Strategy. Innovation. Brand.


The Curse of Knowledge

You know too much.

You know too much.

Long ago, when I was a product manager at NBI, I gave a speech on local area networks (LANs) at a customer conference. LANs were just becoming popular at the time and industry analysts were debating which standards would prevail.

NBI was betting on a standard called CSMA/CD. IBM was betting on token ring. The objective of my speech was to persuade the audience that CSMA/CD was the better choice and, therefore, more likely to prevail in the long run. Token ring, on the other hand, was risky and might become a dead end product – much like IBM’s OS/2 operating system.

I knew the technology cold and I gave a great speech if I do say so myself. I highlighted the technology advantages of CSMA/CD. I set criteria around the key functions that CSMA/CD could perform and token ring couldn’t. I know that most audiences admire IBM so I didn’t take any cheap shots at Big Blue. A cheap shot would weaken my credibility, not theirs.

At the end of the speech, I was busy patting myself on the back when a very nice woman came up and asked a simple question: “What’s a LAN?” Throughout my speech, I had defined an array of advanced technical concepts but had forgotten to define the basics. My face turned red as I realized that I had just made the rookiest of rookie mistakes. I had asked the audience to come to my house rather than going to their house.

In the trade, this is known as the curse of knowledge. I knew the audience wouldn’t know the finer points of CSMA/CD but I assumed – erroneously – that they grasped the basics. I didn’t need to explain them. I never even thought about it.

In Made To Stick, the Brothers Heath tell the story of “tappers” and “listeners” which was the subject of Elizabeth Newton’s dissertation in psychology. Tappers received a list of popular songs and were asked to tap out the song on a tabletop. No whistling or humming allowed; just tap on the table. Listeners were supposed to guess the song.

Tappers were confident that they could convey the song successfully at least 50 percent of the time. But, in fact, listeners guessed the song correctly only 2.5 percent of the time.

Why were the tappers so confident? Because they could hear the song in their head. They heard the taps but they also heard so much more. As the Heaths point out, “Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.”

When I gave my speech on LANs, I could hear the entire song in my head. I knew how it sounded. I knew how to orchestrate it. I knew where to pause. I knew where to put in jokes. I knew it cold.

The only thing I didn’t know was what was in my audience’s head. That’s the curse.

Social Media Gets Creepy

Yikes! It's Twitter!

Yikes! It’s Twitter!

As we discussed social media in my branding class, one of my students noted that she was inundated with bridal ads when she announced her engagement on Facebook. That seemed a little creepy – an event in your private life fuels a targeted, persistent ad campaign. Still, with the new rules of Facebook, it’s not unexpected.

A few months ago, I wrote a brief article about Twitter‘s ability to identify your location and your relationships. In turn, that information could power an innovative (and free) package delivery service. The delivery service sounds like a good idea, but the fact that Twitter can identify your location with such precision and immediacy seems a little creepy.

On Saturday, I read an article about college admissions officers. They’re now using social media to understand their applicants better. In some cases, they’re using social media to reject applicants who are otherwise qualified. You could be ready to go to the school of your choice when they discover that you’re a bit of a jerk and decide that you’re not the kind of person they want in their school.

If I applied for a job, I would expect the human resources department to check me out online. That’s appropriate due diligence and doesn’t seem creepy. But to check on teenagers as they apply for college? That seems creepy. They’re teenagers; of course they say stupid stuff. It’s creepy to expect them not to.

Then I read an article in Technology Review that assesses how software will soon be able to assess our personalities via our tweets. The goal is “to go below behavioral analysis like Amazon does,” says an IBM researcher. “We want to use social media to derive information about an individual—what is the overall affect of this person? How resilient is this person emotionally? People with different personalities want something different.”

If all goes well (?), the software will review your Twitter feed and assess your Big Five personality traits: extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience. It could also score your values (hedonism, conservatism, etc.) and needs (curiosity, need for harmony, etc.).

And what would they do with all this information? Target ads at you, of course. If advertisers understand your individual psychology, they can tune their messages and their content to your individual needs, emotions, fears, and desires. It’s like food engineering that’s designed to keep you eating, except that this is designed to keep you buying.

It’s creepy enough that advertisers can use your inner self to sell you stuff. But what happens next? Will potential employers assess your personality via Twitter? Will college admissions officers reject you because your Twitter psycho-scan says you’re needy? Now that’s creepy.

