Liminality and Shopping: Retail as a Shrine of Shopping

You will not find the term “liminality” in many dictionaries. For instance, at last check it is not in the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary does, however, have an entry for “liminal,” the adjectival form, which it lists as a rare usage: “Of or pertaining to the threshold or initial stage of a process.” Both liminal and liminality are derived from the Latin “limen,” which means “threshold”—that is, the bottom part of a doorway that must be crossed when entering a building.  And it is this notion of a doorway, or passage from one space to another, and the consequences of doing so, that matters to consumption and shopping, because in a world where the procurement of goods is increasingly simple the act of transforming a person from one state of being to another is more and more important.  We no longer sell just goods, we sell something much more profound – or we hope to, at least.

As a brief refresher, it was not until the second half of the 20th century, that the terms “liminal” and “liminality” gained popularity through the writings of Victor Turner. Turner borrowed and expanded upon Van Gennep’s concept of liminality, ensuring widespread usage of the concept in anthropology.

In 1967, Turner noted that “the subject of passage ritual is, in the liminal period, structurally, if not physically, ‘invisible’” (1967: 95). That is, the status of liminal individuals is socially and structurally ambiguous. From this he further developed the idea.  “Liminality may perhaps be regarded as the Nay to all positive structural assertions, but as in some sense the source of them all, and, more than that, as a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise” (1967: 97).

Fundamentally, the idea is relatively simple.  When a person is in a liminal state, she or he is betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremony.  Their roles in the cosmic order are ambiguous. He then goes on to name this state of non-structure or anti-structure through such concepts as the “realm of pure possibility” and structural invisibility. He chooses the Latin term “communitas” to express this idea of anti-structure, and refers to social structure and communitas as two major models for human interrelatedness.” 

The first model is of society as a structured, differentiated, and often hierarchical system of politico-legal-economic positions with many types of evaluation, separating men in terms of “more” or “less.” The second, which emerges recognizably in the liminal period, is of society as an unstructured or rudimentarily structured and relatively undifferentiated comitatus, community, or even communion of equal individuals who submit together to the general authority of the ritual elders.

Yes, yes.  All very interesting, but what does it have to do with consumption and shopping?  Shopping is, at a functional level, about getting things we need – food, clothing, shelter, etc.  But if it were as simple as that we wouldn’t have specialty stores.  We wouldn’t spend hours rummaging around a bookstore when we could simply order the product online.  As the outlets for acquisition have expanded with the growth of broadband, the nature of shopping has changed.  It is as much about fulfilling social, cultural and psychological needs and desires as it is anything else, perhaps more so. Which means it is often a transformational act of a transitory nature that takes us from one state of being to another, if only for a short while. And it is at the gateway that we find the symbols that successfully transition of from one state to another.  Retailers who do this well (Abercrombe, Anthropologie, Swatch) become points of destination and alter the nature of interaction, both with the store and with fellow shoppers, at the point of entry into their space.  They set the stage where shopping becomes akin to a rite of passage.  It signals that we have entered a special place and while we’re there, we are not the same person we were on the street.

The idea that the passage of the magical threshold is a transit into a new sphere of reconfigurement of who and what we are is symbolized by the gateway and harkens back to the worldwide womb image of myth.  It is the hero entering the belly of the whale and emerging transformed, carrying special knowledge or objects that can only be found by going through the passage.  This is why the approaches to temples are flanked by guardian symbols – dragons, angles, sword-wielding demon slayers.  These are the threshold guardians used to ward off those incapable of encountering the higher silences within. They illustrate the fact that the devotee at the moment of entry into the temple undergoes a metamorphosis.  Similarly, in a cultural construct where shopping and consumption have taken on the role of defining personal meaning, the threshold at the store signals a metamorphosis into the stylistically elite.  Those entering the space understand that they are unlike those outside the space and have entered a place that is beyond the confines of the mundane, daily life.  And like the hero, once having crossed the threshold, the postmodern shopper moves into a dream landscape of often curiously fluid, ambiguous forms.  It is here that shopping becomes something bigger than consumption.  It is here that the trial, the hunt, the act of self-becoming takes place, turning shopping into an expression of self-worth and of profound worth to the tribe (the family, the peer group, etc.).

Thinking about a shopping space and the symbolic cues to which we respond at the outset of the shopping journey means taking a more subtle view of how we promote our wares. Rather than screaming “low, low prices,” it means thinking about shopping and spatial design as promoting a change in the people to whom we would sell.  And it means putting as much though into the store front as it does the size of type on an end cap.  It means thinking of both the entry and the space as transitional, transformational structures that compel the shopper to alter his or her sense of being.  And this is where loyalty comes from.  Just as most people do not hop from on house of worship every week, let alone from faith to faith, so too should they feel compelled to return to your space again and again.

Liminality is almost always a temporary phenomenon. That is not to say that the temporal nature of liminality should be one of its defining characteristics. Rather, human nature being the way it is means that liminality cannot be permanent. Either we are absorbed into the social structure or we shun it all together—we cannot remain betwixt and between.  But liminality can be something that draws people back to a retailer time and again.  It turns shopping beyond the ordinary and signals that your space is beyond the daily grind.  It signals a place of rebirth.  

Context and the Changing Mobile Landscape

Marketers increasingly think about consumers in complex ways. It is understood that in a changing digital landscape, the context in which they learn and shop influences what messages we deliver and how we deliver them.  But we rarely define “context”. It is one thing to design a usable app that conforms to human factors and cognitive requirements, but it is quite another to design a stage in an environment when there are innumerable semi-autonomous devices mediating in a swirl of information.

