The Problem With Woke Capitalism

I’ve been talking a lot over the last month or two about the concept of corporate trust. Last week I mentioned that we as consumers have a role to play in this: It’s our job to demand trustworthy behavior from the companies we do business with.

The more I thought about that idea, I couldn’t help but put it in the current context of cancel culture and woke capitalism. In this world of social media hyperbole, is this how we can flex our consumer muscles?

I think not. When I think of cancel culture and woke capitalism, I think of signal-to-noise ratio. And when I look at how most corporations signal their virtue, I see a lot of noise but very little signal.

Take Nike, for example. There is probably no corporation in the world that practises more virtue signaling than Nike. It is the master of woke capitalism. But if you start typing Nike into Google, the first suggested search you’ll see is “Nike scandal.” And if you launch that search, you’ll get a laundry list of black eyes in Nike’s day-to-day business practices, including sweatshops, doping, and counterfeit Nike product rings.

The corporate watchdog site ethicalconsumer.org has an extensive entry on Nike’s corporate faux pas. Perhaps Nike needs to spend a little less time preaching and a little more time practicing.

Then there’s 3M. There is absolutely nothing flashy about the 3M brand. 3M is about as sexy as Mr. Wood, my high school Social Studies teacher. Mr. Wood wore polyester suits (granted, it was the ‘70s) and had a look that was more Elvis Costello than Elvis Presley. But he was by far my favorite teacher. And you could trust him with anything.

I think 3M might be the Mr. Wood of the corporate world.

I had the pleasure of working with 3M as a consultant for the last three or four years of my professional life. I still have friends who were and are 3Mers. I have never, in one professional setting, met a more pleasant group of people.

When I started writing this and thought about an example of a trustworthy corporation, 3M was the first that came to mind. The corporate ethos at 3M is, as was told me to me by one vice president, “Minnesota nice.”

Go ahead. Try Googling “3M corporate scandal.” Do you know what comes up? 3M investigating other companies that are selling knockoff N95 facemasks. The company is the one investigating the scandal, not causing it. (Just in case you’re wondering, I tried searching on ethicalconsumer.org for 3M. Nothing came up.)

That’s probably why 3M has been chosen as one of the most ethical companies in the world by the Ethisphere Institute for the last eight consecutive years.

Real trust comes from many places, but a social media campaign is never one of them. It comes from the people you hire and how you treat those people. It comes from how you handle HR complaints, especially when they’re about someone near the top of the corporate ladder. It comes from how you set your product research goals, where you make those products, who you sell those products to, and how you price those products. It comes from how you conduct business meetings, and the language that’s tolerated in the lunchroom.

Real trust is baked in. It’s never painted on.

Social media has armed consumers with a voice, as this lengthy essay in The Atlantic magazine shows. But if we go back to our signal versus noise comparison, everything on social media tends to be a lot of “noise,” and very little signal. Protesting through online channels tends to create hyper-virtuous bubbles that are far removed from the context of day-to-day reality. And — unfortunately — companies are getting very good at responding in kind. Corrupt internal power structures and business practices are preserved, while scapegoats are publicly sacrificed and marketing departments spin endlessly.

As Helen Lewis, the author of The Atlantic piece, said,

“That leads to what I call the “iron law of woke capitalism”: Brands will gravitate toward low-cost, high-noise signals as a substitute for genuine reform, to ensure their survival.”

Empty “mea culpas” and making hyperbolic noise just for the sake of looking good is not how you build trust. Trust is built on consistency and reliability. It is built on a culture that is committed to doing the right thing, even when that may not be the most profitable thing. Trust is built on being “Minnesota nice.”

Thank you, 3M, for that lesson. And thank you, Mr. Wood.

The Profitability Of Trust

Some weeks ago, I wrote about the crisis of trust identified by the Edelman Trust Barometer study and its impact on brands. In that post, I said that the trust in all institutions had been blown apart, hoisted on the petard of our political divides.

We don’t trust our government. We definitely don’t trust the media – especially the media that sits on the other side of the divide. Weirdly, our trust in NGOs has also slipped, perhaps because we suspect them to be politically motivated.

