The Return of Tabletop RPGs: Musings from GenCon and the Branding of Inclusion

gen-con.jpgGrowing a Belief

Gaming is not going anywhere, but the business does need to grow. Even with the successes and growth of RPGs in recent years, there is always a need to secure old fans and new fans alike. As the industry matures, the established brand names wield the power to influence, build, and shape gaming culture as a whole. Brands like Paizo Publishing and Wizards of the Coast are among the foremost cultural creators, especially considering the recent mainstream popularity of properties like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D is, for the world, the bastion of play). Of course, gaming culture mimics culture as a whole, reflecting or even predicting waves of great social change as they happen. When calls for accessibility, inclusion, and diversity ripple through the country, they also sound in the gaming community. Brands recognize this. They also understand that their core audience is at risk should they pivot too quickly to answer. This creates a limiting cycle wherein a brand cannot evolve for the sake of preserving its core audience, and the core audience defends the brand to the point of excluding potential new fans. Likewise, society takes baby steps forward while simultaneously bolstering the status quo. But in looking ahead for both culture and gaming, these trends signal the strongest long-term return will come from investing in and standing with this inclusive, belief-based audience. And each of these challenges is a tremendous opportunity if brands focus on them correctly.

While belief-based messaging is not new, the trend within advertising and strategy is in a rekindling stage. This means researching, pinpointing, and applying the ideals shared by customer and brand alike, allowing brands to get themselves a piece of their audience’s cultural pie. And it’s more than penning some messaging that strikes a fleeting chord with a tenuous audience – it’s shaping a brand oeuvre that, while nimble, will stand with its target audiences and embody their beliefs throughout their lives. At the same time, value exploration lets a brand rediscover and project its own authentic personality and voice, meeting overlooked or untapped audiences halfway and effectively breaking out of the self-defeating cycle of audience preservation. It leverages the belief that a brand isn’t so much an object as it is a dialog. It’s a tactic that both strengthens a brand’s link with established customers and strategically hones branding to attract new fans. This belief-based approach has proven itself valuable and lasting, and we use it to bring the same enduring brand legacy to clients.

GenCon 2018 – The Year of Inclusion

Being headquartered in Indianapolis gives us a vantage point for attending and analyzing GenCon every year, which allows us to watch the evolution of the con’s internal culture and also its effect on the city and larger gaming world. This year we observed that diversity and inclusion featured as centerpiece topics for many panels and as major considerations in convention participant guidelines. While the con carried on with its usual electricity, these voices for inclusion stood out as louder and more numerous than they have been in years past. The national zeitgeist has been around movements like #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights and representation, accessibility, and gender nonconformity. Ever a microcosm of the larger cultural conversation, these audiences’ voices are finally, actively being heard at GenCon and in the gaming world, and they are waiting for a response. While they wait, it creates a reverberating cultural dissonance between rapidly evolving cultural demand and what influential brands slowly say and make.

While some segments of gaming culture have made strides to represent these values, the demand for outwardly inclusive products is not being met by the major players in the market. Any movement toward these values is usually driven by proactive community members rather than brands themselves. Of course, smaller brands have popped up with products and communities that serve these belief-based buyers. Blue Rose and even well-established games like Shadowrun are considered inclusive RPGs. Outside of RPGs, One Deck Dungeon and Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn are well-received for their representation. Major brands may actually have comparable products that would serve this audience well. But overall, big brands seem tentative about directly catering to those outside their core – in all likelihood because they do not want to risk alienating segments of their cornerstone players. And if you looked at overall sales and brand awareness, these major brands would appear to be winning; D&D and Magic the Gathering remain the biggest names in the RPG and deck-building game markets. On the other hand, brands taking belief-based stands and fostering inclusion-focused communities are responding to this potent cultural calling and gaining long-term edge because of it. In the end, it is up to the bigger market leaders to recognize this shift and join in riding the wave now, rather than being left rudderless in the current. Being one of the biggest names in gaming, Wizards of the Coast is in a unique position to both capitalize on this demand and expand its keystone audience in the process, influencing much of the industry to do the same.

Recently, our research focus has been on roleplaying games. And Dungeons & Dragons is the grandfather of them all. Roleplaying games are, at their core, inclusive. In an ideal world, all audiences recognize that they provide a dynamic system of play and a fantastical world that anyone can adapt. The basic system is a sandbox for

people to build whatever adventure they want to play and be whoever they want to be. So, a brand might focus on this versatile content, touting its inclusiveness and their willingness to rewrite the source materials. Yet, for its myriad merits, D&D has become stereotyped and, effectively, owned by a niche audience. The universal appeal of the brand and the game itself is still there, but this core audience has culturally constructed walls impeding adoption. In other words, many of the core audience are perceived as gatekeepers. An RPG is only as good as those playing it – and D&D’s current core, targeted audience is loyal, but not perceived as inclusive. Wizards of the Coast is presented with a worthy challenge: both the product and the audience need to become more welcoming to diverse, new fans, but only the product seems directly controllable.

