The Death of Phatic Marketing

John Rooks and Alisa Conroy of the Soap Group, an environmental activism-cum-marketing firm (SOAP stands for Sustainable Organization Advocacy Partners) gave perhaps the most interestingly titled presentation at this year’s LOHAS forum.  Comparing brands and marketing strategy across various cultural elements, Rooks and Conroy found elements from zombie movies, heroes (aspirational, doing the right thing, helping others) and punk rock (the distancing of your brand toward the fringe and away from mainstream and boring) to look at how marketing, as a science and a practice, can be used to help educate the public, not just drive more demand.  As Rooks said, playing on an Einstein quote, “It’s not likely that we’ll be able to buy our way out of this environmental crisis.”

So how do we take marketing from being a conversation about itself, with itself, as implied more by the term ‘phatic’, defined as “denoting speech used to express or create an atmosphere of shared feelings, goodwill, or sociability rather than to impart information”?  While this is what many Triple Bottom Line companies endeavor for, according to Rooks and Conroy, it’s not enough.  How can we make it an authentic dialog?  How do we make it ‘doing’ rather than ‘telling’?  Rooks and Conroy took an unusual approach to finding this answer.  They polled the LOHAS attendees, then showed us the video clips of some of our interesting responses.  The answers included:  humility, open heart/mind, transparency, willingness to listen, two people in a live setting (as opposed to social media), and being prepared to accept that someone else’s opinion has validity, even if you think they’re wrong.

What’s interesting is that social media is often dubbed as a conversation with customers.  Social media is a tool of dialog, but it is not in itself, by definition, a dialog.

Conroy indicated that there are four basic things that are missing from modern marketing.  The first is space where people can come together and work together to create something.  Another is a shared sense of accomplishment between the consumer and the company, between the employee and employer.  The third is an equal voice.  Yes, social media creates a dialog, but it is not an equal, shared voice, mainly because many companies simply shift their customer service employees to handle their social media endeavors.  The last piece is the moment of connection that creates a history that builds mutual respect.

Conroy and Rooks gave the example of Atayne, a company that makes sportswear with a ‘point of view’ as they call it.  Atayne makes its products out of recycled materials.  They’ve deconstructed marketing and reinvented their efforts along these four elements.  In a recent event, Atayne got several runners to wear their gear and run behind a marathon, picking up all the goo packets, dixie cups and orange wedges left behind by other runners.  It helped create a space in which people were doing something sustainable.  It created a shared sense of accomplishment, both between the employees and their employer, Atayne, and between the company and their target market, which is runners.  It gave an equal voice to runners, who saw and were able to interact with Atayne’s employees who were cleaning up after them.  And they certainly created a moment in history that built a memorable history, and built their brand.

Scott Cooney, Principal of and author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill, November 2008), is also a serial ecopreneur who has started and grown several green businesses and consulted several other green startups. He co-founded the ReDirect Guide, a green business directory, in Salt Lake City, UT. He greened his home in Salt Lake City, including xeriscaping, an organic orchard, extra natural fiber insulation, a 1.8kW solar PV array, on-demand hot water, energy star appliances, and natural paints. He is a vegetarian, an avid cyclist, ultimate frisbee player, and surfer, and currently lives in the sunny Mission district of San Francisco. Scott is working on his second book, a look at microeconomics in the green sector.In June 2010, Scott launched, a sustainability consulting firm dedicated to providing solutions to common business problems by leveraging the power of the triple bottom line. Focused exclusively on small business, GBO's mission is to facilitate the creation and success of small, green businesses.

2 responses

  1. Check out the film Century of the Self, a documentary about Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud. He is generally considered the father of modern marketing. His primary thesis was that manipulating the unconscious fears and desires of the audience is far more effective than simply providing information. That insight has been worth billions if not trillions to the major marketing firms and their customers in the years since and I don't think that's about to change. More likely, it will be a step in the evolution of green.

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