The Marketing of Davos

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We live in a time where we have near instant access to the thoughts of great men and women. We should be thankful for this as the world is a better place for it. We look to these people for sound bites on the state of the world and direction for our lives (“stay young, stay foolish!”)[i]. But through no fault of their own, it seems we unreasonably expect them to provide us with an RSS-feed of revolutionary and insightful thought. Davos is the epicentre of this phenomenon.

Every year, the political, academic and business elite meet to provide the most up-to-date thinking on the latest global issues. You might well ask, “isn’t that what politicians and academics are paid to do, anyway?” Similarly, if ideas are revolutionary enough for business leaders to share, we can expect that they are already profiting from them (which is entirely fair in itself). So, what then, is the point of Davos?

Put simply, Davos is a marketing master class and should be held up as such. The symposium is much less about economics, geopolitics, networking (it’s unlikely you’ll go for a beer with Bill Gates just because you attended Davos) or the environment than is generally suggested. If anyone doubted that the star of the conference is marketing, this year the theme of the event was “resilient dynamism,” which marked the first time in history that anyone has used that expression.

Marketing Master Class

The American author, Seth Godin, once wrote, “identify a population with a certain worldview, frame your story in terms of that worldview and you win.”[ii] The leaders of countries, industries and academia often possess ambitious world-changing goals (and sometimes succeed in achieving them). The European Management Forum was founded in 1971 for them to meet and shape these goals.

The founder was Pr. Klaus Schwab, a respected and well-meaning man, who was Professor of Business Policy at the University of Geneva at the time. He has provided us with a case study on how to identify a population with a worldview and frame a story in terms of it. 43 years on from the first conference (which rebranded itself as the World Economic Forum), no other private conference can rival it for reputation. And as marketing teaches us, people pay more for reputation.

Regarding what people pay, one week at Davos costs $137,000[iii]. The cost of an MBA at Harvard is $133,961[iv]. It seems difficult to justify the price difference; even for networking (the opportunities for networking at Harvard aren’t bad either). Most of the time, it seems the real winner will be the marketing department at the World Economic Forum. In an age where most CEOs are an e-mail or Twitter remark away from almost anybody, what Davos continues to achieve is extraordinary.

The official website for Davos mentions successes such as the signing of the Davos Declaration between Turkey in Greece in 1992 and a meeting between German leaders to discuss reunification in 1989[v]. There is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come so it’s dubious how much influence the symposium had on the outcome of any of these events. However, these relative successes only serve to perpetuate Davos as the catalyst of world change that it sells itself as.

Self-fulfilling Prophecy

There is a certain truism about symposia: they are only as good as those that frequent them. At Davos, only invited guests can attend[vi], thus maintaining the prestigious nature of the event. Highly-regarded guests are the unwitting brand ambassadors for a symposium such as Davos. Former Davos attendees include Bill Gates, Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton. The more they turn out in their numbers, the more others wish to attend, the more the organizers can charge.

This creates its own momentum. Davos becomes as relevant as the people who go each year want to make it. Having paid over $100,000 for entrance, the average entrant to the symposium is then unlikely to nap at the presentations as people seem to do during presentations everywhere else. That same individual is also more likely to network as best as he or she can. Perhaps their company have financed the trip so they also may be inclined to make it seem a productive use of the company’s money.

Conclusion

In the same way that clients are warned by financial analysts that past performance is not an indication of future results, symposia such as Davos cannot be expected to reproduce past successes every year. One of the differences between financial analysts and symposia however, is that symposia are not legally prevented from marketing past achievements in the guise of regular occurrences. Davos has held host to some successes and we all hope it will host more. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to change the world for the better this year or next.

None of this is to knock Davos: It creates a need, which it then duly fills and charges accordingly. Businesses across the world in every conceivable niche seek to achieve the same feat every day they operate. To its credit, the World Economic Forum has triumphed in arguably the most competitive area of business there is. In the field of marketing, it deserves its place (quite literally) at the top of the mountain.