Category Archives: complicating marketing

How much should we worry about sexism in tech?


While browsing for distractions on my way to the airport, I stumbled upon Kat Hagan’s post “Ways men in tech are unintentionally sexist”, hosted on Anjani Ramachandran’s One Size Fits One. The post is part of a larger debate about women’s presence and recognition in tech, a debate that at its worst sums up the way socially relevant issues could be discussed and they’re not: we could make a smart use of the wealth of bright minds and insightful data made available by the digital age, and instead we pursue click-baiting headlines and artificially inflated scandals.

To her credit, Kat Hagan has a much more thorough and thought-through approach, referencing scientific theories and academic papers, to illustrate how men can be unintentionally sexist when approaching/designing/managing technology and its development. We need more of that.


She then makes a list of behaviours that should be avoided, some of which are very reasonable and uncontroversial, such as not using “guys” when addressing a group of mixed genders, or ignoring women’s needs (the example of the lack of period tracking functionality in Apple’s new Health app is particularly spot on).

Other recommendations, though, may sound entirely sensible at first (as confirmed by readers’ comments), yet hide a logical flaw that often recurs in discussions around sexism and other forms of discrimination:

you can’t scale linearly from individual to mass.

While there are great variations between individuals, as you get to big numbers you see statistically significant similarities between people of the same gender. We all agree that we should treat each individual on their own merit, but should we extend that to millions, or hundreds of millions, of people in the face of these similarities? Should we ignore them? Or worse, deny them?


I’m going to make some increasingly uncomfortable examples to show that things are more complicated than the sexism debate seems to account for, and there are difficult questions worth at least asking ourselves.



1. Assuming gender identity

Kat argues that using avatars that are male by default is a form of sexism that should be avoided, but the underlying issue is whether we should allow ourselves to assume that a user is of a certain gender, and at what cost. The avatar example is an easy way out of the problem, because you can always go for neutral (although when I registered to Pinterest, with its overwhelmingly female membership, I’d have had no issue being presented with a female icon). Things get trickier when it comes to design choices that don’t always have an optimal neutral solution: colour palette; sizes; font; images of a user, such as a face, or a hand. If the numbers proved that there are significant differences in preference among the genders, and our platform were skewed male or female, should we ignore it? Should we opt for a neutral solution even if it doesn’t please anyone, as long as it doesn’t displease one or the other?



2. Assuming gender differences

Kat’s point no.8 is “Stop denigrating things by comparing them to women or femininity”, like saying “you fight like a girl” or “you like chick flicks”.

This is a campaign by Always. Who couldn’t like it? Who couldn’t agree with it?

Unfortunately it’s hypocritical, because it hides an uncomfortable empirical truth. In our experience (and there may be times and places where things are different) most girls fight “like girls”; most “chick flicks” are viewed and liked by girls; just like most “jerk” acts and comments are made by stupid males, and most horrible sex comments are mouthed by male “pigs”. Is it true that “like a girl” tends to be an insult whereas “like a man” is celebratory? Yes. But we have other derogatory terms for men: jerk; pigs; a**-hole; wanker… They’re all unequivocally male.

Should we replace “fight like a girl” with “fight like a bitch”? Is this what we’re talking about?

On the other hand, we can decide that we’re better off as a society by being hypocritical and treating these uncomfortable empirical truths as if they didn’t exist, but facts tend to be stubborn things, and in the long run hypocritical conventions end up damaging the broader issue they’re supposed to protect because they make it come across as artificial and false.


3. Assuming gender interests

Kat argues that “assuming the women they meet are in non-technical roles” is a form of sexism: this is certainly true if you meet them at a tech conference, the (once again too easy) example that she chose to illustrate her point; it’s a lot less true if you’re introduced to a new team of mixed roles, or if you’re meeting students at a grad fair. You can legitimately assume that someone interested in Computer Science is more likely to be male because the numbers prove you right, so if hypothetically you only had time to speak with one applicant with no knowledge of their background, picking a man would not be a form of sexism, it’d be weighing your odds.

Of course that doesn’t mean that you should rule female applicants out:

it’s ok to prepare for the usual, as long as you welcome the unusual with open eyes and mind.

But this is an easy-to-agree principle, so let’s move on to more troubling questions: if you’re a parent of a young girl, and you have to enrol her in an extra class of either literature or coding, knowing that right now she’s interested in both (or neither), what should you do? And if you were to build a new dorm for your future Computer Science students in a country where men and women can’t share facilities, would you split the space half and half?


4. Assuming gender capability

Kat contrasts the prejudicial view that “Women just aren’t interested in programming/math/logic” with evidence that “the variation between individuals dwarfs any biological difference”. Although counterintuitive, both statements are true: there are massive variations between the capabilities of any two random individuals, and that’s why we should always be judged on our own merit; but at the same time when it comes to large numbers, men are marginally better performing and significantly more interested in mathematical and technical disciplines.
We design technology for millions, sometimes billions of users, and even a marginal difference in response can amount to a dramatic increase in adoption, revenues, and success. Should we ignore that for the sake of equality? Should we do more than that?


A famous experiment from a few years back showed that what we consider an absolute (eg. how good someone is at something) is everything but: female Korean-American students were given a math assignment, after going through a process that would remind them either of their gender or of their heritage. Participants who were primed on their Asian roots (positively associated with math skills) performed statistically better than equivalent students who were primed on their female gender (often associated with being bad with numbers).

If we’re pursuing equality, should we actively design technology requiring quantitative skills in a way that makes women forget that they’re women? Are women actually better off in a “sexist” office that calls everyone “guys”?


I’m not suggesting an answer to any of these questions, but I think it’s worth asking them. Human behaviour is counterintuitive and complicated: individually, we’re very different; in groups, we influence one another and form clusters; when you have to design for large groups, you inevitably sacrifice the uniqueness of each individual.




