The impudent breed

While doing some groundwork for our next Marketing and Communications Strategy, I came across this quote from Gilles Deleuze: ‘Marketing has become the centre or the “soul” of the corporation’ (in Du Gay, P. (2000), “Markets and meanings: re-imagining organisational life”, in Schultz, M., Hatch, M.J., Larsen, M.H. (Eds),The Expressive Organization, OUP – itself an interesting article about the role of ‘disciplines of symbolic expertise’ in modern organisations).

Deleuze isn’t implying that a marketing-ensoulled organisation is a good thing, as a broader quoting of the passage indicates: ‘Corruption thereby gains a new power. Marketing has become the centre or the “soul” of the corporation. We are taught that corporations have a soul, which is the most terrifying news in the world.’

He goes on to say that ‘The operation of markets is now the instrument of social control and forms the impudent breed of our masters‘ (italics mine). I like the phrase ‘the impudent breed’ – like a sequel to This Happy Breed, perhaps, based on a group of cheeky (yet evil and omnipotent) marketing folks; or a departmental strapline; or perhaps a title for yet another blog. I’m by no means sure that I follow what is meant (perhaps it’s a hard to translate passage – I can’t quite following what is forming who and where the impudence comes from).

Difficulties with translation aside, I’ve found my first conscious dip into Deleuze quite exhilarating. For a piece published in 1990 it seem remarkably prescient in its description of a ‘control society’ where the computer is the defining technology, continuous monitoring places everyone in a universal system, where one is ‘undulatory, in orbit, in a continuous network’ and ‘Everywhere surfing has already replaced the older sports’.

By empathising with a piece that situates ‘marketing’ within a dystopian vision, am I adopting a position which would logically lead me to seek a different line of work? Possibly, though I would make a case for social marketing as being somewhat more benevolent than the control-force of late capitalism, and point out that marketing for a university is an enabling structure for exploration of radical thought to take place, Deleuze’ ideas being just one example.

The whole article can be read here.

Marketing Excommunication

An article in today’s (24 Jan 08) THE reopens the ‘are students customers?’ debate with some interesting points:

The notion of students as “customers” has been banned at Liverpool Hope University as it and other church-based institutions lead a fightback in favour of a more rounded approach to higher education.
Gerald Pillay, the vice-chancellor, said: “Students should not be treated as customers but as part of scholarly communities.”
The phrase “customer service” implied that universities were caring for students for financial reasons rather than out of a moral duty to do so, he added. “We place distinctive emphasis on the individual.”

I admire the brio of the ‘church-based institutions’ in staking a claim to this particular piece of moral high ground, deftly implying that institutions without an explicit Christian basis are less likely to recognise moral duties, value individuals, or endeavour to foster scholarly community. The ‘customer’ argument is a good platform for this as it is such a reliable hackle-raiser. This semantic issue was discussed here at length last year. It’s a debate that does need to be reopened (even in a non-Church-based university.)

For what it’s worth, I’ve come to the view that the primary message should be about students as partners in their learning, and members of an academic community. However it has to be acknowledged that higher education needs to demonstrably meet the needs of students (and their funders), and that these are free agents who can choose not to engage. It is therefore necessary to positively influence the experience they have, in a managed way, including communicating the benefits of participating in the academic community. The relationship resembles the customer role in some limited but important ways, so banning the notion (if indeed notions can be banned) and launching a ‘fightback’ is not useful.

Back to the article. Professor Pillay also makes an interesting point about marketing: “The Christian tradition is something that is part of the fabric of an institution and should be obvious in its graduates. Collective memory is the best form of marketing” (italics mine.) This must be true (though it’s a bit like saying ‘results are the best form of experiment’). It is actually quite exciting to consider the kind of collective memory (or impact, or perception) that is being created by the graduates of the mass higher education system as it has evolved over the past decade or so – as unprecedented as a never-before-dreamed dream. Whatever that emerging memory is, it guess it’s as diverse and fluid as the HE system we now inhabit.

‘If it’s written on a sweater then I’d better not do it’

Big thanks to Rob ‘Topsyturvydom/Whirligig of Time’ Spence for sending me this article about higher education ‘mottos’ in the US (likely to be referred to as slogans or straplines over here.) A similar article from 2005 gives further food for thought.

A slogan can seem like a good idea – distilling some of the essence of an institution, creating what US consultancy Stamats call “a trust mark, a warrant, and a promise,” as well as “a word a college or university owns in the prospect’s mind.” But how worthwhile is the quest to find one?

It is possible to make radical misjudgements – some of those cited in the articles seem a bit batty with the luxury if hindsight: ‘From Here You Can Go Anywhere’ doesn’t make ‘here’ seem very appealing; ‘A College-Like University’ would be unlikely to be adopted by this institution; ‘Do it With Your Head’ could possibly give rise to hilarity.
The Christian missions of many US institutions takes the slogan-reader into semiotic territory that may feel unfamiliar to some: ‘Unwrap the Universe, Peel Back its Shroud’ from Trinity Western was enticingly apocalyptic and theologically interesting, and I’d love to know how it was interpreted by students, staff, parents etc.

But should any university (or Edge Hill in particular) have one? I don’t think the answer is automatically ‘yes’. There is a glibness and redundancy to many – of course we offer ‘great campus, great careers’ – which university wouldn’t? They have a kind of ‘marketingness’ about them, by being so direct – simply stating ‘leading the way in X’ doesn’t make it true. And some of the most powerful current brands don’t have them – Google, for instance, doesn’t need a slogan about ‘easy effective searches’ or somesuch, it just delivers its service well with nice design and a consistent personality – better things to pay attention too, maybe.

