Building brands


TV is broken. It needs design thinking.

Don’t blame Kim, Khloe and Kourtney. When it comes to the current state of TV, the Kardashians and others of their narrative ilk are neither the culmination nor the cause. Like Gigolos, Coal, Jail, Cops, Real Housewives, The Ultimate Fighter and Pawn Stars, their second generation of so-called reality TV provides a portal into human experience and alternative identification that no amount of Boston Rob can ever compete with.

Don’t blame the platforms. With high subscriber satisfaction paving the way for intelligent advertising and a migration of the Internet’s targeting, tracking and recommendation functions, PVR is just discovering its potential to generate revenue. And with the likes of Netflix drooling over the $800 million valuation of streaming TV, watching online isn’t the culprit either. Both will put money into the production coffers for years to come.

No, TV isn’t broken because it’s going broke. TV is broken because so much TV sucks. Case in point: Game of Thrones. Don’t know the show? Here’s how HBO describes it:

Based on the bestselling fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin (Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author), this sprawling new HBO drama series is set in a grounded fantasy world inhabited by ambitious men and women of both honor and ill-repute, much like our own real world. In the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, whoever controls the Iron Throne holds unbelievable power, and the series centers on the rise and fall of several families that covet that power at all costs.

Forget metaphor or allegory – the only intrigue in Game of Thrones is how this show got made. A clear, present and dangerous signal that the organization responsible for giving the TV show a new set of legs over the past decade is slipping in a big way, HBO’s latest begs the question: If these guys are slipping, what does that mean for the overall state of serial or episodic small screen fiction?

That HBO is slipping with Game of Thrones is a point of personal assessment and concern rather than an alarm bell sounding in the TV business. Because of its sheer content scale – as well as ideas generated out of creative shops like HBO, Showtime, AMC and some of NBC – the past few years have seen a surge in the quality of ‘the show’. A recent quick poll of Idea Couture employees reveals the scope of what viewers connect with and some of the reasons for those connections:

– The Killing (“honest characters”)
– Weeds (“subversive, challenges gender stereotypes and makes me think about the concepts of right and wrong”)

-The Walking Dead (“human frailties, political commentary and survival fantasy”)

– Fringe (“I miss X-Files and it’s the closest, next best thing”)

– Law and Order SVU (“a long journey that’s never disappointed”)

– 30 Rock (“fucking hilarious”)

– Love It or List It (“where my fantasies play out come true, and make me feel like I’m living what they’re going through”)

– The Mentalist (“quirky and psychological”)

– America’s Next Top Model (“creative ideas coming up almost every time”)

– Archer (“funny and engaging stories that make cartoon characters look super attractive”)

To that list, I will add a disclosure of my current favorite TV shows: True Blood (for an exploration of our culture’s sexually charged romance with power, life, death, immortality and transformation) and River Monsters (for a fisherman’s ethnographic-like exploration of place, fear, mythology and the quest).

Some viewers have discovered something in Game of Thrones, too. The first two episodes scored a respectable 2.2 million U.S. viewers. That number climbed to 6.8 million via HBO’s OnDemand, and you can probably add another half million viewers who watched on the following Monday nights thanks to Ice Films, EzTV, TV Break, Megavideo and others grey market streaming sites.

And some viewers haven’t, like me. My issue with Game of Thrones is that its story just doesn’t seem relevant. To what extent that applies exclusively to me and others who watched episodes one and two with disappointment or applies to a wider demographic that never watched or will fall off the cliff before Episode 3 will only be revealed with time. I suspect I’m not alone though, and the reason is clear: zeitgeist.

TV, like Hollywood, has an odd relationship with zeitgeist. Sometimes it gets the prevailing mood or trope, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it drives that mood or trope, other times it reflects it. While doing one or the other, however, it always feeds on itself, following the Sneeze Rule where, every year or so, we get three law shows, three medical shows, three pawn shows, three junk buyer shows, three forensic science shows, three ghost shows shows and so on. Hopefully, two more Game of Thrones aren’t in development.

What ingredients of the zeitgeist might have inspired HBO to develop a teleplay of Game of Thrones? At first, the only signal I could locate to suggest there was a suitable scale of viewers who couldn’t wait for The Hobbit to provide them with majestic steeds, warrior’s garb and talk of valerian steel and dragon bone was Evony.


