Literature gives us a broad spectrum of human possibilities. It teaches us how to feel other people suffering. When you read a good novel, you forget about the nationality of the character. You forget about his or her religion. You forget about his skin colour or her skin colour. You only understand the human. You understand that this is a human being, the same way we are. And so reading great novels absolutely can remake us as much better human beings.”
Source: interview with Alaa Al Aswany in The Atlantic
I think we can be sure that what does not concern us deeply will not deeply interest our readers, whatever their age. We must write for children out of those elements in our own imagination which we share with children… We must meet children as equals in that area of our nature where we are their equals.”
Source: C.S Lewis, On Three Ways Of Writing For Children
The need for more (and better) problems
When did creativity become a pseudonym for producing advertising? And when did strategy become a means to a message?
At a time when technology enables boundless creativity, when digital interactions are blurring the line between product, product experience, and marketing communications, and changing how people search, choose, and buy, we are all – clients and agencies alike – in danger of limiting the scope and potential of creativity. As Lawrence Green has put it:
The task of any imaginative agency, any creative company, is to understand and serve it client’s business problems. Too often, our business has sliced and diced its tasks in the style of a sub-prime mortgage bundler. A corporate task set by the chief executive, reframed as a comms task by the marketing director, refined by the brand consultancy and reduced by the ad agency to the stuff advertising can do: Grow awareness, nurture engagement. Too many links, too indirect and weak a connection between commercial possibilities and creative resolution.”
Elsewhere, away from adland, others have argued that we need to be ‘growth hackers’. Josh Elman has described growth hacking as describing “a new process for acquiring and engaging users combining traditional marketing and analytical skills with product development skills.” According to Elman:
In the past, marketing and product development departments were often at odds where marketing groups would be spending significant amounts of money to acquire users but couldn’t get any development resources to build something as simple as new custom landing pages. And on the other side, product development teams would often build what they think users want and will attract users without deeply measuring and understanding the impact of their changes. This concept of “growth hacking” is a recognition that when you focus on understanding your users and how they discover and adopt your products, you can build features that help you acquire and retain more users, rather than just spending marketing dollars.”
Of course what Elman is describing is not new at all. It is simply good marketing. It just probably doesn’t happen as often as it should.
So all this begs some questions:
How can we look beyond what advertising can solve?
How exactly do we expand the scope and value of creativity?
How can we identify opportunities for growth?
How can marketing properly shape itself around the consumer?
How can marketing define itself by what it solves, rather than by what it makes?
How can product development and marketing be reunited once more?
In all of this, theory and rhetoric will not help us. We need something more practical.
I am no a fan of templates and processes. We create after all, bespoke solutions for the unique challenges faced by each client. But I am a fan of anything that gets us asking better questions. And it is at this point that we must step back to the future. For Stephen King gave us just the sort of questions we need. They are oddly neglected in the compendium of his best work – A Masterclass in Brand Planning, and are worth revisiting.
King’s Consumer Buying System
King’s model – the ‘consumer buying system’ – appeared in his Manual of Tools of the Trade for Advertising Planners that he developed for JWT in the late 1980s.
It is by no means a panacea. And it certainly cannot solve the systemic dysfunctions of both agencies and client organizations that prevent us from a broader application of creativity. Nonetheless, it can encourage the well-intentioned and the ambitious to ask new, and better questions.
King had developed his model principally as a means of shaping and guiding a communications plan. His focus was largely on both the role and the choice of communications channels.
However, in as much as his model was largely a means of understanding consumer behaviour, its application and value goes far beyond that. As King wrote in his introduction to the model:
The objective is to take your brand, examine the stages in the [Consumer Buying System] and ask, ‘How can we move the consumer through the process?’”
I make no claim for uniqueness in any of what follows. There is many a good marketer who employs their own version of King’s model.
(That said, and by way of a pedantic aside, King’s model predates McKinsey’s model by decades. Thus demonstrating that those who are unaware of history are doomed to repeat it).
Below are the phases of the model, as described by King.
It is worth noting that King was a big opponent of the one-size-fits-all approach, and recognized that the path to purchase varied depending on the category. Buying a bar of chocolate is different from buying a Picasso, or breakfast cereal, or a pair of trainers, or a holiday, or a car.
