xrematon

March 19, 2017

Weapons of Math Destruction

Filed under: Business,Coaching,Consumer Trends,Marketing,Sustainability,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 8:50 pm
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There is much chatter about corporate social responsibility but little deep thinking about more complex moral concepts. This is what struck me as I read a polemical book about the troubling implications of living in a world ‘controlled’ by algorithms – Weapons of Mass Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil.

The author’s Big Message is to highlight how the clever models that sit behind how decisions to evaluate teachers, job candidates, prospective customers for insurance, consumers etc, are not as objectively fair as we might think, often capturing the biases of their creators, as well as more importantly creating negative feedback loops reinforcing social divides. Poor people living in bad neighbourhoods pay more for insurance as they are higher risk; thanks to accurate targeting, they can be more easily identified to be sold payday (or equivalent high cost/poor value) loans.

Whilst this is indeed troubling, my overall response to the book was to feel glad that I don’t live in the US and that, in the UK (I think!), there are more checks and balances in place to stop the level of exploitation seen across the Atlantic occurring.

However, after reading the book, I did start to notice other examples of concerns being raised about the moral implications of business approaches.

First example: an article widely circulated among the senior management at a major international marketing powerhouse. This article raises far more worrying concepts – how search engines are effectively being ‘gamed’ by organisations who wish to propagate ideas that would normally be dismissed out of hand in a liberal democracy. The journalist tried seeing what happens when you start typing in “are muslims…”, and seeing what comes up in Google Instant (though I must confess, I didn’t get anything as bad), she observes, “I feel like I’ve fallen down a wormhole, entered some parallel universe where black is white, and good is bad.”

Second example: an interesting piece in a recent edition of 1843. A writer for the magazine went to California to ‘meet the scientists who make apps addictive’. In a way, this article provides a much-needed human face to the O’Neill book. It seems that the clever people behind all the clever new apps and algorithms are not actually evil. They are described as ‘hipsters from San Francisco – all nice people’.

However, some of them have realised that what they are unleashing on the world may not be so straightforwardly ‘good’ after all. The founding father of ‘behaviour design’, B.J. Fogg, is quoted as saying, “I look at some of my former students and I wonder if they’re really trying to make the world better, or just make money. What I always wanted to do was un-enslave people from technology.” Let’s see what some of these students have been up to:

  • One of Fogg’s alumni, Nir Eyal, went on to write a successful book, aimed at tech entrepreneurs, called “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products”.
  • Another, Tristan Harris, resigned after working for Google for a year in order to pursue research into the ethics of the digital economy. “I wanted to know what responsibility comes with the ability to influence the psychology of a billion people? What’s the Hippocratic oath?” Whilst Harris was convinced to stay on temporarily as design ethicist and product philosopher, he soon realised that, although his colleagues were listening politely, they would never take his message seriously without pressure from the outside. He left Google for good to become a writer and advocate, on a mission to wake the world up to how digital technology is diminishing the human capacity for making free choices.

My final example is a film, but it succeeded in make me think the most as it captured my imagination and brought to life the moral dilemmas at play most powerfully. Eye In The Sky explores what happens when a drone is to be used to launch a bomb into a crowded street in Kenya in order to kill a wanted terrorist. Clever algorithms make use of Big Data to calculate what is the likelihood that a small girl selling bread on this street might be killed too by this bomb. For the minsters approving the mission, it is only acceptable for the bomb to be launched if the likelihood is below 50%. Initially calculations suggest the risk is over 50% (that’s what the model says), but in the film we can see how human actors can override and manipulate models. It is clear that ultimately humans need to be ready to make difficult decisions – and live with the consequences.

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February 15, 2017

Going fast and slow

Streamlined, friction-free, hassle-free, speedy, smooth.

The list could go on – what I hope these adjectives capture is how, in some elements of retail, there is an increasing focus on making the process of purchasing and acquisition simpler and quicker. Amazon is the prime example of this (inevitable pun), with various initiatives coming in thick and fast. There is Amazon Echo, through which you can place orders for music and Prime-eligible physical products; and then there are the new shops, Amazon Go, where customers can walk in, put what they want from the shelves straight into their bags and then walk out again.

