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.


August 25, 2014

This is not an advertisement

Filed under: Consumer Trends,Marketing — by xrematon @ 6:34 am
Tags: , , , , ,

I have been doing some research around the area of content marketing. It’s a very active field with lots of going on. In fact, I would probably say it’s pretty hyped up at the moment. I don’t mean to deny its value (I actually think it has a lot going for it), but it strikes me that on many occasions people ‘do’ content marketing for the wrong reasons.
Those reasons relate to basic human nature. If your idea of content marketing is producing an online film to go viral (a presumptuous ambition to have in the first place), then you might think you are setting yourself up for having some fun and who wouldn’t want to do that? I don’t wish to claim expertise on what make something go viral, but an uncontroversial requirement is that it is enjoyable – think of the Tippex ad , or Old Spice , or Evian babies .
Another factor that makes content marketing alluring is that it helps you look cool. It lets the brand in question puts itself in the centre of what is getting everyone’s attention at that moment. The following is a telling quote from the editor of now abandoned People.co.uk site: “I want to put clients in the context of the zeitgeist.” Perhaps I am pushing it but I hope you get the idea.
I think the reality of content marketing is that it is a lot of hard work to do it well. Coca Cola, who are very very big on ‘content’ (check out this video to get their take on it), have ditched the standard corporate website for something that is very content rich. Instead, Coca Cola has the Journey, which featured more than 1,200 pieces of content in the first year – doing that is very different to updating some pages every week or so. And I haven’t even touched upon Coca Cola’s main marketing activity: all the ads, posts, tweets, films, events etc it carries out across the globe to keep people entertained and talking about and around the brand.
And having looked at many different examples of content marketing in an attempt to find case studies worth discussing, what are my favourites? Well, I must confess I am going to put in a plug for the unsexy but very useful supermarket magazines. It’s all too easy to forget they count as content marketing. They have been around for several decades now and are actually pretty huge. They are in the top ten of all most circulated magazines in the UK with the publications from Tesco and Asda at their head.
Supermarket magazines are not flashy but they are valued by their audience and give the impression they really get the world of their customers, pondering great unanswerables such as ‘how do I make healthy, tasty, inexpensive food on a daily basis’, ‘how I get through daily chores without losing it’, ‘how can my family and I make the most of our time together’ ad infinitum.
Pretty compelling stuff – at least it is to me – a sometime suburban housewife.

May 15, 2014

A trio of books on making decisions; two posts; part one

Here are the titles from my triumvirate of recent reading:

  • Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
  • The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Now, I should perhaps begin by making clear that reading these three books in succession wasn’t a planned act. It just so happened that they appeared together at the same time in our household – for which I blame my husband. I am not sure what motivated him to buy them. I do know he liked the fact these books would look good altogether on the book shelf.

Shelf harmony

And having read all three, I do think there is some value in taking this approach as they do – sort of – cover the same kind of territory. Reading them allows us to get a better understanding of how we make decisions, and what is the role of information, expertise and bias within this.

If I had to pick my favourite book, I might, somewhat controversially, choose ‘The Signal and the Noise’ (which actually has the lowest Amazon sales ranking out of the three). Why? Well, it opened my eyes to my ignorance in certain domains. In essence, it was thought-provoking and inspiring. For example, I knew that making weather forecasts was a bit hit and miss, but hadn’t grasped how much efforts goes into these forecasts, and how these are actually so much better than what we used to have. And did you know that most commercial weather forecasts have a ‘wet bias’ (a tendency to forecast more rain than will actually occur). As Silver explains,

‘People notice one kind of mistake – the failure to predict rain – more than another kind, false alarms. If it rains when it isn’t supposed to, they curse the weatherman for ruining their picnic, whereas an unexpectedly sunny day is taken as a serendipitous bonus.’

The chapter about chess was just simply a really fascinating story. It’s all about how Kasparov was beaten by the Deep Blue computer, possibly all because Deep Blue made a move that Kasparov could not understand. It turned out that the move was the result of a bug, which made Deep Blue play a random move, but to Kasparov, this was a sign of devastatingly superior intelligence which threw him off track for rest of the game.