The point is not how to avoid discrimination.

We always discriminate: when a newspaper publishes an article with a certain font size; when a supermarket places a product on an eye-level shelf and another one high up; when it was decided to use certain colours for traffic lights.

We always discriminate in technology, too: when we decide what operating system we develop apps for; what apps we preload onto a device; what features we include in those apps.

The point is how to discriminate well.

If we look at the world we live in, we follow a few principles:

  1. Discrimination must have a purpose: newspapers were printed in only one font size because, before digital came along, it would have been economically inefficient to do otherwise
  2. It should be optimal for a sufficient majority: traffic lights are a bad solution for the blind and color-blind, but because most people don’t have such problems, it is the solution we chose
  3. It should not make things too hard for the minority: if you’re too short to reach a product on the top shelf of a supermarket, you can ask someone to help you
  4. Sometimes, it requires people to adapt: if you move abroad you can’t expect people to learn your language, you have to learn theirs. It’s a discrimination against new immigrants, but the alternative would be so inconvenient that they just have to comply.


When it comes to technology, we need to be aware that these trade-offs are an inevitable part of the job regardless of how uncomfortable they are, and so are the questions they bring along.

If Apple didn’t include period tracking in their Health app because it would have come at the expense of another feature or of a faster performance that would have made the product better for most of their users, would it still be wrong? And would it be an ethical question or a commercial question?

Would the answer change if there were fewer alternative health apps on the market?


How much worrying about sexism is too much?

And if we say it’s never too much, let’s rephrase that: how much disregarding of statistically different behaviours among genders is too much?

How much gender-neutrality can we pursue, without being counterproductive to the success of what we do?

How much equality can we enforce without being patronising?

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Common Sense is killing business

“For every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong”.

This slightly bastardized quote from H.L. Mencken comes as close as anything to explaining a lot of the world we live in, at a time where rapidity trumps solidity, and every day we hear calls for acts of “simple common sense” from politics to business.

While politics occasionally manages to resist this form of populism, business culture seems to instead have taken up an attitude of “act first, think later” in an effort to be lean, agile and to give customers and shareholders what they want every quarter.

Nowhere has this process been more enthusiastically embodied than in marketing departments.

Just as marketing became more complicated, with more competition across categories, more platform and distribution options, more media clutter, fewer barriers to entry and more opportunities to juggle, we started looking for a shortcut to make sense of it all: The One Answer that would have changed the rules of the game forever and bestowed success upon those who embraced it.

We discovered loyalty and thought that the future of marketing would be about communities of superfans; we saw branded content and decided that we should all be publishers; technology made us think that every brand should be a hacker-mashupper-remixer; and when social media emerged we concluded that we all had to join the conversation, crowdsource our brand and revel in a future where people would engage with us, become evangelists of our brand and eventually, possibly, buy our products.

The one thing we haven’t asked ourselves enough is: why?

Right at a time of increased complexity when critical thinking would have been more important than ever, we decided to suspend it altogether and replace it with clichés. We did this over and over across blogs, conferences and tweets, until clichés became conventional wisdom and conventional wisdom became common sense.

Common sense has its own way of reinforcing itself: it sounds reasonable, everyone is doing it, so it can’t possibly be wrong, can it?

It can, at least if we bother to take a look at the real world outside our conjectures.

Brands failing

Brands in 4 out of 5 categories are seen as increasingly homogenous, with 80% of brand buyers knowing little or nothing about them. (Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, 2012). According to the 2013 “Meaningful Brands” worldwide survey by Havas Media, people wouldn’t care if 73% of the brands disappeared. And we’re talking about major brands that a global advertising network keeps track of.

These are today’s facts, and facts are stubborn things. We can’t treat them as someone else’s problem, and keep doing things the same way because we have deadlines to meet and expectations to conform with.

It’s time to stop chasing common sense shortcuts because, quite simply, they don’t work. Shortcuts mix cause and effect, and generate assumptions that are proven wrong by reality.

Common marketing sense states that since loyal customers are already sold on your products, they’re an easy source of growth: the truth is that in most categories loyal customers are already spending as much as they can, and growth generally comes from acquiring completely new customers.

Common marketing sense says that you have to convince people of something first in order for them to take action, whereas in many cases it is changing people’s actions that changes their mind.

The more we understand human behaviour, the more we realize that it’s way too complex to grasp it just with common sense. Add the potential for reengineering pretty much anything that the digital age provides, and you’ll see how we need more than shortcuts.


Remember when we used to ask questions about everything?

It’s time for something different. It’s time for un-common sense.

Un-common sense means not taking anything for granted and instead starting questioning our assumptions, large and small.

It means once again learning to ask: why? Just like we did when we were children, but with the skills and insight we have developed over the years.

It means taking a step back, looking at the bigger picture, and knowing that what we’re seeing is not the way things are meant to be, but just the way things are until someone acts otherwise.

Un-common sense marketing requires time, talent and an uncompromising effort in everything every one of us does. If professional pride is not a reason enough to do it, here’s another one: according to a survey by Fournaise Group, 80% of CEOs don’t trust their CMOs and accuse them of losing sight of the real job, while 91% of them trust their CFOs. The professional background of most CEOs is further evidence of this.

Acknowledging that the challenges faced by marketing are at least as complex as the intricacies of international corporate accounting and much closer to the people who directly influence the business, and that they should be approach with sophisticated, inspired, clever uncommon sense, can go a long way towards regaining that trust.

P.S. Not only was no lemming hurt in the production of this post: they don’t really follow one another into oblivion. Neither should marketers.

(A version of this post was first published in The Business Times (Singapore), 16 July 2014, page 22)

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Marketing and the sharing economy: get smart before someone else does.


