Cultural trends that could shape movement marketing

I recently read what could be one of the most influential books of my life. Uprising by Scott Goodson, founder of StrawberryFrog, the world’s first cultural movement agency. One of my biggest learnings was that many of the so-called movements we see around us are not movements at all, but just highly product-focused campaigns. I’ve learnt that a true movement is about a higher purpose, something that dwarfs the brand and product. For instance, Small Business Saturday is about increasing opportunities for thousands of small business owners across America, and not merely about increasing usage of American Express. Likewise, the Campaign For Real Beauty is about empowering millions of women around the world to think more highly of themselves, and not just about moving Dove off the shelves.

A true movement is about plugging into a cultural trend that is shaping the world. As an example, StrawberryFrog’s True North movement embraced a cultural trend that rejects conformist definitions of success and celebrates individualistic interpretations of it. This trend was probably a result of the 2007-2009 economic collapse and the anger directed towards the stereotypical successful person in white shirt and black tie carrying a laptop to Wall Street. Another recent cultural trend is a belief that quality products need not just come from established brands. That has led to the Etsy movement in which folks like you and me sell handmade jewelry, art, and other creations through which we express ourselves.

Those are trends that have emerged in the last few years. But to identify what could be the drivers of movement marketing in the next few years, I started thinking about nascent cultural trends that are only just starting to simmer. Here are a few I’ve observed over the past few months.


1) Dystopia is suddenly cool.

The Walking Dead. Breaking Bad. The Hunger Games. Game of Thrones. What do these highly popular shows have in common? They are all about the macabre, the gory, the deranged, and the dystopian. We seem to be in an era where flowers and peacocks are boring whereas zombies and bloodshed are cool. Why has this happened? Is it because we’ve started sensing a perverse glamor in these things? Is this a sign of things to come for our popular culture?

I sense that it’s a matter of time before a counterculture emerges that promotes genuinely beautiful things and revives interest in them. Brands that are about beauty (not just in skincare but also in art and fashion) will spearhead this counterculture.


2) We enjoy having more questions than answers.

What the hell did I just see? That was my reaction upon watching the movie Cloud Atlas. It’s a complex sci-fi tale about interdependencies of people across centuries. After watching it, I was left with more questions than answers, and had to spend substantial time on the web and social media to decode what I had just seen. I was not the only one.

Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi had two different endings and everyone was left wondering which ending was real. I’ve discussed that with so many people, and I’ve come across a roughly equal number of people who believe in either ending. Prior to that, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island had a similar open ending. Then of course, there was Inception, widely described as a “mindfuck”. On TV, Lost was a phenomenon that led to a multitude of interpretations. Awake was another TV attempt where we were meant to wonder which of two parallel storylines was real, and this conundrum was not resolved even at the very end.

Why is there such a proliferation of “mindfuck” movies and series that leave us with more questions than answers? One reason could be that an ever-increasing number of movies and series are competing for an ever-dwindling slice of people’s attentions. So for its very survival, a movie or series needs to spawn a huge volume of conversation, long after the audience has left the cinema or switched off their TV. This ultra-competitiveness of the entertainment industry has coincided with the explosion of social media that facilitates this huge volume of conversation.

The implications for movement marketing are manifold. Firstly, the fact that consumers give more space to conflicting opinions means that marketers should also give more space to conflicting opinions. Any brand looking to create a movement should accept that there’s always a risk of a counter-movement, and embrace it if necessary. Secondly, brands need to note that people don’t mind chewing on vast chunks of information, because the collective wisdom of the web and social media will satisfy their appetite for information. Movement marketers need not spoonfeed the consumer with the information needed to take a stand. The consumer has evolved and should be respected as such.


3) Imperfect heroes are more attractive.

When The Dark Knight Rises released in July 2012, we saw a Batman who was considered the weakest ever. When Skyfall released in November 2012, we saw a James Bond who was rated the most fallible ever. There’s an unmistakable trend towards seeing the flaws in our heroes, instead of placing them on a pedestal of perfection. The human drama that surrounds an imperfect hero is now a major part of the plots, even when filmmakers attempt old-fashioned good versus evil stories. Even the time-honored monster-bashing kaiju vs mecha genre recently received an interpretation (Pacific Rim) that focused on the weaknesses of the hero. Only the good old Marvel heroes are still kinda perfect, but for how much longer?

The field of movement marketing can embrace this by celebrating the hero in all of us. It sounds like a cliche (I know you’re hearing Mariah Carey’s voice in your head), but the fact that even our biggest heroes are portrayed as imperfect means that there’s a hero in all of us, waiting to be brought out. There’s a multitude of public service causes just waiting to get the support of everyday heroes. The potential to create movements based on the idea of an everyday hero is immense.


4) Blasts from the past are welcomed with open arms.

I was kinda disturbed when Total Recall was remade last year. It was the first time a movie from my childhood was considered old enough to remake. Was I getting old, I wondered! Then I felt, maybe it’s not that. Maybe it’s an increasing trend towards revisiting the past as a source of inspiration for today’s popular culture. In the months that followed Total Recall, there was Oz, G.I. Joe, The Great Gatsby, and the TV show Bates Motel. Several older movies had a 3D re-release, such as Titanic, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, and Beauty And The Beast. Is it a lack of imagination that’s making directors and scriptwriters revisit the past? Or is it because the audience’s short attention spans mean that old classics have been forgotten and need to be revived?

There’s an opportunity for brands to plug into this revivalist trend, perhaps by delving into their own heritage and bringing back elements from bygone eras. Crispin Porter + Bogusky’s recent re-imagining of the classic Grey Poupon commercial is one example. Project Re: Brief in which brands like Coke and Avis put a new spin on their classic campaigns is another. I sense that this is just the start of a huge wave of revivalism.


5) There’s an unprecedented interest in cultures different from our own.

