The role play of respondents. The Pantomime of Polls.

Used car, low mileage…contact your local, friendly Member of Parliament

I do think a lot of social opinion research misses a big point. We’re not supposed to love Politicians. It’s our role as voters to distrust them. We revel in it. That’s how we’re wired. Sure, we trudge off to the polling booth to vote for them. And of course we devote hours immersed in the news cycles each month following their every move. But trust them??

And such is the disconnect between many earnest poll questions and the realities of public opinion. Today a trusted colleague, a professional I greatly respect, tweeted over a link to a disturbing new poll. New polls are always disturbing. (They play a role too.)  The figures said that few of us trust either the Government or Market Researchers with their data. Maybe I’m just getting ho-hum about having my profession bagged in every latest disturbing study, but I wondered whether my colleagues had missed something in their research. 

For sure, it is one thing to know that only 30% of us trust our Governments with our data. (Frankly I’m surprised that it is that much.) But if the other 70% have some or serious distrust on the issue – do they actually give a damn about it?

In other words we are used to measuring the breadth of sentiment, but often we do little to measure the depth of sentiment. Have those 70% written to their MP about Privacy? Have they signed a petition? Shared an angry tweet? Marched down main street?

Polls going back for decades have demonstrated the fixed social role the public allocates politicians and us pollsters. We’re always down near the bottom of the trusted profession list: cellar-dwellers with our favorite bad guys: the used  car salesmen.  But these results are a role play; a social construct – they are part of our culture. So I’m no longer shocked or amused about who wears the bad hats in this public play.

In Pantomime we know there’s going to be a big bad wolf. I do think it is time to ask deeper questions that dig beneath these paradoxes:

  • If you distrust retailers (or car salespeople) – how come you still buy from them?
  • If you  ‘hate the media” how come you watch the news and TV for as many hours per week as in the 1970s?
  • If you distrust polls, how come you read them?

These are paradoxes that, were we to find some answers, would reveal a lot about the trade-offs and real values of the public we love to measure.

Who is she and why is she saying such horrible things?


In my country twitter was running hot this week over a suicide of a TV and Woman’s Mag celebrity. More to the point it was running hot about the commentaries ABOUT the suicide. One in particular received a particularly vitriolic reaction in the social media – it was by Herald columnist Deborah Hill-Cone who savaged the individual who committed suicide and, although claiming never to have met the victim, put forward a full diagnosis (age, fading beauty, lack of attention) as to why suicide was the answer. It was an insensitive, in fact odious piece of writing,

The reaction was swift and angry and by my count only two tweeters reacted positively to the piece (“on the money”) while the vast majority attacked the article and the writer.

Does Deborah Hill Cone have twitter? I’d like to tell her how wrong & terrible her post is. Id tell her respectfully, not like she has been.

“Today, I’m alive and she’s dead.” By Deborah Hill Cone. Unacceptable breach of humanity.

Wow. I don’t read the NZ Herald regularly, but Deborah Hill Cone‘s article today is just plain ghastly and abhorrent. One to miss for sure.

In which Deborah Hill Cone uses telepathy to work out what it was “that claimed Charlotte”.

Just read Deborah Hill Cone‘s article in NZ Herald. I wish I hadn’t. What a cruel, callous human being.

To Deborah Hill Cone of the @nzherald regarding her article on Charlotte Dawson – you are a disgusting human being

90 percent of the media are maggots, Debra Hill Cone climbed the top of that heap. #kickingsome1whentherdown

You get the drift. There were three reasons that people were so inflamed by the piece which was, at its most generous, judged to be ill-timed and unfortunately worded.

  1. The moral question of decency. Kicking somebody when they were only hours dead broke a cultural taboo.
  2. The fundamental inaccuracy of the column. How on earth could a columnist who had never met the victim even guess at what was or wasn’t going through the mind of the suicidal individual?
  3. The lack of authority of the writer. Put simply: who was she to judge?

This credibility or authenticity and authority is an important component of reputation. When I did a big desk study on reputation a few years ago I was struck by how we could be impressed by people even if we didn’t like their work. Madonna? Don’t like her music – but I admire her ability to work hard, to read the market and to constantly reinvent herself. She’s a trouper, and you can’t knock that. She has built up these bona fides over a 35 year career.  Quite a feat.

