Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Some Thoughts on Credibility and Handling Change

How flexible is your organization's ability to expand its brand as the market changes? How do you gauge the persuasiveness of your value proposition as priorities shift?

Expectations are a moving target. Ideas that seem shocking at first can become second nature with repetition. If you want to keep your market's attention, it's essential to determine on an ongoing basis in what regard belief systems hold up over time.

Credibility is what you need for a strong business case, so look at what constitutes credibility where you're sitting right now.

The Russian Formalists Again

Boris Tomashevsky offers a useful vocabulary for this phenomenon. He suggested that conventions (or structures whose meaning we take for granted) have a life cycle whose length often diminishes in direct proportion to the amount of exposure they get.

First, back to Viktor Shklovsky:Convention is by definition what is taken for granted.

Every situation in which we find ourselves constitutes a collection of conventions.

Every situation implicitly defines value through relying on a collection of conventions and by rejecting others.

Put another way, every situation is built on a series of arguments. These arguments support certain behavioral, linguistic, and environmental cues while ignoring or devaluing others.

Conventions contain value propositions that define the look and meaning of power and the possibilities for shifting control. They also define what constitutes credibility.

A kind of situational literacy, then, is necessary to understand how meaning is constructed in any particular environment. Identifying conventions and the arguments that support them is the first step to understanding what constitutes credibility. Once literate, it's possible to respond with an effective (aka persuasive) business case.

As in all learning, this sort of literacy combines emotional and intellectual intelligence that is difficult to parse in one go. However, a vocabulary is helpful to begin.

An Example: In the Jaws of a Dilemma

Horror movies provide a good way of looking at convention in Tomashevsky's terms.

When Jaws first introduced shark-as-immediate-threat, the market can be said to have been naive in relation to the convention. The first film had vacationers genuinely nervous about going into the ocean.

By the second film, audiences were more sophisticated. The shark might have been scary in the context of the film, but the strings were beginning to show. With enough exposure in multiple viewings and ads, the shark began appearing primarily as an object of parody in places like Saturday Night Live.

Parody is a clear indication that a convention has lost its intended value or meaning. If people can laugh at something they once found frightening, the implicit argument ("this shark is scary") has lost its credibility. Tomashevsky called this last stage of a convention's lifestyle "decadence."

Example 2: The Break-Down of a Business Case

I'm introducing this example to make a point about brand, not about politics per se:

It's not entirely due to recent disclosures that the Bush administration has stopped making references to "Weapons of Mass Destruction" as a phrase.

The convention that the US went to war with Iraq was introduced to a market naive, in Tomashevsky's terms, because it had never heard the rallying cry before. Most people took at face value its meaning -- and the implications that combine to make up the convention.

Eventually, through repetition, the words crept into the national vocabulary, and the phrase became one with an argument for war. The country was sophisticated to the convention, in Tomashevsky's term because they took its meaning for granted.

However, like the shark, this convention also had a life cycle. Overexposure began to drain the words of value, and the convention it represented suffered its first bout of decadence. If the words don't have impact, the argument also loses its punch.

Accronyms demonstrate that the sum value of its individual words can be taken for granted. So the Bush Administration created a new term -- WMD -- to reinvigorate the convention and thereby the argument for its political position.

These days, no one takes the argument the phrase represents for granted. It's used more by people like Bill Mahr than by the Republicans. Part of this, of course, comes from new evidence that the argument was not true in the first place. Nothing like being caught in a lie to destroy credibility.

But part of the fault for the fall from grace of WMDs lies in the failure of the Bush administration's to watch over the life cycle of the conventions that together comprise its brand. Overexposure and rigid adherence to a single phrase ran the convention through its life cycle, and its implicit argument couldn't hold up when decadence set in. Markets are conversations, and you have to listen as belief systems change.

As Jonas Karlsson recently pointed out in the September issue of Vanity Fair, "Some people don't like change. Change doesn't much care."

No comments: