Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Big and Small and Branding (with free advice for the Republican party)

Partially because of a pitch I just finished working on, where our ideas played with the notion of bigness, I've been thinking a lot about big and small. Specifically, I think these two words have an interruptive value: they can make you stop and reconsider things.

A classic example is the 'Think Small' ad to the left. The assumption the car buying public made at the time was that bigger is better, but this ad challenged the notion head on. It forces you to ask an obvious question: why, exactly, do I want or need a bigger car? Many people, I believe, answered it by saying they were shopping for bigness because of social pressures and not because they really wanted it. And so a smaller car made them feel not just frugal, not even smart, but like an individual. The word small didn't just mean physically smaller, but psychologically smaller, moving from a collective level of decision making to a personal one.

An interesting counter-example can be found in the cell phone business, where Samsung seems to be trying to stake out a place for itself as the 'big' smartphone maker. It starts, of course, with making a phone so big that some people question whether it is even practical, but a look at their ad will also give you a sense that (even though they don't use the word) they are trying to link that physical bigness to a sense of transformation, of expanding possibilities. It subverts the trend towards smallness that tends to rule in the technology space. But I think being more explicit about the value of bigness in a space that so often devalues it would have potentially been a lot more disruptive than their reliance on the oft-abused stand in, free.

Why are the notions of big and small so powerful in branding when used correctly? I think we can trace that back to the interplay between our desires for stability and progress. Our default position is to stick with what we know and our comfortable with. But we also don't like being stuck with something outdated, so we tend to assume certain trends: that cars will keep getting bigger or cell phones will keep getting smaller. In other words, we assume progress is linear and predictable, and buy accordingly. Marketers use those assumptions to keep selling new versions of their products. But sometimes products come along that flip the trend assumptions on their heads. What is a savvy marketer to do? Challenge the trend head-on, and give people reason to think that the trend is arbitrary or played out. Your departure from the norm isn't then lesser, or even just different, but bold, better: in short, a sign of radical, unexpected progress people can get excited about.

At some point in thinking about this topic, the wires in my brain that think about marketing got crossed with those that think about politics. It might have been this article that Jonah Goldberg wrote about federalism, and how absurd it is for the federal government to interfere in local disputes about things like the proper care arrangements for the six-toed cat population of Key West, Florida. He writes:
Federalism reduces partisanship by shrinking the importance of the federal government. It increases happiness by maximizing the number of people who get to live the way they want to live.Unfortunately, proponents of federalism tend to start the conversation with the really big issues: gay marriage, drugs, guns, abortion, etc.I'm for making all of those things local issues wherever possible, too. But, admittedly, those questions are complicated or emotionally freighted. Some questions do cut to the heart of what it means to be an American.  But many don't. So let's start there.
This struck me as an interesting idea for shaking up the political status quo. However, it has a branding problem. Support for federalism is often associated with the big issues he outlines, and supporters of local decision making are demonized: if, for example, you support federalism in the case of gay marriage, you are really a homophobe who wants to deny civil rights. If you support federalism in gun laws, you are really trying to take firearms from law abiding citizens one state at a time.

So, even though I am a supporter of federalism even in the case of big issues, I agree with Mr. Goldberg that we should start with the less controversial issues. I would go further to say that the taint that has been put on the word 'federalism' might require politicians to think of a new way to promote this cause.

A model for this would be the 'Big Society' movement launched by the Conservative party in the UK. They call this, "a massive transfer of power from Whitehall [the seat of their national government] to local communities." It plays off of the notion of 'Big Government', the idea that in an increasingly tumultuous and challenging world, we need a central power to set the rules that will make things fair and happy for more people. However, I think the challenge we face isn't that people don't like 'government', but that they increasingly don't like 'big'. So implying that society is going to get big implies shifting that stress to a different place.

Almost any institution that gets the word 'big' affixed to it is loathed. Not just Big Government but Big Business (and its tributaries like Big Finance and Big Pharma) and Big Labor. The word, in the context of institutions, has come to imply imbalance and heavy-handedness: the individual is simply too small to push back if one of these forces is arrayed against them. It also suggests facelessness. Who do you appeal to if Big Business screws you over? People are just tools of the system. Any individual bureaucrat might be nice enough, but if he can't help, there's nothing you can do. (Check out this article on rebuilding after Sandy for an example.) People are fed up with Big, and a lot of them feel like it's holding them back.

In the last election, a lot of people seemed to view Obama versus Romney as a choice between Big Government and Big Business, or as a choice between the poor and the rich. Neither of those formulations seemed to favor Romney. So, my promised free advice to Republicans: be the party of Small. Right now, they try to embrace Small Business, which is a start, but what about Small Decision-Making (the label might need work, but I mean keeping decisions and laws local as outlined in the libertarian argument above). What about Small Finance (breaking up Too-Big-To-Fail Banks and treating hedge fund earners like the rest of us)? I'll let someone else find the name, but what about acknowledging that there are only a few issues where government needs to dictate a uniform standard of morality to all 50 states and 300 million Americans? And of course Small Debt, which is self-explanatory.

The beauty of this platform, which I'll call the Freedom to Live Small, is that it allows people to campaign on big and popular principles while acknowledging that local beliefs might not support each manifestation of those principles. So a Republican in New Jersey can be personally in favor of tight gun control, but respect the right of Texans to live differently, and not be a hypocrite. I actually think it would be pretty refreshing to hear a politician on either side of an issue, instead of grandstanding, say, "We believe in X in my state, have passed laws that support it, but I see no reason to impose that belief on the entire country."

But the psychological benefits of Smallness go beyond any particular law that might be enacted (or avoided). It is a promise that we'll have fewer anger-fueled national arguments, that a flawed educational or economic theory won't hamstring the entire country for a generation if it is implemented, that we won't live our lives buckling under the pressure of one powerful institution after another. It is a promise that we can increase the level of mastery over our own lives, that smaller is simpler.

Maybe I'm crazy, and there's not much to this idea. If so, just chalk it up to me being a Big bullshitter.

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