Or take Tupac Shakur, (above) a rap legend who didn’t have time to build up his bona fides. Yes, but he still spoke and sang with authority because of the depth of his experience. His time inside jail for example, or his life amidst the gangstas of LA. I disliked his music when it first came out, but nowadays, long after he was gunned down, I can finally appreciate the artistry, creativity and authenticity of his music. It took me 20 years to get here, while his fans have been loyal from the second he opened his mouth. They heard; they recognised his authority.

Newspaper columnists and media commentators can also build up their credibility. I’m thinking of Alastair Cook who, over decades, earned our trust. He had access to top subjects, but more than that, he demonstrated a deep fascination for the little telling details and the beautifully crafted sentence. I’m thinking of Chicago Trib columnist Mike Royko who, in his heyday of the 1970s, kept scratching below the layers of political, commercial and social bullshit to bring us true stories. They weren’t always big stories, but you could trust their veracity.

But this week’s minor blow up showed how, without established bona fides, a person’s reputation can easily collapse. I’ve often talked about “forgivability” as a factor of reputation, and this year have been puzzling over what it is that makes one action forgivable, or not. Why might we stay loyal to some brand, or sports star – even after they stumble – while at the same time why might we bay for blood the moment somebody, in this case a NZ Herald columnist, put a foot wrong.

The answer is trust. And trust is built up through credibility: through a solid track record that we can scrutinise and understand.

What an idiot. She doesn’t understand depression, and has a very skewed and narrow view on life. IDIOT.

what a great way to start an article “I know nothing about you, but …”

Deborah Hill Cone your piece says more about who you R than anything about Charlotte. Anything […more..] narcissistic than an Opinion Piece?

In the words of the tweet critics our author didn’t know the subject, didn’t know the victim and was basically engaged in an exercise of narcissism.  What was missing from the discussion were people defending her. There were no, “look, I think she raised a fair point…” or “give Deborah her due – she gets it right 95% of the time, I happen to disagree with her this time…”  None of that.

What Deborah Hill-Cone does in future is up to her. But if she wants to position herself as the columnist who speaks cruel truths, then she needs to build her bona fides with her public. It could be a long hard slog.

Why we need to measure corporate forgivability

One day before the explosion in 1984, Union Carbide were the friendly guys who brought you the Eveready brand and the Cat with 9 Lives. The NPS would have been pretty good. And pretty useless at measuring the forgivability, or lack of forgivability of the once proud Union Carbide name.

Most organisational and market research measures – the KPIs – are readings of static concepts rather than of processes.

The well trodden NPS measure is a measurement of hope, for example (how many of our customers would recommend us?) but it does little to indicate whether this score might be in danger of imploding.  It is like a measurement of speed, but without the other vital measure on your journey: how full is the tank?  The speedometer and fuel gauge  together measure a process and offer a predictive capability. “At this speed we’re using up too much gas to make it the the destination.”

Here’s another measure: Staff satisfaction. It may be high, it may be low, but the score itself says little of any predictive use.  Thus everybody might be deliriously happy at work (and I hope they are,) but we have no idea from the happiness Index whether they’ll stay happy once the take-over goes through, or when the job cuts are announced.  In fact the measure is pretty useless. It is a thermometer when really it might be more predictive to have some kind of staff barometer which hints at soft or deep changes immediately ahead.

Now brands are measured along similarly useless lines. They’re measured statically but not predictively. We measure the status of the brand, but that gives no feel for whether it is heading toward a cliff; or whether it would survive the fall, even if it did.

When we judge the people around us, we don’t just stop at “he’s a great guy” or “she’s 5 foot 11,” or “she’s a real leader,” we almost always add what I refer to as the moral dimension. “He’s a great guy…BUT I wouldn’t trust him with my money, or “She’s a real leader …AND did you see the way she showed so much respect, even to the people she had to make redundant.”  In other words we don’t just settle for today’s status update, we also tend to throw in the prognosis of how that person will act if they’re put in a conflicted, morally challenging position. We have a “Moral Vocab” with which we assess the likely behaviours of those we judge. Great guy – but morally iffy. Great leader, and puts people first no matter what.