Focusing on shared values solves this disconnect among brand, product, and audience. And integrating the correct shared beliefs both into what a brand says and does publicly and the brand’s parent company itself will only further this connection, creating lasting brand love. Streamlining this integration and closing the gap between audience and brand ideals allows the brand to bottle cultural lightning for themselves. For a brand like Wizards of the Coast, inclusivity should be the value integrated first on the controllable side – the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of the integration standing in the way of any knee-jerk claims of inauthenticity. A diligent transformation will spurn some fans but invigorate others to adopt and practice these values. It all starts with the brand itself, changing the product and the culture from within, and then without. To put it simply, a shared value approach amplifies the brand’s stand for inclusivity and diversity and transforms the core audience from gatekeepers into welcoming advocates, opening the floodgates for long-term returns.

Importantly, when it comes to inclusivity and diversity, a brand must show – not tell – its intended audiences their shared values. Continuing the example, Wizards of the Coast has spoken of inclusivity as a marquee value for a long time, but the meaning of the word loses effect on these potential audiences when it’s not fully ingrained in brand infrastructure. This means not focusing the conversation on small updates, but going above and beyond internally to get product elements right. This means not only relying on a trusted team, but bringing in diverse writers, creatives, and community leaders to work with them. This means not campaigning to point out the steps you’re taking, but behaving as usual while thoroughly melding these values with the brand’s day-to-day process. And those potential audience members who have been critical before will be the ones paying attention to this internal shift, adopting the game out of curiosity and appreciation for the brand’s evolution. It is a slow, deliberate, and thorough process that culturally galvanizes increasing long-term audience payoff. It is added value without taking away any offerings the core audience loves. The value-based audience pays close attention to authenticity when deciding which brands they share their values with, meaning in this case, the practicing is leagues more important than the preaching.

As curious new folks take an interest in the brand, the gatekeeper members of the core audience step into action. Some fans act as a welcoming committee, excited by the prospect of new players. While others become more entrenched, seeing themselves as righteous defenders of the purity of their game and brand. These feelings are not all bad, as the passion can be redirected in Wizards of the Coast’s favor. But, by standing for inclusivity, Wizards of the Coast takes back ownership of its brand. Core audience members, gatekeepers or otherwise, will tend toward reflecting the brand and practicing shared values. New people are interested in the game, which the brand shows them means better products and new adventures. A growing audience then acts as a catalyst, rather than a trap trigger. Beyond controlling the product, a brand with a firmly held belief can, via ripple effect, influence its current audience, bolstering the welcoming committee by converting others from territorial soldiers into fierce brand advocates.

So What

In the end, a brand taking a stand for something is a big idea. It’s a change, no matter how steady the adoption or smooth the transition. Yes, brands like Wizards of the Coast may lose some people from its core audience. But if a brand officially aligns itself with a value it, theoretically, always had, those fans were never core brand evangelists to begin with. Simply, those who don’t share brand beliefs will self-select out. And this is, in the long-term, ultimately a positive. This venting of wall-builders will allow new fans in, healing, diversifying, and growing the core audience. It is a long play brand strategy built on the brand’s values, broader audiences, and a growing foundation of fans. Standing with those who call for inclusivity, diversity, accessibility, and visibility is a brand investment in a burgeoning audience that will become part of its core audience in the future, allowing Wizards of the Coast and similar tabletop gaming brands to reclaim ownership of their principles and, potentially, lead the entire industry forward.

 

Advertisements

Pride Week and Shaking Shit Up

Over the weekend, pride parades happened across the country, including those mid-sized cities in parts of the country that aren’t necessarily associated with progressive views. Included in that mix was Indianapolis. Oh, how things have changed. The first parade in Indianapolis started in 2005 and lasted a total of 15 minutes. It is now one of the largest pride festivals in this part of the country. Today, people pour in from all over the Midwest to celebrate Circle City Pride week. The parade itself is more than two hours long, with over 100 floats and groups involved. The event has grown so much that it had to be moved to Military Park, the premiere spot downtown for festivals. And while official numbers aren’t in yet, the events on Saturday are estimated to have brought in well over 100K attendances – not bad for state that is too often associated with corn, hyper-conservative ideology, and Mike Pence.

In a world where political and cultural divisions are seemingly at an all-time high, brands are increasingly held accountable for their stance on the political and social issues, whether speaking directly to the LGBTQ community or the broader population in general. Why? Because, quite simply, for the growing majority of people in the US, views on issues of equality are changing, particularly among the young. According to a Google Consumer Survey from August of 2014, over 45% of consumers under 35 years old say they’re more likely to do repeat business with an LGBTQ-friendly company. 54% also say they’d choose an equality-focused brand over a competitor. While the data is several years old, it’s probably safe to assume those numbers have done nothing but tick upward.

Equally important as to why brands need an active voice is to “shake shit up”, as one attendee told me. Statistically, we are becoming a more inclusive society. However, in the last year, purveyors of hate have grown emboldened. At the same time the pride march was going on, anti-Muslim protests were happening in 28 cities, including Indianapolis. While they couldn’t muster more than 75-100 followers, they were present and the threats were both clear and vocal. Taking a stand in support of the LGBTQ community does more than promote your good intentions, it demonstrates solidarity in the face of evil.

