Art & Commerce: Where’s The Meat?

For much of the last half of the 20th century, experimental psychologists timed rats as they ran mazes and observed pigeons as they pecked keys because they believed the best way to understand behavior was to map the relation between a stimulus and an organism’s response to that stimulus.

This, according to author and psychologist Daniel Gilbert, was a wild goose chase because organisms “respond to the meanings of stimuli and not to the stimuli themselves.”

I can’t help but compare this with the often-shallow instances and analysis of humans “pecking” at viral campaigns and scuttling around brand experiences. Remarkably, like the psychologists, most marketing folk continue to overlook one of the most fundamental ingredients in perception and behavior: meaning.

Meaning, in the case of lab vermin, is more to do with basic context than, say, tearful nostalgia, but we humans are capable of generating much more meaningful associations, which greatly deepen our connection with objects and ideas. This is why the keys to that Mustang you and your brother worked on last summer hold more meaning for you than the keys dangled by a man with a clipboard hold for a pigeon.

Not only can we experience greater personal meaning than animals, but people—normal folk and media types especially—also find meaning in news with wider cultural significance. News, of course, is no longer the thing you watch at 10 p.m. in your pajamas. News is any new stimulus or story that you happen upon from any source. The key to meaning in all cases is substance: The gooey bit that stops an idea blowing away in a gust of pop culture.

Most marketing models, however, are designed to create messages and, more often than not, any potential meaning or substance that shows up in the process is used only to sell the fluffy end product. And because messages are mostly just information, the creative packaging around them often masquerades as the idea upon which a campaign is then built. Another problem is the tendency to be a slave to the moment: Sell stuff today; get people talking immediately; grab their attention now.

Even the most “viral” piece of content can lack meaning. Today more than ever before, brands need to offer substance to stand any chance of getting into our hearts—and not just our in-boxes.

I call this opportunity the “meat market.”

Forget the purple cow. It’s what’s inside the cow that counts. Unless I have a distorted memory of my mother preparing Sunday lunch, you start with the meat and add the glaze, not the other way around.

An ally in meat marketing is professor of philosophy Lars Svendsen, author of A Philosophy of Boredom. He presents meaning as the antidote to profound boredom and picks apart our culture of distraction, in which we “attack the symptoms and not the cause.”

I am suggesting that we need to start attacking the cause and not the symptoms in our industry in order for brands to build deeper, more meaningful emotional connections. The answer lies not in smarter distribution, funnier virals or cleverer ways to interact with an idea (although these matter, too) but in creating ideas and products with meat.

From my experience and research, Russell Davies’ “brand polyphony” comes closest to what I’m talking about: “It’s very hard to make something monophonic interesting over a sustained amount of time, and I think that’s true of most brands.” Davies understands, more than most, the need for what he calls “rich” ideas. However, even rich, by the definition I’ve read, seems to be more about creating ideas with legs (for exploitation) and layers (for interaction) but doesn’t quite nail the matter of substance.

Where’s the meat? Where’s the substance? Not the thing that grabs my attention or makes me tell a friend, but the thing that makes this matter, both personally and beyond.

Zeus Jones’ “marketing as a service” and Anomaly’s “branded utility” both subscribe to the idea of “doing things” instead of saying things. I’m a big fan of both philosophies, even though they can appear quite functional. But despite some interesting thinking in a few corners of the industry, I believe this meat market is underexploited. I write this not to point, poke or other words beginning with p, but as a prompt (damn it) to us all, to make our industry and what it produces as meaningful as possible for everyone.