The Book Of Mormon is the Broadway phenomenon of the last few years. Among other things, it’s about a religion that has only recently exploded into public consciousness, partly because of Mitt Romney. The Mormons are the “new Jews” in a way, a religion that has stoked the curiosity of a predominantly Christian America. Being “different” is fashionable now, even if no one can really answer the question of “different from whom”. If you have some Greek in you, great. If you have some Cherokee in you, fantastic.

There’s also a concerted effort to include major non-white characters in movies and tv shows, and not because of some attempt at political correctness. Nearly every tv show has a major Indian character, played by popular stars like Kunal Nayyar (Raj of “The Big Bang Theory”) and Mindy Kaling (Kelly of “The Office” and Mindy of “The Mindy Project”). Last year saw the debut of a show called Shahs Of The Sunset, the first American show that had Iranians as central characters. Something similar is happening in movies, where major characters are drawn from a variety of ethnicities, and without even making a hullaballoo of it. These ethnic portrayals are no longer stereotypical. The Chinese man in a Hollywood movie is no longer the utility shopkeeper in the middle of the desert.

The implications for movement marketers are twofold. Firstly, for the first time in human history, we are living in a truly global mosaic. The concept of “globalista” (popularized by StrawberryFrog on behalf of Emirates Airlines) exemplifies this. People who were born in a country, grew up in another, and are working in a third. People who are equally open to all cultures and accept their influences wholeheartedly. Brands like Emirates Airlines are meant for such truly global citizens, and appealing to this sense of “globalness” is the way to go.

The alternate implication for movement marketers is that amidst the global mosaic, there’s also a reassertion of individual identities. This is not parochial. Neither does it conflict with the idea of being a global citizen. Just as an example, today’s Muslim wants to retain his sense of being Muslim and at the same time integrate with the global community. The rising field of Islamic marketing stands true to that. So does Hispanic marketing. A growing generation of Hispanic Americans are finding ways to be Hispanic and American at the same time without perceiving any conflict between the two. A Jewish American may call Israel “The Homeland” and yet fight a war for America. This reassertion of individual identities is a major force that’s occurring at precisely the same time that a global culture is emerging. This is not a contradiction. If you look at a mosaic, is it all one color and pattern? No, each section retains its own color and pattern. Yet, the mosaic is one whole.


There are many more such cultural trends we can spot if we just spend some time observing the world around us. Spotting these cultural trends is the first step towards creating a movement, but it’s just that. A first step. What follows next is possibly the most important step: Finding the right cultural trend for a brand to embrace. If marketers do not put enough thought into this step, their brand might simply jump onto a bandwagon and do something that has “me too” written all over it. In the worst case, the brand may be seen as exploitative and opportunistic.

To avoid these pitfalls, marketers need to dive deep into the DNA of a brand, what it stands for, and where it has a right to play. Coke for instance has a great right to play in any space that’s about happiness, togetherness, and sharing. Gillette on the other hand is about preparation and empowerment of men. Try swapping the two. See, it doesn’t make sense anymore. By maintaining a strong internal compass of what a brand is and isn’t, marketers will find the cultural sweet spot that gives us truly impactful movements. And the world will be a better place for it.

A new day breaks in branded entertainment

One of the best things about being at BBDO New York is the quality of people and ideas we encounter. You could be getting a drink from the vending machine and find the legendary Greg Hahn a few meters away. The result is, once every few months, someone in your office will do a piece of work that’s absolutely pathbreaking and redefines the whole world of marketing.

The most recent example of this is Daybreak, something BBDO and TV producer Tim Kring (Heroes, Touch) are doing for AT&T. It’s an ecosystem of content that’s loosely termed a web series, but there’s much more to it. There’s a whole mythology around it, almost like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Marvel Comics and the like. And of course, there’s an app for it. More about that later.

Without playing spoiler, Daybreak is about a set of mysterious objects called dodecahedrons (20-sided cubes) that have extraordinary powers, with both good and bad forces hunting for them, and inevitably clashing. With a good versus evil battle and a conspiracy theory providing fertile ground, the makers have cultivated enormous story value in every episode, and you absolutely need to keep watching till the end.

The good guys detect the dodecahedrons using an app called Jack Boxers, which has frequency recognition and picture recognition technology pioneered by AT&T. The dodecahedrons emit frequencies that enable the app to track them. Picture recognition helps the users make sense of pictorial clues they detect across the city. AT&T is pivotal to the story as the plot cannot move forward without its technology. This is a far cry from the product placement we’re used to. We don’t find anything out-of-place or in-your-face. There’s simply no story here without AT&T.

While a web series (albeit a very entertaining one) isn’t pathbreaking, it’s the ecosystem surrounding it that makes Daybreak first-of-a-kind.

Firstly, a series of web films seeded on YouTube show scientists a few decades ago performing mysterious experiments with dodecahedrons. You can find them here, here and here. It was never explicitly mentioned that these are part of Daybreak, and that only made them all the more viral.

Secondly, the Daybreak website has a whole series of images and videos revealing knowledge on dodecahedrons, physics, and the conspiracy. You get really drawn into the Daybreak culture through it.

Thirdly, the Jack Boxers app in the story is also a real app. In the story it’s a valuable tool used by a worldwide network of Jack Boxers to uncover dodecahedrons. In real life it’s a game in which you collaborate with thousands of worldwide players via Facebook to locate fictitious dodecahedrons. This blurring between fiction and reality is a beautiful way to fascinate people.

Following the same philosophy is this site that takes the Jack Boxers mythology to stratospheric levels. It reminds me of the mythology created around the movie Prometheus (such as this 2023 TED Talk). We’re increasingly entering an era in which a movie or a series is simply the core around which concentric circles of more content are created.

