Repeat After Me

Quick Read: Some deep seated cultural values that we project on to our children are in need of a massive over haul. Nike and Dove have brilliantly brought this to life in their recent campaigns. 

Handwriting just doesn’t matter.

Or does it?

For a long time it was believed that cursive writing identifies us as much as our physical features do, revealing something unique and distinctive about our inner being.

But over a century, the focus on cursive handwriting in schools actually ended up achieving the opposite. Mastering it was dull, repetitive work, intended to make every student’s handwriting match a pre-defined standard.

In fact in the 19th century America, students were reportedly taught to become “writing machines”, holding their arms and shoulders in awkward poses for hours to get into shape for writing drills.

Or take this Lego ad from 1981. See anything unusual here? 


(What it is is beautiful. Source |HT Seth Godin “Stop Stealing Dreams“)

Those were the days when LEGO blocks were sold by the “bucket” with blocks of different sizes and colors thrown in together and labelled “Universal Building Sets”.

This approach celebrated a child’s creativity regardless of what she has created. As the ad copy above goes on to say..

“…how proud it’s made her. It’s a look you’ll see whenever children build something all by themselves. No matter what they’ve created”

Sadly this approach didn’t sell a lot of LEGO blocks presumably because it required too much risk on the part of parents and kids—the risk of making something that wasn’t perfect or expected.

So what did LEGO do?

They switched from these all purpose “Universal Building Sets” to a lineup that included more of predefined kits – models that must be assembled precisely one way, or they’re wrong.

Why would these pre-defined kits of LEGO blocks sell so many more copies? As Seth Godin says, it is because they match what parents expect and what kids have been trained to do.

Lego Products Page

(The LEGO products page today, with a disproportionate focus on predefined kits)

These discourses on cursive handwriting or LEGO are metaphors of what’s happening with schools around. 

By the turn of the 19th century, the biggest challenges of our newly minted industrial economy were two fold.

  1. finding enough compliant workers and
  2. finding enough eager customers

The school system – that most of us would have been brought up under – evidently solved both problems.

But the world around has changed into a culture that celebrates ideals like ingenuity, connection, ideas, courage and risk Vs one that only promoted values like conformity, obedience and risk aversion.

Sadly our schooling system has changed little from that originally envisaged for a completely different era. (More in Seth Godin’s must read manifesto ‘Stop Stealing Dreams – What is school for?’)

So a scene with a class full of students repeating ad nauseam after their teacher, rhymes or lessons that only serve the purpose of further perpetuating outdated or worse still outlandish values against today’s realities is certain to provoke anger and perhaps even instigate an active change in our world view. 

Two brands have recently used this very scene, to demonstrate how deeply we have tried to graft our misplaced conceptions of ideas around individualism and beauty in our children.

Nike’s Minohodoshirazu

Earlier this month, Nike Japan  launched a new campaign with a spot that redefines the phrase ‘Minohodoshirazu’, which translates to “Don’t know your place.” While the term is typically used as an insult towards the overly ambitious, the anthem ad tells viewers that not knowing your place can instead be a mindset for athletes to strive for. (source)

Created by W+K Tokyo and directed by Omri Cohen, the ad manages to contrast the values being embedded in children with shots of athletic achievements that run counter to these messages of compliance and obedience. Video here.

Dove’s Is That You? 

The famous nursery rhyme ‘Chubby Cheeks, Rosy Lips…’ is used as the background score for this video created by Culture Machine (and subsequently pitched to Dove).

The rhyme and the contrasting visuals make you wonder if this is how we have sought to institutionalize a misguided set of beauty ideals in generation after generation of young girls, every single year. Video here.

It is always interesting to see different brands, different agencies from different parts of the world adopt a similar executional approach to land their respective ideas.

(Featured Image: Source)

Fracking The New Oil. Digitally

Quick Read: If data is the new oil, how do we go about extracting and refining it – at scale? Introducing Digital Fracking and a few notable examples. 

