The hordes are at the gate: why marketers should not be afraid of social media

Human beings want to believe they are singularly special enough to form and articulate great ideas. It’s uncomfortable to think our ideas actually come from everywhere and not from what we think of as ourselves. We’re reluctant to see the power of listening, and allowing ideas to synthesize, as powerful. It suggests we are at our best when we are not as solid as we’d like to be, and we’re willing to accept the comfort of second-best. Marketers are particularly uncomfortable with the lack of control implied in allowing consumers to help form the meaning of brands. This is one of the biggest implications of social media.

The history of philosophy as a way of understanding the mind and the human situation could be considered an ongoing battle: the ego continually trying to reassert itself. Descartes said Reason ruled all. Our ability to know was our ability to conquer the void that forever tries to swallow us with fear. Just like God making things exist by naming them. Knowing assumes a know-er, forming a picture of our minds as having a single pulsing center.

David Hume countered by saying the mind was more of a stage, a “…kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance.” Studying the creative mind is a useful way of understanding and arguing about what we are, allowing literary criticism to turn from a discussion of books into a fight for existence for those of us standing behind Descartes’ podium.

Apparently James Joyce could forge the conscience of our entire race with his own wordsmithing. And apparently it was revealed as desperate clanging in the dark by Barthes and others. Looking to authors for the meaning of texts instead of the texts themselves was a kind of celebrity worship.

In varying degrees marketers have also thought of themselves as magical wizards, or liked to be thought of that way. Magic, however, comes from the shadows. The most powerful sorcerers summon, they don’t make. In the myths of every culture the arrogant novice comes to the master looking for the ultimate power to destroy his enemies, the master humbles him into realizing the power is beyond his control, all of a sudden he gets it, but then decides to use it for good.

The traditional role of the brand people at companies is to form, control and police. The unquestionable truth of the message is a comfortable way to stave off all the uncertainty, maybe even the failure and blame, that appear to swirl around everywhere. Customers are talking about brands themselves now to such an intense and widespread degree, there’s an understandable fear they will take the message in another direction than it was intended. Perhaps they will do something better with it — maybe sales, as it were, will increase — if they retell the brand story to each other in their own ways. Secretly, in some forbidden corner of their minds, some marketers would almost rather see the brand fail than succeed without their help. Not because they’re egotists, but because they’re afraid of getting in trouble.

The culture of blame is a whole other story. But blame does come from the top, and it’s at that top tier where the measure of leadership can change from how-well-we-create-police to how well we give our marketing people license to listen — to become theater impresarios, allowing great ideas to play, on a stage we share with everybody.

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