Umair Haque / Bubblegeneration
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Design principles for 21st century companies, markets, and economies. Foreword by Gary Hamel. Coming January 4th. Pre-order at Amazon.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Listening Up Manifesto

Turn on the TV, surf the web, or open a magazine. Soon enough, the onslaught begins - endless reams of ads, all trying to persuade me to cram yet more useless stuff down my already overstuffed gullet.

What do all these ads have in common? They talk down to me. They make, for example promises so overblown that only a zombie hamster or an investment banker would actually believe them. "See this beer? It's going to help you land the girl of your dreams!!". "See this car? It's going to turn you into the equivalent of a celebrity!!". They use every trick in the well-worn book: pretty plastic people, subtle nudges at my human insecurities, slight provocations to challenge me to prove I'm worthy. In other words, they assume I'm a simpleton, a rube, an easy mark, a credulous, gullible fool.

If I wanted to put it a little less nicely, I'd say this. Marketing as we know it - and as we practice it - is based on the premise that a handful of imperious companies could, from the misty heights, talk down. That they could - if they invested enough cash in the black arts of persuasion - order, control, subjugate, command, and dominate. Companies spent the last century talking down because the fundamental assumption of the industrial age paradigm of marketing was Skinnerian: given enough messages, you'd be conditioned to buy, buy, buy on eternal autorepeat - like a mouse eternally chasing a sugarcube perched just off the edge of a wheel. See? There's that assumption that I'm a rube again.

Except, of course, I'm not. Today, I've got more than enough information, knowledge, and relationships at my fingertips to figure out that most of these messages are - let me put this bluntly - Big Fat Lies. Conversely, what I don't have, in the teeth of a Great Stagnation, is money to spend on useless, toxic junk, or time, in my harried life, for overweening, self-indulgent bullsh*t artistry,

Hence, marketing as we know it is obsolete, kaput. All the above is why most campaigns are brand-destroyers, money-losers; it's why "brands" are a devalued asset, whose returns are dwindling; it's why the half-life of companies is shrinking; it's why people and communities exact steeper and steeper discounts, price-cuts, and margin-crushing concessions from the companies once known as the masters of the universe.

So here's what you can do about it. Instead of talking down, start listening up.

Here's what I don't mean by that. Listening up doesn't mean surveilling your customers, and then discovering slightly cleverer ways to trick them (yet again). Listening up doesn't mean holding five thousand focus groups a year. Listening up doesn't mean paging through billions of pages of reports about "consumers". Listening up doesn't mean techno-stalking people creepily.

Here's what I do mean by that.
  • Listening "up": the "up" is the really important part. Here's what it means: dialogues about what elevates and betters people, what raises them up to higher levels of living, doing, having, and being, what really makes them better of in meaningful ways that matter the most - and then igniting a movement to make it happen.
  • Listening up means spending time actually talking to your customers, about not just their "wants" and "needs", but about their hopes and fears, their opportunities and threats, their greatest achievements and biggest regrets. Listening up means empowering as many people inside your organization as possible to spend time talking to your customers to have those conversations.
  • Listening up means letting your fiercest critics rip away at you - and hearing them. Listening up means speaking honestly, instead of dissimulating and misdirecting.
  • Listening up means asking questions that matter - and then being tough enough to hear that, just maybe, yes, you really, honestly do suck at having real, tangible, lasting benefits.
  • Listening up is emergent, nonlinear, complex, and unpredictable. Listening up means open forums, arenas for multi-threaded discussions, tough negotiations, hard truths, a commitment to transparency, a dedication to dialogue.
If, as I unashamedly suspect, the principles above are just a tiny, crude, inelegant subset of the full-blown list of the competencies 21st century companies (and economies) are going to have to master, to interface radically more productively with people and communities - well, then getting from here to there is going to be more like a climb, and less like a stroll.

