Among my sources of information about the modern world is a free online newsletter called MediaDailyNews. This morning's edition featured a column by Bob Garfield, who for decades was the chief advertising critic for Advertising Age.  Garfield begins this piece, titled "Too Late to Relate?" with the following paragraphs.

There's this line I sometimes use in speeches, usually during the question-and-answer period. My presentations are about the ascendency of trust in the new Relationship Era of marketing, as chaos continues to subvert the primacy of advertising and positioning.

When the lecture ends, someone from the audience inevitably raises a hand and asks: "What is the one thing above all else I should do to succeed in the Relationship Era?"

I stand on the stage, scowling a bit as I appear to be pondering the question. “The one thing, eh?” I'll say. Then, after another moment, I'll nod my head sharply and offer my considered response:

“Don't be a dick.”

The point is, he says, that what the public values in brands has changed.

As recently as 2006, Edelman Public Relations informs us, in answering what was the standard of trust, consumers most often cited “quality products and services.” By 2010, mere “quality” as a standard of brand confidence had dropped to number three in the Edelman Trust Barometer. Number one -- with 83% citing it -- was “transparent and honest practices.” Good conduct. Solid citizenship. Core values. The stuff of essential self.


A few sentences later, he adds,


Trust is composed of three elements: credibility, care and congruency. Does the brand engender public trust by delivering on its promises? Does it understand consumer needs and seek to fulfill them? Does its every action resonate with deeply held values?

It really helps when the answer to all of those questions is yes. At the moment, a number of brands are experiencing the wages of the answer “no.” BP, Netflix, Johnson & Johnson, RIM, Chick Fil A and even Apple have learned the hard way that no brand -- not even a beloved one -- is immune to the consequences when it disappoints the public.

It would be nice to think that this is true, but this anthropologist has a question for which he hopes his colleagues can help him find an answer. Both my cursory reading of primatology and my cursory reading of history suggest that being a dick is the road to success in both local pecking orders and massive social hierarchies. As Green Bay Packers (an American football team) coach Vince Lombardi once famously said, "Nice guys finish last." If this is no longer true, why isn't it true anymore? What about society and culture have changed to make being a dick the road to failure instead of the key to success?

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Comment by John McCreery on September 17, 2012 at 9:01am

Kate, have you read Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, for example? Or Postmodernity and Its Discontents?  Absolutely one of my favorite social theorists. Lots of stuff relevant to this particular conversation.

I'm looking forward to what you come up with. Do think on, and share your thoughts. 

Comment by Kate Wood on September 17, 2012 at 8:38am

Good question! I find myself going back to what Habermas said about the public sphere and the influence of mass media on politics (making politics more about personal charisma than policies or gravitas), and thinking that this effect generates a kind of brandification of the individual politician, going even further than Habermas postulated. So right now in the US, Mitt Romney has a brand problem because people perceive him as a dick - his wife drives a couple Cadillacs, he likes to fire people, all those little missteps add up to "I'm pretending t o be like you but I'm not," and it turns people off. I'd have to think on that some more.

Comment by John McCreery on September 16, 2012 at 10:25am

How do you see these trends affecting politics, how selves are structured, anthropological theory?

Comment by Kate Wood on September 16, 2012 at 10:11am

Definitely! Companies have done this to themselves, really. They want us to fall in love with them - actually, they NEED It, they need people to not just keep buying their products, but actually brag about buying those products, to talk about how amazing their mortgage company or insurance company or favourite clothing brand or toothpaste and to walk around with Juicy Couture stamped across their butt. So on a personal level, they're like the dick who's nice to his girlfriend to ensure a steady supply of sex, but it's like that guy has 15 million or so girlfriends, all of whom talk to each other, and ten near-clones. It's no longer the case that isolated incidents will go unnoticed, either - a few decades ago, a bad consumer experience might have provoked a local TV spot or a letter to the editor of a local paper, but today it goes viral and that company is immediately suspicious in the minds of people who might not even have heard of them before today. In a very real sense, like you said, the personal no longer is personal; an insult to one consumer could easily become a potential insult to all of them. 

Comment by John McCreery on September 16, 2012 at 1:58am

Being a dick has different connotations in personal and impersonal relationships.


An important observation. I am moved to reflect that at the zero point at which relationships are maximally impersonal, the utterly arms-length transaction envisioned in simplistic economic models, to be or not to be a dick is not a question at all. You have something I want. I pay you for it. We are quits. Let the buyer beware. 

Add legally enforceable regulations on product safety, say, or misrepresentation. Now I, the buyer, may have a claim if dissatisfied. But the claim remains impersonal. I am rejecting the product and demanding my payment back, along with in some cases, compensatory damages. But whether the seller behaved like a dick or not is, outside the narrow legal frame, irrelevant.

Why, then, should not behaving like a dick become an issue for corporations, a topic for discussion by a major league advertising guru like Bob Garfield? Consider the marketer's challenge in the era in which rampant consumerism and a Net-connected world intersect. Because there is so much competition in virtually every product category, it's not enough to have a good product or service to offer that satisfies the consumer's need. If you are looking for repeat sales in a business environment in which every newly launched product that looks even remotely successful soon has competitors nipping at its heels, it isn't enough to fulfill the promise of the arms-length transaction. You want consumers to fall in love.

