Catching Happiness

July 14, 2011

“If someone tells you that you can influence 1,000 people, it changes your way of viewing the world.”
– James Fowler, researcher at the forefront of the science of social contagion

Fowler and his partner Nicholas Christakis are putting numbers behind the idea that behaviors can be contagious. We’ve been hearing this for decades from sociologists, philosophers and more recently marketers who posit that our efforts to bias, intensify and expand purchase and usage behaviors are optimized when we’re able to identify and align with key social network leaders and influencers.

What’s different about the Fowler/Christakis work – and most intriguing to this writer – is the idea that all of us are more influential than we might realize. “Even as we are being influenced by others,” says Christakis, “we can influence others.” This may have implications for marketers, many of whom have perhaps been too quick to make a practice and priority of “identifying influencers.” What if we’re all influencers? And what if – as Fowler and Christakis also posit – influence isn’t transmitted as directly and deliberately as we believe it is?

A few more noteworthy conclusions/theories to come out of the Fowler/Christakis work:

  1. The flow of information and influence between direct connections is not always symmetrical. There’s a “directionality” effect in play that defines the degree to which individuals in a social network are able to influence one another.
  2. Certain emotions are more “contagious” than others. Happiness, for example, is more contagious than unhappiness.
  3. By extension, the more connected we are the happier we are, even if our relationships aren’t necessarily deep ones. (This writer wonders: how does this play out in the virtual world?)
  4. An individual’s influence can stretch out three degrees before it begins to fade, and it can even skip a degree. The implications of this are profound in commercial, public health and policy circles.

Fowler and Christakis will publish their findings in book form in the coming months. I read about them in Clive Thompson’s 09-13-09 New York Times Sunday Magazine piece entitled, “Is Happiness Catching?”.

Emotional Communion

April 12, 2011

“Emotion leads to transmission, and awe is quite a strong emotion.”
— Dr. Jonah Berger, social psychologist at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School

From August 2008 to February 2009, Drs. Berger and Katherine Milkman (a behavioral economist at Wharton) tracked the comings and goings of more than 7,500 articles on the New York Times Most E-mailed Articles list, trying to make sense of trends in the “virality” of content. Assuming folks who read and forward articles on the New York Times online edition aren’t radically different demographically and psychologically than most of us (a big assumption, to be sure), there are findings from this study that feel especially relevant in a branding context. Some not-so-surprising-but-still-worth-noting:

  1. People share positive information more often than they share negative information.
  2. People forward longer articles on intellectually challenging topics more frequently than they forward shorter articles.
  3. Classic economic utility theory accounts for the brisk pace of exchange surrounding articles containing medical advice, financial tips and recipes.

The Big Finding that ties back to branding: people share information that inspires awe. Awe, according to Berger and Milkman, is “an emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.” An awe-inspiring story is large, they say, and requires us to “view the world in a different way.”

This writer believes brands can inspire awe when they introduce truly game-changing innovation. When brands manage this, they’re making real news. Maybe that news won’t premier and travel on the NYT Most E-mailed Articles list, but it will make its way to the people it will affect. In these instances, we often see the brand cast in more of a supporting role. It’s less about ownership of innovation than it is about contribution to something much more important than the brand itself. Here is where courageous companies compete, and where brands can actually acquire strength from the products and services they’re designed to serve.

In the absence of game-changing innovation, the pressure is especially great to build brand equity through development of visual and verbal brand assets. Here too there’s opportunity to inspire awe. In the same way that brands can “stand in” for big news, they can deliver on what Berger and Milkman call “emotional communion.” We humans want to share information that brings us closer together, and brands are in a unique position to deliver language that accomplishes this. Great messaging can tap that “emotion of self-transcendence” the doctors talk about. The trick is to identify and stay focused on the unarticulated (or even just poorly articulated) needs of the folks with whom we’re trying to connect. This rather than focus too strongly on explanations (however clever and concise) of who we are and what we have to offer at a given time. In the same way that brand equity expands in the light of awe-inspiring innovation, great messaging can inspire powerful brand associations that inspire “admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.” Our constituencies will always appreciate these shortcuts to significance.

