Friday, November 30, 2012

Baldness and Coping with New Versions of Yourself

I had one of those random shower thoughts this morning: why do some people seem to handle being bald well, while others act like it is a handicap and either hide it or complain about it? It eventually let me to conceiving of the above scale, which goes from those who don't seem to be able to deal with balding at all to those who make it core to who they are.

The semi-serious point behind the scale is that some people are willing to build their identity on who they are today, while others hold on to an outdated concept of who they are. When I look in the mirror and feel down about my own follicle depletion, I'm usually thinking of who I was a decade a go, and wishing I could go back to having some aspects of who that guy was. And when I find myself actually proud of the reflection staring back at me, it's because I see the husband, father and advertising guy I am today and not some diminished echo of my past.

Maybe if we were able to get past our endless love affair with youth culture, and our obsession with our sex lives and the sex lives of others that tends to go along with it, we'd be able to see aging and its indicators as a sign of progress and not decay. At least, I am assuming that's what Jason Statham does.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Virtues of Being Two-Faced

Politicians are often accused of being two-faced, and President Obama is no different. In particular, his critics say, he calls for unity and bipartisanship out of one side of his mouth, while bashing his opponents as extremists from the other. But what if, rather than being a fault of a shifty politician, two-faced behavior is actually the hallmark of the successful and flexible leader? 

Reihan Salam writes persuasively that Obama demonstrates a trait common to well-regarded rulers from both recent and ancient history: an ability to convince allies he is still on their side even when he makes decisions that they disagree with. He concludes a long post by saying:
Perhaps sphinxlike leaders make the strongest leaders — allies see in them exactly what they want to see, thus giving the leader in question considerable freedom of action. Ronald Reagan’s political success arguably derived from the fact that his conservative supporters saw him as a loyalist and his moderate supporters saw him as pragmatic and flexible when necessary. In a related vein, Barack Obama commands the allegiance of a large number of base liberals, moderates, and culturally conservative minority voters because members of each of these potentially clashing constituencies see him as one of them.
He earlier notes that Obama was able to run ads in local markets that contradict some of his stated positions and would seem likely to offend his allies...and he did not suffer any criticism or loss of support from his core. For example, he ran some ads in Ohio that implied he was more supportive of coal than Romney, but environmentalists didn't blink. If Romney had similarly run an ad in Ohio expressing support for the auto bailout or for raising taxes on the wealthy, there's no way his political allies would have accepted it in silence.

How does Obama get away with seemingly pandering to win support like this? Salam's answer, in part, is that his allies either believe he doesn't mean it, or that he is simply making necessary compromises with political reality, moving the country as far in their direction as is possible. Another way of thinking about this is to say that, for many of his supporters, who Obama is matters more than what he says, or even what he does. And another way of thinking about it is that Obama has a brand that is deep and resonant enough to say seemingly contradictory things.

There are a few lessons marketers can learn about brand-building from Obama's achievement:

  • Be really clear about what you stand for, and have an argument for how your actions reflect your beliefs. Although many conservatives felt like Obama was disdainful and combative, he steadfastly stuck to his brand, which was the reasonable compromiser, the "adult in the room". It might have made his opponents want to throw a rock through their TVs, but by fighting to preserve that brand he was able to hold on to moderate voters despite widespread disappointment with the economy. Similarly, a brand that changes what they stand for every time a new competitor enters the market or the environment changes loses its credibility and coherence.
  • Understand how far your brand can stretch. Obama would never have been able to appeal to Tea Party types, and wisely didn't try. He found places where he could tweak his messages to appeal to low-attention voters or the undecided without violating his brand.
  • Identify the marginal opportunities using "Big Data". Writers have commented at length on how savvy the Obama campaign was in micro-targeting different slivers of the population. Often, they say that Obama was marketed like a consumer product. But a lot of consumer brands could learn from Obama's ability to address regional issues and go beyond broad ethnic and gender categories. Hispanics aren't just Hispanics, they are also women, and parents, and employees. Obama's campaign seemed to appreciate that people have composite identities, and they had the data (and budget) to act on it.
If you want to build a mass market for something, whether it is a politician or a product, it is unlikely that everyone you're trying to convert wants the same thing. So your brand has to have room for a lot of different facets or points of emphasis. Ultimately, a strong identity actually creates more room for flexibility in messaging, because your audience is willing to forgive individual messages that don't connect with them if they are invested in the brand. And if your competitors hear your diverse messages and call you two-faced? You should probably take it as a compliment.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Incomprehensible Impermanence of Man's Creations

Change is both the most central fact of our existence and something we try strenuously to ignore. The person we are in old age likely bears little resemblance to our ten year-old self, or even our thirty year-old self. The places we live, the arguments we have, the technology we use to enhance our work and play: all will evolve or disappear as time passes.