Now I must confess that neither of these options has particular appeal. However, I have been tempted by the simplest of all the Amazon efficiency offers: Prime delivery. As a household, we accidentally signed up for a month’s subscription, and in the interests of research, I ordered and successfully received a same-day order, with an eight hour gap between putting in my request and tearing open the package. It was probably the quickest way to get these books. I would have otherwise been obliged to go into a big bookshop in London to be sure of finding them, but it all felt rather anti-climactic in the end. Drone delivery will be more exciting.

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But what about the idea of going slow? Yes, I will acknowledge that this is getting attention in its own right, but in a way that is all aspirational and fetishised – think slow food, slow living, mindfulness, hygge etc. But what about slow as a practical approach to life?

Communication, like shopping, has all got much easier, in particular thanks to smart phones, which means we can pick up calls, texts and emails, whenever and wherever. I would like to share with you a recent example of a surprisingly simple but highly effective way to slow down communications. This example came from a colleague who is the head of an important public institution, and thus on the receiving end for complaints and concerns from users. As most of us will have no doubt experienced, it is all too easy to get bogged down in a long and ever expanding spiralling email thread. Here is what this CEO did: in response to a ‘difficult’ email, they sent a letter back. Why it was so successful?

It stopped the discussion at once: no one could be bothered to write a letter back and it seems rather odd to reply to a letter with an email.

It stopped any forwarding and copying in additional individuals, as is very easy to do with emails, thus ensuring that the discussion could be tightly controlled/managed, in a perfectly acceptable way.

And finally, and this is the sweetest part, the recipient was happy and no longer aggrieved. Who could fail to be pleased with a letter which is on nice, thick, headed note paper and which shows that the original comments have been reviewed and reflected upon, and have prompted a carefully considered response?

Now the challenge is to think about how this tactic can be deployed equally effectively in other contexts. Not sure it would work as a means of dealing with edits to Powerpoint decks – shame!

 

January 14, 2017

Putting big money in the little things that make a difference

Filed under: Business,Consumer Trends,Innovation,Marketing,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 4:28 pm
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I have had the opportunity to do a number of projects in areas different to my usual diet of FMCG-relevant global consumer perspectives. Health, and in particular cancer, have been the object of my intense focus over the recent months.

Whilst I have realised that there is a vast amount to learn in these fields, it is also possible to find some familiar principles. One of these is acknowledging the importance of the customer perspective, whether a ‘bog standard’ consumer or a patient. The reason this is so striking in medicine and the more clinical side of healthcare is that traditionally the clinical perspective is the one that dominates and drives how things are done. Whilst this ensures that the patient has the greatest chance of getting better in one sense, it does not necessarily mean that the patient experience is the best. For example, recent surveys found that patients treated by London hospitals reported poorer experiences compared with those treated by hospitals in other English regions, despite the fact that London houses many of the top centres for cancer with world leading experts and cutting edge equipment.

However, there are signs that there is growing recognition of the need to factor in more of the non-clinical angles to being a patient.

  • There is important policy support. The latest cancer strategy included a commitment to ensuring that ‘every person with cancer has access to the elements of a Recovery Package by 2020’. The Recovery Package is part of an overall support and self-management package for people affected by cancer and includes a Holistic Needs Assessment which encourages healthcare professionals to understand how patients are feeling not just physically, but also emotionally and what’s behind this.
  • It is possible find examples of small tweaks to process, ‘little things that make a difference’, which are being instituted and at very little or no additional cost. The North Shore–LIJ Cancer Institute, one of the largest providers of cancer care in the New York metropolitan area, gives radiation patients and family members tours of the treatment rooms in advance to help address fears about going through the daunting and unknown experience of radiotherapy.
  • There also examples of where things were done differently, even though this did have major cost implications. The new cancer centre at Guys Hospital was built using input from a panel of cancer patients with the result that it houses the first radiotherapy machines in Europe above ground, despite the fact this was significantly more expensive. This means that patients will not receive their radiotherapy treatment in a windowless bunker below ground level, as usually happens, but be in more positive environment for what is already an unpleasant experience. Likewise, in the US, health care provider Bellin designed a freestanding facility for cancer, locating it off a major highway several miles from the hospital. This centre houses all oncology and administrative staff members and provides comprehensive and coordinated care. The facility not only makes it easier to deliver efficient service, but also offers a more calming experience for patients with easy parking; specific design codes of soft colours, natural materials and lots of natural light with a garden visible from the infusion room. Without patient input, Bellin would have followed a consultant’s recommendation to simply add a more ‘impersonal’ cancer wing to its hospital.