Despite backlash from groups that threaten to boycott them (or worse), more and more brands are responding with messages of inclusion, equality, and diversity. From Burger King to Hilton Hotels to Chase, we are seeing the faces of people that simply wouldn’t have been part of the equation in the past.

Perhaps more important than the messaging is that these companies now have a presence at events like those in Indy and across the country. Delta, Salesforce, Lilly and a host of other companies are sponsors and allies. Even Texas Roadhouse had a presence, handing out peanuts to munch.  All of this would have been unlikely a decade ago.  The cynic would point to it being a simple, calculated matter of cold, hard cash. After all, LGBTQ consumers have a buying power of about $884 billion, according to a study done by Witeck Communications. But we believe there is more to it than capitalizing on an event.  This shift on the part of brands is about the nature of change – we are seeing a type of evolution unfolding. Ideas, like species, adapt or die. For the former, the world becomes a brighter place, for the latter, change means eventual extinction. Brands can either adapt to this changing social landscape or become irrelevant. Perhaps more damning, they can come to be seen as repressive, threatening, or even dangerous.

As expectations for greater social responsibility from brands grow, it is tempting for marketers to take advantage of the situation, but there’s a fine line between what people see as support vs. pandering. A brand needs to ensure the values that underscore the its purpose are reflected in a way that isn’t opportunistic. It has to actively be part of a cultural conversation based on its purpose and this is precisely what the people in the region saw over the weekend. Increasingly, we are becoming a culture that thrives on inclusion. It may not feel like it at times, but the fact is that the nation as a whole is embracing acceptance and diversity in spite of a shrinking but highly vocal minority. When it comes to social issues at least, the blue dots in a sea of red are growing and the culture is becoming more welcoming. This is something we saw in the most meaningful of ways last weekend.

Pride celebrations in small, medium, and large cities across the US, and indeed the world, last week signals a permanent, meaningful cultural shift. We as a species still have a long way to go, but progress is being made.  And this is where brands affect change. Whether you’re selling soda in Columbus, hotel space in Montana, or mutual funds in Atlanta, a brand needs to create culture as well as reflect it.

 

 

 

 

Getting at the Heart of Consumer Understanding: Cheap, Fast and Tactical Isn’t the Answer

Sitting in a meeting not long ago, I couldn’t help overhearing someone comment that the presentation of the rationale for a campaign they had just sat through was too “academic”.  What struck me was the distinction he made between academics and “real businessmen” like himself.  The word “academic” is, of course, loaded but one of the underlying meanings to so many would-be paragons of business is that “academic” means complicated, useless or detached.  Now, while I would be the first to agree that people with an “academic” bent to their work can be prone to laying the jargon on fairly thick at times or wanting to give details that some people might feel aren’t needed, the ones that gain recognition and traction in their field and across disciplines (including business) are anything but detached or lacking in their ability to articulate game-changing product and business solutions.  The practical and the academic are NOT mutually exclusive and indeed, there is a desperate need to start incorporating some of that “academic” approach back into businesses.

These days, there’s a fixation on returning to surface-level research in marketing. Cheap. Fast. Tactical.  Strangely, being obtuse is frequently presented as being savvy.  Stupidity masked as brilliance.  What defines current research demands will not work in a market still defined by mass extinction. Change is needed and change doesn’t come from shallow understanding. If a company is going to be successful, if a company is not just looking to survive but prosper into brand prominence, it has to do more than quantify and type its constituents. Above all, it must really understand the consumer. Truly understand its consumer at a deep level. Of course, the people in most companies would argue that they do just that; they have reams of data to prove it. They’ve spent countless hours and countless cups of coffee in focus groups asking people for their opinions. They’ve stopped shoppers in the mall, watched them at the check out and run survey after survey. They have tapped into Big Data and can tell you that 67% of Prius owners in Cleveland also buy 7.4 ounces of coffee on Tuesdays at 10:17 a.m. And if you propose something requiring a bit more depth, it is often  “too academic” – I have to wonder if “too academic” would applying if they were talking to their cardiologist.  “Sorry doctor, running all those CAT scans before putting in that stint seems too academic.  Just stick that fucker in there and it will probably be ok.  It’s just my heart, it’s not that complicated.”  This isn’t too say that finding and insight don’t need to find simplicity and clarity, or that jargon should be minimized.  But is to say that simply dismissing good methods, information and insights because they don’t fit easily into a bullet point or that they require more than a few moments of thought is dangerous to legitimate innovation. 

The problem is that meaningful understanding doesn’t come through focus groups, surveys or mall intercepts. And while Big Data is great for getting at what is going on, it rarely points to why. Understanding doesn’t come from one-on-one interviews, hidden cameras or diaries. These things, like participant observation, are all part of the tool kits used by a range of researchers to talk to consumers but talking is not understanding. Sorry to say this to my business brethren, but sometimes good work does indeed require deep thinking, complex ideas and time.  Not everything need be the fast food solution to developing insights.  Nor should it. So what does it mean to understand our customers?

