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.
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Trans-national minorities

If you are French, German, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai or Turkish, you belong to a nation-state. You belong to a country which has been united for its entire history. You share the same language and culture as your countrymen.

But not all nationalities are like yours. In a world where new nationalities are carved up and old nationalities evolve, a common phenomenon is the trans-national minority. A community with a shared culture, a separate language, an independent history and a collective consciousness, but without a country to show for it. Sometimes, these trans-national minorities peacefully remain part of a larger country, and sometimes, they instigate bloody wars of separatism.

The Basques are a case in point. They are Europeans alright, but their language is unrelated to other European languages, much to the surprise of sociolinguists. Their territory spans southwestern France and northeastern Spain. They are a peaceful part of France, but in Spain, it’s a different story altogether.

The Spaniards under the “leadership” of General Franco waged a bloody war to annex the Basque country into Spain. He imported the latest German fighter planes and bombed the Basque country. This was depicted by Pablo Picasso in his famous painting Guernica. The Basque country fell to Franco, but they have never been happy since. Even today, the Basque separatists are fighting for an independent homeland in the north of Spain.

guernica
Picasso’s Guernica depicted the violent annexation of the Basque country

The Basques are not the only trans-national minority in Spain. The Catalans are similar. Their native region is Catalonia in eastern Spain, and they speak Catalan. They know Spanish due to its administrative and business importance, but they have a strong identity as a Catalan nation. Catalonia is disproportionately successful economically. Therefore, they tolerate the linguistic and cultural domination of the Spaniards, and do not aspire for secession.

The Galicians of northern Spain are another trans-national minority. They are known to favour secession, but they don’t get the publicity the Basque separatists get, probably because fewer instances of violence are associated with them.

Over to the Middle East, the Kurds are a prominent trans-national minority, with territories in Turkey, Iraq and Iran. They have received publicity as one of the communities persecuted by Saddam Hussein. They have always been looking to separate from Iraq, and recently, there are nascent murmurs of separatism in Turkey too. There is a significant Kurdish diaspora in Europe and North America. Google’s Director of Sales, Omid Kordestani, is a Kurd as his name suggests.

kurdistan
The Kurdish region, with territories in Turkey, Iraq and Iran

The Pashtuns (also known as Pathans) are a trans-national minority whose native region lies in southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. They have a significant presence in the cities of Peshawar and Karachi. There is a Pashtun diaspora all over the world, particularly India and the USA. There is a subculture of Pashtun nationalism in Pakistan, but this does not have popular support, as Pashtuns have integrated well into Pakistani society and have high representation in the government, military and business.

The Indian subcontinent is a hotbed of trans-national minorities. The Punjabis of India and Pakistan have a shared culture and history, and were divided only by religion during the time of the partition. Ditto for the Bengalis of eastern India who share their roots with the neighbouring Bangladeshis.

The Tamils are a trans-national minority of southern India and northern Sri Lanka. There are 65 million Tamils native to Tamil Nadu province in India, 3 million Tamils native to northern and eastern Sri Lanka, and a significant diaspora all over the world.

tamil flag
Unofficial flag of Tamils, with the words, “All towns are our own, all people are our kin”

At the time of India’s independence, there were murmurs of separatism in Tamil Nadu, especially when Hindi was imposed as the sole official language of India. Riots erupted in Tamil Nadu opposing the imposition of Hindi. This caused an amendment to the Indian Constitution, giving official language status to 22 languages. This also caused the reorganization of Indian states along linguistic lines, to give each linguistic community a state with some degree of autonomy. This appeased the separatist sentiments of Tamils.

Indian Tamils today are contented due to the industrialization and urbanization of Tamil Nadu, and the success of the province in many industries like textiles, automobiles and healthcare. Tamils still complain about the cultural domination of the Hindi-speaking North, but this has not manifested itself into separatist tendencies, simply because Tamils don’t face economic problems. There is little support for separatism in Tamil Nadu today.

It was an entirely different story for the Tamils in Sri Lanka. At the time of independence, there were only 2 million Tamils in Sri Lanka, among whom 1 million were Indian Tamils who were denied Sri Lankan citizenship. The 1 million Sri Lankan Tamils had neither numerical strength nor a large geographical area. So when Sinhalese, the language of the majority Sinhalese community, was made the sole official language of the country, the Tamils could not prevent it through their protests.

Sinhalese became the language of education and business. The English-educated Tamils were disenfranchised. The better-educated Tamils with skillsets left the country, and contributed to the success of countries like Singapore. The remaining Tamils protested peacefully for decades, such as tarring the Sinhalese signboards (an echo of their brethren in India who tarred Hindi signboards). But over the decades, hostility slowly escalated, gradually adopting the form of violence. Four Tamil militant groups emerged, and fought with each other for the right to represent Tamils. After a Darwinian struggle, the LTTE emerged as the last group standing.

Some well-publicised instances of violence brewed hatred between the two communities, escalating the conflict. The ambush and killing of 12 Sri Lankan Army soldiers by the LTTE was a watershed event. It heralded the infamous events of July 1983 (known as Black July). Furious Sinhalese civilians killed Tamil civilians (hundreds of them if you believe the Sinhalese, thousands of them if you believe the Tamils). Tamil localities in several Sri Lankan cities were burnt. Tamil-owned businesses and factories were destroyed. The economic loss to Sri Lanka was estimated at US$ 300 million.

black july
Destruction of Tamil-owned homes and businesses during Black July

Black July was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The direct outcome was a bloody civil war that has claimed 70,000 lives in the past 25 years. Sri Lanka was arguably the most promising country in South Asia in the middle of the 20th century, with the right size and natural resources. But today it’s surviving on the aid of numerous countries, and grappling with a terrible human rights record. Singapore’s leader Lee Kuan Yew has remarked, “It is sad that the country whose ancient name Serendip has given the English language the word ‘serendipity’ is now the epitome of conflict, pain, sorrow and hopelessness”.

Trans-national minorities need to be handled with sensitivity. An important first step is to acknowledge their right to be different. Attempts at assimilating them into a supposed “national” culture have always resulted in communal tensions. Trans-national minorities need to retain their identity, and at the same time become part of a beautiful whole. Countries with trans-national minorities should preserve the culture of those trans-national minorities, adding to the richness of a pluralistic national culture. The mosaic is always more attractive than the melting pot.

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