I know – a catchy title for a blog, eh? It’s actually the title of a treatise by Erasmus of Rotterdam, and no, he wasn’t the Wharton grad behind the recent boom in Netherlands-based financing. Sounds like it can’t possibly have anything to do with business, after all business doesn’t appreciate folly, which by definition is:
1 : lack of good sense or normal prudence and foresight
2 a : criminally or tragically foolish actions or conduct b obsolete : evil, wickedness; especially : lewd behavior
3 : a foolish act or idea
4 : an excessively costly or unprofitable undertaking
From the Middle English folie, from Anglo-French, from fol fool.
If I was indeed praising folly, definitions 1, 3 and 4 would be red flags for those readers who come to this esteemed blog seeking tips that will ultimately make them more successful business people. Right? Isn’t that your goal, at least from 9 to 5 or whatever workaday parameters your particular career may dictate? Because if it isn’t business information-driven, it’s entertainment or some esoteric thing, and dude, there are only so many hours in a day.
Well, as Einstein said, you have all the time that there is. But then again, he never read Drucker. And what I intend to discuss, or at least rant about, is not truly folly. It may very well be treated as folly by many in the business and attendant financial communities, but it’s not truly folly. Its value may often be neglected by the majority of marketers (although never the big dogs), but it is not actually folly per se.
It is the acknowledgement that between the light-speed rapidity of technological advancement and the analytical, logic-driven business school culture of the Information Age, an unhealthy and profoundly limiting paradigm has now become dangerously obsolete, but is still being worshipped: I call it the Left Brain Only model.
In the Left Brain Only business world, all that matters are analytics, number crunching, logic systems and hard data.
LET’S GET SOFT
In this world, values like empathy, meaning, harmony, narrative, fun, beauty are considered “soft”, unmeasurable, not relevant to bottom line ROI reality, harrumph, harrumph, etc. They’re foofoo dust. Even using those words in many business meetings is considered foolhardy – folly! These words represent the Right Brain attributes that make bean counters, process-based thinkers and B-school babies crazy. Especially in times of economic austerity, intangibles and abstracts get sent to the basement.
Unfortunately, the Left Brain Only model is dead. The trouble is that, as I said earlier, it is profoundly limited, and never so much as it is in today’s post-Information Age age. Because as a society we are searching past information for meaning. And I for one, as a Right Brain guy and a champion of breakthrough, connective messaging, couldn’t be more excited.
The good news for the Old School is that there is and will always be a definite need for all the hard data, analysis and logic systems. You simply can’t run a business without them. But the benefits of engaging Right Brain thinking to complement and complete the existing Left Brain-based model are so extraordinarily powerful and far-reaching that upon consideration it becomes evident that for a company, a brand, a consumer relationship to be complete, to be whole – and holistic – both hemispheres of the brain need to be fully involved in the process of delivery to market.
ESPECIALLY IN BRANDING
This is especially crucial in branding, and it is high time for those of us in branding-based disciplines to remember that what drives successful branding is emotional connectivity, a very human thing. We must effectively engage all the juicy stuff: Jungian thought, right-brain thinking, free-form creative play, and tribal value assessment to do our work. In fact, given the emotional drivers and condition of today’s consumer, your brand will not succeed without intentional, deliberate and meaningful emotional connectivity – and that requires Right Brain activation at every level.
Serious marketers, whether as big as Nike or Merck or as small as a regional manufacturer, understand that just as you can’t run a business without measurement, ROI and logic systems, you can’t go to market without strong consumer/customer connection potential. It takes homework: understanding both your audience’s needs and emotional drivers and the actual core values that represent what your brand stands for – and that is some soft stuff right there.
Here are some questions to ponder: what is Macy’s ROI for their Thanksgiving Day Parade, held annually since 1924? How can Coca-Cola’s brand equity be held at $22 billion? Why is brand equity, which can only be measured in the least scientific of equations, on company balance sheets in most global financial markets?
Or, as Daniel Pink points out in his wonderful book “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future”, in an America where light bulbs are cheap and electricity is ubiquitous, why are candles a $2.4 billion-a-year business?
Here are some more nuggets from his book:
“The paradox of prosperity is that while living standards have risen steadily decade after decade, personal, family and life satisfaction haven’t budged. That’s why more people – liberated by prosperity but not fulfilled by it – are resolving the paradox by searching for meaning. As Columbia University’s Andrew Delbanco puts it, ‘The most striking feature of contemporary culture is the unslaked craving for transcendence.’” (Love the word “unslaked”.)
“For businesses, it’s no longer enough to create a product that’s reasonably priced and adequately functional. It must also be beautiful, unique, and meaningful, abiding what author Virginia Postrel calls ‘the aesthetic imperative.’”