Admittedly, it’s difficult to define “understanding.” It’s convenient to use an operational or behavioral definition where we begin with the maxim that somebody who reacts appropriately to X understands X. For example, one could be said to “understand” Japanese if one correctly obeys basic commands given in Japanese. But in context, this is a terrible inadequate definition. A person can execute the command, but may miss the fact that it was given in sarcasm. If a native English speaker tells another native speaker to jump off a cliff, they understand they subtext of the phrase, but a non-native speaker may not pick up on that. This is why idioms and metaphorical language are usually the last linguistic concepts to ingest when learning a new language. Understanding implies a much deeper ability to interpret and create, especially in a foreign or unknown context.  And it’s this interpretive element that defines “understanding” and what real consumer/users understanding means for a brand.

“Understanding” is an ability to reason from an inductive perspective and pull together seemingly disparate bits of information into something cohesive. An inductive researcher approaches the analysis of data and examination of practice problems within their own context rather than from a predetermined theoretical basis. The approach moves from the specific to the general, which means that the research team looks at things in a completely fresh and unbiased way. Anthropology is built on this fundamental principle and goes beyond providing a company with the raw understanding of human behavior, innate responses and bio-social needs. It provides a richer method for understanding how these pieces fit together and, more importantly, how people craft these pieces in a given context.  Because anthropologists take an inductive approach, it means they learn as they react and are taught about what is important by the people with whom they work.

For businesses that are attempting to pull themselves out of the muck of the economy over the last seven years, now is the time to start thinking in terms other than one-to-one ROI and short-term sustainability.  Now is the time to start thinking about how to change and define what’s next, not just what’s happening this quarter.  Human beings are complex, absurdly complex. These complexities are amplified by a postmodern condition where speed, mutability and fusillade of advertising bombardments are the hallmarks of existence. It simply isn’t enough anymore to know that family X prefers crunchy or smooth.  Companies need to understand “why.”  Take something as simple as peanut butter. They need to understand how people shop for food in general. They need to understand how people cook with it peanut butter.  They need to understand the changing conceptualization of food as it relates to a sense of identity in a social network. They need to understand the changing landscape of the family meal. In other words, rather than thinking about incremental change and upticks of 2% in their specific category, they need to think big, be bold, and look for real insights. They need to get beyond the numbers, which are safe, bland and devoid of meaning, and get at the stuff that really matters.

Too academic?  Maybe.  On the other hand, Honda and Toyota changed the nature of perceptions about cars in America because they took the time to learn.  Their brands became synonymous with quality and efficiency even as others created increasingly problematic gas-guzzlers.  Why didn’t’ Ford fall into that category?  Because Ford, in the middle of a hugely successful brand turn-around, took the time to explore that “too academic” work and apply the findings in new, creative, genuinely innovative ways. Why did Subaru gain market share and increased loyalty when others lost ground (other than building terrific cars)? Because they launched a campaign that spoke to bigger human issues and ignored mediocrity.

The point is that opportunities do not lie in the obvious, they lie on the outskirts and it is up to us to knit together the relevant pieces.  Armed with this depth of understanding – real understanding – businesses can develop products and brands that do more than produce small incremental profits.  They can develop brand loyalty and brand advocates. They can transform their businesses and become iconic.  They must, because as we know, the basic rule of evolution is simple: adapt or die.

 

Liminality and Shopping: Retail as a Shrine of Shopping

You will not find the term “liminality” in many dictionaries. For instance, at last check it is not in the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary does, however, have an entry for “liminal,” the adjectival form, which it lists as a rare usage: “Of or pertaining to the threshold or initial stage of a process.” Both liminal and liminality are derived from the Latin “limen,” which means “threshold”—that is, the bottom part of a doorway that must be crossed when entering a building.  And it is this notion of a doorway, or passage from one space to another, and the consequences of doing so, that matters to consumption and shopping, because in a world where the procurement of goods is increasingly simple the act of transforming a person from one state of being to another is more and more important.  We no longer sell just goods, we sell something much more profound – or we hope to, at least.

As a brief refresher, it was not until the second half of the 20th century, that the terms “liminal” and “liminality” gained popularity through the writings of Victor Turner. Turner borrowed and expanded upon Van Gennep’s concept of liminality, ensuring widespread usage of the concept in anthropology.

In 1967, Turner noted that “the subject of passage ritual is, in the liminal period, structurally, if not physically, ‘invisible’” (1967: 95). That is, the status of liminal individuals is socially and structurally ambiguous. From this he further developed the idea.  “Liminality may perhaps be regarded as the Nay to all positive structural assertions, but as in some sense the source of them all, and, more than that, as a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise” (1967: 97).

Fundamentally, the idea is relatively simple.  When a person is in a liminal state, she or he is betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremony.  Their roles in the cosmic order are ambiguous. He then goes on to name this state of non-structure or anti-structure through such concepts as the “realm of pure possibility” and structural invisibility. He chooses the Latin term “communitas” to express this idea of anti-structure, and refers to social structure and communitas as two major models for human interrelatedness.” 

