Expressions and Insights

Quick Read: No matter what we do, we tend to express ourselves. And these expressions can lend themselves to interesting insights. 

A very popular class of Kenneth Goldsmith at the University of Pennsylvania is called “Uncreative Writing”.  As part of this course, students are forced to plagiarize, appropriate, and steal texts. In fact, they are said to be penalized for originality, sincerity, and creativity.

What does the course do?

As Kenneth elaborates ..

What they’ve been surreptitiously doing throughout their academic career—patchwriting, cutting-and-pasting, lifting—must now be done in the open, where they are accountable for their decisions.

Suddenly, new questions arise: What is it that I’m lifting? And why? What do my choices about what to appropriate tell me about myself? My emotions? My history? My biases and passions? The critiques turn toward formal improvement: Could I have swiped better material? Could my methods in constructing these texts have been better?

Not surprisingly, they thrive. What I’ve learned from these years in the classroom is that no matter what we do, we can’t help but express ourselves.

No matter what we do, he says (and I repeat), we cannot help but express ourselves. And this forms of expression if interpreted and analyzed could lend themselves for some valuable insights.

Let us take a few examples from the most unlikeliest of the sources of expression.

The link between crime and ink

People choose to draw stuff on their bodies because of what that specific tattoo means to them. With one of the hotbeds of tattooing being the American prisons, The Economist set about to investigate what inferences it could possibly draw about a life of crime from different types of tattoos.

mob
Source:  Robert Gumpert 

 

Their question: If people’s ethnicity and sex determines their tattoos, can the same be said of their types of crime?

Using data from the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) – a downloadable database featuring records for all the 100,000 inmates currently incarcerated in the Florida state prison system –  The Economist built a series of statistical models to predict the likelihood  of criminals committing specific crimes based on their demographic traits and choices of tattoos. (see table below)

crime-ink
Source: The Economist

For example, their  analysis had found that inmates convicted of property crimes and weapons-possession offences have the most tattoos, while sex offenders, particularly those convicted of paedophilia, tend to have the fewest. For a full commentary on this revealing analysis read the full article here.

One big insight based on this analysis is that tattoos tend to be supremely effective in predicting recidivism – the tendency of an ex convict to relapse into criminal behavior. (Of the inmates who have been re-incarcerated, 75% percent had tattoos!)

So non profits like Homeboy Industries – one of America’s largest gang rehabs – have free tattoo removal services. For, the act of removing tattoos reflects a genuine investment in ones change and thereby almost guarantees a step change in how you see yourself.

Bespoke fashion: an investment in self expression

Getting a pair of bespoke shoes is considered an epitome in luxury grooming for men.

One, because of its obscene cost. And two because it requires a considerable investment of time—typically, you fly off to Europe to get your feet measured and place the order (or the shoemaker flies in to your city), there may be two-three more visits for fittings, and then you wait anything from 9-12 months for the final shoe.

These connotations of luxury don’t still capture the essence of the bespoke fashion movement, until one begins to see it as an investment in self expression.

Bespoke, thereby, is a journey where you typically start with shirts, move to suits, and then some men take the logical next step to shoes as a final expression of their overall style and look. So next time you see someone with a bespoke suit you know where they are in their journey of self expression.

berluti-shoes
Source: Berluti, Mastery of Form

Now, given that there’s greater variety in women’s body shapes than men’s, one would expect a greater choice for women’s bespoke fashion. Interestingly it’s the other way round.

Cost is one challenge – more curves mean more measurements, more places a garment might need to be adjusted and more time getting the fit just right, making the whole process more expensive.

But the key challenge could be in being able to support for the underlying vocabulary of self expression dormant in women’s custom clothing. After all, bespoke fashion for women is an ocean of choice for personal expression that goes beyond just body fit, spanning attributes like apparel, color, fabric, style, occasion and perhaps even mood.

Now that’s one heavily under served segment in the super lucrative world of bespoke fashion –  if only one could demystify the method to the madness of the infinite variations of expressions that constitute women’s custom clothing.

Anyone that’s sartorially linguistic?

(Featured Image: Bespoke Shoes by Gieves and Hawkes)

Time Travel Democratised

Quick Read: Time travel, branding and public sentiment indices could have a lot in common. To know more, just ask Zlaty Bazant (the Slovak beer) for a test drive to the 1970s. 

Here’s an exercise. Think of any science fiction story. Anything.

Now take a few seconds and reflect on its theme.

Chances are that its theme might not be the future. You would notice that the genre uses the future only as a canvas on which to imprint its real concerns—the present.

The insight: Counterintuitively, time travel stories are often those tales that are most anchored in the present.

Similarly, stories that transport you to the past do so only to provide the necessary distancing effect for the narrative to be able to metaphorically address the most pressing concerns of the here and now – the present.