Physical Context

Physical context refers to the notion of infusing devices with a sense of “place.”  In other words, devices can distinguish the environments in which they “live” and react to them. But this is difficult. Mapping out longitude and latitude is one thing, but reacting to features (political, natural, social, etc.) is much more problematic. Getting beyond the boundaries of identifiable borders and structures, means coming to grips with “place”.

Think of a mall.  There are hundreds of stores, each with hundreds of devices. The device now has to decode what information is relevant and how it will deliver information. What competing retailer apps get precedence over others? When you receive an offer, will the device “tell” other retailers in order to generate real-time counter offers? The digital landscape is continuous at all points throughout the day and getting design right means understanding the systems in which people operate.

Device Context

Just as various kinds of sensory apparatus (GPS-receivers, proximity sensors, etc.) are the means by which mobile devices will become geographically aware, another class of sensors makes it possible for devices to become aware of each other. This presents a series of problems that are different than those of physical context.

Technology is on the verge of existing in a world with zero-infrastructure networks that can spring up anywhere, anytime. Devices will exist in a constant state of discovery.  Returning to the mall, imagine that you are with a friend whose device is communicating with yours.  In the mall are a couple of thousand devices, all of which are discovering each other.  What happens now?  Assuming we’ve dealt with the problem of one friend’s device communicating with the other friend’s device while blocking out the other 2000 devices, you still have several thousand potential “identities” that may have useful information.  How is it decided what to manage without devoting significant time to setting up the hundreds of variables?

Information Context

This is the realm of information architecture. Data no longer resides “in” our computers.  Devices are extensions of the cloud and exist as something akin to perceptual prostheses.  They exist to manipulate data in the same way a joy stick allows us to handle the arms of robot in a factory.  This reflects a shift in how we use information because all information is transitory.

Storage issues are essentially removed from the equation.  Content can leap from place to place and device to device in an instant. Content will be customizable and reflect the human-application interaction rather than shaping it. Devices will find themselves in the fourth kind of context of social interaction, with all its contingencies. Just as behavior is shaped by the moment, so too will the apps and information needed to adapt.

Socio-Cultural Context

Each person is unique to contrasting cultures, tongues, traditions and world views. A cultural context may exist on levels as diverse as a workplace, a family, a building, a county, a continent, a hemisphere. Cultural context provides a framework for what “works” for each consumer in the world.

It is at this point where a better perspective is gained on what will and will not be accepted in the mobile universe. Take a beer pouring app that mimics the pouring of a beer when the device is tilted.  It serves no direct function and yet it has been successful because of the cultural needs it to which it speaks – workplace breaks, male-to-male bonding, etc. But in another context, say Saudi Arabia, the context shifts. Success lies in understanding the reasons behind the consumers beliefs and actions in the symbolic exchanges, and the ability to code and decode those exchanges.  Marketing mishaps come from a lack of comprehension.

So What?

Our great technological leaps forward have also produced more complexity, leading to a greater need to make sense of insights. Without a means to categorize context, marketers will miss identifying trends that matter most. What to do?

  • Rethink the problem. Frequently, “the problem” is a facet of something else. For example, when researching an eBook the problem to be solved isn’t technology, it is understanding why people read different material in different contexts. It may be about displaying books as a means of gaining status. The point is the problem seen may not be the problem at all.
  • Define the contexts. Defining the contexts helps articulate the range of possibilities for observation. For example, if the consumer behavior is drinking beer, all contexts in which beer is purchased and consumed need to be articulated.
  • Think through the sample. Who is the marketing targeting? What are the social circles that will shape the event? It isn’t enough to define a demographic sample, you need to think in terms of cultural systems.
  • Make a plan that involves experiential information gathering, not just statistics. Develop a guide to navigate the data collection and a method for managing the data (everything is data). Don’t  just think about the questions to ask, but also include opportunities for observation and participation.
  • Head into the field. This is the heart of the process. Meaningful insights and moments of “truth” are slow to get at. Low-hanging fruit will be easy to spot, but the goal should be to find those deeper meanings. Because everything is data, from attitudes to artifacts, it is important to capture as much as possible.
  • Do the analysis. Analysis is the most difficult, but also the most rewarding. The goal is to bring a deep understanding of cultural behavior to the analysis process. This goes beyond casual observation and gets to the underlying structures of why people do what they do.

The process is more time consuming than traditional approaches, but it ultimately yields greater insight and reduces time and costs on the back end. The end result is that you create greater value for the client and for the company.

Liminality and Shopping

You will not find the term “liminality” in many dictionaries. For instance, at last check it is not in the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary does, however, have an entry for “liminal,” the adjectival form, which it lists as a rare usage: “Of or pertaining to the threshold or initial stage of a process.” Both liminal and liminality are derived from the Latin “limen,” which means “threshold”—that is, the bottom part of a doorway that must be crossed when entering a building.  And it is this notion of a doorway, or passage from one space to another, and the consequences of doing so, that matters to consumption and shopping, because in a world where the procurement of goods is increasingly simple the act of transforming a person from one state of being to another is more and more important.  We no longer sell just goods, we sell something much more profound – or we hope to, at least.

As a brief refresher, it was not until the second half of the 20th century, that the terms “liminal” and “liminality” gained popularity through the writings of Victor Turner. Turner borrowed and expanded upon Van Gennep’s concept of liminality, ensuring widespread usage of the concept in anthropology.