So whom — or what — do we trust? Well, apparently, we still trust corporations. We trust the brands we know. They, alone, seem to have been able to stand astride the chasm that is splitting our culture.

As I said before, I’m worried about that.

Now, I don’t doubt there are well-intentioned companies out there. I know there are several of them. But there is something inherent in the DNA of a for-profit company that I feel makes it difficult to trust them. And that something was summed up years ago by economist Milton Friedman, in what is now known as the Friedman Doctrine. 

In his eponymously named doctrine, Friedman says that a corporation should only have one purpose: “An entity’s greatest responsibility lies in the satisfaction of the shareholders.” The corporation should, therefore, always endeavor to maximize its revenues to increase returns for the shareholders.

So, a business will be trustworthy as long as fits its financial interest to be trustworthy. But what happens when those two things come into conflict, as they inevitably will?

Why is it inevitable, you ask? Why can’t a company be profitable and worthy of our trust? Ah, that’s where, sooner or later, the inevitable conflict will come.

Let’s strip this down to the basics with a thought experiment.

In a 2017 article in the Harvard Business Review, neuroscientist Paul J. Zak talks about the neuroscience of trust. He explains how he discovered that oxytocin is the neurochemical basis of trust — what he has since called The Trust Molecule.

To do this, he set up a classic trust task borrowed from Nobel laureate economist Vernon Smith:

“In our experiment, a participant chooses an amount of money to send to a stranger via computer, knowing that the money will triple in amount and understanding that the recipient may or may not share the spoils. Therein lies the conflict: The recipient can either keep all the cash or be trustworthy and share it with the sender.”

The choice of this task speaks volumes. It also lays bare the inherent conflict that sooner or later will face all corporations: money or trust? This is especially true of companies that have shareholders. Our entire capitalist ethos is built on the foundation of the Friedman Doctrine. Imagine what those shareholders will say when given the choice outlined in Zak’s experiment: “Keep the money, screw the trust.” Sometimes, you can’t have both. Especially when you have a quarterly earnings target to hit.

For humans, trust is our default position. It has been shown through game theory research using the Prisoner’s Dilemma that the best strategy for evolutionary success is one called “Tit for Tat.” In Tit for Tat, our opening position is typically one of trust and cooperation. But if we’re taken advantage of, then we raise our defences and respond in kind.

So, when we look at the neurological basis of trust, consistency is another requirement. We will be willing to trust a brand until it gives a reason not to. The more reliable the brand is in earning that trust, the more embedded that trust will become. As I said in the previous post, consistency builds beliefs and once beliefs are formed, it’s difficult to shake them loose.

Trying to thread this needle between trust and profitability can become an exercise in marketing “spin”: telling your customers you’re trustworthy, while you’re are doing everything possible to maximize your profits. A case in point — which we’ve seen repeatedly — is Facebook and its increasingly transparent efforts to maximize advertising revenue while gently whispering in our ear that we should trust it with our most private information.

Given the potential conflict between trust and profit, is trusting a corporation a lost cause? No, but it does put a huge amount of responsibility on the customer. The Edelman study has made abundantly clear that if there is such a thing as a “market” for trust, then trust is in dangerously short supply. This is why we’re turning to brands and for-profit corporations as a place to put our trust. We have built a society where we believe that’s the only thing we can trust.

Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England and the former governor of the Bank of Canada, puts this idea forward in his new book, “Value(s).” In it, he shows how “market economies” have evolved into “market societies” where price determines the value of everything. And corporations will follow profit, wherever it leads.

If we understand that fundamental characteristic of corporations, it does bring an odd kind of power that rests in the hands of consumers.

Markets are not unilateral beasts. They rely on the balance between supply and demand. We form half that equation. It is our willingness to buy that determine how prices are determined in Carney’s “market societies.” So, if we are willing to place our trust in a brand, we can also demand that the brand proves that our trust has not been misplaced, through the rewards and penalties built into the market. 

Essentially, we have to make trust profitable.

