The Cluetrain Manifesto, Chapter 4: Markets Are Conversations

This is from a book largely written about corporations and corporate culture, but I think it has a lot of relevance to how libertarians working in organizations (e.g. the Libertarian Party) go about communicating libertarian ideas to people.

  In large part it is a critique of the concept of marketing. If you see marketing as an important part of life, necessary to the success of any endeavor, and the notion that there's anything inherently wrong with it leaves you scratching your head, I particularly encourage you to read this.

Love & Liberty,

        ((( starchild )))

First Things Last

The first markets were markets. Not bulls, bears, or invisible hands. Not battlefields, targets, or arenas. Not demographics, eyeballs, or seats. Most of all, not consumers.

The first markets were filled with people, not abstractions or statistical aggregates; they were the places where supply met demand with a firm handshake. Buyers and sellers looked each other in the eye, met, and connected. The first markets were places for exchange, where people came to buy what others had to sell -- and to talk.

The first markets were filled with talk. Some of it was about goods and products. Some of it was news, opinion, and gossip. Little of it mattered to everyone; all of it engaged someone. There were often conversations about the work of hands: "Feel this knife. See how it fits your palm." "The cotton in this shirt, where did it come from?" "Taste this apple. We won’t have them next week. If you like it you should take some today." Some of these conversations ended in a sale, but don’t let that fool you. The sale was merely the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence.

Market leaders were men and women whose hands were worn by the work they did. Their work was their life, and their brands were the names they were known by: Miller, Weaver, Hunter, Skinner, Farmer, Brewer, Fisher, Shoemaker, Smith.

For thousands of years, we knew exactly what markets were: conversations between people who sought out others who shared the same interests. Buyers had as much to say as sellers. They spoke directly to each other without the filter of media, the artifice of positioning statements, the arrogance of advertising, or the shading of public relations.

These were the kinds of conversations people have been having since they started to talk. Social. Based on intersecting interests. Open to many resolutions. Essentially unpredictable. Spoken from the center of the self. "Markets were conversations" doesn’t mean "markets were noisy." It means markets were places where people met to see and talk about each other’s work.

Conversation is a profound act of humanity. So once were markets.

The Industrial Interruption

The advent of the Industrial Age did more than just enable industry to produce products much more efficiently. Management’s approach to production and its workers was quickly echoed in its approach to the market and its customers. The economies of scale they were gaining in the factory demanded economies of scale in the market. By the time it was over we had forgotten the one true meaning of the market, and replaced it with industrial substitutes.

In The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler wrote that the rise of industry drove an "invisible wedge" between production and consumption, a fact Friedrich Engels had noticed over one hundred years earlier. As production was ramped up to unheard-of rates, the clay pot of craftwork was broken into shards of repetitive tasks that maximized efficiency by minimizing difference: interchangeable workers creating interchangeable products.

In the market, consumption also needed to be ramped up -- not just to absorb the increased production of goods, but also to promote people’s willingness to buy the one-size-fits-all products that rolled off mass-production lines. And management wasted little time noticing the parallels in efficiencies they could achieve all along the production-consumption chain. If products and workers were interchangeable, then interchangeable consumers began to look pretty good too.

The goal was simple. Customers had to be convinced to desire the same thing, the same Model-T in any color, so long as it’s black. And if workers could be better organized through the repetitive nature of their tasks, so customers were more easily defined by the collective nature of their tastes. Just as management developed a new organizational model to enhance economies of scale in production, it developed the techniques of mass marketing to do the same for consumption.

So the customers who once looked you in the eye while hefting your wares in the market were transformed into consumers. In the words of industry analyst Jerry Michalski, a consumer was no more than "a gullet whose only purpose in life is to gulp products and crap cash." Power swung so decisively to the supply side that "market" became a verb: something you do to customers.

In the twentieth century, the rise of mass communications media enhanced industry’s ability to address even larger markets with no loss of shoe leather, and mass marketing truly came into its own. With larger markets came larger rewards, and larger rewards had to be protected. More bureaucracy, more hierarchy, and more command and control meant the customer who looked you in the eye was promptly escorted out of the building by security.

The product of mass marketing was the message, delivered in as many forms as there were media and in as many guises as there were marketers to invent them. Delivered locally, shipped globally, repeated inescapably, the business of marketing devoted itself to delivering the message. Unfortunately, the customer never wanted to take delivery.