In 1967, Turner noted that “the subject of passage ritual is, in the liminal period, structurally, if not physically, ‘invisible’” (1967: 95). That is, the status of liminal individuals is socially and structurally ambiguous. From this he further developed the idea.  “Liminality may perhaps be regarded as the Nay to all positive structural assertions, but as in some sense the source of them all, and, more than that, as a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise” (1967: 97).

Fundamentally, the idea is relatively simple.  When a person is in a liminal state, she or he is betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremony.  Their roles in the cosmic order are ambiguous. He then goes on to name this state of non-structure or anti-structure through such concepts as the “realm of pure possibility” and structural invisibility. He chooses the Latin term “communitas” to express this idea of anti-structure, and refers to social structure and communitas as two major models for human interrelatedness.”

The first model is of society as a structured, differentiated, and often hierarchical system of politico-legal-economic positions with many types of evaluation, separating men in terms of “more” or “less.” The second, which emerges recognizably in the liminal period, is of society as an unstructured or rudimentarily structured and relatively undifferentiated comitatus, community, or even communion of equal individuals who submit together to the general authority of the ritual elders.

Yes, yes.  All very interesting, but what does it have to do with consumption and shopping?  Shopping is, at a functional level, about getting things we need – food, clothing, shelter, etc.  But if it were as simple as that we wouldn’t have specialty stores.  We wouldn’t spend hours rummaging around a bookstore when we could simply order the product online.  As the outlets for acquisition have expanded with the growth of broadband, the nature of shopping has changed.  It is as much about fulfilling social, cultural and psychological needs and desires as it is anything else, perhaps more so. Which means it is often a transformational act of a transitory nature that takes us from one state of being to another, if only for a short while. And it is at the gateway that we find the symbols that successfully transition of from one state to another.  Retailers who do this well (Abercrombe, Anthropologie, Swatch) become points of destination and alter the nature of interaction, both with the store and with fellow shoppers, at the point of entry into their space.  They set the stage where shopping becomes akin to a rite of passage.  It signals that we have entered a special place and while we’re there, we are not the same person we were on the street.

The idea that the passage of the magical threshold is a transit into a new sphere of reconfigurement of who and what we are is symbolized by the gateway and harkens back to the worldwide womb image of myth.  It is the hero entering the belly of the whale and emerging transformed, carrying special knowledge or objects that can only be found by going through the passage.  This is why the approaches to temples are flanked by guardian symbols – dragons, angles, sword-wielding demon slayers.  These are the threshold guardians used to ward off those incapable of encountering the higher silences within. They illustrate the fact that the devotee at the moment of entry into the temple undergoes a metamorphosis.  Similarly, in a cultural construct where shopping and consumption have taken on the role of defining personal meaning, the threshold at the store signals a metamorphosis into the stylistically elite.  Those entering the space understand that they are unlike those outside the space and have entered a place that is beyond the confines of the mundane, daily life.  And like the hero, once having crossed the threshold, the postmodern shopper moves into a dream landscape of often curiously fluid, ambiguous forms.  It is here that shopping becomes something bigger than consumption.  It is here that the trial, the hunt, the act of self-becoming takes place, turning shopping into an expression of self-worth and of profound worth to the tribe (the family, the peer group, etc.).

Thinking about a shopping space and the symbolic cues to which we respond at the outset of the shopping journey means taking a more subtle view of how we promote our wares. Rather than screaming “low, low prices,” it means thinking about shopping and spatial design as promoting a change in the people to whom we would sell.  And it means putting as much though into the store front as it does the size of type on an end cap.  It means thinking of both the entry and the space as transitional, transformational structures that compel the shopper to alter his or her sense of being.  And this is where loyalty comes from.  Just as most people do not hop from on hose of worship every week, let alone from faith to faith, so too should they feel compelled to return to your space again and again.

Liminality is almost always a temporary phenomenon. That is not to say that the temporal nature of liminality should be one of its defining characteristics. Rather, human nature being the way it is means that liminality cannot be permanent. Either we are absorbed into the social structure or we shun it all together—we cannot remain betwixt and between.  But liminality can be something that draws people back to a retailer time and again.  It turns shopping beyond the ordinary and signals that your space is beyond the daily grind.  It signals a place of rebirth.

As Halloween Approaches (Even in September)

Halloween is more than two months away, but already I’ve seen products and displays going up in a few places. For better or worse, the holidays creep further and further out from their actual date as retailers see opportunities to sell their goods. And to add to the impending spookiness that awaits us, I spent part of my Friday night watching a scary movie with my children, fully aware that it would necessitate cramming four people into a single bed, somewhere around midnight – I was, of course, proven right.  All of this has me reflecting on the socio-cultural significances of Halloween as a reflection of cultural transformation, even if it is a single night. Yes, even the simplest things start the mind wandering.

A few years back, an associate professor of human development and family studies at Penn State’s Delaware County Campus, noted that parents need to realize that scaring our kids isn’t necessarily a way to mitigate kids’ fears of death and other things frightening.  Rightfully, she contended that Halloween is a time when we expose kids to behavior that is not the norm and that children connect the holiday with death.  The argument goes that we, regardless of who “We” are, typically distance ourselves from death and shield children from it, but in this case, young children encounter their fears when they face decorations of skeletons and tombstones. This can be scarring. This, of course, is bad.  Or is it?  Is it even accurate?

First, we expose our children to death regularly.  What we shield our kids from is pollution associated with decay.  In the case of Halloween, we are presenting our children with a sanitized, safe form of death that has none of the associations with contamination.  Second, children are exposed to death when they play video games, tune in to the TV or deal with the loss of a grandparent.  We may try to lessen the pain or deflect the underlying causality, but death itself is indeed part of a child’s upbringing, though it may not be as overt as it is at Halloween.  I will concede that we expose our children to death less than we perhaps did in the past, when people worked the farm together and were accustomed to things like slaughter, but to assume children are shielded from death is fantasy. We’ve simply changed the medium.