The Split-Second Timing of Brand Trust

Two weeks ago, I talked about how brand trust can erode so quickly and cause so many issues. I intimated that advertising and branding have become decoupled — and advertising might even erode brand trust, leading to a lasting deficit.

Now I think that may be a little too simplistic. Brand trust is a holistic thing — the sum total of many moving parts. Taking advertising in isolation is misleading. Will one social media ad for a brand lead to broken trust? Probably not. But there may be a cumulative effect that we need to be aware of.

In looking at the Edelman Trust Barometer study closer, a very interesting picture emerges. Essentially, the study shows there is a trust crisis. Edelman calls it information bankruptcy.

The slide in trust is probably not surprising. It’s hard to be trusting when you’re afraid, and if there’s one thing the Edelman Barometer shows, it’s that we are globally fearful. Our collective hearts are in our mouths. And when this happens, we are hardwired to respond by lowering our trust and raising our defenses.

But our traditional sources for trusted information — government and media — have also abdicated their responsibilities to provide it. They have instead stoked our fears and leveraged our divides for their own gains. NGOs have suffered the same fate. So, if you can’t trust the news, your leaders or even your local charity, who can you trust?

Apparently, you can trust a corporation. Edelman shows that businesses are now the most trusted organizations in North America. Media, especially social media, is the least trusted institution. I find this profoundly troubling, but I’ll put that aside for a future post. For now, let’s just accept it at face value.

As I said in that previous column, we want to trust brands more than ever. But we don’t trust advertising. This creates a dilemma for the marketer.

This all brings to mind a study I was involved with a little over 10 years ago. Working with Simon Fraser University, we wanted to know how the brain responded to trusted brands. The initial results were fascinating — but unfortunately, we never got the chance to do the follow-up study we intended.

This was an ERP study (event-related potential), where we looked at how the brain responded when we showed brand images as a stimulus. ERP studies are useful to better understand the immediate response of the brain to something — the fast loop I talk so much about — before the slow loop has a chance to kick in and rationalize things.

We know now that what happens in this fast loop really sets the stage for what comes after. It essentially makes up the mind, and then the slow loop adds rational justification for what has already been decided.

What we found was interesting: The way we respond to our favorite brands is very similar to the way we respond to pictures of our favorite people. The first hint of this occurred in just 150 milliseconds, about one-sixth of a second. The next reinforcement was found at 400 milliseconds. In that time, less than half a second in total, our minds were made up. In fact, the mind was basically made up in about the same time it takes to blink an eye.  Everything that followed was just window dressing.

This is the power of trust. It takes a split second for our brains to recognize a situation where it can let its guard down. This sets in motion a chain of neurological events that primes the brain for cooperation and relationship-building. It primes the oxytocin pump and gets it flowing. And this all happens just that quickly.

On the other side, if a brand isn’t trusted, a very different chain of events occurs just as quickly. The brain starts arming itself for protection. Our amygdala starts gearing up. We become suspicious and anxious.

This platform of brand trust — or lack of it — is built up over time. It is part of our sense-making machinery. Our accumulating experience with the brand either adds to our trust or takes it away.

But we must also realize that if we have strong feelings about a brand, one way or the other, it then becomes a belief. And once this happens, the brain works hard to keep that belief in place. It becomes virtually impossible at that point to change minds. This is largely because of the split-second reactions our study uncovered.

This sets very high stakes for marketers today. More than ever, we want to trust brands. But we also search for evidence that this trust is warranted in a very different way. Brand building is the accumulation of experience over all touch points. Each of those touch points has its own trust profile. Personal experience and word of mouth from those we know is the highest. Advertising on social media is one of the lowest.

The marketer’s goal should be to leverage trust-building for the brand in the most effective way possible. Do it correctly, through the right channels, and you have built trust that’s triggered in an eye blink. Screw it up, and you may never get a second chance.

The Deconstruction of Trust

Just over a week ago, fellow Insider Steven Rosenbaum wrote a post entitled “Trust Is In Decline Worldwide.” He quotes from the Edelman Trust Barometer Report for 2021. There, graph after graph shows this decline. And that feels exactly right. The Barometer “reveals an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world.”

