Quant vs Qual in the time of Crisis

Digesting reality is becoming more and more difficult. I often find myself gagging on it. Last Friday was a good example. I have been limiting my news intact for my own sanity, but Friday morning I went down the rabbit hole. Truth be told, I started doing some research for the post I was intending to write (which I will probably get to next week) and I was soon overwhelmed with what I was reading.

I’m beginning to suspect that we’re getting an extra dump of frightening news on Fridays as officials realize that it’s more difficult to enforce social distancing on weekends. Whether this is the case or not, I found my chest tightening from anxiety. My hands got shaky as I found myself clicking on frightening link after frightening link. Predictions scared the shit out of me. I was worried for my community and country. I was worried for myself. But most of all, I was worried for my kids, my wife, my dad, my in-laws and my family.

Fear and anxiety swamped my normally rational side. Intellect gave way to despair. That’s not a good mode for me. I have to run cool – I need to be rational to function. Emotions mentally shut me down.

So I retreated to the numbers. My single best source throughout this has been the posts from Tomas Pueyo – the VP of Growth at Course Hero. They are exhaustively researched statistical analyses and “what-if” models assembled by an ad-hoc team of rockstar quants. On his first post on March 10 –  “Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now” – Pueyo and his team nailed it. If everyone listened and followed his advice, we wouldn’t be where we are now. Similarly, his post on March 19 – “Coronavirus: The Hammer and The Dance” gave a tough but rational prescription to follow. His latest – “Coronavirus: Out of Many, One” – drills down on a state-by-state analysis of COVID in the US.

I’m not going to blow smoke here. These are tough numbers to read. Even the best-case scenarios would have been impossible to imagine just a few weeks ago. But the worst-case scenarios are exponentially more frightening. And if you – like me – needs to retreat to ration in order to keep functioning, this is the best rationale I’ve found for dealing with COVID 19. It’s not what we want to hear, but it’s what we must listen to.

In my marketing life, I always encouraged a healthy mix of both quantitative and qualitative perspectives in trying to understand what is real. I’ve said in the past: “Quantitative is watching the dashboard while you drive. Qualitative is looking out the windshield.”

I often find that marketers tend to focus too much on the numbers and not enough on the people on the other side of those numbers. We were an industry deluged with data and it made us less human.

Ironically, I now find myself on the other side of that argument. We have to understand that even our most trustworthy media sources are going to be telling us the stories that have the most impact on us. Whether you turn to Fox or CNN as your news source, we would be getting soundbites out of context that are – by design – sensational in nature. They may differ in their editorial slants, but – right or left – we can’t consider them representational of reality. They are the outliers.

Being human, we can’t help but apply these to our current reality. It’s called availability bias. It the simplest terms possible, it means that those things that are most in our face become our understanding of any given situation.

In normal times, these individual examples can heighten our humanity and make us a little less numb. They remind us of the relevance of the individual experience– the importance of every life and the tragedy of even one person suffering.

“If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy.
If millions die, that’s only a statistic.”

– Joseph Stalin

Normally, I would never dream of quoting Joe Stalin in a post. But these are not normal times. And the fact is, Stalin was right. when we start looking at statistics and mathematical modelling, our brain works differently. It forces us to use a more rational cognitive mechanism; one less likely to be influenced by emotion. And in responding to a crisis, this is exactly the type of reasoning required.

This is a time unlike anything any of us has experienced. In times like this, actions should be based on the most accurate and scientific information possible. We need the cold, hard logic of math as a way to not become swamped by the wave of our own emotions. In order to make really difficult decisions for the greater good, we need to distance ourselves from our own little bubbles of reality, especially when that reality is made up of non-representative examples streamed to us through media channels.

Two Timely Stories from my Royal 10 Typewriter

I love old typewriters. My favourite is a 1917 Royal Typewriter 10, made by the Royal Typewriter Company of New York, New York. It is a beautiful piece of engineering, with intricate and mysterious mechanical connections that are revealed by two bevelled glass windows in each side. It was made in a factory in Hartford, Connecticut. Ian Fleming wrote his Bond books on a Royal. Ernest Hemingway also used one.