The Shipping View

During the Industrial Age, the movement of materials from production to consumption -- from flax to linen and from ore to musket -- was a long and complicated process. Potentially vast markets had potentially vast distribution needs. The development of new transportation systems eased the burden, and global systems flourished. Even huge distances could be spanned so that products could be delivered efficiently. Inexorably, business began to understand itself through a peculiar new metaphor: Business is shipping. In this shipping metaphor -- still the heart and soul of business-as-usual -- producers package content and move it through a channel, addressed for delivery down a distribution system.

The metaphor was effectively applied not just to the movement of physical goods, but also quickly applied to the packaging and delivery of marketing content. It’s no surprise that business came to think of marketing as simply the delivery of a different type of content to consumers. It was efficient to manage, one size could fit many, and the distribution channel -- the new world of broadcast media -- was more than ready to deliver. The symmetry was perfect. The production side of business ships interchangeable products and the marketing side ships interchangeable messages, both to the same market, the bigger and more homogeneous, the better.

One problem: there is no demand for messages. The customer doesn’t want to hear from business, thank you very much. The message that gets broadcast to you, me, and the rest of the earth’s population has nothing to do with me in particular. It’s worse than noise. It’s an interruption. It’s the Anti-Conversation.

That’s the awful truth about marketing. It broadcasts messages to people who don’t want to listen. Every advertisement, press release, publicity stunt, and giveaway engineered by a Marketing department is colored by the fact that it’s going to a public that doesn’t ask to hear it.

Marketers felt this truth in their bones, and learned to cloak their messages, to disguise them as entertainment, to repackage the content as regularly as business learned to vary this year’s product line. Today, we all know and have come to expect this. We are even disappointed if it’s not well done. Commercials disguise themselves as one-act plays, press releases play the part of important stories, and advertising masquerades as education. Marketing became an elaborate game between business and the consumer, but the outcome remained fixed. As sophisticated as marketing became, it has never overcome the ability of people to smell the BS behind all the marketing perfume.

It is not hard to understand, then, that "business is shipping" at times felt more like "business is war," another pervasive metaphor. We launch marketing campaigns based on strategies that target markets; we bombard people with messages in order to penetrate markets (and the sexual overtones here shouldn’t be dismissed either). Business-as-usual is in a constant state of war with the market, with the Marketing department manning the front lines.

Consider the distance we’ve come. Markets once were places where producers and customers met face-to-face and engaged in conversations based on shared interests. Now business-as-usual is engaged in a grinding war of attrition with its markets.

No wonder marketing fails.

The Axe in Our Heads

Every one of us knows that marketers are out to get us, and we all struggle to escape their snares. We channel-surf through commercials; we open our mail over the recycling bin, struggling to discern the junk mail without having to open the envelope; we resent the adhesion of commercial messages to everything from sports uniforms to escalator risers.

We know that the real purpose of marketing is to insinuate the message into our consciousness, to put an axe in our heads without our noticing. Like it or not, they will teach us to sing the jingle and recite the slogan. If the axe finds its mark we toe the line, buy the message, buy the product, and don’t talk back. For the axe of marketing is also meant to silence us, to make conversation in the market as unnecessary as the ox cart.

Ironically, many of us spend our days wielding axes ourselves. In our private lives we defend ourselves from the marketing messages out to get us, our defenses made stronger for having spent the day at work trying to drive axes into our customers’ heads. We do both because the axe is already there, the metaphorical embodiment of that wedge Toffler wrote about -- the one that divides our jobs from our lives. On the supply side is the producer; on the demand side is the consumer. In the caste system of industry, it is bad form for the two to exchange more than pleasantries.

Thus the system is quietly maintained, and our silence goes unnoticed beneath the noise of marketing-as-usual. No exchange between seller and buyer, no banter, no conversation. And hold the handshakes.

When you have the combined weight of two hundred years of history and a trillion-dollar tide of marketing pressing down on the axe in your head, you can bet it’s wedged in there pretty good. What’s remarkable is that now there’s a force potent enough to actually start loosening it.

Here’s the voice of a spokesperson from the world of TV itself, Howard Beale, the anchorman in Paddy Chayefsky’s Network who announced that he would commit suicide because "I just ran out of bullshit." Of course, he had to go insane before he could at last utter this truth and pull the axe from his own head.

Oh, Oh. I raise my hand here, as one who believes that without "marketing" a business survives just fine as long as it wants to stay as small as mine, or as small as the Libertarian Party.

Yes, I have great memories of going to the real market as a child, where real producers sold real goods ... and everybody exchanged news (no TV, Internet, or even radio in third world countries in those days). But populations grow exponentially, as do mouths to feed; and we feed all those mouths by generating and selling imaginary necessities. Thus, unfortunately real goods, and real ideas such as the Libertarian Party, need to compete in the marketplace with Cabbage Patch Kids, IPads, and Healthcare Reforms.