Thinking Beyond the Brand

Apparently boring is the new gold standard of branding, at least when it comes to ranking countries on the international stage. According to a new report from US News, the Wharton School and Y&R’s BAV Group, Canada is the No. 2 country in the world. That’s right – Canada – the country that Robin Williams called “a really nice apartment over a meth lab.”

The methodology here is interesting. It was basically a brand benchmarking study. That’s what BAV does. They’re the “world’s largest and leading empirical study of brands” And Canada’s brand is: safe, slightly left leaning, polite, predictable and – yes – boring. Oh – and we have lakes and mountains.

Who, you may ask, beat us? Switzerland – a country that is safe, slightly left leading, polite, predictable and – yes – boring. Oh – and they have lakes and mountains too.

This study has managed to reduce entire countries to a type of cognitive short hand we call a brand. As a Canadian, I can tell you this country contains multitudes – some good, some bad – and remarkably little of it is boring. We’re like an iceberg (literally, in some months) – there’s a lot that lies under the surface. But as far as the world cares, you already know everything you need to know about Canada and no further learning is required.

That’s the problem with branding. We rely more and more on whatever brand perceptions we already have in place without thinking too much about whether they’re based on valid knowledge. We certainly don’t go out of our way to challenge those perceptions. What was originally intended to sell dish soap is being used as a cognitive short cut for everything we do. We rely on branding – instant know-ability – or what I called labelability in a previous column. We spend more and more of our time knowing and less and less of it learning.

Branding is a mental rot that is reducing everything to a broadly sketched caricature.

Take politics for example. That same BAV group turned their branding spotlight on candidates for the next presidential election. Y&R CEO David Sable explored just how important branding will be in 2020. Spoiler alert: it will be huge.

When BAV looked at the brands of various candidates, Trump continues to dominate. This was true in 2016, and depending on the variables of fate currently in play, it could be true in 2020 as well. “We showed how fresh and powerful President Trump was as a brand, and just how tired and weak Hillary was… despite having more esteem and stature.”

Sable prefaced his exploration with this warning: “What follows is not a political screed, endorsement or advocacy of any sort. It is more a questioning of ourselves, with some data thrown to add to the interrogative.” In other words, he’s saying that this is not really based on any type of rational foundation; it’s simply evaluating what people believe. And I find that particular mental decoupling to be troubling.

This idea of cognitive shorthand is increasingly prevalent in an attention deficit world. Everything is being reduced to a brand. The problem with this is that once that brand has been “branded” it’s very difficult to shake. Our world is being boiled down to branding and target marketing. Our brains have effectively become pigeon holed. That’s why Trump was right when he said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”

We have a dangerous spiral developing. In a world with an escalating amount of information, we increasingly rely on brands/beliefs for our rationalization of the world. When we do expose ourselves to information, we rely on information that reinforces those brands and beliefs. Barack Obama identified this in a recent interview with David Letterman: “One of the biggest challenges we have to our democracy is the degree to which we don’t share a common baseline of facts. We are operating in completely different information universes. If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet than you are if you listen to NPR.”

Our information sources have to be “on-brand”. And those sources are filtered by algorithms shaped by our current beliefs. As our bubble solidifies, there is nary a crack left for a fresh perspective to sneak in.

 

The Decentralization of Trust

Forget Bitcoin. It’s a symptom. Forget even Blockchain. It’s big – but it’s technology. That makes it a tool. Which means it’s used at our will. And that will is the real story. Our will is always the real story – why do we build the tools we do? What is revolutionary is that we’ve finally found a way to decentralize trust. That runs against the very nature of how we’ve defined trust for centuries.

And that’s the big deal.

Trust began by being very intimate – ruled by our instincts in a face-to-face context. But for the last thousand years, our history has been all about concentration and the mass of everything – including whom we trust. We have consolidated our defense, our government, our commerce and our culture. In doing so, we have also consolidated our trust in a few all-powerful institutions.

But the past 20 years have been all about decentralization and tearing down power structures, as we invent new technologies to let us do that. In that vien, Blockchain is a doozy. It will change everything. But it’s only a big deal because we’re exerting our will to make it a big deal. And the “why” behind that is what I’m focusing on.