My Royal 10 is pretty beaten up. There are parts missing and it’s far from functional. But that only adds to its gravitas and charm. It sits beside me in a special place in my office as I write this on an Apple MacBook Pro, circa 2018 – two examples of technical elegance separated by a century. I suspect – though – that the MacBook won’t be on anyone’s desk in 2120.

Last week, I told you about the Lost Generation. If I had been part of that generation, I would probably be writing this on that typewriter.  Today, I wonder what other stories it might have to tell. With that, I’d like to pick up where I left off last week and share two stories that I like to believe lie buried in the Royal 10’s mechanical magnificence. I hope they are two stories that have something to relate to us in our current reality.

First, the Royal 10 was introduced in 1914, the start of World War 1. It was Royal’s first “upright” design and, along with the Underwood 5, it would become a trusted workhorse for many, including news reporters. Much of the coverage of the war, and later, the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 – 1920, was probably hammered out on a Royal 10.

But here’s the interesting thing. The 10 represented a pinnacle of typewriter design. Other than cosmetic changes, the inner workings of typewriters didn’t change for decades after its introduction. That meant that most of the major developments of the next 20 years would also be written on a typewriter like the one that sits in my office.

As the world rolled out the ‘Teens and into the Twenties, my Royal was one of the few things that didn’t change. The double gut punch of a global war and a massive pandemic rocked the world back on its feet, but not for long. After a brief but deep recession in 1920 and 21, a global explosion of creativity and enterprise transformed everything. The Roarin’ Twenties ushered in technological revolutions on multiple fronts, including the automobile, aviation, movies, radio, telephones, electricity and medicine.

Society was radically transformed in the Twenties. Jazz and speakeasies flourished. Women marched for their rights. Culture was transformed by writers and artists that were both more liberal in their themes and more apt to criticize hypocrisy and greed. Art deco became the dominant design movement of the decade.

The story is this: after 6 years of devastation and destruction, the world entered 8 years of explosive creativity and change.

That brings me to the second story. The Royal Typewriter Company had to shift gears in 1940. The factory in Hartford no longer built typewriters. They began manufacturing machine guns, rifles, bullets, propellers and spare parts for airplane engines as part of American industry’s support of the war effort. They wouldn’t go back to building typewriters until September 1945.

You, like me, may have become tragically addicted to pandemic models that show the importance of flattening the curve. These models have one thing in common, a flat horizontal line that represents our current capacity to handle the crisis.

But is that line necessarily flat? Just like the Royal Company in 1940, industry is once again ramping up to defeat a common enemy. This time, it’s face masks instead of machine guns; ventilators instead of propellers. The output is different, but the motivation is the same: we can beat this thing.

Again, history may provide us a little perspective. In 1939, the US was the furthest thing imaginable away from being ready to go to war. General George Patton was given command of a unit of 325 tanks that were desperately in need of nuts and bolts in order to keep working. After unsuccessfully trying to order through official channels he ended up ordering from a Sears catalogue and paying for them himself. The American army was so short of equipment that it would borrow Good Humor ice cream trucks to stand in as tanks when they practiced military manoeuvres.

Despite this, by 1945, American industry had produced two-thirds of all the weapons and equipment used by the Allies to win the war. That happened because thousands of companies like the Royal Typewriter Company unified behind a common goal. Chief Executives worked for a $1.00 a year. Volunteer laborers worked double shifts. Factories retooled their production lines. Capacity expanded exponentially when it had to because it’s not a static flat line.

I think my Royal 10 is trying to tell me two things. One I need to remember going into this crisis, and one for when we eventually come out of it.

First, we can do amazing things in the face of incredible adversity when we have to. We just need a little time to be our best.