Fracking, at its core, is an aggressive, invasive technique for extracting valuable raw materials out of hard to reach out places.

fracking-broomfield_73213_990x742(Fracking. Image Source)

While this term has traditionally been used in the context of oil mining, this can equally be applicable to data, to arrive at the concept of Digital Fracking. A few examples first:

Have you read  this recent story of a brilliant entrepreneur who’s been making money off you without you even noticing? He is Luis von Ahn, the Carnegie Mellon Professor who pioneered innovative interventions to extract value from what normal people normally do online. Some extracts from the story,

The ESP Game

A tremendous number of unlabeled images are floating around on the web, which impairs everything from the accuracy of image searching to the blocking of inappropriate content.  So, in 2005, Von Ahn launched a fun game called the ESP Game.

The concept is simple – The program would randomly pair each player with another user on the web, and show them a series of images. Both players were instructed simply to “type whatever the other guy is typing.” The more overlap you produced, the better your score was.

Result: Within just four months, it had lured 13,000 bored web surfers into producing 1.3 million labels for roughly 300,000 images (source). And was subsequently acquired by Google and relaunched as Google Image Labeler (2006 – 2011).


Most of us would know what a CAPTCHA is. Essentially, it is a program that protects websites against bots by generating and grading tests that humans can pass but current computer programs cannot. By showing a distorted string of letters for example. 


Now did you hear of reCAPTCHA? Most of us would have at least been subjected to it albeit unwittingly.

Launched by Von Ahn, the brilliant twist of reCAPTCHA is that this test isn’t just verifying your humanity. As this article says, it’s also putting you to work on decoding a word that a computer can’t. The first word in a reCAPTCHA is an automated test generated by the system, but the second usually comes from an old book or newspaper article that a computer scanner is trying (and failing) to digitize. If the person answering the reCAPTCHA gets the first word correct (which the computer knows the answer to), then the system assumes the second word has been translated accurately as well.

In 2009, Google acquired reCAPTCHA and put the program to work on a tremendous scale, digitizing material for Google Books and the New York Times archives etc. 

reCAPTCHA(Source: Google reCAPTCHA page)

And then more recently Von Ahn came up with Duolingo – a free language learning program that is again a crowdsourced text translation platform at its core.


As he says, “It’s just taking something that people do anyways, and trying to extract value out of it.” See his amazing TEDx video where he explaine these in greater detail.

Drug Side Effects

Researchers estimate more than 90 percent of drug side effects go unreported. And it can take years for the FDA to detect a pattern of problems that leads to changes in how a drug is prescribed. While on the other side of the spectrum, hundreds of millions of people are waking up every morning and writing about their personal experiences on forums and social networks. 

Armed with an insight on this gap, two start ups – Treato and Epidemico have begun treading the path of fracking the social networks and online medical forums to mine data on drugs and their potential side effects for pharma companies and patients.


Today, major pharma companies pay Treato and Epidemico for more detailed analyses of what patients are saying about their drugs: how they’re using the medication, what reactions they experience, or why they switch from one pill to another. (source)

Extracting Value From Online Reviews

And then there’s HugDug (a recent project by Seth Godin) – a brilliant intervention that has been able to hit a sweet spot between two disparate concepts – affiliate marketing and generosity. I keenly look foward to HugDug achieving scale and becoming a truly unique example of Digital Fracking by extracting value from tons of reviews lying out there.

As Von Ahn says “Look how many hours have gone into building the Panama Canal or the Pyramids – and with all the people that are on the web now, you can get a lot more hours.”

And to that point, the most important question that’s answered by the concept of Digital Fracking is this: How do you extract those hours – At scale? 

(Feautured Image, Source)

Straddle Categories, Redefine Competition

Quick Read: Straddling categories can sometimes help redefine competition and build a unique position in the market place. 

“If I should have a daughter, instead of Mom, she’s gonna call me Point B … “

began Sarah Kay, in a talk that inspired two standing ovations at TED2011.

Sarah Kay is called a genius. She has invented a new medium, a new way of sharing an idea. It’s called Spoken Word Poetry. Arguably others have done spoken word poetry before, but not like this.

Mixing in the magic of her poetry, presence, and exuberant energy her art form straddles two categories – poetry and theatre. This unique combination has helped her redefine her ‘comparison set’ – not poets and not theatre artistes, but someone at the intersection of both to become a truly unique voice to reckon with.