For right or wrong, we have now decided we’d rather trust distribution than centralization. There is much evidence to support that view. Concentration of power also means concentration of risk. The opportunity for corruption skyrockets. Big things tend to rot from the inside out. This is not a new discovery on our part. We’ve known for at least a few centuries that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

As the world consolidated it also became more corrupt. But it was always a trade off we felt we had to make. Again, the collective will of the people is the story thread to follow here. Consolidation brought many benefits. We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for hierarchies, in one form or another. So we willing subjugated ourselves to someone – somewhere – hoping to maintain a delicate balance where the risk of corruption was outweighed by a personal gain. I remember asking the Atlantic’s noted correspondent, James Fallows, a question when I met him once in China. I asked how the average Chinese citizen could tolerate the paradoxical mix of rampant economical entrepreneurialism and crushing ideological totalitarianism. His answer was, “As long as their lives are better today than they were yesterday, and promise to be even better tomorrow, they’ll tolerate it.”

That pretty much summarizes our attitudes towards control. We tolerated it because if we wanted our lives to continue to improve, we really didn’t have a choice. But perhaps we do now. And that possibility has pushed our collective will away from consolidated power hubs and towards decentralized networks. Blockchain gives us another way to do that. It promises a way to work around Big Money, Big Banks, Big Government and Big Business. We are eager to do so. Why? Because up to now we have had to place our trust in these centralized institutions and that trust has been consistently abused. But perhaps Blockchain technology has found a way to distribute trust in a foolproof way. It appears to offer a way to make everything better without the historic tradeoff of subjugating ourselves to anyone.

However, when we move our trust to a network we also make that trust subject to unanticipated network effects. That may be the new trade-off we have to make. Increasingly, our technology is dependent on networks, which – by their nature – are complex adaptive systems. That’s why I keep preaching the same message – we have to understand complexity. We must accept that complexity has interaction affects we could never successfully predict.

It’s an interesting swap to consider – control for complexity. Control has always offered us the faint comfort of an illusion of predictability. We hoped that someone who knew more than we did was manning the controls. This is new territory for us. Will it be better? Who can say? But we seem to building an irreversible head of steam in that direction.

Raising an Anti-fragile Brand

I’ve come to realize that brand building is a lot like having kids. Much as you want to, at some point you simply can’t control their lives. All you can do is lay a strong foundation. Then you have to cast them adrift on the vicissitudes of life and hope they bounce in the right direction more often than not. It’s a crapshoot, so you damn well better hedge your bets.

Luck rules a perverse universe. All the planning in the world can’t prevent bad luck. Crappy things happen with astonishing regularity to very organized, competent people. The same is true of brands. Crappy things can happen to good brands at any moment – and all the planning in the world can’t prevent it.

Take October 31, 2017 for instance. On that day, Sayfullo Saipov drove a rented truck down a bike lane on Manhattan’s west side, killing 8 and injuring 11 others. What does this have to do with branding? Saipov rented his truck from Home Depot. All the pictures and video of the incident showed the truck with a huge Home Depot logo on the door. You know the saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity? Wrong!

Or take August 11, 2017 when a bunch of white supremacists decided to hold a torchlight rally in Charlotteville. Their torch of preference? The iconic Tiki Torch, which, ironically, is based on a decidedly non-white Polynesian design. Tiki soon took to social media to indicate they were not amused with the neo-Nazi’s choice.

The first instinct when things go wrong – with kids or brands – is to want to jump in and exert control. But that doesn’t work very well in either case. You need to build “anti-fragility.” This concept – from Nassim Nicholas Taleb – is when, “shocks and disruptions make you stronger and more creative, better able to adapt to each new challenge you face.” So, in the interest of antifragility – of kids or brands – here are a few things I’ve learned.

Do the Right Thing….

Like the advice from the eponymous 1989 movie from Spike Lee, you should always “Do the Right Thing”. That doesn’t mean being perfect. It just means that when you have a choice between sticking to your principles and taking the easy way out – always do the former. A child raised in this type of environment will follow suit. You have laid a strong moral foundation that will be their support system for the rest of their lives. And the same is true of brands. A brand built on strong ethics, by a company that always tries to do the right thing, is exceptionally anti-fragile. When knocks happen – and cracks inevitably appear – an ethical brand will heal itself. An unethical brand that depends on smoke and mirrors will crumble.