And secondly, humans tend to bounce higher when we’re on the rebound from adversity.

A Lesson Learned from the Lost Generation

“I wasn’t around for Y2K. Was it like this?”

The question was posed to me by a young man named Jeremy – about 18 or 19 – who brought the online order of groceries to my car. He had just been telling me how store employees had been scrambling to stay ahead of items people were starting to hoard so they could post limits to prevent the shelves being stripped bare. On this day, it was bread. He shook his head, unable to wrap it around people’s panic. He was trying to relate it to something that could serve as a baseline.

My initial reaction to his question was to laugh. Y2K was a nothingburger. We panicked, we nervously rang in the New Year of 2000, and then we laughed sheepishly and went on with life.

This is different. On so many levels. I told that to Jeremy. “I have been around for almost 60 years. I have never experienced anything like this before.”

I’ve been thinking about that conversation a lot since. In Jeremy’s short time here on the planet, he probably has never experienced true hardship. But then, neither have I. Not really. Not like what we’re about to experience.

If you were to plot a trendline of my life over the last 6 decades, it would overwhelmingly be up and to the right. Sure, there were blips. But it’s been a pretty damned good 60 years. For me, hardship has been defined by putting off a trip because I couldn’t afford it. Or buying a used car when I wanted a new one. Poor me.

In the writing of this, I tried to find some formula to put magnitude of significance to events like this. I couldn’t find one, so I made my own:

Personal Impact X Number of People Impacted X Duration of Impact

The Pew Research Center asked Americans to rank the most significant events of their lifetimes in 2016. If we just look at those events that were negative, they were 9/11 (by a significant margin), the JFK assassination and the Vietnam War.

But now let’s attempt to quantify the magnitude of significance. When I say personal impact, I’m not talking about emotional impact. I’m talking about material impacts on my life that are directly attributable to the event.

My heart broke on 9/11, just like all of yours. That day would change my perspective on many things. But in real terms, it didn’t shift my life in any significant ways. There was tightened security when I travelled, but that was about it. This in no way minimizes the tragedy of the event. I know it was excruciatingly real for some of you reading this. I’m just putting it in perspective for myself.

This will be different. There is a shit-ton of uncertainty about what lies ahead, but I’m pretty sure all our lives are going to change significantly for the next 18 months to 2 years at least.  And it will impact everyone in the world. The vast majority of us have never been through anything like this before.  But others have. In fact, a whole generation has. Unfortunately, none of them are around to talk to. They were called the Lost Generation.

My Grandfather was part of this generation. Officially, those belonging to the Lost Generation were born between 1883 and 1900. Charles Edward Hotchkiss was born in Herefordshire, England in 1888. He died in Ontario, Canada in 1955, at the age of 67. He was just 8 years older than I am today. Given what we’re going through currently, I stopped to think about what “Charlie” experienced in his lifetime.

In 1910, he boarded the SS Lake Champlain in Liverpool and came to Canada. He was 21. Four years later, he volunteered for service in World War I. In the next 4 years, 9 million soldiers would die, 21 million would be wounded (my grandfather was one of them), 7 million would be left permanently disabled. 10 million civilians also died.

Those numbers are staggering, but an even deadlier and more significant event was just getting started in 1917. Today, we remember it as the Spanish Flu but that is a misnomer. It was called that because early reporting of the severity of the influenza pandemic was censored in wartime Europe for fear that troops would panic and desert. The only country where reporting was somewhat accurate was in neutral Spain, which led to the mistaken notion that the impact was worse there than anywhere else. By the time the epidemic subsided in 1920, somewhere between 50 and 100 million people would die. It had infected 500 million people, a quarter of the world’s population.

This was the reality newly discharged Charlie came back to when he stepped off the boat in Halifax on September 14, 1919. He was 31.

