Essays at the intersection of marketing and life.
‘How can you be like that?’, I asked the 22 year old who sat in front of me. ‘How can you be so liberated, when it took me 50 years to get that far?’.
We were in a creative session and dealing with profound issues; the stuff of life and the universe. The standard practice of qualitative research is to ask soft-ball questions at the start. The so-called ‘warm up’. I’ve never subscribed to that. I like to start with what’s most personal, and often most tough to answer. I find it sets the tone of curiosity which I plan to pursue. And my approach is simply being honest. I’ve no interest in soft ball.
‘So, what’s cool in life, right now?, I asked.
This young woman, Leah, explained that, for her, cool is simply to not care. She became specific. ‘I don’t mean not give a crap. I mean not caring what others think. It’s cool to do what you want to do, and be who you are.’
As I looked at her, with her dreadlocks, her lack of any make-up, her Doctor Zhivago hat, her ernest expression, it was clear that she was articulating a personal philosophy, not some buzzed cliché plucked from the ether.
Cool, in Leah’s world, is an outcome and not a strategy. She was clear on the point. ‘It’s not cool to try to be cool. Trying will never make you cool!’
Bowie was onto it in the 70s, with his gender-bending, anxiety-inducing act which so challenged the culture. He was a practiced man of the ‘I don’t care what you think’ school, and like all prophets, paid a price as well as reaped some glory. He was, for example, a man who began to find a distinction between being gay and being homosexual. He was most decidedly the former, though not the latter. Nice segmentation, David!
Not caring tentacles are spreading around our world.
I have been paying attention to the CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh, of late. He has eschewed the traditional ‘lead from the front’ model of CEO-ing. The head of one of the world’s most interesting shoe manufacturers feels uncomfortable with traditional leadership: the ‘I know better and think clearer than you’ model of seeing the world. The ‘one day, you too can be like me’ model of leading a business. As a result, he has instituted a business in which there are no formal bosses, and a hierarchy around purpose, not people. It’s called ‘holacracy’. His job? To bring in talented, like-minded people, and let them at it. Yikes!
Hsieh’s view is that when we get our own authentic view out there, our own tribe will find and follow us. Who cares about conventional wisdom! By not caring, you will find those who care just like you.
His journey with Zappos is a challenging experiment in tune with millennial thinking, if not with Wall Street orthodoxy. But being true is not some kind of zany mumbo jumbo. Paradoxically, it is rebooted leadership. Hsieh believes the stakes are high: ‘The default future for most companies is death’, he says, as if to encourage himself to strive not just for authenticity, but longevity.
Pioneering has quite the tradition in the USA. The Founder of Northface, Douglas Tompkins, tragically died in December 2015 – caught in a kayak on a Chilean lake when a storm brewed, unexpectedly. The man died of exposure in the very wilderness which he had sought to protect throughout his 72-year-old life. ‘Swallowed by nature’, as his daughter aptly put it.
Tomkins had been head of Northface and of Ésprit – two clothing giants – and had sold out in order to pursue his personal interest in the thing each of those businesses espoused: environmental protection. That decisions to quit and pursue conservation is striking. It is surely not the choice his accountant would have wanted for him. Did he care? I expect not.
This, then, is where we have come to. Leah has crystallised something important. The leaders of the current generation of 20 somethings feel empowered to live as they want, and be as they are. (I feel I have sweated five decades to even be able to understand this view.)
I think this is a profound shift. Until now, aspiration has been the governing principle of marketing. ‘Not caring what others think’ changes that paradigm. Because when the point of life is to authentically be who you are, you don’t have to hope the cool tribe of one’s dreams allows you into their fold.
Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes! Turn and face the strange.