Here in the ad biz, the decline of trust is nothing new. We’ve been seeing it slip for at least the last decade.

But that is not a universal truth. Yes, trust in advertising is in decline. But trust in brands — at least, some brands — has never been higher. And that is indicative of the decoupling we’re seeing between the concept of brand and the practice of advertising. One used to support the other. Now, even when an ad works, it may be stripping the trust from a brand.

This decline in advertising trust also varies from generation to generation. An Ofcom study in the UK of young adults 16 to 34 found that 91.6% of all respondents had little or no trust in ads. The same study found that if you were looking for trustworthy sources, 73.5% would go to online reviews or recommendations of friends.

One reason for this erosion in trust is that advertising has been slumming. Social media advertising is the least trustworthy channel that exists. The vast majority of us don’t trust what we see on it. Yet the advertising dollars continue to pour into social media.

Yet more than ever, we want to trust a brand. The Edelman Report shows that business is the most trusted institution, ahead of NGOs, government and media. And the brands that are rising to the challenge are taking a more holistic approach to brand management.

More than ever, brands are not built on advertising. They are built on consumer experience, on ideals and on meeting promises.  In short, they are built on instilling trust. Consumers, in turn are making trust a bigger deal. Those aged 18 to 34, that very same demo that has no trust in advertising, is the first to say brand trust matters more than ever. They’re just looking for proof of that trust in different places.

But why is trust important? That seems like a dumb question, but it’s not. There are deeper levels of understanding that are required here. And we might just find the answer in southern Italy.

Trust to the north and south of Naples

Italy has an economic problem. It’s always been there, but it definitely got worse after World War Two. It’s called the Mezzogiorno Problem.

Mezzogiorno means “noon” in Italian. But it’s also a label for the south of Italy. Like many things in Italian culture, it can make even problems sound charming and romantic. It has something to do with being sunny.

Italy has two economies. The North’s economy has always been more robust than the South’s. Per capita income in the Mezzogiorno is 60% of the national average. Unemployment is twice as high. Despite repeated attempts by the government to kickstart the economy of the South, the money and talent in Italy typically flow north of Naples.

The roots of the Mezzogiorno problem go to a not totally surprising place: a lack of trust. Trust is also called social capital. And southern Italy has less social capital than the North. Part of this has to do with geography. Villages in southern Italy are more isolated and there is less interaction between them. Part of it has to do with systemic corruption and crime. Part of it has to do with something called Campanilismo — where Italian loyalties belong first to their family, second to their village or city, third to their immediate region and, lastly, to any notion of belonging to a nation. People from the South have trouble trusting anyone not from their inner circle.

For all these reasons, the co-ops that transformed the agricultural industry in the north of Italy never gained a foothold in the South. If you were to look for an example of how low trust can lead to negative outcomes for all, it would be hard to find a better one than southern Italy.

But what does this have to do with advertising? That begins to become clear when we look at the impact trust has on our brains.

Our Brains On Trust

Neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak has found that trust plays a key role in the functioning of our brains. When trust is present, our brain produces oxytocin, which Zak calls the trust molecule. It literally rewards our brain when we work together with others. It pushes us to cooperate rather than be focused exclusively on our own self-interest. This is exactly what was missing in southern Italy.

But there’s another side to this: the dark side of oxytocin. It can also cause us emotional pain in stressful social situations. And these episodes tend to get embedded in us as bad memories, leading to a triggering of fear or anxiety in the future.

We have to think more carefully about this question of trust. The whole goal of advertising is simply to get an impression to the right person. I suspect most marketers might define an unsuccessful ad as one that gets ignored. But the reality might be far worse. An ad that is shown in an untrusted channel might cause an emotional deficit, leading to the creation of future anxiety about or animosity towards a brand.

Once this happens, the game is over. You now have a Mezzogiorno of marketing.

Why Free News is (usually) Bad News

Pretty much everything about the next week will be unpredictable. But whatever happens on Nov. 3, I’m sure there will be much teeth-gnashing and navel-gazing about the state of journalism in the election aftermath.