His point is not that Right Brain is better than Left Brain – that attitude is outdated in the eyes of current medical and scientific thinking: “The left converges on a single answer; the right diverges into a Gestalt. The left focuses on categories, the right on relationships. The left can grasp the details. But only the right hemisphere can see the big picture.” Left is analysis, right is synthesis. I don’t know about you, but I’d want my business or the brands I engage to have both, to be capable of accessing, manifesting and expressing both. I want a car with great lines, sleek interior, gorgeous color and interior fabrics and textures. But I also know I’ll need a motor that’s been engineered to a fault.
This is all relevant on multiple levels: by viewing both hemispherical sides of human mind potential we’re talking about a better mode of management, an improved approach to organizational culture, the creation of more potent expressions of brands, enduring relationships with consumers, and a new way to maximize our potential as human individuals.
TRANSCENDENCE: THE MEANING OF MEANING
Let’s get back for a minute to the candle thing. Every room in every building in America has electricity. What’s with all the candles?
It’s because we all seek transcendence, deeper meaning, a more profound value. It’s not enough to collect stuff: a car for every human in the house and multiple large screen TV’s on every floor only go so far, especially in a world where life is hardly seen as sacred. It’s what hippies were saying in the late 60’s: materialism is emptiness. Ask any Park Avenue therapist if that resonates. It’s the undercurrent of a new ethos so popular that there is an entire Western sub-culture of bookstore Buddhists.
WHY SHOULD YOU CARE?
On a practical business level here’s what that means to you as a marketer: because consumers are more informed than ever, highly connected to one another and aggressively proactive, they require more than window dressing from the brands they engage – they want a relationship that promises life-altering or life-improving brand experiences, and they know the difference between a brand that actually provides a meaningful, relevant platform from which to live their lives and a tent show hustle.
They want meaning. They want to know what values your brand stands for, what you know about their lives and the values and needs that drive them. They need to know that you get it. And they can smell phony a mile away.
To accomplish connectivity at this kind of vital level takes great, powerful narrative, an authentic amount of empathy and a degree of meaningfulness that simple data, technology and science can’t deliver alone. And getting to that place may require fun, a focus on aesthetics and altruism – all those soft, non-ROI-based values. And woe to the business that deludes itself into thinking that it can thrive in an optimum manner without fully engaging these attributes.
KNOWLEDGE VS WISDOM
Having worked extensively in healthcare and pharmaceutical marketing and branding, I like to use the caduceus as an example – you know, the two snakes entwined around the staff of Mercury (another discussion there). One snake represents Wisdom, the other, Knowledge. Knowledge = science, information, data, facts, etc. This Left Brain space is where, like B schools, modern medicine has gotten stuck for the past 100 years – especially the past 25 or so with the amazing advances in modern medicine. But look at what is embodied in the other snake, Wisdom: intuition, experience, instinct, empathy – the country doc making a house call and visiting the bedrooms, the privy, the kitchen, getting a sense of the entire, holistic condition of the patient’s life. Right Brain!
Healthcare marketing gets drunk on the science, believing (as many timid communication pros do) that since we’re discussing science we must not evoke magic. Let’s face it, as a culture we idolize doctors and watch medi-dramas on TV not because Doctor Smith understands a certain drug binds to a certain receptor site in the brain. We dig it because one human being is healing another, and that’s magic. An ancient fascination: it’s why the medicine man gets the second best hut in the village. A tremendous opportunity gets lost because communication doesn’t address the physician as the archetype she embodies, the Healer. Most advertising in this category is profoundly see-say, void of Right Brain-resonating metaphor, lost in tedious-for-communication Left Brain literalism. Ever wonder why so it is seldom that pharmaceutical advertising has impact? Well, how thrilling was biology class?
BALANCE IT OUT
We can assume that Left Brain thinking is already present in just about every business, and therefore behind every brand. But businesses that limit their vision and reality to left brain platforms of logic systems, metrics and science will miss out on the right brain attributes of meaning, empathy, harmony, connectivity, and wisdom. Successful businesses understand that their audiences (as groups of humans) seek transcendence and meaning and will therefore imbue their brands with Right Brain-based values that are relevant, full of meaning, carried with powerful narrative connectivity – clearly understood, consistently expressed, and able to transform lives. They will focus on the counterintuitive objective of transcending mere profitability, or risk missing the great societal awakening to transcendence.
This will take a degree of trust, I imagine, much like social media, which requires abdicating command and control to consumers in exchange for instant feedback, assured access and connectivity, and true two way communication. And like social media at its best, embracing the powerful big picture potential of Right Brain activation to complement Left Brain analytical thinking will provide rich, long term rewards.