Opinion

San Francisco’s dirty disruption underbelly contains a lesson for all marketers

After a recent eye-opening trip to San Francisco, Catherine-Josephine Tayeh asks: should we accept our smashed avocados with a side of smashed windows, or are marketers tasked with a higher purpose?

The streets of San Francisco almost feel like hip pocket Melbourne. As a marketer, one of the earliest differences you notice are the advertisements for tech company after tech company. Google and Apple are dominant personalities in the out of home playground.

However the precious spots in the sky are also occupied by an immense array of little-known startups that have just received a fresh wave of early-stage funding, along with the ambitious acquisition targets spurring them towards next quarter’s #billboardgoals.

But it’s below the billboards radiant with ambition and aspiration that you see the true toll that an extreme focus on the tech industry has taken on The Golden City. Indeed, it’s on the streets that you’ll witness the dirty underside of disruption in San Francisco, a city that appears to be both high-strung and hamstrung by the world wide web.

Walking down Mission, Market and Montgomery, I witnessed a city in crisis. The streets were saturated with messages of homelessness. Inequality was not only palpable, it was incalculable, which is somewhat ironic given the thousands of engineers that have migrated to San Francisco and Silicon Valley since the 1990s.

Of course, we could say that big city life comes with social problems; that we need to accept our smashed avocados with a side of smashed windows and a heavy helping of law and order policing. As marketers, we could say that it’s our job to fix the billboards and it’s up to the government, charities, or frankly somebody else to fix the society that belies them.

But what should we say?

As marketers, it’s our job to connect brands and consumers within an ever-changing landscape, complicated by choice, disruption and destruction. As experts in the art of connection, it’s our job to champion what is thoroughly human, even though our working environments often skew towards efficiency and away from empathy. It’s our job to know our customers and cultures intimately, so that we might create behaviours that live longer than a 15 second preroll.

Our job puts us in a unique position.

As marketers, we need to be unflinchingly real about the brand and the consumer. This is a powerful platform built on consistency and integrity. Yes, it means we’re often leaders one day and dissenters the next, but it also means that we have the opportunity to speak plainly about human impact.

If you haven’t already, it’s time to saddle up your high horse.

San Francisco’s lather and rinse economy sends a powerful message to all marketers irrespective of brand, consumer and geographical location. It’s a telling story of dystopian growth built on powerful paradigms which preference niche over mass, elevating the few and excluding the many. It’s a story of mutually agreed blindness to certain problems and people that have been left out of the reigning mythology because they simply didn’t present any ‘scalable opportunities’.

From a distance, it’s easy to see that San Francisco’s story of growth is missing a human anchor. It’s missing a non-virtual reality that asks whether average Joe, Joanna, and Joneisha will benefit from what we put in the world today, not in a decade when the adoption life cycle finally calls their ticket number.

As marketers, we’re well positioned to lead the move away from niche thinking to become champions of the human. We need to start cultivating egalitarian approaches to brand and start tearing down the walled gardens that restrict our thinking. It’s by doing this, that we can start to clean up the destruction.

Catherine-Josephine Tayeh is a strategist and tech marketer. 

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