And there should be. I have written much about the deplorable state of that particular industry. Many, many things need to be fixed. 

For example, let’s talk about the extreme polarization of both the U.S. population and their favored news sources. Last year about this time, the PEW Research Center released a study showing that over 30% of Americans distrust their news sources. 

But what’s more alarming is, when we break this down by Republicans versus Democrats, only 27% of Democrats didn’t trust the news for information about politics or elections. With Republicans, that climbed to a whopping 67%. 

The one news source Republicans do trust? Fox News. Sixty-five percent of them say Fox is reliable. 

And that’s a problem.

Earlier this year, Ad Fontes Media came out with its Media Bias Chart. It charts major news and media channels on two axes: source reliability and political bias. The correlation between bias and reliability is almost perfect. The further a news source is out to the right or left, the less reliable it is.

How does Fox fare? Not well. Ad Fontes separates Fox TV from Fox Online. Fox Online lies on the border between being “reliable for news, but high in analysis/opinion content” and “some reliability issues and/or extremism.” Fox TV falls squarely in the second category.

I’ve written before that media bias is not just a right-wing problem. Outlets like CNN and MSNBC show a significant left-leaning bias. But CNN Online, despite its bias, still falls within the “Most Reliable for News” category. According to Ad Fontes, MSNBC has the same reliability issues as Fox.

The question that has to be asked is “How did we get here?”  And that’s the question tackled head-on in a new book, “Free is Bad,” by John Marshall.

I’ve known Marshall for ages. He has covered a lot of the things I’ve been writing about in this column. 

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” 

Upton Sinclair

The problem here is one of incentive. Our respective media heads didn’t wake up one morning and say, “You know what we need to be? A lot more biased!” They have walked down that path step by step, driven by the need to find a revenue model that meets their need for profitability. 

When we talk about our news channels, the obvious choice to be profitable is to be supported by ads. And to be supported by ads, you have to be able to target those ads. One of the most effective targeting strategies is to target by political belief, because it comes reliably bundled with a bunch of other beliefs that makes it very easy to predict behaviors. And that makes these ads highly effective in converting prospects.

This is how we got to where we are. But there are all types of ways to prop up your profit through selling ads. Some are pretty open and transparent. Some are less so. And that brings us to a particularly interesting section of Marshall’s book. 

John Marshall is a quant geek at heart. He has been a serial tech entrepreneur — and, in one of those ventures, built a very popular web analytics platform. He also has intimate knowledge of how the sausages are made in the ad-tech business. He knows sketchy advertising practices when he sees them. 

Given all of this, Marshall was able to undertake a fascinating analysis of the ads we see on various news platforms that dovetails nicely with the Ad Fontes chart. 

Marshall created the Ad Shenanigans chart. Basically, he did a forensic analysis of the advertising approaches of various online news platforms. He was looking for those that gathered data about their users, sold traffic to multiple networks, featured clickbait chumboxes and other unsavory practices. Then he ranked them accordingly.

Not surprisingly, there’s a pretty strong correlation between reputable reporting and business ethics. Highly biased and less reputable sites on the Ad Fontes Bias Chart (Breitbart, NewsMax, and Fox News) all can also be found near the top of Marshall’s Ad Shenanigans Chart. Those that do seem to have some ethics when it comes to the types of ads they run also seem to take objective journalism seriously. Case in point, The Guardian in the UK and ProPublica in the U.S.

The one anomaly in the group seems to be CNN. While it does fare relatively well on reputable reporting according to Ad Fontes, CNN appears to be willing to do just about anything to turn a buck. It ranks just a few slots below Fox in terms of “ad shenanigans.”

Marshall also breaks out those platforms that have a mix of paid firewalls and advertising. While there are some culprits in the mix such as the Daily Caller, Slate and the National Review, most sites that have some sort of subscription model seem to be far less likely to fling the gates of their walled gardens open to the ethically challenged advertising hordes. 

