Monday, July 31, 2006

If they buy in, are you selling out?

While at The Long Now, I had an interesting conversation with one of my colleagues there about the curious nature of the organisation's mission, which is to encourage long-term thinking and responsibility. There aren't too many places with such a bold, and yet abstract underlying goal. The long and the short of it was, we agreed, that we were ultimately in the business of marketing a way of thinking -- about time, change, history, responsibility, and other things.

Now, consider the conventional understanding of what marketing is and does. It tends to begin with a product (a dish soap, a pair of jeans, a drink, a make of car...) and the marketing aim for the company producing it is to figure out a strategy for associating a way of thinking, behaving, looking and so on, which taps into what people want, so they'll decide to buy the product as a result of their attraction to the associated image. This much is basic, even trite knowledge, in that field.

But what happens when you invert or reverse that process? When you start with a desire to promote a way of thinking, rather than a physical product? This is the situation at The Long Now Foundation (re. long-term thinking) and certainly, at the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies, we have a similar aim (re. pluralistic, alternative futures thinking). Here the challenge might be seen as how to embody that thinking in a product, how to make it tangible or real to people, how to give them something to buy, touch, do, experience -- which both expresses and elicits that kind of thinking. This is what the Clock of the Long Now does (as an article in today's San Francisco Chronicle explains). This is also what, in a sense, what we've been doing at HRCFS through our efforts to develop experiential scenarios -- watch this space for more on that -- and futures audio tours; trying to make futures thinking compelling to people, with something they can really get their teeth into. Concretising an abstraction, if you will, rather than abstracting from the concrete; or inventing a product to promote a message, instead of the other way around.

Now, in today's New York Times Magazine, there was an interesting article entitled "The Brand Underground", by Rob Walker, focusing on the current phenomenon of sometimes highly profitable and prestigious microbrands, typically founded by trendsetting twentysomethings who regard themselves as anti-corporate, even while embracing the practice of making and selling products (notably, but not exclusively, clever t-shirts).

These enterprises can be seen as Internet-commerce-era answers to the question, phrased by Walker: "How do I turn my lifestyle into a business?" Which we could easily paraphrase as, "How can I make a living doing what I care about?" or "How can a live a life in harmony with my values?" A central question for anyone who cares to examine the life they lead.

Some quotes from the article:

One reason an underground brand sounds nonsensical is that countercultures are supposed to oppose the mainstream, and nothing is more mainstream than consumerism. But we no longer live in a world of the Mainstream and the Counterculture. We live in a world of multiple mainstreams and countless counter-, sub- and counter-sub-cultures.

[M]ost of us think of branding as a thoroughly mainstream practice: huge companies buying advertising time during the Super Bowl to shout their trademarked names at us is pretty much the opposite of authentic or edgy expression. But branding is more complicated than that. It is really a process of attaching an idea to a product. Decades ago that idea might have been strictly utilitarian: trustworthy, effective, a bargain. Over time, the ideas attached to products have become more elaborate, ambitious and even emotional. This is why, for example, current branding campaigns for beer or fast food often seem to be making some sort of statement about the nature of contemporary manhood. If a product is successfully tied to an idea, branding persuades people — consciously or not — to consume the idea by consuming the product. Even companies like Apple and Nike, while celebrated for the tangible attributes of their products, work hard to associate themselves with abstract notions of nonconformity or achievement. A potent brand becomes a form of identity in shorthand.

Of course, companies don't go into business in order to express a particular worldview and then gin up a product to make their point. Corporate branding is a function of the profit motive.

Many of [the microbranders] clearly see what they are doing as not only noncorporate but also somehow anticorporate: making statements against the materialistic mainstream — but doing it with different forms of materialism. In other words, they see products and brands as viable forms of creative expression.

For them, there is something fully legitimate about taking the traditional sense of branding and reversing it: instead of dreaming up ideas to attach to products, they are starting with ideas and then dreaming up the products to express them.