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Let us hope that, despite the uncertain economic climate, these important principles continue to be practised and do not return to be empty statements of intent.

December 15, 2016

The new Design Museum – photo essay

Filed under: Innovation,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 7:45 pm
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Something visual for a change….

This week I had the opportunity to pay a visit to the Design Museum, moved from its old site in London Bridge to a newly refitted building off High Street Kensington.

The building is nestled alongside Holland Park and set a bit of a way back from the bustle of the street. The museum is also close to the block of luxury flats which were developed simultaneously and formed part of the same property deal (more detail on this, and about the architects, can be found here.)

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The most striking feature about the building is the huge (some might say over-sized) atrium into which one walks on entering.

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The atrium certainly creates a lovely airiness, but it also means that everything else is either squatting in underground bunker floors or squeezed off at the edges. As an example of the latter, let’s take the cafe, often an important part of the museum experience – a place to sit, rest weary legs and chat after gazing at an endless vista of intriguing displays. In the Design Museum, the cafe is not more than a glorified small alcove off to one side of this atrium. It has no access to daylight (there are no windows) and, even though I visited at a non-peak time (early-ish morning midweek), it was already very full.

However, I did enjoy spying other elements of interest in the building, such as the spiralling beams coming off the triangular skylights…

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…as well as the concrete pillar stretching up one side.

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As my visit had no ambitions beyond getting an impression of the museum, I did not explore the exhibits in any detail. but here are some that caught my attention.

Firstly, one almost de rigeur for a design museum – a vase made by 3D printing – surprisingly light.

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Secondly, the more ‘off the wall’ item – a jacket woven from human hair – which I found personally so repulsive that I couldn’t to be near it any longer than was required to take this picture.

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Thirdly, a rather random, whimsical offering – a close-up from a kitchen mock-up constructed entirely out of wood.

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My final image are the water jets you come across as you walk back to join Kensington High Street. I am sure they will be a great hit with children on hot summer days, though I don’t think you will find me coming back to appreciate them. I would rather spent the time admiring the rural aesthetics of my garden.

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November 16, 2016

Rematerialism

Compared to the boom consumption decades of the post-war era or the bling-times of 1980s, in more recent years, it could be maintained we have been living in a post-materialistic society. This was true in the buoyant affluence leading up to the global financial crisis and Great Recession when, putting it crudely, we had everything money could buy and we became interested instead in seeking the best, most glorious experiences. Red Letter Days, which lets you buy balloon rides and bungee-jumping as gifts, was the poster child organisation for this set of attitudes. Going through the recession and financial squeeze kept post-materialism still in there, but the motivations and perspectives behind it were different. With little spare money for excess and indulgence, we came to understand what was actually most important to us, and that was often spending quality time with family. In that environment, staying in became the new going out – a more modest experience, but an experience nonetheless.

However, I wonder whether attitudes might be shifting again. Experiences are still very important, in part because of economic pressures: having experiences can be relatively be expensive (compare the cost of meal out vs cooking at home). But now ‘things’ could get more expensive too given that the low value of the pound is pushing up the price of imports.