Building an Emotional Bank account

One of the best lessons I’ve ever learned in my life was the metaphor of the emotional bank account from Stephen Covey. My wife and I have tried to pass this along to our children. Essentially, you have to make emotional deposits with those close to you to build up a balance against which you can withdraw when you need to. If you raise kids that make frequent deposits, you know that their friends and family will be there for them when they need them. The degree of anti-fragility in your children is dependent on the strength of their support network. How loyal are their friends and family? Have they built this loyalty through regular deposits in the respective emotional bank accounts?

The same is true for anti-fragile brands. Brands that build loyalty in an authentic way can weather the inevitable storms that will come their way. This goes beyond the cost of switching rationale. Even brands that have you “locked in” today will inevitably lose that grip through the constant removal of marketplace friction through technology and the ever-creeping forces of competition. Emotional bank accounts are called that for a reason – this had to do with emotions, not rationality.

Accepting that Mistakes Happen

One of the hardest things about being a parent is giving your children room to make mistakes. But if you want to raise anti-fragile kids, you have to do this.

The same is true with brands. When things go wrong, we tend to want to exert control, to fix things. In doing so, we have to take control from someone else. In the case of parenting, you take control from your children, along with the opportunity for them to learn how to fix things themselves. In the case of branding, you take control from the market. But in the later case, you don’t take control, because you can’t. You can respond, but you can’t control. It’s a bitter lesson to learn – but it’s a lesson best learned sooner rather than later.

Remember – You’re In This for the Long Run

Raising anti-fragile children means learning about proportionate responses when things go off the rails. The person your child is when they’re 15 is most likely not going to be the person they are when they’re 25. You’re not going to be the same person either. So while you have to be firm when they step out of line, you also have to take care not to destroy the long-term foundations of your relationship. Over reacting can cause lasting damage.

The same is true for brands. The market has a short memory. No matter how bad today may be, if you have an anti-fragile brand, the future will be better. Sometimes it’s just a matter of holding on and riding out the storm.

 

Watching TV Through The Overton Window

Tell me, does anyone else have a problem with this recent statement by HBO CEO Richard Plepler: “I am trying to build addicts — and I want people addicted to something every week”?

I read this in a MediaPost column about a month ago. At the time, I filed it away as something vaguely troubling. I just checked and found no one else had commented on it. Nothing. We all collectively yawned as we checked out the next series to binge watch. That’s just what we do now.

When did enabling addiction become a goal worth shooting for? What made the head of a major entertainment corporation think it was OK to use a term that is defined as “persistent, compulsive use of a substance known to the user to be harmful” to describe a strategic aspiration? And, most troubling of all, when did we all collectively decide that that was OK?

Am I overreacting? Is bulk consuming an entire season’s worth of “Game of Thrones” or “Big Little Lies” over a 48-hour period harmless?

Speaking personally, when I emerge from my big-screen basement cave after watching more than two episodes of anything in a row, I feel like crap. And there’s growing evidence that I’m not alone. I truly believe this is not a healthy direction for us.

But my point here is not to debate the pros and cons of binge watching. My point is that Plepler’s statement didn’t cause any type of adverse reaction. We just accepted it. And that may because of something called the Overton Window.

The Overton Window was named after Joseph Overton, who developed the concept at a libertarian think tank  — the Mackinac Center for Public Policy — in the mid-1990s.

Typically, the term is used to talk about the range of policies acceptable to the public in the world of politics. In the middle of the window lies current policy. Moving out from the center in both directions (right and left) are the degrees of diminishing acceptability. In order, these are: Popular, Sensible, Acceptable, Radical and Unthinkable.

Overton_Window_diagram.svgThe window can move, with ideas that were once unthinkable eventually becoming acceptable or even popular due to the shifting threshold of public acceptance. The concept, which has roots going back over 150 years, has again bubbled to the top of our consciousness thanks to Trumpian politics, which make “extreme things look normal,” according to a post on Vox.

