I'm Chief Strategist at big fish®, where I work with consumer businesses to help them solve brand, tech, and marketing problems. I’m interested in uncertainty, creativity, and sustainability – particularly in the world of consumer brands.
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Throughout history, outsiders have solved countless problems, and society has venerated the romantic myth of the heretic, seeing what others can’t or won’t and suffering the consequences of their discoveries. But is there a systemic advantage in being an outsider? Can they see what others don’t? Or are those with inside knowledge more likely to succeed?
Andrew Oved of Reformation points out a classic mistake made by venture capitalists: they think that it’s possible to buy their way to a popular brand that’s part of popular culture. In reality, you have to put in the hard yards:
“When I think about the greatest consumer brands today, here are some of the names that come to mind: Nike, Supreme, Patagonia, Louis Vuitton, Lululemon, Chanel, Revlon. None of these brands raised venture capital. You might say ‘the world is different now’, but I think that’s only partially true. Lululemon was started in 1998, right at the peak of the dot com bubble, the same year that Pets.com launched and WebVan raised hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital…
“…deliberately taking a slower approach to brand-building is a prerequisite (though not guarantee) for building a long-lasting consumer product brand. Stated differently: Blitzscaling is not a viable option for iconic brand-building: brand is earned, not bought.”
Affinity and loyalty don’t come from bombarding consumers with ads; they come from growing a role in their life, from earning hard-won recommendations among friends, from carving out a sustainable place in the wider culture. Easy come, easy go. #
Ben Coates explains the baffling inadequacy of the Netherlands’ response to the coronavirus and in particular the rollout of vaccines – baffling considering the Dutch reputation for efficient bureaucracy, a tip-top healthcare system, and the smooth running of complex infrastructural projects.
One part that struck me was Coates’s identifying of a cultural factor behind this seeming ineptitude:
“The beloved Dutch trait of ‘nuchterheid’ (sobriety, or a refusal to panic) looks increasingly like a fatal condition.”
I’ve thought the same about the UK, with our “stiff upper lip”, our “blitz spirit”, and our “keep calm and carry on”. All our cultural tropes around triumphing over adversity venerate the idea of refusing to be affected, refusing to panic, and steadfastly continuing much as before. That’s exactly what we don’t want to do when faced with coronavirus, and yet it’s what we’ve spent the last year doing. Reassuring, in a depressing way, that the Dutch seem to be no different. #
David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame, founded an editorial project aimed at countering the prevailing negativity of the news media, accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative, as the song goes. It’s called Reasons to be Cheerful.
Their round-up of 2020, a year universally regarded as an irredeemable dumpster-fire, is well worth reading:
“You could be forgiven for thinking that 2020 was little more than a slow-motion train wreck broken up into 365 individual units. But if you’re a regular RTBC reader, you know that’s not true. Yes, it was a most difficult year. But it was also a year of problems solved, hopes sustained and seemingly insurmountable challenges met.”
A sobering look at the seeming paradox that, while untold economic ruin has been unleashed on the world, to say nothing of the human misery, the US stock market has done nothing but climb. In answering that question, Neil Irwin and Weiyi Cai discover who the pandemic’s economic winners and losers have been, and why those who’ve lost out have seen their losses masked by gains elsewhere. #
A fantastic, hilarious, film-noir-ish look at the great bucatini shortage of 2020 by Rachel Handler. Every line is quotable, but you can come for the sensual pasta:
“Of course! It’s me! I have bought them all! Bucatini is the most sensual of the pastas!”
…and stay for the conspiracy that goes right to the top:
“As I waited impatiently for the FDA’s FOIA reply, I got another call from Carl from the NPA, who blew my mind with a tale that sounded so Coen brothers–y I could not believe it. The reason behind De Cecco’s fall from FDA grace, he said, could potentially be traced all the way back to the early 1900s and the beginning of what was once called the ‘National Association of Macaroni and Noodle Manufacturers of America.’”
Sweden pursued an idiosyncratic approach to the coronavirus pandemic: effectively leaving people to make their own choices rather than imposing rules and guidelines, and aiming for herd immunity. They persevered with that approach even when it became clear that it wasn’t working, and as the death count mounted. Why was that?
John Gustavsson argues persuasively – and damningly – that it’s because of a peculiarly Swedish brand of exceptionalism:
“Whereas American exceptionalism is about America’s unique place in the world, Swedish exceptionalism is about being immune to any disasters that may happen in the rest of the world.
