Dawkins, not Hawkins: choosing the right communication paradigm

The recent review of Stephen Hawkins’ latest book by the Economist had in me tears of laughter.  Not “rolling on the floor” type merriment but rather “looking in the sunset – feeling pleased with myself” type of laughter.   “God played no part in the book, which was renowned for being bought by everyone and understood by few.”   Couldn’t have said it better myself!

I need to clarify something.  I read a lot of popular science books.   Before they came along in such quality and frequency I had to resort to University first year text books to quickly understand a topic I am interested in.  But precisely because I read a lot of them, I know very well what I am looking for.    The problem with the Hawkins’ book is that “whenever the going threatens to get tough, the authors retreat into hand-waving, and move briskly on to the next awe-inspiring notion.”

Contrast this type of book with the works of Richard Dawkins, even much older ones and there is a lot to learn, useful for communicating even simple business messages:

1. Passion helps.  Meandering aimlessly around the Universe really lacks the kind of story that Dawkins pulls together in “The Blind Watchmaker” or even “Climbing Mount Improbable”.  If the story tellers has no sense of purpose, it is impossible to hide it though “facts”, “experiments” or “data”.

2. It is not about the particular subject matter.   Genes are not inherently more interesting than photons or black holes.  In fact I would argue that most of science is exactly the same once you get to the bottom of it, ie simultaneously practical and infinitely philosophical.

3. Inviting feedback is an art.  The main thesis has to be broken down to a size for everyone to get involved.   It is no coincidence that Richard Dawkins has caused such furore.   He is not the first to remind us that we are descendants of monkeys.   Yet he is No1 on many fanatics’ hit lists!

4. Open lines of communication.  Dawkins’ books are fun to read even from the opening as he answers Gould or any other critic since the previous edition.  He takes on tough assignments like standing in front of Christians explaining his ideas and he never backs down from a chance to defend his views.  (Search for “Dawkins” + “debate” for an idea of how much he uses this tool.)

Granted, some topics are better than others.   It is easy to get lost in numbers and theories while star gazing.   The molecular biology paradigm is infinitely superior to physics because it is easier to relate to examples from the animal kingdom and the hard reality of the need for ecological thinking is dawning on the entire planet.   “While perhaps offering great tanning opportunities, any solar system with multiple suns would probably never allow life to develop” (Hawkins’ book excerpt) is funny but surely lacks impact in a world pondering global warming and sunburn.

Dawkins spells this out beautifully in a book which I believe should be taught to everyone attending University.  Unweaving the Rainbow takes aim at the question of science vs art and demolishes the barriers by following the rules I laid out above.   It is a tear jerker for anyone that loves science.   And while the poets won’t be far behind in line for their hankies, maybe they will all get a good discussion going.

And that is what I call great communication.

Business Society Technology

How to really beat Facebook or Twitter either as a competitor or as a legislator

The whole privacy debate around Facebook is a joke. I mean literally, Zuckenberg must be laughing privately about it. While it avoids the real issue, he rests assured that legislators have no idea what Facebook is really about: lulling you into a false sense of security so that you will unwittingly give away private information in the wrong context. If that sounds too devious to you then you probably don’t use Facebook a lot. Or you use it and don’t think. Which is exactly what it wants you to be like. was a great idea and it offers an intelligent, possibly automated solution to this privacy problem. I used it at work to build teams’ awareness of the different characters, strengths and weaknesses and team dynamics. It is a shame it hasn’t developed at all but this is probably because the people that made it have been hired by Google. Which is the only company that understands what this article is about. Personal DNA built a psychographic profile of you based on multiple questions. It is accurate and, better still, you can invite someone to take the test and see what he or she think you are like. This is also very accurate and offers valuable insights. And it is a million times more useful than trying to clump your friends into categories like Facebook pretends to suggest we should do.

When you post a status update, you can select that “Everyone” sees it. Or “Friends” or some category of friends. Only the first two make any sense. If you select “everyone” or you have forgotten status update in “everyone mode” Google and various tools we social engineers use be able to easily see what you are up to in real time privately. If you select “friends only” Facebook has fooled you. Because what sort of homogenous bunch of friends is the correct forum for this message you are about to deliver? That picture of you in a swimsuit on the beach. You want your uncle to see it? Might your ex boyfriend take it the wrong way? And what about that ex co worker who now works at a company you are hoping to get a job but is a bit conservative? Think before you post it.

