Friday, August 24, 2012

Heart of glass.

I’m such a doofus sometimes.

Believe it or not, it still surprises me when branded marketers behave badly. And not only for moral reasons, although those mainly. It’s also because it’s usually a threat to their own economic sustainability. Branded marketers can’t survive for long without goodwill, and that’s the currency they pay with every time they get caught lying, cheating or stealing. I can never quite get my head around willful self-destruction. You probably think that’s ridiculous, given stories like this one, in which a beloved and trusted brand like McDonald’s turns out to be (allegedly) collecting personal data from children online. It’s fashionable these days to roll our eyes and pronounce this kind of thing as “typical,” smug in the moral safety of our cynicism. But I wonder how much we really want to live in a world like we complain this one is. And I wonder if that smugness is part of the problem.

You no doubt recall the story of the ‘Broken Windows Theory’, which essentially holds that adapting to incivility gradually turns it into a social norm. Taking some liberty in interpreting this, it seems to tell me that presuming a civil world in how we conduct ourselves helps ensure that’s the kind we get. That’s how I look at bad corporate behavior. As a broken window that needs fixing, rather than as proof of some sanctimonious anti-capitalist bias. However bad a name capitalism may have these days, in actual practice, nothing else we’ve tried so far has managed to produce more social justice in the course of human history. That means it’s a neighbourhood worth trying to save from delinquents, and cynicism is just going to make it more dangerous. Dangerous because it licenses bad behavior. Dangerous because it makes good behavior seem futile and naive. Dangerous because it ultimately takes the risk of shame out of the culture altogether, which never ends well.

All that would be bad enough for a consumer. It’s worse yet if you’re a practitioner of branded marketing. To me, that’s like having corrupt cops on top of urban decay. But I see it sometimes, the feeling that people who do this for a living are somehow above their work. Or, as someone put it to me recently about a strategic planner he knew, enduring their venal day jobs as a way to finance their careers in electronic music. I feel bad for them. No amount of hipster cred can overcome the embarrassment of doing a job you don’t believe in. Snap brim hat or no, that doesn’t make you much cooler than a sullen, pimply teenager serving McWhatevers at a suburban drive-thru.

So I actually work at being a doofus. Improbable as it may seem, I still greet every new client opportunity with the callowness of a cub scout. I still meet every new corporation as if it was on some kind of passionate mission to save the world, every new marketer as if they were pursuing the Freudian imperative of work that matters. I figure a brand should be something a company has to live up to, rather than being the commercial equivalent of wearing a stocking over your face. More often than you might think, companies like this. Figuratively – and sometimes literally - they sit up a little straighter and look you in the eye when they think you think they matter. I think branding is a bit like parenting in this regard. You get a lot more accomplished when you start from the assumption of inherent goodness. Being wrong the odd time is a pretty small price to pay for what faith can do, even in the boardroom.

You should give it a try, this doofus business. Head to the office next Monday morning as if you worked on Sesame Street. ‘Good Morning Starshine’ and all that. Cultivated naïveté, you may find, becomes your secret weapon. Yeah, it sucks that some companies do bad things. But it would suck a lot more if they all decided there was no profit in doing good ones. Better to fix the window than lose the neighbourhood. Better to be happy than smug.

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