A familiar "bonding scale" spells out the process: 

  1. Awareness - they have to know your product exists
  2. Understanding - they know what it offers
  3. Interest - they might want that
  4. Consideration - your product is in the small set of alternatives when the purchase decision is made.
  5. Preference - All things being equal, they want your product instead of the others.
  6. Can't live without it - The Holy Grail! The lifetime value of each customer goes way, way up.

The problem is that, as you move up the scale, the bond becomes more emotional, more tightly connected to the consumer's identity and sense of self. Now if you act like a dick, it isn't just business as usual. It's evil! It's betrayal! It's "I hate you and never want to see you again!"

Now add the Net. The circles of gossip and scandal in which those who feel like you are being a dick talk with each other overlap and grow exponentially. Your dirty linen is no longer a problem you can deal with quietly in a one-on-one encounter with the unhappy customer. It's Oprah! It's Donahue! It's tabloid journalism infinitely multiplied!

Comment by Kate Wood on September 16, 2012 at 12:36am

Being a dick has different connotations in personal and impersonal relationships. In a situation with a mild power differential (say that guy that's the football player in a group of nerds) or an astonishingly high power differential (say, so high you never actually interact - think Japanese royalty) then dickishness is either inconsequential or can offer a mild advantage, especially when it manifests as being just slightly faster to act. For example, the dick that always gets the girls (temporarily) isn't really succeeding because he's so amazingly attractive, but just because he opened his mouth (took action) when nicer guys stood back and waited. Long-term success is a different matter, particularly in semi-monogamous and long-lived species like ours. Then, even most dicks are redeemed by some factor (sense of humor, willingness to carry heavy things, aesthetic value, whatever) that offers them some social grease and improves the appearance of success. Of course, someone very far removed from us in social hierarchy has no grease (think Mitt Romney), but on the other hand we have no relationship with them that's meaningful so we don't care.

The relationship between a person and a company is a different type of relationship, where it's impersonal but interactive - we buy stuff from P&G all the time, even if we don't think about it. On the other hand, P&G is not Joe the greengrocer. We don't "know" P&G - instead, we have an impersonal form of trust based on their past reputation, that their products are going to, say, not kill us, and clean our teeth properly. If P&G casually disregards that requirement (that is, being a dick in terms of the relationship they have with us), there is no social grease. They get no quarter. Now, companies try awfully hard to be our besties, but it doesn't really work - no matter how much we follow companies on Facebook, all it takes is a good sale price from a competitor and we've jumped ship (unless there's a functional reason not to, which there almost never is). So, it's not inconsistent to observe that in micro-social relations, being a dick sometimes gets you a bit of an edge; in macro-social relations, it doesn't really matter if someone's a dick or not; and in terms of the relationship between person and corporation, being a dick can be a serious mistake. Unfortunately, it's also not necessarily true, no matter what the marketing speak says. I mean, look at Bank of America - they kidnapped someone's parrot and still trade at $9.55. So, you know. who knows.

Comment by John McCreery on September 8, 2012 at 2:50am

Francine, wow! There is so much good stuff in this response, with which, by the way I agree almost totally. I'd like to raise just a couple of points to continue the conversation.

I am really struck by your first paragraph and wondering what part of the States you return to. I ask because Ruth and I have spent two or three months of each of the last six years in the States helping out with the grandkids while our daughter and her husband have been extricating themselves from the U.S. military and getting on with new careers. That's been two summers each in Corpus Christi, Texas, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Fairfax, Virginia. My overall impressions have been quite different from yours. I am asking myself why? The most obvious answer is social class. We're not rich, but with low six-figure incomes we are not scraping by either. So we get to shop at HEB (Corpus Christi), Whole Foods Market (Cambridge, Fairfax), indulge ourselves with Apple iToys, avoid fast food and eat at pretty nice restaurants when we aren't (we are all foodies) cooking for ourselves.

Corpus is basically a beach, an oil refinery, and military bases, with gated community suburbs, all connected by a gross florescence of what Jack Roberts labeled "tube culture" (for neon tubes, highways as tubes; it has the highest obesity and type-2 diabetes rates in the nation. It's a hole. Cambridge is, in contrast, described by one of my daughter's Kennedy school profs as "a utopian bubble surrounded by reality on three sides." The real estate prices are so out of sight that people who live in the closer suburbs at the end of the subway lines consider themselves lucky and new junior faculty at Harvard and Tufts are looking for homes way out past Andover or Lexington. Fairfax, close to the Washington Beltway, where my daughter has her new house, is not Cambridge, which both she and her husband miss at lot. But its part of the Northern Virginia suburbs that feasts on the U.S.'s bloated defense budget and has largely escaped the effects of the recession. In another contrast, we have heard from friends who have moved to Denmark and hope to stay there, where medical care and higher education for their kids will be free if they become permanent residents, that returning home to Missouri, they find themselves in what now feels like a third-world country. 