And should we even be shielding kids in the first place?  We often work under the assumption that it is somehow our duty as parents to protect children from any and all discomfort, but there is nothing out there to prove that doing so benefits the child. Fear teaches, particularly when it is safe.  Discomfort teaches, particularly when it isn’t overwhelming.  Children are, I would contend, smarter than we often think.  To assume they can’t make the leap between the literal and the symbolic is a bit obtuse.  While Halloween teaches children about death, it also teaches them about the nature of symbolism, rules of reciprocity, a sense of self-reliance, creativity and a host of other positive elements of personhood.

As my oldest daughter walked from house to house last Halloween with her friend from Egypt, getting treats from homes comprised of people from a wide range of nations (our neighborhood happens to have large south Asian and Middle Eastern populations) it struck me how important this holiday is, because it is so public and because it is wrapped up in a universal need to deflect the fear of death.  It is a holiday that encourages parents and kids of other cultures to join in the fun and feel like they are welcome and integral parts of the adopted culture.  It exposes the children and parents of the adoptive culture to people and worldviews they may not have otherwise interacted with.  The experience can be thought of as enculturation, the process by which a person learns the requirements of the culture by which he or she is surrounded, and acquiring values and behaviors that are appropriate or necessary in that culture.  This has often been conceived to be a unidimensional, zero-sum cultural conflict in which the minority’s culture is diminished by the dominant group’s culture, but it’s not that simple.  There is an exchange of sorts going on. There are a couple of ways a person learns a culture. Direct teaching of a culture is what happens when you don’t pay attention, mostly by the parents, when a person is told to do something because it is right and to not do something because it is bad. For example, when children ask for something, they are constantly asked “What do you say?” and the child is expected to remember to say “please.” A second conscious way a person learns a culture is to watch others around them and to emulate their behavior. But in doing so, they often alter elements of it and reshape the culture – culture isn’t fixed, after all, it is a matter of practice, negation and shared invention.

What this means is that Halloween becomes a way of learning and exchanging.  Day of the Dead decorations find new uses, costumes come to reflect the sensibilities of the minority population and new ways of defining and interacting with the world emerge.  And there are very real, very meaningful results.  Businesses alter their merchandise, retailers decorate differently and new modes of shopping arise.  People develop new interests and curiosity about their world.  So, yes, Halloween may indeed scare the children, but the benefits of being scared outweigh a night of belly aches and spooky dreams.

Snack Time

In it’s simplest definition, a snack is a small portion of food meant to hold one over between meals. In contrast, a meal is typically comprised of multiple items, has higher caloric content and is usually tied to rituals of time and location.

 Historically, snacks were prepared from ingredients commonly available in the home. This has changed considerably over time with the new norm existing today as pre-made foods that are conveniently packaged and last seemingly forever.

But snack foods are not just treats anymore. They have to become part of the larger ingredient mix along with potatoes, carrots or butter. Frito Pie is on the menu alongside the $25 dish of shrimp etouffee. This may not seem important to the producer as long as products are selling at the store. But it validates a fundamental element of consumer behavior – the end user decides how to use any product he or she purchases. The challenge for the producer is to recognize the innovative ways consumers use their products and facilitate strategies that will help keep the trend going.  This means understanding the underlying cultural processes that have allowed this transformation to take place and how to capitalize on it in order to grow sales.

Some credit to the changing role of snack foods must of course be attributed to the inventiveness of snack producers. Restaurateurs and chefs have also been and will continue to be tremendous influencers.  Consumers, rather than turning to manufacturer websites and cook books are looking to the Food Network and local chefs not just for ideas, but also for validation of their culinary choices. Even subculture icons like Lux Interior of The Cramps (a rockabilly/punk fusion band founded in the 1970s) have helped shape the use of snacks in cooking – Mr. Interior had a deep penchant for Doritos Quiche.

To be sure, the snack is the inspiration. We see evidence to support this notion starting back in the 50′s with the introduction of recipe ideas for everything from corn flakes to Cheetos. But what accounts for the resurgence of using snacks in cooking in an age dominated by “healthy” foods, “quality” ingredients and of haute cuisine in the home? And what does this mean for a marketer or product development team? The simple is answer is that by understanding the deeper issues driving the transformation of how snack foods are used, it is possible to better innovate and drive sales over time. We have identified several areas that deserve special attention.

Snacks as Symbols

Meaning is produced and reproduced within a culture through various practices, phenomena and activities that serve as systems. Rituals associated with food represent a deeply ingrained structure by which meaning is propagated within a culture. In other words, a potato chip is more than food; it is representative of childhood memories, concepts of being a good or bad parent, regional affiliation and other symbolically charged concepts.

The brand itself is equally symbolically charged. This explains why a generic brand of corn flakes to top your tuna casserole may not be “good enough.” Only Kellogg’s communicates that the cook cares enough about the people eating. This also explains, in part, the reluctance of many to buy store-branded products (although other factors come into play as we see, for example, in times of economic crisis).

Flavor is less the issue than the need to create a dish that fits within the symbolic framework in which it is constructed and consumed. The implication is that it recipe ideas aren’t enough. These ideas must be tied to richer symbols. Package design, shelf positioning, etc. must all reflect greater symbolic structures and lead to the construction of new and unique traditions that work within the existing framework.

