Consumerism · Culture · Internet · Knowledge Society · Ranting · Theory · Virtual Activism

Shifting Paradigms…

I went to lunch with Carman Pirie last week, he’s an advertising and marketing guy who’s trying to shake things up in the local industry. His baby is Closer to the Customer, is a three-stage marketing strategy that includes “Discovery” of the issues that need to be addressed for the client, followed by “Immersion” of the organization into the contexts in which their products are consumed… and then a “Harvest” of the information through “meaningful conversations”.

Carman is an interesting guy. He’s dedicated to his profession and has some pretty radical ideas to unleash on the marketing biz here in Halifax. But, from our conversations over the past few weeks, it seems as though he’s only able to take the idea so far.

But this blog is not just about marketing. This blog is about something larger.

The reason I bring up Carman, is because during our last interaction, the term “status quo” came up a lot. The marketing and advertising business has done a lot to shape and mold the “status quo.” I referred to the industry as a modern institution – an industry and culture that has bundled with it certain traditions and practices which have been effective in upholding the status quo. So before I go any further, I want to try to define what I mean by the status quo.

Corporate execs, politicians, academics and mainstream media uphold the status quo. These are all individuals who work within traditional frameworks of the economy, governance, education and culture. As such, these professionals have accountability to the institutions they serve… perhaps even more so than the people that they serve within their capacities… we’ll call them customers just to denote the fact that they consume the products and services within the institutions.

Certain customers still buy into the status quo. They spend their lives toiling away to reach the status quo, and they view their value as human beings in relation to how well they fit that status quo mold. I would argue, however, that more and more, people are waking up to the fact that achieving the status quo doesn’t necessarily mean what it used to… that is, they’ve deviated away from the path that the institutions have laid out before them and are more interested in individualizing their lifestyles.

For theoretical musings on the process of individualization in late-modern society, I recommend James Cote’s little known book called “Arrested Adulthood: The changing nature of maturation in society”

But what individualization of lifestyle can mean is more fragmentation of the status quo. Even for those who are only making individualizing choices within the pre-packaged lifestyles available… the abundance of choice in our current conditions, make the process of fragmentation of culture and values accelerate… so much so that it is really very hard to identify the status quo anymore.

All of this to eventually say that if the institutions in our society want to remain relevant, they must start fragmenting themselves… they must start recognizing that the individuals that they serve… the customers… are no longer interested in single path trajectories… because there are no longer single identifiable points of arrival.

The situation we find ourselves in right now is one where customers are turning their backs on the traditional… because the traditional no longer fulfills their needs and they are finding ways around the traditional… in some cases, cutting the institution out all together.

Some of those operating within the traditional institutions are starting to wake up. However, it’s scary deviating away from the paradigms you have come to depend on. There is a lot of risk involved in attempting to shift paradigms.

The band Radiohead is the perfect current example of this risk-taking. A phenomenally popular band whose contract with EMI has recently expired. They’ve decided to release their latest cultural offering “In Rainbow” independently… to their fans directly. If you haven’t heard of this yet, I suggest you pay attention, because I think this Radiohead thing marks the final nail in the Recording Industry’s coffin.

The beauty of what Radiohead is doing… the huge risk that they have taken… is that they are offering their new album on a pay-what-you-can basis. “No seriously”, they say as the user continues through the order process. And Radiohead’s fans have rewarded them accordingly for this option, as “In Rainbows” is set to become Radioheads most successful release, in terms of finances.

The interesting thing, and the thing that I think many of those want-to-be paradigm shifters need to pay attention to in this lesson of new… is that Radiohead had to leave the comforts and confines of the status quo to make this possible. There is no way that they could do this confined to the heavy regulations of the Recording Industry. The best way to break the mold was by smashing it to pieces.

Listen… the potential for change is ripe right now. Taking risks for change is what it’s all about. Some risks will end in humiliation and failure, it’s true… but those ones that hit… will be thoroughly impacting.