This has an interesting corollary for brands.

Na zdravie, Slovensko (“Cheers, Slovakia!”)

Central and eastern European countries faced the scourge of communism for most part of the last century. So it’s only natural to expect that the people in these countries would not want to be reminded of those darker times.

Yet, a curious trend seems to be suggesting the contrary in recent times.

Retro is seriously back with a bang.

  • Polish hipsters are lapping up retro furniture of the Jaruzelski era.
  • Lidl stores (the German supermarket chain) in Czech Republic have sales of imitation communist products in their now popular “Retro Week” promotions
  • Even the communist era beers are getting resurrected across the region

(Retro Products at Lidl. Source)

As The Economist article frames it, communist nostalgia is not new, but it does seem to be having a new wave of resurgence. While this makes some sense in Russia, which ruled the empire, it is puzzling to understand its relevance among the central and eastern Europeans whom the Soviets ground under their boots.

And to frame this irony even more acutely, this affection for the socialist era products seems embodied even in the consumer products that are marketed by Western multinationals!

For example, in May this year a Heineken-owned Slovak brewery, Zlaty Bazant, introduced a premium version of its beer based on a 1973 recipe, priced 20% higher than its standard line up. Even its slogan Na zdravie, Slovensko! (“Cheers, Slovakia!”) vaunts its local roots as opposed to typical beer marketing themes that emphasize Europeanness and modernity.

zlaty-bazant
Zlaty Bazant Ad. Source

Yet, this doesn’t necessarily reflect a desire of these people to return to the pre-1989 era. That’s where it becomes a bit complicated (in terms of their relationship with these brands).

The insight here: As Ivan Klima, a Czech novelist, puts it, “nobody is nostalgic for the communist era, but many people are nostalgic for their youth”.

Why?

Most people in the region are believed to be discouraged about the future.

In fact according to the recent Eurobarometer survey, just 30% of Slovaks and 26% of Czechs have a positive view of the European Union. Poland and Hungary are more pro-European, but have elected governments determined to check the power of Brussels. (source)

And these themes of insecurity and pessimism in the current socio political context manifest among the central and eastern Europeans as an inexplicable longing for brands of the bygone communist era. As if returning to these good old things could bring about a sense of security and stability amidst the slipping sands of the current times.

So if a Serb is seen enjoying a 1973 communist era quaff like the Zlaty Bazant, he is perhaps not so much contemplating nationalizing the auto industry as he is struggling with his attempts to reconcile with his current times.

Almost like the fascination with that time travel story to the past that is fueled by the strifes of the current times.

This could have interesting implications on brand building.

Public sentiment index (or their proxies) can perhaps be a lighthouse for brand builders. If the sentiment is low for a prolonged period of time in a market, brand builders there could perhaps do well to dust the grime off legacy brands and shine a light on them.

And may be even charge a premium for the same, as it is after all time travel, only packaged in a little bottle.

(Featured Image: Zlaty Bazant saying “Merry Christmas, Slovakia!”)

Growing The Core – Innovating With Constraints

In his latest book called Grow The Core, David Taylor makes a definitive case for companies to bring back  focus to their ‘core’ business and thereby SMS (Sell More Stuff that is already being made). He identifies 3 key drivers for this ‘core growth’:

  • Distinctiveness: Creating a distinctive marketing mix for the core to strengthen and drive brand salience
  • Distribution: Boosting distribution / ‘go to market’ via new and relevant channels
  • Core Range Extension: Launching value added extensions to the core-offering

This ‘back to basics’ exposition has been featured as cover story in the latest edition of Market Leader magazine. Don’t s miss it.

Grown Not Made

Successful companies are seen to be doing this really well. For example Kethcup & Sauces with sales of more than $5 billion globally (FY ’12) constitute the ‘core category’ for Heniz (source). In the 2012 Annual Report William R. Johnson CEO of Heinz proudly states (as if to prove the theoretical underpinnings of ‘Grow The Core’ framework)

Notably, we are proving that Heinz® Ketchup is far from mature after 136 years. In Fiscal 2012, our Global Ketchup business delivered excellent sales growth of 9.7% through innovation, increased distribution and continued expansion in Emerging Markets. 

Implication for Innovation 

The key insight for me here is about the possible implication that this “Focus & Grow The Core” strategy has for ‘innovation’. I guess focusing on the core and driving its growth needs an innovation strategy that is driven by tough and uncompromising choices. Tough choices based on questions like:  “What should we stop doing?”, “What should we further strip away from our new offerings in the pipeline”, etc. This might require what is called as “Innovation with Constraints”.

2 Examples:

1. Lego 

lego-story

A decade ago, Lego‘s balance sheet was in ‘red’ and part of their problem was doing too much – Lego had over diversified by moving into theme parks and clothing. And the once primary coloured bricks now came in a palette of 100 colors.

