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.