(An edited version of this post first appeared on Campaign Asia)

Here’s a revealing exercise that we never do: the next time we go home, let’s take out pen and paper and start making an inventory of everything we own. How much of it do we use? How much do we need? How much do we want?

This is not a clichéd hunt for the pair of trousers we haven’t worn for the past 7 years, or for the picture frame that we never even unpacked. It’s something more fundamental than that.

Dating back to when our personal understanding of the world was formed, we either had something, or we didn’t.

Of course there were services that we had access to and never really owned, such as public transport, schools and streets, but they were exceptions of such a large scale that we instinctively felt they belonged to a different category. When it came to goods we consumed, we either owned them and used them, or didn’t own them and didn’t use them, apart from occasionally borrowing them from a friend.

As a staple of my formative years goes, that’s how we ended up owning “a fucking big television, cars, fixed interest mortgage repayments, leisurewear and matching luggage, DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning”.

Some of it makes perfect sense, but do we really need to own a drill that we use once every two years, and generally with embarrassing results? How about a lawnmower?

It’s not like we thought it was a good idea at the time:

we knew it wasn’t, but it was the only one we had.

The emergence of the sharing economy over the past decade was built on the hypothesis that the ownership model was not the commercial equivalent of the end of history, but rather an incidental situation dictated as much by the alternative opportunities that we were missing than by the wealth we had acquired: the advent of a networking technology and culture is providing the platform to test this hypothesis and investigate what goods we’re willing to part from, and what instead we will still like to call our own.

While this process is still in its infancy, as changes in human behaviour are much slower than the marketing news cycle, we can already identify some driving forces.

It’s natural to desire

Croesus and Solon — 1624; Gerard van Honthorst; Kunsthalle Museum — Hamburg


Let’s start by dispelling a common myth: the literature blaming advertising for making us “buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like” is as large as it is superficial.

The truth is that, despite what we may think of ourselves, advertising is not that all-powerful, and it was never about “inventing desire” as it was about inventing responses to desires people already had. The fundamental human motivations are always the same, and they’re not going to go away: the network economy offers the opportunity to design new solutions to fulfil old desires. A service like “Bag, Borrow or Steal”, for instance, still gives you access to high-end designer handbags that make you stand out, but letting you borrow them on a monthly basis instead of buying them.

Of course, there’s a reason why we could have done this 10 years ago, but we’re only talking about it now.

Events change minds


Environmentally-conscious activists spent the best part of the last decade trying to persuade everyone who’d bother to listen that we should buy less, eat less, consume less: they failed.

Then the financial crisis hit, and the middle- and lower-class in the West found itself forced to downgrade and downscale. When that happened, our brains played a trick on us:

Behavior often shapes attitude more than the other way around, so finding ourselves unable to own more due to financial circumstances made us post-rationalize it into a better option in the first place.

This accelerated our critical view on consumerism, to the point that now, according to “The New Consumer and the Sharing Economy”, a global survey by advertising agency Havas Worldwide, 46% of people in 29 countries ranging from Argentina to Vietnam prefer to “share things rather than own them” and 56% resell or donate old goods rather than throwing them away.

While we’ve been forced into this disposition by events beyond our control, it’s entirely possible that it will leave roots deep in our minds, and we won’t necessarily revert to the same old habits even once we have the means to do so.

After all, just like the financial crisis gave millions of people the motivation to experiment with a new behaviour, that same new behaviour is in turn giving thousands of marketers the right motivation to experiment with new go-to-market strategies. gives you free airport parking by letting you rent your car while you’re away.

IKEA ran a two-week promotion turning its Facebok page into a digital flea market where people could buy and sell used furniture.

UK’s DIY leader B&Q created “Streetclubs”, a service that helps neighbours come together and share tools and other household items.

While these three examples are all enabled by digital technology, it took a double shift in mindset to make them happen: without a crisis that generated talk of a “new normal”, ideas like these might still sit on the fringe of what’s acceptable by mainstream consumers; and in turn, a decrease in traditional spending paired with an openness towards new models gave the most innovative marketers a licence to pursue innovation more radically than they would allow themselves to when the economy was growing.

If anything, what’s holding back more of such experiments on a larger scale is a conservative corporate culture that is fixated on selling the same products rather than fulfilling the same needs, and that underestimates how radically different alternatives can reshape whole industries and leave consumers better off in the process.

A call for “smarter marketing”

This is our brain when we hear the word “New”

This is why the popular call for “smarter consumption” is somewhat misplaced. Consumers respond to the environment they’re provided with, and while they now have a greater power to affect it than ever before, it’s at the same time irresponsible and dangerous for marketers to wash their hands of the problem.

As we said, people’s desires don’t change, and if we don’t find new ways to fulfil them, they’ll stick with the old ones. In particular, as we humans constantly long for all things “new,” fans of sustainability should not delude themselves into thinking that consumers can be convinced to keep what they have until it breaks.

They don’t replace the old with the new because we manipulate them into doing it against their instinct; they do it because it makes them feel good.

We should find ways to generate that same feeling without turning Earth into a waste bin, or we’ll be responsible for it because this is our job, not theirs.

Nobody needs a new tablet every three months, so how do we make old tablets feel new? How do we make a new use of tablets without making new tablets?

And since nobody needs 100 different tablet models, how do we produce just enough to keep people happy and the market innovative, and make a better use of the time and resources we liberate?

These are marketing questions for marketing professionals, and eventually someone will answer them: that’s why “smarter marketing” is not just a moral call, it’s a competitive requirement.

While hotel groups were busy building more hotels because that’s the business they saw themselves in, Air BnB created millions of accommodations without laying a single brick.

H&M increased their inventory without a stitch being sewed by collecting 7.7 million pounds of used clothes to be resold or converted into other products.