Beyond the simple economics of higher prices driving a sense of scarcity and thus the need to appreciate material goods, I wonder whether there is something in the way in which we ‘approach’ objects which is changing. There are two dynamics to this:

  • In certain sectors, we are moving to a prioritisation of ‘usership’ rather than ownership. It’s clearest with cars, when we can use Uber or some kind car rental scheme in order to answer our mobility needs other than through buying a vehicle. It’s also pretty big in media: we download films or albums when we want to watch or listen, rather than picking up a box from our shelves. This means that when we do buy ‘something’, it is rather special. Look at how everyone can’t resist getting a fine and fancy notebook in which to write their meeting notes.
  • In addition, the idea of repairing an object and investing in making it last is getting more mainstream. Patagonia is a leader here and on its website, it is possible to access a comprehensive set of easy-to-follow repair guides, from learning how to repair a baffle on a down jacket to replacing the slider on a plastic tooth zipper.

When our lives were full of wonderful experiences, we could fill post lovely pictures on social media of  happy people laughing on sandy beaches etc; I am not sure photos taken whilst descaling the kettle to make it last longer will really have quite the same impact.

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October 16, 2016

Story telling – part II

Filed under: Business,Consumer Trends,Marketing,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 8:25 pm
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This is the second and final post thinking about story telling, something which the marketing world is rather keen on at the moment. In my first post, I explored the different levels at which stories can be used. In this post, I am sharing learnings from having looked through Christopher Booker’s “The Seven Basic Plots”.

In this work, Booker describes the seven basic stories which seem to act as archetypes and recur in great tales from across time and across cultures. To be fair, with all this increased interest in stories, the marketing world has cottoned to these seven basic plots as a source of reference and inspiration.

However, there are perhaps more interesting elements to Booker’s analysis of stories that have been overlooked. In the last section, he explores how, in the past 200 years, many of these archetypes have been subverted and inverted. “They have become detached from their underlying archetypal purpose. Instead of being fully integrated with the objective values embodied in the archetypal structure, such stories have taken on a fragmented, subjective character, becoming more like personal dreams or fantasies.” Booker goes on to explore how this shift explains and reflects the shift in individual human consciousness that has occurred in recent history.

I don’t want to go that ‘deep’, but it made me wonder whether the idea of playing around with archetypes has or could be a source of creative inspiration. Here are some initial reflections.

  • It might appear that advertising is creating its own archetypes which can then be distorted. Parody is the clearest example of this – and the Aldi version of Man on the Moon comes to mind here.
  • In addition to the archetypal plots, Booker also identifies archetypal roles that individuals in the seven basic plots might play. These include the Mother, Father, Child and animus/amina (the character that embodies the qualities of the opposite gender to the hero/heroine). In a world where it is increasingly accepted and perhaps expected that men take on child care and domestic duties and that gender identity is not fixed, one might argue that rethinking these archetypes is necessary in order to have relevance today. Fashion is certainly getting interested, but this is likely to be more style than substance.
  • Part of the reason that the archetypes begin to distort is due to the arrival of an author and their personality. What we are seeing in marketing is a different change in the centre of gravity within narratives. Brands can now be less about story telling and more about story making; and it is the customer who in fact ‘has’ the story or, at the very least, is actively involved in it.  Think about the ‘Share a Coke’ campaign where the brand sets the stage and provides a prop, but it is the customer who is the protagonist.

Whichever way these trends and shifts play out, it is worth ending on the fundamental reason why stories have so much to offer in marketing. Stories add to the humanity of brands. Without that narrative, everything is dominated by features, data and discounts and that sounds a bit boring to me.

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September 10, 2016

Story telling part 1

Filed under: Marketing,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 3:54 pm
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Now the dust has long settled over the big creative outburst in advertising at Christmas and before we start over again, it seems, according to this survey from Google, that the John Lewis ‘Man on the Moon’ offering was most popular.

Though I personally preferred the less sentimental Mog advert from Sainsburys, I was intrigued by the way in which the ‘Man on the Moon’ invited you to literally ‘continue the story’. This little phrase got me thinking….

