04 September 2013

Political parties: Forget "message". Try vision, values and leadership

With three days to go, I've pretty much given up hope. But reflecting on this excruciatingly awful 2013 Federal Election campaign, I still can't help wishing for the impossible... a glimpse of vision from a political leader somewhere.

Ask a party leader why we should vote for him/her and the answer is inevitably framed narrowly, with reference to the other parties. Even the Greens pretty much go with "Because we're not them...".

Surely a better question is "Why do you want to lead us?" Forget the other parties and tell us what you and your mob actually believe in. What are your fundamental values? What motivates you? What's your vision for the nation?

Both major parties are so often heading down the same cynical path on issues like asylum seekers and climate change that we can no longer rely on observed actions and stated policies as a guide to their values and beliefs. Yet I think we crave something more meaningful.

To extend this a little, and with reference to what I do for organisations (businesses and not-for-profits), it continues to puzzle me why political parties spend massive amounts on communications and "message" consultants, researchers and pollsters, but apparently fail to work internally on their core strategy first.

Put simply, message doesn't drive meaning. What I consistently tell marketers is that they must identify or decide what it is they really stand for FIRST, before they even think about the implications for communication. I don't see why the parties that aspire to govern us should do things any differently.

21 June 2013

Coco Pops and contemporary culture


On Triple R FM's Breakfasters this morning, Stew Farrell was lightly ridiculing a newspaper story about advertising targeted to children when something curious happened. His co-presenters, Fee B-Squared and Lorin Clarke, seemed to become quite uncomfortable at Stew's repeated naming of the breakfast cereal brand Coco Pops (which was the subject of the story) and effectively truncated the discussion, even though it was absolutely clear that he was responding to a news item and this was in no way a case of "cash for comment".

The idea that mentioning brand names is somehow unpleasant or distasteful in non-commercial media is quite widespread. I've written here before about the ABC's unworkable and, at times, hypocritical "no brands" policy. But I haven't previously detected the same attitude among public broadcasters.

Let's be sensible about this: brands are a cultural reality. Like it or not, brands are one of the ways in which we make sense of contemporary Western life. It's almost impossible to discuss anything important or meaningful in our lives without mentioning a brand or, usually, numerous brands. Our memories are often linked to, and activated by, brands, brand names and advertising jingles. We don't do it consciously and we certainly don't do it in expectation of a commercial reward. Notwithstanding often valid critiques in works like "No Logo", brands are here to stay.

And just because it's a breakfast cereal or an unhealthy product doesn't mean a brand is unworthy of discussion on public radio. 3CR's Health Show was very actively involved in fighting - and ending - Marlboro's sponsorship of the Australian Open Tennis Championships in the early 1980s.

After all, Triple R is a brand, too. Its pivotal role in Melbourne culture over nearly 40 years is inextricably linked to numerous commercial brands: music venues, record labels, bands, festivals, cafes, TV shows. Silencing brands would be doing a disservice to the culture of the city Triple R serves so well.

15 May 2013

Blurred vision and pointless positioning

More than a decade ago, while waiting for my visitor's pass at the gatehouse of the Australian HQ of a multinational pharmaceutical company, I noticed a new sign proclaiming their vision. It was so extraordinarily bad that it remains imprinted on my mind to this day. It read:
Achieving together to lead in healthcare.
It was a classic example of the sort of vision statement that can only be written by a committee. Ugly to read and say. So cautious as to be incomprehensible. Undifferentiating. Uninspired and uninspiring.

Achieving what? Achieving to lead? What does that even mean?

A vision statement is supposed to give employees, customers and stakeholders an unequivocal and inspiring view of what makes your organisation unique and how it aims to make the world a better place. Seeing such a hopelessly ill-directed and badly written statement made me think no-one was in charge and no-one really knew what the company was on about. Its performance in subsequent years tends to suggest perhaps that was indeed the case.

I was reminded of that pharma classic today when I saw a slogan carefully signwritten on the side of a smart-looking utility vehicle bearing the name of an air conditioning maintenance firm. It read:
Partners of first choice.
A positioning statement is supposed to define the ways in which you would like customers to perceive your offer as different and distinctive compared with those of your competitors. But this one is also meaningless and uninspired.

Being seen as a partner rather than a supplier is every service provider's aim. There's nothing new or distinctive about that - it's old news, as stale and hackneyed as saying you offer solutions. And being first choice is surely the goal of every provider of air conditioning services - they probably differ only in terms of which customer segment they decide to target.

My point is, if you are going to bother telling the world what you stand for, make it count.

