Casting a Smaller Net

As a Brand Strategist, I’m in the business of making distinctions. Specifically helping brands uncover and then leverage their distinctions to gain a competitive advantage in the market. It will come as no surprise then, that when our CEO Ryan Vanni challenged our department to hunt for inspiration outside of our normal hunting grounds, I began to wonder if there were any places left on the planet that still felt distinct.

Technology is making our world smaller, and that’s a good thing, mostly. Unless you’re a culture nerd like me and the thought of every town and hamlet across the country having a Target and a Starbucks makes you weep a little. My idealized version of our diverse American society is more of a heterogenous mixture not a homogeneous one. A salad, not a smoothie.

Our small team of strategists decided to hop on an airplane and head to Santa Fe. Its reputation for being a confluence of history, nature, food, art and culture made it an appealing destination for ethnographical research. In addition, none of us had spent much time there, and that was key. We didn’t want the comfort of traveling to a familiar place to dull the senses; to turn off that part of your brain that makes you hyper aware of your surroundings and take in every last detail.

We spent 3 days hiking in the hills, eating our weight in enchiladas, becoming intimate with the varying degrees of *heat* in red and green chili sauces. We read the morning papers over coffee with the locals, gazed at old churches, listened to tourists barter with artisans for no good reason as they presented their wares on the sidewalks of the square — and listened to artisans recount the way they learned their craft; methods of jewelry making and weaving passed down through the ages. Their hands showed the truth of their stories.

Hours passed slowly, and we felt far away not just in distance, but also in time. Then, almost as quickly as we arrived, we were boarding our plane back to Northern California.

This trip left me me thinking about intersectionality. The notion that multiple things, even seemingly contradictory things, can exist together and be true all at the same time. At once people are wealthy and frugal, social beings and digitally disconnected, lonely and social media butterflies, completely irreverent about everything — except that one thing that makes their heart ache.

Santa Fe is at one of these intersections. Old and new, Western and Southern, refined and primitive, natives and transplants and transplants who now consider themselves natives. Environmentalists and prospecting self-preservationists, all doing this dance on land that has been defended and stolen, lost and “founded” over and over and over through the centuries.

The truth lies in the subtleties, and those subtleties you have to hunt and hit the pavement for. These are truths that marketers have no way of knowing unless they’re willing to set aside the aggregate data and the wide strokes of the persona paintbrush and get to know people in micro moments.

But this shouldn’t be news to us. Any human who has lived in the world and paid attention knows this. Your Aunt Martha who listens to Chance The Rapper, buys the newest Jordan’s the day they drop, and spends her weekends festival hopping, but happens to be 62 and misses COMPLEX’s ad targeting capture. Your coworker the data scientist who spends his days pecking at his keyboard writing code and his weekends writing poetry that would make Neruda blush. We’re all a jumble of contradictions that would turn any data driven social scientist’s attempt at tidy reporting look like a scatter plot.

So where do we go from here?

Marketers must abandon their listicle descriptions and narrow views of people, move away from the practice of putting people into boxes for the purpose of defining broad target audiences and come to terms with intersectionality in the same way cultural anthropology has. In short, it’s time to stop making large generalizations about human behavior (or projected human behavior) based on the few things that people have in common (age, gender, race) and start designing personalized experiences that are based on what makes us unique.

I like this definition from Wikipedia better than the one from Merriam Webster:

Note — it’s the study of our differences; not our commonalities. Maybe as marketers we’ve had it all wrong. And maybe, in this new digital age, where we have endless data points available to us, we should be seeking to cast a smaller net, not a wider one in the hopes of finding more intelligent, personal and nuanced ways of understanding people.

For additional perspectives on this assignment from the rest of Bukwild’s strategy team, look here.