Charlie married my grandmother, Rose, in 1926. Three years later, the world slipped into the Great Depression. Half of all banks in the US failed. Unemployment spiked to 25%. International trade collapsed by 65%. Millions became homeless migrants. And it would continue like this for the next 10 years. In the middle of all this – in 1935 – Charlie and Rose had a baby. It was my father, William Francis Hotchkiss.

When my dad was just 4, World War II started. My grandfather, who was 50, was too old to actively serve but the impact of the war was still immense on Rose, William and Charlie. Over the next 6 years, 100 million people would be directly impacted from more than 30 countries. It is estimated 20 million military personnel and 40 million civilians would die in those 6 years.

These events, any one of which would be staggering to us, were packed into just 3 decades. I tried to imagine myself going through that from 1990 to today. I couldn’t.

Sometimes, when you can’t see forward, it’s helpful to look back. When I did that, I realized we’re a pretty resilient species. The Lost Generation laid the foundation for the world we live in today. They weathered storm after storm after storm. They made it through. They raised families, started businesses and survived.

It will get hard for us. Really hard. It’s a definition of hardship many of us will be dealing with for the first time in our lives. But we go into this with technological and societal advantages the Lost Generation never had or could even dream of. We should be able to do this without falling apart.

We come from good stock.

Want Solid Covid-19 Information? Here is What I've Found

If you’re a statistical “what if” type of person, I can relate. I’ve been doing a lot of that over the last week or two. I’ve found some tools and resources that are heavy on statistical probability and solid information rather than panicked hyperbole or “head in the sand” denial. I thought I’d share them with you.

Updated Numbers

The one source I’ve been following the longest is Worldometer’s Coronavirus page, which is updated daily.

You can drill down to breakdowns for most countries. I’ve been particularly looking at results in example countries that are ahead of us on the curve: on the plus side: China and South Korea. On the negative side: Italy and Spain. The US has further breakdowns by state. Keep on eye on Washington, which will be soon getting to the point where they’ll see if their efforts at lockdown are being effective. Governor Jay Inslee did a statewide lockdown on March 15, the first state to do so. What we want to see if that starts “bending the curve” in the right direction. We should start to see trends in the next week or so.

One note of caution on looking at these numbers. You have to factor in the ramp up of testing, which will identify many more new cases. While this looks scary, it’s very much a good thing. Increased testing is one of the most important steps in slowing down the spread.

Canadian Specific Numbers

Canada does not have a province by province breakdown on Worldometer. The best site I’ve seen for Canada is from the Globe and Mail.

This tool does offer provincial breakdowns. Again, we want to be watching the daily new case graphs to see if the curve starts to bend. Provinces that were leaders in this regard are the ones that have been hit the hardest: BC, Ontario and Alberta. In BC we’ve been stepping towards total lock down for the last week or so. On Friday, we finally shut all restaurants, so we’re about a week behind Washington State in this regard. Ontario was a little bit ahead of us.

Other Trackers

Bing

If you prefer a map-based interface, other tools you might want to check out are Bing’s Covid Tracker:

Bing has done a nice job here, particularly if you’re in the US. You can drill down to very specific location based tracking if you’re American. It’s less useful for Canadians. I also want to see new case incident rates, which are missing.

Google

New on the scene is Google’s Covid Tracker

To be honest, I was expecting a lot more from Google. I know it’s just been rolled out, but Bing is miles ahead in functionality

Bottom Line

If you want to see what might happen, you need to drill down on locations that were aggressive in implementing lockdowns and see what is happening there on a day by day – new cases and new deaths – basis. Remember, there is a 7 – 14 day incubation period, so you need to factor that in. Social distancing and Shelter at Home strategies will take 2 to 3 weeks to show up on these graphs.

Sound Statistics and Modelling

Tomas Pueyo has done an absolutely stellar job of taking available information and modelling out what we might expect to see. In two posts on Medium, he has knocked it out of the park. If you need some solid statistical arguments why you should keep your ass on your couch, you’ll find it here. The first post came on March 10. It convinced me to “shelter at home”.