How does this relate to Garfield? If I read him right, the perception that some corporate (or other type) of person is "being a dick" is grounded in disappointment, in a feeling of expectations betrayed. If your life and luck have led you to a relatively comfortable space, you will find that the number of dicks you encounter declines dramatically. It is also important, of course, that there are multiple companies and brands that see you as a preferred customer and the new technologies, from concentrated masses of shopping malls to the Internet, have not only made it easier to encounter information when a company behaves in a dickish way; it is also easy to switch to its competitor. This is a very different situation from, at another extreme, that of a tenant farmer with no where to turn if the landlord decides to throw her off the land or a factory worker like those who had the firms in which they had worked all their lives "restructured" and then disposed of by the likes of Bain capital, leaving their lives and communities in ruins. For me the news that Apple products are built by a Taiwanese-owned sweatshop in mainland China called Foxconn is disturbing. Let's face it, however, the mild distaste I feel is just that. It isn't a life-changing catastrophe, and no way is it going to get me to switch to a Windows phone or Android (after all, thanks to the Internet I know that Foxconn or similar suppliers also assemble those phones). 

Comment by Francine Barone on September 7, 2012 at 7:32pm

I would agree with Garfield that, due in large part to the culture of "exposure" in which we are currently living, companies can't really hide behind the usual "it's business, not personal" approach to sales. I am always struck by how generally customer-unfriendly my home country is every time I return Stateside. I've seen and felt a shift in the way people respond to big businesses and chain stores: with suspicion and cynicism. It used to be that the big names were de facto the most trustworthy, but not so anymore. People always talk about how they're tired of giving their money to assholes. Maybe this is recession-related.


At the same time, there has been a parallel growth in new forums/means for holding companies accountable. A good example is social media. From Twitter and Facebook to online review websites and rip-off reports, people are very rarely quiet about their consumer experiences. Smart companies are aware of this, hence hiring social media managers to maintain and try to control their online reputations. People are likely to shout online when they have a great experience or a really bad one. Companies with good community management - active Twitter pages, Facebook deals, interactive site content - win major points. Fun, engaging and friendly startups (even tiny ones), if they can keep customers happy, get enough word of mouth media to rise into million dollar businesses in a matter of weeks. That's expontentially faster than their brick and mortar equivalents of the last century. Now you can support "the little guy" whose infrastructure and customer service can rival the big guy. That's a paradigm shift in itself.

I have noted a few relevant trends over the past couple of years. First is that people want to get stuff in addition to the stuff they were intending to buy in the first place. That's not really news, but at least in the US, anything that a company gives as a bonus or discount makes them look less like of a dick. The fact that it makes no difference to their profit margins to make something appear to be on sale by 20% is by and by. Hence the couponing obsessives. Customers want to feel special or like they are getting something "extra". And it shows in the figures: companies with better "loyalty" and "rewards" programs have better earnings in the current economy, beating out the giants using older sales models.


Another trend is the rising popularity of companies that offer a charitable incentive in addition to a decent value/quality product. In this case, you are still getting more stuff, but it doesn't go to you. Instead, it enables the consumer to be less of a dick without even trying very hard. So you buy a pair of shoes and they give a pair away to an orphan somewhere; or their coffee benefits farmers in some third world location that most people have never heard of. After BP destroyed the gulf, they put out commercials with happy dolphins and birds and fluttering American flags in them. The latter is the best example of the new reality: even BP is trying to un-dick their image (talk about a losing battle, and yet somehow they are managing it).


More and more, brand identity maps onto personal identity and even transfers its qualities to the consumer. I want to say that this has never been so strong, but I think it's been pretty pervasive for some decades at least. It's no longer just a matter of having ones' favorite brands, but defining oneself by which companies they choose to deal with. So if you shop at Walmart, drink Starbucks, use an iPhone, or are a regular at WholeFoods, there are things that can and probably will be read into your identity. Because brand association can come to reveal rather intimate details about the consumer, how we relate to companies and identify with them is bound to change with current events.  


From what I have seen, the combination of a good social media presence (plus positive reviews) and some kind of rewards/charity system really does influence consumers. Certainly I have found that many people say that they will pay more within a reasonable margin to buy from nice guys who do nice things and treat them nicely. The rest of the time they probably revert to companies run by dicks; but given the same product and same prices, a majority would probably prefer to go for the nice guys.


That said, it's a tough pattern to break. The dicks usually end up raking in the money, because the more unscrupulous you are, the easier it is to whether the storm. No accountability to clients or customers means high profit margins at all costs. New tech companies aren't exempt from it; hell, Zuckerberg is kind of a dick and look at his success. But what I do think has changed to make being a dick the road to failure instead of the key to success is that everyone can be a dick. Every day is scandalous, every person suspect, every politician and businessman lying, cheating and stealing from our pockets and stuffing our cash in their one-percenter off-shore bank accounts. Being a "nice" business is much rarer and therefore more impressive.



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