot of info on it available just yet. The Amazon.com copy on the book does, however, say this:

“According to Godin, Tribes are groups of people aligned around an idea, connected to a leader and to each other. Tribes make our world work, and always have. The new opportunity is that it’s easier than ever to find, organize, and lead a tribe. The Web has enabled an explosion of all kinds of tribes — and created shortage of people to lead them. This is the growth industry of our time. Tribes (the book) will help you understand exactly what’s at stake, and why YOU can and should lead a tribe of your own.”

Well, okay, a definition is a good start. But a group of people aligned around an idea, connected to a leader and to each other could also be the definition of a community, a group, a hierarchical organization, a network, or any variation or manifestation of one of these things. A number of very respectable scholars like Michel Maffesoli and Bernard Cova, not to mention armies of anthropologists, have come up with careful and nuanced definitions to help differentiate the idea of a tribe from those other concepts. But it’s just Amazon back cover blurb, so I’d suggest we all wait for the final version.

In general though, and this doesn’t have anything to do with this book or with Seth Godin’s work, I always try to read pop business books to see whether the author has taken some care in writing them in a somewhat intellectually meaningful way which would include thinking about defining terms, being precise about what actions are being advocated and why, and using and crediting the work of others (literary and scientific) who have thought about these ideas before them. There are still few pop authors who do this, but they are few and far between. Even academics often fall into these bad habits when they write popular books.

I obviously can’t write a book review of a book that hasn’t yet been distributed (unless Mr. Godin kindly sends me a copy). The book does look intriguing. Some other popular books that deal with this big topic of tribes, marketing and consumers, are Alex Wipperfurth in his very solid Brand Hijack book, or of Douglas Atkin in The Culting of Brands (both of whom develop and talk extensively about marketing to “tribes”; Atkin cites a number of other authors, including Bernard Cova).

I’m not particularly enamored of the subtitle for this Tribes book. “We need you to lead us.” To me, it insinuates that tribes crave marketers. Yeeks. I’d say that some tribes, perhaps many tribes, do not want to be “led” by some all-knowing business manager or marketer. Actually, according to Mr. Godin’s blog, he is trying to promote this book by leading his own Godin tribe. I think that he is used to leading his own “Brand tribe”–and in fact I can see how marketing managers be happy to anoint a charismatic author and speaker into that role. But…

I’d argue that many other real-world brand tribes won’t ever be led by marketers. A deep, grounded understanding of tribes and what they are, and the social and cultural conditions that create and sustain them, leads to that contention. It could also lead to a much more precise, delimiting, useful, and grounded definition of what a tribe consists of. You can see I’m stretching here…offering a critique of a subtitle. The actual book might be a lot more nuanced than this. I’ll let you know.

Here is the book cover.

tribes_godin_cover.jpg

I just want to return to Harper’s question about Mr. Godin “stealing my deal.” Obviously, there was nothing stolen. The word tribes belongs to everyone. And the phenomenon of communities, tribes, gatherings, pow-wows, or whatever else you want to call this micro-collectivization of society is a happening big enough and important enough that many of us should be writing about it, and will have lot to write about for years to come.

So on this, I say bravo to Mr. Godin for seeing fit to write about such an important topic. I agree, wholeheartedly, that it deserves our careful attention.

To me, Harper’s question has the ring of asking a journalist whether they got scooped on their story. It’s also a question I hear a lot from Ph.D. students and other scholars who are worried about their ideas being stolen.

The thing is, academia isn’t journalism. When a journalist breaks a big story like Watergate, it’s broken. But academics develop theories, and others continue to develop them, and then the theories get overturned, and brought back, construct developed from there, and so on. There are many ways to make a contribution besides being the first one in with some big new construct or theory or relationship. In fact, sometime you can be later to the field and make the biggest contribution of all.

That said, one of the things that powers the development of our understanding as a civilization is the fact that people get credit for their ideas. In the world of intellectual property, as we all know, there are major shifts and battles underway, covered nicely in the work by Lawrence Lessig, Henry Jenkins, and others. Stealing others’ ideas or content is for the most part seen as a bad thing. And let me be clear here that I’m not insinuating anything here about Mr. Godin’s upcoming book, which I have not read; I’m talking in general about a pet peeve, a tension between academic writers and popular business writers.

Just like a patent holder likes to have a license paid on the use of their property, the people who originally think of and develop an idea like to be cited, to be given credit for their heavy intellectual lifting. Most of course want to have their ideas and terminology reach wider circulation. But it never ceases to amaze me how many writers in the popular business press rip each other off, and ignore established popular and academic work that tackles the same topics, often in very similar ways.

So, in general, as you read popular business books, try to see where the author has worked with other people’s ideas, and where credit has been given. For any book on Consumer Tribes or tribal marketing, I think the single person whose work is most important is Bernard Cova, who has been working with these ideas and concepts (building on Michel Maffesoli’s important theoretical work and developing it in the marketing context) for over a decade.

