Monday, 16 November 2009
New Article for Mediacat Magazine
Through the Looking Glass
As we stare into another year and wonder what it will hold, I am encouraged to look further ahead and think about where brands and media are heading medium term. I know it’s tempting just to hope that it “wont be as bad as last year” but perhaps the forces that are tilting against the status quo are deeper than issues like banking confidence, consolidation and quarterly profits? So that leaving 'the future' to a quiet year could be a long wait! Anyway the medium term future is more interesting; calling on imagination, not just 'more of the same' realism?
It’s tempting to take a sustainability point of view on brands, media and change. Consumerism is to blame for some of our problems. We can ill afford the fantasy that the world exists to fulfil our wishes; nor even the sickness that has resulted from partial success in this (eg obesity). We do live in a world of cornucopian bounty; if only we could adapt to what it does offer, and abandon the idea that it could ever support 9 billion American consumer lifestyles. The way we have organised human societies, for instance the food system that traverses the earth in search of slightly more profit, is perverse. In future oil will not be cheap enough to support this and food security (along with water security, energy security) will be the pressing issue, not consumer choice.
The trouble I’ve found with future gazing from a sustainability point of view is it is all about restriction (or ‘mitigation’). Like a global health problem it shows that our lifestyles and cultures cannot but change. But it doesn’t in itself point to a positive alternative; and that may account for the failure of sustainability to achieve general recognition or popular support? We have nothing to look forward to on this view. Whereas individuals that successfully adapted to a restriction (illness, redundancy, divorce) often found it is in retrospect also an opportunity to flourish and develop in new ways; restriction and calamity can come to be seen as a blessing in disguise, an opportunity to rebalance, build new relationships, follow other passions.
If you look into history, you find that such limits and necessities do force change upon us. But perhaps they are less predictive of the direction of that change. Two things that are far more predictive of change are the amount of contact between cultures, and the form and function of media. We can maybe amalgamate the two and talk about the way in which we share ideas?
In case this feels like a remote concern for a marketing magazine, consider that what you describe as brands are actually fragments of media. At a functional level most advertising media mimic real media. Direct marketing appears to be a personal letter addressed to you. A TV commercial appears to be a little TV show or movie. A press ad has a headline, picture and copy – just like one of the more important newspaper and magazine stories. There is a slight nuisance factor in content that mimics what we are looking for to get our attention. But also like the bacteria in our gut, it repays the host; the direct marketers pay for our post service, the advertisers for our entertainment media, sports events and news. Among ‘old’ media the poster stands alone as a pure act of promotion; a descendent of the pamphlet. Although you could also argue that it masquerades as public graphic art?
What is new in media, in a fundamental society-restructuring way? I would argue that the deepest innovation is the invention of shared texts. Since the invention of writing humanity has been split between the objective, neutral, machine-like world as written, and the subjective, interweaving, alive, nuanced world of conversation. Writing may have made possible technology, empires, industry (they all resemble printing presses, replicating human ideas – making the world more ‘uniform’ in the process). This is also art imitating life – the very core living process being one of a similar replication of cells. Conversation is something other. It is a means to understand each other and through that process understand ourselves. It is not straightforward, it is subjective and a way for two minds to ‘boil the world together, so that it tastes less bitter’ as one writer (Theordore Zeldin) put it.
Shared texts have many uses. Some are literally conversations as in Twitter and chat forums. Others are co-written and edited in a very obvious ways; like Wikipedia. Others are less personal. For instance ecommerce is only possible because of a process by which one side writes a catalogue, but the other can write orders, reviews and in other ways make their mark in it (for instance Amazon’s ability to tell me what others who liked a book bought). It’s likely that we are at the early stages of discovering all of shared texts' uses. The printing press was originally used to make bibles (and TV was originally used to make radio programmes with pictures). Already though we have seen that the place of brands and media thinking is evolving; for instance inhabiting new key internet functions like searching for stuff.
When the media change, the brands change. Coca-Cola the defining brand of the mass media age is looking less dominant than ever. Other brands like Google, Apple, Amazon, Twitter are being born out of the markets for information. But what will true ‘shared text age’ brands look like? Of course some will be evolved from today's brands – companies like Proctor & Gamble have been deeply immersed in internet communities and other new media formats since the mid 1990s. But (of course) I think there is an alternative…
Imagine a future where brands were not owned and made by producers, but by consumers. The simplest way to explain this is imagine a consumer buying club being the most powerful brand in the world. There are early signs of this emerging; community choice aggregation (whereby whole American cities buy greener, cheaper electricity by buying in bulk – San Francisco being the latest); money supermarkets (comparison sites where people find the cheapest mortgage or credit card); community supported agriculture (where the consumers effectively buy a farm); microcredit (where the borrowers own the bank and pay themselves dividends in the form of free life insurance and so on). There have already been internet plays where ‘purchase power aggregation’ was the key model. But what would be needed is something with more solidarity. eBay might be a better guide to what these buying guilds could look like; self-governing, with a strong identity and shared resources, but freedom and diversity within this.
Of course I am stargazing. Who could really know what lies ahead? But the significance of shared texts as a human development can scarcely be overstated. In a broad historical sense it is a challenge to the ‘top down’ scheme of industrial society; for instance Linux was (another shared text and) a mighty challenge to Microsoft. And the ultimate shared text would be a new system of direct democracy. In the narrow sense I think it helps you to get your bearings in new media. To better get ahead of the curve. And now is a great time to be experimenting and finding new ways to connect. After all, with the current model in tatters the only way is forwards, right?