As digital technology has become more robust, quantitative methods of marketing and market research have become dominant. The standard model promoted in business schools teaches young corporate citizens to find statistics to justify every proposal they make, repeating the motto falsely attributed to Peter Drucker, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Big Data has become so massive that its gravity is warping the fabric of our society, creating disruption in which both opportunity and peril abound.
In response to this explosion in the quantitative side of marketing, many managers are seeking a counterbalance, to develop the qualitative side of their work. To deal with the alienation that automation inevitably provokes for customers and employees alike, they’re turning to rejuvenate older aspects of marketing that have been neglected in the headlong pursuit of technological solutions.
Prime among these analog tools is narrative marketing – the use of psychologically-potent structures of story to foster engagement and the development of authentic brands. “Narrative has become a popular trend in branding,” explains Watson Creative, “as it allows us to develop and share a product’s story – where it’s going, and where it’s been – thus offering the consumer a reason to build a deeper bond with the product’s brand.” A growing horde of consultants, led by the likes of Jonah Sachs and Michael Margolis, preach the power of story in marketing as an antidote to the system-centered bias of these technical times.
Narrative marketing certainly speaks to the organic, non-rational aspects of human existence. However, to counterbalance the still escalating power of Big Data, merely speaking to our humanity will not be enough, suggests Welcome to the Human Era, a report by Hill Holliday & Lippincott. The report urges marketers to find new ways to craft “authentic demonstrations alongside traditional communications — in acts as much as ads.”.
What does that mean? Marketing needs to go beyond automated systems of data-directed targeting, to influence beliefs and perceptions. However, it isn’t consumers’ beliefs and perceptions that lead to profits. It’s consumer behavior that counts.
In the effort to reconstruct more fully human methods of marketing, we need to develop methods for extending consumers’ abstract feelings and intentions into concrete action. “Building a brand in the Human Era is much harder,” Hill Holliday and Lippincott write, “as both story and experience need to work together. Gone are the days where repositioning can be led by messaging and advertising… Today, the experience is the message.”
Experience is the motherlode of marketing, because it’s about what we do, not just about what we say or think. Experience is the route through which our psychology meets the outside world of goods and services, the threshold within which consumer needs become actual purchases.
Experience also requires human involvement, and because of that, it’s the one aspect of marketing that Big Data and its systems of automation can’t touch. The more people are involved in a commercial interaction, the more experientially rich it becomes. The more machines and algorithms replace human involvement, the more experientially impoverished marketing becomes.
If experiential marketing is to reach its greatest potential, it needs to embody the power of the richest stories. Too often, narratives in marketing read with little more excitement than technical writing. It’s on the mythological level that stories inspire us, and so it is on the mythological level that commercial experiences need to be designed.
This is where the power of ritual comes in. As long as human beings have walked the earth, ritual has been the partner of myth. The journeys of transformation that mythology tells us of become manifest in ritual. As a myth is a story with deep symbolic significance, a ritual is behavior with deep symbolic significance. Rituals are the means through which we act out the most powerful myths our culture has to share.
In our commercial culture, the most powerful myths at our disposal have to do with the products and services we hope to purchase. Yet, until now, the rituals of our commercial culture have developed more by happenstance than by design. If we are to maintain a balance between the digital power of Big Data and the analog power of marketing for human beings, we will need the next generation of marketers to become masters of ritual.