I’ve been reading Grant McCracken’s website, This Blog Sits At The Intersection of Anthropology and Economics, for a while now. There are a lot of blogs that cover marketing, culture, advertising, etc., but I read Grant’s because he truly has a unique perspective. It’s rare that I read something on his site that I have read somewhere else. That’s because he’s a cultural anthropologist and comes at these things from a different angle. He’s also written several books, most recently Transformations. I’m working on that one, but just finished Flock and Flow – Predicting and Managing Change in a Dynamic Marketplace. It’s a really thought provoking book that had me contemplating not only the work I do, but how I position ‘my brand’ as well. Grant was kind enough to engage in an email conversation with me regarding the concepts in Flock and Flow:
eyecube: Growing up in California in the early 80s, the “Preppy” look wasn’t huge, but at around the same time the skateboard culture was. And in New York the hip hop culture was also just on the verge of exploding. Clearly these were three trends, all coming out at around the same time, that would have massive influence on pop culture. So, if two decades ago it would have been tough to pick just one trend to ride, can a company do so today or must they hedge their bets?
Smirnoff uses the cultural shorthand of the Preppie – Green Tea Partay
Grand Master Flash signals the dawn of rap/hip hop – The Message
Skateboard culture begins in SoCal with the original Z Boys of Dogtown
Grant: Hedging bets is the name of the game. The corporation should be tracking all of these. Hip Hop has come and gone, waxed and waned, all of this should have been captured by the big board [a company’s internal tracking mechanism]. As these trends demonstrate, the days of one big trend are over. It’s now about managing the perfect storm of contemporary culture as best as possible, and getting early warnings of change as soon as possible.
eyecube: In the book you talk about the music industry and looking for signs of the next trend, which is often a rejection of previous trends. What does the music industry do now with the emergence of mash-ups? If I can listen to a song, produced by someone outside the music industry, that blends 80s hair metal stalwarts Motley Crue with current UK grime princess Lady Sovereign, how can the music industry possible know which way to go? It seems like the traditional swing of the pendulum is gone, in fact the whole pendulum has been blown up.
Southern California 80s hair metal meets 21st Century UK Grime – Lady Sovereign v. Motley Crue
Grant: More evidence that the days of one big trend, “just-go-ask-the-temp-what’s-cool” are over. And this makes a good listening system all the more important. Anyone of these little trends could rise up to be a major player. And these days it will happen fast. So early warning is the name of the game. Edge finding is the name of the game. Having a rough idea of what’s “out there” helps us understand what it is we’re facing when the Nor-easter comes ashore.
This question also raises the issue of content creation and relay, and the brand as a content creator and relay system. It’s essential for brands to take both parts. They need to create content that consumers can repurpose. This is one way to remain in the game, to be part of that when consumers take content and use it for their own purposes, there will still be characteristic grammars or signature for how things can be “repurposed.” And brands can’t do this unless they have their ear to the ground.
eyecube: I’m a big believer in that concept of brands laying the foundation for consumers to build upon. You say what Jay-Z did with releasing an a capella version of The Black Album which allowed Danger Mouse to create The Gray Album.
eyecube: Many of the people who read your blog as well as this one are freelancers or consultants. I thought the concept of the Kauffman continuum had an interesting application as it relates to an individual creating their own brand. At the leading edge you might speak to someone using Twitter. A little further down, maybe Facebook. Continue down the continuum and you have your own blog. Then at the far right you have a hard copy book. So you can speak to potential clients all across the continuum. Is that the way to go, or should you focus in one area of the continuum?
Grant: I think at least for the time being, as regards personal relationships and networks, real world events and real world objects open the relationships, and Facebook and Twitter help sustain them. This will change, but for the time being things start in the real world before they go digital. On the other hand, you and I know one another without the benefit of face to face contact. And if I may say, it feels like we’re friends. So I guess things are changing faster than I think (as usual).
eyecube: You make a compelling argument in the book for brands to ride the flow along the Kauffman continuum. Should, or can, they also act as “Flow Blockers” to prevent competitors from doing the same thing?
Grant: I think the best way for a brand to leverage a trend is to treat both as open source. If we let the world run through the brand, we encourage the brand to run through the world.
A big thank you to Grant for taking the time to chat. For anyone interested in consumer behaviour, marketing, pop culture or trends, I recommend picking up Flock and Flow.