However, I must confess that I did skim read the chapter on poker as I was too lazy to understand the principles of the game. This leads me to acknowledging that Gladwell was probably the most consistently readable. It seems, though, for some, this is readability is actually part of their ‘problem’ with Gladwell. Richard Posner, a prominent judge and academic, wrote in a review for the New Republic that ‘Blink is written like a book intended for people who do not read books.’ Ouch. http://www.newrepublic.com/article/blinkered

The learning one gets from ‘Blink’ is less satisfying than the edification that comes from ‘The Signal and the Noise’. It’s something to do with the fact that the basic premise behind ‘Blink’ – the value of snap judgements and the power of thinking without thinking – doesn’t turn out to be so easily validated. Using different examples, snap judgements are shown to have limitations. The Coke sip test, which led to the disastrous launch of new Coke, is perhaps of the most well known.

And what about Kahneman? This was perhaps the most venerable of the books. It is written by a Nobel Laureate after all, not some jumped up cultural commentator. All the reviews I have come across are glowing and reverential, but I found ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ to be the least engaging and most effort of all three.

Trying to understand why I feel this way, I decided that part of the problem is that points are made using abstract lab experiments as evidence, which is fine, but just doesn’t have the same impact as hearing about the messy and suddenly surprising facets of everday life you get in Silver and Gladwell. Another factor is that there are lots of terms and concepts to pick up, which I have no hope of remembering, and which thus ultimately feel redundant.

But perhaps, most significantly, was the thought lurking at the back of my mind that these are ideas which are already a bit familiar if you spent a lot of time reading and thinking about how people behave, as is the case if you are interested in consumers, communication and coaching. Communication is about exploiting the biases Kahneman points out, whilst coaching is about challenging people to think beyond them. I’ll spend more time on Kahneman in my next post.

What do I get out of having read all three? There is some overlap. Both Silver and Kahneman refer to Isiah Berlin’s idea of the Fox and the Hedgehog, whilst Kahneman references ‘Blink’ explicitly in his discussion about expert intuition. But more than overlap, there is some synergistic learning. Blink shows the power of snap judgements (for better and for worse) – it raises them to our consciousness. Kahneman shows how and why we are likely to use these snap judgements (System 1 thinking taking over, as per usual). Silver shows what happen when we consciously apply System 2 thinking, both to areas where snap judgements can happen, such as chess, or where it’s not really relevant, such as climate science.

These books made me wonder how judgements and decision making will change in the future. As is observed in both Kahneman and Silver, in a world of Big Data, sophisticated automated analysis and ubiquitous, unobtrusive algorithms, it could be thought that snap judgements will become less impactful. However, it’s not that simple. As Silver observes, knowing more can actually make life more difficult. ‘The same sciences that uncover the laws of nature are making the organisation of society more complex…The volume of information is increasing exponentially. But relatively little of this information is useful – the signal to noise ratio may be waning. We need better ways of distinguishing the two.’

It was never to going to be that simple.

September 21, 2012

Big means bad or big impact?

This post is a follow-up to my previous piece comparing innocent drinks and method. As part of my research on corporate behaviour, I found – to put it crudely – that it is no longer clear that small companies such as innocent can be thought of as ‘the goodies’ and big companies as ‘the badies’.

As highlighted in the earlier post, innocent set out to do things differently, and this included their approach to giving back. A couple of years after the business got going, innocent decided to give 46% of all profits to charity and nearly bankrupted the business. After that, they decided to set up a proper, organised charity – the innocent foundation. So far so good.

Things are a little more messy in terms of their record on sustainability. To be fair, a lot of this is due to the nature of the product – their smoothies are fresh which means they need to be kept chilled, adding to their carbon footprint, and are more perishable (and thus risk creating more waste) than their less tasty pasteurised peers. In addition, innocent prioritises the quality of the drink and the new tastes they offer, which has important implications for their sourcing policy as they themselves recognise:

Purchasing flexibility is important, we need to make sure we can buy the variety and quality and quantity of fruit that we need, and this is not always possible if we align ourselves to just one certification programme.