Finally, one stroke of brilliance connected Daybreak with a whole new audience. This film, completely outside of the five episodes, shows a juxtaposition between the hero of Daybreak and the hero of Touch, an iconic TV series produced by the same Tim Kring. Touch is about a mute 11-year-old boy who has extraordinary mathematical abilities and knows how everything in this universe is connected through mathematical patterns. Daybreak is another series about interconnections, so it’s brilliant to establish it in the same universe as Touch. I heard that in the last episode of this season of Touch, the concept of dodecahedrons was introduced to stimulate curiosity about Daybreak. Shortly after this season of Touch ended, Daybreak went live, and that was beautiful timing.

If you look at the different mediums and forms of content involved in Daybreak, you can tell that this is really the future of branded entertainment. Multiple mediums were involved not because someone was ticking boxes to ensure that film, web, mobile and social media were all covered. Multiple mediums were involved because that was simply the best way to tell this story. Great storytellers express themselves equally well in any medium, because their philosophy is to lead with great content.

I don’t believe creatives should start ripping off Daybreak. But I do believe they should deconstruct it to know the thought processes that went into it. A kind of “knowing where the rocks are so that you can walk on water”. So here’s my humble attempt. If the makers are reading this, they’d probably laugh at how ignorant I am. But that’s not going to prevent me from trying.

More than anything else, I believe that the starting point was when the makers asked, “What sort of story showcases the AT&T brand best?” and the answer was clearly “a story of interconnectedness”. A story of how people and objects in entirely different circles are woven together in the grand scheme of things. Just like AT&T facilitates this interconnectedness in real life, its technology enables the characters to piece together the interconnections in the story. The learning for all creatives working on all categories is to ask the question, “What sort of story showcases the brand/product the best?”. If you come up with the most amazing story that doesn’t showcase the brand/product powerfully, waste no time in consigning that story to the trash bin.

Once you think of stories that can build the brand, the next step is to ask yourself whether this story is entertaining, whether you would be interested in it. To evaluate its entertainment value, think about age-old techniques in storytelling – drama, tension, conflict, good versus evil, mystery, conspiracy, betrayal. This has nothing to do with technology, and everything to do with human nature. All these techniques were pioneered even before electricity was discovered.

The next step is to weave the brand seamlessly into the narrative. If you’ve done your homework in step one (asking the “what sort of story showcases the brand” question), then this step becomes easy. You’ll discover a multitude of ways in which the brand effortlessly fits into the story.

Once that is achieved, it’s time to have some fun with it, and build an entire subculture. Create stories peripheral to the main story. Create objects and concepts that deepen the narrative. And as you do that, you’ll naturally find different mediums to express yourself.

Of course, all these are easy to talk about, but rather difficult to do. That’s why the people who created Daybreak are truly the best in the business. There’s so much to learn from them. Even if we do half the things they are doing, we’ll become much better marketers and communicators.

I heard it took the team two years to develop the whole thing. I’m not surprised, because it’s a phenomenal attempt, and it would certainly take even the best brains two years to do it. There was a line in one of the episodes that said people don’t kill each other over quarks and gluons (the tiniest particles ever discovered, several orders tinier than electrons). But in the case of Daybreak, I’m sure the makers really killed each other over quarks and gluons to reach this level of creativity. One day we’ll look back at Daybreak and say that was an inflection point in the history of branded entertainment.

25 years of Sir Alex Ferguson

19 years without a league title. In 19th place in the league. This was Manchester United in 1986. Today, they are known for their 19 league titles, more than any other club in England’s history.

On 6th November 2011, Sir Alex Ferguson completes 25 years as manager of Manchester United. A landmark no one thought possible when he came to the club in 1986, attempting to awaken a sleeping giant. The glory days of Sir Matt Busby were a distant memory, and they had gotten used to being in the shadow of Liverpool, who were collecting not only league titles but also European Cups. Legend has it that one of Fergie’s first statements upon taking over as manager was that he would “knock Liverpool off their <expletive_deleted> perch”.

Alex Ferguson is unveiled as Manchester United manager on 6th November 1986.

Believe it or not, it took him 4 years to deliver success. An eternity in the modern game. Who can imagine a manager at a big club getting so much time today? Calls for Fergie’s head reached a crescendo in 1990, but chairman Martin Edwards and director Sir Bobby Charlton stuck to their guns and kept him. It’s often said that an FA Cup 3rd round match with Nottingham Forest on Jan 7th 1990 was the decisive match of Fergie’s life. Had they lost, the axe would have fallen within a matter of days. As destiny would have it, Mark Robins won the game for United. Not only did United get to the next round, they won the FA Cup that year, beating Crystal Palace in a replayed final. Fergie got breathing space. And got even more of it by winning the 1991 European Cup Winners’ Cup and the 1992 League Cup.

What started the revival was his quiet transformation of the club’s background. Drinking culture went out, stars like Paul McGrath were dumped, youngsters like Lee Martin and Mark Robins were brought in, and a discipline unseen at the club earlier was instilled. Shrewd signings like Gary Pallister and Brian McClair were made. The youth setup of the club received a total makeover, whose results would be seen in the coming years. Stars like Ryan Giggs and Peter Schmeichel were blossoming fantastically under the watchful eye of the gaffer.

In 1992, it looked like Fergie would lead the club to its first league title since 1967 under Busby. But with pressure proving too much, United choked to let Leeds steal the title from under their noses. A workmanlike Manchester United couldn’t cross the finishing line because they didn’t have enough magic in the side. This was the time Fergie took his most extraordinary gamble and brought in a player who was nothing but trouble wherever he went. A player who had punched a teammate, fought with another, thrown a ball at a referee, and called every one of his country’s football federation an idiot. His name was Eric Cantona.

A manager who was a traditionalist in every other way brought in a combustible genius who transformed the club. Unsurprisingly, United won their first league title in 26 years in 1993. Extraordinary moments like Steve Bruce’s two headers against Sheffield Wednesday and Fergie’s golf trip when a caddy said Aston Villa had lost to Oldham to give United the title meant that no fan would ever forget this campaign.