In 2005, one of the first questions the new CEO Jorgen Vig Knudstorp asked was,“What should we stop doing?” Lego sold the Legoland theme parks and halved the number of colours of bricks they were making. They began asking their designers to innovate with constraints, but to leverage those to become even more creative. Lego returned to profitability that same year. (source)

2. The Economist

With the advent of  iPad (and tablets) while many magazines were quick to launch their iPad Apps that were decidedly rich in their interactive multimedia possibilities (videos, hyperlinks, gifs, dynamic graphs, audio etc),  The Economist tok  a dramatically different approach to appeal to its target group – The Mass Intelligent.

They defined their strategy as Leanback 2.0 and went about designing a magazine App for iPad  that facilitates a real, simple, unfettered ‘Lean Back’ experience for its readers. What does it mean? Andrew Rashbass  –  CEO of The Economist Group says this meant  a conscious editorial decision to strip out even the their basic web innovations from their iPad App (let alone introducing something new).

The Economist(Source)

 Result: A reading experience that is more focused,  uncluttered and distraction free. Go through this insightful presentation by the CEO and read how radical simplicity and ‘finishability’ constitute the cornerstones of their Leanback 2.0 digital strategy.

Do you know of any other examples where a brand chose to focus on its core and made tough choices on its offerings or where a brand innovated within constraints to remain truthful to its core?

Interesting Times Ahead: Of Robots, Supply Chains & Economies

In its upcoming January cover story titled ‘Better than humans’, the Wired magazine provides a compelling sneak peek into the future of our workplace / economy / and our lives where robots or industrial scale automations replace 7 in every 10 of our current jobs.

Robots

Image Source: Wired (Photo: Peter Yang)

One of the most insightful observations in this article is by a MIT professor Rodney Brooks the designer of Baxter – a new class of industrial robots designed to work alongside humans. He says:

Right now we think of manufacturing as happening in China. But as manufacturing costs sink because of robots, the costs of transportation become a far greater factor than the cost of production. Nearby will be cheap. So we’ll get this network of locally franchised factories, where most things will be made within 5 miles of where they are needed.

The first thing that occurs to me is that soon enough Apple Inc., could finally do away with that painful euphemism of “Designed by Apple in California, Assembled in China” for a simple “Made in U.S.A” on its packs. Phew!

But it is only the tip of the ice berg. Some tectonic shifts seem to be underway at industrial scale – literally.

recent story on The Economist about Foxconn: The Taiwanese-Chinese contract manufacturer that notably makes most of the iProducts, Kindles, PlayStations, Wii Consoles and Xbox etc, hints at those very shifts that are rumored to be already underway.

It is well known that besides Product Design, one of Apple’s key strengths is its Supply Chain. In fact with each iteration it does on its product lines (for e.g., the iPhone versions 2,3,3s,4,4s,5..) when there is only so much it can innovate through product design and specs, the obvious place where it would seek recourse would be its processes and supply chain –  cut costs and drive margins. In other words, for every new iterative product version that Apple brings to market there is immense pressure on the company to optimize the basics ofits value chain. Now that’s when things start get interesting.

Tim Cook

Tim Cook at a Foxconn Factory in China (Image Source: HuffingtonPost)

As the largest contract manufacturer in the world, Foxconn gets nearly 45% of its revenue from Apple, so if it has to keep growing and sustaining its lead position, it simply cannot risk alienating its biggest customer. So where do Apple and Foxconn focus their energies upon now? Arguably, one of the biggest innovations that Apple is intently working on is NOT necessarily some uber sexy orgasm inducing tech interface. Rather it is the less glamorous gears and guts of its value chain –  these are innovations in:

  • Manufacturing Costs: Foxconn’s Chairman Terry Guo vowed to build 1 million robots and has hinted that the firm is just a year away from the big breakthrough – robotics that work at scale on commercial lines.
  • Transportation Costs: The article also acknowledges that there have been rumors about Foxconn planning to open a factory in the US.

Just come to think of the impact that these two changes in industrial production and transportation would have on Apple Inc, Foxconn in the short term as also on the economies of US and China in the long term.

Don’t miss the full Economist article (and don’t get misled by its title that seems to focus on Foxconn’s workers’ issues). The big picture is clear. It signals a dramatic yet a silent shift currently underway in the biggest manufacturing hubs around the world. A shift that can soon challenge the conception of developing markets as manufacturing hubs. A shift that can have a dramatic impact on assembly line jobs at the low end of the value chain. A shift that can eventually impact the very nature of economies around the world.

Interesting times. These are indeed.

High time then – the developing economies ought to seek more sustainable ‘business models’. Else let’s just say that things can only get even more interesting.