On Brandology and Futures Research: An Interview with Andrew Zolli

Andrew Zolli was formerly a vice president at Siegelgale, a top-tier brand consulting firm. His background is in cognitive science, philosophy and computer science. He is currently working on two books, TechTV's The Catalog of Tomorrow and In Good Company, as well as pursuing an advanced degree at the Institute for Futures Research.

What is In Good Company about, and why are you writing it?

It's a book about companies and their relationship to culture. In the last year, I've had a chance to interview dozens of communications professionals, senior business leaders, social scientists, anthropologists, cultural critics, artists, and the consensus opinion is that something very deep has changed, and it's not just about the Internet. People's relationships to brands are changing.

The 'promise driven' world that was unlocked at the beginning of the century has caught up with companies that made those promises at the tail end of the 20th century. We're in a world now where companies are increasingly in the business of making culture as well as products. Where people use brands to construct their personal and social identities. Where the meaning of brands is appropriated and regurgitated, redistributed reconstituted, reconstructed, represented in a kind of semiotic back and forth that is so complicated that we need new sciences like complexity science and semiotics to make sense of what's actually going on.

With the ascendancy of the market as the central institution of people's lives, companies have become cultural engines more than ever before. But they are not structured, measured, or rewarded by how well they shepherd new meaning.

“The meaning of brands is appropriated and regurgitated, redistributed reconstituted, reconstructed, represented in a kind of semiotic back-and-forth that is so complicated that we need new sciences like complexity science and semiotics to make sense of what's actually going on.”

What have you learned from your primary research for In Good Company?

One of the first things I did when I started researching this book was that I interviewed 400 people about their attitudes towards brands. I did 20 people in each borough of New York; we're talking about person on the street kind of interviews. There are some fascinating trends, which emerged out of this conversation, which is not statistically accurate, but interesting nonetheless.

For example, in urban environments were there is great plentitude of choice, you get very interesting perspective on brands. Ask 100 people in Park Slope, Brooklyn or SoHo or South of Market in San Francisco to talk to you about their attitudes towards McDonalds, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, the Gap—these paragon brands in American culture, the ones that are held up as being truly the companies to emulate. You'll find people saying, “I don't like Nike's labor practices; they use sweatshops”, or “I don't like the way The Gap homogenizes culture and makes everybody look the same”, or “I don't like the way McDonalds is the only choice on Rt.95, so when I drive from here to Boston I can only get a Big Mac.” These companies have been so successful that they've narrowed the choices available in the markets where they compete, and in the process they've reduced the cherished distinctiveness of neighborhoods and regions.

But these kind of responses are paradoxical. First of all, the folks complaining are the ones that have the greatest access to alternatives. They're the 'consumers' who are most likely to register the perceived threat of the advent of Starbucks in their neighborhood to knock out two or three independent coffee houses, which assumes that they have two or three coffee houses to put out of business. The other thing that is paradoxical about this is that people will rant about certain brands, even as they are patronizing them. I have had people tell me that they hate McDonalds while they're eating a Big Mac–there is a real disconnect between attitudes and behavior. People say, “I hate the McDonaldization of the world. But I like the fries.”

On the other hand, in many of the places where you would expect there to be far reduced choice, like in rural regions, the advent of these mass market brands is seen as a great social good. Even in towns where Wal-Mart is putting local retailers out of business, people are thankful for Wal-Mart or Target. They're thankful for a breadth of goods, quality of goods, consistency of goods, and prices.

What is futures research and how does it relate to the design world?
As it sounds, futures studies is the principled study of the possible, probable, and preferable future of institutions and societies, and the steps required to bring about those futures. Futures work isn't primarily about specific, short-term “predictions”, such as “in 2 years consumers will like X”, or “in 3 years the market will do Y”. Rather, futurists tend to look at futures that are 10 or more years away, examined through the lenses of demographics, technology, the social sciences, aesthetics, industry, geopolitics and ecology. You'll notice I said “futures” and not “the future”; the reason is that choice and human agency play a big role in shaping the many futures we face. What this work starts with is the very premise that the future is indeed “influencable” and we need to broadly engage our imaginations and think in a whole-brained way and systematically about changes.

I've always felt was the futures studies could be powerfully leveraged to help transform design practice, methods and the discipline's sense of its own purpose in the new millennium. Both futurists and designers shape the future at different time scales, and I've discovered is that there is a really deep interest in both communities in the other.

The futures community is incredibly interested in designing images of the future; one of the central lessons of futures research is that you become what you focus on, and the social value of images of the future is extraordinary—they compel us in some directions and prevent us from going in others. Who better to design these images of the future than designers?

Also, designers and futurists already share some common elements in their distinctive cultures: they both require individual practitioners to suspend disbelief at a certain level or to engage the realm of the possible, in ways that regular folks often don't. The innovation in design happens when people are allowed to think incredibly broadly. Futures work can inform design in a powerful way by giving designers a playground, a set of methods, provocation and permission to think as broadly as possible.

How can design integrate with futures research?

You can divide futurist work into two spheres—activities related to “describing” possible, probable, and preferable futures, and activities related to helping organizations actually realize a particular future. The first sphere provides ways of thinking about what might be ahead of you, what you might want to aim toward and what you might want to stay away from. This fits easily with both strategic planning and design research. And its at this point that I think design can play a much bigger role that it does today; helping to visualize and explore these futures. A picture is worth a thousand words, but today, most futurists use words, rather than pictures, to describe their ideas.

“Design and futures research require individual practitioners to suspend disbelief at a certain level—or to engage the realm of the possible—in ways that regular folks often don't.”

After you've identified and articulated a vision for a future that you'd like to live in, then you are left with the complicated goal of realizing that vision. And that's where design has always played the greatest role.

When futures work and design share is that they can provoke clients of every stripe —private, governmental, non-profits—to open their eyes to a wider array of future possibilities, or more subtle and complex and compelling set of futures, than they might have first started with. The underlying message here is that the future is “influencable” and it's not something that just happens absent human decisions. Even when they're influenced by actions, events and decisions that occurred in the past, at no time does the future become completely beyond our control.

When is TechTV's Catalog of Tomorrow coming out and what topics does it cover?

The Catalog is coming out in October 2002 and looks at a hundred different trends and technologies and explores how they will impact our lives, our society, and our planet in the next 20 years. In addition to these topics, we assembled a collection of thinkers who represent a variety of cutting edge, futures-oriented work, like futurist Paul Saffo, nanotechnologist Christine Pearson, Craig Venter, who decoded the human genome; Maurice Strong, senior advisor to Kofi Annan and who started the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and 2002 Johannesburg Summit; Douglas Rushkoff, writer and thinker about peoples, places and societies and their relationship to consumer culture; as well Frank Drake, astrophysicist and chairman of the SETI Institute, and asked them for their visions of the future.

It's going to be an extraordinary project, and will allow people to “peek around the corner”. It's nice to talk to people who are thinking about and living in realities whose ideas are not widely distributed yet, but will become aspects of our future. It has been an amazing experience for me to work on it.


First published in Gain 2.0: AIGA Journal of Design for the Network Economy.