Category Archives: Bibliography

Branding with vinegar or without?

I’ve been meaning to mention a book that I really enjoyed: Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely. It examines some of the quirks in our buying behaviors and some of the types of judgments we make based on perceptions and preconceptions. This is an area where a brand’s mystique or prestige can have a big influence. There is a fun case study in the book where they went to a pub and offered a taste test of two different beers, but (warning: spoiler ahead) they were really the same beer with one of the glasses having a few drops of vinegar added – when people were told about the vinegar before tasting almost all of the participants preferred the untainted beer, however when the next group of participants had their turn they tasted the beers first, gave their opinions, and only then were told about the vinegar. Amazingly most of them preferred the vinegar laced beer. The only difference in the taste experience was the knowledge of the addition and the preconceptions most people have about the taste of vinegar.

What if we take this idea and move it to a different scenario: Imagine a handbag on the shelf at some big-box retailer, and then place the handbag with a new label in a high-prestige high-fashion boutique…. For many, the two bags represent completely different experiences – experiences which are governed by perceptions, peer influence, and aspirational values, rather than objective measures such as qualities of materials or workmanship.

What I find interesting is that I think the disruptive and democratizing influence of the Internet is encouraging a higher degree of authenticity in branding. Consider in my handbag example. Suppose some less than starry-eyed consumer notes that the big-box bag and the high-fashion bag are in fact identical in every way except label. The outraged consumer decides to write a blog post and publish pictures exposing the situation – the word spreads as readers of the blog mention it to their friends and link to the article from their own blogs and emails – maybe a consumer reporter picks up the story and investigates – Suddenly the high-fashion brand’s reputation appears tarnished, perhaps the big-box retailer’s cachet is slightly improved (less likely), but no matter what a pressure is applied to the brand-conscious high-fashion company to make sure that the next bag they produce exceeds the big-box bag by some measure that is meaningful to the brand cachet of the firm, be it quality, or cost of materials, or design, or originality, etc. It is a pressure toward authenticity, specifically an authenticity to the expectation promoted by the brand itself. Authenticity to the brand promise.

I think the concept of considering a brand as not a label, but an agreement between producer and consumer, a settlement between promoted values and actual experiences, is not only empowering, but is essential to the successful practice of branding in the Internet age.

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I couldn't have said it better myself

Just wanted to share two great quotes from a terrific article: “Can You Say What Your Strategy Is?” by David J. Collis and Michael G. Rukstad in this month’s Harvard Business Review. The first is the teaser for the article:

“It’s a dirty little secret: Most executives cannot articulate the objective, scope, and advantage of their business in a simple statement. If they can’t, neither can anyone else.”

Although the article is discussing strategy statements I think this speaks to the vital importance of brand positioning and the all-to-common void of clarity in this area from the corner office on down the line. The second quote points to the solution by affirming the power of well-chosen words to act as a catalyst for brand alignment:

“A 35-word statement can have a substantial impact on a company’s success…. Spending the time to develop the few words that truly capture your strategy and that will energize and empower your people will raise the long-term financial performance of your organization.”

Can You Say What Your Strategy Is? by Collis and Rukstad, Harvard Business Review, Vol.86 No.4, April 2008

I love it!

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Dark feathers, bright ideas

Last night we had the first meeting of our new book club, and I thought it was a terrific success.  We had chosen The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb  for our first read and the general consensus of the group was that it was a particularly meaty choice for an inaugural meeting, but the conversation certainly didn’t suffer for it. Taleb is definitely an ornery individual and not afraid to debunk conventional wisdom. The book can be a little tough to get through, in part because Taleb deliberately jumps from one stylistic approach to another, but I highly recommend it nonetheless. The central theme is that truly random events are unforeseen, unplanned-for, and they can and do occur, sometimes with tremendous impact. When they have this last attribute of tremendous impact, be it positive or negative (think plane crash vs. finding out that the painting in your grandmother’s attic is a Picasso),  then the author dubs them “Black Swans”.   This book is in part a warning, but I don’t think the author’s purpose is to keep us looking over our shoulders or otherwise acting with paranoia.  I think the takeaways are think for yourself, be skeptical of experts, and be humble: you and the experts may owe a greater debt to luck than you may realize.  I don’t spend a lot of time trading stocks so I won’t opine on the author’s “barbell strategy” for investment, but as an entrepreneur I was intrigued by the concept of aligning yourself with opportunities that can benefit from positive black swans, but are more resilient to negative black swans.  I interpret this as be nimble in your thinking and flexible in your tactics, which aligns well with launching a business.  I also thought Taleb did a great job of reminding us that we need to not ignore the consequence of outlying events even if (especially if) the event is not a black swan and, in fact, does fit within our statistical model.  Hence the example that I loved: don’t try to wade across a river whose average depth is 4ft.  The deviations in depths are accounted for, but easily glossed over in theory, yet they can drown you in practice.

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Simplicity Made Simple

John Maeda is remarkable. He is a designer, computer scientist,  and spokesperson for all things simple. He is the author of a wonderful little book called “The Laws of Simplicity.“  Why is it wonderful?  Why is he remarkable? Well, anyone who would in print (see p.89) accuse a rugby team (and I say this as a former member of the scrum) of relying too much on intellect is remarkable IMHO.

The book is wonderful because of the audacity and originality of the subject. Maeda takes an a priori concept, simplicity, and makes it the focal point of a structured meditation and analysis. We all know what simplicity is when we run across it.  We admire it when it informs design, and we expect it in our daily interactions with both life and technology, but how many of us have taken a pause to reflect on it? If for no other reason than to take some time out to marinate on the nature of simplicity, this book is a worthy read.

Personally, I am most excited about the role of context in the study of simplicity. Simplicity doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it needs complexity as a foil to have meaning. Exploring the tension between complexity and simplicity can often be the foundation of great design, elegant usability, or even an effective business model. In the book, Maeda keeps it simple, deliberately only scratching the surface on this and other aspects of simplicity, but in doing so he creates a framework for deeper analysis, and even argument.  The simplicity of the structure providing the mental space for exploring a not-so-simple subject.

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211 vs. 212

I recently read a wonderful and inspiring little book called, “212 The Extra Degree“, by S. L. Parker.  The basic premise stems from a scientific observation: At 211 degrees Fahrenheit you have very hot water, but add just one degree of temperature to reach 212 and you now have boiling water, which produces steam, which in turn can be harnessed to provide enormous power.   I think it is a great metaphor. Too often we fall short of giving that extra 1 degree of effort that could be making all the difference in our lives and in our businesses.   If you have ever felt unsure about whether it is worthwhile to go the extra mile, or if you are looking for inspiration to take your success and satisfaction to a new level this may be a great book for you

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