This time of year there are crowds everywhere, and psychology has had two classic theories on the way they act. So are contemporary marketers most successful taking advantage of convergence theory or contagion theory?
We seem to be moving from a world of contagion where crowds rule, to a world of convergence, where like-minded individuals congregate to form crowds. Lets take a look.
Al Ries had a piece in Ad Age.com earlier this week talking about the Apple iPad as an example of divergent thinking. He says,
“The tablet computer of 2002 was a convergence product. It combined the functions of a pen computer with the functions of a standard laptop computer. The tablet computer of 2010 is a divergence product. It’s as if Apple took a laptop computer and cut off the keyboard and threw it away, then put a handful of the laptop’s more important components into the screen itself.”
I know some may argue with his premise, but it got me wondering. Is the retail package a divergent or convergent medium?
Using Mr. Reis’s definition I suppose most packages would be convergent media. Increasingly adding features and functionality . . . even going as far most recently as adopting various forms of live interactivity. Typically they are not divergent, stripping things away and in the process becoming something entirely new.
But it gets more intriguing when you think of a package, or a brand, not just in terms of where it sits on the technology adoption scale, but rather in its ability to really influence change.
And that’s where you begin to think about convergence theory itself (with apologies to the art and science of psychology for a gross simplification), which typically suggests that crowd behavior is not a product of the crowd itself, but is carried into the crowd by particular individuals, and that people who act in certain ways tend to come together in crowds.
Wow! . . . doesn’t convergence theory sound like it describes what is going on in an Apple store this time of year, or what! A bunch of like-minded individuals coming together at the Genius Bar . . . classic convergence theory!
The most successful contemporary marketers get this. They understand that the mass-market tools for building big crowds, and perfected throughout the 20th century, no longer apply. They understand that the brands that can best identify with convergent individuals, then bring them together into crowds, stand the best chance of being today’s winners. And the package is one kind of very powerful media that can support this convergence at retail.
Historically most brands have subscribed to contagion theory, which holds that crowds themselves cause individuals to act in certain ways. As I said this has been the approach for most mass-market brands throughout the 20th century. Build a big crowd . . . influence its motion . . . and hope that individuals start running with it.
But the landscape is changing. Individuals, not the crowd, are increasingly seen as the focus of new media. As I said, we are moving from a world of contagion where crowds rule, to a world of convergence, where like-minded individuals congregate to form crowds.
In this environment the package will continue to act as the totem for crowds to gather around.