Political strategists have embraced and leveraged the concept to try to bring their own agendas within the ever-moving window. Because here’s the interesting thing about the Overton Window: If you want to move it substantially, the fastest way to do it is to float something outrageous to the public and ask them to consider it. Once you’ve set a frame of consideration towards the outliers, it tends to move the window substantially in that direction, bringing everything less extreme suddenly within the bounds of the window.

This has turned The Overton Window into a political strategic tug of war, with the right and left battling to shift the window by increasingly moving to the extremes.

What’s most intriguing about the Overton Window is how it reinforces the idea that much of our social sensibility is relative rather than absolute. Our worldview is shaped not only by what we believe, but what we believe others will find acceptable. Our perspective is constantly being framed relative to societal norms.

Perhaps — just perhaps — the CEO of HBO can now use the word “addict” when talking about entertainment because our perspective has been shifted toward an outlying idea that compulsive consumption is OK, or even desirable.

But I have to call bullshit on that. I don’t believe it’s OK. It’s not something we as an industry — whether that industry is marketing or entertainment — should be endorsing. It’s not ennobling us; it’s enabling us.

There’s a reason why the word “addict” has a negative connotation. If our “window” of acceptability has shifted to the point where we just blithely accept these types of statements and move on, perhaps it’s time to shift the window in the opposite direction.

The Retrofitting of Broadcasting

I returned to my broadcast school for a visit last week. Yes, it was nostalgic, but it was also kind of weird.

Here’s why…

I went to broadcast school in the early 80’s. The program I attended, at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, had just built brand new studios, outfitted with the latest equipment. We were the first group of students to get our hands on the stuff. Some of the local TV stations even borrowed our studio to do their own productions. SCTV – with the great John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Rick Moranis and Andrea Martin – was produced just down the road at ITV. It was a heady time to be in TV. I don’t want to brag, but yeah, we were kind of a big deal on campus.

That was then. This was now. I went back for my first visit in 35 years, and nothing had really changed physically. The studios, the radio production suites, the equipment racks, the master control switcher – it was all still there – in all its bulky, behemoth-like glory. They hadn’t even changed the lockers. My old one was still down from Equipment Stores and right across from one of the classrooms.

The disruption of the past four decades was instantly crystallized. None of the students today touched any of that 80’s era technology – well – except for the locker. That was still functional. The rows and rows of switches, rotary pots, faders and other do-dads hadn’t been used in years. The main switching board served as a makeshift desk for a few computer monitors and a keyboard. The radio production suites were used to store old office chairs. The main studio; where we once taped interviews, music videos, multi-camera dramas, sketch comedies and even a staged bar fight? Yep, more storage.

The campus news show was still shot in the corner, but the rest of that once state-of-the-art studio was now a very expensive warehouse. The average iPhone today has more production capability than the sum total of all that analog wizardry. Why use a studio when all you need is a green wall?

I took the tour with my old friend Daryl, who is still in broadcasting. He is the anchor of the local 6 o’clock news. Along the way we ran into a couple of other old schoolmates who were now instructors. And we did what middle-aged guys do. We reminisced about the glory days. We roamed our old domain like dinosaurs ambling towards our own twilight.

When we entered the program, it was the hottest ticket in town. They had 10 potential students vying for every program seat available. Today, on a good year, it’s down to 2 to 1. On a bad year, everyone who applies gets in. The program has struggled to remain relevant in an increasingly digital world and now focuses on those who actually want to work in television news. All the other production we used to do has been moved to a digital production program.

We couldn’t know it at the time, but we were entering broadcasting just when broadcasting had reached the apex of its arc. You still needed bulk to be a broadcaster. An ENG camera (Electronic News Gathering) weighed in at a hefty 60 pounds plus, not including the extra battery belt. Now, all you need a smartphone and a YouTube account. The only thing produced at most local stations is the news. And the days are numbered for even that.

If you are middle aged like I am, your parents depend on TV for their news. For you, it’s an option – one of many places you can get it. You probably watch the 6 o’clock news more out of habit than anything. And your kids never watch it. I know mine don’t. According to the Pew Research Center, only 27% of those 18-29 turn to TV for their news. Half of them get their news online. In my age group, 72% of us still get our news from TV, with 29% of us turning online. The TV news audience is literally aging to death.

My friend Daryl sees the writing on the wall. Everybody in the business does. When I met his co-anchor and told her that I had taken the digital path, she said, “Ah, an industry with a future.”