Today she is the founder and co-director of Project V.O.I.C.E., founded in 2004, a group dedicated to using spoken word as an educational and inspirational tool. Her TED talk has been loved so much that Seth Godin has published her poem ‘B’ by himself.

Why Do We Love Some Comic Strips More Than Others?

Most of us have our favorite four paneled comic strips that we enjoy and share on a regular basis. Why do we love them so much? Is it because they resonate with us at a deeper level? Is it because they have that spark of insight – a blinding flash of the obvious? Or is it because they remind each one of us that we are not alone?

calvin-and-hobbes-relativism(Source: Calvin and Hobbes)

Seth is a cartoonist, illustrator and book designer based in Guelph, Ontario. Based  on his research on Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, his insight is that most of the best known four paneled comic strips have one thing in commonthey straddle the art forms of graphic design and poetry and occupy a truly unique space of artistic expression. He calls such comic strips Visual Haiku and elaborates.. 

It seemed so clear that his four-panel setup was just like reading a haiku; it had a specific rhythm to how he set up the panels and the dialogue.Three beats:doot doot doot— followed by an infinitesimal pause, and then the final beat:doot. Anyone can recognize this when reading a Peanuts strip.These strips have that sameness of rhythm that haikus have — the haikus mostly ending with a nature reference separated off in the final line. (source)

Peanuts - pe_c140414.tif(Source: Peanuts)

What Sets Brita Filters Apart?

Ever heard of Brita Filters? A leading company in portable household water filtration, its products are distributed in more than 60 countries world wide. But what sets it apart is how it straddles categories and redefines competition. As per this HBR article..

Brita filters compete against other filters when they are placed in the kitchen appliances section at big-box stores, for instance. But Brita changes both its comparison set and the economics of the consumer decision when the filters are placed in the bottled-water aisle at supermarkets. Here Brita filters have a competitive cost advantage, delivering several more gallons of clean water per dollar than bottled water. Of course, not all buyers of bottled water are buying solely for the criterion of cost (some are buying for portability, for example), but for those who are, Brita is an attractive choice.

Brita Filter Jugs

As the article goes on to say, in choosing how to position products, there’s a tendency to pay attention to the size and growth of the market and overlook the intensity and identity of the competition. Such times, all it might take is to challenge our playing field (the category) and see new niches emerge for tapping into a new consumer base.

Opportunity – it seems – could sometimes be rife at the intersections.  

For artistic forms of expressions or water filters.

(Featured image: Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson May 05, 2014)

Diffusion – Of Ideas, Infections and Innovations

Quick Read: Why do certain ideas spread faster than others?  Diffusion – a social process where people talk to people is still the way that ideas and inovations spread. Stories from diverse fields like health care and ethnic foods provide further evidence.  

Did you know the story of the humble Doctor’s coat?

Till a major part of the 19th century, a doctor’s coat used to be black in color. Why? Because a visit to a doctor had an air of ‘finality’ attached to it, almost like the solemn nature of a funeral. As per this historical account, until the late 19th century, seeking medical advice was usually a last resort and frequently a precursor to death. The reason? Poor hygiene standards in medical practice.

In fact, back in those days,  a doctor’s badge of a busy practice was their black coats stiffened with blood and remains of previous operations. Practices like washing hands, sterilising instruments were virtually unheard of in medical practice during those days.

Naturally infection became the curse of surgery – becoming the single biggest killer of patients who underwent even uncomplicated procedures. Infection was so prevalent that the discharge of pus from a surgical wound was thought to be a necessary part of healing!

Ever since then, many medical practitioners tried hard to conceive of and spread the idea of basic sanitation as an effective means to combat preventable life threatening infections. But failed.

For e.g, Ignaz Semmelweis published the earliest known studies that showed basic hand-washing to be effective at reducing mortality rates of surgery patients. His findings were known to have offended the doctors! Even Louis Pasteur’s Germ Theory or Joseph Lister‘s concept of antiseptic surgery techniques contributed little to the mainstream propogation of the idea of sanitation in health care.

grossclinic(“The Gross Clinic,” by Thomas Eakins, 1875. Source)

The break through in seeding this key idea came over the course of several years as follows.

It turned out that the key message to teach surgeons was not how to stop germs but how to think like a laboratory scientist. A few pioneering German surgeons siezed upon this idea – of the concept of surgeon as a scientist – and seeded this in their students’ minds, many of whom were young medical practitioners from US and other countries.  The result?