“No, don’t think.” Facebook’s interface is like the little cartoon devil that sits on your shoulder to make you forget all these complicating factors. Privacy is either on or off. “Don’t think” it echoes like a ghostly voice. “We want the world to be more open” says Mark as if privacy is like piracy. “Information wants to be free” and other mindless, out of context slogans are catchy.

Privacy, the ability to choose which contact see which information is in fact the basis of all human interaction, probably the reason our brains are as big as they are in our social state of being homo sapiens. And this is how I, a bunch of psychologists, sociologists, programmers and enough funding, can beat Facebook within two years.

All it takes is a few Facebook apps that we will sneak past them. One will monitor everything you post and make a double check for you by throwing random people in front of you as a pop up window. “Before you post that status are you sure Mary Johnson is someone you want to see this?” followed by a few possible reasons. Based on this information it will build the intelligence of PersonalDna over time. PersonalDna actually exists on Facebook as an app but it is way to much like hard work to spend half an hour filling it in.

We would have to invent smarter interface tweaks to keep you interested while getting useful psychographic information off you. I won’t give them all away here. But every time you do something on Facebook, every “like”, every comment, every YouTube video you post, we will be intentionally collecting data about you. Facebook can’t stop me doing this because if worse comes to worse, I can do this as a virtual friend. You will befriend my personal psychologist and I will send you my advice.

The whole thing will hinge on the presentation of the information to you and I will borrow know how from the astrology industry. We will tell you how likely you are to score with that boy or girl you are poking, before you actually poke. We will tell you who in your network to try and impress to get a job. Other applications will tell you which groups to join or leave to improve how your profile looks to specific friends. We will make it all fun, free and cheerful. And accurate.

If it is too accurate it will be scary. That is the whole point of Facebook’s deception in it’s current design. So we will make it accurate enough and fun enough at the initial level of contact. If you want to go to the next level you will have to read a lot and think a lot, so you probably won’t go there unless you are serious.

Of course this platform I will build is much, much better than either Facebook or Google at serving advertising content. Because I will not just know what your are interested in. I will know how you like content served. And which of your friends are likely to buy the product or service too. With much much greater degrees of accuracy.

The accuracy of a self respecting homo sapiens in 2010 and true human development.

Business Communication

Spam, spam, spam in my Domino’s pizza

Real Beauty in Domino’s pizza campaign in Greece is lost in execution

When I first started getting emails about a free Domino’s pizza some time ago I tried to ignore them. As they persisted and went well past the major spam level I retorted to complain about it in my blog. Added a twist of something more interesting as I usually do. Got it out of my system and forgot about it. Hey that’s what blogs are for!

But the emails persisted. I have lost count but it is very close to fifty separate, identical emails from the same two senders with exactly the same email content. This is probably the worse spamming in Greek internet history. And to make it worse I actually signed up for their damn offer to try and make it stop. I ate it and once again hoped the emails would stop. After all, I signed up with the same email they were spamming.

But like Chinese water torture it dripped on.

So when Domino’s launched their “real beauty” campaign, I was ready for flame wars! I have infinite admiration for the way they are refreshing the entire concept of pizza marketing. Pizzas without any retouching of any sort. And this doesn’t mean they will just pay for better photographers. encourages you to upload your own pizza pictures. ( is much more interesting and “really real” by the way…) Chipotle is also trying this line of “intelligent” advertising by emphasizing the lack of typical images in their ads: We wanted to have farmers in our ads, but what sells are big burritos, not lessons in farming.”

Please, you wonderful and creative people at Domino’s pizza marketing, please check up on local execution. Not even a free pizza a day can save you in my mind now! My waistline can’t afford it and every time I see your logo I connect it with spam…

Business Communication

Guerilla brand marketing at the World Cup

The Greek army was a terrible bunch of  civil servants when I served.  The fact that I had experience from the British Territorials only made it worse.  From a well disciplined, goals oriented, clear management situation in South England to a bunch of fat, always smoking group of imbeciles in various camps around Greece.  I quickly made up my mind: if there is ever a war in Greece I will leave for the mountains and do guerrilla resistance.  In fact I even have a Band of Brothers, people with a similar view on it, and we have a secret rendez vous location on a Greek mountain in the event of war.