Then I thought longer. Lots of people are into combat, deflowering maidens and political maneuvering. But don’t the UFC, the Internet and the Birthers fulfill their desires? Maybe it has something to do with economic or other uncertainties over the future driving a desire among white Americans to live in simpler times? That could be it, given that the fiction of George Martin and others in his genre works as romantic fantasy for white men to reclaim an imagined, Euro-centric mythical past when we were all a little bit Celtic, when wenches didn’t complain about a good ravaging, and when the barbarian hordes who threatened to deflower them were suspiciously brown.

If that’s the inspiration for developing this into a show – and the zeitgeist is there among enough viewers to make it a financial success for HBO – go for it. Write off this and any ensuing criticism as the ramblings of a bitter old man frustrated with the fact that HBO has yet to develop a show around Weaveworld by Clive Barker, The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill or Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear.

If Game of Thrones turns out to be a financial flop, however, consider investing in design thinking. The front end of the design thinking process – used by some of the world’s leading brands and businesses to generate, develop and validate ideas before they come to market – could be just the thing that battling channels like HBO, Showtime and AMC need to gain competitive advantage in this transformational time for TV.

So what happens at this front end?

At Idea Couture, we encourage our clients to conduct a comparative industry scan at the beginning of almost every job. Rather than leveraging ideas from within industries, we believe that more valuable signals for where to go come from outside your business. For example, if a client asks for help developing a cosmetics line we might suggest scanning new and emerging cooking or food cultures to understand the languages and ingredients of health, nourishment and inner beauty. Then, to more deeply assess if and how an idea is needed, wanted or might fulfill some latent, cultural or zeitgeist-y demand is to do exploratory (open to whomever, whatever) or more targeted (with a specific consumer, market or other focus) field research by an anthropologist or sociologist.

The aim is to beat the flu of ‘me too’ innovation where, like TV and Hollywood, brands and businesses continue to suffer from the Sneeze Rule. The result is always more than three ideas. And the process is longer, more detailed and more business oriented towards the middle and end. I’ll save that discussion for a later time. Until then, HBO, Showtime and AMC – please consider, or reconsider, Bear, Barker and/or Hill.

When anthropologists, historians, economists, philosophers, political scientists and others reflect on the cultural impact of the tangled web that has been woven into our lives since the dawn of 2.0, will they look at contribution or collaboration as a condition?

Whether it’s contribution, collaboration or even co-creation, the past few years have seen hundreds, if not thousands, of programs and platforms launched to harness the input and ideas of the crowd. But where the open-source approach to software makes obvious the power of collective thought and action for the benefit of users, what is the benefit of corporate programs and platforms created to vote for a winner, name a product, invent a flavor or design a soda can?

Aren’t those just part of a new twist on the old-fashioned contest, one that asks us to open our ideas and opinions rather than just our chocolate bars to see if we hold a golden ticket? If so, contribution, collaboration and co-creation could go down in the history books as little more than a late 20th Century spin on the consumer engagement game of chance.

Or it could go down as something more ominous: crowdserfing.

Recently, Matthew Lincez and I have been wondering about social, economic, power and intellectual property shifts that have occurred as a result of what most people call crowdsourcing. We think that a more accurate descriptor for what’s really going on is what I call crowdserfing.

Crowdserfing refers to how brands entice consumers to provide them with free creative labor and valuable data by harnessing the mythology of the Internet as a democratizing tool for the emancipation of ideas and decentralization of power. It’s a throwback business model steeped in feudalism where brands are kings, consultants are knights and the work generated for their benefit is performed by a digital generation of serfs who find themselves once again at the bottom of a peasant-heavy labor pyramid.

Crowdserfing is not crowdsourcing. When Jeff Howe, a contributing editor at Wired, and his editor, Mark Robinson, first coined the term back in 2006, Howe meant this:

Simply defined, crowdsourcing represents the act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call. This can take the form of peer-production (when the job is performed collaboratively), but is also often undertaken by sole individuals. The crucial prerequisite is the use of the open call format and the large network of potential laborers.

In describing how companies or institutions can take advantage of the talents, skills, opinions and ideas of anyone and everyone, Howe states that “It’s not outsourcing; it’s crowdsourcing.” He’s right. It’s not. There are clear differences between outsourcing and crowdsourcing, the most obvious of which is that the latter is cheaper. At the risk of going all Lou Dobbs on you, we know outsourcing. From customer service to manufacturing, it offers corporations access to cheaper labor. Forget any trickle down savings to consumers, the advantage of having someone in India answer questions about your Internet connection lies squarely with the corporation.

