Becoming #1, part two

Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner write:

“When we open a cookbook, we completely put aside—and expect the author to put aside—the kind of question that leads to the heart of certain philosophic and religious traditions. Is it possible to talk about cooking? Do eggs really exist? Is food something about which knowledge is possible? Can anyone else ever tell us anything true about cooking? These questions may lead to enlightenment or satori; they do not lead to satisfying dinners.” (Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose)

And later:

In [nonclassic self-conscious styles], the writer’s chief, if unstated, concern is to escape being convicted of philosophical naïveté about his own enterprise.”

Just a heads-up: today I am serving satori, not dinner.

I. How can everyone be the best?

I asserted in my last post that every organization, in every space, is forced to describe itself as the best at what it does.

Something about this is clearly bananas.

First of all, the notion that everyone is the best defies basic logic. It’s as delusional as saying that in Lake Wobegone, all the students are above-average.

If every company is #1, then none has any meaningful competition. Yet venture capitalists, who tend to know a thing or two, advise entrepreneurs all the time to acknowledge their broader competitive environment:

“[E]verybody has competition. There’s never been a company with no competition, even if the competition is the old way of doing something. I want to know exactly what your competition is, and that will help me judge how you fit into the whole operation.” (David Rose, How to Pitch to a VC)

If smart people behind closed doors acknowledge their competition all the time, why should it be any different in the magical world of marketing?

Or is modern marketing in fact just a propaganda machine of “it’s toasted” alternative facts, the kind should make any concerned global citizen or clear-headed businessperson run screaming from the room?

To some extent, clearly yes.

Something is very wrong, even broken, in how organizations communicate and the economic, social, political, and technological contexts in which they do so.

II. Diving into the wreck

I recently experienced a version of this decadence, this brokenness, in Venice when I visited the tedious yet captivating Damien Hirst exhibit Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. The campy, overwrought premise of this exhibit is that Hirst has recovered ancient artifacts from the bottom of the sea… all of which turn out to be anachronistic totems of contemporary consumer culture. Each image has been exaggerated with allusions to ancient mythology and the imminent effects of climate change.

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It’s impossible not to look, be overwhelmed, want to vomit, and take a selfie all at once. I commend Hirst for a bit of truth-telling and buzz generation, and at the same time, I personally felt ill after having spent twenty-something euros to see this. That’s the unbelievable wreck of modern consumerism for you.

But hating on consumerism, or marketing, or capitalism is easy. It doesn’t change the fact that major segments of our economy run, for better or for worse, on capturing attention. We all work for organizations that either we believe in or at least pay our bills. We want them to market themselves well.

So, if we suspend our horror for a moment and pretend that what we care about is not changing the world order, but making sure our own amazing, well-intentioned, bill-paying organization succeeds, then it would be good to start by looking at how successful organizations actually do market themselves. And if we do, we’ll notice that what I asserted previously is correct: successful companies always position themselves as superior to their competition.

This is almost banal if you stop to think about it, but if you need proof, look around at the products you use every day, and see how they market themselves. Or imagine as a thought experiment what it would be like if companies did acknowledge, directly or indirectly, an inferior market position:

  • Diptyque: When you can’t find the candle you really want, there’s Diptyque.
  • Devialet: Bigger, better, and pricier than Bose!
  • Wal-mart: We love you more than Amazon!
  • Starbucks: Not the coffee you want, but the coffee you deserve.

Even with a different list of companies, and more realistic taglines, this would never happen. We’ve long outgrown a time when Avis, or any company, could say “We try harder because we’re #2.” Instead we’ve shifted into what Milan Kundera might call a “kitsch” universe, where #2 simply does not exist.

III. The map is not the terrain

The notion that every company is #1, or should say so regardless of the facts, might provoke outrage if we believe that competitive spaces have firm boundaries and clear, objective leaders. But that idea is pretty bananas, too.

Any competitive “space” or map thereof is an abstraction, a metaphor:

  • A comprehensive view of all the players in a category must still rely on subjective judgments about who gets included and who doesn’t.
  • Snapshot assessments can show current realities but do not capture historical or future trends.
  • Theoretically independent assessments can be biased by pay-to-play influencers.
  • New technological innovations can rewrite category boundaries in a blink.

My point is: there is no perfect map. Even if we could somehow analyze and incorporate every datum, drawing convincing category boundaries and then determining the “leader” would still require interpretation.

We could make our maps better and better, but they would still be metaphors because human thought is inherently metaphoric. It’s metaphors all the way down.

The Eat Big Fish map tool that I introduced in my previous post is one such metaphor, and it’s admittedly crude. Its value is not that it’s true, but that it’s useful. It’s useful specifically to someone trying to *do* marketing. A head of M&A looking at long-term external trends or an entrepreneur seeking the next big untapped opportunity would want a different kind of map. But in any complex human endeavor, it helps to have multiple tools at our disposal. Dani Rodrik made the following comments about economics, but I think his insights also apply to business and marketing strategy:

“Rather than a single, specific model, economics encompasses a collection of models. The discipline advances by expanding its library of models and by improving the mapping between these models and the real world. The diversity of models in economics is the necessary counterpart to the flexibility of the social world. Different social settings require different models. Economists are unlikely ever to uncover universal, general-purpose models.” (Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science)

IV. Deep blue sea

I want to end this post by ruminating on something that fascinates me: the fact that aquatic metaphors, specifically, are very powerful.

Personally, I have always loved and feared the sea. One of my earliest memories involves seeing Orca at age four, in the beach town of Stone Harbor, New Jersey. Understandably, this memory would make the wide ocean, and big fish lurking underneath, powerful images for me.

But water is an evocative metaphor and sense memory for everyone. Our bodies are mostly liquid, and we’re programmed biologically to relax at the sound of the tide. It seems like half the movies I’ve seen recently—Moonlight, Julieta, A Bigger Splash, Stranger by the Lake, It Follows—use water to represent birth and death, baptism and violence, womb and dissolution.

Eating the Big Fish is a memorable title and memorable concept. The even more popular business book Blue Ocean Strategy that came out a few years later uses similar imagery to make similar points. In both these books, oceans serve as ready analogies for “competitive environments” because they are first and foremost spatial metaphors—i.e., oceans have boundaries. Yet they also bring up rich associations that are visual, kinesthetic, auditory, historical, and sensual. The Hirst exhibit is a reminder of how seductive those associations in fact are.

As a thought experiment, try re-writing the basic argument of either Eating the Big Fish or Blue Ocean Strategy without their aquatic metaphors. Can you come up with something equally succinct and memorable? It’s quite challenging.

But just because a metaphor is expressive doesn’t mean it makes any logical sense. If you start picking apart the Eat Big Fish metaphor, it quickly collapses. Are freshwater piranha eating saltwater sharks? Or if sharks are eating whales, won’t those sharks then go extinct through lack of a food source? The Blue Ocean Strategy metaphor falls apart just as quickly if you start to analyze it (though it did inspire an awesomely catchy song).

We could search for better metaphors, but we will never get it perfectly right. Every metaphor, every map, every business framework, and every word is flawed. All we can do is keep trying to communicate, invoking one flawed paradigm after another, tweaking them as we go.

As Flaubert wrote:

“Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.”

Or Isaac Newton:

“I don’t know what I may seem to the world, but as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”