Marketing Idea No. 296: TV, TV on my wall….What show is the most disturbing of them all?

The idiot box has always been a source of intense debate. One school of thought says the excessive violence, sex, drugs and obsession with celebrity culture that is shown in TV is a main cause behind the moral decline of the society. The other group says, as a sign post of our collective thoughts, the job of TV entertainment is not to shape our behavior but to reflect it appropriately. Therefore if the society in general is embracing and cheering all things violent and crazy, the TV shows should naturally focus on that.

If we consider TV as a mirror that reflect us rather than a compass that guides us, what does this mirror say about us?

It says that the world since 9/11/2001 is not the same as we know. That’s why our TV is full of shows that focus on apocalypse or a dystopian world where humanity is destroyed by nuclear warfare or spread of a biological agent and then appears a messiah or super hero as an unlikely savior of the day from the zombies or vampires. It says that we are pretty distressed with our life in general and only way we feel superior to other people is by judging them constantly and pulling them down below us; a trend which has given rise to Reality TV shows like American Idol or shows that reflect the vanity of celebrity lifestyle like Keeping up with Caradashians. It says that in a world of temptations and complexity, the line between good and evil are getting blurred and not everything can be categorized as black or white. That’s why our traditional heroes and leading men are all becoming Anti-Heroes: flawed, dark, brooding, intense, and occasionally bad like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Masters of Sex, The Arrow, The Newsroom, House of Cards, House of Lies, Boardwalk Empire and many many more. It says that we have a yearning to seek for authenticity and simplicity as we are growing tired of all the repercussions of excessive materialism. That’s why Travel and Cooking related shows presenting both fantasy and escapism are growing faster now than at any time in history. TV says that our trust in authority is at all time low. That’s why we have obsession towards fixers or strong men who can twist an arm and leg to get their way like the characters do in Homeland, House of Cards, Scandal, Ray Donovan etc.

Not all things in TV tells a dark story. Take the case of TV comedies. The famous TV comedies of current days tell us about the apathy that we feel towards workplace. That’s why a lot of comedies these days like The Office, Parks & Recreations, and Brooklyn 99 etc take the absurdities of workplace behavior as a source of biting comedy. Lets dig one step deeper and look at the characters and how these characters are fleshed out to relate to us. In most cases, the leading men in these comedy shows are a “Cool guy who refuses to grow out of his man child antics or frat boy days” (Ref: Brooklyn 99, How I Met Your Mother, Scrubs etc.). It shows a collective yearning among today’s youth to not take responsibilities of life and consider entering adulthood as the end of all things good. In these shows the young characters almost always hang out together in a bar or café with their friends (i.e. Friends, Sex & The City, New Girl, Happy Ending) showing our intense desire for the bygone days with a strong nostalgic tinge, where friends where always there, life was simple and there was no fear of missing out.

In an interesting study, Lauren Zalaznick collected the top 10 shows as per Nielsen Ratings since 1960 till now and measured it against three key viewing parameters – Comfort (Watching the TV show to feel good or entertained), Social commentary (Watching the shows to know about the social issues that affect my world) and Irreverence (Watching the shows to challenge the existing norms). When we start plotting the points in the charts, we see that in the 60s and 70s we saw TV mainly to comfort us. But as the world grew more restless, our tendency to look at the idiot box to give us discussion fuels than basic comforts and entertainment increased. Our collective conscience is getting crowded with dark thoughts. So are our TV Shows.

Marketing Idea No. 295: Internet didn’t kill the Book Author

The paper based book industry is dying. We are just counting it down to its last breath.

At one point or another, everyone got into this band wagon of doomsday. The writing was on the wall for some time. But the global book industry is anything but dead. The advent of technology didn’t kill it. If anything, technology helped it to grow.

The analogy with music industry is understandable but misguided. The death of record label was mostly due to industry changing disruption like consumers looking for one single song, not the whole album. The record labels usually pushed artists to come up with different styles of songs for one single album in the hope that different songs will appeal to different people, hence more sales. But consumers eventually outsmarted the record label, and much of the credit goes to the eco system that Apple came up with.