(By the way, I’ll be using terms around which there is a lot of confusion currently. See this guide about what these terms mean)

Pueyo, who is the VP of Growth at Course Hero, has basically assembled a team of academics, health authorities and quants to “hack” an approach to saving our collective lives. His original post has been read over 40 million times and has been translated into over 30 languages. The science is sound here. His message is straight forward and urgent: stay the fuck home.

The first post, published March 10, is entitled: Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now:

The second post from March 19 is called: Coronovirus: The Hammer and The Dance

Neither of these posts are easy reading, but it is essential that you do. Pueyo does get into the weeds on his statistical reasoning, but it’s the best analysis I’ve seen about what we might expect.

Statistical Models

The final resource I’ll point you to are a few statistical models I’ve found that allow you to do some what-if modelling for your own circumstances. By far the best is the Epidemic Calculator on Github:

It looks a little daunting at first, but there are really only a few adjustments you need to make. On the bottom, you can leave almost everything in the default position. The inputs are based on the latest information we have on Covid-19. The one you might want to change is the Population input. Set this for your home country, region or even city if you want.

What you want to change are the two slider controls on the top, the Intervention Threshold and the Rt Factor. These two work together, one the timing of actions and the other the severity of actions. The R factor is the transmission rate (Pueyo talks about this extensively). It appears that Covid currently has an R factor of about 2.2, which means that every infected person will infect 2.2 other people. What we want is to get that under 1. Until we do that, the disease spreads exponentially.

Drag the Intervention slider to see the impact of delaying action. Then adjust the slider to the right to see why staying at home is so important. If anything drove it home for me, this did.

There are other models out there. If you like Canadian Content in your statistical models, there is also this one from Memorial University:

Why is This Important?

The biggest problem with what we’re about to go through is the tendency to either panic or to not be aware of the urgency of the situation. Both can be equally dangerous.

It’s so important to know what might come. We have a couple of significant obstacles in this regard:

The Cause/Effect Gap

First, we are dealing with the incubation lag, that frustrating delay between what we do today and when we begin to see the payoff from it. For me, statistical analysis is the best way to drive that point home. With it, its abundantly clear to see why we need to act now and act aggressively.

The Things We Can’t See

The other problem is underestimating the number of people that are already infected. Remember, some of those infected may never show symptoms but still be contagious. Others will show symptoms at 5 or 6 days but will be contagious before that. You can’t look at the number of confirmed cases in your area and get any feeling of security from that. You can be sure the number of actual infections is much higher. This was the same dangerous path that Italy and Spain went down.

For me this has been a roller coaster ride. I need information – good information that’s grounded in fact based research and reasoning. There is far too much bad information out there. That is why I wanted to share these resources. As near as I can tell, this will give you the best baseline of where we’re at and what we need to do going forward. It is scary shit. So the last thing I’ll leave with are some tips of how to cope when it all gets too much: a conversation with psychologist and mental health expert Dr. Reyman Abdulrehman.

Whipped Into a Frenzy

Once again, we’re in unprecedented territory. According to the CDC – COVID-19 is the first global pandemic since the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. While Facebook was around in 2009, it certainly wasn’t as pervasive or impactful as it is today. Neither – for that matter – was H1N1 when compared to COVID-19. That would make COVID-19 the first true pandemic in the age of social media.

While we’re tallying the rapidly mounting human and economic costs of the pandemic on a day-by-day basis, there is a third type of damage to consider. There will be a cognitive cost to this as well.

So let’s begin by unpacking the psychology of a pandemic. Then we’ll add the social media lens to that.

Emotional Contagion aka “The Toilet Paper Syndrome”

Do you have toilet paper at your local store? Me neither. Why?

The short answer is that there is no rational answer. There is no disruption in the supply chain of toilet paper. If you were inclined to stock up on something to battle COVID-19, hand sanitizer would be a much better choice.  Search as you might, there is no logical reason why people should be pulling toilet paper by the pallet full out of their local Costco.

