The Artful Marketer

04/27/2015 03:19 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2015

The arts and business hardly ever talk. They should.

Business is tight. The arts are loose. Business is linear, extols the numeric, and is aimed at being well known. The arts - as practiced, for example, by novelists, musicians, movie directors, and architects -- are curvaceous, conceptual, and are aimed at excavating human experience so that the inevitable ups-and-downs of life become known well.

Business and the arts live in two different worlds. Business and the arts need to get together.

What is required is not an alternating monologue between these two worlds, but a real blending of the business way and the artful way. The issue is not separate but equal. The issue is meshing the two ways of being into an "AND" that doesn't negate the two current worlds, but nonetheless creates a totally new entity out of them, a new way of being and behaving.

The Artist's Way

Of course, science, too, when done with expertise and passion, is artful. A beautiful example is Einstein's approach to problem-solving, as he described it in a 1945 speech at Princeton (cited in The 5 Essentials, Penguin: Hudson Street Books, New York, 2013, p.47.):

"Words or data as they are logically written or spoken do not seem to play any role in my primary mechanism of thought. The psychical entities that seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and images that nonetheless can be voluntarily reproduced and combined. There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. But these elements themselves are visual and muscular in type, originating from the intuition of the body. It is clear to me that the desire to get to logically connected concepts can only be a secondary stage, when the associative and emotional play of images is sufficiently established." (my italics added).

Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright, expressed a related sentiment when speaking to a joint session of congress after becoming president of Czechoslovakia in 1990. He suggested that what the world needs most, after the fall of the Soviet Union, was:

"Less explanation and more understanding."

Havel noted the difference between the two: Explanation assumes the world is governed by finite, precise, objective and absolute laws that can be reached by successive approximation. In this case, the explainer is standing outside what he or she is studying. In contrast, understanding seeks to comprehend meaning from the inside-out, in its unfolding. The difference is understanding requires openness and empathy. The key, as John Updike described it, is "having a noticing eye" and being interested in peoples' everyday experience of the "gallant, battered, ongoingness of life." Updike, in turn, credited Hemingway "for showing us all how much tension and complexity unalloyed dialogue can convey, and how much poetry lurks in the simplest nouns and pronouns" (cited in:, 2012).

Business Would Benefit from Adopting a Wider Vision

The artists' way is a far cry from the predominant business currency of spreadsheets, massive data collection, and the easy, concrete explainable. The main reason this is a problem for business is that in order to have a valid and potent strategy, you have to get people right. And without strategy, a business has nothing.

People are more than consumers. Consumers are too small of a box to put people in if you want to understand them. Moreover, showing people that you understand something about their reality is the first step to motivate their inclination towards you.

For the most part, consumers, as conceived of by business, are black box, one-dimensional stick figures who respond to hot button, eye-catching messages. Likewise, business thinks of brand only as name recognition plus positive attributes associated with that name.

Beyond paying lip-service to how real people design meaning, business does not attend to the fact that people are non-linear pattern makers, association makers, symbol makers, narrative makers, and myth makers; and all of this is based on emotion and not on facts or attributes.

The real task of brand is to gird peoples' desire to insinuate their story into what they conceive of as the product's or corporation's story. So business needs to know something about how real people, on-the-ground, real time, author their self-story. You can't get at this through counting eyeballs, or surveys or likeability questions put to focus group participants.

What is required for commercial success is a change in business attitude and method. This is particularly true in the digital, internet age, where the one big change is a paradigm shift - namely, people who once only saw products as brands, now conceive of themselves as a brand.

Metaphor and Paradox

Business would do well to recognize that people are complex, but patterned. Emotion and complexity do not imply chaos. To comprehend and apprehend these dynamics, business needs to shift from an attitude of thinking about consumers as "them," to thinking about "people, just like us" -- emotional, self-contradictory, trying to make life seem manageable.

Yes, people can be convoluted. In one big huff and a puff, they can go from one thought to another, with a separation of light years. But this is how the mind works. Metaphor-making and the ability to integrate paradoxical dimensions of a problem is among the greatest capabilities of the mind.

People are minds that rely on metaphor and associative thinking to make meaning. Gregory Bateson, the great biologist and systems theorist, has said, "Logic is a very elegant tool, but logic alone won't quite do... because that whole fabric of living things is not put together by logic.... Metaphor is right at the bottom of being alive" (cited in: Capra, F., Uncommon Wisdom, Bantam Books, New York, 1988, p. 76-77).

Cross-fertilization between various worlds of experience, for example, allows one to abstract differences and commonalities, and to make metaphorical connections from these. Metaphor-making forms a critical basis of thinking and feeling. We see this in everyday life when a person seems to "jump rails" from one line of thought to another that is seemingly unrelated. Business needs to appreciate these zigzags of mind if it is ever going to produce valid predictive models of human motivation and experience, as well as give "Big Data" half a chance to generate big ideas.

As for paradox, let's let "The Boss," Bruce Springsteen, set the tone, by remembering his 2012 SXSW speech, when he spoke poignantly about paradox. He said:

"Don't take yourself too seriously, and take yourself as seriously as death itself.

Don't worry. Worry your ass off.

Have iron clad confidence, but doubt. It keeps you awake and alert.

Believe you are the baddest ass in town --
And you suck! It keeps you honest.

Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well inside of your heart and head at all times. If it doesn't drive you crazy, it will make you strong."

If business becomes more open and empathetic to the tales real people tell when given the time and leeway, insights can accrue from this "deep listening" that lead to ideas that can see marketing efforts lift sales while they lift peoples' way of seeing their world and themselves.

Isn't that the best definition of art?