The Invention of Tradition

Traditions exist to preserve a wide range of commonly held ideas, practices and methods used by distinct populations. Food joins other elements like music, folklore and clothing to create culture. Beliefs or customs are taught by one generation to the next and actions are reinforced over time. The preservation of culture, however, becomes much more difficult in a postmodern world.

Through the emergence of tribal subcultures along with the ease and means to communicate and cross-pollinate we see many using brands as badges of affiliation. In practice, people are “inventing” tradition by endowing products with rich symbolic meaning. Product, therefore, becomes a means by which people artificially establish a past and validate identity in the present. Mom may have never actually made Frito Pie, but it helps the consumer maintain a sense of identity to believe that she could have.

Food as Novelty and Play

Finally, using snack foods as ingredients speaks to the very basic need to invent and play. Snack foods used in a way different from their “intended purpose” is novel. At a psychological level, novelty speaks to four basic principle elements:

  1. Thrill Seeking: the pursuit of activities and objects that are exciting, unusual and potentially dangerous.
  2. Experience Seeking: the pursuit of unfamiliar and complex environmental stimuli, as through cooking.
  3. Disinhibition: Sensation-seeking through engagement with other people; searching for opportunities to lose inhibitions by engaging in variety in food, sex, alcohol, etc.
  4. Boredom Susceptibility: the tendency to be easily bored by familiar or repetitive situations or people, or by routine work.

Beyond the sensory benefits of novelty, there is the need to use experimentation as a means of establishing cultural capital. Snack foods have become a means by which people not only attain psychological stimulation but also display to friends and loved ones that they are inventive and interesting.

Implications

It may be interesting, but what does it all mean? Simply put, it means that whoever can tap into these unconscious motivations, symbols, and practices can increase sales, grow customer loyalty and develop brands that are synonymous with enjoyment. We often interpret our products through a self-limiting, narrow focus. Understanding snack foods from the vantage point of “ingredient” opens a new series of delivery systems, product possibilities and messaging strategies.

After all, the customer will always decide how to use your product.

 

 

 

 

 

Innovation Is Creative Thinking With Purpose

Innovation is creativity with a purpose. It is the creation and use of knowledge with intent. It is not only creating new ideas but creating with a specific intention and with plans to take those ideas and make something that will find purpose the world. Innovation is ideas in action, not the ideas themselves. Innovation is also a word that gets thrown about, often without really considering the reality that it is, in fact, damn hard work. What makes it hard work isn’t the generation of new ideas, but the fact that turning complexities into simple, clear realities can be excruciatingly difficult, but that is precisely what needs to be done to make innovation useful. Simplicity and clarity are tough to do.

Innovation, whether we’re talking about product design or a marketing plan, should be simple, understandable, and open for a wide range of people. Innovation is becoming more of an open process, or it should be. The days of the closed-door R&D session is gone as we incorporate more engagement of users, customers, stakeholders, subject matter experts, and employees in the process. Most companies are very good at launching, promoting and selling their products and services, but they often struggle with the front end of the innovation process, those stages dealing with turning research and brainstorming insights into new ideas.  The creating, analyzing, and developing side of things is often murky or done in a haphazard way. Articulating a simple system with clearly defined activities is central to bringing innovation to life and involving a wide variety of stakeholders and collaborators who can understand and engage in making the beginning stage of the innovation process less confused. It is as much art as it is science.

Easier said than done – you need a starting point. The simplest and most obvious element in this is to begin with a system of innovation best practices. You would typically generate multiple ideas and then synthesize relevant multiple ideas logically together in the form of a well-developed concept. This is the no-holds-barred side of the idea generation process and allows for people to begin exploring multiple trajectories. The key is to make sure the ideas don’t remain in a vacuum, but are open to everyone. With that in mind, it is extremely important to ensure that ideas are captured and stored in one place, whether electronically or on a wall (literally) dedicated to the task. Truly breakthrough innovations are not solitary work, they are part of a shared experience where ideas build on each other. They are the result of collaboration. This means that the work involves others to help you generate ideas, develop concepts, and communicate the concepts in meaningful and memorable ways. The more open the process, the more likely it is to get buy-in as people engage directly in the innovation process.

Next, make sure people have access to all the information available to them. Research around a problem or a people is often lost once the report is handed over and the presentation of findings complete. Central to the success of an innovation project is to make sure themes and experiences are captured and easily available to the people tasked with generating ideas. So make it visible, make it simple and make sure people are returning to the research (and researchers) again and again. This is about more than posting personas on boards around a room. It involves thinking about and articulating cultural practices in such a way that they are visible, clear and upfront. As people think and create they should constantly be reminded of the people and contexts for which they are creating.

Once the stage is set, the problem and hopeful outcomes need to be made clear. This is fairly obvious, but it’s easy to drift away from the goals as ideas emerge and people have time to simply forget why we’re innovating (or attempting to innovate ate any rate). So make them real, crystallize the problems and challenges. Make them visible at every step of the process.  In addition to posting the goals, be sure to have space to pose questions that are grounded in the problems or opportunities for innovation. Categorize the types of questions and ask that people visit them every step of the way to ensure the process stays on track and is grounded in the goals of the project. Categories of question types to consider might include:

  • How Will This Impact the Community: How can we help people, build communities and reflect the cultures and practices for which we are designing?
  • What is the Opportunity: How can we create something that provides a better life for the intended users?
  • Is It New or are We Simply Tweaking Something: How can the thing we’re creating change the current situation or are we simply creating a variation on an established theme?
  • How Will It Be Interpreted: What challenges do we face in getting people to accept the concepts and what cultural or psychological barriers do we need to overcome?

