Towards a sustainably commercial future

Following on from my previous thoughts I’ve been thinking some more about sustainable commercial messages. (By ‘sustainable’ I don’t intend a paraphrase for ‘ecological’, though that might also be a consequence.) What I mean is this: how do commercial organizations find a way to express themselves and tell other people what they do? How can they do this repeatedly into the future? A universally held business heuristic is that the ‘best’ communication output is necessarily market-driven and that there must be some kind of quantum for its success. In other words, ‘We don’t know from the start what is successful, but we’ll try something, and if it gives us good numbers, that must be right.’ But this will eventually diminish the sum total of what we can say and of people we can say it to. As a result we start going into a downward spiral of non-communication and commercial failure. What is the answer?

To my mind, one of the most impressive recent commercial debuts in the UK has been Innocent Smoothies. After the design director of their chosen creative agency apparently saved them the early (1999) disaster of calling their drinks ‘Fast Tractor’, a selling agenda clearly driven by creativity, good humour and honesty has inspired both pleasure and trust in their products. I remember – still with a smile, some five years later – seeing an Innocent delivery van completely covered with Astroturf. Revealingly, the 2009 sale of what was apparently between 10 and 20 per cent of the share capital to Coca-Cola for £30 million initiated a flood of customer complaints. A year later, the remainder was sold for the same amount. What does this say about public distrust of the messages of large corporate brands? Instead of adding value, how come the takeover reduced share value to a quarter of its value a year before? What is it about the culture of industry behemoths that seems so unable to generate lightness, sprezzatura and élan? Is it ever possible for large and successful companies to renew themselves from within, or must they always have to vampirize new and fresh blood?

‘The sensibles’ (‘suits’ in ad industry parlance) are essential in any organization, but their reflex response to commercial stress is psychically incomplete. It seems odd that something so clear and obvious should be so rarely stated, but the future also has to come from imagination, creativity and raw courage – three things I don’t suppose they teach in business school. ‘The sensibles’ have an unchallenged if worryingly and increasingly self-parodic and inward-spiralling power base in contemporary business because of cold fear: if people in business are (entirely reasonably) terrified of change, complexity and the unknown, the discourse of finance offers the cool reassurance of a priestly class speaking a language that is not much more than post hoc and descriptive instrumentality – wisdom after the event, 20:20 hindsight. The 2008 banking crisis hit with a punch that soberingly revealed that economics has no model of itself – see for example the revelation by Alan Greenspan (former Director of the US Federal Reserve) that he ‘still didn’t understand what went wrong’. Where discourses actively seek to conceal their a priori assumptions and foundational irrationality – to entrench their power base? – we may expect a rough and unsustainable ride. Outside the (self-styled) rationalist paradigm, in Paracelsian medicine, for example, consciousness is associated with silver and the moon, whose light is only a reflection. The world of business – just like the world in our minds – needs something more: a rich and broad discussion between Thanatos and Eros, reason and energy, ego and id, between the cutters and the creators. Let the CEOs and their managers decide, based on their fullest and most roundedly human conception of the ethos of their organization, what is to be the judicious, creative and truly sustainable future.

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About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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