There is really only one explanation; panic is contagious. It’s called emotional contagion. And there is an evolutionary explanation for it. We evolved as herd animals and when our threats came from the environment around us, it made sense to panic when you saw your neighbor panicking. Those that were on the flanks of the herd acted as an early warning system for the rest. When you saw panic close to you, the odds were very good that you were about to be eaten, trampled or buried under a rockslide. We’re hardwired to live by the principle of “Monkey see, monkey do.”

Here’s the other thing about emotional contagion. It doesn’t work very well if you have to take time to think about it. Panicked responses to threats from your environment will only save your life if they happen instantly. Natural selection has ensured they bypass the slower and more rational processing loops of our brain.

But now let’s apply the social media lens to this. Before modern communication tools were invented, emotional contagion was limited by the constraints of physical proximity. It was the original application of social distancing. Emotions could spread to a social node linked by physical proximity, but it would seldom jump across ties to another node that was separated by distance.

Then came Facebook, a platform perfectly suited to emotional contagion. Through it, emotionally charged messages can spread like wildfire regardless of where the recipients might be – creating cascades of panic across all nodes in a social network.

Now we have cascades of panic causing – by definition – irrational responses. And that’s dangerous. As Wharton Management professor Sigal Barsade said in a recent podcast, “I would argue that emotional contagion, unless we get a hold on it, is going to greatly amplify the damage caused by COVID-19”

Why We Need to Keep Calm and Carry On

Keep Calm and Carry On – the famous slogan from World War II Britain – is more than just a platitude that looks good on a t-shirt. It’s a sound psychological strategy for survival, especially when faced with threats in a complex environment. We need to think with our whole brain and we can only do that when we’re not panicking.

Again, Dr. Barsade cautions us “One of the things we also know from the research literature is that negative emotions, particularly fear and anxiety, cause us to become very rigid in our decision-making. We’re not creative. We’re not as analytical, so we actually make worse decisions.”

Let’s again consider the Facebook Factor (in this case, Facebook being my proxy for all social media). Negative emotional messages driven by fear gets clicked and shared a lot on social media. Unfortunately, much of that messaging is – at best – factually incomplete or – at worst – a complete fabrication. A 2018 study from MIT showed that false news spreads six times faster on social media than factual information.

It gets worse. According to Pew Research, one in five Americans said that social media is their preferred source for news, surpassing newspapers. In those 18 -to 29, it was the number one source. When you consider the inherent flaws in the methodology of a voluntary questionnaire, you can bet the actual number is a lot higher.

Who Can You Trust?

Let’s assume we can stay calm. Let’s further assume we can remain rational. In order to make rational decisions, you need factual information.

Before 2016, you could generally rely on government sources to provide trustworthy information. But that was then. Now, we live in the reality distortion field that daily spews forth fabricated fiction from the Twitter account of Donald. J. Trump, aka the President of the United States.

The intentional manipulation of the truth by those we should trust has a crippling effect on our ability to respond as a cohesive and committed community. As recently as just a week and a half ago, a poll found that Democrats were twice as likely as Republicans to say that COVID-19 posed an imminent threat to the U.S. By logical extension, that means that Republicans were half as likely to do something to stop the spread of the disease.

My Plan for the Pandemic

Obviously, we live in a world of social media. COVID-19 or not, there is no going back. And while I have no idea what will happen regarding the pandemic, I do have a pretty good guess how this will play out on social media. Our behaviours will be amplified through social media and there will be a bell curve of those behaviors stretching from assholes to angels. We will see the best of ourselves – and the worst – magnified through the social media lens.

Given that, here’s what I’m planning to do. One I already mentioned. I’m going to keep calm. I’m going to do my damnedest to make calm, rational decisions based on trusted information (i.e. not from social media or the President of the United States) to protect myself, my loved ones and anyone else I can.

The other plan? I’m going to reread everything from Nassam Nicholas Taleb. This is a good time for all of us to brush up on our understanding of robustness and antifragility.