Perhaps the first lesson of the brand underground is not that savvy young people will stop buying symbols of rebellion. It is that they have figured out that they can sell those symbols, too.

This is the quintessence of the postmodern brand rebel, hopscotching the minefield of creativity and commerce, recognizing the categorization, satirizing it, embracing it and commoditizing it all at once.

When [one such entrepreneur] declares that his project is part of a "revolution against branding," what he really means is not the snuffing out of commercial expression but an elevation of it.

Even in a world where the mainstream is less than monolithic, every subculture sooner or later has to reconcile itself with the larger cultural forces around it.

The author dwells on the apparent paradox of advancing a counterculture, or at any rate a self-consciously mainstream-rejecting subculture, through so thoroughly a conventional avenue as branding. And he makes a good point, for there is surely there a risk of compromising certain values the business ostensibly intends to represent. (That's got to be a risk, if you happen to regard corporate identity-building, and particularly, the commodification of dissent, as problems.)

And frankly, I'm not particularly interested in or compelled by the worldviews of a bunch of t-shirt jockeys. Although some of them may have really deep messages to convey, my feeling is that were he alive today, strangely enough the t-shirt might not have been Voltaire's chosen medium. The bigger question resonating beneath all this is, for me, where ought any serious challenger of the prevailing paradigm to begin -- completely outside the box, and let the box come to you; or is it better to work for your hoped-for changes from within the existing framework, using its structures, living on its dime? Here's a fundamental dilemma for anyone interested in promoting social change, or even thought about social change. Do you try to beat them outright, or do you join them, in the hope of beating them from the inside? To use the tools of a morally bankrupt money-driven corporate culture to comment subversively on that culture; is that knowingly postmodern ironic genius, or just selling out?

Depends on what you're trying to challenge, of course. But it's a basic dilemma if you're interested in having people entertain the possibility of deeper, longer stories of the future that go beyond corporate and capitalistic models concordant with prevailing assumptions and social arrangements. You don't have to have a single-minded prior ideological commitment to bringing down the system no matter what (I don't) in order to see the tremendous value in being capable of perceiving its dimensions and tendencies, and questioning its longevity, usefulness, and ultimate worth (I do). But who will pay you to think about problems, or solutions to problems, that don't yet exist, and might never exist? Who will pay today for you to entertain doubts about the "hard realities" of nation states, corporations, and other well established interests?

Such are the bigger questions about the commercial viability of "critical futures" that I've struggled with, and that this article touched off in my mind. For to speak of the commercial viability of an idea, is another way of talking about whether you can survive while living out its values.

A good friend of mine insists that money is the best measure of someone's commitment to something. Words are cheap, he would say, but when a person pays for something -- ah, you know they really value it, you find out what it's worth to them. His reasoning in this area leads him to the conclusion that an enterprise that can't turn a profit is, by definition, not valuable, not worthwhile.

I have a problem with that. It seems to me that the "messages" of foresight and long-term thinking being "marketed", so to speak, by organisations such as The Long Now Foundation and the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies, are something like the advice of a wise older relative to a headstrong teen. It may not be seen as useful (may in fact be largely perceived as irritating and irrelevant) at the time, and might take a while to sink in; but eventually its value will become apparent. The fact that long-term or divergent futures thinking is not universally recognised as useful right now does not preclude it from planting seeds that may germinate and bear fruit in due course.

(Incidentally, I would have liked to make the above point without the patronising tone suggested by this old-young analogy; but I can't. I think a culture, corporate or otherwise, that rejects foresight, is actually immature, and will probably have to learn the hard way that the assumptions propping up its current interests and successes are not set in stone.)

Meanwhile, we continue to search for ways to embody and concretise those messages, and to make the long-term value we're betting on, capable of being appreciated, and thus acted upon, and to some modest extent rewarded, today. Wisdom has probably always been a tough sell, but it's no less valuable because of that.

1 comment:

moon dog said...

i like this line:

"And frankly, I'm not particularly interested in or compelled by the worldviews of a bunch of t-shirt jockeys."