Cowboys and Farmers

Understanding personas is the first step in telling a story that works

This is an article about change, about leadership, about commerce. It’s about democracies, politics and the mismatches that happen every single day as we try to engage with customers, bosses and suppliers.

It turns out that we can loosely categorize people into broad groupings. Call these personas — we’re stereotyping people based on the way they’re likely to respond to various choices.

COWBOYS: The cowboy seeks out the emergency where he can be helpful, and brings a range of impresario skills to the table. He relishes the wide open spaces, and is always ready to move on to a new frontier. He has a bedroll and a horse and a small team.

The cowboy would rather tell a story than share statistics. The cowboy doesn’t mind having a nemesis, because, after all, he has a six-gun in his holster and leaving town isn’t really a tragedy.

FARMERS: The farmer knows that the land is the land, and that it has to last for generations. The farmer seeks to maximize yield, and is eager to work with other farmers to do just that, because the competition isn’t the farm next store, the competition is the boll weevil or imports from another continent.

The farmer, land-bound, is eager to seek alliances, because an enemy of any sort can be a real problem.

Cowboys are an American icon, even if James Bond is a cowboy. So is McGyver, and so were Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Steve Jobs was a cowboy. (Steve Ballmer wanted to be one, but he didn’t succeed). Jimi Hendrix was a cowboy, along with CJ Walker.

Farmers came over on the Mayflower, and also represent a key national persona. Jimmy Carter was (literally) a farmer, as was George H. W. Bush, and so are Madeline Albright and Bill Gates. Lucille Ball was a farmer, so is Oprah.

People hate it when farmers pretend to be cowboys. And vice versa.

The farmer puts up fences, the cowboy hates fences. You can look it up.

[Cowboys are more likely to embrace walls, though. Outsiders are feared.]

When you’re selling an innovation, something untested and game-changing, you’re most likely to find cowboys who want to take it on. But once you add some data, some real-world proof, you’re just as likely to find a farmer (a neophiliac one, but a farmer nonetheless) who will give it a try.

So, the adoption of new ideas isn’t the key differentiator between cowboys and farmers. Instead, it’s about their narrative when it comes to geography and time frames. They differ in their understanding of their role in the ecosystem and their ability to singlehandedly change what’s going to happen next.

Farmers care more about the weather, and they understand more about the power of planning, of fertilizers, of data. Farmers take huge risks, and face bankruptcy often, but they bring more data and fewer hunches to their work than cowboys do.

While NASA has a bunch of farmers, the astronauts (Sally Ride, Neil Armstrong) are cowboys. We need both.

The cowboy persona would rather be a real estate developer than the person who runs the businesses inside those buildings. The real estate developer tears things down, moves things around, builds things and then moves on. The business owner nurtures a customer base and sticks around even when times are tough.

Deep down, it seems as though many farmers dream of being cowboys, of throwing off their chosen yoke and finding the freedom of the open range and the responsibility of fixing it themselves. Movies (and movie stars) give the typical farmer a chance to escape for a while. On the other hand, through the years cowboys have come to understand that without the stability and yield that farmers bring, they have no chance to eat or to make a living selling to a civilized society.

Businesses (and leaders) have to figure out how to create narratives that not only reach each persona where they live, but create a public square where they can live together. Some marketers want to prospect, others want to engage their existing customers to build loyalty. Some chemists want to discover a new process, some want to make the existing process more efficient…

Will a farmer vote for a cowboy? It’s happened before. And vice versa.

Two personas, linked together.

[More here and here and here]

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