When it first ramped up in the 1980s, a mythology was constructed to help sell outsourcing to those workers who were losing domestic jobs to it. Benefits such as economic efficiency, the development of local markets, cheaper goods for domestic consumers and greater competitive advantage for America were the core of the story. A mythology has been gathered around crowdsourcing, too. It draws on a lexicon that includes collaborative, collective, connective, community, customer-centric, user-generated, social, open, ideas and innovation to sell another fundamental shift in the social and spatial distribution of labor.

Like most of capitalism’s history, the labor (Howe’s “large network”) and the consumer are the same: you. The fundamental shift? You’re not getting paid for your labor. Instead, in lieu of any financial compensation that winners of or contributors to a corporate crowdsourcing platform might receive, you’re being offered shares in social or cultural capital for your labor.

Karl Marx and Adam Smith would not be amused. That a new class of laborers could be indentured into an idea economy with the dream of winning, the thought of being recognized or the thrill of participating seems scarily pre-capitalist. Pierre Bourdieu might be amused. That ‘cool’ could replace cash is pure genius for any brand looking to save costs with a few key go-to-market changes.

By recruiting consumers to do some or all of the design, marketing, branding, naming or CSR activities that once fell under internal job categories, and by framing that doing as social collaboration or competition where peers (read: consumers) amass status for participating (read: working), brands can increase bottom lines and look ‘cooler’ in the process. Cue: the benevolence of feudal royalty. And all hail game theory in action.

Of the brands that draw on the crowd to vote for a winner, name a product, invent a flavor or design a soda can, few, if any, understand that gaming has nothing to do with Xbox. That’s the job of consultants and other knights of the agency realm: bring new and emerging developments in technology and behavior up to the slow and traditional organizations. Of those developments, crowdserfing is arguably most bolstered by the trope of democratization.

The end of the 20th Century was rife with signs, symbols, tools and technologies of democratization: the rise of the DJ, the personal computer, ProTools, Napster, an AOL disc in every magazine, Photoshop, the birth of blogging, TiVo in your hands, streaming video and more. Most of these innovations were – and still are – described by media, scholars and users as increasing the power, choice, voice, reach and production capabilities of consumers. But democratization is not just a trope, it’s also a hope.

For people engaged in voting, naming, inventing or designing, there is often a feeling that their contribution is part of a process that represents a shift in the behavior of the brand; it is, or is becoming, more open, more collaborative and more social. The degree to which that is true or not has to be measured brand by brand, over time and perhaps (and here’s where the real work needs to begin) using some kind of criteria or transparency model that spells out the purpose and procedures of the platform or program. Until then, for many of these platforms, the source remains the serf. Some things to consider in that criteria or model:

1. THE REASON

Why are consumers being asked to contribute? Is it for fun, for the cool quotient or because its masters truly want to open the gates of determining direction? Has the brand run out of ideas? Or has it become so paralyzed by the requirements of innovation that it has abdicated ideation to its consumers?

Most brands state a purpose on the lead page of their platform, but many do so with their fair share of smoke, mirrors or the fact that the rules of the game have yet to be fully set out. One example of this, and I hesitate to cite Patrick Glinski at the risk of misquoting him, can be found in the space between cause marketing and CSR. According to Patrick, “branded cause competitions are a form of cause marketing, not CSR. In cause marketing it’s corporate first, cause second.”

Patrick sees huge value in how platforms designed to crowdsource ideas for social change “have given a voice to ignored communities, marginalized populations, and scrappy causes.” But he, too, seems to be calling for greater transparency and responsibility in stating the true nature of and reason for the platform.

2. PAYMENT FOR SERVICES RENDERED

Every time someone goes to a crowdsourcing platform to contribute an idea, a comment or some similar input, they create an asset for the brand. That asset has value – time another visitor spends reading that could boost ROI on display ads, an idea that might not win today’s competition but could lead to next ideas or actions on the part of the brand. Those assets should be recognized and, arguably, rewarded beyond the cultural capital of participating. Some brands have taken to the “$1 to a charity for every Facebook vote” model. Others could consider something more direct to contributors.

