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British researchers have discovered a strong correlation between what they call a book’s “literary misery index” and the economic misery index. The former is the frequency of words such as “anger,” disgust,” “fear,” and “sadness” found in fiction books and the latter are measures of unemployment and inflation. It proves that a book’s vocabulary is influenced by hard economic times.
The study produced a graph of literary misery by cataloguing the frequency of words of roughly five million digitized books. They ran an algorithm that compared the frequency of sad words with that of happy ones.
According to Joseph Stromberg writing on Smithsonian.com, “Their analysis showed that, in the U.S., literary misery peaked in the early 1940s, just after the Great Depression. It dipped during the 50s, Recessionfollowing the economic boom driven by the country’s entry into World War II, and then slowly rose again during the 70s and 80s, after years of economic stagnation, rising unemployment and relatively high inflation rates.”
The researchers checked their U.S. findings by examining 650,000 German books. When compared to German economic conditions, they found exactly the same trend. This may not seem overly shocking that bad conditions influence the literary capture of those times, as one of the researchers put it, “global economics is part of the shared emotional experience of the 20th century.”
It made me wonder about how much this misery index creeps into the marketing and advertising of the times. Since our recent global economic crisis has marketing messaging been notably influenced? My desktop research revealed one study that supports this notion. The National Communication Association in recession_specialthe U.S. analyzed print magazine advertisements for banks, credit cards, investment firms, and insurance providers and found that those “financial organizations shifted away from emotional messages in favor of informational messages during the recession.”
Michael Maslansky, president of Luntz, Maslansky Strategic Research noted in 2009, “The whole language of consumerism has changed. Frugality is in. Smart choices are in. Doing things that aren’t flashy and that have purpose are in.” He went on to note that actual word choice and tonality had gone from promoting ‘wants’ to emphasizing ‘needs’.
Kelly O’Keefe, professor at Brandcenter graduate program at Virginia Commonwealth University believes that Super Bowl 2011 signaled a change back to more familiar themes. It was a stark departure from the Empathy-Articleprevious year’s theme of wounded manhood in the face of reduced income and unemployment. 2011 saw a return to post-adolescent guy humor suggesting that good times were returning.
Marketing has always been about the right message for the right time. When sociologists and business historians look back on these recessionary times, it will clearly show that “spend big” became “spend smart”. What is equally interesting is how quickly the former came back and how much more comfortable consumers are with messages of excess.
Warning: This will take longer than 30 seconds to read.
Recently I was at a lunch with an interesting group. Two of the folks were the founders of a start-up and the other two were from an advertising agency. I was present to act as a bridge having been charged with articulating the new entity’s brand. For the next ninety minutes I was highly amused taking in a veritable verbal tennis match between my four lunch mates. At the end, I was more confused by the purpose of the intended business than when I first sat down and said as much.
One of the advertising professionals suggested the founders provide a “30 second elevator pitch”. We were then treated to a string of words that first came across as impressive but really added up to a dense, jargon-laden paragraph of nonsense. I am not sure who chuckled first but it prompted everyone to join in. We all recognized the absurdity of the exercise.
It made me think about the ‘elevator pitch’ concept and the broader, more troubling trend of simplifying almost everything these days. In business this seems to have started with advertising and relates quite closely to radio and television advertisement lengths. The thought being, if you could not get your message across quickly there was something dreadfully wrong.
Now brief, staccato-like messaging has become the norm in communications. This is attributed to the growing number of messages people are subjected to and the range of technologies that carry them. Experts claim that people’s attention spans have dramatically shortened as a result. So logically, somewhat ironically, and hopefully not irreversibly, what we communicated got shorter too.
For years I subscribed to this approach justifying it as beautifully succinct, creative expressions of the highly complex. What I have come to realize is we should actually be sharing and celebrating complexity. Why? Because so much of the effort to simplify the complex only serves to dumb down the original idea.
Alfred North Whitehead, the mathematician and philosopher, suggested the pursuit of simplicity was noble but it should be distrusted. He feared that we would err by dismissing or glossing over the intricate and not easily explained. One of his lesser known observations is that people “think in generalities, but we live in detail.” It is actually the detail that provides value and illumination.
Unfortunately we are training ourselves to think curt thoughts. Publications are now collections of top ten lists and news is an assortment of soundbites. Both leave you hungry. Sure they may compel you to seek further information but more often they are unsatisfying and we drift or surf over to another fleeting topic. William A. Henry III, cultural critic and author, bemoaned this fact stating “even critical books about ideas are expected to be prescriptive, to conclude with simple, step-by-step solutions to whatever crisis they discuss. Reading itself is becoming a way out of thinking.”
