Making Meaning, Making Marketing

LONG: On socially-constructed knowledge, the art and science of advertising, and new theories in human development

Shaking it up
Breaking it up
Making it up
In our secret world

- “Secret World”, Peter Gabriel

A very popular strain of thinking in education today is “constructivism”, which is a belief that knowledge is not a magical phenomenon that exists independently of humans, but is something constructed by individuals and groups in response to the information they receive.

We see this theme emerge in science, for example, which is a highly regimented process by which experimental results are collected, distributed, peer-reviewed, and independently replicated. On the other end of the spectrum, folklore and folk knowledge is a more informal process where practical wisdom is embedded in stories and parables, the content of which can change depending on the storyteller and their particular tradition. For example, have you ever heard somebody sing the tale of the ugly duckling?

Although people like to talk about “following the science” these days, the constructivists (and postmodernists) are correct when they point out that science is an imperfect process. It was once believed, for example, that differences in skull structure between the races led to inherent personality differences, that women suffered from hysteria, and in February 2020 the famed Dr. Fauci even held that masks were ineffective against COVID-19.

In many cases, the best scientific thinking on a subject is simply what is known so far combined with a set of informed guesses. For all the pomp and circumstance we ascribe to peer-reviewed journals and the scientific method, at the end of the day we’re all just making it up as we go along, with various levels of rigour.

Making sense of incomplete information

Despite their many failings (thinking of you, Dr. Fauci), scientists and other experts in our society tend to do a pretty good job of grappling with the unknown. From anomalous results in an experiment to the real-time data collected during a pandemic event, our expert class is generally responsible for:

  1. Figuring out complicated issues that we do not understand yet;

  2. Communicating their findings to the public;

  3. Suggesting what should be done about those issues.

From a constructivist approach, what is happening in these situations is that the people operating on the peripheries of our body of knowledge - that is, experts - are the first ones to encounter anomaly and make sense of it. Once they have developed an understanding of a phenomenon, this knowledge is then diffused throughout the rest of society and acted upon.

To use a COVID-19 example, in order to develop public policy surrounding the virus, a great deal of data from around the world has to be collected, sorted, analyzed, and compared with historical examples. With the advent of computing systems, scientists are even able to model their assumptions to determine the best possible paths forward. From there, these facts and interpretations are given to policymakers to weigh the costs of action against impacts on the economy, public sentiment, and public health.

Meaning-making on a societal level is an even more complicated process than the scientific method. Even in cases where the scientific facts are clear, different groups of people have different interpretations of what those facts might mean. And so, we have the processes of politics… and art.

Marketers & artists: canaries in the cultural coal mine

Moving away from science for the time being, I would like to focus on the “creative experts” in our society, who lead meaning-making in culture. When it comes to different trends and themes in society, it is usually marketers or artists who pick up on them first, create work that draws attention to them, and spark broader conversation about what the implications of those trends and themes might be for society.

This can be seen as a scientific process, of sorts. It is estimated that over one million new songs are released every year, almost all of them having to do with one topic or another. The songs that resonate will spread, and the songs that spread become “popular” and get fed back into culture to influence later music. Therefore, the musicians whose meaning-making abilities sufficiently reflect the invisible workings of society (that is, the most accurate experts) will have the best chance at success.

One recent example of this phenomenon in pop culture is Lil Nas X’s “MONTERO”, the music video of which depicted Lil Nas X giving a lap dance to the devil:

In my opinion, one of the reasons this music video was such a massive success (in terms of reach and splash) is because it correctly identified an underlying theme in society. Specifically, it illustrates the fact that many Christians believe homosexual people are damned to hellfire. Many conversations around the video and “what it meant” ensued, and I’ve even seen a video of a preacher talking about it in church and “what it meant” for Christians.

The special case of marketing

Marketing and advertising are unique disciplines in that they involve both a great deal of data-driven thinking, as well as a heavy dose of creativity and intuition. The combination of “right brain” and “left brain” thought processes can be difficult to master, and the additional pressure of having to deliver a return-on-investment with a creative endeavour can make the field excruciatingly stressful.