Alex Ferguson's first Premier League title in 1993

Fergie followed up his first title with another in 1994, coupled with the FA Cup. When Cantona launched himself into a fan at Selhurst Park and received an 8th month ban, that resulted in United winning nothing in 1995. Blackburn Rovers, then the richest club in England, had bought their way to the title and were posing a serious challenge to United.

This is when Fergie again showed his managerial genius. He resisted his initial instinct to dump Cantona after his atrocious act, and in fact flew to France to convince him not to quit football. What’s more, he dumped the very established Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis, and replaced them with the unproven Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and David Beckham. Pundit Alan Hansen famously said “You’ll win nothing with kids” when United lost the opening game of the 1995-96 season to Aston Villa. But at the end of the season, the club had won the Premier League title back from Blackburn, and added the FA Cup too. The extraordinary manner in which United hunted down Newcastle’s 16-point lead and the way Fergie made Kevin Keegan crack into his “I would love it if we beat them” rant became the stuff of legend. Cantona returned from his 8-month ban in October and proved the magician who inspired the Double, with the only goals in 6 crucial 1-0 wins, including the title decider at Newcastle and the FA Cup final against Liverpool.

Cantona's winning goal in the 1996 title decider at Newcastle

One more title in the bag in 1997, and Cantona shocked everyone by announcing his retirement at the age of 31. But with the youngsters of 1995 maturing into excellent players, there was still enough talent at the club to continue winning things.

But this was the moment Fergie received an unexpected challenge. Another sleeping giant, Arsenal, were stirring after the coming of the crafty Arsene Wenger. A manager who would revolutionize the very philosophy of the club. In his first full season of 1997-98, Wenger prised the Premier League title from Manchester United and won the FA Cup too.

Just when we wondered if Fergie’s best years were behind him, he responded with his greatest season ever. Nobody will ever forget the Treble winning season of 1998-99, when an extraordinary team including Schmeichel, Stam, Giggs, Beckham, Cole, Yorke, Sheringham and Solskjaer won the Premier League, the FA Cup, and the club’s first Champions League since 1968. Extraordinary days like the two 3-3 draws with Barcelona, a stunning comeback against Liverpool in the FA Cup, the greatest FA Cup game of all time in the semifinal against Arsenal, and the miraculous Champions League final when two goals in stoppage time defeated Bayern Munich meant that Fergie had entered the gates of footballing immortality. Shortly after the incredible Treble, Fergie had 3 more letters added to his name. Sir.

Sir Alex Ferguson lifts the Champions League in 1999

Having reached the very top, the only way was down. Such were the high standards United had set themselves, that winning only the Premier League in 2000 and 2001 was seen as a come-down. They were struggling to replace Peter Schmeichel. A barren season in 2002 was proof that recent experiments with Paul Scholes as a striker and Laurent Blanc replacing Jaap Stam had failed. After an almost unexpected title win in 2003, the club went 4 years without the league title. The Roman Abramovich revolution at Chelsea made them briefly more successful than United, when Jose Mourinho led them to back-to-back titles in 2005 and 2006.

But having seen off the Wenger challenge, the Abramovich-Mourinho challenge was not insurmountable. In 2006-07, Fergie did it again by dumping star players like Roy Keane and Ruud Van Nistelrooy, and winning the title with a new side that included Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Michael Carrick and Louis Saha.

But he had one more itch to scratch. After the unforgettable events of 1999, United had underachieved in Europe. The tactical nous of Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Bayern Munich, the obdurateness of Bayer Leverkusen and the surprise package of Mourinho’s Porto had all conspired to keep United away from the Champions League title for several years. But that changed in 2008, when a new-look Manchester United beat Chelsea to win the Champions League in Moscow. A team brimming with wizardry in the form of Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez had too much class for all other teams on the continent. Fergie had won his 2nd Champions League, proving that 1999 was no fluke.

The long-awaited second Champions League in 2008

He wasn’t done. He had vowed to knock Liverpool off their perch, and did it in style when United equalled Liverpool’s 18 league titles in 2009, and went one better with the 19th league title in 2011. He now has a record no other manager has reached and will reach. 12 Premier League titles, 5 FA Cups, 3 League Cups, 2 Champions Leagues, 1 European Cup Winners’ Cup, 2 Intercontinental Cups, and 1 World Club Championship sit on his roll of honour. What an amazing 25 years it has been. And we look forward to more.

His appetite for a challenge knows no bounds. After repelling the challenges of Blackburn, Newcastle, Arsenal and Chelsea to remain England’s premier footballing force, the latest and greatest challenge is from the blue half of Manchester, where a Sheikh-up has seen the city’s other club emerge as the world’s richest, and a genuine contender for the Premier League title. In Europe, United has twice fallen way short of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, currently one of the greatest sides the world has ever seen. Barcelona beat United in the 2009 Champions League final and repeated the same feat in 2011. Winning the Champions League a third time ahead of the Catalans and keeping the Manchester City challenge at bay would make Fergie the greatest manager who ever lived. And you wouldn’t put it past him.

A peek into today’s consumer – myself

I’m in the marketing industry, an industry which deals with human nature day in, day out. In the whirlwind of technology-driven communications that surround us (where a blue bird is no longer just a blue bird), it’s easy to forget that my industry deals with core human emotions all the time. We live or die by the consumer’s attitude, thinking and behaviour. The digital world has not changed core human nature, but has changed the ways in which humans receive, process and respond to information. Just today, I had an opportunity to observe how humans today receive, process and respond to information. I observed myself.
 
I hopped into work today, checked my email, and saw that I had received the customary LinkedIn updates email. I opened the mail, and among other things, I saw a status update called “Awesome mobile app – 60+” from one of my LinkedIn friends called Oliver Woods. That’s someone I had met once through a mutual friend (see, analog networks are still important in a digital world). Oliver had not posted it as a LinkedIn status message, but as a tweet, and his Twitter account had been integrated closely with his LinkedIn acount (I do that too).
 
