Not The Target Market

Popping the Bubble

city-in-bubbleFor a long time I have maintained that real diversity has nothing to do with outward appearance and everything to do with what is on the inside. In other words, a multi-racial/multi-cultural group, all shouting the same thing, has very little in common with actual diversity. It is diversity of mind and thought that we should be striving after – irrespective of what it looks like on the surface.

Unfortunately, it has long appeared as if those in charge of a university curriculum prefer the shallow, first approach, rather than the second, more challenging diversity-of-thought path. It is easier to tick all the racial/ethnic boxes and be done with it, instead of trying to ensure the students are actually exposed to and respectful of varying opinions and schools of thought.

In confining their students, no matter what they look like, to one way of thinking, the universities are producing the same narrow, non-diverse product. And this narrowness of thought, along with the lack of imagination and empathy that are part and parcel of it, seems likely to affect their graduates’ employability – certainly as far as marketing is concerned, and probably also in many other areas that require recognizing alternate opinions and tying together a wide set of ideas and circumstances.

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, living in an outwardly diverse, but inwardly homogenous cozy bubble is no longer the way to go – at least if you want to be a successful marketer. With the unthinkable candidate victorious in the recent election, top advertising and marketing executives, who were sure they knew everything, suddenly found out they knew nothing. And because this sudden know-nothingness is bound to have a dramatic effect on their profits, these execs are re-thinking the way they hire staff and approach both consumer research and the creative end of their businesses.

Harris Diamond, CEO of the agency McCann Worldgroup, realized that “too much advertising falsely assumes that all U.S. consumers desire to be like the coastal elites….Marketing needs to reflect less of New York and Los Angeles culture…and more of Des Moines and Scranton.” For those of us who have been bemused by mainstream advertising for years, this has been very apparent, but we were never asked.

Now that they have recognized the problem, how do they propose to deal with it? Some of the executives interviewed said it would be through more local offices that produce local creative – presumably feeling that local offices are more in touch with what will sell. Others said they were trying to make sure new hires came from a variety of socio-economic and regional backgrounds.

The thing that seemed to surprise the advertising world the most, though, was that even with extensive use of data, human bias still informed the agencies’ assumptions. They know this because their assumptions were quite the opposite of the November election results. A number of executives came to the startling conclusion that it is actually necessary to go and talk to the people they are trying to sell things to. David Sable, the global chief executive of Y&R, explained it as “spending time with consumers in their own habitats.” (Italics, mine.)

Habitats? Really? Continuing along the same subconscious theme of the non-coastal, non-elite types as something out of a National Geographic developing third world documentary, he followed up with: “If you want to understand how a lion hunts you don’t go to the zoo, you go to the jungle.”

I am sure he was doing his best to illustrate a valid point about not imposing pre-conceived ideas on your customers; that you need to think like your customers, not how you believe your customers should think. But, that strong whiff of colonial imperialist in his word choice shows he still hasn’t really come to grips with that dangerous world outside of his coastal elite bubble. And besides, lions hunt on the savannah, not in the jungle.

It is a sad fact of life that money – the making of it and the losing of it – is more apt to bring about change than mere ideals, no matter how high or laudable. But perhaps the realization, by at least one sector of the elite economy, that diversity of thought is truly a good thing, will bring some change. Perhaps it will trickle down to the universities, who will finally realize that they need to form truly diverse thinkers for a truly diverse world. Or perhaps not.

Winston Churchill was all too right when he said: “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.”

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