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The real thing

A few years ago, I was in France, within an hour’s drive of Lascaux, home of the oldest paintings known to man. These are the famous cave painting that everyone has heard about but few people have actually seen. We didn’t go and I’ve regretted it ever since.

Today I learned that due to the humidity caused by the breathing of tourists, you can’t see the caves anyway. Instead, you are shown a fiberglass replica in the visitor center. I’m told it’s a really good replica.

I feel better now. No way I’d drive three minutes out of my way to see a fiberglass replica.

And yet.

And yet when I go to a live concert, I’m not really hearing acoustic sounds. I’m hearing electronically amplified sounds, even if it’s classical music or a Broadway show. And yet, when I hustle to watch some live event on television, it may not really be live… there’s no way for me to tell, actually.

What’s the point of walking through Lincoln’s birthplace if it’s not exactly as it was—how many floorboards have to be replaced before it’s a replica? Marni Nixon sang the songs in West Side Story, the King and I and My Fair Lady. Was she the star or was it the face on the screen?

This goes beyond authenticity. It’s all about the story we tell ourselves. Hollywood makes it easy to believe that Audrey Hepburn was the star, while the fiberglass diorama in France doesn’t feel right. We want to believe about Washington and the cherry tree and about Lincoln and his never-said-it quote, "You may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some
of the people all the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all
the time."

Consumers are begging to be sold on the authentic. The easiest way to do that, of course, is to be authentic. And yet, ever since they replaced the sugar in Coke with corn syrup, who knows any more… Being inauthentic is tricky, unpredictable and often wrong. But it also works.

The fact is, most of the people want to be fooled, just about all of the time.

[facts galore: Harry points out that the ‘Lincoln birthplace’ isn’t really. Margaret mentions that there are cave paintings in Australia far older than those in France. And Mary Ann and Ivan call me on the amplification of classical music. They’re often right, but I’ve got links.]

The Fine Print

Add this to your rules of thumb file:

When designing something (anything), if it doesn’t cost you (in terms of design, brand or functionality), then always use bigger type.

I just wrestled a Linksys router to the ground after an hour. On the back of the router, the IP address and password are embossed in 8 point silver type (on a silver background). The cost of making it twice the size: zero. Same with your instruction manual, the emergency instructions on your airplane or the menu in your restaurant. The CD player I just tried to use has the same problem… the numbers on the inside of the player are tiny, black on black and unreadable.

Style matters. It’s a big part of design. But at some point, style fails part of your audience (and I’m under 50!).

[PS I did live chat with Linksys and Rosell was amazing. Problem solved. Recommended.]

Great writing, unfiltered

Here’s what used to happen: A publisher had a magazine, or a big pile of stamps and a mailing list. She’d hire a copywriter or a stable of them. Sometimes the combination worked out and end up with the New Yorker or LL Bean. But other times (most of the time) it’s just a waste. Either the stuff that goes out is lousy or the great writers don’t get heard. (More than 70,000 books got published in the US last year… how many have you read?)

Blogs change that. Someone like Corey (Shaveblog) has to worry about nothing other than his ability to keep to a regular schedule. But when he writes something like this:

The best part of all this is that you’ll start off with this rig, and
then once you’re up to speed and feeling all modern mannish and
whatnot, you’ll want to hunt the really big game, so you’ll go down all
sorts of expensive paths snatching up adjustable DEs, gold-plated
vintage Gillettes, scary-sharp extreme-geek blades, gigantic brushes of
exotic bristle with more ludicrous backstory than Anderson Cooper ,
and when your adrenal gland finally gives out and you reach the end of
what’s buyable and eBayable, you’ll realize that you never got a better
shave than you did with your first Merkur HD and your little Vulfix

…it gets straight to us, unfiltered.