And in that tweet, he had given an url of his blog post, which in turn had the iTunes url of an iPhone app called 60+ which his agency, Leo Burnett Singapore, has built. It’s an app which takes Earth Hour beyond one hour, and urges people to perform one environmentally constructive act every day (something like the boy scouts’ daily good deeds). You could unlock badges (inspired by Foursquare?) and track how many acts we’ve done.
 
Look at all the links in this chain. A friend I had met in real life and added to my LinkedIn, his Twitter account which was integrated with his LinkedIn, an iPhone app his agency had built, a tweet he had made regarding that, his blog post’s url in the tweet, the app’s iTunes url in the blog post, and the fact that LinkedIn had sent me the tweet in an email. This shows the interconnectedness of the digital space, and how we get info from a multitude of digital sources which are closely integrated.
 
This was not the end of the story. Naturally I followed his url and checked out the app on iTunes. I liked what I saw and it was free, so I simply went to the App Store from my iPhone, searched for this app and downloaded it. My mobile habits became a key part of my user experience, an experience that had begun on my PC.
 
Once I downloaded this app, I had an option of either creating a new account, or logging in via Facebook. I did the latter. Since I often access Facebook from my iPhone, my login details were already stored on my iPhone. The 60+ app automatically accessed it and logged me in. Yet another cog in this wheel: Facebook. Is there anything left that had not yet become part of my user experience?!
 
Once logged in, I viewed a comprehensive list of “acts” for the environment that I could do. I certainly plan to do some of them (the easy ones like “decline shark’s fin soup at a dinner”). But before I did anything, just to test it out, I “lied” to the app that I did it. And I got a message, “Congratulations, you’ve unlocked the badge Seedling”. A badge for doing one act? In Singapore terminology, isn’t it very “cheapskate”?
 
The next natural thing it did was to allow me to share on Facebook. I did that, and the next time I accessed Facebook on my PC, there was a status update to this effect. Another example of how the mobile web has become a reality.
 
Just as I thought everything in the digital space had been covered, the envelope was pushed further. As we know, social networks are a few-years-old phenomenon, and the present-day mind space is more about location-based networks. True to this, I got a prompt from the 60+ app that “60 Plus would like to use your current location”. I allowed it, just to see what would happen. I’m yet to see the effects of this.
 
Just to test the system further, I said one more time that I performed this act. I immediately got the message “Success! Thanks for going beyond the hour. Keep up the great work.”
 
I felt it was great that this variation in the messaging was built into the app. I would have felt annoyed if the same old message was shown again. This highlighted the importance of copy in the digital space. Copy is critical to the user experience in every medium, and digital is no exception.
 
To explore further, I performed a different act (keeping the aircon above 24 deg C). And I got a message that I had just unlocked the “Just Right” badge.
 
This is when I didn’t feel too right. A badge shouldn’t be so cheap, that you can get it just by performing one act once. In Foursquare, you need to really earn a badge (e.g. check in to 5 clubs in the same night to get a Socialite Badge), and this makes badges highly sought after. By dishing out a badge for every act, I felt this app was devaluing the entire idea of badges.
 
These are little details I pick bones with. But as an overall concept, it was very good. The important thing is, it had a solid idea at the core – that Earth Hour is not just that one hour, but it’s about going beyond that one hour and performing daily acts that help the environment. Developing this idea further, a key insight was that people want a way to keep track of their environmental good deeds and feel rewarded every step of the way. With this in mind, digital (and specifically mobile) became the key medium of execution. Too many digital campaigns start with the technology and then find a forced way to fudge an idea. This approach will never deliver truly great work. The approach of starting with human nature is always the best way.
 
As yet another step in my user experience, I’ve just blogged about it and posted the url into my Facebook. You probably saw it there and decided to read it. Or maybe you discovered it on Google thanks to the handful of SEO tags I added to this post. And now, you may want to download the app and try it out yourself. It’s a cliche that today’s consumer also creates content, but like most cliches it’s true, and I’ve proven that here.
 
The more I think about this, the more I feel this is a complete example of how today’s consumer absorbs and acts on content. It’s communicators who understand this sort of consumer behaviour who will deliver the best experiences to the consumer. A lack of understanding of humans’ content-processing habits is the key malaise in the marketing industry today, and something that needs to be fixed real soon. If not, the sparingly few marketers who understand this will have a field day at everyone else’s expense.
 
Erm, and by the way, if you’d like to play around with the app, here it is again.

I’m a sucker for the Starbucks brand

I usually pride myself in not falling blindly for a brand’s marketing, and being objective in decision-making. Maybe it’s the classic case where everyone believes that advertising works, but not on them. But I’ve always claimed that I bought the iPhone not because of the mad rush for it, but because I was convinced by objective reviews about its superb user experience.

But I make an exception for one brand: Starbucks. The coffee brand you can love or hate but can’t ignore. What does this brand stand for? It stands for a third space between home and office, a coffee experience that goes beyond the actual drink, a feeling of belonging to a welcoming place, an exciting coffee that makes other coffees duller. And I’ve swallowed this entire brand essence, hook, line and sinker.

What makes a big difference is the approach followed by a few baristas. I used to work at the Concourse building, Beach Road, Singapore, which has a convenient Starbucks downstairs. A bunch of friendly baristas by the names of Hansel, Rafi and Johari had a great way of putting people at ease. They remembered not only the names of most customers, but also their favourite drinks. They remembered 3 or 4 of my favourite drinks and asked me which of these I wanted to have each time. On one occasion when I was about to go to Bali on holiday, I happened to mention it to Hansel in passing. 10 days later he asked me how my trip to Bali was. I was amazed that in the midst of hundreds of customes, he remembered that I had made a trip to Bali. This is on-the-ground CRM! Low-tech CRM it may be, but it works! If only every brand remembered so much about every consumer!

