I used to think that my father’s generation was the last one to live in two centuries at the same time. Growing up near Poe Park in the Bronx, my dad lived in a community with all the modern technological marvels including refrigerators, televisions, and automobiles. But my dad told me the neighborhood was also serviced by dray horses pulling milk wagons, itinerant knife sharpeners with pedal-powered grindstones, and rag pickers. My grandparents might have traveled across the ocean to enjoy all the wonders of 20th century America, but they brought along their traditional Eastern European lifestyle in their steamer trunks. Many years later, Gloria and I took our kids to see Thomas Edison’s house in Fort Myers. The estate is a beautifully restored example of Florida vernacular architecture. The walkways out to the water are stunning, and if you haven’t yet marveled at the softly blazing orange sunset from Florida’s West Coast, I recommend it highly.
It was Edison’s laboratory that I found most thought provoking. Even though I’d never been there before, I was immediately taken by how familiar the lab looked to me. Almost everything there was made of four materials — wood, glass, metal, and rubber. And although we were looking at historically important heirlooms, the brass microscope, wooden test tube holders, and metal Bunson Burners looked just like the various chemistry sets and scientific devices I’d had as a child.
To my kids, however, the laboratory looked like a museum piece from a bygone century. Even though they had also grown up with chemistry sets, everything in their memory was made from brightly colored plastic, formed not by the inherent possibilities and limitations of the materials themselves but by the eye and hand of product designers. Form follows function, indeed.
What does that realization do to my theory that my dad’s generation was the last to live in two centuries at the same time? If I’m comfortable with both the more natural materials of Edison’s time and the vacu-formed devices littering my children’s rooms, does that mean I’m also living in two time periods at once? Even now, while I’m sitting on an American Airlines’ 757, typing this blog post on an iPad with a wireless Bluetooth keyboard, I’m listening to Franz Joseph Haydn’s Austro-Hungarian Symphony in B flat major and Steely Dan’s Pearl of the Quarter, I’m hurtling willy-nilly through the centuries.
I imagine your life is similar to mine, as are the lives of people that we market to and build brands for. So how do we take advantage of centuries of symbols, metaphors, and iconography that we can use to communicate the competitive advantages of our clients’ products and services?
I think the first thing is to realize that our customers are not just the people that research shows them to be at this very moment but are the sum total of all the influences they’ve internalized throughout their lives. My daughter, for instance, doesn’t just listen to the latest hits she hears on top 40 radio or Pandora, but rummages through decades of music to find what she likes. And so the playlists in her iPod look very similar to mine, complete with Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin, right alongside Coldplay and John Mayer.
And while my son wears t-shirts with random ironic messages that I don’t always get, his Levi’s and Adidas don’t look very different from the things hanging in my closet (although honesty compels me to admit that the waist diameter stamped on the back of his jeans is a few sizes smaller than mine!).
Second, it’s important to remember that the feelings and emotions that are conjured up by our earliest cultural memories are often powerful ways to encourage our audiences to see things the way we want them to (“manipulate” is such an ugly word).
I was at a seminar where the speaker was explaining the importance of marketing to Hispanic customers in Spanish because of the power of native languages. To prove his point, he had developed a handy little sound byte that he repeated a few times: “The way to reach people is to speak to them in the language they make love in.”
A lovely and memorable branding device for his consulting services, maybe, but not very accurate. After all, lovemaking is an adult activity, and any language learned as an adult would surely lack emotional power. Instead, a better way to reach people is to speak to them in the language they were tucked into to bed in.
I don’t speak Yiddish, but I’m a sucker for the Yiddish words that remind me of my grandmothers and grandfathers. And while your grandparents might not have told you to lay down your keppie or go shluffie, I’ll bet the words they used still sound sweet to you, too.
Finally, we must remember that our emotional connection to various historical cues might be very different than other generations’. For example, while I related to the more natural environment of Edison’s laboratory and think of the plasticky replacement items as cheap junk, later generations probably look at Edison’s collection as musty antiques at the very same time that they miss the bright colors and plastic forms of their own childhoods.
What matters most is to continuously look for ways to instantly communicate with our audiences with messages that they can relate to and respond to no matter what generation they’re from. If can we do that then the symbols of the centuries will all be available to us as effective marketing devices.