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4 thoughts on “Shifting Paradigms…

  1. Thank you for the post (and kind words… and lunch…). I want to take some time to think about this post a bit more… I’m reading it from somewhere in New Jersey without having had the benefit of proper coffee intake yet. That said, two things immediately came to mind just now:

    1. Closer to the Customer – It’s been an interesting go thus far. A year ago, I would not have guessed we’d be as far as we are. One year, numerous clients (including three major ones), and a lot of work later, we’re still all working to figure this out. But it’s moving. The ideas are becoming clearer. And our clients are seeing incredible results from it. But, it is only a fraction of what I want it to be… and patience is not one of my strong suits.

    2. Status Quo – People have little difficulty defending it… after all, they helped create it. Markets, industries, etc. are simply living systems… and in many ways the ultimate expression of our collaborative capacity as humans. But the rub about living systems in nature, and in all things, is that they only accept inputs from those things that are a part of it in some way. Radiohead may have turned away from the recording industry, but no one could argue that they are not a part of the music industry. The Arctic Monkeys’ story is almost the reverse of Radiohead’s… but, they’re still a part of the living system that is the music industry.

    Again… this is without the benefit of being fully awake / proper coffee / etc., but, I think change will come to marketing (and business as a whole) through people who make themselves a part of that living sytem in some way and then find the right forum within which to explore the questions that need asking.

    cheers, cp

  2. Glad you could take a peek while your busy…

    I would be able to accept your assessment of the market as a “living system” more readily if I was less critical than I am about the current market economy, and if I did not have an awareness of the way that markets are manipulated to benefit the “status quo”.

    It’s one thing to accept an input… it’s another to be conditioned to it… or worse yet, convinced that you absolutely need that input in your life to make you complete… or happy.

    I believe the market is reflexive… which seems to be a bit more what you are talking about anyway… but I do not believe it to be like a natural living system… I kind of reject that perspective.

    I have no issues with the music industry… I think that the music industry will thrive by leaps and bounds if it can eliminate the middle man… that is the recording industry. I love the idea of musicians seizing control of their modes of production and distribution… Right now the music industry, though, is not really a living system in that pure idealistic way you are talking about, because the recording industry has altered and manipulated it.

  3. Hey Charlene.

    current news over here is that Radiohead are getting on average £4 for the album. I think they’ll probably do pretty well out of it because a large number of customers are going to be in the ‘well I wasn’t going to bother, but I can get it really cheap, so I’ll buy it’ category, whilst people who were already radiohead fans (i.e. customers) will probably pay more.

    on the status quo points – this sounds similar to ‘culture/sub-culture’ debates, about the proliferation of lifestyles of late modernity, means that there’s no single culture against which subcultures can be defined.

    I think you then have two options

    1) go ‘deeper’ to find out what the overarching ‘meta-narrative’ of the status quo or culture is that can support lots of proliferation within in. Possible answers could be capitalism/neo-liberalism/post-modernity – pick your particular favourite

    2) deconstruct the ‘the’ part of ‘the status quo’ and think about multiple patterns and trends. So, there’s never *a* status quo as its a constantly shifting socially constructed concept, with possible as many ‘status quos’ as actors.

    Also, It might be worth giving more agency to customers/consumers. The very fact that people have been downloading music and looking for channels of access other than CDs allows bands like radiohead (and the shedload of unsigned bands on myspace) to put out stuff like this.

  4. Excellent comments David… Thank you!

    I prefer late-modernity to post-modernity for a number of reasons… If I had to guess at the over-arching meta-narratives of “the status quo” I’d have to say status, recognition and power…

    I get what you are saying about the “the” part… perhaps status quo”s” would be more appropriate, but at the same time, I think that on the macro-scale (in North America anyway) there is a single coherent version of the “status quo” even if it only exists theoretically.

    In any case, I think that the principles which govern our late-modern institutions, in terms of the people, the work ethic and the perceived rewards that are provided if you fit the model, are disengaged and inappropriate for the current late-modern condition we find ourselves in.

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