You hear lots about story telling in the world of brands at the moment. You can sign up for story telling workshops where you learn how to use techniques from the screen writer’s toolkit; there is an agency, Aesop, that claims to focus on taking this approach, and brands have been ranked according to their story telling ability. But where exactly are the stories in marketing and what sort of tales are they? Having done a bit of digging and thinking, it seems that the use of stories operates at different levels but with lots of fuzziness blurring them all up.

  1. Some adverts, whether TV, cinema or online content, are literally played out as stories – there is a sense of narrative to them. The story provides the creative framework and dynamic. The Sainsburys Mog advert is a good example here.
  2. Stories can exist at a higher level – in terms of the story the brand or company tells of itself. This can be a story about its heritage and founders, the journey it has been on and the like. It’s a story that can be articulated to both internal and external audiences. Lots of luxury brands do this kind of story telling – consider this statement from Christopher Bailey at Burberry, ‘It’s not just a coat. That coat has a story. People want the soul in things. They want to understand the whys and the whats and the values that surround it.’
  3. The third level is most indistinct and hardest to clearly define – people use stories as a catch-all term to describe what a brand is about – its values, strategy, positioning and purpose. Some would say that Coke’s story is about happiness.

But stories are not all equal – there are different ways in which a narrative can progress. The mighty tome from Christopher Booker, ‘The seven basic plots’, is useful for giving ideas here. I’ll explore that further in my second blog post on story telling. This gives me licence to say ‘to be continued’….!

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August 13, 2016

The way things should be

Filed under: Business,Customer Service,Marketing,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 8:31 pm
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I am occasionally inspired to write stories about positive customer experiences.  It doesn’t happen that often, mind you.
This time it’s Amazon’s turn to be under the rosy spotlight. Let me tell you the story…..

Once upon a time, on Jan 3rd 2015, a lucky little girl was given a Kindle Fire as a belated Christmas period. She played happily on it through out the year, but sadly, during the Christmas holidays next year that much beloved Kindle was left on the floor and trod upon, cracking the screen so badly that it no longer worked. Kind Mummy decided to get in contact with Amazon to find out what could be done. She pressed the magic May Day button to talk to a nice helpful person, realising as she did so that it was exactly a year to the day that the Kindle had been first purchased – in other words just outside the 12 month warranty period.
Mummy spoke to Dee, explaining what had happened, being quite open about the fact that it was due to sloppy treatment that the Kindle stopped working. But lo and behold, Dee waved her wand and said that a new Kindle could be delivered to the little girl free of charge, but we just had to be patient and wait a few weeks for it to appear.
The days went by and turned into weeks. After less time than had originally been discussed, the little girl and her Mummy had a knock at the door and took in a big brown box. Quickly cutting open the box and then, without any fuss at all, unfolding the clever special packaging inside, which didn’t have any of that nasty sharp cutting plastic, the little girl and her Mummy found a lovely new (reconfigured) Kindle shining inside.
They lifted out the Kindle and switched it on. After just two minutes, by logging into her Amazon account and bringing up the profile of the little girl, Mummy was able to breathe a sigh of relief and handover a completely functional Kindle with all the games and apps and lovely things now all there to a now very content little girl. And they all lived happily ever after.

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July 1, 2016

Disrupt Yourself

Filed under: Business,Coaching,Innovation,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 9:48 pm
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Disrupt yourself

I have some confessions to make: in my first year of work, I often went to the library as an important way to get information and new ideas; and on one occasion I had to catch a late afternoon flight from Paris to take a VHS tape of an ad mock-up to the co-ordinating agency in London as the last Fedex delivery had been missed. There was no other way to get the creative work over. This was an analogue world and created tasks that now seem more than faintly ridiculous.

So it was with interest that I picked up my latest ‘worthy tome’ (part of my ongoing effort to broaden my reading matter beyond ‘story books’) had the catchy title of “Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work – Disrupt Yourself” by Whitney Johnson.

Sadly, the book disappointed. Though my opening anecdotes highlights I am only too deeply aware of the changing context in which we lead our working lives, none of this came through. It was a rather one-dimensional self-help book giving lots on the ‘how’ to bring changing into one’s professional life, but with little sense of the burning platform of ‘why’. To me, it would have been more compelling to also highlight the risk of redundancy of opting for stasis and certainty.