The Walgreen drugstore chain partnered with Taskrabbit, an online small jobs marketplace, to deliver over-the-counter cold and flu medicines to customers unable to make it to the store, effectively growing an ubiquitous sales force without hiring a single new employee.

Zopa, the UK’s leading peer-to-peer lending service, has issued loans in the amount of 500 million pounds without branches or upfront capital.

These examples are not about the clichéd “doing more with less”,

they’re really about “doing better”.

An old marketing quote states that “people don’t buy quarter-inch drills, they buy quarter-inch holes”. There are now more potential alternatives to drills than ever, and people don’t even need to buy them. So what’s the smarter way of giving them that hole?

Time for retailers to shape their own future

[This article was first published on the Singapore Business Review: t]

There are two ways to predict the future: the first one is to turn to the experts and trust their wisdom; the second is to look at the gap between what people expect and what they’re able to do, and see in it the shape of things to come.

After 20 years of research with 284 experts producing 28,000 predictions, Philip Tetlock concluded that “the average expert was found to be only slightly more accurate than a dart-throwing chimpanzee”.

While the object of his study was Political Science, it could as well have been retail marketing: ever since the time of dial-up modems, analysts have been anticipating the day when brick-and-mortar shops would be made obsolete by a new generation of shoppers that would buy everything, from avocados to Z4s, from their computer/smartphone/Facebook page/twitter feed.

Of course that day hasn’t come yet, and chances are it never will, so when we decided to investigate the face and fate of retail in the digital age for Havas’ latest Prosumer Report, we focused on real habits and expectations.

The state of commerce in the digital age
Surveying over 10,000 people across 31 countries, “Digital and the new consumer” discloses what we’re getting right and wrong about digital commerce and what the challenges are for online and offline retailers. (Spoiler: this is an example of what we’re getting wrong…)

Bill Gates once said that “we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years”, and this seems to be the case with mobile commerce: despite all the talk of it, only 22% of mainstream respondents have used a smartphone to shop online.

Things are about to change, though, as that figure climbs up to 38% among Prosumers, a relatively small cohort of influencers who have been proven to give a good indication of what the majority will soon think and do.

Moreover, if we take geography into account, mobile is confirmed as the new frontier: in Singapore, where shopping is almost a competitive sport, 48% of people have made purchases from their smartphone and 26% from their tablets, a figure that, given the category penetration, shows that virtually every tablet user is a tablet shopper.

Having said that, before we rush to stick miniaturized versions of our stores into an app, we should be aware that we are not just talking about another screen. It’s the shopper that is mobile, and that is fragmenting the purchase process across multiple real and virtual steps: the smartphone is only the glue that keeps it all together.

A transition towards a new form of shopping
51% of Singaporeans say that for major purchase decisions their first stop is usually the internet; that’s far from being their last, though, with 66% “showrooming” (i.e. visiting stores to see/try-out a product before buying it online) and 58% checking for price and customer reviews online while in a shop.

This blend of on- and off-line has unlocked the e-commerce potential of non-commoditized goods, such as clothing, shoes and accessories, which is now the most popular category of online shopping in Singapore (65%), well ahead of books (37%).

The most important insight offered by the Prosumer Report is that we’re not in a transition from an age of brick-and-mortar to one of bits-and-bytes, but rather from one of confrontation between the two models to one where retailers can create a hybrid model to respond to what is already a fluid experience in the minds and habits of shoppers.

Singaporean retailers have been waiting for too long
Unfortunately, the local industry seems to be lagging behind: some retailers are still very hesitant to create an online presence, leading to nearly half of all Singaporeans feeling frustrated; at the same time, e-stores have problems of their own, with 70% of online shoppers feeling overwhelmed by the amount of choice and information, and 64% still preferring to buy certain products in person for the tangible benefits of touching them and trying them on.

Real innovation seems to be coming from local start-ups, who understand that the best use of new technologies is not to support old business models, but rather to invent new ones: companies such as Swiff, MOGi or ERN are determined to unleash the full potential of mobile commerce, while Tate & Tonic is suggesting that we could rid of shops altogether, replacing them with a monthly subscription to a curated, personalized fashion collection delivered to your door.

While this is certainly good news for entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, established retailers should start worrying, as they cannot expect to leave radical innovation to smaller competitors and still stand to benefit from it.
Whatever commerce will look like ten years from now, it will reflect the objectives and needs of those talented and ambitious enough to shape it, and it will surely be more disruptive than just more windows on more screens.

After saying that “we always overestimate change that will occur in the next two years”, Bill Gates went on to add that “we underestimate change that will occur in the next ten.”

It’s time for retailers to stretch their imaginations and start shaping the retail industry of 2023, to ensure that they will play a part in it.

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Is Salient the new Viral?

Do you know someone who seems to regularly say exactly what you’re thinking, but using better words? To me that’s (Jed Bartlet and) Martin Weigel. Good thing he has the good taste to voice his opinions before I do, so I can at least avoid the embarrassment. (Although that also implies that he’s either way more efficient than I am to find time for it while producing brilliant work, or he’s just as lazy but gets to those ideas faster than I do. Both scenarios are rather discouraging.)

Case in point, his list of “Words I hate” that I would sign with my own blood (except for strategists: I don’t like “planner” because it leads to an abundance of plans and a shortage of ideas), and his general disdain for Adland rhetoric.

