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Push to Pull

In light of the Arab Spring and the rise of India and China, and propelled by social technologies, the concept of ‘soft power’ (the phrase was coined by Joseph Nye in his 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power; defined as “the ability to obtain what one wants through co-option and attraction”) is ever more relevant. Or, in marketing terms, Push is out, Pull is in. If an idea, aspiration, product, goal, ideology, culture, narrative, or national identity is attractive to its constituents, it minimizes the need for constant reinforcement and regulation – whether that is advertising, promotions, and other persuasive efforts, or bureaucracy, command-and-control, and coercion. Pull is powerful (as John Hagel illustrates in his riveting book The Power of Pull). It has a lot of Pull (pun intended) because one doesn’t have to push. It saves energy that can be invested otherwise, for example, in whatever “it” is that creates Pull. No surprise then that individuals, organizations, societies, and entire nations wish they could rely on it more.

But how does one create Pull? Even the most ardent Pull apostle will admit that Pull doesn’t just emanate from nowhere. How much hard power do you have to leverage to create soft power? How much Push is needed to generate Pull? I conducted a mini-poll on Facebook asking that exact question, and the responses ranged from “the answer to this you can only feel” to “a lot.” I sketched a diagram for myself to better understand the forces at work between this power couple, and I came up with three Push-to-Pull ratios that may help you get your “Pull-Push balance” right.

- Positive push-to-pull ratio: If you deploy more Push strategies than the Pull that they generate, then you over-invest in Push and inevitably create an undercurrent, a backlash that can even decrease the current amount of Pull you have. You risk dissolving the entropy of the overall system. Your idea, your narrative, your brand will be seen as intrusive, and in the worst case, as spam.

- Neutral push-to-pull ratio: If your Push and Pull energy levels are in balance, then you achieve the perfect equilibrium. You don’t generate any incremental Pull but you also don’t lose any. You need to be vigilant not to overdo your Push efforts, or you compromise your Pull. One could also say that the very point at which Push threatens to exceed Pull is the demarcation line between ‘cool’ and ‘uncool.’

- Negative push-to pull ratio: The last and ideal state is have Pull exceed Push. This happens after a long period of Push when the scale of Push needed to create Pull decreases. Or when the idea, aspiration, narrative, and culture is so strong that it sustains and amplifies itself. If that’s the case, your job is to simply enable connections for the “idea” (in this case, refering to brands, you can speak of “brand ideologies” or “intrinsic brands” such as IKEA, Nike, Apple, or Starbucks).

These three relationships sit along a continuum, and perhaps it makes sense to consider them to be stages in the evolution of organizations. Fledgling start-ups will rely more on Pull (for they often lack resources to invest in Push), but as they mature, they will inevitably explore means to amplify their intrinsic Pull with Push. Eventually they are so established that they can rely solely, or mainly, on Pull, however now with far bigger impact than the one they were able to achieve as start-ups. There are two critical junctures on this continuum and corresponding decisions: When exactly, in the early stage of an organizational or brand development, do you start to invest in Push? And at what point do you decrease the level of Push so you don’t “push too hard,” over-reach, and jeopardize the valuable Pull you’ve generated? (Ever come across an ad from a brand that you adore and disappointed that the company had to advertise in the first place?)

Pull is a function of cultural power, of the routines and rituals, of the energy that is flowing through an organization. Energy here translates to intensity: not only the level of activity (knowledge flows, productivity, social interactions), but also the tension between actors, the battles between conflicting ideas. If your organization experiences tension, then it is “intense.” An intense organization is always stretched, intellectually and resource-wise, and it is constantly operating at capacity of what it is able to imagine and execute on – it is in a state of emergence, a permanent crisis, with a heavy dose of ambiguity, uncertainty, and even paranoia. This is a good thing: the fearful are paralyzed, the paranoid are proactive (and creative).

Pull comes from an original idea, a compelling story, a contagious meme. Astrophysicist and philosopher David Deutsch defines a meme as "an idea that is a replicator." “A rational meme replicates because people find it valuable,” he writes in The Beginning of Infinity. “An anti-rational meme replicates by disabling its holder's rational thinking so that one has no choice but to spread it.” That’s the difference between Pull and Push, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, empowerment and enforcement, creativity and bureaucracy. Brands, countries, and movements that are built on rational memes have real Pull – and almost infinite staying power. The others will be pushed out sooner or later.

[image credit: timmonsandcompanyblog.com]

Tim Leberecht is the CMO of frog and the publisher of design mind.