Complexities

February 2, 2011

“One of the biggest mistakes that is made in Washington is this notion you have to dumb things down for the public.”
— Barack Obama in an interview with Newsweek magazine shortly after winning the presidency

You have to wonder if he still believes this. Of course he’s in no position to express a change of heart, and we can’t know if he really meant it when he said it. I think he did. I think he was sincere, and I think he’s right.

He goes on to say that we Americans have “a hunger for explanation and complexity.” I’m not so sure, but I do believe most of us have at least an appreciation for inherent complexities. When we can see that something is not just one simple thing, we can start to form preferences and see ourselves more clearly. Sometimes we need something to push against in order to propel ourselves, and complexities can provide this provided they’re clear and distinct.

I think complexity is often mistaken for confusion or a lack of clarity, and clarity is often mistaken for simplicity. Clarity and complexity are not diametrically opposed. In fact together they can create a tension that brings significance to something that might otherwise seem obvious and uninteresting.

Identifying and articulating — clarifying — the complexity in things is a responsibility of government and business. It would be a mistake to assume that everyone understands and agrees with this, or even cares if it’s true. Customers and constituents are not so concerned with the theory of all this, they just want clarity because clarity provides, among other things, focus, direction and peace of mind.

I think Obama might have been projecting his own appreciation for intellectual rigor onto the American collective. In his interview he also says Americans possess a “willingness to acknowledge hard problems.” He says this directly on the heels of his “explanation and complexity” comment, and therein lies the problem. There is truth in his broader statement, but it’s lost because we don’t know what to focus on. It lacks clarity. It’s not that he needs to “dumb” things down, he needs to “break” things down. He needs to decide what is most important, what is secondary, and what is extraneous. (Maybe he shouldn’t think out loud so much?) He also needs to recognize that big ideas do better in the company of smaller supporting ones.

In a branding context, there is opportunity in complexity, opportunity for individuals and commercial enterprises alike to really differentiate themselves. We need to be careful not to assume, as Obama may have, that our clients, customers and consumers will care at all about the notion of complexity (in other words, complexity is probably not a platform upon which to build differentiation), but we might do well to investigate, embrace and communicate the complexity of our offers and industries in the bright light of a customer’s agenda.

Languages

December 7, 2010

“We have allowed ourselves to be defined as consumers rather than citizens too long.”
— Larry Robinson, in his book “Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind.”

Robinson is a psychotherapist concerned about the implications to contemporary culture of “mistaking our metaphors for reality.” Because the prevailing metaphor for our culture is, in his opinion, the computer — a machine of our own design valued most for efficiency — we’re losing touch with ourselves. We humans are sensual, curious and creative. We’re “soft, protean, organic beings, not mechanical components,” he says.

In his own field the Language of the Machine is pervasive. The health care industry refers to patients as “health care consumers,” and organizes itself around “treatment goals,” “standardized protocols,” “measurable outcomes” and “cost-benefit analysis.”

Robinson wants us to reestablish our connection with the more-than-human world, to “reanimate” it and “restore its soul.” He says we have a fundamental need for nature, and that the world “needs us to belong to it, since it is only when we inhabit a place that we care for it and assume responsibility for it.”

Of course in a branding context, creating metaphors to believe in is all in a day’s work. We live for those moments when we manage to connect in visceral and relevant ways to clients, customers and consumers. I would argue that in our world the Language of the Machine is arcane. There is nothing human about, so it is of little use. Speed and efficiency are assumed. So is exceptional service. It’s harder than ever, and increasingly less effective, to position ourselves around industry-inherent performance measures. We’re simply expected to perform exceptionally well, whoever we are and whatever we do.