That’s why I’ve been scratching my head over his two long posts about Differentiation v Saliency. He makes a great job of combining an extensive range of sources to make the argument that:

  1. Consumers are just not that into brands. Virtually any attempt to engage them in a relationship, join a conversation or expect them to respond to the intricacies of your brand are futile, delusional and egotistic. (Spot on!)
  2. Shopping metrics show that consumers are highly unloyal, purchasing from a basket of brands for each category, and disproportionately rewarding the market leader. Consumer segmentation models that distinguish between the Brand-X woman and the Brand-Y woman are a work of fiction.  (Can’t argue with that…)
  3. This is backed by research showing that consumers can’t differentiate between brands, across almost all brands and categories. Differences in brand attributes are overwhelmingly explained by scale. (Hmm….)
  4. Consequently, our efforts towards differentiation have been misplaced. If consumers don’t spend enough time in their purchase decisions, then there is no point explaining the differences between products. We should get out of the persuasion business. (Hmm hmm…)
  5. We should instead find creative ways to turn our generic, un-ownable products into something exciting and worth remembering. This is what it really takes to trigger a purchase. (Ouch…)

When I first read the articles I couldn’t reconcile how much I agreed with their initial points and how unconvinced I was by their conclusions. I thought it boiled down to a contradiction (Did we fail to create brand differentiation or did we succeed but it was proven worthless? You can’t have it both ways…), but there is more to it. So let’s complicate this:

Brands are not people, my friend

Let’s get the first two points out of the way: most normal people want to engage with other human beings, not with commercial abstractions.  They don’t want to own your brand, nor are they keen to join any conversation with it. Virtually all segmentation models produced by the corporate world are bull-s**t. End of story. I know it, you know it. Let’s move on.

Spot the difference

There’s a difference between saying that brands are undifferentiated and that most brands are undifferentiated. While it’s true that we have plenty of examples of interchangeable brands, we also know some that are wildly recognized as different, with research to back it up: Volkswagen v Chevrolet, Barclays v The Cooperative Bank, Innocent v Minute Maid, Jil Sander v D&G,  Singapore Airlines v American Airlines…

There’s more: there’s a difference between saying that “consumers don’t differentiate between brands” and that “according to research, consumers  don’t differentiate between brands”. The output of a research is only as good as its input. Most brand equity researchers test fundamental category attributes with very traditional questions, and what you get out of it is not very insightful. Take sportswear: if you run a traditional test on items such as “modern”, “athletic”, “successful” you probably get very similar results between Nike and Adidas, with differences explained by the relative size of the user base. But if you instead ask them who would win in a street fight, you get much more revealing results. I know because I asked.

Let’s face it: we’re really not that good

This is a point I feel very strong about. Martin looks at how central “differentiation” is in the marketing textbooks, and concludes that if we failed despite all our efforts, then it must be unattainable. I have a very different point of view: we’ve been rubbish. You only need to walk into virtually any meeting room of virtually any company in the past 40 years to see the same words written on virtually any brand identity model: how many banks are about “fulfilling dreams” and being “by your side”? How many mobile operators about “being better together”? How many posters have we seen with headlines such as “Capture life”? Or “Never miss [X]”? And how many “Inter-racial-urban-young-adults-raising-their-hands-at-a-gig”?

We should take a good look at ourselves as an industry and admit it: garbage in, garbage out.

Of course, some brands make the opposite mistake: in an effort for textbook hyper-differentiation, they look for the tiniest granular ownable property (2% more whatever-unpronounceable-ingredient) and expect that people will care. This is true, but we shouldn’t benchmark our strategies on this kind of rubbish. The quest for ultimate ownability should have been pronounced dead ever since the question “But can’t our competitors also claim X?” first received the answer: “Yes, but they’re not.” Let’s move on.

Let me entertain you (?)

The traditional Christmas cake in Italy is called “Panettone”. It’s a very simple product: a sweetbread filled with raisins and candied fruit that is mostly produced industrially and, to be perfectly honest, is not what you would call an unforgettable culinary experience. It’s mostly produced industrially, and it’s the kind of product you only think about once a year: every Italian family buys one for Christmas lunch or dinner, with an attitude that is more about ticking a box than anticipating a festive delight.

You can now understand the challenge that a friend of mine was faced with a few years ago, while working on a brief for a brand of Panettone that was going to spend the same budget of its 4-5 major competitors, who were targeting the same consumers with the same message (ie. “Yummie!). The fans of “saliency” would advocate saying pretty much whatever you want as long as it’s not repulsive (“we’re not in the message business”), but doing so in a compelling, exciting, memorable way. My friend did something different and, well, complicated things a bit. He bet on the hypothesis that even though Panettone is a tick-boxing purchase, it can be about more than taste: while everyone else claimed yummie, he put all his chips on “soft”. He believed that the weekend before Christmas shoppers would flock to supermarkets and, faced with a half dozen equally legitimate brands and similar packages that all claimed to taste good (who wouldn’t? and how can you believe it anyway?), they wouldn’t know where to turn to. He knew they’d want to buy something that their children wouldn’t complain about, and there was his answer: “soft.” Children like softer cakes more than harder ones. And not just that: old Panettone gets hard, so you can desume that fresh Panettone is soft; as for another non-negative, soft also makes it seem less likely to be dry.

Did he convey that in a memorable, compelling ad like the Cadbury Gorilla? Not really, as you can see below. But it was enough for Panettone Motta to achieve record sales that year. And the following. And the one after that.

What’s the big deal?

So why am I writing a ridiculously long post about something that was written months ago by a guy whose other opinions I agreed with before and since? Because I see a risk hidden behind that argument, the same I see in Dave Trott’s words advocating that being interesting is more important than being relevant. It’s not just that there is no silver bullet (but it’s always worth repeating that); it’s also that we fail to grasp the complexity of our job.

I believe that the single most important contribution a creative agency can make to a brand is making it distinctive. Not just distinctive among all the other distractions we’re exposed to today: I agree with that, but it’s not enough. We must also make it distinctive among the competing options that shoppers are forced to consider, especially when they’re frustrated about it.

