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Confessions Of A Middle-Age Brand Consultant

by

Brand Consultant Thomson Dawson Brand Strategy

I’ve been in the marketing profession for nearly 30 years, mostly running my own marketing communications and brand development agency. In my professional career, and as an agency principal, the extraordinary and profound global change that has shadowed my entire professional life has brought me to an inflection point, certainly to a crossroads.

And now for my confession.

I’m no longer sure I want to continue to be a part of a business activity that feeds on ever more ridiculous consumption. Here in the US, it’s been corporate brand owners and the media who wrote the book on conspicuous consumption over the last half century. On some level, I’ve contributed to and been investing in keeping that idea alive.

I’m not so sure this is work worth doing.

Our mindless consumption without consequence behavior has got to change. Marketers need to be thinking more about consequences to the whole ecosystem rather than stoking more consumption by the shrinking mass in the middle. If anything, the recent economic meltdown and continued doldrums we are experiencing has served to focus my attention to what’s more important in my life, and in what new areas I can direct my experience and expertise to make things better.

Speaking as a consumer, I don’t believe the current “cultural model” driven by ubiquitous marketing is sustainable. Like many consumers I avoid marketing at all cost. In my view, if we are to prosper as a culture, brand owners need to be thinking about more important stuff than share of wallet.

People matter more than money

A hundred or so years ago there was an expression for managing people in heavy industries like coal mining and steel mills “kill a man, replace him, kill a mule and it costs $25 dollars”.  Cheap exploitive labor continues to be the foundation of our global consumer economies.

Once again Apple provides the poster child example of how more brands will be behaving in the world.  People matter more than money.

At long last, circumstances have forced Apple to take action to fix any damage their supply chain business model has on workers in their China factories. I’m not convinced Apple took these actions because their moral compass as an enterprise required it. No. I’m thinking Apple was forced by more marketing and public relations factors to face the consequences and fix any inequities their supply chain has on other human beings.

Apple (and others too) are being forced to consider their human assets just as important (if not more) than protecting their patents.

Taking care of the blue marble

Another thing that worries me is found in the aisles of grocery stores everywhere – useless, gratuitous and wasteful product packaging. In the name of “shopability” brand owners continue to package their products based on marketing rather than its impact on local landfills. We are trashing the place and it has to stop or nature will stop us.

Consumers are increasingly concerned with how much trash shows up in their lives – especially in their kitchen – and they are engaging only with those brands that are sensitive to this new reality. In fairness, there are many brands making real progress, taking more responsibility about the impact their marketing is having on the well being of planet, but not nearly enough.

Again, I have spent most of my life designing stuff that winds up in the garbage! Just because brands come packaged in recycled material doesn’t relieve brand owners of thinking bigger about better ways to bring their products to market that are more responsible and supportive to the well being of the blue marble. Begin with less packaging!

Data is becoming big brother

Brand owners are addicted to and drowning in consumer data. This addiction has fueled the growth of our social media culture and given rise to corporate organizations whose business it is to exploit data for profit first.

Beyond public relations and spin, I’m not so sure Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn and a host of others like them are too morally invested in the obligation their business models have to respect and protect the rights of people to their privacy. And more importantly, not track their online behaviors to feed the marketing machine.

No doubt, social media has changed (for the better) our access to information and interactions with each other. The other side of the coin is we live in an era of cultural transparency. Whether a consumer or marketer, there’s no hiding your behavior (online and off) from the Internet. In many ways, the web itself has the potential to become the Big Brother of Orwell’s vision.

Swimming in a sea of white noise

Do we really need all this advertising and mindless marketing chatter?  The amount of media saturation in our modern lives is growing every year, fueling the marketing machine. Seems like anywhere two or more people gather in a conversation or a shared experience there’s a marketer trying to interrupt the conversation.

