Gonzo Marketing has to be the coolest marketing book I’ve read in a long time. Christopher Locke is a fantastic writer, and you get the sense that, at some level, he really doesn’t care what you think. This is what makes his writing so great. It’s visceral, you know it’s the real deal when you read it — no pretension here.
He takes the same approach to marketing which is a much-needed breath of fresh air. Looking for market research tactics or the newest ways to attack market segments? Move along kids. Locke takes no prisoners in Gonzo Marketing. The onslaught begins as early as page four where he says, “At its heart, gonzo is animated by an attitude of deeply principled anti-professionalism in the best sense.”
Gonzo Marketing: Marketing In The Digital Age
So, you are probably asking yourself “What the heck is gonzo?” Gonzo is a term coined by Hunter S. Thompson to describe a style of journalism that is subjective in nature, and often times involves the reporter being an active participant in the story. It also involves a level of “shock value” or perceived bad taste. “Gonzo is about being engaged. It’s not distanced, impartial or “objective” — it cares about outcomes.”
How does this concept fit into the marketing world?
The emergence of the internet age has disbursed the means of production: everyone is a media shop now. Modern marketing, unfortunately, hasn’t kept up with the times. Gonzo Marketing is a system of reconciliation — it helps marketers connect and engage with customers by creating intimate relationships with emerging micro-markets.
Corporations Are Incapable Of Love
Here, I’ll make it easier for you: the corporation has no sex. Those who protest even at this obvious truth need to be reminded: it can only screw you metaphorically. Companies don’t fall in love. But people do. And whether we speak about it publicly or not, as a species we tend to place great importance on this fact, this entry into a larger more connected world.
Corporations are, well, a bit robotic. Humanity has been replaced with spreadsheets, conversations with corporate mumbo jumbo, and trust with fear. It’s a problem that needs to be addressed; the livelihood of the marketing department depends on it.
Locke is unapologetic in his assessment,”The corporation pretends to subscribe to values it does not and cannot understand. Human values, like love, like trust, like camaraderie and joy. These are things we genuinely value, but they have been devalued and denatured to advance the very different interests of the company. In the process, we are not only losing our language, we are losing our lives.”
The internet has provided us with a powerful way to connect and tell stories on a massive scale like never before. If companies have any chance of succeeding, they are going to have to actively embrace this reality and become storytellers.
Open Source Marketing: The Gonzo Marketing Model
Giving marketing departments a human voice in the internet age requires a new framework, a new set of eyes. It requires open source marketing, a process of co-creation. Locke uses Gonzo Marketing to get us there.
Here are the nine maxims that establish the Gonzo Marketing framework:
- Marketing has become irrelevant. As practiced today, most marketing is dependent on assumptions that may still hold true with respect to broadcast media, but have little relevance to the internet.
- Best practices usually aren’t. Techniques that have worked in the past tend to be misleading and even dangerous when change is extremely rapid.
- Frustration is inspiration. People who work for companies want to believe. They want to engage with each other and with the market, but they’re hobbled by functional categories and bureaucratic management that militate toward group stupidity.
- Gonzo is a terminal response. Adopting worst practices is an extreme response to frustration with existing practice. People finally engage because they care. Better engaged than enraged — though Gonzo Marketing is often both.
- Permission is the critical hurdle. Frustration is not enough. There has to come a moment in which people give themselves permission to speak — just as gonzo journalism offered new freedom of speech to a whole generation of writers. Inspiration must pass through rationalization and fear. Only then can voice emerge and true words go forth. Such words pass the same permission on to others. Things ignite.
- Storytelling is the path. True voice is the articulation of craft, and craft cares about quality. That’s what defines it as craft, as art–“good enough” is not good enough. Storytelling is the path and primary tool of gonzo marketing. It’s pragmatic, it’s opportunistic, it’s about what works. Even if what works breaks all the rules. And it will.
- Gonzo Marketing is market advocacy. The goal of Gonzo marketing is not to better “penetrate” markets, but to better represent the market’s interests–in every possible sense.
- Companies aren’t real enough to speak. Gonzo speech is what companies need right now, but they can’t produce it. By nature, they have no personality, no character, no subjective take, idiosyncratically engaged or otherwise. Plus, they can’t relinquish control, can’t loosen up, let go. They are bound by the paranoia they have created.
- Only individuals can be gonzo. Only people can convey enthusiasm through their stories. The marketing department doesn’t have a story. Neither does the company. The discovery of worst practices is imagination replacing control. Worst practices tend to be radically anti-corporate, anti-marketing–but only because they are unconditionally human.
Puting Gonzo Marketing Into Practice
There’s an immense amount of intellectual capital that exists outside the confines of an organization; Gonzo Marketing takes advantage of it. Employees have different interests and hobbies that, once understood, can be used to “underwrite” different micro-sites. The example that Locke gives involves Ford Motors and organic gardening.
“Suppose Ford discovers, through offering open web space to self-motivated employees, that one-tenth of one percent of its workforce are gung-ho organic gardeners. Why would a car company be interested in such an avocation? Two reasons. First, 350,000 people is a pretty fair sample of the population at large, so it’s reasonable to guess that a similar tenth of a percent of the market might be organic gardeners. Second, Ford is also a truck company, and people who grow gardens tend to haul stuff they wouldn’t want to shovel into the backseat of the family sedan. Thus, such a mircomarket includes excellent prospects for pickup trucks. Ford would first want to introduce these workers to each other, and suggest that they collaborate on building an organic gardening sub-site at ford.com–on company time of course. Imagine the enthusiasm that would result from being paid to do what you most love, instead of what you’re told.”
It’s genius, and the implications are pretty easy to understand.
Identifying The Best of Breed
There are two criteria needed to identify projects suitable for Gonzo Marketing:
1.The use of “voice.”— “Select sites as distant as it’s humanly possible to get from the vacuous rhetoric of the typical corporate home page. Elements to look for include personal style, differences of opinion, humor, deep knowledge of the territory–and an ability to articulate it–plus, if you’re lucky, that indefinable quality of gonzo.”
2. Fit with companies markets— This is the tricky part. “Companies will have to use whatever insight they have garnered from previous demographic segmentation efforts. They’ll also use gut feel. And they’ll also make mistakes.”
Gonzo Marketing is a really intriguing book. I mean, it really sucked me in. Locke is as much a philosopher as he is a marketer.
One thing in particular that stood out is Locke’s focus on the concept of “dualism”: professionalism vs. worst practices; business vs. society; material vs. spirit; subjective vs. objective. Locke goes back and fourth from philosopher sage to marketing genius at the flip of a page.
While the philosophical musings were an added bonus, I did take away two big ideas from the book:
- Organizational development and marketing are two sides of the same coin. Reading Gonzo Marketing made it impossible for me to avoid thinking about organizational leadership. How the organization functions dictate the stories that emerge. Bad companies tell bad stories — they cannot be separated.
- Organizations are ignoring internal social and intellectual capital. Despite what the corporate values posters declare, most companies can’t, and won’t relinquish control. Employee knowledge is an immensely underutilized tool. Allowing employees to bring their whole selves to work creates the environment needed to spark innovation. Open source marketing breaks through the noise and gives “voice” to an organization.
I really enjoy Locke’s cynical –teetering on vitriolic–take on corporations and “professionalism.” He grounds these sentiments in a way that makes you nod your head and say, “Well, he’s not wrong.” And that’s what makes this book special; it has “voice.” Gonzo Marketing was written in 2001, and, although dated, is still a powerful tool for marketing departments in search of a soul.
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