The first model is of society as a structured, differentiated, and often hierarchical system of politico-legal-economic positions with many types of evaluation, separating men in terms of “more” or “less.” The second, which emerges recognizably in the liminal period, is of society as an unstructured or rudimentarily structured and relatively undifferentiated comitatus, community, or even communion of equal individuals who submit together to the general authority of the ritual elders.

Yes, yes.  All very interesting, but what does it have to do with consumption and shopping?  Shopping is, at a functional level, about getting things we need – food, clothing, shelter, etc.  But if it were as simple as that we wouldn’t have specialty stores.  We wouldn’t spend hours rummaging around a bookstore when we could simply order the product online.  As the outlets for acquisition have expanded with the growth of broadband, the nature of shopping has changed.  It is as much about fulfilling social, cultural and psychological needs and desires as it is anything else, perhaps more so. Which means it is often a transformational act of a transitory nature that takes us from one state of being to another, if only for a short while. And it is at the gateway that we find the symbols that successfully transition of from one state to another.  Retailers who do this well (Abercrombe, Anthropologie, Swatch) become points of destination and alter the nature of interaction, both with the store and with fellow shoppers, at the point of entry into their space.  They set the stage where shopping becomes akin to a rite of passage.  It signals that we have entered a special place and while we’re there, we are not the same person we were on the street.

The idea that the passage of the magical threshold is a transit into a new sphere of reconfigurement of who and what we are is symbolized by the gateway and harkens back to the worldwide womb image of myth.  It is the hero entering the belly of the whale and emerging transformed, carrying special knowledge or objects that can only be found by going through the passage.  This is why the approaches to temples are flanked by guardian symbols – dragons, angles, sword-wielding demon slayers.  These are the threshold guardians used to ward off those incapable of encountering the higher silences within. They illustrate the fact that the devotee at the moment of entry into the temple undergoes a metamorphosis.  Similarly, in a cultural construct where shopping and consumption have taken on the role of defining personal meaning, the threshold at the store signals a metamorphosis into the stylistically elite.  Those entering the space understand that they are unlike those outside the space and have entered a place that is beyond the confines of the mundane, daily life.  And like the hero, once having crossed the threshold, the postmodern shopper moves into a dream landscape of often curiously fluid, ambiguous forms.  It is here that shopping becomes something bigger than consumption.  It is here that the trial, the hunt, the act of self-becoming takes place, turning shopping into an expression of self-worth and of profound worth to the tribe (the family, the peer group, etc.).

Thinking about a shopping space and the symbolic cues to which we respond at the outset of the shopping journey means taking a more subtle view of how we promote our wares. Rather than screaming “low, low prices,” it means thinking about shopping and spatial design as promoting a change in the people to whom we would sell.  And it means putting as much though into the store front as it does the size of type on an end cap.  It means thinking of both the entry and the space as transitional, transformational structures that compel the shopper to alter his or her sense of being.  And this is where loyalty comes from.  Just as most people do not hop from on house of worship every week, let alone from faith to faith, so too should they feel compelled to return to your space again and again.

Liminality is almost always a temporary phenomenon. That is not to say that the temporal nature of liminality should be one of its defining characteristics. Rather, human nature being the way it is means that liminality cannot be permanent. Either we are absorbed into the social structure or we shun it all together—we cannot remain betwixt and between.  But liminality can be something that draws people back to a retailer time and again.  It turns shopping beyond the ordinary and signals that your space is beyond the daily grind.  It signals a place of rebirth.  

Objectifying Objectivity

“Science is a social phenomenon…It progresses by hunch, vision, and intuition. Much of its change through time is not a closer approach to absolute truth, but the alteration of cultural contexts that influence it. Facts are not pure information; culture also influences what we see and how we see it. Theories are not inexorable deductions from facts; most rely on imagination, which is cultural.” Gould, 1981

Business people often like to think of themselves as scientists of sorts – their science is practical and applied, but first and foremost it is grounded in objectivity and hypothesis testing, the hallmarks of scientific reasoning. Scientists seek concepts and principles, not subjective perspectives. They seek laws, truths and testable, verifiable data.  And we as a society, be the business person or the designer, simply accept objectivity as a fact of life. Thus, we cling to a myth of objectivity: that direct, objective knowledge of the world is obtainable, that our preconceived notions or expectations do not bias this knowledge, and that this knowledge is based on objective weighing of all relevant data on the balance of critical scientific evaluation. And here is where I will no doubt irritate some and flat out piss off others – objectivity is a myth. So from the outset, let’s be clear. I am not implying that objectivity is a fallacy in and of itself. That would be absolutist. Rather, like all myths, objectivity is an ideal for which we strive. The search for objectivity is an intrinsically worthwhile quest, but it should not get in the way of an insight, which frequently happens. If you can’t quantify it, an insight loses its worth. And that is a terrible, terrible thing.