These are just a few examples, but they represent some of the ideas that might emerge when thinking of new designs, models and messaging strategies. They will, of course, vary depending on the goals of the organization. If your goal is to build a new delivery system for medications or if it is to do something as broad as change the way people eat, then the questions will change. The point is to have a space that opens up the dialog, not just a space to throw out ideas.

The point to all this is that in order to innovate, you need to clarify a simple system that all the various contributors can use. Establish a system and stick to it. Identify and write down the areas you would like to innovate in, get all the parties who will contribute involved and make sure they engage in an open environment. Create questions to ask and areas of exploration. Do that and you will move from a complex mess to something that can be acted upon.

Translating culture and opening markets

Success translates well into narrative. Who hasn’t heard those wonderful stories of marketing campaigns gone astray when introduced into a global setting? Remember when Puffs tissue started marketing their tissues in Germany and it didn’t do so well because “Puff” means “brothel” in German?  Or when Bacardi launched a fruit drink named Pavian in France it translated into slang as “chick,” but when they promoted it in Germany the same word meant “Baboon?”

We’ve all heard of these mistakes and we all get a chuckle, but the business ramifications of not doing your cultural homework are tremendous. And this goes well beyond something as superficial as a mistranslation.  We are prone to imposing our way of seeing the world on others, but what we may see in the developed world as universal may be significantly different in developing countries. Culture shapes how we use, interpret and shop for goods and what US shoppers may see as simply, say, buying chicken for dinner may mean much more in another part of the world. In other words, retailers and manufacturers need to understand what matters and why it matters according to different cultural perceptions.

Returning to our example of purchasing chicken at the grocery in the US, take concepts of cleanliness and food safety. As a population that has had easy access to meat for longer than most of us can remember, our concerns revolve around the promotion of “health” as a means of reducing fat in the diet. Increasingly, we make decisions based on the sanitary conditions of the farms where chickens are raised and the ethical treatment of the animals.  We increasingly associate “healthy” with being “green” (another wonderfully loaded and vague word). That has led to a push for reduced packaging as proof of sustainability and healthy living.

Now, take China. In a place where access to meat was – until fairly recently – limited, chicken is associated with status and upward mobility.  In the past, the source of the meat itself was often suspect because you may have purchased it in less than uniform locations.  Consequently, what we would see as excessive packaging is understood differently – the factory setting implies progress, wealth and modernity, which in turn imply good “health.”  Meat is something you want to show off to your friends and family because it is associated with status, which is associated with good health. Add to that the fact that people in much of world (unlike the US) have traditionally seen the chicken as something other than a pure commodity.  Indeed, there are many poems written about chickens (He Crows the Morning by Hsieh Ling-Yun or The Most Noble Fowl by Mohammad Ibn Sina). The result is that if you position chicken in the developing world as you might in the US, as a low-fat, easy to prepare alternative source of protein, it won’t correspond to the local worldview and your brand won’t gain traction.  You will invest a lot of money and may get very little in return. And China is only one example; expand this to the BRIC nations or the Middle East.

Of course, this is only one example, but the idea cuts across all categories. Don’t believe it? Tropicana initially failed when pushing orange juice in South America because it was pushed as a breakfast drink, which in South America it is frequently not – our beloved breakfast icon is something for the afternoon, a treat and a snack.  Papa John’s, on the other hand, is doing wonderfully in Egypt by maintaining it’s “American” mystique while incorporating toppings and product names that reflect local tastes.

Understanding what it means to shop on a global, national and local level is central to developing successful new products, sales channels and marketing campaigns. That means going beyond the product or retail environment and asking bigger questions:

Question: How does shopping convey status and wealth?

Answer: Pabst Blue Ribbon is a premium brand in China and signifies wealth because it has been positioned as a classic American Lager rather than a hipster yard beer. In China, it conveys a sense of worldliness, refinement and cultivated taste.

Question: What cultural norms shape how people interact with you brand and your store? Answer: Victoria’s Secret can’t be promoted in Riyadh or Bangalore the way it is in London.  Attitudes outside the West about sexuality, exposure of the human body and gender roles are radically different, shaping everything from marketing content to store displays.

And this could go on and on.  So what does it mean for marketing your brand in the developing world (in fact, what does it mean for marketing your brand in Alabama vs. LA)? It means that before you decide to launch or even reposition a brand or product around the world you need to spend some time digging and learning why people live the way they do and how your brand can fit into that complex system of practices and beliefs.  It isn’t enough to make sure the language is translated correctly or the color pallet makes sense. You have to come to understand the population the way you understand your neighbor. That’s where you find new opportunities and that’s where you find growth, both in terms of brand equity and the bottom line.

Of Industrial Landscapes and Natural Space

Over the years the world of marketing and branding has come a long way in understanding how color and images combine to shape the brand experience, and the importance of considering these points when dealing with an array of cultural norms and expectations.  We know red is an auspicious color in China, but is often interpreted as being too aggressive and agitating in the US.  We know that choosing symbolically discordant images and colors can have a strong impact on the viewers psyche.

What hasn’t been touched on with the same degree of interest is Proxemics, the understanding that how the use of space, either literally or in visual representations, can have a dramatic effect on the person experiencing the brand.  It isn’t enough to understand the impact of lighting on cognitive processes of the brain, nor is it enough to understand what messages certain colors convey in different parts of the world.  To truly build a lasting brand presence, we need to understand how the consumers to whom we are marketing distinguish a “place” from a “space,” and what meanings they invest in a physical setting.