3. THE HIDDEN TAX ON SERFS

One sign that the brands asking for consumer input might not be behaving so openly, collaboratively and socially are the hidden taxes being levied on the digital serfs doing their work. In addition the clear call-to-action for contribution, collaboration or co-creation, these platforms amass huge databases of members collected by personal relationships and long-tail search benefits that, in the CRM world, are pure money. Some users know this. Most do not. Everyone should. And, like Payment For Services Rendered, perhaps all contributors should be somehow compensated for contributing to the data pot.

Finally, in that funny-but-dead-serious way that stand-up comedy (a precise barometer of the state of any nation and its concerns) has provided a critical lens and a cathartic coping mechanism for Americans whose technical problems with their Internet connections continue to be answered by outsourced workers overseas, what will be the jokes we tell about crowdsourcing in the future? And will we need Russell Peters’ political carte blanche to perform the accents?


I’ve written before about the vampire zeitgeist. Yesterday I saw Eclipse, the third installment in the Twilight series. Two weeks before that, the new season of True Blood began streaming back into my veins. So I’ll write about it again.

I’m not particularly interested in the near hysteria of pseudo-epic proportions that has legions of tweens, teens, MILFs and gay men swooning over the two big Twi-teams, Edward and Jacob, as well as the third to emerge, Team Emmett. Personally, I’m lobbying for Team Leah.

As an anthropologist, I have the ocular capacity to see the madness behind the motifs. As a father, I have the advantage of seeing through the eyes of a tween daughter and her MILF mom. And because the story makes so much sense for our time, I’m down with it. As such, I flat out dismiss the critical shortcomings of wanna-be snobs-cum-pundits who are unable to see beyond dialogue and pacing that is muddied by the swirling eddies of testosterone.

Which leads me to what I do want to write about – the vampire connection not to testosterone but to why inhibiting cGMP specific phosphodiesterase type 5 has become such a big business. I have no idea how big a business Viagra is. No pun intended or, for my IC colleagues, TW – it’s big. Very big. So is Cialis, Levitra or, for that matter, the entire suite of products (boner related or not) in the global pharmaceutical industry.


That many of us mere mortals thirst to live longer, stronger and harder is a given; that pharmaceutical companies can better understand our craving and their business by empathizing with and appreciating the vampire zeitgeist should be. So where is the alignment?

Well, for one, it’s in the risk-and-decision factor. Like Bella, some people – the people that people in business like to call ‘consumers’ – have made the decision to alter their bodies and beings. Temporary or permanent is beside the point, and it’s not a decision for everyone. I know a certain EVP who wouldn’t swallow a pill, any pill, if you coated it in black cod and kale.

But for those who will, pharma companies could learn a lot from the cognitive and cultural connections between the sexual prowess of the vampire and the Viagra consumer, the decisions over mortalities and medicines. Like other versions of human performance that today’s pharma products promise to enhance, it is a key to today’s consumer decision-making.

Given the other decision-making that’s going on in millions of heads right now – vampire, werewolf or neither – that connection should be guiding future marketing and branding efforts of the pharma giants. Those in the pharma C-suite who fail to see that connection are missing big opportunities still in the works.


St. Denis, St. Laurent, Jean Talon and all around – the streets of Montreal are alive with a potent hatred for Kraft. The resistance is far more nimble and quick when it comes to spreading a campaign. The same cannot be said for those whose work silos restrict them from flexing any corporate agility in response.

Sometimes you’ve just gotta laugh at either the brand managers who thought they were smart enough not to have to bring in a strategic consultancy to give them some insight-driven guidance or the ad agency that figured they’d read enough Malcolm Gladwell to proudly announce to their client that the tipping point on yoga was a go with osteoporosis-worried female yogurt eaters. That’s the sad laugh we can all have at the new Yoplait product, released a few months back but definitely a few years late on tapping (not tipping) into yoga culture. Asana yogurt? Are you effing kidding me? If they haven’t been cremated, dead Swami’s around the world are rolling in their graves. If they have been cremated, why didn’t Yoplait suggest a product with ash flavoring instead of raspberry? Ridiculous. Perfect with yoga jeans. Next…

chucknorris

As part of her first week in Grade 7, my daughter (and her entire class) was assigned to conduct a peer-to-peer interview with a classmate as an exercise to socialize the kids and transform them from a disparate group of previous-school attendees to a current-school community. The value of quickly constructing a community among Grade 7 students who will only spend two years together is very high at this particular school; in October they will spend three days at a camp where they will engage in the kind of team building activities that the corporate world pays big money for on occasion to connect the human dots between its employees and that we, at Idea Couture, typically weave into our Noodleplay process. But enough of Business Development; back to the peer-to-peer interview.

