I’m sure many of you are familiar with Rob Walker. He’s written for Slate; has his own blog, Murketing, which is a daily must read; writes a weekly column called Consumed for the New York Times Magazine; and his new book, Buying In, will be available June 3. Sure, Rob is ubiquitous, but that’s not why I read him. I read him because he’s crazy with the smarts, has his finger on the pulse of what people are buying and why, and presents his ideas in a clever, original way. I was fortunate enough to grab an advance copy of Buying In and devoured it over the weekend. Rob was kind enough to take time out from his busy schedule to answer a couple of questions. Hopefully this will give you an idea of the sorts of things Rob covers:
Rick Liebling: I love your term, ‘murketing.’ I think there is an equally murky side-effect of this sort of practice though – the inability to measure the success of the tactics. I’d argue Red Bull’s unique can had as much to do with its success as a kiteboard or other extreme sport stunt. How do these brands measure what’s working?
Rob Walker: I guess this gets at the eternal question of whether marketing is an art or a science. As you know, I’m not in the business, and so kind of ambivalent about that debate, but my outsider’s view is as follows:
In the book I talk about the difference between rational thinking, and rationale thinking. The latter refers, basically, to decisions made for some borderline instinctual reason, and sort of rationalized, non-consciously, with a reason that sounds more rational. A lot of “metrics” that I read about in the trade press, for any medium, strike me as closer to rationales than anything else. One of the reasons I have a hard time following the debate is that any given marketer always seems to be able to come up with some kind of number that demonstrates how what he or she is proposing “works.”
And since I take the position that non-conscious factors guide an awful lot more of our buying decisions than most of us care to admit, it has to follow that such things are very difficult to track and measure.
Finally, I take the influence of culture seriously, and since culture is always changing, that makes it very hard to do what marketers want to do, which is look at how Brand X succeeded because of a certain campaign, and simply recreate that campaign for Brand Y. Meanwhile, the brands are culturally different, and culture has changed in the interim, and so on.
But the upshot is that marketers, in my view, are going to continue to find rationales for more and more aggressive forms of what I’m calling murketing. They’re not going to do it on the basis of empirical evidence that would convince a third party observer. They’re going to do it because everybody else is doing it, and they’re scared of missing out or they want to show that they “get it” or whatever.
RL: You site many academic/scientific studies that detail the hows and whys of consumer behaviour. I’m equally fascinated by instances when a product suddenly drops off the radar. An example is The Club car theft deterrent device. It seemed every car had them in the early-90s. Now, I can’t remember seeing one in the last 10 years. The product isn’t any less effective, so how does something like that happen?
RW: For years I’ve wanted to write a story about something like this, but the truth is I’ve never found the right convergence of a good case study, and someone willing to publish the story.
I don’t know anything about the Club in particular, so I can’t say much about what happened there. I actually use a Club, which I bought probably 15 years ago (and kept even during an eight-year stretch when I didn’t own a car, because I correctly guessed I might have one again some day), at which point I stopped thinking about the auto theft device market.
RL: What’s your take/where do you stand on the Duncan Watts – Malcolm Gladwell “Influentials” debate?
RW: I can’t say I’ve followed that debate very closely so I can only address this in general terms. I do actually deal with it in the book, sort of, but of course when I wrote that material this debate hadn’t yet begun, so it’s not framed that way. Basically what I talk about isn’t so much anything that, say, Gladwell wrote, but rather how people have interpreted what he wrote. The interpretation boils down to: “Hmm, a small group of people are responsible for making Hush Puppies a hit. Ergo, if we find those people, or people like them, and get them to like our widget, then our widget will be a hit.”
I think what Gladwell had to say was a good deal more complicated than that, but this is how people want to interpret it — and not just him but all the other people who have written over many years about the general idea of Influencers and Sneezers and Tastemakers and whatever.
So in the book I call this group Magic People — shorthand that I assume indicates my skepticism about this theory. While I don’t think Gladwell ever says “there is an elite class that influences everything the rest of us do,” you can in fact find people who will say that, and I don’t find it very convincing.
I’ve only read press accounts of Watts’ work, as opposed to his actual papers, so I hesitate to offer an opinion there. From what I’ve read, many of his views seem reasonable, but when the accounts shift into “what it means for marketers” and so on, I just don’t feel qualified to assess that side of it.
RL: Buying In certainly confirmed some of my feelings regarding companies and consumers playing a complimentary role in the creation and meaning of a consumable brand like clothes or electronics. Where does something like the 501st Legion – Star Wars fans so dedicated and passionate that they eventually became part of the Star Wars canon -fit in? Do you think we’ll see the ideas and work of brand-passionate consumers be embraced by properties such as film franchises, book series’ or TV shows?
RW: Well it’s pretty tricky, we are seeing more of that, but on the other hand we’re also seeing some cold feet about that approach — some cultural creators actually suing fans over fan-generated content. It’s tricky because we’re in a weird time with intellectual property laws and people are having a hard time figuring out where to draw the line.
Can you let your fans actually profit from a combination of their fandom and your intellectual property? That freaks out people who make a living off their intellectual property.
The 501st (which I’ve actually written about) isn’t making money off what they do, they sort of converted into something like a civic organization. There’s kind of a gray area of people making and selling costumes that I guess Lucasfilm tolerates on some level, although I think in some cases they’ve possibly gone after people. What makes it extra tricky on the legal front is, as I understand it, you can’t just pick and choose on this stuff: If you let one entity profit off your marks, then you are in effect not defending your marks, and others can argue as much in court and they can profit off them too because you’ve left the precedent out there. And maybe those others are people/entities that for one reason or another you’re not comfortable with, but you’re stuck. (I’m not a lawyer so maybe I’m getting this wrong, but this is my layman’s understanding.)
In the brand realm, the reality is that very few brands are ever going to inspire the kind of passion that Star Wars, Prince, or Harry Potter does. One interesting example is a brand called Mike, positioned as a sort of Nike tribute. I wrote about it in Consumed, and Nike wouldn’t comment. Two years later, they sent the guy a cease and desist.
On the other hand, it was pretty interesting when that guy did the freelance iPod ad that sort of took off on line, and Apple just let it go. I guess he wasn’t profiting, though.
RL: Old media like newspaper publishers, major record labels and broadcast television networks don’t seem to be very good at murketing. They are also all struggling. Coincidence?
Hmmmm. Well I don’t think the problems of those industries have a lot to do with their ability or inability to market (or murket) themselves, so much as they have to do with larger forces that have encouraged and enabled the murketing era. By this I mean the usual suspects: Technology, cultural fragmentation, and the like. Each of those industries also has its unique sets of problems. So, not a coincidence exactly, but related side effects of the same new reality — for better or worse.
To find out more about Rob’s book, Buying In, click here