And the Starbucks culture ensures that other baristas show a similar attitude. After Hansel and Johari moved to other outlets, I still kept on going to the one at Concourse, because others fulfilled their roles equally well. It remained the place that excited me whenever I wanted an early morning cuppa or a break in the afternoon. Many times I considered going to the small drinks stall across the road, but it was just not exciting enough.

Then, something terrible happened. We shifted office to Scotts Road! One of the first things I found out was if there was a Starbucks nearby. And no, there wasn’t! I thought a lot about what I was going to do. There were mom-and-pop coffeeshops nearby, but they were not Starbucks. And astonishingly, I went a whole month without a Starbucks coffee!

I was naturally cribbing about it. A friend in the office who noticed it said that there’s a Starbucks next to Orchard MRT, which was quite far from my office. It’s not walkable unless we have half an hour to spare, and that acted as a deterrent. But one morning, that same friend bought me a tall nonfat latte (my favourite drink) from the Orchard MRT Starbucks! Having my first Starbucks in a month was orgasmic! For a few seconds I considered marrying this friend of mine (disclaimer: exaggeration).

I had the taste of it again. I was not going to wait another month for my next Starbucks. Since then, once every week I get down at Orchard MRT instead of my usual Newton MRT, get my tall nonfat latte at the Orchard MRT Starbucks, and then take a bus to my office. Sometimes even at 10am or 11am in the office, I feel like a Starbucks and make a bus journey to get one. Soon I realized, I’m not the only one in the office who’s doing it! Sometimes a group of us make the same half-hour trip for a Starbucks. That’s the bonding we have with Starbucks.

It’s often said that a truly successful brand is something you would drive a whole night for. In my case, it’s a brand I would make a half-hour journey for, once a week!

Why America will remain No. 1

It’s no secret that America has lost its aura of invincibility in the last few years. The subprime crisis of 2008, the collapse in Detroit, the high unemployment, and the rise of China and India are all factors attributed to the new air of vulnerability surrounding America. So much is said about the power shift from the west to the east. At this time, it takes a lot of courage to stick your neck out and say America will remain No. 1. But I’m going to do exactly that.

I recently read a book by Singapore’s iconic leader Lee Kuan Yew, called Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going. Among many things, he mentioned that for any society to continue doing well, 4 types of people are critical: innovators, entrepreneurs, mentors and super-mentors. And he said the only country which has all 4 in large numbers is America.

That was consistent with my own observations: that America remains the capital of creativity and entrepreneurship. It remains the only country capable of giving us a Facebook or an iPad. Think of new innovations that emerged in the 2000s – the search revolution spearheaded by Google, the social networking phenomenon led by Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, the location based networks trend spearheaded by Foursquare and Gowalla, 3 innovations from Apple that changed the world (iPod, iPhone, iPad), the e-books revolution spearheaded by the Amazon Kindle. They all have one thing in common. They all originated in the US.

The blueprint of America is special, and has withered many a storm. It’s the mindset of entering uncharted territory, creating something, and building a good future for everyone involved. That blueprint existed when the original invaders of the continent built every city, town and economic hub from scratch. That blueprint exists to this very day in Silicon Valley, hence the innovations mentioned above.

It includes the mentality of welcoming every nationality and absorbing them into its fold, and being enriched by their multiple talents. This mindset existed when English, Irish, German and Hungarian immigrants docked at Ellis Island. It existed when Jewish immigrants took over the realm of small-scale entrepreneurship, and slowly increased their scale to the extent that they control most of the economy today. It existed when Chinese, Indians and Vietnamese enriched Silicon Valley. It exists to this day, because America remains the only country where the son of a Kenyan immigrant can become President.

This blueprint also includes the world’s greatest entertainment culture. The story is considered America’s greatest export, and nowhere is it more true than in Hollywood. It remains the world’s dream factory. Apart from that, you can see phenomenal expressions of this entertainment culture in Las Vegas, Universal Studios and Disneyland, just to name a few.

Asia has its own strength, primarily a large population of high IQ, educated and hardworking people. But I believe that this is just a starting point of a society’s success, and not the be-all-and-end-all. This alone cannot take Asia ahead of the US. The culture of creativity and entrepreneurship in the US continues to act as a magnet for Asian talent. The long list of Indian technopreneurs in America like Vinod Khosla, Ram Shriram and Naveen Selvadurai bears testament to this. It absolutely begs the question: Why couldn’t Vinod Khosla’s Sun Microsystems or Naveen Selvadurai’s Foursquare emerge out of Bangalore or Hyderabad? China isn’t far ahead either when it comes to creating global brands that take over the world. All they can boast of is Lenovo, which had to be taken over by America’s IBM. And Huawei, whose only markets outside China are India and Indonesia.

The culture of creating something special out of thin air is still missing in Asia. China’s ability to produce graduates with great scientific and mathematical ability is legendary. But in industries like advertising, which require creativity and communication skills, there’s a severe shortage of talent in China. The conformist mindset of the people doesn’t help.

I’m not denying the rise of China. I would be a fool to do that. But does China have the blueprint to be No. 1? Does a country which depends on the fake goods industry to spearhead 8% of its economy have the foundation values in place? Does their undeniable economic rise necessarily mean they will be accepted as the global leader?

At least it’s debatable whether China can take over the No. 1 spot. But I don’t think the India case is even debatable. Quite a lot of what is said about India is theoretical and melts in the real world. For instance, there was so much rhetoric about microfinance and how it was going to get millions out of poverty. India contributed famous microfinance case studies like the Shakti Amma movement in Andhra Pradesh state of southern India. But today, microfinance is seen as India’s own subprime crisis, where tens of thousands are struggling, unable to repay loans borrowed from aggressive lenders. The same Andhra Pradesh is the worst hit.