Perhaps, but then again, I never got my picture on the side of a bus.

We Don’t Need More Athletes and Models – We Do Need More People Who Understand Complexity

Have you seen the Verizon ad?

 

The one that starts with LeBron James walking towards the camera. He tells us “We don’t need more LeBrons” He’s followed in quick succession by other celebrities, including model Adriana Lima, quarterback Drew Brees and soccer star David Villa, all saying we don’t need more of their kind. The ad wraps up by saying what we do need is more people in science and technology to fill the 4 million jobs available. Verizon is pitching in by supporting education in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). The world, apparently, needs a lot more engineers.

Fair enough. The world runs on science and technology. But there’s an unintended consequence that comes with that. Technology is making the world a more complex place. And what we really need is more people that understand what complexity means.

By complexity, I don’t mean complicated. Those are two different things. I mean complexity in its classic sense – coming from the Latin “com” – meaning “together” – and “plex” – meaning “woven”. “Woven together” is a pretty good starting point for understanding complexity. It’s a concept that depends on connection, and we are more connected than ever before. Whether we like it or not, with connection comes complexity. And when we’re talking about complexity, we’re talking about a whole new ball game where all traditional bets are off.

There’s another funny thing about complexity. It’s nothing new. The world has always been complex. Biology has long been the domain of complex adaptive systems. This is true of all of the physical sciences. Benoit Mandelbrot found fractal complexity in leaves and the coastline of England. Quantum physics has always been around. It wasn’t invented at the beginning of the last century by Max Plank, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. It just took us most of our history as a species to discover it, hiding there beneath the deceptively simple rules of Isaac Newton. Complexity has always been part of nature. We’ve just been ignoring it for a long, long time, believing with all our hearts in a simpler, more comprehensible world.

Humans hate complexity, because complexity brings with it unpredictability and an inherent lack of control. It leads naturally into chaos. We much prefer models with foreseeable outcomes. We have been trying for many years to predict the weather, with very limited success. Why? Because weather is complex and often chaotic. And it’s getting more so, not less.

But the extreme weather we’re seeing more and more of is analogous to many parts of our world. Complexity is rearing its head in more and more places. It lies beneath everything. In the words of the Santa Fe Institute, the self-proclaimed world headquarters for complexity science — “(they) endeavor to understand and unify the underlying, shared patterns in complex physical, biological, social, cultural, technological, and even possible astrobiological worlds”

Which means complexity is everywhere. It impacts everything. And almost none of us understand it. But we’ve got to figure this stuff out, because the stakes are huge.

Let’s take something as important to us as democracy, for instance.

There is nothing especially complex about the idea of democracy. But the model of democracy is a different beast, because it relies on the foundation of our society, which is incredibly complex. Democracy is dependent on unwritten rules, which are in turn dependent on conventions and controls that have been inherent in our society. These are what have been called the “soft guardrails of democracy”. And they are being eroded by our newly connected complexity. A few weeks ago, some of America’s top political scientists got together at Yale University to talk about democracy and almost all of them agreed – democracy is in deep trouble. Yascha Mounk, from Harvard, summed up their collective thoughts succinctly: “If current trends continue for another 20 or 30 years, democracy will be toast.”

So complexity is something we should be learning about. But where to start? And when? Currently, if people do study complexity science, it’s generally at the post-grad level. And that’s just a handful of people, at a few universities. We need to start understanding complexity and it’s implications much sooner. It should be covered in grade school. But there’s no one to teach it, because the majority of teachers have no idea what I’m talking about. In a recent dissertation, a researcher from the University of Pennsylvania asked science teachers in a number of schools in Singapore if they were familiar with complexity. The findings were disheartening, “a large sample of ninety Grades 11 and 12 science teachers in six randomly- selected schools across Singapore revealed as many as 80% of the teachers reported that they did not have prior knowledge or heard of complex systems.” By the way, Singapore is consistently rated best in the world for science education. Here in North America, we trail by a significant margin. If this is a problem there, it’s a bigger problem here.

If you’re old enough to remember the movie the Graduate, there was a scene where “the Graduate” – played by Dustin Hoffman – was wandering around his parent’s cocktail party when he was cornered by a family friend; Mr McGuire. McGuire offered a word of career advice. Literally – one word:

“I just want to say one word to you – just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.”