Checking out the buzz reports for the first three weeks of the World Cup, to my great pleasure it wasn’t Sony that topped the charts of risers. Sure, in the UK and Germany it was second and third fastest riser. Visa did well in UK and US (third biggest rise). And Emirates did well in Germany (second) and UK (fifth) which makes sense considering their relatively less known brand in these regions.

But the real winner was Nike. Topping UK and Germany charts with +6.8 and +3 points respectively and a very decent + 0.7 in the difficult US market. And they aren’t even an official sponsor!

It just goes to show that careful media planning and correct brand positioning can work wonders. The world cup worked for Nike because they had aligned themselves well. If you are about to spend a lot on major sports events you need to carefully think what you want to achieve.

Nike’s sales in the run up to the World Cup were up a whopping 39% whereas Adidas (official sponsor) came nowhere close in growth. Nike did the things like opening stores in Soweto that double as AIDS testing centers or installing massive TV screens in town. It is an 11Million football shoe and apparel world market and Nike has firmly set it’s sights on the developing market which is growing by 30% year on year. It will demand more than 250 new Nike stores around the planet and renewed efforts online which now accounts for just 5% of their sales. Though small relative to Nike’s overall sales, they are using the football category to penetrate and will sell Converse and their other brands on the back of their success.

Nike and Adidas battle it out at every World Cup.  In 2006 Adidas had again cornered the official side of things and Nike’s digital strategy fell flat.  A much vaunted collaboration with Google for was a total failure.  By luck a Puma sponsored team won and saved Nike’s sales.   (Though Adidas always has more teams wearing their shirts.)  This time around it was a campaign called “write the future” on facebook which worked though.  Great content, great execution.    And TV ads to support it.  So the World Cup related buzz went to Nike.  30 vs 14% according to Nielsen.  Nike is embracing full interactivity in all their activities, encouraging participation at every level.   It’s latest shoe comes with a unique code which unlocks training programs which you can even download with an app to your phone.

The buzz measurement wars will continue.  It is a pretty hazy metric still.   My mountain guerillas may be the only Greek army standing in the event of war and sometimes it just takes well designed orange football shoes to sell…

Business Communication

“The majority of people who stayed in this room are reusing towels at least once during their stay”

I don’t like Facebook ads. In fact I have played the game of clicking them away and giving Facebook my reasoning (Misleading! Insulting!) just to see if their targeting gets any better. (It doesn’t.) But I see why Facebook advertising can do so well.

The phrase in the title is famous as producing a 54% compliance rate in a hotel room. All other facets of the experiment were controlled and identical. Only the tagline differed. It had started with the common “Recycle and do it for environment” which was the control message, producing just 38% compliance from the hotel guests in those rooms. Other variants actually did worse, especially those with an emphasis on the hotel’s interest in the economy. Unless you have a cause which people care enough about, they don’t want to know about your running costs or administrative issues! “Cooperate and join us” got only 36% because of this.

What was missing was the sense of collective behaviour. “The majority of guests are reusing towels at least once during their stay” produced 46% guest compliance. Which is pretty impressive. But double check this article’s title. Spot the difference? “…who stayed in this room…”! Four words, 8% performance difference!

At first look, the sentence is too long and clumsy. It wouldn’t get past most ad execs. Not catchy enough. It would get stuck at the graphic design level. Too long. But it works. Because we don’t only want to know that many people do something. We want to feel we are similar. Though a pretty long shot, “the majority of people who stayed in this room” is the best connection you will get under the circumstances. And perhaps the intimacy of a hotel room adds some zest to the thought. You are after all about to take your clothes off and have a shower in the same shower with all the guest before you.

So if they reused their towel, what the hell, I will too!

Now look at the signs around you, all of them trying to get you to do or not do something. “No Parking”? What you really wonder as you stop to do some quick shopping is how likely you are to get a ticket. So how about a sign saying “95% cars parked here without a valid coupon, got fined after just 4 minutes”? And take a careful look at that next Facebook ad. “Your friends Bob, Sue and Peter liked this product” …shucks maybe I should stop clicking those ad boxes away!


