Part of the fun of working for a great agency is being encouraged to think. Here are some of the things we’re thinking about.

No Context, No Content

December 10, 2012 Jeff Bradford

Let’s say  someone remarks that your business used to be a strip club and a front for prostitution. Let’s say that this someone is the mayor of your city. Let’s say the mayor tells this to all of your employees and a hundred or so of your clients and friends.

You would probably call this a perfect progression from bad to worse to horrific. But I witnessed this exact thing happen, and it was wonderful. And therein hangs our marketing lesson for today.

Two lines intersecting at right angles. Does it mean anything or everything?

Two lines intersecting at right angles. Does it mean anything or everything?

It’s the lesson of context. The interesting thing about symbols is that they often have very little meaning, or very ambiguous meanings, when they are considered in isolation. Consider two lines intersecting at right angles on a white background:

It can mean nothing or many things. It could be the mathematical sign for addition, a road intersection or the Chinese ideograph for the number 10. Or the logo for an international aid organization or for very expensive blue jeans. Or the symbol for north, physical matter or the Christian religion. Without context, it has no content.

Words are the same. To take the example that started this article, if you told me that my business offices used to house a strip club, I might laugh if you were friend and I might scowl if you were a stranger and I might punch you in the nose if you were an enemy. If you were the mayor, and were otherwise a stranger to me,  I might donate to your opponent in the next election. In this case, the context is provided by how much I know about you.

How much we know about someone helps us to understand the intentions behind their use of symbols. If we know that their intentions are good, that is, that their past actions have demonstrated this, then we interpret their use of symbols accordingly.

Beyond intentions, we also need to know how skillful someone is at using symbols. A skilled speaker with good intentions is much more powerful than a well-intentioned bumbler. Though the latter may be charming, in that we know he wants to do the right thing, and we’re rooting for him, he’s not going to move the needle of public perception very far one way or the other. (Of course, there are skilled speakers who definitely move the needle by pretending to be bumblers,  but that is still skill. Consider Will Rogers or Yogi Berra. These were not untalented fellows. See “dumb like a fox.”)

The mayor makes an interesting announcement at a ribbon cutting ceremony

Last night I witnessed a well-intentioned, skillful man utter an apparently derogatory statement in such a way as to bring about a good result. Here’s the facts:

Karl Dean, Nashville’s very successful and deservedly popular mayor, announced at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Advanced Network Solutions (ANS), a very successful technology company, that when he served as Nashville’s Director of Law, he shut down the strip club that used to operate in the building ANS now calls home. (This is actually one of many fronts for prostitution that Mayor Dean shut down when he was Director of Law, and our city is immeasurably better for it.)

The fact that a thriving, young tech business now owns the building and has renovated it into one of Nashville’s coolest offices, and rented out a portion of the space to a high-end, hip bakery, Royal Icing Custom Cakes, speaks to how far downtown Nashville has come in just a few years, the mayor said. And, he added, the Cummins Station District of which Advanced Network Solutions is now a part, has become one of the most vibrant entrepreneurial districts in town. For example, the Malham Leverage Group has renovated and moved into a stunning two-story brick building just a block away from ANS. And like ANS, Malham leased part of its space to a hip food destination. (It’s also no surprise that both Advanced Network Solutions and Malham Leverage Group are members of the Entrepreneur’s Organization, Nashville premiere forum for young business owners. The Nashville chapter of of EO is one of the fastest growing in the country.)

And the crowd of 100+ folks there for the ANS open house and ribbon cutting loved the mayor’s invocation of a strip club at this celebratory occasion. That, my friends, is what happens when an honest and skillful man puts symbols to use. Good happens.

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