A Beautiful Ambiguity

A Beautiful Ambiguity: Language, LOHAS and the Mainstream

Consumers and corporations are sitting up and taking notice of what - until recently - has been on the fringe of both the American marketplace and culture.

For decades, traditional advertising agencies have existed to promote consumption as a way of life.  Today’s consumers, LOHAS or otherwise, demand a bit more finesse.  This is both a philosophical statement as well as an environmental one.

Lets look at the Language shifts that have and are taking place in the marketing of LOHAS goods and services.  When we focus on Language, we are looking at it from a verbal sense, but also from a graphic perspective. Images, logos, colors, shapes and words are all part our cultural language set. Think in terms of the Recycling Chasing Arrows as a misunderstood symbol because of its abuse as a communicative image.  Currently, it is simultaneously used and understood to mean both Recycled and Recyclable. The shape is well known, but the meaning is lost.

On the top of the LOHAS business owner’s mind is, what will the result be of the Mainstreaming of LOHAS? Will we loose our competitive advantage of authenticity or green-ness in the warren of mainstream mass marketing?

From the perspective of language, this forces an important question:

Are LOHAS principles being adapted by a larger demographic, or is it the LOHAS aesthetic that is being co-opted by the mainstream? 

Historically, LOHAS has existed as a fringe marketplace.  It has survived in part defined by NOT being in the mainstream. In fact, when we look at the very word “Green” we can see that we have been labeled by the old mainstream using that term in a pejorative sense. “Greenies.”

But, thanks in part to a failed U.S energy policy, a few well-timed storms, America’s Rockstar “Almost President,” and the greening initiatives and campaigns of Fortune 50 companies scrambling to establish some green street credit  - we’re suddenly not so fringe anymore.  

LOHAS consumers have been identified as having an emotional connection to sustainability. Dr. Paul Ray’s research and mantra of “authenticity. authenticity. authenticity.” when communicating with the LOHAS consumer is dead on. But, we can argue, if the mainstreaming America is chasing an aesthetic framing – a brand experience – rather than principles, we could see that “authenticity” will mean very little in the very near future. 

Or, perhaps, even if they are following fringe principles, at the least we may see everyone have their own “authentic” which is the same thing as no authenticity at all. And, if language trends are any indication, this looks like the direction things are heading in.

Make no mistake, the discussion of language—even in the context of mere promotion—is about how language works to maintain and change power relations in society. And our job is to understand these processes to enable people to resist, embrace or change these relations.

So, what happens when the authentic language of the fringe is borrowed by the mainstream? 

We think that when the mainstream adopts the language of the fringe, the fringe has an obligation to ultimately push language further—it can’t fight mainstream’s use. It can’t take it back (or when it does if it can, it likely doesn’t want it any more). So it pushes it further. It rebuilds it.  Think in terms of suburban kids adopting urban street slang.

It is this way that the fringe has great power. Perhaps not directly, but at the trend level, the mainstream does look to the fringe for authentication. Mainstream only ever moves because of the fringe. It shifts. This shift is what we are considering when we talk about “LOHAS going Mainstream.” To an extent, the mainstream looks to the fringe to learn how to act “green”-ish.  What people need to know in order to act appropriately to reflect a culture is informed by trend—and fringe is the manufacturer of trend. Where to shop. What to eat. Which car to drive. What skateboard to ride.

Today’s consumer culture has a concern with two bodies – the inner and outer.  The inner body refers to health and well–being.  It is about maintenance and repair in the face of age and nature. The outer deals with appearance, control and our interaction with space and others’ perspective. It is the cross section of inner and outer that allows us to drive the urban 4x4 to Wild Oats to take care of our body.  Authenticity is important, but it is also lost in our culture.

What we see is an opportunity for real dialogue to re-capture the authenticity of the individual—and at the same time lead the mainstream into a new advertising-language model of expectations. Clearly, traditional advertising works best when there is no invitation for dialogue. When the consumer just swallows. But we see an opportunity for (1) consumers to challenge the issue of authorship of message and (2) LOHAS companies to invite this challenge. This is the combat needed to fight greenwashing. 

The Language War is one of dialog versus monolog.

Examples of well-done dialogue opportunities are Stonyfield’s blog and even Chevron’s “will you join us” dot com. GE’s Ecomagination, while creative and very effective is still a one-way street. It has yet to invite consumer dialogue—happy to sell compact florescent light bulbs, but not invite the discussion of recycling bulbs with even a small amount of mercury. Why has that message not been broadcast? Do consumers even want to have to recycle florescent light bulbs? Did anyone even ask them? The big dumb brand says “consumers don’t know what they want.” The smart brand listens.

The best Language is a constant negotiation. Language is not merely informational. It is political, emotional, it is “frame-bargaining.” This discourse is only made possible by a shared cultural model. No matter who your market is, advertising and marketing is a world of ideas. And in the world of ideas, to name something is to own it. If you can name an issue, you can own the issue. The greenwashers have claimed the word green to a very large degree. They purchased it.

So, what does it mean today to be “green”? In a sense, linguistically, absolutely nothing.  But we know this, as green becomes ubiquitous, all of our competitive advantages dissolve.

Your opportunity is to make the next generation of great brands as much about listening as about talking.