So, I’m wondering — as social media becomes creepier, do you feel like you’re being stalked?  At what point do you think social media crosses the line and becomes too intrusive? Will any of this change your social media behavior? Let me know.

Brand Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

Ironic or goofy?

Ironic or goofy?

The students in my branding class just reminded of one of the basic axioms of branding: It doesn’t matter what you think. It only matters what your target market thinks.

To demonstrate the impact of brands, I posted six picture of myself in shirts with different logos. I minimized other variables – using the same pose, the same background, the same facial expression, etc. All the shirts, save one, were “polo” style. The idea was to isolate the logos and their respective brands. I then asked the students what they thought of each version of me. Was one was more friendly than others? Was one more stuck up? Was one richer? Another poorer?”

As an afterthought, I tossed in a picture of me wearing a (non-polo) shirt with a dachshund logo (pictured). I bought the shirt on a whim because we have a dachshund (pictured here) and I like the breed. I thought my friends (my target market) would enjoy the (inside) joke.

Well, my students let me know that what they beheld was a lot different than what I beheld. I thought the shirt was cool in an ironic kind of way. They thought it was gaudy and generally inappropriate. (I guess I’m too old to be ironic). One student wrote, “I perceived that one to be more “stuck up” and rich. … plaid button-down shirts are often worn by wealthy Hamptons residents, it screams yacht club, country club to me.” Another student, wrote, “The shirt is crazy bright with pink and purple so he will stand out in a crowd. I barely notice the logo because the shirt screams I am here.” Yet another wrote, “As for the plaid… I’m biased against plaid.  I think it looks goofy.”

So, I thought I looked cool but others saw me as stuck-up, rich, self-centered, and goofy. Yikes!

All of which brings me to Miley Cyrus and her recent re-branding at the Video Music Awards (VMA) ceremony. I’ve read a lot of hand-wringing articles about Miley’s twerking. Unfortunately, none of those articles were written by members of Miley’s target audience. In terms of branding, it doesn’t matter much what the parents of Miley’s fans think. In fact, horrifying the parents may be the simplest way to win the hearts and minds of the kids. Miley’s saying, in effect, “We’re in this together. They don’t understand.” That’s a message that always resonates with teens. It’s one of the reasons I liked the Rolling Stones as a kid. My parents thought the Dave Clark Five were just fine but that the Stones “went too far”. Message to me: cue the Stones.

What’s the message here? First, identify your target market. Second, understand exactly what your target market thinks, what they believe, and what they value. Third, ignore anyone who is not in the target market. It doesn’t matter what they think. Fourth, that includes you. You are not the target market. Forget yourself. Brand is in the eye of the beholder.

Creativity Templates – 2

Pictorial Analogy

Pictorial Analogy

A few days ago, I wrote about the study that Jacob Goldenberg et. al. used to demonstrate the effectiveness of creativity templates. Goldenberg and his associates used several different methods to create and test ads. They found that six creativity templates – though not foolproof – consistently created better ads than alternative methods.

So what were the templates? Here they are. (Note: Some of the examples used come from the original article, others come from my experiences).

Template 1 – Pictorial Analogy – uses a picture to exemplify the product (or product attribute) in a compelling way. Two basic versions exist:

Version 1 – Replacement – in illustrating the complexity of warehouse management, we used a picture of a gumball machine filled with different colored gumballs. The picture “replaces” the warehouse and emphasizes the difficulty of getting the right inventory off the shelf and delivered to customers.

Version 2 – Extreme analogy – the picture represents something extreme about the product. For instance, running shoes that cushion the shock might be illustrated with landing gear on a space ship touching down on Mars.

Template 2 – Extreme Situation – creates an unrealistic situation to emphasize key attributes.

Version 1 – Absurd alternative – a security alarm ad shows a woman barking at intruders to scare them away. You don’t have to use our alarm system. You can always learn to bark like a dog – an absurd alternative.

Version 2 – Extreme attribute – exaggerate a product attribute to the absurd. To communicate that a Jeep can go anywhere, show it driving along the bottom of the ocean

Version 3 – Extreme worth – exaggerate the worth of a product feature to the absurd.

Template 3 – Consequences – illustrates the (exaggerated or extreme) consequences of using or not using the product.