All of this drives home Marshall’s message: When it comes to the quality of your news sources, free is bad. As soon as something costs you nothing, you are no longer the customer. You’re the product. Invisible hand market forces are no longer working for you. They are working for the advertiser. And that means they’re working against you if you’re looking for an unbiased, quality news source.

Amazon Prime: Buy Today, Pay Tomorrow?

This column goes live on the most eagerly anticipated day of the year. My neighbor, who has a never-ending parade of delivery vans stopping in front of her door, has it circled on her calendar. At least one of my daughters has been planning for it for several months. Even I, who tends to take a curmudgeonly view of many celebrations, has a soft spot in my heart for this particular one.

No, it’s not the day after Canadian Thanksgiving. This, my friends, is Amazon Prime Day!

Today, in our COVID-clouded reality, the day will likely hit a new peak of “Prime-ness.” Housebound and tired of being bludgeoned to death by WTF news headlines, we will undoubtedly treat ourselves with an unprecedented orgy of one-click shopping. And who can blame us? We can’t go to Disneyland, so leave me alone and let me order that smart home toilet plunger and the matching set of Fawlty Towers tea towels that I’ve been eyeing. 

Of course, me being me, I do think about the consequences of Amazon’s rise to retail dominance. 

I think we’re at a watershed moment in our retail behaviors, and this moment has been driven forward precipitously by the current pandemic. Being locked down has forced many of us to make Amazon our default destination for buying. Speaking solely as a sample of one, I know check Amazon first and then use that as my baseline for comparison shopping. But I do so for purely selfish reasons – buying stuff on Amazon is as convenient as hell!

I don’t think I’m alone. We do seem to love us some Amazon. In a 2018 survey conducted by Recode, respondents said that Amazon had the most positive impact on society out of any major tech company. And that was pre-Pandemic. I suspect this halo effect has only increased since Amazon has become the consumer lifeline for a world forced to stay at home.

As I give into to the siren call of Bezos and Co., I wonder what forces I might be unleashing. What unintended consequences might come home to roost in years hence? Here are a few possibilities. 

The Corporate Conundrum

First of all, let’s not kid ourselves. Amazon is a for-profit corporation. It has shareholders that demand results. The biggest of those shareholders is Jeff Bezos, who is the world’s richest man. 

But amazingly, not all of Amazon’s shareholders are focused on the quarterly financials. Many of them – with an eye to the long game – are demanding that Amazon adopt a more ethical balance sheet.  At the 2019 Annual Shareholder Meeting, a list of 12 resolutions were brought forward to be voted on. The recommendations included zero tolerance for sexual harassment and hate speech, curbing Amazon’s facial recognition technology, addressing climate change and Amazon’s own environmental impact. These last two were supported by a letter signed by 7600 of Amazon’s own employees. 

The result? Amazon strenuously fought every one of them and none were adopted. So, before we get all warm and gooey about how wonderful Amazon is, let’s remember that the people running the joint have made it very clear that they will absolutely put profit before ethics. 

A Dagger in the Heart of Our Communities

For hundreds of years, we have been building a supply chain that was bound by the realities of geography. That supply chain required some type of physical presence within a stone’s throw of where we live. Amazon has broken that chain and we are beginning to feel the impact of that. 

Community shopping districts around the world were being gutted by the “Amazon Effect” even before COVID. In the last 6 months, that dangerous trend has accelerated exponentially. In a commentary from CNBC in 2018, venture capitalist Alan Patricof worried about the social impact of losing our community gathering spots, “This decline has brought a deterioration in places where people congregated, socialized, made friends and were greeted by a friendly face offering an intangible element of belonging to a community.”

The social glue that held us together has been dissolving over the past two decades. Whether you’re a fan of shopping malls or not (I fall into the “not” category) they were at least a common space where you might run into your neighbor. In his book Bowling Alone, from 2000, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam documented the erosion of social capital in America. We are now 20 years hence and Putnam’s worst case scenario seems quaintly optimistic now. With the loss of our common ground – in the most literal sense – we increasingly retreat to the echo chambers of social media. 