But here's what you might get in return. Instead of merely discovering the next "feature-set" for your latest, greatest snoozer of a product (Yawn. It got copied in Fujian even before I finished this blog post) - you might discover how to change the world. You might gain a little bit of empathy. You might smoke out your own weaknesses and limitations. You might even learn how to topple the status quo. And if you keep at it, you might even be able to ascertain how to, in your own tiny way, sow the seeds of prosperity.

I have a hunch. If you can do that, the people formerly known as "consumers", the hard-working folks who've gotten a raw deal in this Age of Austerity, the ones who are sick, tired, and more than a little bit annoyed of being thought of as rubes, the ones who are inured to being conditioned to buy, buy, buy, the folks who - rightfully, finally, and thankfully - tune you out, turn you off, and roll their eyes when you talk down to them, well - they probably won't just be grateful. If you can, instead of trying to cram more "product" down their gullets, help them flourish and prosper in meaningful ways that matter the most - well then, maybe, just maybe, they'll start to respect, admire and even love you a little bit for it.*

*And if you can't and don't - well, they probably won't.

-- umair // 12:38 PM // 7 comments


Umair, I tried to think about ads that would seek to improve me: improve my life, my wisdom, my community, etc., rather than sucker me. Couldn't come up with much.

Then I thought of teachers. But they are not (usually) trying to sell me something. And if they are, they are probably not seeking to improve me.

I wonder if ads that improve life are incompatible with your beloved market? They got nothing to sell.
// Anonymous Anonymous // 2:51 PM

You words just keep on giving me hope Umair, that artists like me and my husband just might have a chance in a world that seems set to crush our dreams.

There is so much crap everywhere and those willing to not only take unfair advantage of people, but actually willing to destroy other people's lives, seem to succeed at a higher rate than those just focused on value and content.

Yours is a dialogue that needs to spread. I believe this ignites a hope and a force that will benefit all, not just a handful.
// Anonymous Anonymous // 3:02 PM

This is brilliant, Umair. Thank you very much. I'll be working on this tactically for media companies.
// Blogger Unknown // 4:50 PM

Umair, I love your storytelling. You are a great writer. And your right - marketing, or push/outbound marketing is obsolete. If old iconic brands don't adjust their philosophies accordingly, they will just get swept under the rug like how many companies already have gone bankrupt.

Inbound marketing is the future. Listening, creating, and engaging with consumers - providing them with valuable content and really listening instead of labeling groups with typical generalizations.

Love it Umair!
// Anonymous Maritza Stella // 7:39 PM

"...all trying to persuade me to cram yet more useless stuff down my already overstuffed gullet"

it seems like perhaps you're simply not the target market for these advertisements
// Anonymous Anonymous // 7:02 AM

Isn't it possible that we really are rubes?

To some degree we are looking to products that over-promise because we are looking for short cuts to the things we value in life like status, relationships, personal fulfillment, etc.

We don't need most of what we buy anyway. Corporations need to continue to play to our fears and insecurities if they are to sell to us. If corporations were honest, we would stop buying most of the stuff we consume.

How is this for honest advertising;
"This beer will make you stink and slobber. You will gain a beer belly through continued consumption and you will probably look like an ass in front of your peers if you regularly over-consume.
// Anonymous John Bardos - IdeaEconomy // 11:04 PM

Good article, but it seems a little self important:

"I don't have, in the teeth of a Great Stagnation, is money to spend on useless, toxic junk, or time, in my harried life, for overweening, self-indulgent bullsh*t artistry,

Hence, marketing as we know it is obsolete, kaput." - because EVERYONE is just like you huh?

Don't get me wrong, I agree it is distasteful, and possibly counter productive (I'm not convinced so far but I see the argument) the way marketers (and more alarmingly journalists) act like we're all morons.

It would have been nice for you to demonstrate that other people share your feelings rather than just assuming it.

You state that most marketing damages brands and costs money. Anecdotally that seems true but do you have some stats?

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