In most business situations the fact of the matter is that we choose which events, numbers, etc. we want to place value on and those we want to dismiss. This is occasionally conscious, but more often is the product of our worldview, what we hope to personally gain from the data we employ (e.g. a promotion), or simply how tired we are when we sit in on our 300th interview at the end of a long day.  Our beliefs and expectations exert a profound control on perceptions. In other words, we see what we expect to see, and we remember what we want to remember. If we believe that moms are the primary decision makers when it comes to buying groceries, we overlook the roles of other family members in the process, roles that may in fact be more important. So, while people misrepresent themselves in most traditional research (itself another topic of discussion for a later date), we in fact twist reality one turn further. Out of all the occurrences going on in the environment, we select those that have some significance for us from our own egocentric position.

What all this means is that the first problem with obtaining objectivity is that perception strengthens opinions, and perception is biased in favor of expectations. The second is, that our involvement by definition alters the situation. In 1927, Werner Heisenberg, in examining the implications of quantum mechanics, developed the principle of indeterminacy, more commonly known as “the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.”  He showed that indeterminacy is unavoidable, because the process of observation invariably changes the observed object. Whether we run a focus group or ask someone to fill out 20 questions in a survey, we are altering “normal” behavior and therefore the how an idea, a product or a brand would play out in real life. What this means is that probability has replaced determinism, and that scientific certainty is an illusion.

So what are we to do? How can we reconcile the profound success of the scientific method with the conclusion that the perception and process make objectivity an unobtainable ideal? Well, we accept a few things and move on. Science depends less on complete objectivity than most of us imagine. Business even less so, especially as it pertains to things like advertising and branding.  Admitting that allows us to use a biased balance to weigh and evaluate data, experiences and good old-fashioned gut reactions. If we’re aware of the limitations by which we assess and measure our area of study, be it cereal shopping habits or car purchase decisions, we can use those biases effectively. To improve the accuracy of a balance, we must know its sources of error.

Pitfalls of subjectivity abound. Some can be avoided entirely; some can only be reduced. The trick is to know when and how to use them to get at a real insight. Some of the more common pitfalls are:

  • Ignoring relevant variables: We tend to ignore those variables that we consider irrelevant, even if others have suggested that these variables are significant. We ignore variables if we know of no way to remove them, because considering them forces us to admit that the experiment has ambiguities. If two variables may be responsible for an effect, we concentrate on the dominant one and ignore the other. The point is, we cherry pick and doing so leads to flaws.
  • Confirmation bias: During the time spent doing our initial research (that stuff we used to call a Lit Review), we may preferentially seek and find evidence that confirms our beliefs or preferred hypothesis. Thus, we select the experiment most likely to support our beliefs. This insidiously frequent pitfall allows us to maintain the illusion of objectivity (for us as well as for others) by carrying out a rigorous experiment, while nevertheless obtaining a result that is comfortably consistent with expectations and desires.
  • Biased sampling: Subjective sampling that unconsciously favors the desired outcome is easily avoided by randomization. Too often, we fail to consider the relevance of this problem during research design, leading to suspect insights.
  • Missing important background characteristics: Research can be affected by a bias of human senses, which are more sensitive to detecting change than to noticing constant detail. In the midst of collecting data, however you chose to think of it, it is easy to miss subtle changes in context. That, unfortunately, often leads to overlooking interrelationships between people, events, etc. In other words, it means you overlook important information because you can’t tear yourself away from what you perceive to be important.
  • Conformation bias in data interpretation: Data interpretation is subjective, and it can be dominated by prior belief. We should separate the interpretation of new data from the comparison of these data to prior results.

Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with embracing our subjective side, our interpretative side, our artistic side. This doesn’t necessarily mean rejecting the search for objectivity (although sometimes that is in fact the best course of action), but it does mean we should recognize that when a client starts freaking out about our research results and, more importantly, our insights, we should be prepared and address it head on rather than trying to defend ourselves as “objective observers”. After all, I’ll be the first to say that I love mythology. That said, I don’t believe life sprang from body of Ymir (look it up) but I do believe we can learn quite a bit from the story about our humanity. Similarly, if we embrace the realities of a subjective, or at least causal world, we produce better thinking, better insights and better results.

 

Metaphor and Design

“Metaphor is for most people device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish–a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” George Lakoff

As rational people who like to rationally talk about doing rational things, we like to think we choose products based on what we can see, hear, feel, taste and touch. Is this a good beer? We taste it. Is this a good car? We drive it. We like to believe that we make our judgments by distinguishing tangible distinctions. But is there’s a lot more to the equation than just our five senses. There is more to it than cataloging functional benefits. There are the subconscious elements, the deeper meanings, the other intangible benefits that products offer, which factor into the formula and influence our decisions.

The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They have deeper meanings that intertwine the supposed rational with the symbolic. They govern our everyday functioning, from the expression of complex beliefs and concepts down to the most mundane details. These systems of meaning structure what we perceive, how we perceive it and how we act upon those perceptions.  They inform us how to get around in the world, how we relate to other people and even how to select objects of consumption. Our conceptual system thus plays the central role in defining our everyday realities. And we structure concepts in relation to each other.  Take the concept of argument as war: 

  • Your claims are indefensible.
  • He attacked every weak point in my argument.
  • I demolished his argument.
  • I’ve never won an argument with him.
  • You disagree? Okay, shoot!
  • If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
  • He shot down all of my arguments. 