The students swapped their black coats for pristine laboratory whites and returned to their home countries as ambassadors not only for the use of antiseptic practice to kill germs but also to prevent germs.  Evangelising through their own students and colleagues, they finally spread the ideas worldwide.

So, the idea of basic sanitation and sterilization for health care and germ prevention spread not because of academic journals or publications, but because of social diffusion – where people (medical practitioners) talked to people (students).

Spreading a Miraclous Solution. One Person At a Time

In many parts of the world, Diarrhea remains the world’s biggest killer of children under the age of five. ORS (Oral rehydration solution) has been known to be a simple yet effective cure for the illness which required a miraculously easy formulation that can be made at almost every home around the world  (water + sugar + salt).

In 1980, a Bangladeshi nonprofit organization called BRAC embarked on a nationwide ORS adoption drive. How did they go about this? The organization didn’t launch a mass-media campaign. It attacked the problem in a way that is typically dismissed as impractical and inefficient: by going door to door, person by person, and just talking.  

ORT(Door to door ORS Education by BRAC, 1979 . Source)

They hired, trained, and deployed thousands of workers region by region who went door to door through more than 75,000 villages and showed 12 million families how to save their children with this simple solution. Eventually, the knowledge became self-propagating and child deaths from diarrhea plummeted more than 80%  between 1980 and 2005. The program was stunningly successful. (source)

Shifting gears a bit and moving over to Ethnic Foods..

 The Greek Yogurt Revolution In The US

Till 2005, Greek Yogurt was a niche segment in the US with a market value of just about $60 million. But in just 5 years a new brand, Chobani has gone to become one of the most explosive food start-ups ever to hit the market netting more than $1 billion in annual sales and rejuvenated the entire Yogurt category in the US. How did that happen?

Ofcourse, Chobani, under the visionary founder Hamdi Ulukaya,  had a brilliant execution of its mix – from clutter breaking packaging, category defying in-store placement (he is known to have insisted that Chobani packs be merchandised in the main dairy area, not in the specialty section), competitive pricing and appealing flavours.

Chobani(Chobani Ad Campaign extolling its fruity goodness. Source)

But fortunately for Chobani – the timing was just right. Consumers were adopting healthier snack options into their busier lifestyles. So much so that when someone opened a pack of Greek Yogurt, it inadvertently became an instance of conspicuous consumptiona prominent scenario of social diffusion enveloped in a message of healthy tasty snack. 

So each time a pack of Greek Yogurt was opened, it created awareness and generated talkability around Greek Yogurt’s health benefits and unique taste. And this was even before its first mass media campaign. As Niel Sandfort, Director of Marketing at Chobani says..

“Before you even think about mass media or paid media, you have to have your ducks in a row on a number of fronts.”

So by the time, the company embarked on its first mass media campaign, the size of the population that was aware of or bought Chobani at least once, reached a “tipping point“, allowing the product to take hold widely. The result? An explosion in the growth of the Greek Yogurt segment. 

Today, the Greek Yogurt category – once a niche segment –  now accounts for 36 percent of the $6.5 billion in total U.S. yogurt sales (source) with Chobani being the number one seller in the category, with nearly 52% market share in the US!

Perks Of Being A Party Food

Guacamole – is an avocado based dip that originated with the Aztecs in Mexico. But in less than a generation, it went from an unknown Mexican delicacy to becoming part of everyday cuisine as a dip, condiment and salad ingredient. This growth of gacamole  was partly because it’s a party food. i.e., people discovered it when others shared it. 

So in essence, while we yearn for frictionless, technological solutions, people talking to people is still the way that ideas and innovations spread. In fact,Diffusion of innovations – a theory by Everett Rogers that seeks to explain how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread throughcultures – says diffusion as a social process of people talking to people is central in spreading an idea or innovation among the members of a social system.

Meanwhile Sabra – a PepsiCo owned company that sells Middle Eastern food products in the US  – is fretting that 80 million Americans have never heard of hummus

(H/T: to Seth Godin for this riff on Guacamole, to Atul Gawande for this valuable article on idea diffusion in medical practices. Featured Image source 


Fiskars is the world’s No. 1 scissors brand. Visit its website and you would notice that the landing page features not the picture of its scissors, but just that of its handles – Orange handles, to be precise. Why?