The star term, I reckon, in this Moral Vocabulary is forgivability. It is a useful concept because it accepts that all people will fail at some point, or that all organisations will have their crisis and every brand will have its “New Coke”/”Ford Edsel” moment. They’re bound to. Forgivability measures how people will respond if and when that crisis occurs.

In terms of the resilience of the brand, or the company, the real test is not how you rate when everything goes according the plan – but how quickly you can bounce back if you falter.

To take an obvious case, Tiger Woods was the undisputed star of the golfing world (and still the highest paid athlete in 2013 despite not winning a major tournament.) A typical brand measure, up to the point of his personal and media scandal, would have given him stellar results on, say, an NPS scorecard, or on any other brand index I can think of.

But look how quickly that turned. The moment Woods fell to earth in December 2009 (or should I say, the moment he ran his SUV into a fire hydrant), everything changed. The tank of public goodwill suddenly showed “Less than half full” and sponsors started to walk away. Suddenly the values we valued in this amazing sportsman were reframed and seen in new light. Determination? Or simply arrogance?  Success? Or just runaway greed?  Perfection? Or just a sham facade? Everything that a brand measure might have rated as superb one day was shattered within 24 hours.

Four years later forgiveness has largely occurred. The gallery is generous once more when he makes a great shot, and descriptions of this golfer are laced more with qualifications about his pay check or his climb back to form, than they are about who he has a personal relationship with.

Organisations can rate well in terms of forgivability, or they can rate poorly.  It depends, as it did for Tiger Woods, on the seriousness of the sin and the forgiveability of the sinner.

In my view, Tiger Woods forgivability was undermined by the woeful stage-managed response by his sponsors. Remember those bleak Nike ads where a voice over (supposedly Tiger’s own dad) remonstrated mournfully with our hero? These attempted to package the redemption of Tiger Woods into the space of a 30 second TVC. The ads assumed that with a quick show of humility we’d be swift to forgive the golfing superstar.  Instead the ads gave us evidence that Woods  – he behaved not a man but as a marketing juggernaut – was attempting to media-manage his way out of his mess. It looked merely like insincere spin doctoring. Another sin! And so for weeks the Woods machine kept heaping more fuel onto the fire.

But what of your organisation? It may be sailing along – the speedomoter is reading high, the thermometer reading nice and warm, but what if it made a blunder? It will happen. How will your stakeholders or customers respond?

Apple, that golden child of the business media, has a string of business and product blunders a mile long. But was it forgivable?  Absolutely.  Why? Because the products are cool and because Steve Jobs never really deviated from his vision. The public understood his quest and knew that some failures will litter the pathway to success. No problem.

But post-Jobs, I think the forgivability factor is trending down. Steve’s quest is over and what we perceive is the hulking cash-cow of an organisation he built. The product may be designed in California, but the cash is domiciled wherever the company can avoid tax. Things like that start to reframe Apple not as “one man’s passion” but as just another bloody corporate.  In that light, every new launch looks less like Steve’s marvellous march of innovation, and more like the CFO’s latest plan to sucker the public. You can almost hear Mr Burns from the Simpsons. “A masterstroke Smithers! We’ll do what Microsoft used to do with Windows. Yet our fans will still think we’re the anti-Microsoft!”

Some sins are purely business as normal. Coke really did believe their New Coke formula was a better, more preferred option. They didn’t think things through.

But some sins are simply not forgivable. Union Carbide, that industrial fortress of a company that made Eveready Batteries, and Pesticides and Glad Wrap, was responsible for one of the worst industrial accidents in human history with the Bhopal disaster in India, back in December 1984.

Here was a company that was deliberately trading-off the cost of safety in order to boost profits from its poorly resourced pesticide plant located in a heavily populated area. As a result of an MIC gas explosion an estimated 40,000 individuals were either permanently disabled, maimed, or suffering from serious illness.

That was bad enough. But then after the disaster, Union Carbide tried overtly to avoid culpability or to pay any compensation to the families of the accidents thousands of victims. There was no mea culpa – instead the company fought a legal battle before finally being sued by the Indian Government for US$470 million, 5 years after the disaster. The guts of their defense was was that they weren’t responsible as a company for Bhopal – it was the fault of their employees in India. It was a massive squirm. The head of the company Warren Anderson was never brought to justice in India after the American fled India while on bail, and has since fought extradition from the USA. Today the company no longer owning its flagship brand (Eveready) and is part of the Dow Chemical company who have inherited the mess. In 2010 (25 years after the disaster) eight former executives of Union Carbide India Ltd. were finally found guilty of death by negligence. Dow, themselves burnished by the reputation of their own history with Napalm and Agent Orange are still assisting with the highly toxic Bhopal site cleanup.