If we turn now to a very different company, Coca Cola, and look at what is happening there, it is clear that being big can mean useful scale. This is not to claim that Coca Cola is a beacon of virtue – it has had issues with how it treats workers in Colombia and how it uses water in India – but it is worth looking at the other ways in which how it operates can impact.

A good example is the rather ambitious five by twenty project, whose goal is to ‘empower the economic enablement of 5 million women entrepreneurs across our value chain by 2020.’ It’s about investing in women to get their business going – they are a critical part of Coca Cola’s micro-distribution strategy. They are getting training, support with important capital equipment such as solar panels, and mentoring.

In contrast to innocent, which is currently obliged to work with different suppliers, Coca Cola can also invest in supporting the farmers whose fruit they will use in their juices. This is what is happening in several places – for example in Haiti with Project Hope, and Uganda and Kenya with Project Nurture – projects which will involve many thousands of farmers. Again, it’s important to be clear these projects are not acts of charity – they make business sense for Coca Cola, as well as for the farmers involved. The aim is to improve the productivity of these farms through training, education and better access to financial support.

My final point is obvious – that Coca Cola and innocent are not at loggerheads – but all part of the same family. In April 2010, Coca Cola bought a share in innocent which has now increased to 58%, and without this investment, the company would have probably gone under. As Richard Reed, one the founders explains:

We say at the moment that we aren’t a business, we are a fruit distribution charity. It costs us more to run than we get from doing it. We lost money in 2008; we lost money in 2009; we lost money in 2010 and we are going to lose money again in 2011. Fact.’

Let’s see what happens next….

August 29, 2012

Compare and contrast: innocent vs method

Filed under: Business,Innovation,Marketing,Sustainability — by xrematon @ 4:00 pm
Tags: , ,

I have been doing some work looking at big businesses and thinking about which don’t really fit the corporate mould. It didn’t take long for innocent drinks and method cleaning products to come to mind. It’s interesting to compare the two organisations as they are, in some senses, similar, but in some fundamental aspects, very different.

Let’s start with what brings them together:

  • They were both started around the same time (approximately turn of the millennium).
  • Their founders were close friends; and middle class young men who weren’t that into their ‘proper jobs’ and had a passion to do something else.
  • Both companies had a clear vision that they wanted to do it their way and to challenge the status quo in their respective areas.
  • They started small but quickly grew, not only in terms of sales numbers, but also markets, staff and product range.
  • Both are now well established and well loved by their customers and the business world. They have developed consciously fun and quirky brands. They are more than simply a company that makes juices or cleaning products. Innocent has run fruitstock and method promotes happy cleaning and the people against dirty campaign.
  • They are shining examples to emulate – both have published business books on their principles and philosophies.
  • And obviously, they themselves are aware of the parallels and have connected on a number of occasions.

But what about the differences?

  • In a way, innocent has been a victim of its own success. It was so good that others in the sector have cottoned on and also had a go at producing lovely little drinks that are delightful and fresh.
  • Method products, however, still look very different to most of the offerings you would also find on the shelves at a general supermarket. And the only bit of language these products seem have picked up from method is the importance of smelling nice; but they don’t do non-toxic.
  • When you look into it, innocent’s business model and operations seem very challenging. Making fruit juices involves farming – which is a contested area with increasing concerns about land use, chemicals, and water scarcity – without forgetting transportation. The latter is a particular issue given that innocent products need to be chilled. These factors affect the bottom line: innocent recently described itself as a fruit transportation charity as it has been losing money for the past four years. It is no longer a private company – Coca Cola now has a majority stake in the business.
  • Method does not face these issues. It is still a private company with private investors.
  • And finally, you will find that we stay stocked up on method products in this household, but not innocent smoothies. Sorry, Fruit Towers doesn’t do it for me.

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