Towards an object-oriented marketing

I always think that if a philosophy or any other analytical framework is any good it should be capable of expanding beyond its comfort zone. I used to tell my Open University students that good theories were like garden cloches. The best ones reached over. They covered the evidence, the cases, the area. So… as you know from this shoebox of rags ‘n refuse, I’m a bit of a fan of object-oriented philosophy (OOP), particularly Graham Harman’s take on it. My PhD is about stretching it over software and protocol (#quadJPEG) and my practice is about stretching it over photography (#OOPh). As you may have noticed as well as teacher, academic (sic) and photographer, I’m a consultant – the Digital Charabanc advising public and private sector organisations on social media and what used to be called marketing. I say “used to be called” because my central argument in my workshops is that the term no longer really works as far as the Live Web, the Conversation Economy, content relationships and realtionships and read/write social media goes. In a world of distributed media, peer-to-peer content creation and production as well as the broader wiki-economy, the old ways of thinking about messages, brands, audiences and channels no longer holds.

My workshops tend to be practical and strategic rather than than theoretical but I thought – ‘what happens if I look at marketing from an OOP perspective?’ Can it offer a way of understanding the new spaces, practices and relationships in which ‘marketers’ work that also offer a way forward. It should be noted here that I am not interested in pushing the practice of marketing so that Macdonalds can sell more burgers, Nike more trainers or Apple more gadgets. The clients I tend to work with are desperately trying to ‘market’ their charity’s work, their college or their public service often as way of making up for cuts in funding and support. If a more social-media aware marketing can help them, that seems to me to be worthwhile and if OOP can offer a way of doing that so much the better. So, in as accesible a way as possible, initial thought towards an OOm:

The landscape is very flat here

It argues that the world is made of objects all of which are equally real, worthy of study and capable of connecting together. A company’s product, its advert, its Facebook page, its customer service rep on the end of a phone, its salesperson, engineer as well as the countless components that make up that product (the plastic or eco-friendly bamboo, the toxic chemicals etc) are all objects. Furthermore, OOP argues, the intangible things in the mesh of production, marketing and consumption are objects too. The business plan, the ‘brand’, the ‘values’, the corporate responsibility agenda, the carbon footprint, the marketing strategy, the ‘consumer’ or ‘stakeholder’ or whatever-she-is-called are all part of the mesh. What is important is that these objects are treated within a flat ontology. There is no privilege, there are no relations of determination. There is nothing at the bottom holding up the pyramid nor at the top determining the pay the objects relate. This flat ontology challenges not only the way marketing things of its realm of expertise or what it does but also challenges the whole relationship between marketing and the broader business or service. Marketing cannot be pigeonholed as something for “The Marketing Department”. Business (whether producing products or services) is a mesh of object including those formerly the purview of marketing and those formerly the preserve of ‘Business Development”, “PR”, “Press”, “R&D” etc.

The Subject is dead, long live the objects

For OOP, my role as marketer is no more nor less important, real or basic than any other object in the mesh. This is not the old rhetoric of ‘the customer is king’. This is not false modesty or reversal of power. It is far more fundamental. It is the realisation that within a flat ontology of complex object connections, I (whether marketer-Subject, customer-Subject or even brand-Subject) am not outside observing, organising or managing an assemblage of objects. I am in play as much as the software, the Facebook algorithm, the stag party where my product is talked about or the company’s sweatshop. The idea we are used to that as Subject, if we have enough data, have segmented the demographics well enough, have honed our ‘messages’ efficiently, we can assume a God-like view (if not complete control) over our realm – that ideano longer works. Social media has made a mockery of it and OOP explains why. There are objects all the way down, and you and I are just one among many whether we have a MBA or CIPM certificate or not.

