Saturday, August 15, 2009

The influence of anxiety

One day a few months back, I was walking with our PR person to meet a reporter for lunch. We were chatting in very general terms about an article I was planning to write. The thoughts I had up until that point were shapeless and formless, not even developed enough to be half-baked (maybe par-baked?)

Halfway to the Greek restaurant a phrase popped into my head: the anxiety of influence. It's been in my head ever since graduate school, when Professor Meisel introduced us to Harold Bloom (if I remember correctly, it was in September, and few in the class knew Bloom or the professor's favorite publication -- The New Criterion. I remember how exasperated he was when no one recognized the references, and he asked "what exactly have you been doing all summer? I knew the answer, because I was one of his groupies. But we groupies always stayed quiet while he looked for signs of intelligent life in the class. It was only when he was met with stony silence that we came to the rescue.")

Bloom's book talked about the pressure that modern writers felt in trying to create anything new, burdened by all that had already been written and said.

That set of words has stayed with me.

But while we were walking to lunch the phrase inverted itself in my mind; it became the influence of anxiety. And i chewed on those words, as they started to signify the mood of the country in the deep economic downturn we were experiencing. It wasn't a regular recession where the essential pillars of society and commerce were intact. There was deep insecurity about the basics as the very foundations of our society -- those things that were solid and reliable through other downturns -- were suddenly shaky. The banking system, the credit markets, housing, employment -- these factors in this combination coalesced to create a national sense of deep worry and profound anxiety, one which would lead to significant behavioral changes among consumers which may outlast the recovery.

And what I puzzled over was the role of that anxiety in the way we as marketers considered and reconsidered how we engage with consumers. Even before the Great Recession (credit to David Wessel for that phrase) some thinkers were challenging the conventional wisdom of rational man and introducing ideas from behavioral economics that better explained why and how people make the decisions they do. Once the economy collapsed (I date it to September 12 2008 when Lehman failed) the need to re-think the fundamental of our marketing approach and design became more urgent.

We are seeing actual, significant and measurable changes in behavior, in shopping habits, in spending and saving patterns. The degree to which these changes are lasting and sustainable can't at this point be measured, but for now there's very real and very important going on. And to me at least this change of mood and introduction of national anxiety is behind the changes.

The article lived, but the title was left on the cutting-room floor. It became "Rethinking Brand Relationships", which is a functioning descriptive title but not a poetic one. Maybe it's like what they say about campaigning vs. governing, that you campaign in poetry but govern in prose. I wrote in poetry (or so at least I'd like to think) but publish in prose.

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