Mussolini, the world cup and financial regulation in Greece

There is a long list of blatantly obvious match fixing scandals during the world cup.  Minor lists of mistakes like the ones compiled for the 2010 games in South Africa pale before them.  Mussolini extended a match’s running time until Italy won!  In fact, I would argue that football is a sport actually designed to encourage match fixing.  After all with such a large playing area, all it takes is a bribe to any one player, anywhere in the field to win.  With only 10 bad runs (ie run to the ball slow enough to let the opponent get there first) any player will be effectively giving the opponents an advantage similar to getting a red card.  The rest of the team will have to work harder, will have to cover the gaps created and sooner or later the opponents will score; especially if they know which player is bribed and have adjusted their strategy.

I try to learn from my mistakes.  My tenure at PublicWorld taught me a lot about the corporate world.   I welcomed the opportunity to see the other side of things. As an entrepreneur I always tried to figure out why as customers, large corporations very often ‘acted crazy’.  My contacts would vaguely mention a board meeting, the stock exchange or something similar and we would leave it at that.

But I didn’t spend all that time studying and travelling for nothing.  1200 mainly foreign contacts at LinkedIn are there to teach me stuff!  A lot of reading since and armed with my experience first hand, I kept tab on the company over the past year.   As a learning exercise.  It wasn’t just an ego thing or the curiosity to discover whether my conclusions were more accurate than the managers staying behind.   It became a proper learning exercise.  So when something major happens, like Fnac leaving a market, I decided to revisit in earnest.  Why on earth should Public (a retailer similar to Fnac in many ways) buy two of the three stores Fnac is leaving behind?

While the Obama administration battles to pass it’s second major bill after healthcare on financial regulation, it is obvious that there is long way to go yet.  Not only is the global playing field completely uneven, but there are still huge loopholes.  I received today a copy of the published accounts of PublicWorld.  At the bottom the chartered accountants boldly state:  “Without any further doubt in our opinion you should take special note of the fact that the company’s own assets are now negative and so call for application of article 48 of law 2190/1920.”  This is a clause which specifies that suppliers can demand immediate payment because the company is deemed uncreditworthy.  It is approximately the same as Maradona using his hand to score a goal.  The entire planet sees it, yet not the player, not FIFA or anybody else does anything about it.   The referee is the only one with an excuse as things happen quickly and he honestly might have missed the cunning move.

The media of course do nothing about it.  There seems little demand.  In football the fans want to believe the myth of fair play.   In financial markets, small players who are effectively gambling, want to believe that there is a sense of logic in what they are doing; that it is better than visiting the casino…

Communication Society

Machiavellian media realpolitik, iPhone radiation and Tiger Woods

A fancy way of a pessimist saying “I’m not a pessimist, I am just facing the facts” as expressed by Machiavelli 500 years ago:  “…how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin than his preservation.”

When the fuss over possible health side effects from the use of mobile phones started, it instantly reminded me of something.  Tobacco industry tactics!  For every seed of doubt regarding possible negative side effects from the use of mobile phones, bulldozers of studies and committees instantly appeared to say the opposite.  To a layman they seemed “scientific enough”.  “Doctor” so and so talked, “certain scientists” were quoted, “reputable statistics” were thrown in for good measure.

It seems I was not the only one seeing a pattern.  In their excellent recent book “Merchants of Doubt,”  science historians Naomi Oreskes  and Erik Conway take apart many scientific issues and the way in which “think tanks” muddled the evidence in the media.   (An excellent summary of how think tanks influence Green Politics here.)  They start in 1953 with a case book analysis of how the tobacco industry did it.  Then all sorts of other issues, from acid rain,  global warming to the ozone hole, get analysed.  Oreskes, a scientist herself, started seeing the pattern when her work as an oceanographer made the media portrayal of global warming seem completely inconsistent with her understanding of the ‘facts’.

You have two main tools and they are the same whether you are defending mobile phones or your reputation in the school playground:  1. Spread disinformation and 2. Stick to your story (especially those parts which seem to have appeal in the broader audience even when it is absolutely crystal clear that it complete nonsense.  Confusing the public in this way is guaranteed to gain you ten or twenty years of whatever product or idea you want to sell.  Like it did with the tobacco industry.

