Here comes Krampus

When I told a friend and colleague about Krampus a number of years ago, before the legendary creature had captured the hearts of the world, I received an earful about the damaging nature of such a myth. I learned that Krampus was, it turned out, as bad as violent video games, eating too much salt or drowning kittens. The thing is, I already knew about Krampus. I’d grown up with Krampus (thank you to my grim, German ancestors). And while I’m sure there are people who would dispute it, I turned out reasonably undamaged by the tradition.

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For those unfamiliar with the legend, Krampus is a demonic creature recognized in many Alpine countries. Krampus, with his horns and great lolling tongue, accompanies St. Nick during the Christmas season, punishing bad children – but lumps of coal are not part of his repertoire. When the Krampus finds a particularly naughty child, he stuffs the child into his sack and carries the frightened child away to his lair, where he presumably makes the child the centerpiece of his Christmas dinner. Krampus is a representation of the fear of winter. He is a harsh counterpoint to the perfect kindness of Santa. He is, in a sense, an answer to the questions children have about the inexplicable selflessness of a bearded gift-giver they have never met.

But is Krampus really so horrible? Will he really lead our children to lives of sin and an unrelenting fear of the dark? I hardly think so. Yes, Krampus is frightening, but regardless of what we want to believe, children are remarkably adept at distinguishing transitory, entertaining fear from the real thing. Krampus is indeed frightening, but he is also cartoonish. There is increasing data, for example, to support the idea that children are decidedly capable of distinguishing cartoonish violence from the real thing. So too with traditions like Krampus.

On the surface Krampus doesn’t have much to do with marketing. When you take a step back, however, it means that there are opportunities to embrace strategies that speak to the darker side of marketing and s

ets the stage for building brand affinity from Halloween through Christmas. The lines between the holidays are increasingly blurred and simply assuming that one cultural norm fits neatly into a single campaign pillar is a lost opportunity. Holiday shoppers no longer wait until Black Friday or even the month of November to get started. To get ahead of this holiday season, smart businesses must consider their marketing kick-offs much earlier. This makes Halloween an excellent starting point for the holiday season in its entirety, tying the fall-to-winter holiday continuum together. Krampus and similar spooky figures associated with the holiday season are, arguably, a better fit for Halloween, so why not use them as a connecting thread?  Ultimately, this leads to a more cohesive experience.

And that’s what marketing is all about: providing an experience. Why do I put up with getting nauseous riding roller coasters? Because my kids love the experience.  Why do people, young and old, love to watch horror movies?  For the experience of being spooked. Halloween marketing is built around providing some type of experience, but it needn’t begin and end with Halloween. Why not build continuity and extend the brand’s story? A brand story is more than content and a narrative. If you don’t have a story you are just another commodity in a season inundated with messaging. A replaceable cog in the consumption machine. By tying everything together, you capture people’s attention for the entire season, not just fleeting moments.

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Making Tech Sexy: Share of Culture and Building Brands

The old advertising model advocated the creation of an external brand image to influence consumers. It talked about benefits, it talked about the company, it promised to give you sex appeal. Those times are long past. This is partly due to the sheer number of channels in which people interact, but we believe there is a deeper reason. And that deeper reason is that successful brands both reflect and transform culture. In other words, talking about what you do is no longer enough. To compete in today’s landscape, you have to convey why you exist and connect it to how people experience their world.

Today we’re seeing that certain issues which used to be considered secondary to a brand are suddenly primary. People are not just choosing the best, the sexiest, or the cheapest. They’re choosing brands that have meaning. Their concept of nature, of self, of society takes center stage. And this is where brands are taking on a new and intriguing role.

So, what role does brand play in this landscape? The simple answer is that brands become symbols for crafting identity. They introduce, reflect, and influence meaning. The most resonant brands are creating value not just by the products or services they represent, but by the symbolic power they impart.

We believe that to be relevant and long-lasting, a brand must operate like a member of a culture. A company must share out its core values and articulate WHY it exists. A brand must stand for something and drive people to participate in it, become part of it. People want to belong to something bigger than themselves. People need to be part of a tribe. A

 How it relates to the creative process

We are not focusing on complex cultural concepts just for the sake of making people smarter. That’s completely useless if you can’t do anything with it. As such, we take the insights we uncover and integrate them into a creative strategy by asking questions such as: “What are the cultural forces and tensions that are acting on the consumer to influence how they perceive value?” or “What are the conventions or the categories that you may or may not want to disrupt?” The answers to these questions build a proposition to bridge between research findings and creativity that illuminates a new pathway to growth. Through that proposition, we are able to connect greater meaning to brands and grow share of culture. If you can understand the domain of culture, and actually use that understanding to build a strategy, you can increase relevance. Starting with a focus on cultural insights ultimately leads to looking at a problem from different perspectives.

