The point of zeitgeist

This is an update of a post first written 18th April 2010, stimulated by Google’s #zeitgeist event 17th-18th May.

When Theodore Levitt wrote ‘The Globalization of Markets’ in 1983, he couldn’t have imagined what globalization would become 27 years later. His thoughts about the joined-up world spawned eager initiatives and new levels of commercial ambition about how brands could communicate and reach audiences.

The Saatchi brothers, for whom I worked in my early career, were keen exponents of Ted Levitt’s ideas, in which the definition of corporate purpose was ‘to create and keep a customer’. As Wikipedia says, this went ‘far beyond the hackneyed belief that businesses exist only to make money.’

I’ve been reminded of this in the context of reviewing Chris Houchens’ recent book ‘Brand Zeitgeist, Embedding Brand Relationships into the Collective Consciousness’.

Brand Zeitgeist’s a well-written, concise and convenient read about the basics of branding. It is, though, one that questions the very idea of zeitgeist and whether that’s now an outmoded concept.

The idea that brands can embed themselves into the collective psyche by becoming masters of a zeitgeist is, in some ways, an arrogant one. It shows an amount of contempt for an audience. It makes assumptions that fail to recognize that the tectonic underpinning of plates between businesses and the people who are now formerly known as the audience, has shifted.

The world has turned since 1983, and what a book like ‘Brand Zeitgeist’  suggests to me is the question of whether the very notion of there being a zeitgeist isn’t, actually, a bit of a marketers’ conceit. (A conceit, as Helen Gardner observed, is ‘a comparison whose ingenuity is more striking than its justness’.)

The introduction of promoted tweets that Twitter has recently introduced seems to suggest this is the  case. The implicartion is there’s a cost required in attempting to control share of mind and it assumes there’s still a joined-up, mass market that a brand can connect to in that kind of a controlled way.

One of the most profound characteristics of the internet age and the semantic web is that there’s no single truth and the more joined up we are, the more that’s the case. There’s so much going on in a networked existence that no-one and nothing can possibly see it all, much less make soundbites out of it.

Society has undergone a step change in its complexity and sophistication and it’s a step change that means even though a dominant narrative may prevail, it cannot fully represent the full range of opinion, paradox and nuance. Connections can be subtle but highly significant. The ‘black swan’ is an ever-present phenomenon and the unpredictable’s becoming increasingly embedded as a part of the fabric of the life we’re now living.

The first Leader’s Debate in the General Election in the UK recently created a bit of a stir on Twitter, and while all the masters of spin were arguing for prominence, what caught public imagination was a hashtag born from an unscripted moment that resonated, #iagreewithnick.

We might ask the question, what’s that worth? That’s a question even more interesting in the light of the findings by Fresh Networks, who’ve been doing a comparison of Social Media Monitoring tools and come to the conclusion that different monitoring tools are delivering very different results. It seems on that front at least there’s really not much of a zeitgeist after all.

When discussing how to assess the promotional tweet factor accurately in perceptual mapping and social sentiment monitoring, some have suggested simply stripping promoted tweets out of the equation. And yet genuine connection comes from knowing how much of a conversation is thrust and how much is traction.

What, too, about the insights and points of view that are silent and sitting below the waterline? Conversation is experience as much as content. It’s worth should be measured by what happens, the spaces in between the content and the consequences, just as much as the words themselves.

One person’s zeitgeist is another person’s snoozebutton. Sticky, memorable experiences and loyalties are formative and include a sense of personal involvement as much as the sharing of news. This is how shared memes are moulded and formed in conjunction with others.

A new model is emerging, one that’s championing the collective mind. Businesses are getting more comfortable with co-creativity and crowdsourcing. Social connectivity via the web’s enabling emotional intelligence and literacy and encouraging a collective ‘aha’.

Zeitgeist is a kind of precognition, and as technology speeds up every iterative cycle, it changes all the time.

The Director of Zeitgeist the movie said that, in his opinion, ‘the failure of our world to resolve the issues of war, poverty, and corruption, rests within a gross ignorance about what guides human behavior to begin with… oppressive laws, social stratification, irrelevant superstitions, environmental destruction, and a despotic, socially indifferent, profit oriented, ruling class’ and that this is a collective ignorance of ‘the emergent and symbiotic aspects of natural law.’