And so, by way of a preface, it’s worth bearing in mind, as he wrote:
The time frame for this process will vary enormously from category to category, for example, buying a car could take the consumer a year, whereas buying a box of cereal, from running out of the previous box to the next purchase, could take just hours. Thus some stages are less relevant to some categories, and not all consumers within one specific category may pass through all the stages. For example, when “buying” a new long-distance phone service, some consumers are simply stimulated to change their phone company by an advertised offer, whereas others will collect and evaluate information on long-distance providers to improve their comfort level with the company.”
At each stage we should be asking – what exactly is happening?
New questions, new solutions
If we must, we can call it a framework for ‘growth hacking’. Certainly the sort of thinking, questions, and the types of solutions that King’s model encourages is instructive. As soon as we start unpacking people’s behaviours, we start inventing all manner of stuff that isn’t advertising:
If we in adland only ever see ad-shaped problems, we’ll only create ad-shaped solutions. But if we see people, all manner of new and exciting stuff starts to happen. As ever in marketing, progress lies in asking better questions and more imaginatively examining the lives, habits, needs, wants, desires, frustrations and dissatisfactions in people’s lives.
As King said of his model:
Since all marketing activities are aiming to reinforce or modify people’s sequence of ideas and actions, the buying system really is the starting point for all marketing and planning activity.”
That said, client organizations and their marketing departments too must assume their share of responsibility. Often, it seems, they are divorced from product development, isolated from IT, embroiled in turf war standoffs with other functions, unwilling or simply unable to provide agency partners with real business issues to solve, and more comfortable passing off ad requests and ‘insight’ babble as bona fide client briefs.
King, ever prescient, identified the need and opportunity for thinking more broadly about brand building:
Marketing companies today… recognize that rapid response in the marketplace needs to be matched with a clear strategic vision. The need for well-planned brand-building is very pressing. At the same time they see changes in ways of communicating with their more diverse audiences. They’re increasingly experimenting with non-advertising methods. Some are uneasily aware that these different methods are being managed by different people in the organisation to different principles; they may well be presenting conflicting impressions of the company and its brands. It all needs to be pulled together. I think that an increasing number of them would like some outside help in tackling these problems, and some have already demonstrated that they’re prepared to pay respectable sums for it. The job seems ideally suited to the strategic end of the best account planning skills. The question is whether these clients will want to get such help from an advertising agency. What agencies, and the account planners in them, would have to do is above all, demonstrate that they have the breadth of vision and objectivity to do the job”
If we can only grasp the necessity of beginning our thinking with real consumer issues and needs, rather than what type of creative product (social, viral, advertising, content, POS, etc., etc.) we will make, or what line of fashionable rhetoric we will subscribe to, then we might stand a better chance of unleashing the true potential of our collective creativity.
Indeed we might at last start actually living up to the theory, claims, and promise of marketing.
Judie Lannon & Merry Baskin, eds., A Masterclass in Brand Planning: The Timeless Works of Stephen King
Josh Elman, ‘What Is “growth hacking” really?’
McKinsey & Company, The consumer decision journey
“With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertook to reveal to any chance comer far-reaching corners of the past. This is what I undertake to do for you, reader, with this drop of ink at the end of my pen, I will show you…”
George Eliot, Adam Bede
I know what it’s like to be beaten down by forty-plus degrees of relentless heat.
I know what it’s like to be shot at.
I know what it’s like to kill somebody.
I know what it’s like to see a comrade die.
I know what it’s like to be scared out of my mind.
I know what it’s like to feel responsible for a friend’s death.
I know what it’s like to be wracked by post-traumatic stress disorder.
I know the struggle of trying to adjust to civilian life.
I have experienced none of these things.
Yet I ‘know’ all these things because I have read Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds.
Tracing the experience of a US soldier in Iraq, it is an extraordinary piece of writing, a remarkable testimony, and a heart-breaking monument to what war does to young men. And for that alone it is essential reading.
Yet in the aftermath of finishing it (for it did indeed feel like an aftermath) I revisited a more parochial concern.
The necessity that we who work in marketing- and adland read fiction.
Decades ago Bernbach famously declared that “Nothing is so powerful as an insight into human nature… what compulsions drive a man, what instincts dominate his action… if you know these things about a man you can touch him at the core of his being.”
And so in the pursuit of that insight, we commission research in the hope or expectation that it will allow us to peer into the minds of those we wish to appeal to. That it will unveil their secrets. That it will bring to the surface their emotions. That it will shine a light on their motives.