“To understand this idea, you need to understand our history: We survived two world wars unscathed, two wars in which all of our neighbors were partially or completely occupied. While every generation of Americans has suffered at least one major war, Sweden has not fought a war since 1814. The last time Sweden engaged in armed conflict, James Madison was president of the United States.”
It’s hard to escape something so deep-rooted, and so Sweden looks poised to continue its disastrous approach – and to do so with the enthusiastic approval of the Swedish people. #
A lovely metaphor for a common problem:
“A few years ago, I heard Rob Walling explain the difference between an aspirin business and a vitamin business: in an aspirin business, you don’t try to convince customers that they need your product. Instead your customers have a problem – a “headache” – and they know it. They go looking for a solution – your “aspirin” – to make their problem go away (or at least make it better).
“On the other hand, if you have a vitamin business, you constantly have to convince your customers they need what you’re selling. Vitamins supplement our diet and supposedly make our lives better in some way – they promise to make us healthier, more vibrant, etc. In a vitamin business, your customers can survive without your product, so your job is to show them how much better their lives will be with it.”
It’s so easy to kid yourself that your vitamin business is an aspirin one – and to falter as a result. #
The world’s attention tends to be drawn to shiny startups that scale quickly. But there’s something vital to be learned from those businesses that choose to focus on longevity instead – especially from the point of view of ecological sustainability.
There’s something strange about Japanese business culture: the country is home to some forty per cent of all the world’s centenarian businesses, and has several that are over a thousand years old. (Perhaps the oldest, Kongō Gumi, went into liquidation in 2006 after over 1,400 years; at the helm was the 50th generation of the founding family.)
This New York Times article looks at long-lived Japanese businesses, particularly focusing on a charming mochi seller, and examines what makes them so extraordinarily resilient.
“If you look at the economics textbooks, enterprises are supposed to be maximizing profits, scaling up their size, market share and growth rate. But these companies’ operating principles are completely different,” said Kenji Matsuoka, a professor emeritus of business at Ryukoku University in Kyoto.
“Their No. 1 priority is carrying on,” he added. “Each generation is like a runner in a relay race. What’s important is passing the baton.”
Last year the payment processor Stripe posted a blog post outlining their belief that, if humanity was to tackle climate change, significant advancements in carbon removal technology would need to be made. They announced an intent to fund cutting-edge research into technologies that could help remove carbon from the atmosphere, either by sequestering it in the ground or by converting it into another form.
This year, they launched an amazing scheme that leverages their core business as a payment processor: Stripe Climate, a scheme whereby merchants who use Stripe can choose to redirect a percentage of their income to carbon removal research.
Opting in is straightforward for merchants, gives them a positive story to tell their consumers, and has the potential to be much more effective than the wishy-washy carbon offsetting programmes used by some merchants (and in particular airlines). I hope it rolls out beyond the US soon. #
The Volkswagen Foundation funds over €100m worth of scientific and research projects a year. In 2018, it announced that it would use lotteries to help decide which projects to fund; apparently, that process has been a success.
Nature also published an interesting review last year on other funders’ experiments with lotteries:
“It just takes a lot of angst out of it,” says Don Cleland, a process engineer at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand, and a member of the team that oversees the SfTI fund. Given the money to fund 20 projects, an assessment panel doesn’t need to agonize over which application ranks 20th and which comes 21st, he says. They can just agree that both are good enough to be funded and then put them into the hat. “We actually do have a hat,” Cleland says.
The late-twentieth century saw the rise of managerialism, the belief that professional managers wielded skills that were applicable across organisations and industries – a movement that failed miserably. At the same time, there emerged a strain of thinking that did the same thing for creativity. But can this “creativism” succeed where managerialism failed?
Now that the dust is settling – hopefully – on Trump’s time in office, we can begin to reckon with those who collaborated with his regime and his ideology. Who collaborated? Why, and how? What can be learned from other collaborators in the recent past, with Nazism and Communism?
Writing back in July, Historian Anne Applebaum digs deep in this article. She explains how totalitarianism can take root gradually, and that the nature of collaboration can take many forms – whether that’s misplaced faith, self-delusion, or self-interest. In the end, those who collaborate the closest are often the people you’d least expect to. #
Agriculture isn’t my area of expertise, but if you can parse through the bushels and Chicago prices and bpa dryland yields then there’s a really interesting story here. It’s the story of one farmer questioning received wisdom, choosing long-term profitability over short-term convenience, relentlessly experimenting and learning, and adopting methods from the organic world – lessons that can and should be learned in more industries than just farming. #
All too often, companies treat hiring like a puzzle: gather enough information, conduct a rigorous enough interview process, and you’ll come to an objective conclusion as to whether someone is right. But that flies in the face of even the most obvious understanding of how humans and teams behave. So why do we do it, and what should we do instead?
