A friend who works in marketing tipped me off about this guy called Rory Sutherland who is an advertising expert, and a phenomenal speaker. He has done three TED talks, they are available here.
There are lots of lessons we can draw from what he has to say:
1. Two types of value
There are two types of value: so called “real” value (the objective quality of something), and intangible/tangential value (the value we get from a product over and above its objective contents). Advertising’s job is to create intangible value.
Sutherland argues that there is no such thing as “real” value. We find it impossible as human beings to differentiate between objective quality and the holistic experience we have when consuming something.
Perspective is everything: things are not what they are, they are what we think they are. And things are what we compare them to.
Yet we make psychology subordinate to everything else, obsessing over improving the objective quality of the product rather than creating intangible value. As he says: Eurostar spent about 5 billion quid taking 40 minutes off the overall journey time by investing in new tracks etc. But, instead (and with plenty of spare change), they could have spent the money hiring the world’s best male and female supermodels to walk up and down the aisle serving free champagne for the duration of the journey and people would have a more enjoyable, memorable experience and actually ask for the trains to be slowed down. Psychological value is often the best kind, for example: the value of a brand. I saw a couple with Louis Vuitton luggage outside South Kensington station yesterday. That luggage is not better made than something half the price. But it has psychological value: it is a status good. It says to the world: I am successful. (It also says: I am needy and have no taste, but that’s another story!). Symbolic value is real.
THIS HAS HUGE RELEVANCE FOR HOW YOU COMMUNICATE YOURSELF TO THE WORLD: take responsibility for your brand. Your brand is not who you are, it is who people think you are. “People don’t understand me, they don’t get me, they don’t know who I am, I don’t get the chance to show how great I am”: these are problems of communication, of image, that you can solve. It is a problem in picking up women as much as it is in stand-up comedy. Your hidden shallows, may allow you to communicate your hidden depths. And in advertising these depths we invite other people to explore them.
The psychological enjoyment people get from an experience is how they attribute value, not the objective quality of it (a 7 minute wait on a tube platform with a countdown clock is better than a 7 minute wait without one). It’s pointless improving the product with changing people’s perception. They will be getting a better product but be ignorant to the improvement. Like the Royal Mail: people think the Royal Mail is shit. But actually 98% of mail gets there on time. To improve the Royal Mail, they don’t need to work on the 98% figure but actually show people how good the service already is. We cannot tell the difference between the quality of the product and the context within which we consume it: if the restaurant is fantastic fun to be in, we just assume the food is good.
So you’re product has improved? Great. Now re-launch it with a new image. The novelty will get people to take notice and realise that it’s got better. Incremental improvement in the objective value of a product as little IMPACT.
Intangible value is created through fashion, how you wear your hair, your online presence, how you send your e-mails, your answer phone message, the gifts you give, your business card: your brand. “Brand” gets a bad name, because we associate it with faceless, cynical business. We also associate it with that awful man from The Apprentice who repeatedly asserted that he was “Stuart Baggs-the brand”. Bizarrely, by standing out and being a dick, he was memorable and created a brand that created him lasting value even a few years after the series was broadcast (spanning books, media appearances, an Edinburgh show, and a consultancy business). Now, I am not saying you should be an idiot deliberately to make yourself memorable, but you should appreciate the legacy of being memorable in some way, of standing out from other people, and also appreciate the value of your “brand” in achieving this.
It can be as simple as having a memorable and strange haircut. I know people criticise a lot of young stand-ups for being nothing but a haircut. Sometimes they have a point. But here is the important take-away: if you blend into everyone else, if you communicate you are average, then human nature is to assume that is what you are, REGARDLESS OF YOUR OBJECTIVE QUALITY. They will put you in the pile “solid, but uninteresting”. That is where mediocrity lives and careers die.
Fashion contains messages and you need to control these. For example, you can identify the tribes people are in from the way they present themselves to the world. People with loads of piercings, awful pony tails, leather capes, eye shadow and so on don’t dress like that because they think it makes them look good. It is because they want to be a member of the tribe, let’s call them “Goths” (although this is a simplification), the tribe that says: I don’t agree with this society, or the pressures of it, and I want to stand-outside of it. Appearance is a great way to communicate this. It is a low level protest that they can make all day every day. It is political, subversive, but in a very low level way. What does your appearance say about you? The truth is: we don’t want to stand-out really. We seek simply mild differentiation between very narrow variables, because we are all social cowards. Social cowards hug bland mediocrity like a warm towel. And no one knows who they are.
2. Sweat the small stuff: Virgin Atlantic when it launched had salt and pepper shakers made from silver that looked like dogs. People thought they were cool and they were immensely memorable: they providing a talking point that helped the customers spread the news about the brand. Of course people thought about nicking them, but on the bottom Virgin wrote “stolen from virgin atlantic upper class”, another hilarious talking point. You remember this experience for years. Small detail, low cost, huge effect. Imagination is everything. Small innovations in your image and user experience make a massive difference in memorability and getting your brand to spread. The detail of your brand, your image, your product, your clothes can have a huge impact. What do you remember of someone’s clothes? What do you comment on? Usually an accessory. These are critical non-essentials.#
3. The interface determines the behaviour. If you had a large red button in your living room that if you pressed it it would automatically transfer 50 quid into your pension, you would save a lot more. Marketing has done a very good job of creating opportunities for impulse buying. You change your decisions by changing the interface, but structuring the options differently.
4. “Poetry is when you make familiar things new, and new things familiar”. He says that’s a good definition of what advertising is about, and it’s a pretty good definition for whatever art form you’re passionate about is.
5. “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders”. Has your product got some magic in it? Something that will make them go “wow”. That will make their brain’s fizz, and their hearts ache?