No one  is happy about how electronics retailers are displaying tens of tens of TVs forming an endless black wall. But this is how things are, and we can’t pretend otherwise. We also can’t pretend that shoppers will walk into an electronics shop and not be shaken by such a wide choice, no matter how preeminent brand X was in their head before they walked in. “Sony Balls” was a great ad not just because it was memorable, but also because it gave shoppers a cognitive shortcut to navigate through that choice: “Colour”.

Martin Weigel recognizes this when he quotes Romanuik and Sharp (Conceptualizing and measuring brand salience, 2004) and their recommendation to consider a range of attributes associated with the brand in any measure of salience, but we should also be aware that this is not very different from what we’ve been trying to do for the past few decades. We simply haven’t done it very well, for many reasons.

If we instead celebrate “saliency” as a Copernican Revolution, the process of dumbing everything down that has been dooming our industry will more than likely turn it into a new buzzword like it did with “viral”, and we’ll soon hear clients asking us to give them something “salient” like they used to ask us for a “viral”: this terrifies me, because the quest for the “new exciting wonder” coupled with the unlimited creative possibilities of the digital age is more likely to produce the the most amazing collective waste of resources that Adland has ever seen than anything really valuable.

I’d rather do what we should have been doing, and do it well: investigate our product; explore what makes people tick; see if there’s a connection between the two; make it easy for them to find it; get them excited in the process, but not more than they’re willing to be.

If we do all this, and we do it well, we’ll make our brands salient. Chances are, we’ll make them viral, too.

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Does advertising even work?

(This is the third, much delayed, and last post in a series comparing political and brand communication)

Let’s get to what really matters: does political advertising work? And what can it teach us when it comes to brands?

Last things first: it can teach us a lot. Firstly, it’s a stress test: political campaigns are the most sophisticated form of persuasive communication. Secondly, we have more and better data: very few marketing organizations put as much effort and resources into research as campaigns do; those who do are not as consistent, regularly varying methodology, scope and object of the research depending on quarterly marketing plans; finally, the very few companies with a consistent record of research that allows for historical comparison tend to keep their results confidential. (Data from political campaigns is widely available because it comes partly from academic institutions and partly from organizations that tend to dismantle after one or few political cycles.)

So, back to the original question: does political advertising even work? Or are the billion+ dollars that are going to be spent in a presidential year just a huge waste to keep the networks happy and the pundits employed?


John Sides at George Washington University has summed up decades of scientific research to show what advertising has been proven to do and what it has not, in 6 points. (I dream of the day when Millward Brown will produce something this insightful, concise and solid). Here is what he found out, followed by my considerations on what it means for brands.

1. Campaign ads matter more when the candidates are unfamiliar

Not so surprisingly, we are more influenced by ads when we haven’t had a chance to formulate our own opinion on candidates. As time goes by, one of our many cognitive biases makes us more receptive to information that reinforces our opinion and less to that which would challenge it.

2. Campaign ads matter more when a candidate can outspend the opponent

Again, not such an original finding, but one we should take into account more: no matter how much we like the idea of underdogs defeating established leaders with smart tactics, share of voice still carries a huge weight.

3. Campaign ads can matter, but not for long

Folks in Madison Avenue and DC can recall every detail of an advertising campaign for years, but the truth is that regular people are exposed to an amazing amount of information every day, and even the stickiest ad won’t have a long-lasting effect. According to Sides’s study, “the effects of television advertising appear to last no more than a week”.

4. Negative ads work, except when they don’t

While negative ads are more easily recalled and can generate intense debate, there is no conclusive evidence that they can win votes.

5. Campaign ads don’t really affect turnout

This is easy to understand once we take a healthy distance from the Madison Avenue mindset: something you see on tv today, no matter how brilliant, is unlikely to make you get up and go to a polling station a few days or weeks from now. Direct communication on election day, whether door-to-door or over the phone, is much more effective, and exponentially more so when coming from sone you have a personal relationship with.

6. There is no secret sauce. Really.

Are successful ads about policy or a candidate’s biography? Should they raise fear or hope? Are stats and numbers interesting or boring? Like with so many other things in life, it depends. If there was a silver bullet, both candidates would be firing it at each other, and that would most likely neutralize its effect. But the truth is, there is no shortcut. It’s all about doing the right ad for the right objective at the right time, as defined by our talent and experience, and then hope that it works.


So what about brands?

There are clearly some major differences, the most significant being that brands don’t have the same amount of public exposure as political candidates: you don’t see Nike v Adidas televised debates in college campuses (no matter how fun that’d be…), and there is no army of reporters documenting their every move. Because of this, advertising is comparatively more important in shaping their image. (Although a case could be made for those brands that are often at the center of news stories, such as banks.)

However, John Side’s research does raise some questions worth thinking about:

1. If ads are more effective when brands are mostly unknown, should we really buy into the idea of lightning many fires and only investing in those that gain traction, or will it be too late by then to make the brand what we want it to be?

2.  If the effects of advertising disappears after a week, should we only produce ads that are engineered to deliver a tangible call-to-action to take the relationship further (eg. buy a product, enter into a loyalty program, download a widget) as opposed to mere brand-building?

3. Should we stop pretending that advertising alone can drive people to retail, and start taking the “lead a horse to water” metaphor more literally?

4. Finally, as none of this is particularly controversial, why are we not doing it?

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Always-On Marketing: what it is, what it’s not, and what politics should learn from it.

(This is the third post in a series comparing political and brand communication)

What I most admire in political communication, and without any doubt what businesses would benefit the most from, is its pragmatism, its focus on the one thing that matters: voting. Yes, perception, fundraising, volunteering, word-of-mouth are all important, but the only thing that really matters in the end is how many people will turn out on election day and vote for that one candidate.