But Book is a much tougher cookie to fight. There is still no significantly increasing demand for book summary, as sold by websites like Getabstract, compared to the book itself, showing that the analogy with music industry is not true for books. Books are also surprisingly simple and efficient. It comes with light packaging, easy to hold, needs no recharging, attractive to look at, can be an wonderful gift and like any other successful brand portrays a certain image about the person who purchases it. For e-books, to overcome such a formidable adversary is not proving to be easy. In 2010 Simon & Schuster predicted more than 50% of its global sales will be e-books. It turned out to be only 30%. In Germany, only 5% books sold last year were e-books. In fact all over the world e-book sales have been decreasing in growth rate.

The twist of the tale is how technology has actually increased the scope of book business. The self-publishing boom has actually liberated a generation of authors to bypass any sort of publisher and direct publish and sell his books through Amazon who will only keep 30% of the revenue. In America, as much as 25% of all books who got an ISBN in 2012 are self-published.

Technology is also helping publishers to sell regular books more by making all sorts of data available. HarperCollins for example found out that when it discounts backlist books, around 10% consumers buy another title from the same author. Another way Technology is helping is through the creation of Audio Books. The cost of audio books creation has fallen from approximately $25,000 to $3000. This has helped to market books to another very important segment: Children.

The impact of collaboration and crowd funding has also helped book industry. In February 2014, a young woman raised $380,000 through Kickstarter for a children’s book called “Hello Ruby”. Another crowd funding site called Unbound has already helped produce a novel called “The Wake” which was in the list for the 2014 Man Booker prize in fiction.

Today if you have an idea about a book but no fund or no time to write, you can go to internet to find both. That’s why, the future of book, as it stands, is much brighter than many people think.

Marketing Idea No. 294: Our love affair with “Brainstorming” and why there is always heartache at the end of this rainbow

In a famous book published in 1948 called “Your Creative Power”, Alex Osborn, a partner in the legendary advertising agency B.B.D.O. talked about a mysterious, never heard before process regarding “How to Organize a Squad to Create Ideas”. He mentioned that when a group tackles a creative problem, all the members should engage in this process called “brainstorm”, which as per his definition means “using the brain to storm a creative problem – and doing so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.”

The first empirical test of brainstorming technique was performed in Yale University in 1958. Forty-eight male undergraduate students were divided into twelve groups and given a series of creative puzzles and asked to follow the brainstorming technique identified by Osborn. The results told them what all of us who ever participated in brainstorming meetings (Which is everyone who ever worked in any sort of organization) already knew for some time now: students individually on their own came up with roughly twice as many solutions compared to the groups who participated in the brainstorming, and on top of that an independent panel of judges deemed the individual member’s solutions more “feasible” and “effective.” In fact, generations of research performed in research lab all over the world in the last 50 years consistently proved that brainstorming doesn’t unleash the creative beast, they just collectively make us a lot less creative than we actually are as individuals.

Brainstorming has a lot of built in issues which deters it from reaching its original goal

  1. “As sexy as brainstorming is, with people popping like champagne with ideas, what actually happens is when one person is talking you’re not thinking of your own ideas,” said Leigh Thompson, a management professor at the Kellogg School in an interview with Fast Company magazine. Instead sub-consciously you’re already assimilating to other people’s ideas. This process is called “anchoring,” and it crushes originality.
  2. As per Loran Nordgren, another professor in Kellogg, in brainstorming early ideas tend to have disproportionate influence over the rest of the conversation”. Since brainstorming favors the first ideas, it also breeds the least creative ideas, a phenomenon called “Conformity pressure”. Participants in desperate need to look intelligent and working against a ticking clock with the moderator shouting out how only 15 minutes are left to come to a consensus, often put the most obvious ideas first and then everyone else rally around that idea to get it done in time.
  3. Research shows that in traditional brainstorming, one or two loud mouths usually do 65-70% of the talking. Therefore, the supposed team work is often the output of a few of the more extroverted, dominant personality in the group
  4. Brainstorming is most often used to answer “Poorly structured questions” (Questions that doesn’t have an obvious answer, needs more creativity to come up with one and doesn’t have a well-defined step by step process to follow to come up with that illusive answer). But actually research shows that Brainstorming is better to find answers to “Well-structured questions” rather than “Poorly structured questions” (i.e. finding name of a new product), as the later requires more creativity and hence better to be tackled alone.