If you lack the internal resources to work through it and develop something distinctive and meaningful, then seek outside assistance. And if your consultant comes up with twaddle like Achieving together to lead in healthcare, then sack him/her and get someone who knows how to develop insights, capture ideas and make words work.

19 February 2013

Give polls a chance. Or STFU.


We all know there's a problem with political polls. Every time a new poll is published, we have 24 hours of headlines, questions shouted at politicians at every doorstop, denials, pundits attributing causes to every "dip" or "surge" and the polls themselves dismissed as meaningless or "dodgy". But the fault isn't usually with the poll. Here are just a few reasons why:

  1. Political polls are conducted transparently and with robust, documented, methodology. Poll methodology is typically provided (if the media organisations or critics care to ask for it) along with the findings. Indeed, it's in the interests of market research companies to provide details of their methodology in order to support the credibility of their findings. It's just that the media and others aren't usually that interested. Of course there are technical flaws and merits in every approach - pollsters and psephologists may argue at length among themselves about methods and significance, but you'll rarely see those arguments played out in the mainstream media. Margins of error are also provided; but they too attract scant attention while tiny changes in voting percentage are discussed ad nauseam.
  2. Stated intention today is not a reliable predictor of future behaviour. This is very well documented in the academic marketing literature - all sorts of factors have been shown to have the potential to cause the consumer not to follow through with his or her intention. A poll that asks "If a Federal election were held today..." sets up an artificial situation, making it even less likely to be a good predictor of the future. Even with the best design - and the best will - the findings of such a poll can only be used as a very rough guide to what might happen in the (impossible) event of an election being held today.
  3. Local factors may significantly alter intentions. Voting involves a complex process - it's very different from answering a phone call or completing a survey online. For example, a significant proportion of those who provide opinion poll answers probably have no clear understanding of who their local candidates are, or will be, at a future Federal election. What if I told the pollsters that I intended to vote Liberal but when I eventually see the picture of the Liberal candidate on the How to Vote card, I don't like the look of him or her? Or I was intending to vote Labor but I recognise the Greens candidate as a former local Councillor who did some good things for the community? These may be small effects, but when countless column inches are devoted to differences of 1 or 2 per cent, they may well be very relevant.
  4. Correlation does not equal causation. A movement in poll numbers - even a change that falls within the margin or error and thus can't even be thought of as a "real" change - invariably provokes a flood of analysis seeking to explain its cause. No change in voting intention should ever be attributed to any specific piece of political business - an announcement, a scandal, a photo op or a fuck-up - based on a piece of descriptive research like an opinion poll. Only a properly-controlled piece of causal research, where the impact of one particular factor can be investigated while others are controlled for, can provide strong evidence of causation; for example, was voting intention statistically significantly different among those who had seen a particular speech or interview, as compared with those who hadn't? Even then, there might well be confounders - people who saw the speech might be better informed about politics than those who didn't and this might be related to their long-term voting intentions.
My point is, when polls are discussed, dissected and ultimately despised, don't dismiss the research as "dodgy" unless you've examined and understood the methodology. To put it bluntly, don't blame the polls or the pollsters - blame the pollies and the press.

09 November 2012

How conservatives and bigots delude themselves - and their followers - about history


I don't normally get political here, but the reaction of some conservatives in the US to the re-election of Barack Obama has been absolutely astonishing, sometimes even to the point of being hilarious. And there's something worth reflecting on about the extent to which a strong belief and identification with a brand like conservatism can completely change the way someone looks at the world. Even undisputed facts, history and science.

As commentator Rachel Maddow puts it, the conservative movement is "stuck in a vacuum sealed, door locked, spin cycle of telling each other what makes them feel good, and denying the factual, lived truth of the world".


Conservative political pundit Pat Buchanan claimed this week that Obama's re-election has "killed White America". And then, in support of that contention and acknowledging that "of course" he thinks whites are better than other people, he claimed that "Anything worth doing on this Earth was done first by white people." Buchanan then cited examples that prove exactly what Maddow says - conservatives are living in some kind of "truth bubble" of their own making.


"Who climbed Mount Everest?" Buchanan asked rhetorically. "White people."


Er, maybe half right at best. Tenzing Norgay (a Nepali Sherpa) was right there on the summit with Hillary, and numerous Sherpas were an integral part of the team that made the first successful ascent.


"Who invented paper?" asked Pat. "White people."


Wrong again, Pat. Papermaking was invented in China and spread through the Middle East to medieval Europe in the 13th century.


"Who discovered algebra? White people."


Sorry, Pat. Strike three and you're out. The roots of algebra can be traced to the ancient Babylonians and the word comes from Arabic. There's even a clue in that the word starts with "al".