Bubbles, Bozos and the Mediocrity Sandwich

I spent most of my professional life inside the high-tech bubble. Having now survived the better part of a decade outside said bubble, I have achieved enough distance to be able to appreciate the lampooning skills of Dan Lyons. If that name doesn’t sound familiar, you may have seen his work. He was the real person behind the Fake Steve Jobs blog. He was also the senior technology editor for Forbes and Newsweek prior to being cut loose in the print media implosion. He later joined the writing staff of Mike Judge’s brilliant HBO series Silicon Valley.

Somewhere in that career arc, Lyons briefly worked at a high tech start up.  From that experience, he wrote Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start Up Bubble.” It gives new meaning to the phrase “painfully funny.”

After being cast adrift by Forbes, Lyons decided to change his perspective on the Bubble from “outside looking in” to “inside looking out.” He wanted to jump on the bubble band wagon, grab a fistful of options and cash in. And so he joined HubSpot as a content producer for their corporate blog. The story unfolds from there.

One particularly sharp and insightful chapter of the book recalls Steve Job’s “Bozo Explosion”:

“Apple CEO Steve Jobs used to talk about a phenomenon called a ‘bozo explosion,’ by which a company’s mediocre early hires rise up through the ranks and end up running departments. The bozos now must hire other people, and of course they prefer to hire bozos. As Guy Kawasaki, who worked with Jobs at Apple, puts it: ‘B players hire C players, so they can feel superior to them, and C players hire D players.’ “

The Bozo Explosion is somewhat unique to tech start-ups, mainly because of some of the aspects of the culture I talked about in a previous column. But I ran into my own version back in my consulting career. And I ran into it in all kinds of companies. I used to call it the Mediocrity Sandwich.

The Mediocrity Sandwich lives in middle management. I used to find that the people at the C Level of the company were usually pretty smart and competent (that said, I did run across some notable exceptions in my time). I also found that the people found on the customer facing front lines of the company were also pretty smart and – more importantly – very aware of the company’s own issues.

But addressing those issues invariably caused a problem. You have senior executives who were certainly capable of fixing the problems, whatever they might be. And you had front line employees who were painfully aware of what the problems were and motivated to implement solutions. But all the momentum of any real problem-solving initiative used to get sucked out somewhere in the middle of the corporate org chart. The problem was the Mediocrity Sandwich.

You see, I don’t think the Bozo Explosion is so much a pyramid – skinny at the top, broad at the bottom – as it is an inverted U-Shaped curve. I think “bozoism” tends to peak in the middle. You certainly have the progression from A’s to B’s to C’s as you move down from the top executive rungs. But then you have the inverse happening as you move from Middle Management to the front lines. The problem is the attrition of competence as you became absorbed into the organization. It’s the Bozo Explosion in reverse.

I usually found there was enough breathing room for competence to survive at the entry level in the organization. There were enough degrees of separation between the front line and the from the bozos in middle management. But as you started to climb the corporate ladder, you kept getting closer to the bozos. Your degree of job frustration began to climb as they had more influence over your day-to-day work. Truly competent players bailed and moved on to a less bozo-infested environment. Those that remained either were born bozos or had “bozo”ness thrust upon them. Either way, as you climbed towards middle management, the bozo factor climbed in lock step. The result? A bell curve of bozos centered in the middle between the C-Level and the front lines.

This creates a poisonous outlook for the long-term prospects of a company. Eventually, the C level executive will age out of their jobs. But who will replace them? The internal farm team is a bunch of bozos. You can recruit from outside, but then the incoming talent inherits a Mediocrity Sandwich. The company begins to rot from within.

For companies to truly change, you have to root out the bozo-rot, but this is easier said than done. If there is one single thing that bozos are good at, it is bozo butt-covering.