It’s because Fiskars as a brand is synonymous with its flagship product: The Orange-Handled Scissors™ (yes, they really did trademark this name!). Known for its quality and precision the world over, this particular type of scissors has sold over 1 billion since 1967. What is interesting is that these scissors have become so popular that the company has actually registered its trademark Orange color by the name Fiskars Orange®.

(Image Source: Fiskers PDF – The DNA Of a Design)

Today it is one of the most recognized (and imitated) color for a pair of scissors across the world. So much for a color, you’d think?

On April 1, 2012, Seth Godin (author of the best seller: Purple Cow) wrote a blog post announcing that he would henceforth start filing lawsuits against people that use the color purple! He stated that his “lawyers were able to trademark the terms Purple® and Purple Cow®, and beyond that, to get a design patent on the idea of using Purple® in the marketing of a product”. Of course it was an April Fools joke. Interestingly, exactly 6 months after this blog post, this has actually become a reality. Only, it’s not Seth Godin this time. It’s the world’s 2nd largest confectionary brand – Cadbury.

The brand, which had used the purple for more than 90 years, has apparently been locked in a legal battle with Nestlé for the last four years over the use of this color. Nestlé’s appeal was overturned on October 1st 2012 in the UK High Court, where it was ruled that the color has been distinctive of Cadbury for its milk chocolate since 1914. Thereby Cadbury retains the exclusive use of Pantone 2865C purple. (Interestingly, a 2008 book on Cadbury by John Bradley was named: Cadbury’s Purple Reign)

(Image source)

So much for a color, you’d think?

Not till you realize that Purple as a color is associated with royalty, luxury, sophistication, creativity, mystery, and magic. Moreover, by some studies, Purple has been found to be evocative of ‘desire’ and proven to be a good choice for feminine design. No wonder then, Mondelez International – the snacks division of Kraft Foods uses purple as its signature color. (Milka, another major chocolate brand from Mondelez also comes in purple!)

Evidently, Color plays a very important role in a brand’s subliminal messaging and thereby heavily influences its consumers’ perceptions. So major brands significantly investing in owning colors, for all they are worth, has become a common phenomenon.

Luxury Brands are no exception too. For eg, the distinctive “Tiffany blue color” is protected as a color trademark by Tiffany & Co in a number of countries globally. Befitting its luxury credentials, the color is so exclusive that it is produced as a private custom color by Pantone, with PMS number 1837, the number derived from the year of Tiffany’s foundation.

Today it has come to exude the material symbolism of romance and evokes the emotions of care and pampering. In many ways it is associated with all things exclusive and personal – intimately evoking those waves of ‘free spiritedness’ from deep within a women’s heart. May be that explains why a number of luxury brands try their hand at using this iconic color in their branding.

Can you think of any other distinctive color that is owned by a brand?

The Worst Hotel In The World

In a very small (80 page) book called The Dip, one of Seth Godin’s contentions is that whatever we chose to do (in life and for a living) it is imperative to be THE BEST in it – THE BEST in your world, THE BEST in your market, THE BEST for your consumer, THE BEST for a specific need etc. Else, he says, there is little reason to stick to doing/pursuing/selling something and one is better off quitting the very pursuit.

It’s interesting how one specific budget hotel in Amsterdam exemplifies itself as a proof of concept for Seth’s point on being ‘THE BEST’ in the world. Enter the Hans Brinker Budget Hotel in Amsterdam.

What is so special about this place? It is obviously cheap, arguably seedy, apparently run down and potentially awful. And this is all expected regular fare from most backpackers or a super cheap budget hotel that your thrifty friend recommends from his travels or some sort of a ‘hostel’ that you get compelled to chose in the last moment devoid of budget/options or time. What sets this hotel apart from the others is that it actually prides itself at being The Worst Hotel In The World!