Two key citations for this topic are:

  • Bernard Cova (1997), Community and consumption: Towards a definition of the “linking value” of product or services, European Journal of Marketing, 31 (3/4), 297 – 316
  • Bernard Cova and Véronique Cova (2002), Tribal marketing: The tribalisation of society and its impact on the conduct of marketing, European Journal of Marketing, 36 (5/6), 595-620

To talk about marketing to tribes or tribal marketing and not cite Bernard Cova would be like talking about brand communities and not citing Al Muniz and Tom O’Guinn. That’s my opinion and I’ll stand by it.

Now is it fair to expect consultants and other laymen to act like professors, to read deeply and broadly and to cite like scholars? That’s a fair question. I think that doing so is more possible and simpler than ever, because of the Internet and the way it makes information accessible. Certainly, the expectation about an author writing a book about, say, coffee marketing, would be that the author would read all the books that show up on Amazon with coffee marketing in their title or subtitle. And then probably, to go the extra mile, to read some of the articles that show up on Google Scholar from a similar search, and from a good scouring of the footnotes and references in those book that were found on Amazon (and in one’s local library). I don’t think that is holding any non-fiction author to too high of a standard.

Similarly, I don’t think academics can ignore good books simply because they are popular or written for a broader audience. On the contrary, I think it’s our job to try and locate the good, novel, practical ideas in these books and bring them to an academic audience. This has been done quite a bit by scholars in my field. For example, a number of us have written about Naomi Klein’s book No Logo, and cited it quite extensively. Ditto Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks. And Thomas Franks’ books, like The Conquest of Cool.

As for whether I or anyone else can still write a book about this topic of consumer collectivities on the Internet, there’s little doubt here. The phenomenon is way, way, too big for a single book, or even a single series of volumes of books (need I mention Manuel Castells’ masterwork The Information Age volumes here?).

So, to answer Harper’s question, no way. In fact, Seth Godin is making my deal. Whatever is in his upcoming book about tribes, he’s helping all of us who are interested in this important topic.

I’m looking forward to reading this new book, some other new ones (another brand-new volume called Electronic Tribes also looks very interesting--thanks to Ingeborg Kleppe for the heads up on this one), and to continuing to think about this fascinating time we find ourselves in and the phenomena it presents us.

Communal Confessions

Communal Confession Online

I just ran across an interesting piece of research reported in BusinessWeek. This research, conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon, found that people are more willing to disclose the truth about their bad behaviors when they’re asked about them casually online, rather than through a more formal survey.

Now, isn’t that interesting.

The researchers (George Loewenstein, a behavioral economist, is reported to be the co-author) found that 50% of people who were asked “Who BAD are U?” admitted to cheating on their taxes. But when sent to an official looking site with formal insignia and privacy notices, on 25% admitted to cheating.

I have to wonder if that degree of honesty tells us something about the internet and about our use of research techniques. The study was interpreted to mean that we get more honest answers “from the MySpace generation” (there’s a deliberate generational difference being investigated here) using an informal and even playful type of questioning style rather than a more formal one.

Now take this to the next level. What does this study suggest about all the naturally-occurring conversations going on out there in cyberspace? Is this just Millennials or gamer gens or MySpacers? Just the under-25 crowd, or is there a sea change adrift, matie? Might a lot of these informal consumer-to-consumer exchanges online exhibit more honesty and more validity that a lot of the more formal survey work? Consider which one–informal observation or formal surveys–would be a better way to assess consumer opinion?

I don’t know if the big online companies like Buzzmetrics and Cymfony have noticed this study (or of course the smaller-smarter-quicker upstarts likes MotiveQuest and Netbase), but I think this research definitely supports their general research approach.

Using informal, unobtrusively-obtained online conversations seems to produce more valid, more honest, more real, more multifaceted consumer opinion data than online or offline surveys. That’s the implication I draw from this. That’s a core contention behind netnography as well. If you work with better data, you’re going to get better results, it’s that simple.

I couldn’t find any publication data on the Loewenstein study. If anyone has further info on it, I’d be grateful and will publish it here. I’d also love to see estimates anyone has on the amount of money currently spend on online and offline surveys, versus more observational techniques like webtrawling/content analysis and ethnography.

The Ten Pillars of Japanese Service

kabuki.jpg

So much of the marketplace experience comes down to the retail experience. And so much of the retail experience comes down to service. I had long heard about the service standards in Japan, which had even been summarized by the saying that “The Customer is God.” My expectations were high.

And they were not disappointed. I’m a fairly demanding customer (and if you haven’t read my blog entries about my disappointment with Costco online, you can catch it here), and I have to say that the service standards in Japan were incredibly high.

