Marketing In The Age Of The Metaphysical Tapas Bar

Part 1:  It’s Not Your Day Anymore, Man

The kids just want the hits but we keep trying to sell them albums.

Now I happen to love albums and feel terrible that Millennials and every generation to follow will miss out on the record store experience. But when I start to reminisce, I’m reminded of an early episode of The Simpsons when Bart encounters an older man walking the other way. “Well now,” he says pompously. “What do we have here? Who are you, young man?”

Then, the trademark reply: “I’m Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?”  The man chuckles condescendingly, before chastising Bart. “Young man, back in my day, young people didn’t talk like that to their elders.”

“Well, it’s not your day anymore, man!”

Nope, not your day anymore. Not my day either, and that goes for anyone else in marketing over 30 and many, if not most, of the 20-somethings as well. The kids just want the hits, but it’s not just the kids who cherry pick. Everyone does.

We live in the age of the narcissist, where everyone is special and the individual is more important than any given institution, philosophy, political framework or religion.  Forest Gump was wrong – the world is not like a box of chocolates. It’s more like a Starbucks, where we are able to customize every little detail to our individual whim. Caffeinated or decaf, soy milk or cow’s milk, skim, 2% or whole milk, regular temperature or extra hot, latte or cappuccino, and most important, a foam to milk ratio that’s absolutely perfect.

Conventional wisdom was always that that Starbucks sold “community” as much as coffee, but catering to our vanity has got to be part of their mission, consciously or not. It’s not unlike how Facebook provides the illusion that people actually care about cute pictures of your pets, what you’re listening to on Spotify, what kind of mood you’re in or photos of your dinner entree.

This need for attention, customization and validation forces us to think about marketing very differently. Social and digital media offer the promise of a personalized dialog with consumers, but mainstream brands still rely on mass marketing and branding practices where the Holy Grail is a “single-minded brand essence” targeted to some “universal aspiration” of consumers.

At my company, The Right Brain Studio, we often conduct what we call “Values Research.” This consists of therapy-like, in-depth interviews focused on “laddering up” from the everyday activities and attitudes of respondents until we arrive at a “terminal value,” something that they stand for or aspire to over everything else. Examples of terminal values might include “freedom,” “security” or “belonging.”

This kind of work helps understand our consumers on a very deep level, uncovering an overall framework for thinking that transcends mere brand choice. But what happens when the values of individuals become more relative than absolute, when people stop buying into “big ideas” because it’s just not convenient for them any longer?

Committing to an idea bigger than oneself takes, well, a commitment. Who needs that? How much easier is it to start with an egocentric view of the world and then order little bits off the philosophical menu to suit your lifestyle and needs. Kind of like a metaphysical tapas bar.

Here on the Left Coast, the response to a straightforward question like “what do you like to eat” or “what religion do you practice” often grows into what seems like a mini-series.  Rarely, does one say, “I’m a vegetarian” or “I’m Catholic” and leave it at that. Take a look on or any of the dating sites and see how people describe themselves.

“I was brought up Jewish, and I’m still culturally Jewish, but I’m really into Buddhism now. I guess I’m more spiritual than religious.” Here’s a person who loves his bagels and lox after yoga class, but what does he stand for? Do terms like “culturally religious” or “spiritual” really mean anything if we’re just choosing two from Column A and two from Column B?

We see this kind worldview in politics as well. A recent story the New York Times talked about the trend among young, G.O.P. voters to accept Mitt Romney’s economic view of the world but to soundly reject his thinking on social issues. The article points out, “What has become the norm, some experts say, is for young Republicans to take a cafeteria-style approach to issues that are important to them.”

Kristen Soltis, the communications adviser to pro-Romney “super PAC” aimed at young voters is quoted as saying, “My theory is that, just as young people don’t have to buy a whole album on iTunes and can pick and choose just the songs they like, they can customize their political views — and they do.”

The kids want the hits, not the whole Mitt Romney album. Just the songs they really like. The fact that these young Republicans will have eventually have to listen to all the other songs as well – the foreign policy, support of gun rights, the social agenda, etc. – doesn’t seem to bother them. Along with the highly evolved skill of multi-tasking, perhaps we are developing a much sharper ability to compartmentalize and erase cognitive dissonance from our lives.

Maybe capitalism has functioned too well. We have over-marketed to our consuming public. They have been over-served and are drunk on mind-boggling choices.

The traditional solution to creating brand preference has been to infuse our brands with aspirational values that transcend functionality. Find that singular, compelling message that touches just the right emotions, stay focused and consistent in your communications, and you will be successful in getting your brand to stand out from the crowd.

But it’s not my day anymore, man. Seems that we’re selling whole “concepts” to people who just want the bits that best suit them at any given moment. The kids want the hits, and we’re selling them albums. Time to start thinking differently.

Click here to read Part 2:  Redefining Marketing Fundamentals

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