December 18, 2015

Insight through fiction

Filed under: Consumer Trends,Demographics,Marketing — by xrematon @ 10:06 pm
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My preference for ‘story books’ over ‘fact books’, regardless of whether the latter are history, science or business, has always been strong. The value of making this choice has been vindicated by studies which have shown that those who read fiction are better at empathising.

Building on this idea, I was struck by the notion that reading a novel could act as a form of secondary research to help understand a consumer context. I happen to have just finished “Five Star Billionaire” by Tash Aw and feel my hypothesis can be illustrated with this particular novel, whilst also highlighting some interesting limitations.

This book is a recent publication (from 2013) and tells the tale of five migrant workers who come to make their fortunes in Shanghai. Reading the book provides a more engaging version of the insights I have been developing over the past 12 months of working on various Chinese consumer projects. For these projects, my research has been more traditional: analysis of consumer surveys, reading market reports, checking out online media etc.

“Five Star Billionaire” helps me to better understand concepts I had already grasped. Through the characters narrating their different stories, the novel shows how Shanghai is melting pot of individuals who have come from near and far to make it big in the big city.

However, the book does not touch on some significant issues relating to migrant status. Though the idea individuals may not wish to reveal where they really come from is an important part of the book, the difference in status between true Shanghai residents, who have more access to welfare and other social support, compared to those who are either illegal migrants from abroad or rural migrants, was not touched upon. Reform of the hukou system to address these issues is under way but many feel this needs to be sped up.

Another aspect to modern China that was present in the novel, but not explored for all its implications, is the rise of the economic power of women. Two out of the five characters are female and both reflect how women can progress rapidly in this dynamic society. Phoebe goes from being an illegal factory worker to the manager of a high end spa thanks to her determination and commitment to making the most of the opportunities around her. Yinghui is a successful business woman with a whole chain of enterprises to her credit. The phenomenon of ground-breaking women is true in reality. Half the world’s self-made female billionaires are Chinese.

However, interestingly, the book does not go on to explore the impact of modern urban lifestyles and great careers on social dynamics and societal structures. Women take longer to find a spouse, settle down and start a family; or else struggle to bring up their children in the city with them. Describing the lives of those ‘left-behind’ children who are kept in the rural areas to be brought up by close and not so close (often illiterate) relatives could be the stuff of a deeply engrossing but probably also deeply tragic story.

However, where reading “Five Star Billionaire” really came into its own was for developing a more nuanced understanding of personal progression. People have to start at the bottom of the pile.

“Here are some of the jobs her friends took in the year they left home. Trainee waiter. Assistant fake-watch stall-holder. Karaoke hostess. Assembly-line worker in a semi-conductor factory. Bar girl. Shampoo girl. Water-cooler delivery man. Seafood restaurant cleaner. “

The ambition and drive needed to succeed and fulfil one’s aspirations is well articulated

“That day Phoebe felt her life was awash with good feelings. She was dressed according to the rules of fashion that she had picked up from observing Shanghai women: wear the biggest possible sunglasses you can find, carry the largest handbag possible. The new attitude she had been cultivating was filling her with magnificent confidence.”

Whilst consumer surveys show that people are optimistic about their future and statistics reveal that wages and income are increasing, what doesn’t come across from these source of insight is that getting there is not always a straight path upwards. People slip and fall: one character was a successful pop star who suffered a breakdown and had to start over again; another was conned and lost all their savings; another decided they felt more comfortable going back to their old life in their village.

Reading fiction makes it clear that real life is more complicated than market intelligence would suggest. It doesn’t have all the answers – as discussed above – important aspects can be omitted – but it does help with the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’.



October 15, 2012


Filed under: Business,Coaching,Futures — by xrematon @ 8:37 pm
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Last month, I went to my first ever book launch of a good friend and ex-work colleague. This was very exciting in itself, but made even more so by the fact I was quoted in the volume. Tamar Kasriel, founder of Futureal, a consultancy which assists businesses shape their commercial strategies based on an understanding of future change, has written a volume which brings together two areas of expertise close to my own heart: scenario planning and personal planning/ coaching. Futurescaping is described as ‘an engaging guide to make better life decisions by adapting the best elements of business planning for personal success.’

It is a book which has no clear ‘home’: it’s about the tactics companies use, which suggests it should be in the business books section, but its purpose is to help people make better personal decisions, which tips it into the self-help section. It’s an intriguing identity crisis and one which reinforces a key argument of the book – namely that people who are successful in their professional lives rarely apply the same rigour to their personal lives – personal and professional spheres don’t mix very well.

As someone who generally much prefers reading fiction, Futurescaping was far more entertaining than I expected, due to Tamar’s dry humour, her eclectic selection of quotes and masterful command of the diverse topics. Rather than review or summarise the contents, let me make four observations.

  1. I learnt a new word: ‘eustress’ which is a counterpoint to ‘distress’ and a far more elegant way of saying ‘I got a kick out of sorting that mess.’
  2. The idea that we should wish to plan our lives is a rather Western way of thinking; I would be intrigued to see if the strategies and tactics described in Futurescaping could be applied in contexts where thinking is less teleological and structured. I worked in India for a year and it took me a while to get used to the far more fluid way of doing things there.
  3. Tamar recognises that there are limits to the type of decisions for which scenario planning can be used. ‘It is not suitable for questions which are wholly dependent on emotional impulses or philosophical differences.’ It works for decisions which require practical and rational evaluation. This makes me think about the value of fiction as a way of exploring the non-rational. In novels, we can get into someone’s head and it gives us an opportunity to see what it would be like to go through that situation. A recent article in the New York Times described recent neuroscience research which shows that reading evocative descriptions stimulates not just the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with senses.
  4. The idea that exploring the future can help you toughen up is very powerful – as articulated in a quote from an interview with Daniel Kahneman, behavioural economist. ‘One of the things that thinking deeply can do, even if it doesn’t lead to better decisions, is inoculate you against regret.’ I like the idea that what I might think of as worrying and turning over an idea endlessly in my mind is actually a good thing – a defence mechanism about any future ‘wimping out’.

Enough of this chat – it’s time for action. I am off to do some futurescaping on myself. I have post-its, big sheets of paper and coloured pens at the ready.


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