Monday, July 25, 2011

Field of memes.

I’m not usually one to whip out my curriculum vitae, but this is a special circumstance. Given that someone has decided there should be a ‘digital divide’, I feel compelled to clarify which side of the damned thing I’m on so that the following screed isn’t unduly dismissed. I get the web. I do. Here I am getting the web in 1994, before there was even a Netscape (apparently, the fact that consumers were going to be able to talk back to marketers was going to be a pretty big deal. Oh, and I think we gave up on the word “interactive” too soon). I’ve advised lots of startups in the space, including very big ones like a bank and an online travel retailer and the only online grocer who achieved an operating income during giddy Web 1.0. And small ones, even as we speak, little companies with great ideas and founders with that unblinking, glistening stare that only pre-VC entrepreneurs have. I’ve even been an investor, once placing a tidy sum behind a bulletproof plan that disputed the following truth, and losing every penny of it. I’m not some aggrieved creature of the mass media age, grumping about the new economy and the devil music those kids are listening to. I’m a dude, and, here’s my truth:

Most internet-enabled, technology-driven products are ridiculously over-developed and criminally under-marketed.

What triggered this eruption was watching people trying to cope with Google+, the answer to a problem most mainstream social media users didn’t know they had. This specific example may prove unfair in the end – only a fool dismisses Google - but there are a million more where it came from. Fantastically useful web-enabled services and apps nobody has ever heard of, brilliant utilities buried layers deep in ones that thought they knew, features so difficult to explain that their creators rarely try. Nor does the problem live only online. I could argue that benighted RiM would have done well to spend a little less time impressing engineers with its nuanced improvements over the iPad and a little more of it trying to create desire. This techno-centric faith that more is better and better will win perforce has dug a deep moat around the future. On one side of it are the novelty-addicted nerds trying endlessly to impress themselves, and on the other is the rest of the world who have no idea what they’re missing. Or are tired of feeling disempowered by it.

A developer is not a marketer. Differentiation only matters within a known frame of reference. You have to have prospects before you can have customers. Search only sells when people know what they’re looking for. Viruses run their course and then flame out. Marketing still needs scale to make money. And people will always, always, always learn when they are fascinated and never when they’re forced.

As Luddite as it may seem, I’m coming to believe that the most progressive thing the tech world could do right now is innovate a little less and market a little more. It really is time that we invited regular people to join the fun. I’d certainly settle for less awesomeness if it meant that more people were going get some. Just because we build the future doesn’t mean anybody’s going to come, but if we can get enough of them to come, you might be amazed at what they’d help us build.

Photo used with the kind permission of Dennis Crowley (@dens)

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Fit for a king.

What you are about to read will probably revolutionize branding. You see, I’ve invented a new organizational role that will finally, once and for all, cement brands as constitutions for corporate behaviour, and integrate marketing communications with, um, cross-functional synergy and, ah… community engagement. Or search engine optimization. Something like that. Anyway, here’s where I got the idea:

For the past week, the dashing Prince William and his bride, the Duchess of Cambridge, have been touring this fair dominion, shaking hands, complimenting people on their fascinators, and engaging in feats of derring-do. Let me tell you, going bald apparently doesn’t amount to much of a social liability when you can land a helicopter on water. And as with all royal visits to our home and native land, this one has generated the usual ritual debate over the relevance of the monarchy. I’m not, myself, a monarchist per se, but I’m still kind of glad to have the Windsors on the payroll, and these winsome kids made me ask myself why. The answer, I concluded, was that the role of a constitutional monarchy – the kind we all agree to accept rather than the kind that’s imposed on us by men with guns – is to personify its nation’s defining values. Free of politics, free of the messy, pandering process of getting elected, free of the practical exigencies of getting things done, the ideal monarch’s only job is to conspicuously be what’s best about a people. So far, at least, that’s what everybody has decided Will and Kate are to be, and so far, at least, that’s what they are.

That’s what I think brands need. Royalty. That’s my big idea. For sure, some of the best brands already have their dukes and duchesses, people who are incidentally CEOs but are mostly spiritual leaders. But a lot of CEOs just aren’t up to the job, are they. Some of them are too distracted by the demands of shareholders, or franchisees, or head offices or some other high-leverage stakeholder who isn’t a customer. And some of them are journeymen, people who come to the job with personal agendas and timetables and never really unpack their carpetbags. Distracted people aren’t the sort you want setting a moral example for your corporation. Neither are transient, self-interested ones. Both tend to produce workforces who learn the same pathologies. Neither tends to produce a particularly valuable or coherent brand. That’s where monarchy kicks in. While the King of RiM may not have exactly the ring to it that we’re looking for, I think you can still see how it would be an improvement. Even a Baroness would help Bell, and a Marquis, we can all agree, is the very least Air Canada deserves.

It’s one of my favourite tubs to thump that branding and leadership are inseparable quantities in the modern corporation. Every good leader knows that accountability is the foundation of the job. But I think too many forget that as important as it is to be accountable to your constituencies, you also have to be accountable to the idea that gave life to your enterprise. Sometimes above all. In corporate life, at least, the line between a democracy and an unruly mob isn’t held by management. It’s held by inspiration.

And, occasionally, I guess, an axe.