Why do we take this particular approach? Because at a fundamental level we believe that when people make a purchase, whether it be a home, a new gaming system, a vacation package or whatever it is, they are actually using that product or service to add meaning to their lives. The meaning that has been created in the goods and services that everybody buys are not intrinsic to those goods and services, it’s actually our culture that says a diamond has more value than a ruby, and gold has more value than silver, an Apple mobile device has more value than a Nokia or what have you. If you come to marketing from that point of view, it suggests that the choice they’re making is actually very important to them. From that perspective, the marketer has a responsibility to do the right thing by those consumers, who are choosing a certain product in order to craft their identity. That means there are really no boundaries for clients and the emphasis becomes one of solving a problem rather than executing on a task. And quite simply, that sets up a brand for meaningful creative work.

Putting It Into Practice

So, what does all of this look like? Let’s take you through an example. BaM was asked by Microsoft to quickly come up with ideas for Windows Gaming’s VIP party for Gamescom in Cologne. Gamescom is the video game industry’s largest European event, with well over a quarter-million visitors and thousands of journalists, all looking to see advances in gaming technology. In other words, this is a very big, very visible event. And as with all such events, people are there to learn but also to have a good time, which of course means parties. But while Windows is a major platform for development and is home to a huge audience of PC gamers, it isn’t necessarily seen as the sexiest of brands. Windows needed two main things; 1) ideas to create buzz at the event and 2) a way to get VIPs to their party. Equally important, this was the event where Microsoft would premiere the auto racing game Asphalt 8, it’s newest release for Windows.

So, we began asking a very basic question. What makes a party meaningful? Through a series of interviews and recounting our own experiences with parties in a narrative-based brainstorm, we came to a very basic truth – a party is just another event, but a destination people want to actively be a part of. It creates a sense of excitement and suggests the promise of stories to come. For the attendee, a destination is something special, something tailored, something to live on after the drinking and dancing are done.

The next step was to gain a richer understanding of developer culture by thinking about them as a “culture of practice”. Culture of practice generally refers to the manifestation of a culture or subculture, especially in regard to the traditional and customary practices of a particular ethnic or other cultural group. In other words, what commonalities could we uncover in the developer tribe that we could speak to?  Two key insights bubbled to the surface. First, there are close links with driving culture in that machines are points of fascination. But the machine itself isn’t enough. They want to understand it, test it, experience what it can do. Design, how quickly it reacts, how it performs, etc. factor into a love of technology – it isn’t about the parts that make it up, it’s about the sum total of the experience. Second, developers have in the past been often overlooked at events like this. They are important and people listen to them, but once the technical discussions are over they have traditionally been relegated to the “geek” corner. Not anymore. Look at the two classic characteristics of geeks: social ineptitude and obsessive devotion to some pursuit. They’re neither social climbers nor rebels, because they are indifferent to how the world sees them. But those days are, in many ways, dead and buried. Cory Arcangel is a Damien Hirst­y hipster artist. Joss Whedon is not a geek but a talented hack writer in the tradition of Ben Hecht, capable of synthesizing junk culture in clever and knowing ways. The point being, developers are as much artists and rebels as anyone else. And they deserve recognition for it.

So, what if we paired the love of the machine with the cool factor of “geek culture”? Almost all of these developers are deeply familiar with the supercars in driving games like Asphalt 8, but how many have actually been in one? What if we created a taxi service involving high-end, high-performance cars? Even if our VIPs didn’t have a strong fascination with these amazing machines, they would jump at the opportunity to be in one. It spoke to the love of performance and technology, but also the sheer bad-assery of the design.

Knowing our venue was several miles from the event, it also provided an opportunity to do more than experience a pointless two-block ride – it let the passenger really feel the car. We found an incredible rental vendor and drivers to ferry our VIPs in Lamborghinis, Audi R8s, and Ferraris – the sort of things you might be familiar with if you were eagerly awaiting the next release of Asphalt.