Puzzles are solvable, knowable, with clear rules and objective answers. Mysteries are complex, murky, incapable of resolution. The world is full of both: why is it that we so often fail to distinguish between them? The answer perhaps lies in our mindsets, our biases, and the way we naturally approach problem-solving.
For a while, it seemed like the internet would destroy niche businesses, as power became concentrated in ever-fewer large platforms. But the reality is that those platforms themselves have, in reaching such a huge audience, actually helped niche businesses more than they’ve harmed them – and, in fact, allowed ever-narrower niches to be served.
David Brooks argues cogently that the nuclear family – 2.0 parents and 2.4 children – is a historical aberration, a blip that worked only in the 1950s and from which society is yet to fully recover.
It’s a challenging piece, but not without its positivity. Individuals cast adrift by society’s insistence on the nuclear family are, Brooks argues, increasingly finding refuge in “forged families”, kin relationships formed with those outside their immediate, biological family:
“These forged families have a feeling of determined commitment. The members of your chosen family are the people who will show up for you no matter what. On Pinterest you can find placards to hang on the kitchen wall where forged families gather: ‘Family isn’t always blood. It’s the people in your life who want you in theirs; the ones who accept you for who you are. The ones who would do anything to see you smile & who love you no matter what.’”
Errol Morris’s landmark documentary series First Person first aired in 2000. The whole series is on YouTube, and it’s well worth watching.
I wondered how Morris achieved the distinctive directness of his interviews: every subject seems always to be talking straight down the barrel of the lens. It turns out that this is possible with a device of Morris’s own invention, which he dubbed “the Interrotron”. It’s a little like an autocue, and uses mirrors to allow the interview subject to look straight at the camera but also see and make contact with the interviewer. Production designer Steve Hardie – who worked with Morris on several films including Fog of War – explains more. #
Craig Mod walked 1,000km across Japan in search of an institution: the Kissaten (lit. “tea-drinking shops”). These are cafés famous for their “morning service” of coffee, toast, and eggs, and for the true object of Mod’s obsession: pizza toast, which is exactly what you’d expect from the name.
These kissa are wonderful places of human connection:
“Canadian Coffee House was only open until noon on Sundays, and it was already 1:30 p.m. The other customers had long since left. It was just Sakai and me chatting away. I apologized for keeping him open longer than expected, and he looked at me like I was nuts. It was his pleasure. This was what kissa were for — community, connection, conversation, strange encounters.”
…but they’re also dying out, victims of Japan’s aging population, flight to the cities, and general cultural shifts. Mod’s journey is a fitting elegy. #
Edward Tufte at his searing best, dismantling the cult of PowerPoint. PowerPoint is, to Tufte, a singularly useless form of communication: slow, shallow, and thought-corrupting. He uses the tragic example of the Columbia space shuttle disaster to demonstrate the real dangers of reducing complex issues to bullet points.
“Imagine a widely used and expensive prescription drug that claimed to make us beautiful but didn’t. Instead the drug had frequent, serious side effects: making us stupid, degrading the quality and credibility of our communication, turning us into bores, wasting our colleagues’ time. These side effects, and the resulting unsatisfactory cost/benefit ratio, would rightly lead to a worldwide product recall.”
What happens if Amazon goes the way of Uber and Airbnb, and becomes an "aggregator" – with unlimited product selection, a frictionless service, and an incredible user experience? Should food and drink brands be rubbing their hands with glee – or fearing for their lives?
Peter Pomerantsev writes perfectly on how the disorienting, time-warping feel of coronavirus is actually just the latest in a slow melting away of the significance of time:
“We live in a “flat world” where different eras have become squashed together in a mental space where they can’t by definition all fit at the same time, and where there is no History to order them in terms of their level of “development.” Everything is contemporaneous, but with no model of common communication, a synchronization of the incompatible: ISIS and Putin, Trudeau, Kim Kardashian, and Duterte all jostling against each other with no way of saying which represents the past and which the future.”
Matt Webb has really been knocking it out of the park lately. His latest is on adaptive long music, with video game music as inspiration:
Although this gives the impression of a formless improvisational process, because of the way the music reacts in real-time to the player’s actions, the underlying structure had to be meticulously planned. If a dramatic sequence suddenly kicks off, the soundtrack switches to something with greater intensity, while a more foreboding sound is required during moments of suspense.
I wonder, when I listen to these soundscapes, whether it would be possible to make an album that is intended to be listened to over a full 24 hours, as a kind of live soundtrack to your life?