Beth Comstock and 7 truths for the C-suite

(This post was first published on Medium, April 3, 2018.)

Anyone who works as a creative, a strategist, a planner, a story teller, a PR specialist, or a meme-maker knows the frustration of persuading the organization to grasp and act on culture. (No, not corporate culture. American culture.)

It should be easy but it’s not.

In fact, culture remains a kind of “dark matter” for the organization. Senior managers know it’s out there. They know it matters. They know things go disastrously wrong when they do not “factor culture in.”

But getting these managers to “get serious” about culture has been a struggle.

May I introduce Beth Comstock, until recently Vice Chair of General Electric and the person in charge of GE Business Innovations?

Here is Ms. Comstock on dual themes that are dear to everyone concerned with contemporary culture: multiplicity and fluidity.

In our lives, we are multidimensional people. We don’t want everything to be exactly the same all the time and we have different moods. I think there’s a huge segmentation going forward for marketers, for businesses where it’s state of mind. It’s contextually relevant at the moment. It’s not just, “I am a woman.” It’s not just, “I am X age. I am an American. I am a east coaster,” or, “a southerner.” I think those things are maybe more analog, and going forward, it’s much less binary; it’s much more fluid; we have gotten used to — culturally have much more gender fluidity. I think there is going to be much more interest and experience fluidity. It’s going to be challenging and exciting for certainly business and marketing people.

Who could ask for anything more? This remarks puts Ms. Comstock so far out ahead of the average manager, it’s impossible to measure.

In a more perfect world, this understanding would be “standard issue” for managers, one of the adaptions that help them navigate the complexities of contemporary capitalism. But as it is, there may be only one senior manager who grasps this point this well. Beth Comstock.

When someone doesn’t understand the new realities of the American market place, the following things become more difficult to grasp:

1. that the American consumer is now a creature of new complexity.

Shouting at consumers with dumb advertising is not just ill advised. It is an invitation to outright repudiation. It destroys brand and financial value.

2. that American marketing in general must surrender some of its “keep it simple, stupid” laboriousness for a new control of nuance and subtlety.

Let your creatives do their jobs. They understand culture, or should do. They know how to negotiate its subtleties. They know how to extract meaning that will become value. Don’t keep putting your oar in. You don’t ask their advice on a new M&A strategy. They don’t want your advice on meaning and message making. Leave it to the professionals.

3. that the American brand in particular must be a house of many mansions. It can no longer define itself in a monolithic way or speak in a single voice.

This is a special challenge for American marketing, so long the devotee of simplicity, repetition, and, um, well, repetition. Contemporary consumers, and the younger they are, the more this is true, HATE the obvious. They can do much more with much less. Stop yelling at them.

4. that American corporation can only speak to this diversity by containing some of this diversity.

There are many Americas out there. Perhaps once everyone was prepared to “go along to get along” with a set of shared meanings. Less and less so now. There are new and emerging fundamentals. But there are also differences that will never go away, and these are blossoming everywhere: race, gender, age, ethnicity, locality… Do you know them? Have you embraced them?

5. that some of the new richness and turbulence of the world out there comes from the new richness and complexity of culture.

(You’re afraid of “Black Swans” as a source of disruption? Many of these come from culture. You’re keen on “Blue Oceans” as a place to discover innovation? Many of these come from culture.)

6. that “culture” is something the corporation must devote itself to understanding.

A couple of years ago, I proposed that the organization appoint a “Chief Culture Officer.” This fell on deaf ears.

7. Let’s start with this fundamental truth, that when we say “culture” we are not talking about corporate culture. We are talking about American culture.

I wish people would stop conflating the two! The confusion was charming for a brief period. Now it’s beginning to resemble a chronic inability to distinguish between American football and European football. It’s really not a good look. Trust me.

It’s one thing to grasp these 7 truths. It’s another to put them to operationalize them as working assumptions and active ideas.

Ms. Comstock has taken the lead here as well. She grasps complexity in a practical way. Listen as she talks about Rachel Shechtman’s experiment called Story.

Meanwhile, I mean, there’s a store here in New York, I am a big fan of the founder and the store is called Story. Rachel Shechtman started it, and every six weeks it’s like a magazine and a media experience and an event. Every six weeks, she changes out and curates a new experience in retail every six weeks. So it’s hard to — it’s a hybrid. It’s hard — is it retail? Yeah. Is it media? Yeah. Is it experiential? Yeah. She has three or four different business models. That’s just one example. You are seeing more and more of those. So I think it really is this interesting mash-up of things. The winners are going to figure those two, the analog and the digital, out together.

All hail Beth Comstock. Let’s hope that, some day, all managers have her gifts.

Source of quotes:
From a podcast interview of Ms. Comstock by Mike Kearney in the Deloitte’s Resilient series here.

Conflict of interest:
None. I have never met Ms. Comstock. As far as I know, I have never worked for her, even distantly.

Photo credit:
With thanks to Joi Ito
Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) here.

This is what we do to dreamers

memobottle+manLet’s say you are starting a startup and today you are standing in front of a venture capitalist.

With impatience in his voice, the VC says,

“Tell me again exactly what your enterprise is for. How are you going to create value?”

This is what we do to dreamers.

Because the answer to this question almost always comes to you in a mad conceptual scramble for the simplest, most obvious, most literal statement of what your enterprise is “for.”

You stand, you deliver:

“Our product will help people solve problem x for consumer y cheaper than competitor z.”

Whew!