Mistakes, blunders and sins can be made by any organisation. But how soon can these organisations recover – how soon can they be forgiven? In a dynamic world researchers need to measure these things. In my next blog I’m going to dissect the elements of forgivability. Get it wrong and your organisation will tread an unnecessarily risky path.

Marketers need to shed some skin in 2014

You are your own brand! Well, sadly, that’s what motivational experts are telling us.

People who know me will know that I feel some disdain for the concept of personal branding. “You are your own brand!” state dozens of personal branding experts, and in so doing they ignore both the inadequacies of branding to convey the rich complex story of who you really are, and they ignore the ugly human history in which slaves were literally branded.

The shallowness, the sheer glibness of the “you are a brand” thinking is revealed all over the place. Sports people after turning in a losing performance no longer kick themselves or admit they played poorly. No, these days they’ll only  admit the lopsided score was “bad for the brand.” Clearly it’s not whether you win or lose, that counts, it’s how you affected the business value of the franchise.

In corporations brand similar summaries are given when management has made a flawed set of decisions, the wrong widgets have been launched, the customers don’t buy them and 10,000 workers are given one month’s notice for a mistake they didn’t make. Up in HQ the conversation goes something like: “Those widgets, gentlemen, they did nothing for our brand.”

That’s one thing that rubs me the wrong way about elevating the importance of the brand so high that people will trade in their own identity in order to be packaged-up. The brand isn’t so important as many marketers think.

The hyper-valuation of company brand-equity began during the hectic years of the 1980s, shortly before the catastrophic 1987 Wall St collapse. Companies with ailing turnover figures and slack marketshare suddenly realised that despite everything, the brand itself had valuable equity. This is true, to an extent. If you measure something like “consideration”  (which brands of new car would you consider?) then brands explain part of the story. They help explain why Toyota might be forgiven the occasional safety recall, or why Skodas may be good cars but will never be even considered by a sizeable chunk of their markets. Not with their East-European legacy.  But the accountants and CFOs forgot something along the way.

The moment accountants started treating Brands as a tangible asset,  things got confusing. You have to treat assets according to certain rules – for example in terms of depreciation, or market value.  But the moment a brand gets given a dollar valuation, other questions such as fit or positioning play second fiddle when it comes to boardroom decisions. The only measure that has clout, really, is the bottom line dollar. So the brand, whatever it stood for, can easily get screwed around by financially focused directors.  When all you see are dollar signs, then any brand value looks like cash.

Reuters in 2010 when reporting the sale of Cadbury to Kraft quoted Felicity Loudon, a fourth-generation member of Cadbury’s founding family. She said she was appalled that the company looked destined to fall to Kraft, predicting jobs would be lost and its chocolate would never taste the same.

“We shouldn’t give up,” she told Reuters. “For a quintessentially, philanthropic iconic brand to sell out to a plastic cheese company — there’s no mix there.”

She has a point, though of course it fell on deaf ears.  Four years later, at least in my market, Cadbury product is still being discounted to hell, to undo some of the damage wrought by that sale. King Size block for block – it is routinely a dollar cheaper than its nearest rival. The problem was, the takeover was measured in dollars and not in any other values.

This seizure of brand valuation by the CFOs and accountants leads me to my main point.Branding itself has become commoditised.

I don’t think this rapid decline in the purpose and nature of brands has been particularly helped by Marketers (who all too often get little representation at boardroom level) or by my own profession Market Researchers who have watched on, with little reaction or understanding,  as the dynamics of corporate decision making have changed. The things we used to champion (brands, ideas, packaging, product concepts) have been grabbed and redefined by the finance boys. (And a few finance girls too.)

So they talk about things being good for the brand, or bad for the brand, yet they appoint underpowered Brand Managers who prescribe undercooked, old-fashioned brand research that belongs to the 1950s. Good for the brand?