We do this all the time – time is money, data is geology, clothing is theater.  Consequently, understanding associations between concepts is pivotal to turning insights into action, whether you are designing an object or a strategy.

Pure metaphor.

Sometimes, when luck is with you, you can just show us something that isn’t your product at all and tell us it is. This is the use of  pure metaphor: something that stands in for your product that helps clarify and convince. This is obviously a good idea when your product is intangible, but also when the product is, frankly, dull, complicated or has no contextual frame of reference.

I once saw a poster in a library. In it, a hiker was pausing on a beautiful vista overlooking the Grand Canyon, the awesome spectacle looming before him. The poster could have been advertising Timberland or Arizona tourism or even cigarettes, but headline instead read, “Knowledge is free. Visit your library.” Visually, the message was the perfect use of metaphor. A library visit is like an odyssey through immense, spectacular country; it goes beyond the things housed there speaks to the underlying sense of discovery, exploration and surprise.

Fused metaphor.

Unfortunately, pure metaphors are rare, the reason being that it’s simply easier to create a fused metaphor. With a fused metaphor, you take the product (or something associated with it, the way a toothbrush is associated with toothpaste) and attach, or fuse it, with something else.

Objects, at least from a design or advertising perspective, that are modified in some way are often more engaging to us. We are, after all, naturally curious creatures. Unmodified images are often just clichés or stale representations. Disrupting the symbolic structure and associated metaphor primes the viewer’s psyche, drawing them into product or message to make sense of what’s going on. For example, one of advertiser David Ogilvy’s famous ideas was “The Man in the Hathaway Shirt,” who wore an eye patch and was thereby more interesting than a man who didn’t. He wasn’t just the your typical handsome man, he was a wounded, brave, paragon of masculinity with a story to tell.

Unlike pure metaphor, fused images help contextualize the selling argument for us. we don’t have to leap quite as far when part of what we’re looking at is what’s for sale.

So what? At its most basic level, design is about people rather than the objects and spaces we construct.  Design facilitates interaction between people and brands, mediated by the products and spaces those brands construct. We think in terms of solving problems (addressing functional needs, increasing efficiencies, etc.), but problems aren’t unchanging.  They are fluid and influenced by a host of factors, from basic function to notions of status to whether or not they make sense in relation to our worldview.  Because genuinely innovative, new ideas are almost always the product of juxtaposition, they can be nearly impossible to quantify in terms of risk or acceptance. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to reduce risks.  

Why? Because metaphors endow products and spaces with human-like characteristics, making them more approachable and usable. They couch them in concepts with which we are already familiar and make the process of acceptance easier. They also make conversion from insight to object, space or message easier in the same way, by grounding them in concepts people understand, they can more readily see differences and similarities.  They can more easily envision what materials, words, colors, etc. will resonate and can start to readily think in new directions.

Doing so simply requires using a different set of tools than those typically used to test peoples’ reactions.  This is when the use of metaphor in the design process becomes most important. Metaphor provides us with the means to understand complex spaces, things and relationships. Like the example of “argument is war,” imagine applying the same model to designing a product.  Food as spirituality, for example: 

  • This dish is heavenly.
  • This ice cream is divine.
  • Bacon is good for the soul

Ask yourself these questions:


1. What is this product? What does it do? The logotype for Exhale, a pulmonary disease therapy company, demonstrates visually what they do best: they help us breathe better. Each subsequent letter in the logo is less heavy and lighter in color than the previous. As we read the name, we realize and understand its meaning through this visual metaphor.

2. How does it differ from the competition? One of Herman Miller’s annual reports used transparent paper stock to suggest the serendipity of innovation: You look at one problem and sometimes see through it, the answer to another.

3. What’s the largest claim you can make for the product? That it’s a dog shampoo that dogs actually love? Then put the shampoo in packaging designed like something else they love: a fire hydrant.

4. What is this product’s central purpose? One annual report for the Calgary YWCA emphasized the organization’s work with battered women, so the report itself was torn and distressed. The headline on the beat-up cover: “Last year over 11,000 Calgary women were treated worse than this book.” This metaphor may even be stronger than if they had used actual photographs of battered women, since this approach is less expected. 

Once the metaphor is defined (and there will no doubt be more than one metaphor in the mix in many cases), other associations will start to emerge.  If associations are made between food and spirituality, for example, what does that mean for color palette choices, brand elements, package design, etc.?  That leads to defining not only the functional aspects of the design, but the story behind it.

And design, particularly when thinking about design of something that is new or takes an existing brand in a totally new direction, is akin to creating a story.  There are tensions, themes, characters, frames, etc.  Conflicts, tensions and interactions become connectors between ideas and actions. And like the elements or any story (or the type of story), metaphor allows you to categorize, structure and create boundaries with the information you work with.  The final result is a strategy for design that makes sense to the consumer.

