Marketing Is Poetry

 ‘TWAS a death-bed summons, and forth I went

By the way of the Western Wall, so drear

On that winter night, and sought a gate–

The home, by Fate,

Of one I had long held dear.

I can still recite that bit of poetry without much effort. The custom of memorizing poetry in public school is largely long gone, but there is merit to it. As a kid, I failed to realize the significance of poetry, but with age comes some degree of wisdom (or so I would like to hope) and I have come to the conclusion that what we do today, be it as a researcher, a strategist or a designer, can benefit from reading and reciting poetry. A poem does not convey a message is the same way as prose, it does not signify in the same manner. When poetry is consumed, words are judged in relation to things, and the text is judged in comparison to reality. A poem establishes a system of significance, generated by processes such as accumulation and the use of descriptive systems. It evokes responses, demands a reaction. And that is precisely what makes it relevant for marketers.

Prose is generally interpreted along a vertical axis, known as the paradigmatic axis or the axis of selection. On this axis, we look for the meaning of the text based on selected referents and terms, following the metaphors and metonymies, or by trying to attribute a coherent meaning to the passages. The message is typically fairly straight forward and the associations with other words clear. But unlike prose, in the semantics of the poem the axis of significations is horizontal. The poem doesn’t attempt to refer to reality, but to establish a coherent system of significance. As such, a poetic text must be interpreted in terms of the relationships that develop amongst the words.

A descriptive system that emerges in poetry is a group of words, expressions and ideas that are used in the text to designate the parts of the whole that the author wants to represent. Its structure  involves similarities in form and position among certain words in the text, similarities that are rationalized and interpreted in terms of meaning. Each word is made up of one or more semantic features. For example, the word “monster” contains the semantic features: living being, big, ugly, frightening, inhuman, etc. These elements paint a picture. They force us to imagine and think. As the reader progresses, accumulation filters through the semantic features of its words, thereby overdetermining the occurrence of the most widely represented feature and cancelling out the featurtes that appear less frequently.  For example, if we encounter the words “rose”, “tulip” and “sunflower”, then we might think that the shared feautyre is /flower/; if to this list we add the words “grandiose”, “woman” and “art”, then the overdetermined feature will be /beauty/. In this way, the features take the place of the words, and by substituting in this manner, the reader will come within reach of the poem’s significance.

It matters because at the heart of any brand or design lies the poetic expression of what we want the brand to mean. The poetic system is usually a set of stereotypes and conventional ideas about the word with which it is associated; this is how the reader realizes, when we make mention of nothing more than dancing, for example, that we are talking about an youth. So to is it for marketing and advertising done well.

Whether we are crafting a series of words in a campaign or developing a stylistic “language” for a group of objects to be associated with the brand, we are attempting to develop a system of meaning that overdetermines and allows the customer to interpret a range of finite meanings at a glance. The Nike swoosh, the phrase “Ram Tough”, the “story” conveyed in a billboard for Schlitz, they are all extensions of poetic discourse. And like the poem from Thomas Hardy that I learned so long ago, a poem lasts, tying meaning to the things the things we value in our lives, including brands.


Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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