However, despite all the challenges, original and relevant marketing work is still released year after year. One example of this, which I will use for discussion, is a tourism campaign released by the Canadian province of Newfoundland & Labrador. Here is a TV ad which you might have seen over a decade ago on one of the most popular programs in my country, Hockey Night in Canada:

To most people, this is just a nice commercial. But the “Find Yourself” campaign was a hit, at least as far as Canadian commercials go. After running this advertising campaign, Newfoundland & Labrador saw an increase of 4.76% in visits from Quebec, and an increase of 2.05% in visits from Ontario. This was during a period following the 2008 stock market crash when tourism spending was at an all-time low!

What made this commercial “work”? A strong meaning-making process.

In a case study about this campaign, the Newfound & Labrador team describe their thoughts about the type of person that might come to their province:

Our biggest opportunity group doesn’t see themselves as tourists, but as increasingly sophisticated travellers seeking unusual places and experiences off the beaten track. They are looking for an antidote to the stress and plastic composition of urban life and modern times, and are interested in discovering an unspoiled natural environment. They are curious people, in search of unexpected, intriguing, and authentic destinations versus contrived and commercial tourist destinations.

- From cassies.ca (Internet Archive)

In marketing lingo, this is a “consumer insight”. To obtain an insight like this, one has to do a great deal of background research work, consulting both primary and secondary sources. Although the case study doesn’t discuss the meaning-making process of the marketing team in detail, it is very likely that they consulted the following sources in order to make their decision:

  • Worldwide tourism data to determine popular destinations and travel patterns;

  • Surveys, interviews, and focus groups with tourists to determine needs & wants;

  • A competitive review to determine how NL stacks up against other travel destinations;

  • Subject matter experts and past successes from around the world.

Taken together, all of these things added up to “people come here for a raw, natural experience, not a touristy getaway”. And, more importantly, this insight was “correct” - or at least correct enough to grow tourism activity in a shrinking industry. It was also “new” in the sense that although Canadians were aware that Newfoundland & Labrador contained striking and beautiful natural scenery, this fact had not been presented to them in that way before and was therefore worthy of consideration.

Postconventional thinking & advanced empathy

Marketing is often referred to as an "art” and a “science”. The science, of course, comes from the data analysis and the research work behind an effective campaign. On the other hand, the art refers to the mysterious process of coming up with insights and creative ideas that work in the real world.

At the moment, it is not entirely clear what drives career achievement in the marketing industry. Although it is important to note that there are many roles within the industry, some more creative than others, the bulk of the marketing process consists of generating consumer insights and developing creative assets (like commercials and posters) to speak to consumers on the basis of those insights. This takes a great deal of creativity and empathy, which is widely known.

However, what is not as widely known is that a branch of developmental psychology called “vertical development” may have some useful information for marketers looking to become master strategists.

In the 1900s, and particularly during the second half of the century, a number of researchers began to produce data that suggested that human development could be organized into discrete stages of increasing complexity. Lawrence Kohlberg’s six-stage theory of moral development is one example, and Jean Piaget’s four-stage theory of cognitive development is another. Perhaps one of the most famous stage models is Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development.

However, in the 1960s, a researcher named Jane Loevinger was working with women and mothers when she found that some women could score highly on authoritarian and punitive measures while simultaneously expressing sentiments like “A mother should be her daughter’s best friend”. This eventually led her to develop a measure of personal maturity called the Washington University Sentence Completion Test and a theory of “ego development” based on Erikson’s model.

Over the years, researchers at various universities (including Harvard) have built on Loevinger’s work and found that people do seem to fall along a continuum of development, where “earlier” stages of development are indicative of less differentiated or nuanced cognitive/emotional/behavioural patterns. “Later” stages of development facilitate more inclusive, strategic, and holistic ways of being.

Preconventional, conventional, and postconventional paradigms

Remarkably, different researchers in different contexts, particularly moral and cognitive development, have settled on three general ways that people operate in the world. This holds true in the field of “vertical development” as well:

  • Preconventional stages of development are most commonly associated with children and people with personality disorders. They are self-centric, can be ruled by their emotions and short-term needs, and engage with the world on transactional or punishment-avoidance terms. The meaning of things is entirely dependent on what it means for that person, and thinking might be magical instead of rational.