Proxemics is the understanding of space in the holistic sense, as well as the cultural association we place upon space.  It is the study of how an environment, at the interactive and interpretive level, is bestowed with meaning by people in daily life.  The term “Proxemics” was coined in the 1950s by Edward Hall to address the study of our conceptualization and use of space, as well as how various differences impact our experiences within a given area.  In other words, Proxemics is the study of place and space from the cultural vantage point.

Proxemics, in its simplest understanding, is broken into two wide areas.  The first is physical territory, such as why desks face the front of a classroom or why front yards in America rarely have a privacy fence.  The second broad area is that of personal territory, the space we carry with us.  It is the space we keep between ourselves and the person with whom we are speaking. In both cases, having a solid understanding of how these dimensions manifest in our modes of communication is pivotal to a successful branding effort. But first, what are we talking about when we say Proxemics as it relates to a brand?

Human perceptions of space, although derived from sensory tools that all humans share, are shaped and patterned by culture. This means that differing cultural frameworks for defining and organizing space are internalized by all people at an unconscious, usually shared level, and can lead to serious failures of communication in cross-cultural settings. At the macro-level, these sensibilities shape cultural expectations about how streets, neighborhoods, groceries, retail settings, and essentially every environment we interact with should be properly organized.  This also means that settings can and do take on a “personality” depending on how they relate to cultural archetypes we posses about a given spatial frame.  For example, the living room archetype has specific elements of light, furniture and furniture placement, color, and wall decoration that signal the space is a living room.  These spatial cues are very different from what we expect in a archetypal board room setting. When used in a retail or business environment, how space is used impacts how customers interpret what that space is “supposed to” be.  In some cases these spaces can typify and inflate the cultural frame, in others they are in some way disruptive.

The Apple Store exemplifies a positive and memorable experience by stripping away elements of a tech-centric environment and replacing them with features associated with a non-technology focused world.  Open space is used liberally and allows patrons to scan the store with few obstructions.  Computers are displayed on countertops, not shelves, along the outer walls.  Tables fill the central space.  Only accessory items are stacked, which allows the eye to easily scan the interior of the store. Warm, natural colors are used rather than loud or cold materials, making the store more inviting.

When all these pieces are put together, the environment signals both a sense of inclusion and exploration reminiscent of the natural landscape. This is lacking in most computer stores. Everything comes together in the physical space to create a distinct personality that is mirrored in every other aspect of the Apple brand, from the website to TV ads. The reasons are a combination of biological and cultural principles.  The eye follows basic evolutionary principals of horizontally scanning the horizon to gather information about the environment.  Rather than focusing on vertical scanning, as in done in most computer and consumer electronics stores, horizontal scanning also promotes eye contact and person-to-person interaction instead of interaction exclusively with the products.  Stools are available at display stations and invite patrons to sit as one would at home, rather than stand. The cultural signal is that we are in a home rather than a store.  Products are de-commoditized and given a warmth that is normally lacking in the cultural understanding of technology.

Contrast this with the layout of most computer/PC stores where items are stacked on shelves, the materials used in displays are sterile and cold, and the focus of the experience is on the technology, rather than how technology fits seamlessly into a consumer’s life.

Personal Space

Moving beyond public space, another important aspect of Proxemics, and one a business frequently has less control over, is the use of culturally constructed personal space. Briefly outlined are the four areas that Americans intuitively respect and use to define personal territory:

  1. Public Space ranges from about 12 to 25 feet and is the distance maintained between the audience and a speaker giving an address.
  2. Social Space ranges from 4 to 10 feet and is used for communication among business associates, strangers using public areas (such as in a retail setting).
  3. Personal Space ranges from 2 to 4 feet and is used among friends and family members, and to separate people waiting in lines. Not surprisingly, this is also the distance assumed in certain retail setting where a greater degree of intimacy is to be conveyed (e.g. a lingerie store).
  4. Intimate Space ranges out to one foot and involves the possibility of (and sometimes probability of) touching. This is reserved for people with whom we are very close or for secretive actions such as whispering.

Personal Space varies dramatically along cultural lines and can have an enormous impact on how a brand is received.  As an example, when visiting Dubai, you might find yourself almost nose to nose with a business associate because their social space equates to intimate space in the US.  You would probably find yourself unconsciously reacting by backing away trying to regain what you view as appropriate social space while your associate unknowingly pursues you across the floor trying to maintain what is the norm for him. The result is that you assign negative meaning to that behavior, considering it rude or odd. Now, imagine this happening in a retail setting, a car dealership, or greeting card store. The result is a negative or awkward experience for the consumer, though they may have difficulty defining what feels wrong.  By extension, the consumer then transfers the sensation of discomfort to the brand as a whole. This has obvious implications for the retailer, but what about the products a retailer sells? For these companies, the challenge becomes how to maximize response and design for different environments and cultural contexts while balancing the costs of producing multiple package designs, merchandising displays or in-store advertising collateral.

How personal space is used in messaging and advertising is equally important.  While you are viewing an ad, rather than participating in an experience firsthand, you still register what is and is not “normal” for those pictured in an ad.  So, for example, beer ads frequently make a point of significantly reducing personal space between men and women, while increasing the distance between men.  The subconscious registry is one of increased intimacy and sexual cues.  However, when these ads are run in parts of the world where sexual norms and rules around inter-gender behavior are different, these images signal improper use of space.

From Space to Place

What all of this means, is that cultural differences in how we interpret space and our physical environment, both public and personal, literal and symbolic, can have a enormous impact on how a brand is perceived.