As a spin doctor I am fascinated by this topic.  I also wish that there was a sequel looking at the media more carefully.  For sure, journalists carry a huge part of the blame as they don’t do their homework properly.  Much of the disinformation would be debunked instantly if they did even elementary double checking of the sources.  If a thousand scientists say one thing and one think tank another, you had better triple check who is funding the think tank!  Journalists often fall into the media trap of trying to simplify arguments and present them as straightforward oppositions.   The topic also demands a second take to more carefully look at the differences between issues where the science was crystal clear, like the ozone, and others where it was not, like acid rain.  (A triumph of the opposite kind as regulation was passed despite this!)

It is also interesting to follow up on the media assumptions regarding scientists (they are all socialists!) and the environmental movement (sandal wearing hippies) in a time when it has become a much more complex public issue.  Portraying any view as “radical” usually pushes people to take the middle road.  In pricing we call it the Goldilocks effect, in cognitive psychology  it is the bias of aversion to extremes.  If just one State decides to make mobile phone makers prominently feature SAR figures (radiation from mobile phones) they must be “extreme”.  In a time of greater social responsibility and with companies and products having more and more to do with scientific discoveries, fully understanding the relative truths is of vital importance.  Just like companies pulled away from Tiger Woods after the scandal, you really don’t want to be associated with what proves to be bad science propaganda.  Yet even (or especially) big corporations are climbing on various cause bandwagons without fully understanding the risks.

There is a crucial difference:  unlike illicit affairs or spats with prostitutes, bad (pseudo) science is in the public domain.  There are well established rules to publication and pecking orders of status amongst them.  For good reason. It is not that a lone scientist can’t be right some times, even when the entire planet says otherwise.  But if that lone scientist is also the one who claimed that second hand smoking doesn’t do damage, CFCs don’t damage the ozone layer and that acid rain is good for certain crops…well you get the picture!

Business Communication

Why TV companies should give away reputation monitoring

The field of reputation monitoring seems to be on fire.  By all accounts a hot, hot, hot category to watch.  The reason is simple: most businesses don’t really know what is happening online and they are scared.  So they pay for a company to make sense of the millions of interactions going on globally around their brands.  They monitor products, staff, competitors, slogans, IP… in fact they let the reputation monitoring experts tell them what they should be monitoring!  This is about the same as asking your army’s general what new weapons he needs.  Expect a long, complex and detailed list of very expensive stuff.

Don’t get me wrong.  You do need to monitor what is going on online. And with the right partner you might even learn a lot about the field.  But it is extremely important not to lose track of the real world of influence.  Which, for most businesses, is not yet completely online.   Traditional media like TV, radio and print exert massive influence.  Heck I have waged fax mailing campaigns that blow the socks of anything online!   The fact that they don’t provide metrics as easy to produce as the online stuff shouldn’t marginalise them.

It does of course in a twisted Catch 22 scenario:  online metrics are easier, so we spend more time with them, so we disregard older media, so ad spend decreases.  The solution is pretty much what Google did with their Analytics.  TV companies should buy monitoring systems and give them away to customers!  In Greece for example there is a truly excellent company, which offers not only solid technology for speech and content recognition, but intelligence in it’s analysis.  And social media is included, so you can get an overall and balanced view.  (If I was the TV company buying Qualia I would tweak the algorythms a bit I think…)

It is all about interface.  If I get you looking at my monitor of information I control what you think.


Hitch hiking in corporate social media

It is a form of constipation when it comes to writing anything in public.  And I am not talking about multimillion corporations worried about lawsuits or their careers if their names appear under a press release or a blog post.  Even (or especially) small companies suffer from the lack of bravado.  And the result is catastrophic.  No communication is bad communication.  In a world inundated with incoming signals, you get drowned out.

So how to energize the situation?   Here are techniques I have tried with varying degrees of success.   Never start with the top boss, he or she is usually the problem.   They are aware that there is a problem but when it really comes down to it, they can’t write to save their lives.   The same person that is fascinating and full of jokes, stories and details when he gets to know you, clamps up when he sits to a keyboard or pen and paper.  Fixed (boring) phrases, editing and re-editing until there is no life left in the text.  So if not the boss, who?  There is usually a sales director, marketing person or techie with a talent.   They may be afraid from past failures but they basically have the urge to communicate.  Use them!

