Interview with Brand Anthropologist Richard Wise
Richard Wise is the resident Brand Anthropologist at the experiential marketing firm, Mirrorball. He received a masters at the University of Sorbonne in Paris and has spoken at various conferences, most recently the Future Trends Conference in Miami. You can follow him on Twitter @CultureRevealed or his Tumblr where he highights a plethora of interesting cultural trends and insights. As a cultural anthropologist, you approach planning from an intellectual, academic angle. How valuable is the study of cultural trends to brands?
Look at the list of problems brands bring you to solve. They almost always come back to cultural issues.
“Our franchise is aging and we’re starting to look dated.”
“People don’t talk about us as much as they used to.”
“People say we have an arrogant, out-of-touch image.”
“People don’t know what we stand for.”
So…you’re losing it with the group because what you stand for is no longer valuable to them – to their culture!
The thing about culture and brands that makes it so challenging is this; culture hides more than it reveals - and what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants. You can’t understand that fully unless you go live in another culture and, starting as an outsider, become an insider. Then you go back to the culture you came from and suddenly you can actually see all the hidden meaning. And this is true for people who work on brands and try to solve the cultural problems of the brands without actually understanding their own culture. They won’t get very far.
The opposite is wonderfully true. The more you make serving the culture your brand mission, the faster you will grow – and it will feed and feed on itself. While most companies have been stagnant or declining in the last ten years, Apple‘s revenues, profits and public valuation have grown vertiginously. It all started with the return of Steve Jobs and their publicly thanking their fans with the “Think Different” campaign.
There's a minor war in the advertising world between traditional agencies that tout their big idea thinking and a rigorous approach to research and smaller, digital agencies that are well versed in current digital trends. Who do you think will win the "war" and why?
Remember that pre-Internet classic, Ogilvy on Advertising? I always love to get free advice from Uncle David. He said in his charming book, published in 1985 by the way, that his best advice to young men and women in advertising would be to learn everything they can about direct response – because it’s the future of advertising. You can see what works and what doesn’t, you have to lean forward and sell, one person at a time, like Ogilvy did when he sold stoves door to door. He indeed saw it all coming and he was right.
So big agency, digital shop…everybody looks for evidence of what works, what’s surprising and fresh, what people really want to experience. And the only way to find that is to experiment. If you’re conducting meaningful experiments then you have as much of a chance as anybody of owning the future.
That being said, I like what Karl Marx said: “Every time the train of history goes around a corner, the reactionaries fall off.” The bigger you are, the more likely you are to be a reactionary. My heroes are guys like Ogilvy and Bernbach because they stayed humble and curious even as they got enormously successful. And I think Robert Greenberg is just like that too.
The race today goes to whoever likes to learn the most and is fast at it. But I like to think that, if you’re slow, but you love to learn, you may have an edge over the fast learner who’s arrogant.
What books, magazines and activities do you experience to remain on the cutting edge of cultural trends and developments?
The most important thing I do is read books that have nothing to do with marketing or brands but books about human nature and civilization. Most recently, I read two masterpieces of cultural anthropology: Becker’s [amazon_link id="0684832402" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]Denial of Death[/amazon_link] and Girard’s [amazon_link id="0826468535" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World[/amazon_link]. I saw King Lear at the Public Library. I walked through the Frick Collection. I do this because it’s one of the best things I can do with myself. It always pays dividends in my work – provided I don’t directly seek them.
OK, then there’s thinking about marketing, brands and culture. Tumblr by itself is more than enough to be endlessly enriched, stimulated and provoked. If you curate the right list of people to follow you will be in the kitchen of emerging culture where it’s all being made right before your eyes. I read the Wall Street Journal, the paper itself, every day – my God, it’s so beautifully designed and it has amazing trend info. If you don’t have time for it, though, follow me on Twitter, I always tweet out their best stuff. I also love a couple of key websites: sciencedaily.com and psychologicalsciences.org. And I live in Bushwick – there’s something about the experience of living there, not being a tourist, that’s very valuable.
At the recent Future Trends conference, you gave a presentation on two cultural phenomena, FameUs, and AnonymUs, showing how everyone wants to be famous while at the same time, wants to contribute to the greater good. Are these attributes just two different sides of the same consumer or completely different targets?
I don’t believe that trend work should be some kind of glossy PC channeling of the Zeitgeist. It should describe what is really going on. I also believe that for every trend, there is a countertrend. So here’s how I apply that with the shift taking place in our public and private selves.
On the one hand, FameUs describes the ever-widening sense of intimacy we have with our celebrities, the feeling of control we have over their self-expression and the growing conviction that we ourselves are going to be famous.
Its countertrend is AnonymUs - the growing conviction that so much of social media is communal narcissism, the impulse to unplug from a culture of celebrity worship, and the spiritual inspiration to lose oneself in pursuing a greater social good.
How we experience and live in these trends varies from one person to the next. You can be your own Lady Gaga 24/7. Or you can wear unbranded vintage clothing that you bought at The Cure while you volunteer at the Homeless Shelter. And, just to keep things interesting, you can try to live in both trends simultaneously like the cast of Dr. Drew’s Celebrity Rehab. Same thing for brands – they, too, can go to Rehab like Domino’s Pizza did, to great success, improving their store sales by 10% in one year.
The recent New York article The Kids Are Actually Sort of Alright, shares some of your findings about Millennials thinking they'll be famous someday while focusing on their reality as unemployed and disillusioned with the system. How can brands target these consumers given our current economic climate?
OK, suppose we’re Westinghouse or Maytag. Why don’t we open stores for refurbished vintage home appliances? They did it with manufacturer’s certified “pre-owned” automobiles. Why not fridges and stoves from the different decades? Why not train people in all these stores on how to refurbish vintage appliances? That would create local jobs. The appliances would look great. And you’d be reclaiming, not just sending things to the dump. I think there’s a lot of opportunities like that if brands would ask: how do I create jobs, how do I distribute my brand idea and logistics locally, how do I own not just what I make but what I have made?
As advertisers, working in trend setting cities like New York, San Francisco, Portland, etc. how can we be sure that our observations on trends reflect the viewpoints of the rest of the country? Should brands look to be ahead of the curve or eye to eye with consumers?
Go live in your trendy neighborhood – you want to see what’s coming next. But here are some suggestions, based on my personal experience, on how to avoid becoming nothing but a snob. Truth in advertising: I am a snob but I am not JUST a snob. Sign up for thankless volunteer jobs. Go to a regular, old-fashioned church and listen and learn. Call your Mom and find a way to be of service to her. Try to avoid gossiping about anybody for one day. Take a cross-country drive and hang out at truck stops. These are all intrinsically good things to do but they will also help you in your work.
Finally, can you give young planners with varying backgrounds advice on how to incorporate cultural anthropology into their research and brief writing process?
Show respect for the dignity of your fellow human beings but try not to be so PC. PC is the sanctimony of our time. Sanctimonious people don’t make very good art nor do they write very good briefs. Be curious, humble and open-minded. Always give into your curiosity and don’t be afraid to admit you don’t understand why people behave a certain way or prefer a certain brand.