August 23, 2004

idea amplifier


More thoughts on "The Hughtrain Manifesto":

A company's primary role is to function as an "idea amplifier". Making and doing are mere subsets.
Most things companies make are actually pretty dull. Most things people buy are fairly mundane.

A computer is just a plastic and metal box you use to send e-mail, write papers and whatnot.

A pair of running shoes is just some cloth and rubber that allows you to go jogging.

Coffee is just flavored hot water with some caffeine in it.

Yet Apple, Nike and Starbucks excite people. Why?

Sure, they were better than their competitors, they redefined their markets. But there are a lot of markets out there; lots of them are being redefined all the time. So what's the big deal about these three brands?

It's not the companies' products that are so great, it's not what the products actually do that is so great, it's their belief in human potential that is so great.

Their belief in the spiritual heights a person is able to reach within a single lifetime, that is the idea we buy into. That is what's compelling, not the actual benefit, not the actual molecules.

All three companies in some way want to change the world. And all three companies believe they can. But more importantly, all three companies believe that their customers can change the world as well.

They believe people can do something meaningful with their lives. Ergo they want to provide their customers with stuff that help them to do exactly that.

It's this utter belief in humanity and human potential that excites us. We humans want to believe in our own species. And we want people, companies and products in our lives that make it easier to do so. That is human nature.

So maybe think less about what your product does, and think more about human potential. What statement about humanity does your product actually make?

The bigger the statement, the bigger the idea, the bigger your brand will become.

Posted by hugh macleod at August 23, 2004 1:55 AM | TrackBack

Well done, an excellent parody on those that have started believe their own BS.

Posted by: Factory at August 23, 2004 11:21 AM

Wow, fantastic post.

We all have our days where the jaded cynic sits on our shoulder chattering away (i.e. see above comment), but one must believe in others' potential - including our customers' - especially when THEY don't believe in themselves.

I totally agree that human potential is the universal value that resonates with people across demographic groups and cultures. We resonate with that which calls forth our highest version of ourselves...and we want to go back for more of that.

Happen to be reading a story of Starbucks - U.K. book called "My Sister is a Barista":

"Whether the drink in your cup tastes more or less bitter, more or less creamy, is not so important in the end. It is what the whole experience does to your spirits and your sense of self that really counts...So the product - the taste, the colour, aroma of the coffee - matters, but arguably everything else matters a bit more. This was the possiblity that [CEO] Howard [Schultz] saw..."

"Howard saw an experience that could connect with people's lives at an emotional level." Starbucks tapped into the ritual around coffee and the community conversational relationship aspect of a "third space", etc. (BTW, I think blogosphere is a sort of non-geographic third space too.)

Posted by: Evelyn Rodriguez at August 23, 2004 11:06 PM

The Nike corporation has people slaving under deplorable conditions in global sweatshop factories. Nike lied to the public by publizing that they weren't running sweat shops. Nike was sued by Marc Kasky under California consumer protection laws for allegedly spreading false information, but Nike challenged the state law, claiming immunity under the First Amendment. The California Supreme Court rejected Nike's claim. The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed Nike's appeal of that ruling.

Nike's demand for corporations to have the right to lie isn't how I want the world to be changed. I'll never buy a Nike product for the rest of my life. Nike, like all corporations, is a profit-maximizing cost-externalizing machine. It doesn't care about humanity. Neither do Starbucks or Apple.

My belief in humanity and human potential gives me hope that one day we can make corporations subordinate to the public and to the government. The stakes are high, democracy is at risk.

Posted by: winston at August 24, 2004 3:58 AM

"Profit-maximizing, cost-externalizing machine."

Hmmmm... sounds like most businesses I know ;-)

Posted by: hugh macleod at August 24, 2004 7:38 AM

I like the drawring.

Posted by: Ed at August 24, 2004 2:42 PM

Is this new? Isn't this just taking a very long-standing critique of corporate advertising ("They're not selling products, they're selling false hopes and ideals"), and excitedly dropping the "false" bit? Is this insight, cynicism or naivety? I know I side with seeing it as one of the latter two, and Hugh would (except on a bad day maybe!) go for the first (with a unproblematised dash of the second). My sense is, though, that the efforts of corporate advertising have actually gone so far for it to be very, very hard to tell - which is, of course, wholly in its interests ;-)

Posted by: Gyrus at August 24, 2004 3:33 PM

Gyrus, I see what you're saying.