Liminality and Shopping

You will not find the term “liminality” in many dictionaries. For instance, at last check it is not in the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary does, however, have an entry for “liminal,” the adjectival form, which it lists as a rare usage: “Of or pertaining to the threshold or initial stage of a process.” Both liminal and liminality are derived from the Latin “limen,” which means “threshold”—that is, the bottom part of a doorway that must be crossed when entering a building.  And it is this notion of a doorway, or passage from one space to another, and the consequences of doing so, that matters to consumption and shopping, because in a world where the procurement of goods is increasingly simple the act of transforming a person from one state of being to another is more and more important.  We no longer sell just goods, we sell something much more profound – or we hope to, at least.

As a brief refresher, it was not until the second half of the 20th century, that the terms “liminal” and “liminality” gained popularity through the writings of Victor Turner. Turner borrowed and expanded upon Van Gennep’s concept of liminality, ensuring widespread usage of the concept in anthropology.

In 1967, Turner noted that “the subject of passage ritual is, in the liminal period, structurally, if not physically, ‘invisible’” (1967: 95). That is, the status of liminal individuals is socially and structurally ambiguous. From this he further developed the idea.  “Liminality may perhaps be regarded as the Nay to all positive structural assertions, but as in some sense the source of them all, and, more than that, as a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise” (1967: 97).

Fundamentally, the idea is relatively simple.  When a person is in a liminal state, she or he is betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremony.  Their roles in the cosmic order are ambiguous. He then goes on to name this state of non-structure or anti-structure through such concepts as the “realm of pure possibility” and structural invisibility. He chooses the Latin term “communitas” to express this idea of anti-structure, and refers to social structure and communitas as two major models for human interrelatedness.”

The first model is of society as a structured, differentiated, and often hierarchical system of politico-legal-economic positions with many types of evaluation, separating men in terms of “more” or “less.” The second, which emerges recognizably in the liminal period, is of society as an unstructured or rudimentarily structured and relatively undifferentiated comitatus, community, or even communion of equal individuals who submit together to the general authority of the ritual elders.

Yes, yes.  All very interesting, but what does it have to do with consumption and shopping?  Shopping is, at a functional level, about getting things we need – food, clothing, shelter, etc.  But if it were as simple as that we wouldn’t have specialty stores.  We wouldn’t spend hours rummaging around a bookstore when we could simply order the product online.  As the outlets for acquisition have expanded with the growth of broadband, the nature of shopping has changed.  It is as much about fulfilling social, cultural and psychological needs and desires as it is anything else, perhaps more so. Which means it is often a transformational act of a transitory nature that takes us from one state of being to another, if only for a short while. And it is at the gateway that we find the symbols that successfully transition of from one state to another.  Retailers who do this well (Abercrombe, Anthropologie, Swatch) become points of destination and alter the nature of interaction, both with the store and with fellow shoppers, at the point of entry into their space.  They set the stage where shopping becomes akin to a rite of passage.  It signals that we have entered a special place and while we’re there, we are not the same person we were on the street.

The idea that the passage of the magical threshold is a transit into a new sphere of reconfigurement of who and what we are is symbolized by the gateway and harkens back to the worldwide womb image of myth.  It is the hero entering the belly of the whale and emerging transformed, carrying special knowledge or objects that can only be found by going through the passage.  This is why the approaches to temples are flanked by guardian symbols – dragons, angles, sword-wielding demon slayers.  These are the threshold guardians used to ward off those incapable of encountering the higher silences within. They illustrate the fact that the devotee at the moment of entry into the temple undergoes a metamorphosis.  Similarly, in a cultural construct where shopping and consumption have taken on the role of defining personal meaning, the threshold at the store signals a metamorphosis into the stylistically elite.  Those entering the space understand that they are unlike those outside the space and have entered a place that is beyond the confines of the mundane, daily life.  And like the hero, once having crossed the threshold, the postmodern shopper moves into a dream landscape of often curiously fluid, ambiguous forms.  It is here that shopping becomes something bigger than consumption.  It is here that the trial, the hunt, the act of self-becoming takes place, turning shopping into an expression of self-worth and of profound worth to the tribe (the family, the peer group, etc.).

Thinking about a shopping space and the symbolic cues to which we respond at the outset of the shopping journey means taking a more subtle view of how we promote our wares. Rather than screaming “low, low prices,” it means thinking about shopping and spatial design as promoting a change in the people to whom we would sell.  And it means putting as much though into the store front as it does the size of type on an end cap.  It means thinking of both the entry and the space as transitional, transformational structures that compel the shopper to alter his or her sense of being.  And this is where loyalty comes from.  Just as most people do not hop from on hose of worship every week, let alone from faith to faith, so too should they feel compelled to return to your space again and again.

Liminality is almost always a temporary phenomenon. That is not to say that the temporal nature of liminality should be one of its defining characteristics. Rather, human nature being the way it is means that liminality cannot be permanent. Either we are absorbed into the social structure or we shun it all together—we cannot remain betwixt and between.  But liminality can be something that draws people back to a retailer time and again.  It turns shopping beyond the ordinary and signals that your space is beyond the daily grind.  It signals a place of rebirth.