 

As per Paul B. Paulus, psychologist at the University of Texas at Arlington, “There’s plenty of rain in the storm. That is, plenty of ideas falling from the sky. But there’s not much lightning — the exceptional ideas that have the potential to set things on fire.”

If Brainstorming is indeed not as effective as everyone thinks, why this universal love affair with it?

Because Brainstorming is status quo. Its sexy and fun. It goes in tune with the whole organizational trend of doing everything in teams and collaboration. In short, its another organizational bullshit that is passed on unchallenged. Somehow, human creativity has become a group process. There has been much debate in recent times about the role of individual genius vs a team in creativity & innovation. One school of thought is the lone researcher burning midnight oil to find out a Eureka moment is overstated and practically a myth. Creativity works well when a group is tackling the process together, bouncing ideas of each other in a sort of free-wheeling exercise. The other school of thought preaches “Solitude as the catalyst for innovation”, citing examples of hundred years of creativity generated by individuals working on their own, undisturbed by e-mails, team building, meetings and other pressing group dynamics.

The researchers from Kellogg and Arlington mentioned earlier in this write up came up with a technique called “Brain writing” as an improvement over Brainstorming. In the newly designed “Brain writing” process, people first think on their own and write down their ideas. Then everyone comes together to share those ideas, either verbally sharing them or write them in a wall without attaching their names to it. Then everyone votes on the idea, without getting influenced by who came up with it or how much each idea dominates the discussion; but purely based on the merit of the idea itself in solving the issue in hand. In the subsequent studies, it was found out that this “Brain writing” process generates much more original ideas than the typical “Brainstorming”.

This doesn’t mean that the world is ready to move on from Brainstorming. Unfortunately, until we come to that day when we realize and question the times and resources wasted in such useless “Brainstorming” exercises, thousands of bored, zombie-like brain will continue to storm.

Marketing Idea No. 293: Two Thumbs Up

Can quality of Art be measured? The artist who gives birth to the Art in a moment of sheer, unquantifiable inspiration may not like to think so. The hundreds of free thinkers sitting in a European cafe who likes to put an end to endless capitalism in this world may not like to think so. But the hundreds of people who pay a fixed amount of money in auction houses for a piece of Art seems to think so. The Academy who always votes to choose a Best Motion Picture Oscar Winner every year definitely likes to think so.

This is not to debate about who is right and who is wrong; as both school of thoughts have merits. The more interesting observation is how the general people seems to rely more and more on some kind of quantification from an authoritative source to understand what kind of art to consume. Nothing captures the essence of this trend than the world of movies and a little story involving two thumbs.

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were two pioneering, dominant figures in the early days of film criticism who did much to bring movie criticism mainstream. In their popular TV show by ABC-Disney called “At the Movies”, which ran from 1986 to 2010, Siskel and Ebert deployed this system called “thumbs up/thumbs down” to give their overall rating of the movie. Needless to say, “Two Thumbs Up” became the catchphrase for high quality movies and this trademarked phrase was used heavily by all movies in their posters, trailers and DVD covers to promote the film, much like a “Seal of approval”. The continuation of such quantified endorsement can still be seen in many other places in film industry. Today audience checks the 3 most credible sources – an IMDB score (more than 7 is good), a Rottentomato score (more than 60% means “Certified Fresh” and hence good) and a Metacritic score – before deciding which movie to watch or stream. As we get sucked into this whirlwind ride of capitalism where none has time to spend on things that we don’t like or mediocre, reliance on such kind of external, easy to grasp reviews will increase ever more. And its not limited to world of movies only. For books also, we check the review scores in “Goodread” and check how much time it is spent on a best-seller list. So while the larger debate on how to judge the quality of art remains, the mass clearly has moved on and wants more simple solutions to guide them to remove subjectivity and failure from this process as much as possible.