This why I believe notions like K.I.S.S. or “keep it simple stupid” are themselves stupid. Henry said, “In the modern world, the cruelest thing that you can do to people is to make them ashamed of their complexity.” More and more I work with clients to tell their complex stories richly. I am not suggesting it works for all and everything but I am discovering that many audiences of brands are craving deeper content and connection.
This is an opportunity to differentiate. Instead of living in the mindset of the “30 second elevator pitch” brands need to engage with their audiences with thorough and compelling stories. Google’s Think Insights is a fertile outpouring of world changing ideas. HSBC has long been profuse in its communications. The financial institution’s latest campaign, “In the future, there will be no markets left waiting to emerge”, does not shy away from topics most work hard to avoid. They compel with fact and insights, “By 2050, 19 of the 30 largest economies will be in countries we now call ‘emerging’. HSBC’s international network can help you discover new markets wherever they emerge next. There’s a new world out there.”
Unfortunately, mindless simplification continues to be the rule. The ‘elevator pitch’ is employed widely with pundits suggesting it can land you a job, gain customers, attract talent to your business, spark media attention, and create buzz for whatever you are doing. I found one Elevator pitchscholarly article that suggested these mini-pitches must last only 30 seconds, contain no more than 80-90 words and run 8-10 lines. One incongruous instructional video on YouTube takes twenty minutes to describe the half-minute process. The obvious irony is lost on the presenter. Disappointingly, Harvard Business Review posted a blog in February titled, The Art of Crafting a 15-Word Strategy Statement.
Thirty seconds is great if you want to run 200 meters or wish to watch five Vine videos. Insert your own joke here about thirty seconds and lovemaking. The real point is that complex ideas should not be boiled down to irrelevance. We need to end our attachment to slogans and buzzwords that address complexity without unraveling it. Our world is undeniably complex so we do it a disservice by suggesting anything different. Albert Einstein captured this universal tension by saying, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
One of my more recent sad, first-world experiences was losing my luggage between New York and Toronto. The small roller case unfortunately contained a few of my more treasured items. Chief among them was a pair of Prada shoes that I owned for two years but which still prompted buyer’s remorse. I needed many more miles on them to reach a satisfactory ROI as I wore them sparingly.
While the airline was sympathetic and provided a fair settlement for future flights, I was out my shoes. I am sure you have formed the impression that I am loyal to luxury. Actually, not so, I am more an unabashed prep. The Prada shoes were an anomaly and were not replaced.
Recently, I spotted the new Prada spring collection ad campaign in an airport and was drawn in by the richness of the photography and the bold, primary colors that adorn the models. This prompted me to visit their site. The content and architecture is not what you would normally expect. Most apparel companies or online retailers come across as brash and direct in their desire to have you fill a shopping cart and pay with a credit card. Luxury by its nature is not a mass proposition. The higher prices and limited quantities exist to build desire and return healthy margins.
What you will find on the Prada site is more lifestyle than online store. This is no big surprise or revelation. What is interesting is how they are doing it. Of course, they feature their fashions but amazing emphasis is given to “projects” that include The Prada Journal, Production Movies, and Dress Gatsby. There is also a movie by Roman Polanski starring Helena Bonham Carter and Ben Kingsley. The film called, A Therapy, is presented by Prada.
The number of events they have thrown is staggering. These are not just the expected runway shows but inventive high theater. There is also the brilliantly laid out Prada Book brimming with beautiful images but is basically a clever catalogue that one buys. Then there is Curate, “a unique award launched by Fondazione Prada and the Qatar Museums Authority, is a global search for curatorial talent.” Somewhat off topic is Prada’s investment in the Luna Rossa Challenge. It is an Italian sailboat racing syndicate, created to compete for the America’s Cup with Prada as a sponsor. I had to mention it as a mediocre sailor.
What they are doing is telling a story in a highly unique way. Visits to the sites of Louis Vuitton and Gucci reveal a shockingly traditional retailing approach. You are there to shop with little frills or fanfare. On Gucci’s homepage the boring architecture is: women, men, kids, gifts. Then there is a strategic error of huge proportions. They have a section called “sales”! This is not good. It trains people to wait for discounts which is a no-no in luxury.
With Prada you are immersed in their world. It is an experience meant to convey an artful exclusivity. After all, luxury for all soon ceases to be luxury. Prada tells a more creative brand story to protect its margins while challenging the status quo. There is an enticing mystique to the content and presentation. It draws you in and invites you to be a character. Every brand is a story and Prada knows this. I just hope the guy wearing my lost shoes has some appreciation of the story behind them.