This is in remarkable contrast with brand advertising, where we plan our campaigns to address KPIs like brand metrics, data capture, website visits or Facebook likes, as opposed to the behaviour that really creates value. Even campaigns rewarded for their effectiveness highlight their business results, but fail to demonstrate how they were engineered around the intended behaviour: more often than not, they highlight a disproportionate effect on the usual metrics (perception, website visits…) and imply that this somehow led to achieving the objective, but in a way that is hard to really pin down.

A good political campaign manager can instead trace the number of votes in each constituency back to the “get out the vote” drives and calls, to the field operations and to media communication within an acceptable degree of statistical significance.

Of course, this is greatly helped by the one key difference between votes and purchases: elections take place in one day, the same for everyone. This makes it much easier to plan investments and messages, concentrate efforts and mobilize voters.

However, is the focus on election day doing more harm than good to politics?


There’s a big literature on how winning elections has gone from being a mean to being an end in itself,  and how governments have failed to execute the policies they were voted for, opting instead to prepare for the next election cycle. What many commentators do not understand is that this is not a triumph of marketing, but rather its failure.

The draining drive towards a cathartic instant when change would happen and a new time would start makes it incredibly hard for politicians to maintain support and use it when it matters even more than on election day: every single day after it, when policies must be passed and enacted through a number of obstacles.

It’s not for a lack of effort: Organizing for America was created precisely for the purpose of mobilizing voters in favour of Obama’s legislative agenda. Yet Organizing for America failed. The greatest support-generating machine in political history failed to generate support for its first major, defining policy: health reform.

I believe this is due to a fundamental misunderstanding of marketing (hence its failure): marketing is seen as what leads to a sale. It’s entirely normal then that once the sale is secured, and the elections are won, the best talents move on to the act of governing and policy-making (or backroom politics) until the next election cycle, where they’re brought back into the field to secure re-purchase.

This is a familiar pattern to anyone who runs a commercial business, and this is where politics can learn from Always-on Marketing.

But first we should define what it is.

Always-on Marketing is not monitoring what’s happening and reacting in real time: that’s all right and good, but it’s only tactical behaviour that leads to spot promotions and damage control. It doesn’t affect the fundamentals of the relationship between you, your consumer, and your product.

Always-on Marketing is not pestering your consumers every day trying to engage with them and get them to join the conversation: that’s a childish behaviour that provides no value apart from feeding your brand’s ego.

Always-on Marketing is also not Customer Relationship Management, if by that we mean an effort to provide a satisfactory service and performance in order to secure the next sale. There’s much more to that.

Always-on Marketing is designing your product to be a journey: the product is just the ticket, the real value is in the ride. And your role as a brand is to point out the exciting directions where people can go, and help them get there. Again, the first obvious example is iPhone: the phone is the ticket, but Apple soon moved on to advertising apps, and then games, and then films and tv-series… On a smaller scale, Lurpak is doing the same.

There are obviously some products that are not suitable for this (toilet paper, anyone?), and in particular we can say that Always-on Marketing works at its best with products that are platforms.

Yet too many of them are still not marketed this way, starting from politics.


Politics is fundamentally a platform: a series of relationships between elected officials, activists and voters, that can be used to activate policies.

Looking at it through the filter of Always-on Marketing allows us to bridge the gap between campaigning and governing, and look at the system as a whole, where:

– elections give candidates an opportunity to build the platform

– the strongest platform wins the elections

– the platform is activated by policies, that are at the same time its purpose and its vital support

– if that’s the case, maintaining the platform is as important as using it to activate the policies, so as much talent should go into the former as into the latter

– actually, activating the policies equals maintaining the platform, and the other way around, so the same talent should do both

In  politics, your best policy expert is also your best community organizer.

In business, your best experience designer is also your best evangelist.

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Brand Strategy in Washington, Dc. What advertising can learn from politics. (2/2)

(This is the second post in a series comparing political and brand communication.)

In my previous post I suggested a framework for brand strategy inspired by a model for political communication devised by Edwin Diamond and Stephen Bates. It looks a bit like this:

We can use this model to judge the consistency between what some brands are currently communicating and their ideal trajectory.

Let’s start with Mobile Operators: they’re a funny breed, as they all essentially behave the very same way, to the point of even sounding the same. Don’t you see how “we’re better connected because life’s for sharing?”  That’s the sign that all operators have their feet firmly planted on a visionary territory. The problem with this is that they’re all telling slightly different variants of the same story about people and life, one in which their only direct contribution is, well, connectivity: aka, air. They bought so much into the idea that they’re an undifferentiated commodity, that they’re behaving as one: they’re not telling us about who they are (because they believe they’re all the same, so we end up believing it as well), nor about their products (save the regular new tariff…when was the last time you paid attention to one?), nor about why they’re better than their competitors (have they even given up trying to be?). They’re only telling us a human truth, be it that “together we have fun” or that “we are who we are because of the people we met”: that’s all good and true, but it is so with or without them. In other words, they’re selling us a vision that we can’t recognize as theirs, because we don’t know who they are, what they give us, and where that will take us. Things would be different if they worked out a distinctive, credible and relevant purpose for their brand, and then proceeded to position their products and services within that framework. To this extent, it doesn’t matter that they factually run the very same business. Just look at Nike and Adidas: they produce commodities, but refuse to look at themselves as one.