Today’s market place, meanwhile, is being liberally peppered by stories of unknown start-ups that have taken on the big brands and are aggressively eating into the stalwart’s marketshare. The sticker-value on the old brands prove poor defense against products with better ideas.

If you accept that the concept of branding is under siege – and I’m sure a heap of readers will disagree – then the prescription is to get under the burned skin of branding, and start examining more closely the heart values that dwell below. These days my marketing language is more apt to be enriched with talk about “forgiveness” and “resilience” and other words that refer not to the bottom-line but to the human condition.

I also think modern history is on my side. Since 2008 there has been a rapid lift in the conversation about the wealth gap, about poverty, about massive corporate tax evasion, about 3rd world exploitation and about sustainability.  In my view the ice is getting mighty thin for organisations that measure shareholder return as if it’s the only thing matters.

As I tell the personal branding experts. I am not a brand: I am Spartacus.

What tomorrow’s market research companies will look like.

What’s trending in market research companies? This fall I see two directions in MR style. Meanwhile, I’m predicting the end of the button-down Mad Men 60s referencing. It is dead.

Market Research as an industry has hit a disruptive fork in the road. As currently configured – around the distribution, collection, processing and reporting of surveys – the industry has basically flat lined. For sure it does great work, but look at the industry growth figures, and meanwhile look at the exponential growth in usable business and customer information and tell me seriously that MR isn’t missing out.  MR is an industry geared around a broadcast, mass marketing paradigm.  It is petrol when the world is going electric.

Among the disruptive forces faced by the industry are:

  • The shift from face to face to PC to smartphone delivery. Each new medium opens the scope but limits the depth of respondent engagement.
  • The shift from descriptive statistics (yawn) to predictive. Question, how many analysts are regularly using Neural Networks or other predictive what-if scenario building tools? Any?
  • The integration of survey feedback with other channels of customer feedback including complaints data, sales figures, RFID-driven Big Data etc.
  • The acceleration of everything.
  • The shift to a socially networked society in which unpredictable things can happen and where classic trend-lines simply don’t apply.

All these elements, you can think of many more, render the classic MR model somewhat flatfooted and irrelevant to so many business decisions.  We live in a world where superstar marketers such as P&G are getting beaten by surprising upstarts. The old world of 4Ps marketing simply isn’t as reliable. (And it never produced more than 20% success rates to begin with.)

So what directions will MR go in to survive? I think two basic directions.

Light, quick and cheap. New research firms will go with the emergent technologies and provide close to real-time customer feedback gathered via panels equipped with smartphones. They’ll process streams of quick-snap shots and use these to populate a “movie” of the typical customer experience before, during and after purchase. The technology will reduce the need for human input or even analysis. The objective: fine tune the customer experience through tweaking and optimisation. Success through a thousand slightly improved interactions.

Deeper and more ruminative. The polar opposite of light, quick and cheap is to go deeper, and more thoughtful – focusing on the analytics and the contextualisation of information. This kind of research will be similar to anthropology, but with more back-end modelling and scenario testing and hypothesis building.  The objective here is not to deliver streamed feedback rather to look for the Next Big Insight – and get there before the rivals do.  These research teams will be made up of diverse teams of people with wide-ranging skill sets: story-tellers, anthropologists, data scientists, fashion mavens, subject matter experts.    This sort of research will be comparatively expensive, and comparatively risky – but when it hits the Insight Jackpot, this is the research approach that will make the biggest difference.

Right now most market research firms are heading toward Type One – doing the same as before, but quicker, cheaper and with less human input – at least of much value. My bet is that the world will be awash with these providers and they won’t be much fun to work for.

Give me the Big Concept Seeker model.  Now that looks real fun.

Got to love those exams!

Exams are taken seriously by these rural Cambodian students. This is a chance to get ahead.

Examinations were held this last week at rural-based Savong’s School – just ahead of the Cambodian Pchum Ben holidays in which families honour their ancestors. Many children took part in the exams which are held to an officially recognised standard thanks to input from a local university and authorization by the Ministry of Education. For the senior Grade 12 students these examination provide the opportunity to gain a full four year university scholarship and laptop computer so there is a lot at stake here.

Results will be announced in late October after the Pchum Ben holiday season, which of course means plenty of marking for the teachers. Good luck everyone!

