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Why most brands take the wrong approach to storytelling and big data

Why most brands take the wrong approach to storytelling and big data

Q&A with Present Shock author and Vision Critical keynote speaker Douglas Rushkoff

If you want to learn where the media landscape is headed next, bestselling author Douglas Rushkoff is the person you’d want to talk to. A celebrated speaker and influencer, Rushkoff has spent his career thinking and writing about the impact of new media and technology to business, culture and the economy. In fact, Rushkoff’s expertise is frequently sought out by reputable magazines and TV outlets, including NPR, PBS and CNN.

At the Vision Critical Summit in Chicago, Rushkoff is delivering a keynote on humanizing technology. His provocative talk promises to spark discussions about what is now a common practice in customer intelligence: the heavy reliance on data and technology to make business decisions.

In our Q&A with Rushkoff below, he gave us a preview of his keynote and provided his perspective on the evolution of brand storytelling.

VC: At PSFK 2015, you argued that smarter technologies tend to make us anti-social. Would you say that this is true in the business world as well—that social, mobile and cloud technologies have made businesses less social/human?

DR: I don’t think technology makes us less social as much as it gives us an excuse to be less social. It’s like a husband who doesn’t want to take a phone call from his wife. You could say that’s anti-social, but he has voicemail so he could let it go there now whereas he couldn’t do that before. The same is true of businesses that are reluctant to deal with their customers’ responses to answers and aren’t willing to figure out what those answers mean. It seems easier to observe customer behavior and rely on data because it doesn’t involve the messiness of dealing with people.

In the same sense that human beings might look for ways to avoid contact with other people, businesses very often—even under the guise of saying that they want to know their customers better—are actually looking at how they reduce customers into some set of data rather than the unwieldy, unpredictable human beings that they actually are.

VC: One of your key arguments in Present Shock is the notion of “Narrative Collapse.” How has the death of storytelling changed the way companies communicate with the public today?

Present Shock - Douglas RushkoffDR: Most companies today simply try to restore narrativity by other means. Given the attention span of customers today, companies know that they can’t tell the traditional stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. Most companies compensate for this by creating brand narratives in a disjointed way, through mashups and sequence advertising. Rather than responding to a post-narrative environment, companies resort to telling a story that unfolds over the course of several commercials.

Advertising is rooted in brand mythology, which marketers created to protect customers from the reality of industrial production. Brand mythology means instead of showing the big factory where your goods came from, you create fiction involving elves, green giants, or what have you to obfuscate where your product came from. The purpose of brand mythology is to hide the reality of production.

But in an interactive age—in the age of transparency that we’re living in—you can’t hide the reality of production anymore. In particular, with millennials caring about things like sustainability and carbon footprint, people don’t necessarily want the brand narrative. What they want are the facts. Customers want something much less like a novel and much more like a newspaper. They want answers to questions like “where does this product actually come from” and “who made it.” The stories that people want to listen to are those that are connected to the reality.

VC: Does that mean that brand storytelling is dead, then?

DR: Not necessarily, but fictional storytelling is much less directly related to selling or to doing business than it used to be. Storytelling is becoming less a part of convincing people to buy. People are less likely to stick around for your story, to believe it or to relate your fictional brand mythology to the actual attributes of a product.

VC: In Present Shock, you talk about this concept of “fractalnoia,” a phenomenon where too much data and too many connections between those data points results to difficulty in making sense of it all. In the business context, what’s the solution to this problem?

DR: Companies need to recognize the limitations of data. Looking at data alone can distort your business practices, leading you to make choices based solely on what you can measure while ignoring those thing that you cannot.


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Data is most useful when you recognize repeated patterns and integrate intuition into the process. – @Rushkoff

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Data is most useful when you can recognize repeated patterns and attributes and integrate your intuition into this process. You need to apply your industry expertise when looking at data. Otherwise, you let data unsettle you and you let data make you paranoid. I call this phenomenon “fractalnoia.”

The beauty of a fractal is that there are all these similarities and patterns, and you can get a feel for the landscape that you’re at—in the same way that a surfer gets a feel for the waves. It’s a skill that you get in part by relaxing, not by tensing up. That’s what I’m trying to get people to do: to relax with data rather than treating it as an omniscient being that knows everything .

VC: Speaking of big data, your talk at the Vision Critical Summit will touch on this very subject. Can you share examples of companies that have used big data in an innovative way? What are they doing differently?

DR: In my opinion, most companies aren’t using data to drive innovation yet. For the most part, businesses use data to target individuals and to make individuals more predictable. Companies find out what cross section a customer belongs to, and they fill that person’s news feed with things that make her more typical to her new ultra-defined psychographic categorization. I don’t think that’s a relationship with customers companies want to have.

In the long term, you don’t want to keep limiting yourself to past customer behavior. You’d want to innovate in a way that creates new customer behaviors to inspire things that you haven’t seen yet. But if you use data to try to increase the accuracy of your predictive algorithms and to conform more closely to past customer behavior, you’re not really driving innovation.

Pepsi’s approach to data is interesting. From speaking with the company, I know that it’s very interested in culture and music, and it’s doing large-scale trend analysis to understand people’s preferences in those areas. It is looking at how it can, as a company, get people off sugar water and into something else. When the company is looking at data and is exploring the question “how can we steer the global ship away from unhealthy practices towards healthy ones,” that’s an interesting use of data. They’re treating data from the point of view of a large-scale cultural anthropologist rather than a short-term sales operative.

I’ve watched and read about Volkswagen, and I think it’s also using data in interesting ways. It’s looking at a future where people will not be buying cars. It’s trying to understand what does that world looks like, where does this willingness to adopt new behaviors comes from, and who are the people influencing that behavior. Open Society and the Institute for the Future also have interesting approaches to data. They use it to explore how populations shift over time rather than to get customers to do one particular thing.

VC: You’re working on a book right now called The Growth Trap. What is the book about?

DR: Society has used digital technology to exacerbate business practices and to entrap ourselves further in the growth bias of the industrial economy. I think we can use digital technology to begin to focus on more distributive business practices that lead to more sustainable environment and, ultimately, more sustainable companies.

In The Growth Trap, I am arguing against the notion of the second industrial age. I think there’s value in retrieving some things that are much older than corporate capitalism. The book will show companies how to experiment in this realm of less extractive, less growth-based, less shareholder-driven strategies. It will explore how companies can challenge the increasing difficulties in maintaining the rates of growths that are currently demanded by the current economic climate.

VC: Sounds provocative. What inspired the Growth Trap?

DR: Many CEOs come to my talks and invite me to talk to them afterwards. Some of them complain that they want to do some of the things I talk about, but they’re worried about meeting the expectations of the shareholders. They want to create companies that provide value to society and that engage with employees and their communities in a much more forward-thinking digitally consonant way. But these business leaders feel that they can’t do that. They feel trapped.

What I want to do is to write a book that explains how to get away from that trap, how to unwind the growth trap and how to start running businesses in the way that conscientious business leaders really want to.

To hear more from Rushkoff, register now for the Vision Critical Summit—the number 1 customer intelligence event in North America.

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