The introduction presents an interesting challenge – that of applying what is traditionally regarded as a business concept – the S curve – to individual experience. I have already read a book which used this ‘conceit’ of using business practices for personal problems to good effect (futures techniques to navigate personal life choices).  In ‘Disrupt Yourself’, there was less of a single-minded approach and more of a ‘pick and mix’ one to referencing examples/analogies from the business world as well as individual experiences. This links to another shortcoming – it suggests that personal disruption is more relevant for the more entrepreneurial, ie those who naturally conflate their professional development with the development of a business. What of those who those who aim to operate within the system? Or are they just redundant anyway?!

In a similar vein, I also would have liked examples of people who tried to change and it didn’t work; is disruption really for everyone? And what about negotiating forced disruption that is thrust upon you rather than proactively seeking it? Clearly, the latter sounds ‘better’ (more aspirational/what we know we should be doing), but there may be valuing in taking a softer approach to help others cope with unsought change.

Finally, I would like to highlight the connection between ‘Disrupt Yourself and another book I recently read about growth mind sets. Both present the importance and value to be gained from challenging oneself to continue to learn and make progress, but there are interesting differences of approach. Whilst the Dweck book is a eulogy to redefining failure as an important to step to improvement, Johnson gives more space to acknowledging how rubbish failure can actually feel in reality and that it can be worthwhile accepting this. In the chapter entitled ‘Give Failure Its Due’, she writes, “When I fail, I am mortified, but I am also heartbroken. I have envisioned a future in which I would achieve a goal, and perhaps be hailed as the conquering hero. And then I didn’t and I wasn’t. I have learnt it is important to grieve….We often think of loss of a marriage or a loved one, but there is also the loss we feel when a professional dream – even a small one – is dashed.” Thoughtful and though-provoking.

As a floating freelancer who has never bothered to set up their own company, I constantly need to reinvent myself as I chase after the latest opportunity/hot prospect, whether it is a project about shopper trends, international development or cancer care. Disrupt myself – indeed I must.

May 25, 2016

The Big Shop

Time for me to be ‘untrendy’. When we hear about how grocery shopping habits are changing, it’s all about ‘a little and often’ and how we are falling out of love with the big weekly shop.

Well, I would like to tell you about a recent visit I made to a new supermarket that is not all about convenience trips, but somewhere very big (80, 000 sq foot). It’s the Sainsbury’s store at Westwood Cross in Thanet, which opened in November 2014. As I have explored in other posts, Thanet is more worthy of exploration and evaluation than you might at first think on encountering a part of the country which is flat till it reaches the muddy grey sea and populated by people who are older and/or less affluent than their other Kentish peers.

Sainsbury land

I have been meaning to check out this Sainsbury’s for some time now as its arrival was heralded with much fanfare (it would create jobs, require changing the local road system, be the epitome of the latest and best in sustainable design etc). I found this nice leaflet online which helps to give a sense of how the store was a big deal. Note in particular the community initiatives – which I assume were meant to help make the new supermarket be part of the local scene, rather than to create a scene. But I must confess I am little underwhelmed by the employment of just one local construction management trainee and the donation of soil to a local campsite to help construct a new golf course!

Going inside the store itself was sadly also rather underwhelming. Walking through the threshold with a sense of great anticipation, past the plug-ins for electric vehicles (setting false expectations for something quite different), it was still a Sainsbury’s.

Sainsbury car park

This meant nice enough clothes and household goods, and nice food, but failing to give the impression of an emporium teeming with a rich abundance of exciting items. The aisles were very wide – not doubt good for avoiding trolley crashes – but it compounded the sense of emptiness you get from looking at shelves which could be fuller.

Sainsbury inside

However, it was not a fruitless journey as I did manage to find an item I had never come across before and wasn’t even looking for: giant couscous. Have you ever tried it? NB not worth the trip to Westcross!

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