02 August 2012

How symbols lose their meaning...

If you've seen much of the London 2012 Olympics so far, especially online or print coverage, you'll almost certainly have seen a pic of a medal winner biting his or her piece of bling. It took me just a few minutes to find the images above; no doubt many thousands of pics like these have been taken already, just a few days into competition.

The origins of the tradition of biting the medal are well known: gold is a soft metal, and biting on a coin (or medal) could establish its authenticity or purity. No doubt the first athlete to do it was making a spontaneous and genuine gesture of amused disbelief ("Wow! Have I really won gold?!"). A few more athletes imitate the first, and it remains something the athletes own. But then the press pack get a hold of it, and the spontaneity and meaning are lost.

Aesthetically, it now almost always looks ugly and ridiculous; many of the medallists look uncomfortable or at best bemused. They are clearly being coaxed by photographers to do it.

But when even silver and bronze medallists are being bullied into making what is now a meaningless gesture, it has clearly lost its meaning and become just another stupid journalistic cliche.


14 July 2012

The trouble with “content marketing”


I had no idea, but apparently I’ve worked in “content marketing” for more than 20 years. Of course, it wasn’t called that when I started my career in a marketing communications agency specialising in one of the most information-intensive promotional contexts imaginable: marketing prescription pharmaceuticals to GPs and specialists.
No-one mentioned “content marketing” when we pitched, developed and published custom newsletters, journals, symposium proceedings and product monographs on behalf of big pharmaceutical companies.
It wasn’t called “content marketing” when we developed and ran third party-accredited case study programs to support the launch of a new class of drugs, or when I sat in a hotel room at an international congress writing overnight newsletters highlighting the important clinical implications of a new multicentre trial, to be faxed to Australian doctors the next morning.
And it wasn’t called “content marketing” when I ghost wrote opinion pieces for business publications or prepared a CEO’s “From my desk” column for customer newsletters.
But these are all examples of targeted strategic communications designed and executed to meet very clear communication objectives, driven by marketing strategy.
Worryingly, much of what I read about content marketing seems to put the current vogue for “content” way ahead of the “marketing” bit. I’ve seen countless blog posts from content “experts” with “10 Great Ideas for Content” and "Tips for Content", as though sheer quantity matters more than purpose and relevance. It's worse still when one of these gurus describes content marketing as a "strategy" in its own right, and claims it's "cost-effective and easy"... without any evidence. And the content marketing buzz seems to value examples of how to generate content over actual case studies demonstrating true marketing effectiveness and ROI.
I’ve learned over the years to be very wary of any new fad that puts a word in front of “marketing”. Marketing is marketing. Buzzwords, new communications channels and marketing gurus come and go, but the fundamentals of marketing remain. “Content marketing” is not a new kind of marketing. At best, it’s about some new communication tools; at worst, it’s putting the cart before the horse.
And I really dislike the word “content”. It carries connotations of a communications space or void that simply needs to be filled, as though a novelist told her publisher “Here’s my 500-page novel, now I just have to develop the content”. By extension, the people who come up with “content” run the very real risk of being seen as merely “content providers”. There’s nothing inherent in the term “content marketing” that gives the content provider (or “Chief Content Officer” – ugh!) credit for having an understanding of marketing strategy or skills in writing and commercial creativity, or that imbues the content with a specific strategic purpose.
As I've suggested above, “content” in marketing is as old as the hills, and not just in areas like pharma marketing. Long before the web and Facebook, FMCG marketers seeking ways to increase the range of customer usage occasions put coupons for recipe books on their packages: every Chocolate Ripple Cake made in the suburbs meant two extra packs of Arnott’s Choc Ripple biscuits sold. Young stamp collectors were encouraged to join the Junior Philatelists’ Club and get the quarterly Stamp News. These are classic examples of what today would be called “content”, but driven by clear objectives that can be linked to real measures of success.
Remember that marketing is about value. If your content doesn’t help you create superior customer value and hence confer competitive advantage, then what’s the point? And if your content is really valued so highly by your customers, then why are you giving it away to your competitors and their customers too?
Moreover, creating and disseminating quality content has real costs or, at the very least, opportunity costs even if you sit at your desk and do it yourself.
Everyone involved in planning, designing, developing and delivering content must know why each piece of content is being created, captured or curated and where it fits strategically. To be more specific, which customers and what customer behaviours is the content intended to influence, and how? And, in a world chock full of content, why should the customer pay attention to yours?
Just because we have new social media to play with doesn’t mean marketers, PR practitioners, “content engineers” or whatever we’re being called this week can ignore the fundamentals of marketing and marketing communications.