The call of the film was to ‘eliminate the divisionary, materialistic noise, we have been conditioned to think is true … while discovering, amplifying and aligning with the signal coming from our true, empirical oneness.’

In the globalized world of 2010 there are many zeitgeists. As we go through a semantic revolution and exit the industrial Age, the marketing challenge is to recognise the autonomy, mastery and purpose of individuals agents within brand networks and to create zeitgeist moments with them.

Here’s the brilliant Dan Pink detailing what our motivations are made of.

  • Great post.

    I come back to questions of ontology. I was trained as a psychologist and taught psychology for many years. Then I shifted to management where I had fun trying to explain that we don't know the future. Any attempt to predict it (which I did as a psychologist) is futile.

    Predicting what people will do distracts very busy managers from what they need to do – listening to what people want and responding in ways that benefit them and the group they represent.

    It's an ontological distinction that slips out of our grasp when we concentrate on the false certainty that is projected onto the models used in psychology.

    Basically management theory has been corrupted by people who think the world owes them a living (an unchallenged superiority).

    One of the American analysts of #leadersdebate put it well. Cameron talked in scripted anecdotes. Brown talked numbers. Clegg used a conversational style.

    Whoever coached Cameron has missed the point of the narratives used by Obama, which follow the formula, this is where we (all) were when this happened and we did this and then we got this reaction and now we are going to do this.

    This is the narrative of collective action and is embedded within the collective conscious of a group defined by the speaker.

    The very important missing bit in what we heard on #leadersdebate is “this is where WE (ALL) were when”

    It's not surprising that we miss that part when we listen to Obama because that is not part of our history and it has no resonance for us. Or maybe I just missed that part because the leaders' definition of WE (ALL) didn't include me.

    I did switch over to read Obama's announcement at NASA. There is more in a 6bn commercial space program (and more economic impact and prospects for the future for SE England) in that announcement than in the 90minute slot (that ignored the volcano that threatens to collapse one of the major industries of England. Scots have already pointed out that WE (ALL) didn't include them as have Gen Y bloggers).

    Great post though. I'm a numbers person and if I am leading something I am happy to go through the numbers to look for the transcendental moment where we see something that has been nagging us but wasn't top of our minds. We have to sense it first though or we would never ask the question in the first place.

    WE (ALL) is key. Who is included in WE (ALL) and who is THEM (WITH OUR PERMISSION).

  • Hi Anne — Nice post. Glad my book got you thinking and triggered some questions.

    You're right. It is arrogant to think we can build the zeitgeist. But I do feel that brands can influence the zeitgeist. We can see brands doing it today. All the brands in the photo graphic for this post are influencing the zeitgeist. The challenge for all brands as they influence the zeitgeist (and the zeitgeist influences them) is to have a strategy that reflects the big picture of where they want to go.

    The brands that are most successful in influencing the zeitgeist are those who are in-tune with their customers. Dedicated groups of brand fans create a micro-zeitgeist that the brand CAN work within. Some of the examples I used in the book include Harley-Davidson, Apple, and Starbucks. Each of these
    groups of consumers have created a microcosm of society that is as clearly definable as the brand they are devoted to.

    That's the key to the brand zeitgeist. Looking for that group of dedicated consumers who are willing to create a micro-zeitgeist. Brands are not created by the company, they're created by the consumer. (the same as the zeitgeist) Brands work best when they provide the tools to help those consumers spread the message.

    Don't try to dig a lake. Just fish where the fish are. 🙂

  • I think it was difficult to predict the exponential rate at which globalisation occured within smaller and smaller brands. Web 2.0 and social networking are yet another step in making globalisation the norm and phasing out localisation of trading.

  • completely agree with your final comment, but the question is which zeitgeists should you appeal to. If you get this right then, you are talking to an audience who are key to your product.

  • Manipulated to some degree by Svengali manager Malcolm McLaren (who reportedly left the band penniless), The Sex Pistols captured the zeitgeist of late ’70s Britain perfectly: the disaffection, disillusionment and dissatisfaction felt by the common man