The next step was to create awareness. Rather than sending an email or note that might never be seen, BaM created exclusive key cards, each featuring different 8-bit party icons for partygoers to present at the door. But for our select group of VIPs, we created cards featuring an illustration of an 8-bit car with handwritten phone number. Dialing that number landed them a ride to the club in our supercar taxi service. This did more than just get you to the event. It created a sense of exclusivity for the passenger and curiosity for the onlooker. It created buzz. Suddenly people were asking, what cool thing does Microsoft have going on and how do I get in?

Party Time

The cars and the buzz were great, but the party had to pay it all off. And this is where details matter most. BaM gave the club’s drink menu a redesign with retro-gaming themed names like Castle Key, Magic Elixir and Combo Move. The staff wore shirts featuring 8-bit artwork that corresponded to the drinks they were serving. And partygoers had the chance to play a sneak preview of Asphalt 8: Airborne on Surface tablets that were walked around by the staff.

Coolness is defined in many ways by the company you keep. In this case, the party did more than attract our guests. It produced both gatecrashers and a visit from the polizei – nothing says “successful party” like people from other organizations, like Google, trying to get in and the police showing up to manage the growing crowd outside the building.

Take Aways

Great story, yes, but why does it matter? At a practical level, we were able to demonstrate that Windows provides outstanding game quality. In other words, we were able to change perceptions about the brand (Windows is, it turns out, kind of cool) and the products. We did more than just make the case for the platform and the game, we generated increased interest and share of culture.

It also opened up new venues to sell games. By proving the products in a very public way, we could exploits Windows’ tremendous reach. We’re largely outside the App Store/Android battle. By demonstrating what Windows has to offer, it allows developers and designers to broaden their market, thus providing Microsoft with new partners, products, and prestige.

Finally, at a broader level we were able to start shifting perceptions of Microsoft and Windows. Added to the successes of the Surface Pro, the exclusive use of Windows products in DC universe programming, and an increasingly user-friendly operating system, this event helped the company capture a greater share of meaning in the broader culture. It helped move the conversation from moments of advertising and marketing, to part of a deeper, positive undercurrent. In other words, it helped capture a greater share of culture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the Age of Emotion

When historians look back on the early years of the 21stcentury they will note a paradigm shift from the closing years of the Information Age to the dawning of a new age, The Age of Emotion.  Now, there are those that would argue that in a period defined by prolonged economic ennui ROI is the only thing that really matters and pricing is the only real consideration consumers think about – the rest is fluff.  But I disagree. Why? Because we’re not talking about trends here, which are ultimately short lived, but cultural patterns which are sustained and signal a shift in worldview.levis-store-lighting-design-4.jpg

On a fundamental level, we are more in tune with our emotional needs than at any time in recent history, or at the very least we have more time to reflect on them.  We focus increasingly on satisfying our emotional needs and pop culture both reflects and creates this. It is a cycle. One needs look no further than the multi-billion dollar self-help industry as an example. Talk shows abound focusing on the emotional displays of the masses and the advice given out in front of an audience of millions.

And this growing focus on the emotional has extended into the shopping and retail experience.  Increasingly we will see a subtle, yet profound difference in the way people relate to products, services and the world around them. Retailers increasingly focus on the nature of the in-store experience, converting the space from a place to showcase goods, to a location, a destination, a stage on which we perform.  And indeed, shopping is as much about performance as it is about consumption.  Just as fulfilling emotional needs has become the domain of brand development, it is increasingly becoming a centerpiece of the retail experience, at least for retailers focused on margins rather than volume. Rationality will take a back-seat to passion as we move from the sensible to the sensory.  While ROI is the obsession today, Return on Insights and Return on Emotional Satisfaction will be the leading factors in the years to come.

For the developed world and the world’s emerging economies, time and money equate to an increased use of brands and shopping as emotional extensions of ourselves.  Status, power, love, etc. are wrapped into the subconscious motivations for choosing one location over another.  And while we are still bargain hunters, the hunt is less about price than it is about the experience of the hunt.  Again, emotion drives the process, even when we say it doesn’t. “Experience” is emotional shorthand.

Successful companies will learn to pay more attention to how their customers react emotionally and how their brands can fulfill emotional needs.  In the Emotion Age, brands will either lead the way to customer satisfaction or be left in the dust.