The next EHU branding exercise (for our 2009 student recruitment) uses a concept that can be expressed in many ways, a single word, a tone, a style of imagery… but we’re going strapless.

PS – There’s a small gift for the first person to identify in a comment the source of the post title…

(Winter)Birth of a Brand

Like most people I buy things. And not just any things – I choose particular things to buy, because I prefer them over others. And, being in the business of marketing, I’m professionally interested in this process of preference. Marketing folk try to engineer choice… so how does it work? Is it a purely rational process, that could be scientifically tested to produce predictable, repeatable results? Or a seething mass of emotion, prejudice and random chance that needs an art (a black art perhaps) to understand?

One recent object I paid money for was a paperback book – Winterbirth, a fantasy novel by Brian Ruckley. Here are some reflections on how I came to prefer this item over 1000s of others; a sort of focus group of one (me), sprinkled with the Ps of Marketing

Winterbirth cover

I came across the book in a bookshop – so the mighty apparatus of distribution (place) played a vital role in the purchasing process. I hadn’t seen any promotion for the book, so its packaging had to do much of the work of convincing me it buy it. While I picked it up and fondled it speculatively, my thought process went something like

looks like a Bernard Cornwell or Conn Iggulden book – is it actually a fantasy? maybe its been misshelved – hmm, ‘A World of Ice…A World of Blood…A Godless World’ – sounds like an Arctic dystopia – might want more of a feelgood factor – mind you in the warm weather the cold might be nice – the ‘Godless’ thing sounds interesting – has anyone reviewed it? Well the Times say ‘No one who enjoys heroic fantasy should miss this’ – David Gemmell books used to be described as ‘heroic fantasy’ – would be good to find another author like him – 3-for-2 sticker, eh – that makes the price pretty decent for a new author – if I can find two more I’ll give it a try…

Although stories involve mental activity the book is the physical evidence of what’s on offer. This is more of an influence than one may expect – in this case the material heft of the volume, the texture of the cover, the paper quality, even the smell of the thing all felt right.

It’s hard to sample the ‘product‘ of literature without buying it first. In this case, I glimpsed inside Winterbirth and read a couple of lines. This is a pretty daft way to choose a book, though there are plenty of possibilities to unchoose one based on a random glimpse of text. For me, buying books in this genre, I can be put off by badly done pseudo-mediaevalism (‘Guard yon door!’), excessive modernity (‘OK then, let’s storm the keep’) or complete silliness (‘flaxen moustache’.) Ruckley survived this test, based on whichever bit of prose the page-flicking lottery served up to me.

The process of engagement with the book isn’t limited to what happens between the covers. Time was that authors seemed like distant, exotic figures – like the gods themselves, best avoided in real life. Producers of culture were a breed apart from its consumers. Had I been alive in the 1950s, I doubt I would have been sending telegrams to J.R.R.Tolkien whilst reading The Lord of the Rings. However modern technology, the structures of fan culture, and the nature of book marketing mean that communicating with writers is not too difficult for those with a mind to do so (although having something to say to them can be a challenge.) Authors’ websites and blogs have become an expected part of the experience… Halfway through the book I found Brian Ruckley’s website and asked him a couple of questions. From there I read a few reviews and generally felt drawn further into the whole endeavour of the book, before I’d even finished it. So Web 2.0 has added a kind of community dimension to my £7.99 (before discount) purchase. And, if my commitment to the book was to waver (which it didn’t as it’s excellent) the reviews etc on the web could act as a kind of Prozac for post-purchase blues.

Marketing communications are promises, and like marcoms it’s easy to see a book as a promise, or rather series of promises – the cover promises you an interesting text; introductions, foreword and prologues promise you more; each page carries on promising the next will be worthwhile. Even the end often promises further pleasures from future books (particularly in this case, with more volumes to come.) Ultimately these promises are never fulfilled, however good the book (or product or brand) is – as desire itself cannot be fulfilled, by its very nature. In fact the better the book, the less fulfilled it makes the reader – who hasn’t got to the end of a great book and wished it hadn’t finished? I guess we all collude in the game of creative dissatisfaction…

Anyway, for what it’s worth there’s one micro-example of the marketing process in action. (What a fantasy author might describe as a Journey, or Quest…) Along the way, for me at least, the author has been transformed from a mere corporeal human being (Brian Ruckley) into a kind of brand (‘Brian Ruckley’), ie a reliable source of future ‘products’. And I’ve been transformed from a casual paperback buyer to a seeker of signed hardbacks and someone who tells people about the book… This is the kind of thing that has marketers cackling and rubbing their hands in their subterranean lairs. But, reflecting on this, it’s amazing that any product gets sold in commercial quantities. So many things had to fall into place for a purchase to happen, eg for me to buy, like, and recommend this book. If the single word ‘heroic’ hadn’t been quoted on the cover I doubt that I would have bought it, at least not then. The same things didn’t fall into place for the thousands of books I didn’t buy that day. It seems a fragile business, a complex web of interactions with the product itself (or rather, the physical artefact that is the ‘focus’ of the product) at its centre. A sophisticated symbolic architecture needs to be deployed to position the product as an object of desire for a largely unknowable and changeable audience. High-involvement purchases, high-involvement commitments such as choosing a university, are both more and less fragile I think. More so, as there is far greater complexity and length of time – more processes, more communication, more possibilities for it to all fall apart. And less, actually for the same reasons – there is more opportunity to rescue the relationship, precisely because there is more time, more interactions, more investment on both sides. Whereas if I leave a book on the shelf in Waterstones that’s the end of it.

So, be it an art or a science (or a form of magic) it seems marketing does work, some of the time.