Fast Food chains are in a very different place: they each managed to carve their own distinctive positioning, a remarkable achievement for an industry that essentially sells meat, bread and an undistinguished bunch of toppings. Most of the communication is still focused on product (with the exception of some comparative ads), and that’s a reasonable universal trait of the food industry: it’s what makes us drool, just show it to us and we’ll want one. Now. Having said this, in response to the alleged undeniable obesity epidemics in some western countries, certain major brands have been broadening their product offer to include salads, fruit and other unlikely combinations.  These products have been marketed as evidence of a new vision of healthy/balanced/fresh/you-name-it diet, that is supposed to be more in line with what consumers (and regulators) expect today. That’s precisely the problem: that vision is in line with what consumers expect (from eating in general) and what regulators may  demand (from the fast food industry), but they’re not necessarily in line with the brand themselves. This is an issue of consistency between the brand’s DNA and its vision: no matter how sleek their new shops are, Mc Donald’s still smells of hamburgers. (Much to the delight of many of its fans). On the other hand, a vision built around “fresh” is entirely consistent with who Subway is, and as such they’ve been able to benefit from recent food trends without changing much of their offer. On the other end of the spectrum, Burger King has for a long time stayed loyal to its vision of Food for Men, one that is rooted in their products and their heritage. I’m curios to see what will happen now that things have changed.

Finally, fashion sheds its own peculiar light on this model: high-end fashion is fundamentally tautological, and it finds the justification for its promise within itself.  A certain item is fashionable because it comes from a fashion label. (More precisely, a certain item is fashionable because it respect the canons of fashion. The canons of fashion are as such because they’re established by fashion labels. And fashion labels produce fashion items). In other words, a brand dna is its vision, and the other way around:  think at Armani’s rigorous elegance (with a few exceptions that might end up proving harmful) or Dolce&Gabbana’s decadent taste. Fashion makes itself credible and relevant, so all it has to be is consistent. With the first and fourth step of the trajectory being effectively one and the same, and the third ruled out because fashion brands are tautological and as such can only be compared to themselves, all that’s left is ensuring that all the products, from haute couture collections down to accessories, are consistent with the label’s creative (and symbolic) direction. Unlike what some people think, fashion labels are not recreating themselves every few months in an effort to make their old collection obsolete and get people to buy a new one that they really wouldn’t need: that’s only a skin-deep drama, although an incredibly effective one. Fundamentally they’re the most conservative brands, always true to their core and incapable of evolution. This model visualizes why.

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Brand Strategy in Washington, Dc. What advertising can learn from politics. (1/2)

(This is the first post in a series comparing political and brand communication.)

I mentioned before that US Presidential Elections can be considered the most complex and advanced form of persuasive communication, and as such can offer an interesting framework of reference for brand advertising.

This is true for political campaigns in general, as they all share a number of defining and challenging requirements:

  1. the goal of influencing not just perception, but a specific user behaviour (or actually, two: voting v non voting, and the merit of the vote)
  2. a mix of functional and emotional needs and triggers
  3. a diverse audience
  4. the broadest media environment (earned, owned and all sorts of paid media you can think of, including the not-so-legal…)
  5. a direct, fierce competitive environment where there can only be one winner
  6. a deadline everyone works against
  7. a vast number of stakeholders and influencers
  8. inequalities in resources
  9. formal and informal rules to abide by
  10. a need to respond to unforeseeable and potentially game-changing events
  11. (I could go on, but I think 10 is a neat number)

Looking at the narrative and structure employed by political campaigns can provide an enlightening framework for businesses dealing with some of the issues above.


In their bookThe Spot (1992), Edwin Diamond and Stephen Bates identify four phases of political advertising: ID spots; argument spots; attacks spots and what they call “I see an America” spots. (For each phase I’m showing examples from Obama 2008, as the best and most recent example of a candidate going from virtual unknown to frontrunner, and Apple, as the brand with the most strategically solid trajectory.)

ID spots introduce the candidate and establish an initial credibility and positional framework. They’re necessary to lay the ground for future communication, and we can consider them akin to brand ads. They’re particularly important for candidates (or brands) that have little name recognition and need to become popular enough to be taken seriously, or have slipped out of the public eye and need to reaffirm their saliency.  

Argument spots introduce the candidate’s policies, ranging from broad statements to greater level of details, and can be (and usually are) tailored for specific communities and constituencies. We can consider them product ads 

Attacks spots are negative ads aimed at hurting other candidates, and they’re only introduced after a positive profile of the candidate has been established. The fundamental reason for this is that getting someone to reconsider support for candidate Y is only useful if they have an immediate, acceptable alternative in candidate X. They work in a very similar way to comparative ads.  

Finally, the “I see an America” spots invite “viewers to visualize the country as it would be under the candidate’s presidency” (Craig Allen Smith, “Presidential Campaign Communication”). The purpose of the ads is at the same time to move the candidate beyond the phase of conflict making his victory seem so immediate and inevitable that it has already borne fruit, and to reconcile him with supporters of struggling rivals, offering them a future scenario they’d also feel comfortable in. This genre of ads is remarkably rare in brand communication, and rightly so given the mismatch between their ambition and the limited potential that any product has to change the future. However, there are cases of ambitions brands that come up visionary ads painting a portrait of the future and inviting us to step in: most of them are meaningless and easily dismissed, but every once in a while the combination of creative inspiration and an inch of credibility makes them stick.   


What does this mean for brands?

First, it defies the recent marketing myth that states that brands should not talk about themselves, but about consumers instead. If people don’t know who you are or where you’re coming from, it’s very hard for them to grant credibility to anything you say or sell.

Second, it offers a trajectory for brands, and provides a framework to evaluate messages against.

For instance, it captures how Apple went through a phase of birth, decline and re-birth, and this explains why you see two visionary ads: 1984 came on the back of the first few years of success, and was meant to open Apple to a broader audience; the recent iPad 2 ad, while displaying the product, is fundamentally stating an inspiring and approachable brand vision that can make everyone feel welcome. It’s no coincidence it does so with its most ecumenical product, and it represents the culmination of Apple’s rebirth trajectory.

In the upcoming post I’ll use this framework to look at a number of other brands from different industries.

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Unlike-minded slides

A rallying cry for the unlike-minded. With fewer words and more pretty pictures.

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