 

Shaping Personal Identity through brands

It sometimes seems lost on people, but consumers have begun to face an important problem: the increased uncertainty about various product attributes. This arises from various asymmetric information consumers have access to, regarding a specific product. Consumers tend to asses certain product attributes in a holistically manner rather than a case by case basis – bigger, faster, longer may still sell low-interest items, but it is increasingly losing its traction. Consequently, both extrinsic and intrinsic factors have to be accounted when trying to differentiate a product from its competitors. And therein lies the central distinction between products, campaigns, etc. and brands. Brands are bigger, richer, and drive us to act without always know precisely we we’re doing it. Brands can potentially play many different roles in the consumer decision process.

Nothing new in that idea. But if we step back a moment and let ourselves expand on that thinking, it opens up a range of deeper questions about the role of a brand in the cosmic sense. How brands help us construct and reflect our identity is one way to think about it – and it’s a damn fine way, at that.

Often, consumers will tend to choose a brand that are congruent with their self-image. In this particular way each consumer at an individual basis will try to reflect his or her own identity through choice. When part of a larger social group, consumer choices tend to converge to a certain pattern thus forming the basics of an individual social identity For example, a may choose to buy a pair of Doc Martens as an act of ubiquitous self-expression. If the buyer considers himself a post-punk soccer mom the boots are also a visual expression of being part of the middle-aged-once-a-punk tribe. Each individual lifestyle reflects a person’s values, life vision, and aesthetic style. It also reflects a shared set of ideologies, collective style, and sense of belonging.

Marketers tend to use brands to differentiate a company’s products from competitors and to create a sense of superior value to customers – this is frequently done by talking about product attributes. The most important step in creating and delivering a superior value to customers is by adding meaningful brand associations that create value beyond the intrinsic characteristics of a product. One of the most important characteristics of a brand is the self-expressive function, meaning that value goes beyond the immediate benefits of your stuff and imparts a sense of psychological and social well being. Brands have the power to communicate valuable information and can be used and perceived in many different ways by consumers, people with similar beliefs, and those closest to us. In other words, brands reflect our identities and a lot of folks tend to use brands as a mean to express their identity and lifestyle. Indeed, this is becoming more prevalent as peoples seek to break down the paradox of belonging to something bigger than themselves while aspiring to the American ideal of hyper-individuality.

In addition to serving as an external signal, brands can be used to create and confirm a consumer self-concept and unique identity. Individuals try to express their identity through all means they have at their disposal. By choosing a particular brand, a person reaffirms both his own and people’s perception about his desired identity. As a result, people use brands to reassure themselves and to signal others what kind of person they are. In particular, consumers tend to prefer brands that are convergent with their perceived ideal identity. As a result of that self-expression, a predilection for a certain brand is the result of only sociological factors because a person’s need for self-expression is the result of interactions with other members of the community. In other words, brands are used as a mean of expressing their own identity, brand predilection is the result of intrinsic factors, and brand preference is the result of extrinsic factors. What that means is that a successful brand must have a strong degree of resonance with both consumer personal identity and socio-cultural identity.

As a consequence, consumers’ needs for self-expression can be satiated not only be using certain brands but also by other available means of self-expression. This is particularly important when analyzing the correlations between brands and lifestyle because the lines between personal identity and everyday doings are becoming more blurred. Products are just things, but brands become beacons.

Why does it matter? It maters because brands can be used to create a unique social identity for each customer. Brands are more than just instruments of hedonic experiences because they have the power to harness and channel specific hedonistic desires in expressing a bigger sociological and psychological construct such as lifestyle. And this is where data and linear thinking fall flat (you just knew it was coming). Data get at the what and the why, but they don’t get at the richer aspects of the human experience, the why behind the what. Quantitative information isn’t relevant if it only gives you have the picture – the Mona Lisa can be broken down into its constituent parts but that doesn’t explain why people will spend hours in line for a glimpse at it. A John Deere cap does a great job of keeping the sun out of your eyes and that can be quantified. But those same data points can’t explain why the brand resonates with Midwest alternative kids to such a degree.

The answers lie in rethinking how we address brands and branding. By expanding the brand conversation to one of identity, longing, identity it allows us to penetrate the white noise and reach our consumers, turning them into advocates.

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.  

Context and the Changing Mobile Landscape

Marketers increasingly think about consumers in complex ways. It is understood that in a changing digital landscape, the context in which they learn and shop influences what messages we deliver and how we deliver them.  But we rarely define “context”. It is one thing to design a usable app that conforms to human factors and cognitive requirements, but it is quite another to design a stage in an environment when there are innumerable semi-autonomous devices mediating in a swirl of information.