Clearly, investing in the right location with the right amount of space and the right demographic mix for your target audience is incredibly important.  Equally, so is the sound, temperature, amount of “clutter,” color palette and lighting.  But first and foremost, understanding how space becomes a place and thus, a major aspect of brand, begins by defining an environment by its cultural standards.  It includes determining rules of interpersonal interaction with the staff.  It even involves determining how space will translate in ad collateral.

Ultimately, Proxemics can be a remarkably powerful tool in determining how a brand will manifest itself and be assigned meaning in a range of environments.

Trucks, Women and Unexpected Markets

The pickup truck has become an essential part of Western culture.  Even though trucks are needed and valued for their usefulness in farming, ranching and blue collar occupations, decorative additions are often made to trucks and these additions don’t always follow utilitarian functions.  Indeed, many truck owners do precious little in the way of physical labor – spend a few hours driving through the pricier suburbs of Houston and it become quickly clear that the truck is as much a fashion statement as it is a tool.  Perhaps more so.  Rather, pickups help negotiate and present group membership, notions of masculinity and femininity, and associations with class structure.  However, trucks don’t always present a seamless image, nor are the images always interpreted monolithically by those who own and decorate pickup trucks. There are a range of meanings associated with trucks and subcultures within the larger cultural framework.  But what is most important to this discussion is that trucks are far more than they seem.

Truck owners spend a considerable amount of money on customizing their trucks, with 45 percent spending at least $1,000 and 17 percent spending at least $3,000. The most common components customized are wheels and tires (36 percent), audio and video (29 percent), exterior trim (29 percent) and exhaust systems (19 percent). The high value that pickup truck owners place on their trucks and the amount of money that they spend in aftermarket products makes sense when you consider the fact that 64 percent consider their truck as an extension of their personalities.

As an example, when I was doing fieldwork with women who owned trucks, only one of them owned a truck as a function of her occupation.  Some used it as a means of establishing a sense of identity that said to the world, “I’m not a girlie girl.” Some used it as a way of asserting a sense of strength on the highway.  Some used it as a way of maintaining a connection with their past rural (or semi-rural) lives.  The point is that the truck became a symbol, an extension of themselves and utility played a minor role in the underlying reasons they chose it over a car or an SUV.

So why does it matter? It matters because it speaks to the fact that the products we own and use, whether they are thought of by their manufacturers and retailers as utilitarian or extravagances, are reinterpreted and redefined by their owners and that is a huge opportunity for marketers and designers. The truck is a fashion piece. It is a mobile living room.  It is a toy.  It is many things, and those things become apparent from doing deep fieldwork, not through surveys and interviews.  And just as trucks have a range of unexpected meanings, so to do laptops, beer brands, eye glasses, etc.  Regardless of your product or service, understanding people on a deeper level gives you a significant advantage over your competitors. That means getting out there and doing the kind of rich, immersive research that uncovers real insights, not just the low-hanging fruit.

It’s Not Just Price: The Role of Cultural Capital in Marketing

It’s not always about the money.  Yes, the economy has driven people to be more thoughtful about how they spend their money, but it has equally driven people to think about how their purchases reflect on themselves, how they interact with the world and how positive experiences during the shopping act help them preference one location over another.  This isn’t always conscious – indeed, it rarely is.  People seek cultural and social capital when shopping and returning to our old friend Bourdieu can provides an interesting framework for our design decisions.

So what did Bourdieu have to say about these two concepts?  At the risk of being labeled a reductionist, the overarching themes are these: Cultural capital makes up the forms of knowledge, skills, jobs, education, and advantages that a person has, which give them a higher status in society. It can also be argued that the things we possess and the places we buy those things provide a form of material cultural capital.

Social capital are the non-tangible resources we possess based on group membership, relationships, networks of influence and support. Bourdieu described social capital as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition.”

In a nutshell, then, not all capital stems from economics and systems of direct exchange.  The car we drive, the stores we shop at, etc. provide a means by which we project and exchange social and cultural influence. In one context, Levis are a sign of middle class stability, in another they become a sign of blue collar chic for the wealthy.  So while economics, traditional economics, plays a part in the overall pattern of shopping, it is not as simple as unit price.

Cultural capital has three subtypes: embodied, objectified and institutionalized.

  • Embodied cultural capital consists of both the consciously acquired and the passively “inherited” properties of one’s self (with “inherit[ance]” here used not in the genetic sense but in the sense of receipt over time). Cultural capital is not transmissible instantaneously like a gift or bequest; rather, it is acquired over time as it impresses itself upon one’s character and way of thinking.
  • Objectified cultural capital consists of physical objects that are owned, such as our cars, works of art, or even our groceries. These cultural goods can be transmitted both for economic profit (as by buying and selling them with regard only to others’ willingness to pay) and for the purpose of “symbolically” conveying the cultural capital whose acquisition they facilitate. However, while one can possess objectified cultural capital by owning an object; one can “consume” the car, the painting and the groceries (understand its cultural meaning) only if one has the proper foundation of conceptually and/or historically prior cultural capital, whose transmission does not accompany the sale of the object.
  • Institutionalized cultural capital consists of institutional recognition, most often in the form of academic credentials or qualifications, of the cultural capital held by an individual. The institutional recognition process eases the conversion of cultural capital to economic capital by serving as a experience-based model that sellers can use to describe their capital and buyers can use to describe their needs.

It is typically the objectified cultural capital that is the focus of many retailers, and it is perhaps the easiest for them to identify. However, embodied and institutionalized cultural capital are equally important because they reach the intangible.  They reach those depths of the human experience that are the most enduring.