That was 50 years ago. Today, my word is “complexity.”

Are you listening?

Trust No One, Trust Nothing

In just one day last week looking at the headlines on MediaPost – two different articles mentioned a lack of trust – a lack of trust in contextual ad placement and a lack of trust in audience measurement data. But our industries trust issues go far deeper than just those two instances. Article after article cite an erosion of trust and the spreading of relational fault lines in every aspect of the industry.

The question of the day is “Where did the trust go? The follow up question then becomes, “What do we mean by trust?”

That is a difficult question. Trust is a word with many, many meanings. Over 20 years ago, University of Minnesota business professors D. Harrison McKnight and Norman L. Chervany wrote an extensive review to answer just that question. In it, across the many constructs of trust, they identified four dimensions: benevolence, integrity, competence and predictability. But not all these dimensions are required in all applications of trust.

First of all, there are two broad categories of trust: structural trust – trust in a system – and interpersonal trust – trust in a person. In their analysis, McKnight and Chervany looked at six constructs of trust that can apply in different situations. For the sake of this discussion, let’s focus on two of these:

“System trust: the extent to which one believes that proper impersonal structures are in place to enable one to anticipate a successful future endeavor.”

And…

“Situational Trust – meaning that one has decided to trust without regard to the specific persons involved, because the benefits of trusting in this situation outweigh the possible negative outcomes of trusting.”

What trust that did exist in marketing what an outcome of these two constructs. Both tend to apply to the structure of marketing, not the people in marketing. The headlines I cited earlier both pointed to a breakdown of trust on the system level, not the personal level. Now, let’s look at those four dimensions as they apply to structural trust in marketing. No one has ever accused marketers of being overly benevolent, so let’s set that one aside. Also, I would argue – strenuously – that marketers today – including those at agencies – are more competent than ever before. They have been mostly successful at turning marketing from an arcane guessing game that paraded as art to an empirically backed science. So a lack of competency can’t be blamed for this trust breakdown. That leaves integrity and predictability. I suspect there’s a compound relationship between these two things.

The reason we’re losing structural trust is that marketing is no longer predictable. And this lack of predictability is triggering a suspicion that there has been a corresponding lack of integrity. But the unpredictability of marketing is no one’s fault.

Marketing today is analogous to physics at the turn of the last century. For 200 years the universe had been neatly ruled by Newton’s Laws. Then physicists started discovering things that couldn’t be so neatly explained and the Universe became a place of Uncertainty Principles, Schrödinger’s Cat and Strange Attractors. Everything we thought was predictable in all situations suddenly become part of a much bigger – and more complex – mystery.

Similarly, mass marketing could run by Newton-like laws because we were dealing with mass and weren’t looking too closely. Apply enough force to enough people with enough frequency and you could move the needle in what seemed like a predictable fashion. But today marketing is a vastly different beast. We market one-to-one and those “ones” are all inter-connected, which creates all types of feedback loops and network effects. This creates complexity – so predictability is as dead at the afore-mentioned Schrödinger’s Cat (or is it?)

I don’t think this comes as news to anyone reading this column. We all know we’re being disrupted. I think we’re all beginning to understand the challenges of complexity. So why don’t we just accept it as the new normal and continue to work together? Why are clients feeling personally betrayed by their agencies, market research firms and ad delivery platforms? It’s because our brains aren’t very nuanced when it comes to identifying trust and betrayal. Brains operate by the “when you’re a hammer – everything looks like a nail” principle.

Rationally, we understand the different between interpersonal trust and situational trust, but we have to remember that our rationality is reinforced by emotional rewards and cautions. When we’re in a trusting relationship – or system – our ventrial striatum, medial prefrontal cortex and caudate nucleus all perk happily along, priming our brains with oxytocin and pushing all the right reward buttons. But whether it’s a person or a situation that betrays our trust, the same neural mechanisms fire – the insula and amygdala – creating feelings of frustration, fear, anger and resentment.

Now, none of this is the fault of anyone in marketing. But humans work on cause and effect. If our marketing is not working, it’s easier to assign a human cause. And it’s much easier to feel betrayed by a human than by a system.