This post, on the face of it, has nothing to do with how to market your business better.  But be patient – I’m just trying to plant a seed in your mind.  If you let me do that, and you water it, you may discover a whole new perspective.  One that throws fresh light on why some companies are so successful at attracting customers…and others are not.  Once you’ve got the concept you’ll never promote your business the same way ever again!

Want to know why people do what they do?

In one of my earliest blog posts, “Are you pushing on a door marked pull” I used the terms “hi-tech” and “hi-touch”.  I’m now returning to them in order to explore the ideas behind them in greater detail.

Why?  Because I think that this will make sense of certain types of current consumer behaviour.  It will also explain how this behaviour is shaping the business and marketing landscape.  So if you want to increase your “marketing intelligence” it pays to understand hi-tech hi-touch.

A small book with some big ideas

I first came across the phrase “hi-tech hi-touch” about 20 years ago and it immediately made sense to me – it was a missing piece of a jigsaw I’d unconsciously been puzzling over for some time.  A friend gave me a book entitled “Megatrends” by social forecaster John Naisbitt.  It has this portentous blurb on the back cover: “An analysis of ten observable trends of today that are pointers to the world of the future.”

That future has now come and gone – the blurb goes on to describe the book as “A primer for the eighties that shows where our sophisticated technology is taking us.”  Despite being somewhat dated, many of the nascent trends he describes, including “hi-tech hi-touch”, are now very much in evidence as we move into 2012.

What the heck is “hi-tech hi-touch”?

Naisbitt explains that“Hi-tech hi-touch is a formula I use to describe the way we have responded to technology.  What happens is that whenever new technology is introduced into society, there must be a counterbalancing human response – that is, high touch – or the technology is rejected.  The more high tech, the more high touch.”

Hi-tech and the hippies

He goes on to describe the ‘50s in the US as “the most intensely industrialised period in our history.  During this decade of the gray flannel suit and the organisation man, fully 65% of our workforce were in industrial occupations, many in assembly line regimentation.”  Then, during the ‘50s and early ‘60s, “we mass-marketed the products of that industrial era – products whose regimented uniformities mirrored their industrial base.  Hi-tech was everywhere…”

At the same time, however, this technological invasion was spawning a counter-movement.  “Our response to the hi-tech all around us was the evolution of a highly personal value system to compensate for the impersonal nature of technology.”

This rejection of all things technological, corporate and regimented expressed itself in many ways.  There’s a classic scene from 1967 film  “The Graduate” where a young Dustin Hoffman is questioned about what he’s going to do now he’s left college, and Mr Maguire advises him to enter the corporate world of “plastics”.  He reacts with a mixture of understated fear and loathing that summed up the feelings of a new generation.

Others responded by getting hi-high and “dropping out” to “find themselves”.   This attitude is perhaps best expressed by the psychedelic music that came fresh from the west coast of America.  The bands are legion (and, sadly, I still have many of their LPs!), including the Grateful Dead, the Doors (named after the Aldous Huxley book “The doors of perception”) and Spirit.  Listen to Lewis Carroll inspired “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane, with its exhortation to “feed your head” and you’ll get the general idea.  Then there’s “Shady Grove”, by “Quicksilver Messenger Service”.  Here are a few lines:

“I used to walk on the city streets

Now I wander far and wide

And I never found my happiness

Until I moved to the country-side…

If you’ve been watching the city streets

Can’t seem to get much greener

Then I know where we’re going to

Our heads will feel much cleaner…

It’s easy to know who you are

When you’re living with the trees”

Naisbitt also cited the emergence of the “human potential movement” and the fact so many people started to “get turned on” by things like group therapy, yoga, Buddism, feng shui, alternative therapies and the whole concept of personal development.

The need for hi-touch is hard wired into us

The rejection of technology and mechanisation is nothing new – people have been suspicious of it, and its disruptive, disturbing and dehumanising effects, for centuries.  There were the Luddites who went around smashing up mechanised looms in the 19th century, Wordsworth wandering lonely as a cloud amongst the daffodils, Mary Shelly with her tale of Frankenstein, Dickens railing against the “dark satanic mills”, Aldous Huxley and his “Brave new world”, through to relatively recent films like “I Robot” and “Bladerunner”.  The reason it’s not new?  Because human nature is unchanging and we’ve had an uneasy relationship with technology for as long as any of us can remember.

More hi-tech than ever before

What is new, however, is the extent to which technology has taken over our lives – the pace of the invasion has picked up massively since Naisbitt’s book (he was writing pre-internet, pre-mobile phone, pre-video!).   And many of his predictions have proved bang on the money.

As predicted…

Naisbitt predicted that “most of us will want to develop our own ways to compensate for technology by being out in nature more often, going camping, going to the seashore.  You may have to drag your children away from the computer or video games to take them fishing or bicycling.”

Also “we will want to use our hands and bodies more” hence the growing popularity of “gardening, cooking, and home repair and renovation.”  No wonder Alan Titchmarsh and Diarmuid Gavin, Jamie, Nigella, Delia and Gordon, Kirstie, Kevin and Sarah have become such celebrities!  No wonder there are so many shops selling outdoor gear.  No wonder hiking, mountain biking, surfing, VW camper vans, the gym, climbing, running, skiing and snowboarding are so popular.

He also predicted that “the more technology we introduce into society, the more people will aggregate, will want to be with other people.”  That’s why cinemas are still doing well despite the DVD and YouTube.  That’s why we still go to pubs and restaurants, even though booze is cheaper in the supermarket and you can get most dishes as ready meals.  That’s why festivals like Glastonbury are so popular (despite the mud, rain and terrible toilets) when you can listen to the same bands at home in a couple of clicks.  Why some people not only still prefer printed books to a kindle, but also join a book group.

So hi-touch is all about the touchy-feely stuff, the self-discovery stuff, the be-true-to-yourself stuff, the rediscovery of “what’s really important” stuff, the “quality time” stuff, the “getting back to nature” stuff, the “people are more important than things” stuff.

 What now, what next?

Naisbitt wrote a follow-up book in 1999 entitled “High tech high touch” with the subtitle “technology and our accelerated search for meaning”.   In it he reaffirms our innate need “to balance the material wonders with the spiritual demands of our human nature.”

Paraphrasing an entire book isn’t easy but it’s fair to say that it provides ample evidence implicating technology in a relentless acceleration and hollowing out of our lives whilst stirring profound yearnings for a more emotionally satisfying experience.

What does this all mean to you as a marketer?

It pays to give people what they want.  And what they want are products and services that balance the seductive but shallow attractions of technology with the deep spiritual demands of their human nature.

The companies that are doing best right now, and whose success is sustainable, understand this.  They recognise that technical innovation is not enough.  The way to give their products and services meaning, the way to really connect with people, the way to build lasting relationships and enduring loyalty, the way to turn mere customers into enthusiastic brand ambassadors, is to wrap the cold business logic and the hard technical functionality in layers of warm fuzzy hi-touch.

If you’ve followed me this far you can probably think of a few companies and brands that are successfully doing just that.  We’ll start looking at a few of them in the new year.  In the meantime I’d just like to wish you a warm and fuzzy Christmas.