Society's Basic Structure of Influence Is Changing

By Hall, Robert | ABA Bank Marketing, July-August 2008 | Go to article overview
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Society's Basic Structure of Influence Is Changing


Hall, Robert, ABA Bank Marketing


"Quitting smoking is strongly influenced by friends and spouses. A spouse who quits smoking makes one 67 percent less likely to smoke. A friend's quitting decreases one's chances of smoking by 36 percent ... Over the past 35 years smokers didn't make the decision to quit individually, the study found. Instead, large groups of friends all quit together, like the schooling of fish or the flocking of birds'."

--Keith J. Winstein, The Wall Street Journal, May 22, 2008

As marketers, we are in the business of influence, and the way influence works in our society is changing. Immunity to our traditional marketing grows. We all see the signs but that does not mean that we have fully addressed the strategic shift. Perhaps it is a good time to ask the question: How is the basic structure of influence changing in our society?

For starters, institutions are losing their ability to attract and influence. Mike Malone ("The Next American Frontier," The Wall Street Journal May 19, 2008) reports: Half of all new college graduates now believe that self employment is more secure than a full-time job ... 18- to 24-year-olds are starting companies at a faster rate than 35- to 44-year-olds ... 70 percent of today's high schoolers intend to start their own companies ... An upcoming wave of new workers in our society will never work for an established company if they can help it. To them, having a traditional job is one of the biggest career failures they can imagine.

It is not just that they don't believe our corporate messages, including our ads, they are repelled by the whole idea of the corporation--large, distant, unresponsive and self-focused. It is not just corporations, it is also political parties, government entities and religious institutions. Over 80 percent of us believe the country is on the wrong track. An unpopular Republican president and an unpopular Democrat-controlled Congress are in a race to the bottom with the lowest approval ratings in recent history. Since 1987 the proportion of voters who do not identify themselves with either political party is up 50 percent and the number of people who never attend church is at an all time high. No matter how powerful the marketing message, most are turned off by its source--the large institution.

As institutional messages are losing ground, the influence exerted by friends, colleagues and family members--members of our local community--are gaining influence. As Peter Block says ("Community--The Structure of Belonging"): "Small groups are the unit of transformation." Remember the recent study that showed people's weight is heavily influenced by the weight of their friends? Their weight loss or gain is likely to influence yours.

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