The only thing you need top level consent on really is the main message.  Reassure them that no matter what gets written by someone in the company in any social media situation we will be following these basic assumptions about the company, the brand and the product messaging.  Help them focus on the big picture which is their job anyway, rather than examining the details of every blog post or LinkedIn update.

Where is the material?  Usually right in front of everyone! Any company that has been in business for some time, has amassed loads of material from conferences, sales meetings, trade shows, research…it is just sitting in a pile or a hard disk somewhere.   It is magical that first time I get the customer to see through these glasses as it hits him just what a goldmine he is sitting on.   Match the information to the audience and we have the energy to get this plane flying!

Here is a fine point though:  social media is NOT about making a new car in order to get somewhere.  It is more like hitching a lift every day.  Uncertain and dynamic.  What are your customers using already?  Facebook?  Twitter?  Linkedin?  You go to them in a way they will appreciate.  And make damn sure the content is useful.  No point in doing it anyhow else.  “Useful” can also mean “pleasant” or “motivating” or “feel good”.   It doesn’t have to change their lives but it has to fit in pleasantly.  If this is B2B communication it means “helps me get results”.  Me the customer.

The hitch hiking analogy is probably the best one to keep. You get in the car of someone you have never met.  You try and think of a topic of conversation they might find interesting.   You get off when they tell you to or you feel you have overstayed your welcome.   You offer useful tips and politely try and find out more about them.   That way you might get a lift tomorrow too!

Hitching a lift also offers itself as a metaphor to keep in mind that there are many other ways that people get information without you.  You want your information to be picked up?  Put it where they expect to find your information, where they are likely to be positively inclined towards its presence. Don’t stand in the middle of an uphill and expect cars to stop! What influences people to stop?  Time of day, your clothing, your smile…they all make a difference.  If you don’t care about all of these ‘details’, you’re not going to get a lift.

(More on ‘real’ hitch hiking advice – one of my favourite means of transport – with twenty practical pieces of advice here.)

Business Communication

Follow your bliss: branding is storytelling as an archetype

Heinrich Zimmer was a man with a mission.  You don’t need a guru, he said, you need to find an archetypal myth that applies to your situation and live it through.  His knowledge of Hindu mythology allowed him to interpret works of art through archetypes.  Very Jung-like of him and he greatly influenced my favourite thinker on the subject, Joseph Campbell.

It is a fairly straightforward theory: any story can be categorized in a specific archetypal myth.   A myth that is told and retold since the beginning of human storytelling.  Any journey, be it Lord of the Rings or Rocky IV, has twelve stages.  Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Meeting with the Mentor and so on.  Much like Jung in “Man and his symbols” demonstrated that signs from the swastika to a snake eating it’s tail have followed homo sapiens from his very beginning.  (Great inspiration for logos!)  You can pick a fight with Jung’s last work easily.  Is a lion the same potent symbol today as it was back when I really did fear getting eaten by one daily?  A dragon now that we now all about dinosaurs?  Any symbol in a technologically advanced world which throws any image around the internet and on TV at a breakneck speed?

But you can’t argue with mythological archetypes.  Why?  Because what makes us human is the search for meaning.  Arguably without that, there are no emotions.  And without emotions, there is no marketing.  So, like Zimmer, I say “don’t look for brand gurus”. Follow your bliss and find the myth that applies to your brand.  And the stage it is at.  Start up?  You have seen it a thousand times in those films where a young person suddenly gets thrown into a big adventure.  It seems impossible at first, daunting.  But we learn about his pedigree.  (Good excuse for our brand’s origins.)  Then he finds allies (other companies we are working with) or mentors (brand endorsers).  We are routing for him.  Then we learn about his nemesis.  You can make it specific (“we hate Microsoft” seems to be popular!) or generic “untidy offices drive me mad!”

Myth provides a safe, reliable route to follow.  One that consumers can relate to.  Because the biggest enemy of brand building is incongruity.  Our brains just can’t handle information that seems to make no sense.  Just like in film making or book writing, just because you are following an archetype, doesn’t mean you can’t embelish it, or decide where to place emphasis.  But using well known symbols gives the larger than life effect every brand needs to gain mind share.

Straightfoward stuff.  Now my teaser question: who do you want telling your story?