Certainly, the Nike and Starbucks brands are not as utterly unstoppable as they once were, for a variety of reasons. Apple has had a bit of a comeback these last few years, nice to see.

But I was just using them as rather standard, well-known examples of "Brand Values" to make a point.

The point was not "Everybody loves Nike, Apple and Starbucks, Hooray!"

The point was "We humans want to believe in our own species. And we want people, companies and products in our lives that make it easier to do so. That is human nature."

Still, just because the aforementioned companies have failed in convincing you of their cause does not mean the have failed with everybody. There's still plenty of coffee-drinking sneaker wearers out there.

Granted, maybe had I used smaller, less corporate companies to use as examples you would have found the whole thing more palatable. But that wouldn't have altered my point one iota.

Posted by: hugh macleod at August 24, 2004 3:57 PM

Hugh, I wasn't really casting my doubt on said companies (though I've got bucketloads of that). I was just curious about how last year's critique of advertising becomes next year's advertising strategy. To me, it underlines the voracious, assimilative nature of advertising. (I was going to call it "absorbent", but I felt that, ironically, adverts for things like toilet roll have made the word seem too "light" to express what I wanted to convey!)

Some may find this aspect of it interesting or exciting. It's certainly why it's come to permeate our whole lives. I take a Burroughsian view myself, and think the "virus" metaphor is apt. Again, it's interesting in this respect to look at "viral marketing", co-opting a critique. What seems to get missed is the parasitic, self-serving nature of virii. The question is, are we using it or is it using us? As scale increases in this arena, I think things on the human level get complexified to the point where we can't really answer that.

So it's not like I'm saying I'm right, you're wrong. I'm saying I've a suspicion that there's no way of knowing. I also suspect this view is maybe too "philosophical" (to be spat rather than spoken) to be of interest to many people involved in the practicalities of advertising.

Posted by: Gyrus at August 24, 2004 5:09 PM

Hugh, until I read your comment above, I was also about to make some remarks about Nike and Starbucks. I found the (from Evelyn Rodriguez) quotes about Starbucks quite repulsively redolent of corporate bullshitters who believe their own output. On the other hand, there is definitely some truth in what you say. Where it is applied to Apple, I think there was genuine cretaivity and belief in human potential from Jobs etc when they founded the company, then they went through the corporate greed doldrums and foundered miserably. Then Jobs came back and encouraged a bit of creative thinking again, and Apple was semi-reborn. Nike and Starbucks on the other hand, seem to me to be examples of using this aspect of human nature to drive their brand image. "Just Do it" is a good sentiment, but sadly one which was used rather cynically to promote running shoes by implying that Nike Running shoes showed what a "Just doing It" go-getting person you were, just by association. It works (like politics) on some of the people, some of the time.

I think your point really centres around the fact that people WANT to believe in their potential, and this desire can be used to sell stuff. That doesn't make it a bad thing to believe in human potential (on the contrary) - but be wary of people who blaze it across advertising hoardings.

Posted by: John Clift at August 30, 2004 3:08 PM

I'm not sure it takes anyone particularly 'brand aware' to know when they're being lied to (I'm really talking about the disparity of the brand's personality and the experience). I've only been to starbucks once, in Birmingham (UK), near New St station. Already the vision i had of starbucks started to jar, but to completely close down any lingering notion that it might be something like it promised to be, the toilets were a genuinely disgraceful mess. and i'm not talking aethetics, I'm talking plain simple hygiene, and I don't scare easily. Can't recall the coffee, but i did pay silly money for it. a similar feeling about Nike has probably been brought about by the 'just do it' line (which I think is supposed to mean go on, just win, play, succeed, have fun, be yourself, be fastest, take risks..)jarring with the fact that you see fat people inactive types wearing nike all the time. technically, they are just doing it (well, something, if sitting counts) i guess. the suggestion that I just do it though, implies that i do it without thinking too much, and this is now what i associate with nike - if you think about who made your trainers and how much they were paid for it, you might not just buy it. it doesn't inspire or challenge me to just do it, it sounds like a bullying demand - the kind you just say 'no' to, just to defy someone.

Posted by: heather at November 8, 2004 4:14 PM