  • Conventional stages of development have a more stable and enduring sense of self, which may include different roles and responsibilities (accountant, parent, citizen). They think rationally, or at least “rationally” as defined by the society they are embedded in. They know the rules, stay within the rules, and follow the rules to the best of their ability in order to succeed. Meaning is constructed according to pre-existing rules and logic.

  • Postconventional stages are where things get interesting. These people comprise a minority of the population (less than 15% by some studies), yet among them can be found many of our most effective leaders, change agents, and meaning-makers. Studies suggest that postconventional thinkers are able to see outside of their own contexts, as well as present others with paradigm-shifting innovations and solutions. They may sometimes strategically “break rules” or go against “common sense” in order to achieve great things.

Given the three descriptions I’ve provided above, it probably seems reasonable to suggest that postconventional thinkers would be the most effective marketers, given their ability to see beyond their own culture and come up with innovative ideas. This would be entirely correct, at least based on my own research.

A weak signal that postconventional thinking is crucial in marketing

Between 2016 and 2019, I was involved in a research project at the DeGroote School of Business (McMaster University), where I was studying the performance of upper-year students involved in a uniquely intense marketing case competition. In 2018, my research largely consisted of weekly interviews with students during the eight-week competition, where I spoke with them about their progress, their performance, and their thoughts on the challenges they were being given.

What I found was fairly striking, and was apparent even before I stumbled across the concept of vertical development in my literature review.

Essentially, the students who struggled - that is, the ones whose performance was rated poorly by their teammates, who contributed less to their team’s finished product, and who delivered less compelling presentations - used very different verbal protocols when describing their experiences when compared to the higher-performing students. Although I can’t provide direct quotes due to confidentiality reasons, I have provided some fictional examples below.

When asked about their thoughts on feedback received:

“The judges said that our tactics didn’t align with our strategy, and the professor said that we didn’t put enough time into our research. I disagree with the judges, I think our tactics were fine. I don’t think we were given enough direction with the case brief.”

This response is something that I could expect to receive from a struggling student. Although it is evident that they are able to hear feedback, they struggle to figure out what it means for them moving forward, and engage with it solely on an accept/reject basis. Also note the defence mechanism (blame), which shows up a lot with poor performers.

“The low score was pretty surprising, but it makes sense in retrospect. We didn’t spend enough time on our research, and by Saturday we were scrambling to come up with consumer insights. The professor suggested that we improve our team communication, and I think that’s something we need to look at.”

This response is qualitatively very different from the first example. It is obvious that this fictional student has received and heard the feedback, but has taken the time to consider the implications of that feedback on team process. To put it plainly, they have taken information from outside their perspective and attempted to make coherent meaning out of it.

Postconventionality and integrating anomaly

If given the choice between those two students, it’s probably obvious that the second one is more hireable, perhaps for the sole reason that they take feedback more constructively. It’s important to note that we would usually ascribe a quality like “humility” to personality, when in reality the difference is also due to developmental reasons.

But what does this have to do with marketing strategy? Quite a lot, potentially.

This line of research, along with my paltry findings, suggest that postconventional thinkers may be the only people able to come up with truly groundbreaking marketing campaigns. This is partially due to their ability to deal with anomaly, and also because they can see past their own cultural and personal biases to some extent. As a result, they are uniquely positioned to generate paradigm-shifting work that causes people to look at an old subject (like Newfoundland & Labrador) in a new light.

Developing “vertically”

To put it plainly, development towards the postconventional stages of the various stage models that exist is not a cut-and-dried affair, nor can it be conventionally trained. In order to grow, one must be presented with a problem that cannot be solved from within the current paradigm, and one must have access to a mentor or resource that provides solutions from a higher level of development.

For many people, natural and inevitable life events such as the birth of a child, getting a promotion, or experiencing adolescence are difficult enough to spark growth along this continuum. For others, “intense” training programs like those found in the Navy SEAL teams (or the marketing competition I was studying at McMaster) produce enough artificial pressure for growth to occur.

Either way, a rich and challenging life creates a deep and interesting marketer. Regardless of developmental stage, being engaged with the world and open to new information is a recipe for success in the industry.

Further reading