Achilles, in the Iliad, was famously given the choice between his name carrying on in lore forever, or living a long and happy life. He chose fame and early death, because the thought of his life having no greater significance was intolerable. And so it is for us. In the face of our own impermanence, and without the promise of eternal fame, we like to cling to things bigger than ourselves to provide an anchor. Surely, our city will still be here. The church that I help build will endure. The political party I support will make changes to the nation that will have a lasting impact. But we know all of these, too, are false promises, just as someday there will be a last reader who thrills to the recorded tales of Achilles' heroics.

I wrote recently, in advance of an election that I feared my side would lose, that the United States would cease to function as the nation we know within my lifetime. The only bold part of that prediction is the time frame, because in the course of history it is inevitable that this country will end. And yet think of what that means, in terms of the disruptions to human lives (and very possibly death and tragedy on a massive scale). Think of the ripple effects on the rest of the planet. Think of what the country has endured through before now: a fight for freedom, invasions, Civil War, a Great Depression, two global conflicts, and Richard Nixon.

And yet, is there anyone who feels better about this country after the election that concluded yesterday? I'm sure Democrats are pleased that there standard-bearer won. But are they now optimistic that the problems which seemed to grind the country to a standstill (economically, politically, socially) will now be resolved, especially with Republicans maintaining a majority in the House? It isn't just that we are evenly divided between two camps: the problem is that the two sides are drifting further apart and, frankly, hate each other. When we lift our heads to look towards the future, the impermanence of this country looms, and yet we live our lives today as if we can count on things staying more or less the same.

But all of this is a little abstract: we don't really know how our politics will play out. Perhaps we will in the coming years reach a new understanding between left and right, and our union will strengthen and endure. And we have a far better example of the impermanence of our creations right now, one that literally shifted the sands under us. Sandy, that witch of a storm, challenged our notions of permanence in our very homes.

We used to know that, in particular on the shore, that we could not expect our buildings to stand forever. We built humbly, or in ways that assumed an eventual disaster. But now we crowd our shores with houses as if the sand bars and barrier islands they are plopped upon are permanent, not mere accidents of shifting currents. And when a storm comes to remind us, leaders like Governor Christie demand that we rebuild despite the warning from nature. We cannot understand that the shoreline we are so familiar with will, in time, change completely. I remember the shock I experienced when touring Ostia Antica in Italy, and realizing that these ruins, with no ocean in sight, were the remains of a once-mighty port.

There are psychological studies that show we tend to discount events that will occur in the future, but I think our focus on the immediate has deeper roots than merely preferring benefits in the short term. In a post written immediately after Sandy, Walter Russell Mead wrote the following:
[O]ne day, dear reader, a storm is coming which neither you nor we can survive. The strongest walls, the sturdiest retirement plans stuffed with stocks and CDs, the best doctors cannot protect us from that final encounter with the force that made and will someday unmake us.
Coming to terms with that reality is the most important thing that any of us can do. A storm like this one is an opportunity to do exactly that. It reminds us that what we like to call ‘normal life’ is fragile and must someday break apart. If we are wise, we will take advantage of this smaller, passing storm to think seriously about the greater storm that is coming for us all.
Yet most of us dread these reminders, and do everything in our power to put them behind us as quickly as possible. Not just because we hate the inconvenience and suffering, but because we cannot stand the reminder that our end is coming for us. We don't like admitting that ultimately, nothing we do in this world will endure. There are no permanent marks we can make.

God, I think, made this so to nudge us back towards Him, and to make us realize that He is the only infinite, the only constant we can rely on. But even believers have, at best, and imperfect relationship with God, and thus we find ourselves confronting the evidence of impermanence all around us, and yet turning away and saying it must not be so.