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Postmodern Marketers

  |  May 21, 2003   |  Comments

Mastering the intangibles of experience.

Even if you breathe the thin air of cyberspace, bring extra oxygen for your ascent to postmodern (pomo) marketing. There's no there there -- on purpose. The pomo view is about intangibles, subjectivity, and intersubjectivity. It's about what goes on inside and between individuals in solo or shared experience of things.

Today's most advanced management tries to improve its organization's performance by studying and structuring the quite real social relations of actual production. Exemplary efforts in this area have focused on shaping informal workflows and networks among coworkers, their mutually created and collectively shared mental models, and patterns of interdependence in innovation processes. These are but a few of the newly proposed intangible levers that can be pushed and pulled to improve organizational performance.

This new view is in current efforts to redefine knowledge management. In the old, functional view, knowledge represents objective realities. Its managers focused on their firms' patents, trade secrets, know-how, and "the way we do things around here." pomo knowledge managers believe knowledge depends on situated perception, cognition, and action. They go about purposefully managing the patterns of relationships among workplace participants. This phenomenological view emphasizes knowledge only emerges from and exists and evolves within space created by and among interacting humans.

One emerging view sees business organizations as a human ecology where different spheres of human relationships overlap and intersect: the formal/objective; the social/intersubjective; and, for some, the transpersonal/spiritual. In that context, the postmodern manager learns to create real business value from will-o'-the-wisps such as intention, interpretation, and relationship.

Advocates propose business management implement an agenda of practices including:

  • Observing: See reality with fresh eyes.

  • Sensing: Tune in to emerging patterns that inform future possibilities.

  • Presencing: Access inner sources of creativity and will.

  • Envisioning: Crystallize vision and intent.

  • Executing: Act in an instant to capitalize on new opportunities.

Managers responsible for external relations, especially marketers, are also enjoined to take this new view. Paralleling the historical shift from a product- to a service-driven economy, product-based brand differentiation was long ago supplemented (in some cases, displaced altogether) by service-based added value. Today, we're prodded to leap into an age in which branded value is created by and emerges from staging and cocreating customer experiences.

All the world's a stage, say some business gurus. Success comes to those who design and stage experiences that engage prospects and customers and endure as memorable events. Raw materials for this endeavor are real enough; they comprise some combination of entertainment, educational, escapist, and aesthetic elements. They converge beyond the marketer's vision, in the subject's memory. There, they crystallize as a branded experience in the usually uneventful world of goods and services.

Beyond anecdotal cases, quantitative research with U.S. consumers suggests brand experience actually exists. Specifically, a direct marketing agency (full disclosure: my employer) found self-reported customer relationship with brands (in 11 categories) was, in fact, the customer's subjective synthesis of two dimensions of objective enterprise behaviors: first, the company's responsiveness to consumer-initiated contacts for information, help, problem resolution, and so on; second, proactive attentiveness to the customer via company-initiated contacts, rewards, offers, discounts, privileges, and inducements.

The agency now uses a scorecard to audit both dimensions of clients' objective behaviors to understand and orchestrate the customer's subjective experience of the brand.

Internet workers make their own contributions to this phenomenological marketing approach. Every reader knows the term "user experience" and its referent -- the relationship between human and machine software is designed to create and enable, whether in a browser, game machine, or kiosk. Some may know "flow" -- the state of psychophysiological well-being when one is engaged in self-controlled, goal-related, meaningful activity. Achieving flow is the mission of software design, especially but not exclusively game design. A few may know about "pattern design" -- a concept borrowed from architectural theory that posits a universal set of spatial experiences. A "cozy spot," a "sunny spot," -- hundreds of patterns articulate their distinctive human-spatial relationship. User experience, flow, and pattern design are among several concepts with which interactive designers try to grasp and shape the subjective dimension of human-machine interaction.

Experience is not the only intangible postmodern marketing seeks to manipulate. Speed is another; network effects, another dimension still. What they share is intangibility. The goal of all is to discern and shape phenomena one step beyond the world we can see and touch. Welcome to pomo marketing -- shaping what's beyond vision but not beyond action.

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Len Ellis Until recently, Len Ellis was executive vice president at Wunderman, where he charted the course in data-based and technology-enabled marketing communications, including the firm's strategic alliances and worldwide interactive strategy. Earlier, he was managing director, interactive integration at Y&R 2.1, a Young & Rubicam start-up consulting unit. He joined Y&R Group as managing director, interactive services at Burson-Marsteller. Len led interactive services at Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer EuroRSCG, and started and led the information industry practice at Fleishman-Hillard. Len's book of essays on marketing, based in part on this column, is "Marketing in the In-Between: A Post-Modern Turn on Madison Avenue." He received his Ph.D. from Columbia and reads informational and mathematical theory for fun.

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