What Happens When A Black Swan Beats Up Your Brand

I’m guessing the word Corona brings many things to your mind right now — and a glass full of a ice-cold beer may not be one of them. A brand that once made us think of warm, sunny beaches and Mexican vacations on the Mayan Riviera now is mentally linked to a global health crisis. Sometimes the branding gods smile on you in their serendipity, and sometimes they piss in your cornflakes. For Grupo Modelo, the makers of Corona beer, the latter is most definitely the case.

As MediaPost Editor Joe Mandese highlighted in a post last week, almost 40% of American beer drinkers in a recent poll would not buy Corona under any circumstances. Fifteen percent of regular Corona drinkers would no longer order it in public. No matter how you slice those numbers, that does not bode well for the U.S.’s top-selling imported drink.

It remains to be seen what effect the emerging pandemic will have on the almost 100-year-old brand. Obviously, Grupo Modelo, the owners of the brand, are refuting that there is any permanent damage. But then, what else would you expect them to say?  There’s a lot of beer sitting on shelves around the world that is waiting to be drunk. It’s just unfortunate it has the same name as a health crisis that so far is the biggest story of this decade.

This is probably not what the marketing spin doctors at Grupo Modelo want to hear, but a similar thing happened about 40 years ago.  Here is the story of another brand whose name got linked to the biggest health tragedy of the 1980s.

In 1946 the Carlay Company of Chicago registered a trademark for a “reducing plan vitamin and mineral candy” that had been in commercial use for almost a decade. The company claimed that users of the new “vitamin” could “lose up to 10 pounds in 5 days, without dieting or exercising.” The Federal Trade Commission soon called bullshit on that claim, causing the Carlay Company to strip it from its marketing in 1944.

Marketing being marketing, it wasn’t the vitamins in this “vitamin” that allegedly caused the pounds to melt away. In the beginning, it was something that chemists call benzocaine. That’s a topical anesthetic you’ll also find it in over-the-counter products like Orajel. Basically, benzocaine numbed the tongue. The theory was that a tongue that couldn’t taste anything would be less likely to crave food.

The active ingredient was later changed to phenylpropanolamine, which was also used as a decongestant in cold medications and to control urinary incontinence in dogs. In the ‘60s and ’70s, it became a common ingredient in many diet pills. Then it was discovered to cause strokes in young women.

The Carlay Company eventually became part of the Campana Corporation, which in turn was sold to Purex. The product morphed from a vitamin to a diet candy and was sold in multiple flavors, including chocolate, chocolate mint, butterscotch and caramel. If you remember Kraft caramels — little brown cubes packaged in clear cellophane — you have a good idea what these diet candies looked like.

Despite the shaky claims and dubious ingredients, the diet candies became quite popular. I remember my mother, who had a lifelong struggle with her weight, usually had a box of them in the cupboard when I was growing up. Sale hit their peak in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. There were TV ads and celebrity endorsers — including Bob Hope and Tyrone Power — lined up to hawk them.

Then, in 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a report about five previously healthy men who all became infected with pneumocystis pneumonia. The odd thing was that this type of pneumonia is almost never found in healthy people. There was another odd thing. All five men were gay. In 1982, the CDC gave a name to this new disease: AIDS.

Of all the ways AIDS changed our world in the 1980s, one was particularly relevant to the marketers of those diet candies, which just happened to be named Ayds.

You can see the problem.

Ayds soldiered on until 1988, despite sales that dropped 50%. The company tried to find a new name, including Diet Ayds and Aydslim in the U.K. It was too little, too late. The candies were eventually withdrawn from the market.

Does this foretell the fate of Corona beer? Perhaps not. AIDS has been part of our public consciousness for four decades. A product with a similar sounding name didn’t stand a chance. We can hope that coronavirus will not have the same longevity. And the official name of the outbreak has now been changed to Covid19. For both these reasons, Corona — the beer — might be able to ride out the storm caused by corona, the virus.

But you can bet that there are some pretty uncomfortable meetings being held right now in the marketing department boardroom at Grupo Modelo.