For example, I was very impressed by the guy who sold me my shoes at Seibu, one of Tokyo’s major high-end department stores. He knew everything about the shoes I was interested in (yes, he even expressed a type of an otakki wisdom). He told me their original price, when the store first received them. He even knew the name of the Italian designer of my new shoes. He gave me advice on the fit of the shoes, and also told me how to take care of them properly (and no, he wasn’t selling me any add-ons like a leather conditioner or anything, just telling me about the straps and that they were quite delicate). When I bought the shoes, he thanked me with a very low bow. I had this feeling of incredible knowledge, courtesy, and gratitude. And guess which store I can’t wait to visit when I return?

It certainly wasn’t just Seibu, although that sale impressed me enough to really stick in my memory. Almost everywhere I went the service was outstanding. In the USA, you find a good level of service overall, and exceptional service at a few places, such as Nordstrom or at fine hotels. But across Tokyo’s retailworld, I found wonderful attention to detail. Even the person who cleans tables, who makes food and cuts mushroom, seems to take special care.

Everything seemed to be a conscious, deliberate performance, calculated to delight the customer. Everything marketplace-related seemed to be an expression of self. There was this deep pride, this mindfulness, this sense of giving through momentary quality transactions as a social contributions, an expression of the communal that unites people, a sense of wanting to give rather than simply take.

More examples. The sushi maker was far more than just a guy whose served at a fast food counter. His hand moving rapidly, each piece of sushi seemed almost like an act of prestidigitation, each act of protein-starch mingling a creative wonder, a small miracle, a performance meriting deep concentration, deserving and drawing the attention of a grateful audience.

In the paper stores, there was origami precision in the wrapping of items and beautiful gifts, and it was ubiquitous, detectable even in the folding of a sales receipt, in the two-handed returning of a credit card, in the final thank you and bow. There was a complete care taken in every aspect of the service experience.

I pondered this servicescape. Could other countries aspire to have service levels like Japan? What would it take?

I could detect that there is a larger cultural frame at work, an ideology driving this pride in each transaction, this joy that comes from doing our jobs well and relishing the contact they give us with each other. A shared way of seeing how every service experience partakes in the performative power written about by Pine and Gilmore in their excellent book The Experience Economy.

I’m far, far from expert in any of these matters. This is very initial thinking. Speculation and little more. But here is a short list summary of some of the cultural factors that I think contribute to the phenomenon of phenomenal Japanese customer service:

  • 1. A hierarchical society (origins in military society?)
  • 2. Strong ideologies of service (some born of faith/Buddhism?)
  • 3. Deep-rooted rituals and traditions of gift-giving (emphasis on material culture)
  • 4. Admiration for the West, particularly the USA, and a desire to excel, outreach, and out-accomplish
  • 5. Traditions of mindful labor (e.g., Zen mindfulness, Japanese gardening)
  • 6. Aesthetic sense (translates into planograms, store layouts, signage)
  • 7. Visual/artistic culture (colors, logos, packages, wrapping)
  • 8. Notions of kaizen or continuous improvement
  • 9. Theatricality (ability and willingness to entertain the experience economy)
  • 10. Critical mass (with so many people, organization and service becomes much more essential; consider Tokyo’s spotless, high-tech, highly efficient public transportation system)

It’s interesting to contemplate how much in this list draws from drama, the arts, and ritual/religion/the sacred. I considered that this reveals the richly ritualistic qualities of the sales transaction in all their hierarchical and yet beautiful glory, the omnipresent dance of giving and receiving, of doing-for-each-other and having-it-done-for-oneself that is the essence of our consumer society and civilization.

The service occasion becomes, in this way, cast in the moment as timeless, marked, made sacred and larger-than-the-self. An opportunity to think beyond ourselves, and beyond this moment.

And what does this, I think, is pride on both ends. Pride in being the customer and (the missing ingredient in much of the West) pride in being the server.

“I’m not bowing to anyone,” is probably the likely, angry, grudging response of the typical Western service provider asked to do better, or compared to the Japanese.

Yet it is exactly this sort of refusal to do for others that holds us back, that keeps us from seeing the bigger social picture, from being able to act collectively for our future and for the greater good. And I don’t think it is just humility that is missing. Or even, so much, a “collective” orientation. It is, instead, this mindfulness linked to and applied to our work ethic—where work ethic has almost become an oxymoron. It is this devotion to skill and constant improvement that gets built into this other Japanese term “kaizen.” And pride in a job well done. For me, those are qualities of quality that I try to manifest in my own work, my teaching of students and managers, my research writing, my peer reviews. They are qualities I found all around me while shopping in Tokyo.

In the 1980s, the American business press idolized and frequently wrote about the wonders of the Japanese economy. There is still much that we can learn and apply.