But not so fast. Because now you are wedded to it. Every time someone asks, you are obliged to repeat your simplest, least interesting statement of what your company is for.

It’s the opposite of poetry. Every time you repeat your “value proposition” it gets more obvious, practical, functional, literal, uninteresting and unbeautiful. Your dream is withering.

In the summer of 2015, Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, insisted, against all measures and most opinion, that U.S. productivity was actually up.

The trouble, he suggested, is that we can’t see these gains because we are using old measures. When the GDP measure was developed in the 1930s, Hal observed, it focused on things like steel and grain. The improvements that come from Silicon Valley are harder to see.

Radical Hal. No, call him Heretical Hal. This was the beginning of the end of capitalism as a blunt object, as a search for mere utility. This was an opportunity to free ourselves from those people who see the world as a solutions to problems, and the more pragmatic and practical the better.

But we can’t complete this heresy until we begin to make certain value visible. We need to show how our enterprise will create value of a social, cultural, human kind. We will have to show that Uber is not merely cheaper than a taxi cab, but a richer, more human way to discover a city. (I set aside the labor issues for another time.) We will have to show the Airbnb is not merely a cheaper hotel room, but that it is a richer, more human way to discover a city. As it stands, and as far as capitalism (and Uber and Airbnb themselves) are concerned, this remains “dark value.”

Sometimes dark value is revealed, but typically this revelation comes late in the process. Ideas happen, capital is made added, enterprise springs into the world, innovations are rolled out. And then someone says, “Er, what about marketing?”  Planners, strategists, creatives, designers, ethnographers are summoned to contemplate this poor, beaten creature.

With any luck the post mortem goes pre mortem. The innovation springs to life, it’s coat glossy with new meaning. But often even this creative genius can’t do anything for the “innovation.” It is beyond all hope. It is designed to solve a problem that no one cares about because it adds virtually nothing to the world. “Whiter whites” are a death mask.

But sometimes these creatives discover, invent, conceptualize dark value. And the consumer will say, “Oh, that’s what it is. You kept telling me what it’s for. No, that I like. I can live that.”

By this time of course it’s all up stream. The creatives are working with something that’s mostly formed and they are working with people who really in their heart of hearts think “all the creativity stuff is really just icing for the cake. It’s the sizzle that sells the steak.  It’s the stuff you have to say to persuade the consumer to buy a product that frankly should have sold itself on the strength of it’s functionality. I mean, really, what is the matter with these people.”

What if we started looking for and working with dark value from the very beginning?

And if this sounds like a good idea, please consider buying my new book Dark Value here. It’s a bargain at $2.99.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Leora Kornfeld for engaging me this morning with a useful email. And thanks to many people on many media who have offered encouragement for the Dark Value project.

The image is from this website.

The ‘wicked grin’ test (a new creative measure)

How do you know when something in our culture is really good?

I think it’s when it makes us grin a wicked grin.

This is one of those: Dave Chappelle does imitation of Prince and Prince uses the imitation for his album cover. Dave becomes Prince. Prince becomes Dave becoming Prince.

For post-modernists, this is ‘signs circulating.’ Fair enough but not very interesting. It doesn’t explain why we grin wickedly.

It’s the relocation that does it. Daveness taking on Princeness. Princeness taking on Daveness as Princeness. These are meanings in motion. We grin wickedly because we can’t believe that Dave dared attempt Princeness. It’s not temerity that gets us. Dave is free to make fun of a genius like Prince. That’s the privilege of his genius.

No, what makes us grin is astonishment. How did Dave do it? How is that possible? Daveness and Princeness share a claim (and a proof) of genius, but they come from very different parts of our culture.  They are in a sense incommensurate.

And they just made themselves (for a moment, in a way) commensurate. This makes our minds happy…and our faces grin. I think it is at some level it makes our brains happy. Meanings attached to one thing now, astonishingly, belong to another. We can feel gears turning in our heads.

Dave and Prince have brought meanings together that are normally kept apart. And we thank them for this semiotic miracle by grinning our admiration, astonishment, gratitude. Who knew our culture could do that.

We make a lot of culture with acts of unexpected, unprecedented combination.  (I have tried to map this process for contemporary culture in a book called Culturematic.)

Indeed, wicked grinning should be the new objective not just of comedy and album cover design, but of branding, design and advertising. We used to slavishly obey the rules of official combination (aka genre). Now we bore people with this predictability. If the user, viewer, consumer, audience can see where we’re going, they won’t come with us. (Susan Sarandon did an interview yesterday on Charlie Rose in which she said precisely this.)

Compare a culturematic to old fashioned marketing. The ad man and woman came up with a blindingly obvious message, stuffed it into one of the mass media (3 network TV, magazines, newspaper, radio) and fired it at the target over and over again until our ears bled. Everyone just wanted the “persuasion” to stop. This was cold war torture. And the worse part of this torture was how completely unsurprising it all was.

Every thing changes when we assume that our “consumers” are clever and interesting, and, chances are, making culture on their own. This means first that they can see the grammars we are using. Second, it means that they are looking for culture to make their own, for critical purposes and creative ones.  Culture creative, assume you are talking to someone has smart as you are. Assume you are talking to someone who can do what you do. And go with the idea that we have no hope of success unless we are making content that makes people grin wickedly.

Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green have invited us to embrace a new slogan: “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” The idea is that a message will die unless people take an act hand in distributing it by social media. I am proposed that before we apply the Jenkins-Ford-Green test, we apply “wicked grin test.” Forget the focus groups and the audience testing. Just show your work to someone and look at the expression on their face.

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