“It’s Not About the Nail” is a viral piece of satire that contains actionable insights for relationships, but also marketing. Rather than dwell on the gender stereotypes it portrays, imagine the woman in the video representing a target audience and the man representing us as marketers. Smart marketing is predicated upon understanding what an audience needs and then aligning those needs with the goals of your company. In the video we can see that being attempted, but it’s not working. The target audience has a definite need and the marketer has a viable solution, but there’s no alignment between them. Companies have faced this problem many times and with frustration, wondering why their target audience isn’t latching onto their product. The solution is simple, really: in addition to empathy, the entire conversation needs to be reframed.
In Waiting for Your Cat to Bark, Bryan & Jeffrey Eisenberg touch on something they call “inside-the-bottle syndrome” which is basically when the decision-makers of a company get so wrapped up in day-to-day operations that they lose perspective on what’s happening outside of their company. Both objective perspective and customer relevance ends up being distorted – leading to confusion, messages that overcompensate and poor decision-making. Rather than operating from a macro view, everything is zoomed in close. Audience needs are visible and so are the company’s needs, but there’s no clarity beyond the immediate.
Empathy is the adjusting force that zooms the frame out past a limited focus of needs versus solutions. Empathy can begin to move the conversation past a binary opposition. In the video, the marketer earnestly tries to push a brand solution, head on. But it doesn’t resonate. The target audience doesn’t latch on. That’s because the marketer is operating within a binary opposition, rather than speaking from a place above it all. Reframing the conversation from an aerial plane takes it beyond an either/or place of limitation, focuses more on the “and” while simultaneously pushing the brand, with subtlety.
But what does it look like to speak from a place of “and” rather than either/or? It’s kind of like imagining Neo asking for a third pill in The Matrix, rejecting both the red and the blue choices being offered to him. Or perhaps something more Zen, like Bruce Willis’ character actually being alive and dead at the same time in The Sixth Sense. My favorite way to talk about it is when The Beatles answered Hamlet’s soliloquy.
To be, or not to be? That is the question—
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them?
Hamlet is trapped within a binary opposition. Within that framework there are only two solutions. Speaking from within his framework, a marketer would pick a side and justify it. Option A would say that suffering fosters individual character and growth and to just lean into it. Option B would tell Hamlet to fight and that only by confrontation will there be an end to suffering. Hamlet chooses nothing. But what’s the third offering?
Jungian Psychologist Robert A. Johnson writes in Transformation that Hamlet is a “three-dimensional man: he has no roots in the instinctive world and his head is not yet in the heavens where he can gain the nourishment of enlightenment. He is the forerunner of a new man…” Johnson also writes that most people today are Hamlets in that they’re full of conflict and struggle. It’s only just before his death that “Hamlet comes to an awareness of a consciousness beyond his neurotic split and indecision… Hamlet sees that which is greater than himself at the last moment of his life.” Unfortunately for Hamlet, his indecision within a binary opposition costs him everything. He simply does nothing. It’s only at the end that he catches a glimpse of the message of the “and” within a postmodern framework. In that message there’s a third actionable choice that flies in the face of both indecision and the binary opposition.
How would we begin to speak beyond Shakespeare’s famous lines to find this elusive “and” message? How would we even start to change the conversation and what could we say to begin to reframe it all? On May 8th, 1970 The Beatles released their album Let it Be with a single by the same name. Imagine for a moment that the song was written as an answer to Hamlet’s soliloquy. The conversation changes instantly. It moves beyond the binary opposition. Instead of focusing on the internal conflict, an open invitation to explore a new way of thinking is presented, moving it from what Johnson writes as “modern existential life” into postmodernity: Let it Be.
Let’s go back to the relationship model that this post started with. Imagine that the nail was a symbolic representation of a problem between the couple, something irreconcilable. In an article for The New York Times, columnist Laura Munson recounts how her husband of twenty years suddenly decided that he wanted a divorce. Rather than defaulting to an either/or reaction (e.g. beg and plead for him to stay, or lawyer-up and finalize everything in court) she chose to reframe the entire conversation. She responded with what she calls “ducking” and consistently executed a strategy aimed at giving her husband space. Through empathy she was able to understand that she wasn’t the reason for his unhappiness and that he had his own demons to fight. It took a few months, but because of her approach he was able to work through his internal conflicts and they reconciled without splitting up their family.
By aligning ourselves with our customer’s true needs we can be the ones framing conversations without being irrelevant, overbearing or off-putting. This is the power of “and” as well as the art of subtlety. Below are some guiding questions that can help us zero-in on empathy and keep ourselves accountable to what messages we’re speaking.
- Looking through the lens of empathy what are we understanding about our customers?
- What viable solutions do we offer them that can fill their needs?
- Are we more focused on offering preconceived solutions, or on intentional listening?
- Where is there a binary opposition and how we can speak beyond that?
- How do we align the “and” with our brand messages and strategies?
Choosing “and” is not indecisiveness. It’s a very deliberate strategy that moves beyond the binary opposition. It looks to uncover the unobvious and aims to make connections between separate frameworks. Sometimes it’s a lot like pioneering new territory. It takes a lot of creativity and imagination. It’s also a risk. The marketer has to be willing and vulnerable enough to do the work it takes to migrate across frameworks. Sometimes that takes stepping back to gain perspective. Sometimes it takes leaning in and starting over again. Genuine empathy begins with actual listening and abandons shallow acts of pretending. When the discovery, recovery and fostering of meaningful connections is the focal point – choosing “and” reframes the relationship; constantly seeking a common ground.