Interestingly, what has already happened in the world of Art has not really caught up in the world of Commerce and for once business world is lagging behind. There have always been talks about the importance of “Word of Mouth” in business, but when it comes to generating word of mouth, calibrate them and use them in a clever way to promote business, much is still needed to be accomplished.

Maybe the brand managers should spend less time making presentations and more time going to theaters.

Marketing Idea No. 292: Return to innocence

 

In our high school days we were a big practitioner of memorizing definition, without ever really understanding it. When we grew up, we understood that definition is too theoretical, probably like most of the things that we learned from our high school curriculum. We accepted that to be successful, we need to be more practical and the best way to be practical is learn from real life examples. Very soon our presentations and speeches are full of anecdotes and examples, not concepts. We have grown up and learnt a great new trick. If you talk about definitions and concepts, the audience yawns. If you talk about examples and stories, the audience cheers.

The problem with this trend is you can create and sell any kind of hypothesis by digging out that one outlier example that supports your bullshit. The media all over the world thrives on this trend. They create stories that fuel current beliefs and cherry pick examples to justify them. Add to that human being’s tendency to generalize and jumping to conclusion, and we have a real big problem at our hand.

In a recent survey conducted by Hans and Ola Rosling, a group of people in Sweden were asked multiple choice questions about the state of the world. The researchers then went to the zoo and asked chimps the same questions, where for obvious reasons the Chimps gave the answer by randomly pushing buttons. Whats not so obvious was how the random button pushing of the chimps were much more accurate as answers compared to the deliberate answers Swedish people give, showing how distorted our view of the world is. Much of it is because our view of the world is shaped by the stories that media choose to report. And like everyone, media has an agenda. And like everyone, media also is ignorant.

Which is why there is a growing trend in business and life to go back to basic. And there is nothing more basic than definitions, which lies at the core of the concept. Ask a group of investment bankers what’s the impact of inflation and they will give you tons of examples. Ask them what IS Inflation, and they will struggle. Ask a group of religious preachers what things are considered as sinful, they will give a 10 minute lecture on it. Ask them what IS Sin, and there might be a pause. That’s the intuitive power of concepts. To explain what you are doing to a simple few words is extremely hard. But doing that sharpens your focus. Moreover, definitions clarify your mind both in terms of “What” you are doing as well as “Why”. Lastly, unlike examples, definitions of concepts cannot be changed. If you want to change people’s point of view, don’t give examples. Give the definition of what it stands for in simple terms

Marketing Idea No. 291: What does your password say about you?

The most common password in the world used by people is “Password”. That explains a lot about the state of internet security in the world.

In a recent interview Apple’s CEO Tim Cook said that world is one disastrous scandal away from really looking at privacy concerns more seriously. This of course was a hidden dig at the No.1 enemy Google, but his message cannot be taken lightly. Thanks to the media being rife with stories relating to hacking and stolen passwords; the biggest perception western world holds about China is that they are always trying to hack into your private world and steal your secrets. The fact that USA Govt. is doing the same and we are willingly signing away our own privacy rights to technology companies with the illusion of secrecy and safety; is a message that is somehow not getting through. When ex-CEO Eric Schmidt was asked to address the privacy concerns of general public regarding the Google products, his blunt reply was asking people not to put anything in web that we want to keep a secret. The fact that every one of us still use an e-mail password that we guard it from everyone in the world already tells us the futility of that argument.

