Becoming #1, part two

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.

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.

The map is not the terrain

Any competitive “space” or map thereof is an abstraction, a metaphor. We could make our maps better and better, or have a suite to pick from, but they would still be metaphors because human thought is inherently metaphoric. It’s metaphors all the way down.

I note in passing that aquatic metaphors are particularly powerful. Our bodies are mostly liquid, and we’re programmed biologically to relax at the sound of the tide. We use watery imagery all the time to represent birth and death, baptism and violence, womb and dissolution. Hirst chose his symbols deliberately and wisely.

But metaphors by definition do not make logical sense. If you digging into the logic behind the Eat Big Fish metaphor, it quickly collapses: it’s fishy in more ways than one. 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 similar Blue Ocean Strategy metaphor falls apart just as quickly if you start to analyze it (though it did inspire an awesomely catchy song).

A framework is never true, only useful in a specific context. Some things we can agree on: Business metaphors tend to obscure social consequences, unchecked assumptions, and alternative points of view. Marketing involves enabling fictions, alternative facts that never quite jibe. Capitalism is grotesquely and insistently kitschy. Any of us can love and hate the Hirsch exhibit at the same time. There may be a better world, a bigger reality, but we just can’t quite see it.

“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.” – Isaac Newton