Another commonly heard rhetoric about India is that it has a young population and a large workforce. What’s actually happening is that more and more lower-income Indians are migrating around the world, doing jobs locals don’t want to do. The last five years have seen a substantial increase in construction workers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan migrating to the Middle East. The last two years have seen immigrants from Punjab and Gujarat emerge as the second largest group of illegal immigrants in the US, behind only the Mexicans. Does it make sense if a “superpower” is a major source of labourers for the rest of the world? The demographic dividend of a country can be realized only if it educates its increasing population. A large belt in India, from Punjab in the north to Bengal in the east, doesn’t appear to be doing this.

If even China and India cannot match the US, what chance do other countries have? Can we really imagine a superpower emerging from elsewhere? Japan and Korea plateaued 20 years ago. Latin America doesn’t appear ready to lead the world. Europe has shown itself incapable of global leadership in spite of its economic success over the last few decades. The Next 11 emerging markets (Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia etc) are all capable of significant economic success, but it’s difficult to imagine any of them exerting substantial geopolitical influence.

There are only flimsy reasons supporting the belief that America’s best days are behind it. Superpowers emerge by having a solid DNA in place, and only if they lose it, they will decline, as in the case of the Roman empire and the British empire. And America is showing no signs of losing it. What they are facing now is only half as bad as the Great Depression of 1929. The challenge from China and India is no different from Russia sending Yuri Gagarin into space, in which case America responded by sending Neil Armstrong to the moon. A country which put cars on every road, computers on every desk, and Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck into the heart of every child, is not going to relinquish its status as the world’s leading superpower for the next hundred years.

Why Chennai Super Kings is more than a team

April 25th 2010. A day no one in India’s southernmost state of Tamil Nadu will forget. The region’s top cricket club, Chennai Super Kings, won its first Indian Premier League title after coming close in the first two seasons of the league. A team comprising of local heros like Murali Vijay and Ashwin Ravichandran, imports from elsewhere in India like MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina, and overseas superstars like Doug Bollinger and Muttiah Muralitharan finally lived up to its potential and cemented its place as the most successful club in the league’s short history.

It was due. It was due because even before the club won the IPL, they were creating a very special legacy. A legacy which makes them more than just a team.

“Barcelona es mes que un club”, or “Barcelona is more than a club” is the motto of FC Barcelona, one of Spain’s and Europe’s most successful clubs. For a variety of reasons, that rings true for the Catalan club. What makes it similarly true for the IPL champions?

First of all, the Chennai Super Kings are a brand. Think of Chennai Super Kings, you think not of 11 players batting, bowling and fielding. But you think of fearless, attacking cricket. You think of aggressive batsmen in yellow smashing the ball to the boundaries. You think of fearless bowlers taking stunning wickets. You think of the passionate crowd which feels like an extension of the team.

As someone in the marketing industry, I know that it’s critical for a brand to define what is known as a brand essence. Chennai Super Kings have done this by defining their brand essence as “fearless, entertaining cricket”. The adage they give themselves is “The Fearless Entertainers”, and with aggressive players like Matthew Hayden, MS Dhoni and Albie Morkel, they live up to the moniker. Even supposedly defensive anchor batsmen like Murali Vijay and Subramaniam Badrinath seem to discover a hidden gear of attacking intent when they don the yellow shirt.

Murali Vijay 127 vs RR

Murali Vijay mauls Rajasthan with 127 in April 2010

The concept of the brand molecule suggests that each brand is an atom in a molecule, where bonds link it with other brands. Some of these bonds are stronger than others, as indicated by the distance between the brands. Consistent with this, a whole host of brands have associated themselves with Chennai Super Kings. 7Up has a close association with the club, and created a movement called the 7Up Pattalam, where thousands of 7-a-side teams from all over Tamil Nadu competed for a chance to play against the Super Kings. Other brands that associate themselves with the Chennai Super Kings include Reebok, Fosters, Yahoo, Peter England, and the Chennai-based Aircel. A study done this year claimed that the total sponsorship value of the Chennai Super Kings was the highest among all the IPL teams. The value of these brand associations is mutual. The Chennai Super Kings brand is strengthened, as are the associated brands.

Secondly, the Chennai Super Kings are a family. The players, coaching staff, franchise owners, supporters and even the team ambassadors seem to be part of a big family supportive of one another. Fan bonding was critical to create this atmosphere. And one way Chennai Super Kings developed fan bonding was through their Chennai Super Kings Juniors programme, aired on TV, in which thousands of promising youngsters had a chance to show their talent and win an opportunity to train with the club at junior level. The aforementioned 7Up Pattalam had a similar effect. The Kings Club fan club, and jerseys anyone can personalize by having their name on it, are two other factors that bonded fans with the club.

Equally importantly, the players and the coaching staff have bonded very well with one another. The core group of players play together for Tamil Nadu in the domestic circuit and have a great understanding. This includes Murali Vijay, Subramaniam Badrinath, Ashwin Ravichandran, Anirudha Srikkanth, Lakshmipathy Balaji, Arun Karthik, Abhinav Mukund and Hemang Badani. Then you’ve got players like MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina who play together for India, as do Vijay and Badrinath occasionally. Likewise you’ve got the Aussies (Matthew Hayden, Mike Hussey, Doug Bollinger, George Bailey), the South Africans (Albie Morkel, Justin Kemp, Makhaya Ntini), and the Sri Lankans (Muttiah Muralitharan, Thilan Thushara, Thissara Perera).

But it’s not just national and state-level bonding. Chennai Super Kings nurtures players and gives them a sense of belonging. Suresh Raina was just another promising youngster in 2008 when Chennai Super Kings signed him up. Under the tutelage of captain Dhoni, batting legend Matthew Hayden, and the intelligent Chennai Super Kings think-tank, Raina has blossomed into an amazing player who contributes immensely in all three departments of the game. No one had heard of Ashwin Ravichandran and Shadab Jakati two years ago, but they have developed so well under the Chennai Super Kings umbrella.