One of my daughter’s questions to her interview subject was, Who is your hero? His response was surprising to me and, as 12 year old girls are prone to saying these days, so random to her…but only after I explained who the hero was: Chuck Norris.

Chuck Norris!?!? What 12 year old boy names Chuck Norris as his current hero unless he belongs to the right-side of the Larry King watching Republican? My suspicion is fairly obvious: a kid whose dad was into Chuck Norris 10 years before the birth of his son. That Chuck got the nod from a kid whose potential list of pop culture heroes could include Alexander Ovechkin, Georges St. Pierre, Tony Hawk or – if he’s prone to building his game with the girls – Rob Pattinson or Taylor Lautner – is about as left field as it gets. But not when you consider how pop culture heroes are an enduring part of our cultural mythology.

Film and TV, alongside music, are the most powerful receivers and transmitters of our mythologies. The Internet is certainly catching up, but it has yet to produce the sort of mainstream, focused narratives (as opposed to activities) that we like to latch on to as a way to formulate our thoughts, values, languages, attitudes, opinions and practices. To quote from the school of consumer insights, it has yet to truly fulfill our “unmet and/or unarticulated needs” for plot, storyline, character, drama, passion, intrigue, romance and so on.

Granted, there is some content of mythical proportions being generated online and, if your TV is on the semi-fritz like mine or you don’t like to schedule your life around your favourite shows like me, the Internet the most effective way to transmit the myth-rich content of HBO, Showcase and the wonderful world of DivX streaming video.

So where did this kid discover and latch on to the POW-rescuing Texas Lone Star sherriff? Maybe through YouTube: score one point for the Internet and its wealth of throwback content. Possibly at the local video store: score one point for Blockbuster for still eeking out some profit in the face of BitTorrent and DivX streaming. Or maybe in a home with some dusty VHS tapes and a dad who, like this one making his daughter watch Harry Hamlin in Clash of the Titans or listen to Monty Python records, wanted to keep a mythology particularly close to his heart stay alive through his son: score one point for the power of transmitting narratives and their heroes through the ancient media of family time.

Thoughts like this percolate during personal time. Maybe I’ll bring it up during my meeting with those insurance execs this week in the States when I tell them that their brand could use a little Chuck Norris action. You think they’ll get it?

When it comes to product, service or marketing design, following the bell curve can sometimes lead you astray. This is certainly the case for businesses and brands courting the highly coveted, often elusive consumer category known as early adopters.

Early adopters are typically described as curious, adventurous consumers who buy first, talk fast and spread the word to others about the pros and/or cons of what they have purchased. According to Everett M. Rogers in Diffusion of Innovations, the landmark 1962 textbook that popularized the study of how new ideas and technologies spread through societies, early adopters make up 13.5% of the consumers who will adopt an innovation.

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If you’re facing the bell curve, they occupy the initial climb upwards, right after the 2.5% of those people who create an innovation. Following them is the early majority (34%), consumers who make their moves through the market more carefully, but tend to adopt a new product more quickly than most. At the hump of the bell curve is the late majority (34%), consumers who adopt a new product only after the majority has weighed in on its value. Finally, sloping downwards are laggards (16%), the critics, curmudgeons and haters who do their best to resist making the purchase but will eventually do so.

The problem with this bell curve is that it is a mathematical model, one that was never designed to represent the social context of innovation, the diffusion of innovation or early adopters. In looking to crack the code and harness the coveted word-of-mouth that can be generated by the approval of early adopters, designers, brand managers and researchers need to look beyond the numbers. Without a deep understanding of and appreciation for early adopters, they risk operating in a cultural void where assumptions can lead to product ideas that have no relationship to reality.

Those assumptions can be traps, particularly if chasing numbers on a bell curve leads to designing products that target only early adopters and, in the process, destabilizes brand identity or alienates core consumers. I’ve identified potential traps that brands and businesses often make when pursuing early adopters. To learn about them visit Noodleplay.

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