New Wine in Old Bottles
The end of a year tends to generate a lot of ‘Top 10’ lists and a perennially favorite topic is overused business terms – mostly complaints about managers using terms like “thinking out of the box“, “at the end of the day“, “leveraging synergies“, and so forth. Lake Superior State University even publishes the ‘Banished Words List‘, a tired compilation of expressions from the news that have lost their novelty or otherwise overstayed their welcome.
Some of these expressions are just technical terms seeing wider usage. When someone says they’ll “ping” you or that they don’t have enough “bandwidth” to process that request right now, they’re just reusing computer terminology.
But I’ve noticed that some of these words and expressions, though, are not just cliches they are buzzwords that are treated as if they represent an entirely new concept.
For example, with blogs and social networking sites gaining popularity, people are paying increasing attention to how they are perceived online. The term “personal brand” has popped up and is being treated like an entirely new concept. Just like businesses and products have brands, so do You. There are even blogs about Personal Branding.
But, of course, this idea has been around for centuries. It’s just been called one’s “reputation”. In the Hávamál, the ancient Viking book of wisdom, self-help and inspiration, it says:
“Cattle die and kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But the good name never dies
Of one who has done well.”
However, when you slap a new name on the word “reputation” or “good name” and call it your “personal brand“, people actually treat it like a new idea.
There was a time when fads, ideas, inventions, concepts, inside jokes and crazes were called just that. But in the 1970s Richard Dawkins had this flash of insight that concepts and ideas are sort of the cultural analogue of genes. So he renamed ‘ideas’ and ‘concepts’ as ‘memes‘ and suddenly everyone treated this new word like it too was a new idea. Twenty years or so later, marketing expert Seth Godin had his own flash of insight. Ideas don’t spread like genes, from parents to children, he thought, they spread like viruses, from an infected person to the people with whom he comes into contact. So he invented the term “the idea virus” (sometimes written “ideavirus” or “IdeaVirus“). What’s the difference between “an idea” and “an idea virus”? I’m not certain exactly, but it seems to be selling a few million copies of a book.
The “viral” idea has infected other parts of marketing, too. The term “viral marketing” is another example of an old idea which when given a new name has gotten treated like an new idea. For some reason, every marketer who makes a video and puts it on YouTube wants their message to “go viral” – which simply means to become a short-lived fad. Before “viral marketing” there were only fads, crazes, and word-of-mouth marketing. But today we’ve got some new wine in an old bottle. I guess you could say that Hula-Hoops “went viral” decades ago, but maybe they were just a plain old fad. I guess we’ll never know.
Things that once simply got “attention” are now commanding “mindshare” or “eyeballs“. And things that were once just “niche” or “specialty items” are now part of the “Long Tail“. The success of Chris Anderson’s book is precisely the reason why I will likely never be a best-selling marketing guru. The concepts of power laws and Pareto’s law and Levy flights have been around for decades, but again, slap a new name onto an old concept and things that were once “Long Tail”, esoteric ideas suddenly become mainstream. Or should I say, they get “mindshare”.