Version 1 – Extreme consequences – at a B2B software company, we sent hammocks to a select group of CIOs to give them a place to relax after they bought our software.

Version 2 – Inverted consequences – we also sent straitjackets (real ones – very creepy) to another group of CIOs to show them how they would feel if they didn’t buy our software. Note: the straitjackets worked better.

Template 4 – Competition – the product (or attribute) is shown competing with a product from a completely different class

Version 1 – Attribute in competition – to illustrate the speed of a car, show it racing a bullet.

Version 2 – Worth in competition – not how it performs (speed) but how much it’s worth to you

Version 3 – Uncommon use – a young couple’s car breaks down. A friend offers to tow them but doesn’t have a towrope. They use the husband’s jeans as a towrope. An uncommon use that illustrates the product’s toughness.

Template 5 – Interactive Experiment – invites the viewer into an experiment which demonstrates the need for the product or service

Version 1 – Activation version – you actually engage in the experiment.  For instance, you’re invited to scratch your head over a black patch in a magazine. If white flakes appear on the black patch, you need our dandruff shampoo

Version 2 – Imaginary experiment – well, imagine this …

Template 6 – Dimensionality Alteration — change the relationship between the product attribute and the environment.

Version 1 – New parameter – change an attribute in the environment to accentuate the product attribute. To accentuate the color of a shirt, create a photo in which everything is in black-and-white except the shirt.

Version 2 – Multiplication – multiply the product (or product attribute) and then compare it to something in the environment. Example: early Hyundai ads, where two Hyundais cost less than one entry-level Toyota.

Version 3 – Division – divide the product into component parts and compare them to each other and/or to the environment.

Version 4 – Time leap – present an ordinary scenario but make it interesting by shifting it to the past or future. A wife argues with her husband about why he cancelled the life insurance. Sounds ordinary, until you realize that it’s set in the future, when the husband is already dead.

Do these templates always work? Well…. no. But I can attest that they are more efficient and effective than classic brainstorming techniques where no answer is wrong and we throw everything on the white board to see what sticks. Go ahead, give ’em a try.

Branding — So Easy It’s Hard

A one-word brand: Credibility

A one-word brand: Credibility

Yesterday, I wrote that our personal brands mainly consist of what others say about us when we’re not around. I also suggested that the sum of what others say about us is usually 25 words or less.

So branding should be easy, right? How hard can it be? I can usually dash off 25 words in less than a minute. So why is branding so hard to get right?

Let’s not forget what George Bernard Shaw wrote in a long letter to a friend. At the end of the letter, Shaw noted, “Forgive me for writing such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short letter.”

The simple (and often unobserved) truth is that writing short is a lot harder than writing long. You need to agonize over what stays in and what doesn’t. The shorter the message, the harder the task.

Writing a message that differentiates you in 25 words or less takes a lot of discipline. I could talk about myself for hours (which is a perfect way to spoil a date). But writing 50 words ensures that you’ll fail. If the message doesn’t fit, it doesn’t stick. None of it.

One way to think about this is to identify the minimum message necessary to get in the door. I worked for B2B software companies. We could say a lot about our product’s features and functions. But what did it take to get in the door to see a decision maker? Ultimately, we decided that it was one word: simplicity. We offered simple solutions. Our competitors offered complex solutions. That was often enough to get us in the door. Once we were in, we could tell the rest of the story.

Similarly, what’s the minimum message necessary to get a prospective car buyer through the showroom door? In Volvo’s case, it’s a single word: safety. There’s a lot you can say about a Volvo but Volvo employees wait until you’re in the showroom to say it. I know exactly why I would go (or not go) to a Volvo showroom. It’s because I’m interested (or not) in a safe car. I self-select.

On the other hand, I’m not sure why I would go to, say, a Lincoln showroom. Lincoln just isn’t a clearly defined brand in my mind. Perhaps they’ve said too much.

Similarly, Bill Clinton often says too much. In 1992, his goal was to get votes (similar to getting in the door). But he talked so much he continually muddled his message. Finally, James Carville taught him that, “It’s the economy, stupid”. Carville also said, “If you say three things, you’ve said nothing.” With Carville providing the discipline, Clinton clarified his brand and won the election.

The essence of branding is knowing what to leave out. We’re always tempted to say too much. That muddies the water. To keep the water clear, say less and say it consistently. I’ve said enough.

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