Naturally, if you’re reading this and wish to find a truly amazing way to support a student to realise their dreams and potential, you’re invited to take part in this programme.

Going deeper not cheaper in research.

Can social media really help us deeply understand the human landscape?

I’ve been ruminating lately on all kinds of subjects as diverse as twitter and suicide – thinking about the way people connect but don’t really connect even in an age of social media. Today in the daily newspaper was a coroner’s report on a boy who ended his life, and really all the warnings were there in his facebook messages. Nobody, it seems, tangibly connected with the depressed teenager: a tragedy.

But the story stands as a sad metaphor I feel for the work we do as market researchers who, despite being armed with the best technology, and despite the excitement of being able to conduct research in real-time via smartphone apps (etc etc etc) languish in the shallows of human understanding. Discussion papers about new methodologies tend mostly to take a channel-centric view of the new research media, rather than exploring the question of what kind of depth of understanding will we achieve? Can we use social media to get us something deeper – more immersive – than what we get in a typical CATI or online survey? I’m not seeing too many papers on the subject.

So I embarked on a personal experiment to see whether it is possible to gain a deeper, more experiential understanding of a different culture via standard social media including FB, twitter and the notorious but interesting

I’m not going into details here, other than to make some points which I may explore in later posts.

  1. Social media demand that we develop a persona. They gives us around 20 words and room to post one photo and that – effectively – is our identity or mask.  Social media are thus quite limiting.
  2. Masks may be held tight – and some online personas are heavily protective or overly managed (or branded) so some subjects are thereby more responsive or open to engagement than others.
  3. A second dimension to online persona is the focus of the person. Online, if not physically, some people tweet and msg fundamentally to report on themselves rather than to engage with others. Here’s a pix of my lunch. A minority fundamentally enter social media to listen, to engage or ask questions of others.
  4. The third dimension is – for researchers the most potentially interesting. Most people engage or friend or follow people within their own circles of interest. This is heavily geographical (my workplace, my college, my neighbourhood) but also expressed in terms of my interests. Us market researchers use a hashtag on twitter to find each other. But a minority of users open themselves up to random and ‘foreign’ links. They do this because they are inquisitive, and because they are interested also in helping other people.

It strikes me that if I were to use social media as a channel via which I could conduct some kind of social anthropology I’d get a vastly different set of insights from those who are:

  • Type One: Heavily masked, ego-centric and confined to their circle. In fact on I was lucky to get answers at all from these people, despite their invitation to “ask me anything.”  They showed a very low engagement level.versus:
  • Type Two: Open and upfront people, at least semi focused on others not just themselves, and open to joining “foreign circles.” These people are engaged, interesting and open to discussing questions.

The conversations one encounters via social media are conversations in the true sense: they happen over time. So for that reason I’m less trusting of the idea that we can necessarily achieve a true understanding of individuals or customers, if we rely (as we’ve always done) on snapshots.  When engaging with a set of strangers, in my personal journey, I was struck by their mood swings, perhaps amplified by the nature of written communications and the starkness of the pictures they chose for tumblr, and the shifting nature of their opinion.

Underneath this was the basis of any good conversation: the degree to which both parties know about each other – and whether they can they develop a shorthand, and use shared references and metaphors as foundations on which to build trust and then converse on deeper ideas.  In most cases, as I engaged with strangers, I could do this: but not all. In every case the process took time.

What are the implications of this? My first inclination is that we can and should use social media in the same way as a spider can use their web – they can feel an insect landing in the far reaches of their domain.  So what we need are agents or listeners at the far reaches of our own webs. For example if I were asked to use social media to explore a ‘foreign’ market (users of herbal remedies, say, or San Francisco football fans) I would seek a shortlist of people who are Type Two.  Then I would ask them all about their worlds. I could get far more insights via them than I could via hundreds of completed responses from the relatively unengaged Type Ones.

In saying so, I’m consciously moving away from scientific sampling and classic design, and moving toward something else.

I do think we should be looking for systematic ways for us to use the strengths and account for the weaknesses of social media. It isn’t enough to say, “Oh, we now do research via social media.” That may point to truly immersive conversations, or it may paper over the cracks of particularly shallow, noon-insightful feedback.  Comments?

This blog reflects the paper I presented to the MRSNZ 2013 Conference – which won the David O’Neill Award for Innovation.