Conceived by KesselsKramer (their website itself is an eccentric, dynamically changing themed concept, and I am yet to get a grip over how ‘it works’ and how it ‘makes sense’),  an Amsterdam/London based agency led by Erik Kessels, the campaign is almost a case study of sorts. Purportedly with a brief to create buzz and thereby make a ‘branded noise’ to reach out to the young backpackers who are typically much too aware of the multitude of options to chose from when it comes to travel, accommodation, food, drinks and fun, it looks like a very well conceptualized campaign, and an extremely courageous one at that.

The following is what particularly interested me:

  • The Channels: It is indeed an Integrated Brand Communications campaign having different legs to it: Wacky Posters, Direct Marketing, ‘OOH’ (miniature promotional flags placed in Dog Poops around the city!), Digital (the website has a tastefully cheap look to it), a dedicated Youtube channel and an actual hardcover Book dedicated to the hotel (presumably as a PR leg)
  • The Execution: Across all those channels, it speaks in a very consistent tone: making a ‘serious joke’ of itself, playing onto your worst backpackers nightmares, promising absolutely nothing but the worst and highlighting its price point

Even more interesting are the results: 

  • It has become the most talked about hotel in the world in terms of the buzz (offline and online) that it generated
  • And ever since the campaign went live, it is said that the rooms have always been fully booked (a 42% increase in occupancy)
  • And the book has gone out and become a live case study of building a strong brand!

Go ahead, take time and browse through its website, and search for some of its communication material (by simply searching for the ‘Worst Hotel In the World’) and I am sure you would have some interesting bits to reflect upon.

A month ago when I blogged about how some brands have turned around a ‘hate-worthy’ attribute about themselves as a virtue, I had little clue about this case – an extremely unique, devastatingly dark in humor, decidedly cheap and funnily scary example of how a brand has actually gone ahead and touted itself as THE WORST IN THE WORLD.

And succeeded at it!

Newton and Apple

Well today happens to be Sir Isaac Newton’s b’day! Yeah the one on whom, legend says that, an apple has fallen and yuppie gravity was discovered! First check out this cool Google Doodle commemorating 4th Jan 2010 as Newton’s B’day.

Actually this is the first time that I noticed that Google Doodle has come up with a non-static design. I mean, as soon as you open, this delicious doodle comes up and an apple literally falls off the branch on the screen!Please let me know if there have been any past instances of such non static Google Doodles. Loved it!

Anyway, coming back to the point. The reason why I have mentioned this is, incidentally it was only today (before I actually realized about the B’day thing) that I have read an interesting account that connects Newton – Apple – Gravity – Name – Marketing. Courtesy the book: The Big Moo by Seth Godin. It was both informative and intriguing. This short write up in this book that I am referring to is called as “Isaac Newton’s Head”. Below is the copy of this chapter from the book. Read it, it makes an interesting read:


Ask any elementary-school kid about Isaac Newton and you’ll hear the same answer: “He invented gravity!”

Of course, Newton did no such thing. Newton certainly invented calculus. He also invented the reflecting telescope. He did not invent the Fig Newton, though. That was Charles M. Roser.

Newton gets credit for inventing gravity because of a tree in his backyard. He was sitting in his garden, thinking about the moon, when he looked up and noticed that an apple on the tree nearby was precisely the same size (to his eye) as the moon. As an object gets farther away, it appears to be smaller. In a flash, Newton realized that the apple was proportional to the moon in size, and the effect of “gravitas” on each must be proportional as well. Newton had figured out that gravity decreased over distance. More important to his reputation, he gave gravity its name. The apple never actually hit him on his head, but the term “gravity” stuck.

While Newton spent far more time on calculus and on alchemy, he’s known for discovering gravity. Why?

Because he named it.

To the average person, Newton’s contribution to science was a word. A word that described something that was already there, something that affected everyone, all the time. By naming gravity, he gave us power over it. He gave us a handle, which permitted both scientists and laypeople to talk about and interact with this mysterious force.

Organizations change when you give something a name. If it has a name, your peers can measure it. If it has a name, they can alter it. If it has a name, they can talk about it. And if it has a name, they can eliminate it.

Go ahead, name something. (Watch your head!)

What say? And yeah another trivia that I came across today. Sir Isaac Newton predicted the end of the world, and it isn’t 2012, it is 2060. He came up with this date through Biblical interpretation. (Source: This Article)

Long Live Newton! Long live the power of names around us!!