It’s a party

My favourite metaphor in my workshops is that of the party. I argue that the Internet has gone through three ages: the Library – the era of gopher and ftp when the Internet was a repository of information; the TV – the dotcom fallacy of the Internet as the new broadcast medium; and the Party where the Internet is abuzz with countless conversations and relationships where we can stand over in the corner and hope someone comes and talks to us, or where we can get out there and chat, flirt, listen and play. The Party is a very OOP idea. Here there are objects bouncing around, connecting (or failing to connect), shortlived or longer-lasting relationships as matters of objects. No one is running the show. There is no Monica from Friends trying desperately to organise the conversations, there are streams of stories, jokes, conversations, relationships, campaigns, arguments… connections. We can join in or try to drop out but we can’t take over or control.

Objects are tricky things

Graham Harman’s particular variant of object-oriented ontology, argues that objects have two dimensions, a real side that can’t be accessed and a sensual dimension that we experience. For him there is always more to an object than we can ever fully grasp. Something withdraws from access. We can never experience the totality of an object. A product always has more to it than we can ever get at. It has a material form we couldn’t map even if we could lay out all the componenets and chemical elements for study. There is always a sense that 2+2 equals more than 4. I hate Apple because they get this. There is more to the iPad than its components, software, GUI or even brand. There is something extra that explains a little about why it connects with us so well. An object’s history, carbon footprint or ideology is similarly inaccessible. Just as we cannot see all dimensions of an object at the same time, we cannot ‘know’ any object. What we do experience, what we encounter is a particular instantiation of that object, a sensual presence we can access in  a particular moment, in  particular cultural location. We experience that iPad in a particular Starbucks sitting opposite a particular admirer. It has a particular App running that impresses or disturbs that girl. It is particular. The same is true of the objects in play, the one that are not normally seen as objects. We can never know a ‘customer-object’ no matter how much data we have on her, no matter how well we have datamined her Tweets or searches, no matter how many time we have talked to her. There is always more. It is not just that she may hold something back, any object has dimensions that are inaccessible. We can never fully grasp her history or psychology or her politics. We can never fully access her dimension as “mother” or “Liverpool fan”. What we encounter are particular dimensions that emerge in particular encounters, spaces, times and positions.

Missing the connection

Harman is clear that these objects with their different dimensions do connect. They are complex relations with each other connecting, disconnecting, reconnecting. Harman’s argument is that these connections happen within objects. As object connect they meet inside new objects which may be long-lasting or like encounters in particle accelerators, they spark and then die. Here the focus is not on some field of relations, some network that can be identified, managed or studied. There are no ‘channels’ or ‘media’ or ‘social media spaces’ we can point to and build our strategies around. The ‘customer’ and the product connect in a new object – the user. The service and the user connect in a new object – the service-user. The carbon footprint and the gadget connect in a new object – the eco-friendly (or not) object. Harman further argues that those connections are between the different poles: the sensual connect with the real. So the withdrawn ‘mother’-object connects with the accessible after-school provision object within ‘satisfied-service-user-object’. That is not a fixed and permanent object. It is dependent on the connections. It can change. New objects can be formed that may in turn connect with other disgruntled service user objects in a Facebook group or… Here customer relationship management, services marketing, brand management or any of the other buzz words and job descriptions are a matter of objects.

Playing with objects

As a matter of objects, the complex relations that are marketers world cannot  be reduced upwards or downwards to basic determinants or context. Rather they are a matter of objects connecting. As such they can be played with. It is not that marketers or any other God-like non-object can dictate connections or set up connections. As objects in play themselves however they can open up the sensual dimensions to the objects in their world so that they can connect. They could literally open the clinic at different times to allow different instantiations of its service to be accessible. they could be transparent on Facebook so that different qualities of its business could be accessed, questioned, connected with. They could watch for connections and see what extra dimensions could be made accessible and so setting in motion more power-full relationships. They could open up their own sensual dimensions to enable customer-objects or citizen objects to connect – what is sometimes called open-source R&D or crowdsourcing.

So… does OOP offer a new orthodoxy for marketing, a new business-book model? No. What it does, as all good frameworks do, is open up better questions and new ways of working and thinking. I think it offers a way of understanding the world and the world of products, services and business in a networked world in new ways. More, I think it offers a way marketers can think about what it is they do and how they do it.

Comment-objects welcome.