Challenging the “trickle-down” theory of creation… and what it means for branding

This whole intelligent design vs evolution debate has been on my mind lately. There’s a fascinating post by Steve Anderson at HuffPo, relating an interview between Der Spiegel and philosopher Daniel Dennett.

Dennett explains why the notion of intelligent design has such appeal to many people, and emphasises how radically the theory of evolution challenges man’s sense of self. Here’s the nub of it

Dennett: It’s the idea that it takes a big fancy smart thing to make a lesser thing. I call that the trickle-down theory of creation. You’ll never see a spear making a spear maker. You’ll never see a horse shoe making a blacksmith. You’ll never see a pot making a potter. It is always the other way around and this is so obvious that it just seems to stand to reason.

Interesting, never quite thought about it that way. So since we’re smart, smarter I assume than our environment, like, you know, rocks and trees, then something larger and grander than us made us.

SPIEGEL: You think this idea was already present in apes?

Dennett: Maybe in Homo Habilus, the handyman, who began making stone tools some 2 million years ago. They had a sense of being more wonderful that their artifacts. So the idea of a creator that is more wonderful than the things he creates is, I think, a very deeply intuitive idea. It is exactly this idea that promoters of Intelligent Design speak to when they ask, ‘did you ever see a building that didn’t have a maker, did you ever see a painting that didn’t have a painter.’ That perfectly captures this deeply intuitive idea that you never get design for free.

SPIEGEL: An ancient theological argument…

Dennett: … which Darwin completely impugns with his theory of natural selection. And he shows, hell no, not only can you get design from un-designed things, you can even get the evolution of designers from that un-design. You end up with authors and poets and artists and engineers and other designers of things, other creators — very recent fruits of the tree of life. And it challenges people’s sense that life has meaning.

Now let’s add to this insight my favourite psychological notion, the fundamental attribution error (which explains how humans have a perceptual bias that leads us to overemphasise the genius of individuals, and to underemphasise the complex influece of context)… and you begin to question a great deal of popular narratives about how things happen in the world: that give too much emphasis to the heroes (political and organisational leaders, football managers etc), and end up – like the music industry – clinging to notions of owning intellectual property that in the end become absurd.

I feel I should apologise for a segway from these grand ideas to the sordid world of branding, but James and I have been going over our OpenSauce workshop content lately – and this stuff seems very pertinent to it. One of the themes we constantly return to is the need in marketing to loosen attachment to command-and-control and have more faith in the widom of crowds and the ability of the masses – not elites – to create value in the brand; to decide what the brand is. If the theory of evolution challenges man’s sense of self and his notion of God, there’s a parallel case for shaking the assumptions that branding is really the work of the expert brand managers and design consultants who currently ply their trade.

Shoot me down in flames.

1 thought on “Challenging the “trickle-down” theory of creation… and what it means for branding

  1. geoff


    This reminds me of the current discussions around the question of “what exactly is customer experience management?”.

    Most commentators, with brands to promote, take the position that customer experience management is about creating a “branded customer experience”. In other words, the internal brand decides what the external customer experience should look like. This requires a great deal of internal organisation to ensure that the brand’s values can be delivered as promised at each and every touchpoint. Sadly, this rarely works as planned; studies have shown that over 80% of customer’s still do not experience the brand they were promised.

    A few commentators take a different position, that customer experience management is about “branding the customer experience”. In other words, the real experience as perceived by customers decides how branding for the experience is developed. This is obviously less adventurous for marketers, but it is perhaps a better starting point for thinking about creating “real” customer experiences for most organisations.

    The branding the customer experience approach appears similar to the Open Source Marketing approach that you and James talk about.

    What is clear to me is that a balanced approach to Customer Experience Management (and Marketing) is required. One that looks extensively at what outcomes different groups of customer require. One that uses this insight to work out what capabilities are required to deliver these outcomes during different touchpoints along the customer experience. And critically, one that understands the difficult trade-offs required to optimise value creation for the organisation too.

    Graham Hill

    Independent Marketing Consultant


    in fact there is an argument that the pot makes the potter.


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