People have ever shrinking attention spans. People are tuned out, numb and apathetic to listening to anything these days. This can’t be good for developing the kind of brain power we’re going to require to solve the “wicked problems” in our world that the business gurus are talking about in all their books and blogs. Especially when it comes to what gets put in the heads of kids these days. While US kids play video games, kids in other countries are playing with advanced calculus.

Modern life in our consumerist culture is a slush pile. Abundant choice is paralyzing our critical thinking. Consumers no longer discern difference in a sea of sameness.  Everything is now commodity swimming in a sea of white noise. More brands, more products, more, more, and more at cheaper prices!

The age bias in the corporate marketing culture

I’m a Baby Boomer. Unlike other generations before and after us, boomers have grown up with one foot in the old era, and one foot in the new. No other generation has experienced the speed and intensity of cultural and technological change than Baby Boomers. We are the bridge between two centuries. My generation invented the era we live in now, yet the marketing culture in contemporary business organizations has a bias towards to us razor back boomers. If you’re over 50, you’re a dinosaur bone.

Many I know are being brushed aside and thrown out of their corporate marketing jobs because others who are younger, hipper, geekier and cheaper are in abundant supply. Seemingly the marketing profession does not value anything outside the coveted 18-34 demo. Having said that, I'm thankful for being as busy as I am.

There’s a reason why advertising agencies resemble college dorms. Marketing and advertising is a profession that doesn’t contain people who will be thinking about the bigger issues facing our culture today. Their job is to sell more stuff.

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9 Comments

Alan Bergstrom on February 19th, 2012 said

Wow…what a great piece! Certainly makes me rethink much of what we have all taken for granted in the name of business growth. Kudos to you for making us think!

Bob James on February 20th, 2012 said

It took guts to publish this. I hope if we ever meet, it isn’t on a breadline.

Thomson Dawson
Twitter:
on February 20th, 2012 said

@Alan, @Bob —

Thanks so much for reading the piece. I sure appreciate the comments. Indeed, for anyone in the game as long as I have been, it gets harder to turn a blind eye on the more troublesome aspects of where our consumer culture may be leading us.

In writing the piece, my intention was to share a teachable moment on topics that (for me at least) are worth talking about.

Nadine C. Goodine on February 20th, 2012 said

Great piece… Over the years, as a business owner and marketer I’ve found myself touching on these thoughts. Then I thought I was being like the first boomers and their views of the “long hairs” etc…

Thanks for putting this out there and making me think about it (again).

Marty Neumeier on February 20th, 2012 said

Good description of the problem. If we ask “why” five times, we may find that the root problem is the success of human beings in exploiting Earth’s dwindling resources. The better we get at medical interventions, technology, food production, and, yes, packaging, the more resources we seem to use up. Seven billion people and still growing could be the real problem. Our evolutionary success may be our undoing.

Adam Singer on February 20th, 2012 said

“Like many consumers I avoid marketing at all cost.”

You nailed it right there. That type of marketing is dinosaur marketing. New marketing doesn’t engage in this sort of behavior, at least the type of marketing I have been practicing as a digital marketer. Will blog on this more, it’s a great discussion :)

Robert J. Bee on February 21st, 2012 said

Thomson,
You never cease to amaze. Profound insight and thoughts in regards to consumption, baby boomers and the business of marketing. Our background is disturbingly similar, so it’s probably not surprising that I find myself agreeing with your bold conclusions. It takes a lot of guts to go public and I can only hope that there are an increasing number of business owners out there who want to do more than just sell stuff. I was quite encouraged to witness the growing number of young people deciding to become “social entrepreneurs”.

Matthew Fenton on February 21st, 2012 said

Gutsy piece, Thomson, and plenty of food for thought. Thank you for posting.

Carolyn Wagner on February 22nd, 2012 said

Thomson,
Thank you for your article, it is filled with many truthful insights. I agree with you on so many levels.

There are many books being written at the moment on this topic and slowly conscious leaders are emerging to instill great corporate transformations to put people first, build character and to allow our lives to be filled with more meaning and purpose.

I can only hope this all emerges and starts transforming sooner than later.

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