We all have secrets to keep and we all care of our privacy. But still we use passwords that are opposite to what we are supposed to be doing. Internet security 101 is telling us to come up with difficult to guess passwords combining characters and letters; not use same password everywhere and not write it down anywhere. But in reality that kind of passwords is very difficult to remember and since the key factor in fixing password is about memory, we end up committing all sorts of password security violations.

If you want to make data more secure, asking people to come up and remember super complex passwords is not the way to change behavior. People will continue to gravitate towards simplicity and something easy for memory. The behavior that should be targeted to change is not the construct of the password but what the content of the password says. Usually a password is something meaningful to that person – ranging from wife’s name to favorite pet’s birthdate. A simple way to throw a potential hacker off his track is using password that can never be traced back to you thematically and has no relevance to you. For example, if you are a teen age boy sitting somewhere in Alabama; having a password about Dutch ballet dance moves should be furthest removed from your life and hence very difficult to guess.

Is this a full-proof strategy? Unfortunately, no. But it’s a more feasible strategy than asking people to remember a string of numbers and characters; and asking them to change it for different apps and platforms.

Marketing Idea No. 290: Rise of the Asian Leader

There is an ongoing debate about why Asian American students outpace the other ethnic groups in academic performances. The most publicized attempt to answer that question — a few years ago, by Yale Law School professor Amy Chua — set off a controversy that rages to this day. While there are different school of thoughts, the most reliable one that is presented so far is the hard work and commitment that the Asian students and their parents are willing to provide to get the superior results. But for the world of management, this opens up a new dimension because whatever the reason may be, the Asians do bring to the table a different set of personality and leadership traits that can make them the perfect complement to Western style of management.

This is counter intuitive to the popularly held belief which states that Asian managers don’t have the perfect combination of killer instinct, charismatic leadership skills and strategic know-how to be the leader of tomorrow. That may be true, but what they DO have is something that is far more relevant in terms of the kind of future leaders the world will look into. And these key traits are built into the DNA of these Asian leaders by the very cultural fabric where they grew up with.

 

Attribute 1: Understanding “Long Term” view

The true understanding of “Good things come to those who waits” is something that Asian people are always taught vis a vis the “Seize the Day” and “Instant Gratification” mentality of western society. Asians are already some of the world’s biggest savers for a rainy day. The offshoot of such practice is the true long term view Asian people have, which makes them perfectly suitable for strategic roles such as CEO. While the entire world is suffering from an “Attention Deficit Disorder” and looking for the quick fixes everywhere to hold on to their attention, the true long term practitioner like Asians can be the voice of reason and the true visionary in the middle of the chaos and relentless pressure to deliver everything right now.

 

Attribute 2: The “Survivor” mentality

Asians have survived everything. They survived the colonial oppression, the natural disasters, the poverty, corruption and poor infrastructure, becoming rich quickly and the subsequent problems that come with it. They even survived themselves. So persistence is something an Asian leader can preach, because he has already practiced it. As the world lives on the edge, bouncing from one economic crisis to another political crisis, the dogged survivor mentality of Asian leaders can help the companies who are in trouble, to dig themselves out of the hole.

 

Attribute 3: The humble quotient

The role of the transformation leader sweeping his way in and singlehanded saving a company is over stated, misguided and extremely rare. The era of the dictator leader saying, my way or the high way, is over. In future, the leader has to be shrewd enough to stay two steps ahead yet know in his mind that he is no miracle worker. He would need the help of everyone in the organization to make his views come to life. So the future leader of the world needs to be humble and accepting of others points of view. In fact, the future leader has to cajole the buying in of everyone to make his strategies executed. And who better to adopt that servant leader role than the Asian, who are taught from the get go how to be grounded, humble, accepting of other points of view. Really valuing employee’s contribution as well as making the employees feel valued will be the critical differentiators which will tip the balance towards Asian leaders.

The sound of Asian leaders invading the organization is getting louder. If we take just one ethnicity, Indian, as an example; the following Fortune 500 companies – Pepsi, Microsoft, MasterCard, Deutsche Bank, Adobe Systems, Reckitt Benckiser, Diageo – all have Indian heads.