When brains and limbs don't work together

In which we explore a new word to help understand how brands perceive themselves.

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Word of the day

I learned a new word this week. I’m extremely hot on it, so this post is going to be about that word as it pertains to businesses. The word is proprioception. Proprioception is our body’s ability to sense its movements, locations and actions. Proprioception enables us to catch things out of the air and walk without having to look down. Lack of proprioception is why some people look stupid when they run or stand too close on the subway and don’t realize it. Maybe both if they’ve really been dealt a bad hand. 

Proprioception is what creates space for physical misconceptions. It’s the reason practice makes us better at sports and it’s the reason why my downward dog looks like shit, despite thinking I’m doing what the instructor says. Without really good proprioception, what you think you’re doing isn’t usually what you’re actually doing. 

Proprioception and brands

Proprioception inspired me to think about the many ways businesses act in public and what they perceive themselves to be doing actually before the act itself becomes public. As in, what did Pepsi perceive itself to be doing before it actually put out the Kendall Jenner BLM ad?

Last week, I wrote an entry in the Bullshit Economy about how Amazon Sidewalk enhances products at the expense of unwitting neighbors. Proprioception got me thinking about what Amazon actually thought it was doing with the feature. Was its intent in creating Sidewalk to subtly rob neighbors of their wifi bandwidth so its hardware could function better or did Amazon really just want to make the products better, and the robbing was an unintended side effect?  

Most of the premises discussed in this newsletter tie back to lousy business proprioception in one way or another. The Slack shoes, the Fisher Price home office playset, Kellogg’s Pride month cereal each provide examples. In the same way someone flops their arms like chicken wings when they run, the messages from these firms’ internal cortexes get screwy along the way to the limbs, resulting in awkward, if not downright stupid and malicious physical manifestations of ideas. 

The distinction between the way I’d move like a baby stork if I attempted a plié versus Kellogg’s releasing a rainbow colored cereal comes down to intent. Movement, and therefore our proprioception, is for its own sake. I move my legs to walk, but my destination doesn't impact the way my legs function. Nor is my movement impacted by what I’ll do when I arrive at my destination. 

Companies, on the other hand, send signals from their brains to their limbs to complete a task or achieve a result, but the movement itself is impacted by the destination. If I’m able bodied and want to walk someplace, I have to actually walk there. In the same way, if a company wants to earn revenue and differentiate against competition, it has to market itself and distinguish its brand. If it doesn’t do these things, it won’t reach any of its desired outcomes. There’s only one way to walk, but there are myriad ways to capture market share.    

The cynicism is what makes it different

I can’t walk cynically, but a company can. If a company has built an app to help consumers get cheaper prescription drugs, it should be possible to earn business on that value proposition alone. To earn more revenue via advertising, it’s not necessary to convey to customers that the only thing standing between them and their children going hungry and getting assaulted in a parking lot is your app. In case you’re unfamiliar, this is all in reference to GoodRx’s awful advertisement starring a mother escorting her two young children through a darkened parking lot in the hopes of buying life-saving drugs. 

Therein lies one of the major problems with branding, marketing, and to a certain extent, commerce in general. Faced with competition, companies have to imply that the alternative will negatively impact your life. Bear in mind that the alternative can be one of two things, a competitive product, or nothing at all. If a company is not attacking its competition, it’s attacking you. However way you’re living your life is insufficient, since it doesn’t involve whatever product is being sold. 

This also applies to companies attempting a public good, eg: Kellogg’s Pride cereal. The intent of producing a pride-themed cereal is that a conglomerate’s anodyne take on LBGTQ rights is a necessary voice in the conversation, or that it’ll somehow shift the Overton Window in the right direction. Most, if not all, large firms do bad stuff in real time that they hope you don’t find out about. Whether it’s overpaying CEOs relative to median employees, using 1099 labor to cut costs, or degrading the environment to save extra on production costs, there’s bound to be something naughty afoot taking place in real time. 

Again, there are two implications here. First, either the competition isn’t doing enough to promote Pride month. Or making a Pride cereal in some way balances the ethical register such that the attention being paid by consumers to the aforementioned naughtiness is zeroed out. The second implies the perceived ignorance or lack of interest of consumers to those issues. 

I’ll wrap this up by saying proprioception in humans happens in real time. A brain sends a signal and then you do something, almost instantaneously. For most large enterprises, those reflexive actions like earning revenue and advertising are actually the result of months, if not years, of thought generation and planning. The signals sent to the corporate limbs were created meticulously. As with swinging a racquet, the results of those signals can only be judged once the action’s been completed. A miss is a miss. Companies don’t have to miss so repeatedly, but they do anyway. 

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