Consumer Emotions & Goals in Creative Strategy: Part II, or Field Theory and Creative Strategy

Like I said in my Part I post, I want to dig deeper into how I approach creative messaging, and break down the theoretical crux of how I understand consumers and society. This isn't a sort of rigid framework that I feel like I have to use, but there is a deliberate, theoretically informed background to how I work, and here it is. 

One of the primary  responsibilities of a creative strategist is to uncover tensions or conflicts that some subset of people (an audience) encounters or endures. These tensions are essentially problem states: unresolved incongruences between what people experience in their lives and what they'd prefer to experience. Competing priorities and concerns; ripples in the water. Or a tsunami, depending on the acute severity of the tension or conflict. These gaps between current and desired states of being are the opportunities for your brand to inject itself into cultural discourse, and to provide a solution that bridges the gap. Provide the solution that gets people to that preferred experience, and speak to it! Don't shy away from the tension: the more acute, timely, real, uncomfortable, and broad reaching it is, the more you're cooking with gas - and the more fuel you give your creative team to blow it out and bring it to life. 

Finding these tensions is vital to making meaningful campaigns that matter to folks, and to get consumers to notice your brand and what it offers. The following is how I come to identify and understand the magnitude of social and cultural tensions, and to help best position brands to matter. Meet field theory, which comes from a vein of contemporary social theory in sociology. I use the concept of fields to think through consumers' trajectories and need states, and the links between and across macro-level trends and micro-level interactions (and individual-level emotions).

Sociologists Pierre Bourdieu, Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdams, and John Levi Martin (and others) have written at length about social fields and field theory. In short, a 'field' is a conceptual and theoretical device by which to understand the social forces at play in decision-making and action, and the contexts in which this occurs. Roughly speaking,  the 'field' concept is a good tool to map out social relations, and to better understand (and perhaps even anticipate) how and why people act.

I just shoved several careers' worth of thinking into a couple of sentences. For now, watch this short video for an intro to  Bourdieu's theory of fields, and  read this Wikipedia entry and this draft copy of the first chapter from Fligstein's and McAdams' book "A Theory of Fields" if you're curious.  People occupy different positions in a given field of relations and, as Levi Martin argues, are thusly motivated towards particular ends and ways of being that they perceive to be possible and acceptable - "what is good to strive for" (37). I've really liked this since I first read it, and I've found that it's a useful tool for thinking about consumer problems, needs, and goals. In other words, it's how I connect my past in sociology to my present in advertising.

Field theory makes the exciting, nontrivial, and generative claim that action can be explained by close attention to field position as every position in the field induces a set of motivations that are subjectively experienced as “what should be done.”
— p. 47

Which is dope. The notion of fields as a conceptual device comes with a few advantages. For one, it helps you draw links across phenomena, and connect macro-level trends and events to consumers' lived experiences. The second wrinkle here that's really useful for understanding scale and impact of tensions and conflict (and thus the effect that addressing them can have in advertising): fields, by their nature, exist within fields. A near endless number of possible fields exist within fields, actually, nested like Russian Dolls, as Fligstein and McAdams wrote.  

I'll use myself as an example. I'm on the Strategic Planning team, and therein exists a social field. Who gets what say, who delegates, who owns what tasks and runs planning on what account. That can be thought of as an itty bitty field of relations & power. And then there's the field within my agency, in which both I as an individual, and the Strategic Planning team as a group, are situated among other individuals and teams. Which teams hold sway, get the goods, have more clout and get more recognition, etc. Those dynamics are at play. And then there are larger fields, whether they are the local business space (in which my agency is situated relative to other companies, from small businesses to Fortune 100 companies), the local ad agency field (again, in which my agency is situated relative to other local agencies), the overall digital agency field (positioned against all the other digital agencies out there), or the global ad agency space.

And from there, there's the entire economic field, where true economic power is at stake. Along with a ZILLION other fields, that all matter at different points, and crystallize at any moment to account for all the social contexts anyone finds themselves in. Makes you feel pretty small, huh? You're a speck within a a nearly endless number of shifting social relations, dynamics, and positions in relation to power. 

Why is that useful? In a few crucial ways. You can take the idea of 'nested dolls of social relations' and use it as a tool to understand how poignant and far reaching the cultural tension you've identified is. And you can use it to connect individuals' lived, felt experiences to larger macro trends. 

It's also a good way to understand the shared motivations between groups of people, along with the different end goals and emotions attached to them. I use the idea of fields to dig deeper, to identify tensions and create messaging that can cut across swathes of people, rather than be inadvertently narrowly focused on a particular audience segment. You don't want to shortchange yourself, your brand, and your main message.

Let's look at motherhood as another example of a source of tension, one that's shared across social positions. Moms, regardless of social standing, experience many of the same basic desires, need states, and emotions when it comes to motherhood and child rearing. We know, of course, that motherhood and childrearing look different in practice, largely due social class and material reality. High-income and low-income moms go about childrearing differently because they have access to different resources, and occupy social positions that come with different expectations, motivations, and (usually) outcomes. The macro-level social & cultural expectation - that you should be a good mom - applies regardless, but what that looks like in people's everyday lives is different. If you ask either of these hypothetical moms what they want for their children, you'll get answers inspired by the same cultural understandings of what good parenting is.  In reality, how this plays out in action - the actual being of a "good mom" - in the day-to-day is different for both the wealthy and poor mother, because they occupy very different positions in the grander (economic, social) fields of power. Everyone's just doing the best they can. Depending on what your brand offers (diapers and other commodities, or unnecessarily expensive strollers), your audience's needs, goals, and emotional states could very well be the same, or they could be quite different. That's how you slice and dice messaging as needed, or you can try to speak to the same emotional sentiment across an audience of seemingly disparate people. It's about understanding shared context, which is why I find field theory very useful.

Do you need field theory to understand that example? Nah, that one's mellow. But it comes in handy for more complicated audiences and phenomena, like how social movements relate to both macro-level trends and audience-level beliefs and effects. Basically, I find that field theory is handy for understanding the magnitude of social & cultural trends and tensions, and making the link between macro-individual experiences, as well as across trends at the same (macro, meso, micro, or individual) level of analysis. Up and down the food chain of scale, as well as across. Ya dig? 

So that's that. I use field theory to make connections across different levels of analyses, and to help connect tensions and conflicts within and across social groups. All the while, I try to connect larger trends to the lived, felt experiences of consumers, to understand their problems and goals, along with their associated emotional states. I made this Creative Messaging Worksheet to try to make it all a little more process-based if you think this sounds worthwhile.

Hypertargeting vs. Mass Reach vs. Bullshit on Paid Digital Channels

Consumer Emotions & Goals in Creative Strategy: Part I