Frictionless Consumerism

This last point is perhaps the most worrying. Amazon has made it stupid simple to buy stuff. They have relentlessly squeezed every last bit of friction out of the path to purchase. That worries me greatly.

If we could rely on a rational marketplace filled with buyers acting in the best homo economicus tradition, then I perhaps rest easier, knowing that there was some type of intelligence driving Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. But experience has shown that is not the case. Rampant consumerism appears to be one of the three horsemen of the modern apocalypse. And, if this is true, then Amazon has put us squarely in their path. 

This is not to even mention things like Amazon’s emerging monopoly-like dominance in a formerly competitive marketplace, the relentless downward pressure it exerts on wages within its supply chain, the evaporation of jobs outside its supply chain or the privacy considerations of Alexa. 

Still, enjoy your Amazon Prime Day. I’m sure everything will be fine.

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.

Lee Iacocca and the Celebrity CEO

The recent passing of Lee Iacocca (on July 2) got me thinking about the celebrity CEO phenomenon. This is a sign of our times — our obsession with celebrity. Iacocca was not the first celebrity CEO, but he certainly ushered in a new era of personalized corporate brand building.

With Iacocca, having a bigger than life CEO went from being an oddity to a corporate expectation. In an article on Bloomberg.com, writer Joe Nocera notes, “Yes, there had been other famous corporate chieftains before Iacocca — John D. Rockefeller and Walt Disney come to mind — but they were the exceptions to the rule that CEOs should be low-key, boring even. Iacocca made it okay for a chief executive not just to gain fame, but to desire it.”

If you read any of the tributes to Iacocca, he is credited with:

  • Introducing the concept of auto loans
  • Creating the Ford Mustang
  • Introducing the Minivan
  • Saving Chrysler

But perhaps Iacocca’s biggest legacy was paving the way for celebrity CEOs who would follow in his footsteps. By stepping out from behind the mahogany desk and in front of the camera, he created the mold that would later turn out Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Elon Musk.

My intention is not to take anything away from these leaders. It’s just to put things in perspective.

How Much Influence Does a CEO Really Have?

We love a great story, and one of the foundations of a story has always been the hero. We find the hero’s journey a compelling narrative arc, and we tend to ascribe heroic qualities without necessarily making sure our anointed heroes have the right qualifications. This is certainly true in the corporate world.

Phil Rosenzweig’s extraordinary book, “The Halo Effect,” strips the compelling narratives away from corporate success stories. He urges us to take a more scientific approach to determining what really works. And when we apply some scientific rigor to the concept of a celebrity CEO, we find (according to two studies Rosenzweig cites in his book) that the actual influence of a leader on the success of a company is between 4% and 10%.

A 10% swing is nothing to sneeze at. It’s certainly statistically significant. And this is an average over a number of companies in the study. I suspect if one was to accurately measure the influence of a Steve Jobs or Lee Iacocca on their companies, it could be much higher.

But when we consistently confuse correlation and causation and automatically give a celebrity CEO all the credit for a company’s success, we could be making an attribution error. We are giving short shrift to all the other factors that may have led to that success. We are applying a simple answer to a complex question. And we humans tend to do that — a lot.

The Cult of Personality

When we make this mistake while looking backwards, it’s one thing. But when we move forward under this mistaken assumption, it’s quite another. We fall victim to the oversimplification of the “great man theory,” where we believe history can pivot on the capabilities of one person. We also run the very real risk of creating a cult of personality.

The idea of the personality cult came from a speech by former Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev. In it, he criticized the idealization of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. When a populace believes that one person has the power to right all wrongs, it confers on that person a frightening amount of authority. It also condones the mechanisms required to consolidate power in the hands of that person.

Wikipedia outlines the typical path that leads to a cult of personality:“(it) arises when a country’s regime – or, more rarely, an individual – uses the techniques of mass media, propaganda, the big lie, spectacle, the arts, patriotism, and government-organized demonstrations and rallies to create an idealized, heroic, and worshipful image of a leader, often through unquestioning flattery and praise.” 

