• March 1, 2008
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

The Power of Habit

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Memo from the desk of Marshall Lager, March’s Chief Shamrock Officer:

It's March (or at least it will be by the time you read this), and soon Americans will celebrate the uniquely American tradition of St. Patrick's Day, when everybody's Irish for a little while. Actual Irish are not allowed to disown their temporary brethren, for fear of derailing the reveling.

And I do mean reveling: There will be extra emergency personnel on duty at hospitals and poison-control hotlines, and DWI checkpoints every place wide enough to admit a motor vehicle, even if it's not actually a road. Not only beer, but entire rivers will be dyed green, fer cryin' out loud. Madness will grip the land, in the name of the Sons of the Old Sod -- many of whom cringe when they think of the humiliation they're about to endure. [Marshall neglects to mention how much he enjoys humiliation, provided it's someone else's. -Ed.]

Sure, it's fun for some people to dress all in green, right down to their skivvies and up to their face paint. Shouts of "Erin Go Bragh!" -- sometimes twisted to "Erin, Go Braless!" as the day drags on and the blood-alcohol content climbs -- seem relatively good-natured, even if your name is Erin. But all of that undermines the holiday's potential: The day could have developed into a rallying cry of solidarity among people of Irish descent just as Puerto Rican Day is for that cohort. The celebration could have offered a way of saying, "Thank goodness we made it, after that potato famine nearly killed every last one of us." Rather, St. Patrick's Day simply casts a spotlight on corned beef, soda bread, and the little dude on the Lucky Charms cereal box. [The irony? His name is actually Lucky. -Ed.]

(Don't even get me started on Columbus Day. That holiday's more screwed up than my eating habits are. How a conquistador of uncertain origin with a bad sense of direction and a boatload full of syphilitic mercenaries became a symbol of Italian pride is beyond me.)

This is the power of brand, of tradition, of the crowd. It doesn't matter that, in Ireland, St. Patrick's Day is still largely a religious holiday commemorating a glorified snake charmer. It doesn't matter that mentioning leprechauns or shamrocks will get you a punch in the face any other day of the year. [This isn't hyperbole. Marshall knows this firsthand. -Ed.] Americans -- Irish and otherwise -- have appropriated the holiday and made it their own, regardless of the day's original intent.

There's the lesson for businesses as well as for hooligans: Once you put something out into the world, it's no longer entirely yours. If you're fortunate enough to see a massive response to a product or a campaign, consider riding the wave even if the resulting image isn't what you intended. If the response is truly negative, no amount of damage control can save the product. If the public's response is merely different from your expectations, or funny and catchy, work with the crowd. Own what they return to you. This isn't quite a Web 2.0 answer, but it's effective enough until you have real communication with customers -- perhaps over a pint of green Smithwick's Ale.

Contact Senior Editor Marshall Lager at mlager@destinationCRM.com.

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