Big in Japan: the use of Haiku in marketing

20th April 2015

Similar to the re-reading of beloved books, revisiting political campaigns, where the outcome is both known and to my liking, is a hobby of mine. I recently watched The War Room, a documentary on William Jefferson Clinton’s successful bid for the American presidency in 1992.

In it, George Stephanopoulos pays credit to James Carville’s brilliant strategic mind, especially his ability to reduce the issues at stake in the election to a few tight phrases, one of which is the famous ‘It’s the economy, stupid”. In passing, Stephanopoulos likens Carville’s skill to the art of haiku.

His words got me thinking, as it seems that the world is, once again, turning Japanese. If China is muscle, Japan is our new-found inspiration.

The last occurrence of Nippon-mania was at the turn of the 20th Century – and we have The Mikado and Madame Butterfly to remind us of that brief romance.

I am obsessed by the 88 temple trail on the island of Shikoku; I am captivated by the emergence of finest Japanese whiskies such as Hibiki and Yamazaki, which transcend their Scottish points of departure; I am fascinated by a stoic Japanese noblesse which, during the chaotic trauma of 2011’s earthquake and tsunami, seemed to shine from Prefecture-to-Prefecture all along the country’s eastern seaboard.

Because I have unilaterally declared Japan is in vogue, perhaps it is time to look again at the wisdom of Haiku, described as ‘the essence of a moment keenly perceived’. Haiku is a non-rhyming poem, typically of 3 lines and one single idea – albeit delivered with contrast or juxtaposition.

In the cicada’s cry

No sign can foretell

How soon it must die.

– Bashō

There is something fully delicious about the honing of a big and bulky story down to one single thought. The Haiku is the opposite of the kitchen sink. It strips to the bone. It brings focus. It reveals a single thought and, god be praised, a single tone as well.

The art of Haiku is a useful one for marketing, and James Carville knew it. After all, marketing’s obsession is to know the core of what we would like to say. This is strategy at its simplest – nailing the essence, and the tone of voice.

Marketing has a multitude of techniques – brand wheels, brand stories, brand worlds – to help express what we intend in our creations. In general, they work just fine.  But sometimes these tools are found wanting, either because too much is crammed in, or because too much is left open to interpretation.

Could the skills of Japanese poetry actually help us? Could the very idea of Haiku help hone our thinking – both in terms of idea and tone – to a more pure state? Might Haiku be the post-modern way to approach marketing?

A few years back, I cycled over 5000km across the USA. One of my more memorable natural encounters was with the cicada – a locust-like insect in the central plains. I discovered that cicadas spent 17 years underground, before a 14-day-long sex splurge above ground, during which they made an enormous amount of noise, and promptly died.

The operatic drama of their lives struck me with force. Yet, when I look back to my extensive blog of that road trip, I notice only scant reference to the cicada at all. Although their symbolic meaning lay within me, it took Bashō’s haiku to express their essence, curtly, on a page.

Brian McIntyre. 2015.

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