Mistaking Charisma for Competency

Even if we do accept that the right person may make all the difference, we then come to the issue of how we’d recognize that person when we see them. Again, we run into the fallacy of the “Halo Effect.”

When we don’t have (or want) empirical evidence of a person’s competence, we look for a proxy signal for that competence. That’s why CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are generally two-and-a-half inches taller than the average American. Its why good-looking people are assumed to be kinder and more compassionate. And — if we’re looking for a leader — it’s why we believe charisma equals competency. We are often wrong about this. In fact, there’s probably a better chance that charisma goes hand in hand with sociopathy.  Oops.

I do believe that we have been blessed with some extraordinary corporate leaders. And some of these have deservedly become celebrities. Lee Iacocca was probably one of these.

But I also believe we are walking down a dangerous path when we believe this is the rule rather than the exception. To succeed in solving complex problems — which defines almost every problem we face — we need complex solutions. And those solutions almost never come in the form of one person. To believe they do is to ignore the true scope of the issue.

Is There Still Room In Today’s Marketing World For Rick Steves?

U.S. travel writer and TV personality Rick Steves is — well, there’s no really kind way to put this — a weenie.

His on-air persona (on “Rick Steves’ Europe”) is a mix of high school social studies teacher, khaki-clad accountant cracking Dad jokes — and the guy you get stuck next to at a museum lecture on 16th century Venetian architecture that your wife made you go to.

According to a recent profile in The New York Times, he’s “one of the legendary PBS superdorks — right there in the pantheon with Mr. Rogers, Bob Ross and Big Bird.”

Rick Steves is undoubtedly a nice guy — Ned Flanders (of “The Simpsons” fame) nice. He’s not the guy you’re going to invite to your stag party in Las Vegas — not unless you were planning a prank involving prostitutes, illicit drugs and an involuntary neck tattoo. But Ed Helms already had that role.

Despite all this — or perhaps because of it — Steves is one of the most trusted travel brands in the U.S. and Canada. His name appears prominently on countless guide books, podcasts, seminars, a weekly syndicated column and the perennially running PBS series.

It was the last of these that brought him top of mind for me recently. He was hosting a fund-raising marathon this past weekend on my nearest PBS affiliate, KCTS in Seattle. And as Steves good-naturedly bumbled his way through Tuscany, I asked myself this question: “Could Rick Steves be a start-up brand today?”

Yes, he is a successful brand, but could he become a successful brand from a standing start? In other words, can a weenie still win in today’s world?

Today, everything needs to be instantly shareable. Branding is all about virality. Things that live at the extremes are the ones that spread through social networks. We are more Kanye West and Kim Kardashian than we are Danny Kaye and Doris Day. That was then. This is now.

You can’t ignore the fact that Steves’ target market is well north of their 50thbirthday. They are the ones who still remember who Danny Kaye and Doris Day were. So I ask again: Is being passionate and earnest (two things Rick Steves undoubtedly is) enough to break our collective ennui in today’s hyperbolic world?

I ask this question somewhat selfishly, for I, too, am a weenie. I have long lived on the dorkish end of the spectrum. I like me a good dad joke (e.g., People in Athens hate getting up early. Because Dawn is tough on Greece). And I have to wonder. Can nice, decidedly un-cool people still finish first? Or  at least not last?

It’s an important question. Because if there is no longer room in our jaded awareness for a Rick Steves, we’re missing out on something very important.

Steves has won his trust the hard way. He has steadfastly remained objective and unsponsored. He provides advice targeted at the everyday traveler. He is practical and pragmatic.

And he is consistently idealistic, believing that travel pries open our perspective and makes us better, more tolerant people. This mission is proudly stated on his corporate website: “We value travel as a powerful way to better understand and contribute to the world in which we live. We strive to keep our own travel style, our world outlook, and our business practices consistent with these values.”

This is no “flash-in-the pan” brand bite crafted for a social share. This is a mission statement backed by over 40 years of consistent delivery to its ideals. It’s like Steves himself: earnest, sincere, thoughtful and just a little bit dorky.

If you ask me, the world could use a little less Kanye West and a little more Rick Steves.