In the marketing world, we’re trained that the secret to prosperity is to follow popular culture. Stay as close as you can to the front of the zeitgeist – without getting ahead of it – and the cash register will ring. It’s usually a pretty safe policy. In fact, in Consumer Republic, I exhort consumers themselves to understand their role in this dynamic and use it to influence the path of capitalism. Regardless of the fevered conspiracy fantasies of the No-Logoists, that’s the dirty secret of branded marketing. It follows. Only very, very rarely does it get away with leading, and even then not for very long.
But every once in a great while, the zeitgeist will make a sudden turn, without even signaling. One minute the marketplace is trundling along, digesting fashion like a big, happy python, and the next, boom! You’ve got a warehouse full of unsold Hammer pants. It happens. And I think it’s about to happen again, especially to brands who might be putting too much stock in social media as a proxy for that zeitgeist.
I’m not talking, here, about social media’s uneven record for predicting market behaviors (it’s sometimes been spectacularly wrong, about everything from election outcomes to the iPhone 5), or even its still-elusive value as bellwether for consumer sentiment. I’m talking about something more basic, about how we are there. In a year of highs and lows, humanity as we observe it on Twitter and Facebook seemed to reveal itself as quick to anger, shameless in its rhetoric, irredeemably cynical, and having the attention span of a hummingbird. In stark contrast to social media’s giddy dawn, humanity in 2012 seemed strident, sarcastic, hopeless and nihilistic, and unable to turn off its caps lock key.
Woe betide the marketer that thinks this is an insight to build a brand on. It’s questionable whether humanity’s online voice ever really spoke for everybody. But even if it did, I think in about ten minutes humanity is going to get sick of what it’s seeing in Facebook’s mirror and either smash it to pieces or make changes. And if those of us trying to sell small appliances or snow tires or packaged vacations or microwavable pizza pockets decide that the way to connect with people is to share in their nihilism, we’re going to get the biggest almighty pie in the face marketing has seen since Gloria Steinem.
So, just this once, I think we marketers should ignore the meme of the human condition, and focus instead on the real thing. I think we should operate as if consumers – people – are generally good and intelligent, and that they prefer to be hopeful. Those things haven't really changed, regardless of how it seems in your Twitter stream. They’re just vulnerable right now, and that’s put brands in the improbable position of deciding whether to be part of the problem or part of the solution. I think we should pick door number two. Just in case that clown gets there first.