But no matter what degree of success we meet in this endeavour, and whatever methodology we employ, it is always a case of Us and Them. We observe, we watch, we listen. Always there is a degree of distance.
For what research cannot engender is empathy – the ability to mutually experience the thoughts, emotions and direct experience of others.
And it is this inability to properly put ourselves in the shoes and lives of others that is arguably the root cause of so much of the garbage that fills out screens, streets, and environments.
So if we want to know about people – if want to truly know about people – if we want to explore and properly understand any aspect of the human condition, if we want to feel what they feel, then we cannot be reliant on research alone.
And while bringing it to bear is a vital part of the creative process, we cannot be reliant on our own personal experience. For as the sociologists Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and James Cook wrote in their classic 2001 paper ‘Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks,’ “Similarity breeds connection… the result is that people’s personal networks are homogeneous.”
Much of the time, the people we seek to appeal to are not like us. And personal experience is an unreliable witness.
Fortunately we have to hand the ultimate simulation machine.
Here for example, within the space of his opening 246 words, Kevin Powers transports us to 2004, to Al Tafar in the Nineveh Province of Iraq, and into the dusty shoes of a 21 year-old Private:
The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.
Then, in summer, the war tried to kill us as the heat blanched all color from the plains. The sun pressed into our skin, and the war sent its citizens rustling into the shade of white buildings. It cast a white shade on everything, like a veil over our eyes. It tried to kill us every day, but it had not succeeded. Not that our safety was preordained. We were not destined to survive. The fact is, we were not destined at all. The war would take what it could get. It was patient. It didn’t care about objectives, or boundaries, whether you were loved by many or not at all. While I slept that summer, the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on. And I knew the war would have its way.”
Call it entertainment, call it diversion, call it escapism, but what fiction does is give us a simulation to step into.
It lets us inhabit worlds, situations, cultures, eras, predicaments, conflicts and characters which can be quite different from our own.
So choose your gender. Choose your culture. Choose your religion. Choose your socio-economic background. Choose your occupation. Choose your obsession. Choose your quest. Choose your secret. Choose your love. Choose your weakness. Choose your dream.
Fiction lets us inhabit other lives, not merely observe them.
And it lets us experience the emotions that come with those lives. That after all, as Tolstoy argued, is surely the point – “To invoke in oneself a feeling which one has experienced and, having evoked it in oneself, then by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling – this is the activity of art.”
So in letting us inhabit these other lives, these other feelings, fiction allows to do what research, despite its best efforts, cannot.
It allows us to read minds.
It allows us to explore – to borrow from Kevin Powers’ words – the cartography of human consciousness.
And in doing so, it fuels our ability to empathize. As the journalist Graeme Archer has written “… it’s not the novels where one sees oneself in a character that matter: it’s the ones where you learn to see properly, from the perspective of another. If we don’t see people properly, then we can never empathise with them, and if we can’t empathise with others then we’re not properly human. No matter how socially awkward you are, a great novel will train you to do this.”
Not only are we not properly human without the ability to see others properly, as marketers we’re highly unlikely to make anything that is useful, desirable, relevant, entertaining or compelling for people.
Furthermore, seeing people properly means acknowledging the untidiness of life and living. In contrast to the order of brand onions and pyramids, the neatness of consumer segmentations, the precision of copy-testing metrics, the logic and control of powerpoint flow charts and builds, and the anaemic nature of so much of what passes for ‘insight’, fiction reminds us that life is complex.
Certainly the truth that life is riddled with paradox, contingency, and ambiguity is not a worldview that we readily find in the business, marketing, and consumer psychology sections of any bookstore. They’re in the business after all, of selling us handy tips, easy shortcuts, and above all certainty.
So the next time we are say, challenged to acquire an understanding of young boys, we could do worse than reach for Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13⅓, or J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye, or Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean The End Of The Lane before we reach for the research debrief, the segmentation study, or (heaven forbid) the latest teen trends report.
They will contain more undiluted honesty, more candid truth, more grit and emotion, and more genuine, penetrating revelation and insight than all of them put together.
At a fraction of the price.
Graeme Archer, ‘Good novels teach us how to be human beings’ , The Telegraph
Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and James Cook, ‘Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks’, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 27 (2001)
Leo Tolstoy, ‘What Is Art?’