It makes sense to me that the Language of the Machine prevails in business. And I agree with Robinson that it’s unfortunate and counterproductive when that language seeps into our conversations with the people we serve. But what’s most compelling to this writer about Robinson’s perspective is what he has to say about responsibility.

In the Language of Business, “responsibility” is spelled s-u-s-t-a-i-n-a-b-i-l-i-t-y. This too makes sense. What business wants to shine a light on its “responsibility initiatives?” Because sustainability ranks high on the collective corporate agenda, vast numbers of very smart people are spending inordinate amounts of time analyzing, contributing to, shaping and otherwise advancing the Language of Sustainability. This is especially remarkable because sustainability initiatives often run counter to short-term business interests.

Robinson says, “if we regard the world only as a place we are visiting, we have little interest in protecting it.” He winces at the word “consumer,” calling it “a designation that encourages passivity and helplessness.” At the heart of the concept of sustainability is a sense of connection and partnership that does seem to challenge head-on the notion of consumerism, at least as we currently understand it. It’s this writer’s opinion that, as the Language of Sustainability evolves and really begins to infiltrate corporate cultures, we will see businesses start to differentiate themselves effectively using a whole new vocabulary that takes us well beyond the current Languages of Machine and Business. Perhaps in the Language of Sustainability, the word “cost” will be spelled i-n-v-e-s-t-m-e-n-t.

Stress & Motivation

October 1, 2010

“Behaviors become habitual faster in stressed animals, and stressed animals can’t shift back to goal-directed behaviors when that would be the better approach.”
— Dr. Nuno Sousa, Life & Health Sciences Research Institute, University of Minho, Portugal, reporting on his experiments with rats

It’s easy and tempting to see at least a little of ourselves in Dr. Sousa’s stressed test subjects, especially these days while so many of us struggle against the effects of a contracting global economy and often violent political unrest. We “revert.” We “retreat.” We toil with our heads down. This according to countless interpretations of the contemporary human experience both in developed and underdeveloped countries.

Anxiety can be a powerful de-motivator, to be sure, but it’s not as strong as our desire to thrive. We bipeds are capable of overcoming tremendous adversity when properly motivated. A reminder of better times. A grounded promise from a trusted source. Such gestures work miracles for those that receive them, and they can pay handsome dividends to those that profer them.

Branding Organizational Transformation

April 1, 2010

“We need to establish a new competency before we get into trouble.”
— Peter Chou, CEO of HTC, a Taiwanese handset maker.

After a successful run designing and building high-end smart phones for leading Western mobile operators, HTC is starting to develop its own brand to compete against the likes of Apple and Blackberry. The costs: shareholder skepticism (“things have been going so well!”), a loss of good customers who donʼt want to do business with an emerging rival, and an overhaul of corporate culture from one that focuses on efficiency to one that relies on branded innovation to compete.

Strong brands beget strong margins, so it should not surprise us when an industryʼs best ODMs (“original design manufacturers” such as HTC) decide to take their own innovations to market. Itʼs a risk we can associate with our decisions to outsource innovation in the first place. Manufacturers that leverage a distribution system they donʼt own will recognize a similar pressure coming from the other direction, in the form of retailer private label brands.

Of course, being sales organizations, itʼs easy for ODMs to underestimate the difficulties of building a brand and taking “it” to market. Still, we should anticipate that ODMs will get better at branding as they pursue strategies to “keep themselves out of trouble.” The same competitive pressures that compel ODMs to pursue brand strategies, though, may well keep many from transforming in the way Chou hopes to transform HTC. Rival suppliers will keep prices down and distract organizations from the hard business of transformation, and itʼs never easy to convince internal stakeholders to make enemies of clients.

ODMs that decide to pursue a brand strategy will need to commit fully to an organizational transformation, and will do well to resist temptations to “straddle the fence” by trying to build brands while still behaving like ingredient suppliers. Meanwhile, branded manufactures that outsource innovation may want to consider taking a longer- term view of the financial health of key suppliers, in the interest of protecting and growing those margins that their brands afford them.