Physical Context

Physical context refers to the notion of infusing devices with a sense of “place.”  In other words, devices can distinguish the environments in which they “live” and react to them. But this is difficult. Mapping out longitude and latitude is one thing, but reacting to features (political, natural, social, etc.) is much more problematic. Getting beyond the boundaries of identifiable borders and structures, means coming to grips with “place”.

Think of a mall.  There are hundreds of stores, each with hundreds of devices. The device now has to decode what information is relevant and how it will deliver information. What competing retailer apps get precedence over others? When you receive an offer, will the device “tell” other retailers in order to generate real-time counter offers? The digital landscape is continuous at all points throughout the day and getting design right means understanding the systems in which people operate.

Device Context

Just as various kinds of sensory apparatus (GPS-receivers, proximity sensors, etc.) are the means by which mobile devices will become geographically aware, another class of sensors makes it possible for devices to become aware of each other. This presents a series of problems that are different than those of physical context.

Technology is on the verge of existing in a world with zero-infrastructure networks that can spring up anywhere, anytime. Devices will exist in a constant state of discovery.  Returning to the mall, imagine that you are with a friend whose device is communicating with yours.  In the mall are a couple of thousand devices, all of which are discovering each other.  What happens now?  Assuming we’ve dealt with the problem of one friend’s device communicating with the other friend’s device while blocking out the other 2000 devices, you still have several thousand potential “identities” that may have useful information.  How is it decided what to manage without devoting significant time to setting up the hundreds of variables?

Information Context

This is the realm of information architecture. Data no longer resides “in” our computers.  Devices are extensions of the cloud and exist as something akin to perceptual prostheses.  They exist to manipulate data in the same way a joy stick allows us to handle the arms of robot in a factory.  This reflects a shift in how we use information because all information is transitory.

Storage issues are essentially removed from the equation.  Content can leap from place to place and device to device in an instant. Content will be customizable and reflect the human-application interaction rather than shaping it. Devices will find themselves in the fourth kind of context of social interaction, with all its contingencies. Just as behavior is shaped by the moment, so too will the apps and information needed to adapt.

Socio-Cultural Context

Each person is unique to contrasting cultures, tongues, traditions and world views. A cultural context may exist on levels as diverse as a workplace, a family, a building, a county, a continent, a hemisphere. Cultural context provides a framework for what “works” for each consumer in the world.

It is at this point where a better perspective is gained on what will and will not be accepted in the mobile universe. Take a beer pouring app that mimics the pouring of a beer when the device is tilted.  It serves no direct function and yet it has been successful because of the cultural needs it to which it speaks – workplace breaks, male-to-male bonding, etc. But in another context, say Saudi Arabia, the context shifts. Success lies in understanding the reasons behind the consumers beliefs and actions in the symbolic exchanges, and the ability to code and decode those exchanges.  Marketing mishaps come from a lack of comprehension.

So What?

Our great technological leaps forward have also produced more complexity, leading to a greater need to make sense of insights. Without a means to categorize context, marketers will miss identifying trends that matter most. What to do?

  • Rethink the problem. Frequently, “the problem” is a facet of something else. For example, when researching an eBook the problem to be solved isn’t technology, it is understanding why people read different material in different contexts. It may be about displaying books as a means of gaining status. The point is the problem seen may not be the problem at all.
  • Define the contexts. Defining the contexts helps articulate the range of possibilities for observation. For example, if the consumer behavior is drinking beer, all contexts in which beer is purchased and consumed need to be articulated.
  • Think through the sample. Who is the marketing targeting? What are the social circles that will shape the event? It isn’t enough to define a demographic sample, you need to think in terms of cultural systems.
  • Make a plan that involves experiential information gathering, not just statistics. Develop a guide to navigate the data collection and a method for managing the data (everything is data). Don’t  just think about the questions to ask, but also include opportunities for observation and participation.
  • Head into the field. This is the heart of the process. Meaningful insights and moments of “truth” are slow to get at. Low-hanging fruit will be easy to spot, but the goal should be to find those deeper meanings. Because everything is data, from attitudes to artifacts, it is important to capture as much as possible.
  • Do the analysis. Analysis is the most difficult, but also the most rewarding. The goal is to bring a deep understanding of cultural behavior to the analysis process. This goes beyond casual observation and gets to the underlying structures of why people do what they do.

The process is more time consuming than traditional approaches, but it ultimately yields greater insight and reduces time and costs on the back end. The end result is that you create greater value for the client and for the company.

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.