Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Thinking Inside the Box

Today's post may be a little more philosophical than usual. 

I am currently reading Michel Foucault's History of Madness. It's a fascinating look at how the perception of madness has evolved since the Middle Ages, following the theoretical development of the concept of madness: the cause, the experience, the treatment.

In the section on the Great Confinement, where Europe decided to confine those on the margins of society, we learn that those who fit the criteria for confinement were not simply the insane, but also criminals, the poor, the indigent, and homosexuals. To the modern mind, these groups are incredibly different and lumping them together seems inherently wrong.

But in the theory of the time, there were essentially two states of being: Reason and Unreason. Those who were Reasonable, or lived within the confines of Reason, were accepted members of society. Those who lived outside the bounds of Reason, those who were Unreasonable, were therefore a threat to society, and the solution was confinement. Sometimes this was workhouse confinement, sometimes in hospitals, and often in repurposed leprosariums since leprosy had long since receded as a scourge of Europe.

Over time, theories of madness and the morally unsound (for that was often the definition of madness in the early days) changed, and medical theorists (or nosologists) began to conceive of different types of madness, and causes for it beyond simply rejecting Reason.

Essentially, there was one box, the Unreason box, and secular authorities put into it anyone who might possibly shown signs of Unreason. Then that box was taken away and replaced with multiple boxes: the Melancholy box, the Mania box, the Hysteria box, and so forth. People who might have belonged in the Unreason box, say a poor widow who begged for her dinner, were now not a match for these new boxes.

In Marketing, everyone loves the phrase "Think Outside the Box," as if boxes are where ideas go to die. But what if, instead of thinking the box is the wrong idea, that the box just isn't the right box?

I'd like to specify that I'm not talking about confining people here, but rather ideas. The idea of Unreason was a huge box, and it was difficult to understand what happened in such a broad category. But by replacing the idea of Unreason by separating out madness, and creating new boxes for the different theories of madness, medical practitioners were moving closer to isolating what caused madness, how it affected a patient, and what treatment might be best for curing madness.

When you look at your current marketing efforts, what box are your ideas in? Are they in one giant box marked "Brand"? Or do you have a lot of boxes, one for each product, or one for each customer segment?

I was asked recently if I am a "think outside the box" kind of marketer. And honestly, I don't see myself that way. I see myself as an analyst who makes decisions based on information and research. Sometimes that can lead to an innovative solution, but I'm not simply throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. You could say all along that I am labeling boxes and thinking strategically inside them.

Do you think in terms of boxes? Or do you see a box as a confining idea?