Suresh Raina catch

Suresh Raina repays Chennai's faith with a Man-of-the-Match performance in the IPL 2010 final

The family atmosphere of the club was reflected in an anecdote coach Stephen Fleming shared earlier this year. On a tortuous bus ride to Dharamsala, Fleming watched in fascination as Michael Hussey and Muttiah Muralitharan engrossed themselves in a mammoth discussion on every aspect of cricket. Fleming said Mike and Murali were like “Mr and Mrs Cricket”, a moniker that extended Hussey’s usual nickname of “Mr Cricket”. They had bonded as if they had been playing cricket together since the age of five.

The players have also bonded with the city they represent. Captain MS Dhoni who hails from the far northern state of Uttarakhand has said that he wants to stay with the Super Kings because he is identified as a Chennaiite now. Australian Matthew Hayden says Chennai is his second home and he has gotten so much from it, as he spent a lot of time practising there in his younger days, and it helped him develop as a batsman. Sri Lankan spin legend Muttiah Muralitharan is the son-in-law of Chennai, having married a girl from the city. And with typical Tamil hospitality, the people of Tamil Nadu have accepted these “outsiders” as one of them. They call Dhoni “thalaivar” (leader), Hayden “namma ooru singam” (lion of our city), and Muralitharan “maapillai” (son-in-law).

An interesting person who makes every Chennai Super Kings home match more entertaining is not even a cricket player. A drummer called Sivamani, who may be familiar to aficionados of the Tamil film industry based in Chennai. He attends every match and provides a soundtrack with his drums for everything that happens on the field, particularly victorious moments like a boundary or a wicket. Needless to say, he’s decked in the famous yellow jersey with his name on it.

Thirdly, Chennai Super Kings is the alternative national team for the people of Tamil Nadu. The state, particularly Chennai, is known to be cricket-crazy just like the rest of India. But on top of that, they are known as the most intelligent and knowledgeable cricket watching crowd in India. But in spite of the significant importance given to cricket there, Tamil Nadu has yet to produce a genuine cricketing superstar. While a steady stream of players have played a handful of games for India, Chennai has not produced a Tendulkar, a Sehwag or a Ganguly. Only the magnanimous view that the Indian national team was more important than local loyalties meant that Chennaiites remained passionate about cricket.

As a result, Tamil Nadu had become an underserved cricket market. There were insufficient channels for the people of Tamil Nadu to show their interest in cricket and their knowledge of the game.

The Chennai Super Kings have bridged this gap. Chennaiites are now able to cheer their local heroes as they lead their side to victory. Tamil Nadu players who couldn’t get into the Indian team for various reasons suddenly have the limelight they were craving for. And like a match made in heaven, Chennai’s path crossed with a genuine cricketing superstar who did not come from a major cricket-loving city and therefore did not have a local IPL team. His name was Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

Tamils who have always prided themselves on their “virundhombal” (hospitality) and “vandhaarai vaazha vaikkum thamizhagam” (the Tamil land where anyone is welcome to come and prosper) had no trouble taking Dhoni as their “thalaivar” (leader). After all, this was a land where the two biggest movie stars of all time had both been outsiders. With Dhoni’s talent, stardom, leadership and charisma making him the heart and soul of Chennai Super Kings, the club’s status as an IPL powerhouse was never in doubt. Thalaivar’s unforgettable rescue act in Dharamsala and his great captaincy in the victorious IPL final meant that he would forever be a hero in Tamil Nadu.

Dhoni is mobbed after his stunning rescue act takes Chennai into the IPL 2010 semifinals

The special space that the Chennai Super Kings occupy in the hearts of Tamils means that wherever Tamils are, a large number of them support the Chennai Super Kings. When the Super Kings won the IPL, fireworks went off in Coimbatore, 500km to the west of Chennai. Theatres in San Jose were filled with Chennai Super Kings supporters watching the final and celebrating. Sri Lanka and Singapore are two other countries known to have a sizeable number of Chennai Super Kings supporters.

It’s not by accident that the Chennai Super Kings became a brand, a family, and a national team. The franchise owners have looked at what successful clubs in other sports and other countries do, and tried to follow in their footsteps. Just as soccer clubs like Manchester United and Barcelona have gained a huge fan following based on their entertaining, attacking soccer, Chennai Super Kings decided that entertaining, attacking cricket would be their philosophy. They have picked the right composition of players: Tamil Nadu players, top players from the rest of India, and top players from around the world are all there in a healthy ratio. They have given importance to having a catchy name and a catchy anthem. They have realised that fans are part of the club and not distant spectators. Even the Sivamani phenomenon was built after observing the exploits of Manolo Del Bombo, the famous Spanish drummer who attends every Valencia and Spain match. By painstakingly building a legacy beyond just the bat and the ball, Chennai Super Kings have ensured that they are the only IPL team which is more than a team.

Other IPL franchises treat their team the same way they would treat a state side in the Ranji trophy. Many aspects of the club, including the name and anthem, seem an afterthought to them. Mumbai for instance gave themselves the unimaginative name of Mumbai Indians, inviting comments like “the ultimate height of laziness in name selection” and “like they chose the name by throwing darts at a wall”. The Bangalore team owners wanted to strengthen their Royal Challengers whisky brand by naming their team Royal Challengers Bangalore. In doing that, they strengthened the Royal Challenge brand, but ensured that the Bangalore IPL team would never become a brand in its own right. And when places like Punjab and Kolkata with no cricket culture tried to create teams out of thin air, it was inevitable that what they created would be just a team and nothing more.

The Chennai franchise, on the other hand, are known as the most intelligent, whether it’s the player auctions, individual match tactics, or brand building. A reputation for intelligence is not new to Chennai, but on this occasion it has translated itself into something special on the cricket front. If the English Premier League has its Manchester United and Major League Baseball has its New York Yankees, the Indian Premier League is beginning to have its own cricket religion called the Chennai Super Kings.