Same thing when Tom Asacker takes on authenticity:

Dove is a Unilever brand.  But guess what?  So is Axe .
Uniliver’s Dove celebrates women by encouraging them to take pleasure
in their individual beauty.  Unilever’s Axe portrays women as a ditsy,
sex crazed collective. Same company.  Two worldviews. Or at least,
that’s how they present themselves to us through their marketing.
Truth be told, as consumers, we really have no clue.   So pardon the
cynicism, but Unilever, therefore, is not being authentic.  But here’s the question: Do we care?

It’s not just blogs, either. Someone like John Wood (the other John Wood) without using a lot of design skills, can build a thriving permission marketing business without a lot of money. Just by paying attention, being consistent and keeping his promises, John can cut through the noise and do very well, thanks.

The filter is important, sometimes. It keeps us focused and on time and from veering too far in the wrong direction. But in a Long Tail world, the filter is actually better off gone.

The thing most people miss most is that they no longer have an excuse. Without a publisher/editor/boss to blame, your writing is your writing. Your followup is your followup. That means some people become trains without tracks. They just sit there.

The barriers are gone, the costs are zero. The question is: what are you going to do with your writing?

Did I say that?

An interview with Seth Godin (mostly about ad agencies and CMOs).


It’s a podcast. Some excerpts:

Sally: How can CMOs stay ‘small’ if their primary objective is to gain market share?
Seth: If any CMO’s primary objective is to gain market share, she should get a new job.

  • “What ad agencies ought to do, in my opinion, is not focus on
    selling ads anymore. And instead, focus on getting in deeper within the
    clients, and help the clients make products that people want to talk
  • “The problem is that ad agencies have defined themselves as the
    people who take the mediocre products and add interesting ads to them,
    and washed their hands and say, we can’t do anything about what the
    factory brings us. And my answer is, of course you can, and the clients
    actually want you to, you’re just not working hard enough to get that
    piece of business.”
  • “Style and fashion spread through the ad agency business really
    fast. But they’re very bad at changing what they do for a living,
    they’re very bad at any form of new media, they’re bad at pushing
    clients to really dramatically, fundamentally reinvent themselves. What
    they’re very good at is adopting a new slogan or a new look or a new
    image. That’s deckchair re-arranging.”
  • “The way to get promoted in an ad agency is to get a new client who
    spends lots of money on television. Well, if that’s the way you get
    promoted, what do you think people are going to do all day?”

Thanks, Sally.

What happens when I Google you?

Peter did this search for a serious HP product. Not an accessory or something outdated.

He clicks on the first match. He gets an error on the HP site.

The question: how come the product manager (and the product certainly has one) didn’t know about this? I don’t think it’s that hard to keep an eye on it…

The Toxic and the Trivial

Most ideas spread slowly. They’re like submarines, pushing their way through the muck of inattention and eventually they just fade away.

But some ideas spread like stones skipping across the top of the water. They move through a population in a hurry, touching most people and sometimes leaving a long-lasting memory. My post on Google yesterday generated more email than most posts I do… because it was trivial. It was safe to write in and talk about Google’s lame explanation that the stem was green, or the fact that all you need is ‘l’ove. The best ones were the people who pointed out that they should have saved it for Christmas, because, after all, there’s no L.

That’s the same reason everyone is talking about an astronaut driving cross country wearing diapers. Or why it’s so easy to obsess about the latest gossip.

The toxic stories spread as well. The difference is that in addition to spreading, they leave a mark. It might be the impact a failed shoe bomber has (years later, we still take off our shoes in homage) or an urban legend (there never were razor blades in apples on Halloween) or the damaging impact of one encounter with an abusive relative.

Marketers, understandably, often try to be neither of these. But we compare ourselves to them when we dream up our plans. We want our ideas to spread like wildfire, or to have impact that lasts, but we often forget that different ideas spread differently. A quick look at Digg demonstrates that the easiest way to get Dugg is to have a trivial idea. And the easiest way to get noticed when you’re a politician is to do something that ruins your career forever…

When the copy doesn’t match the story

The Bissell vacuum cleaner people are jumping on the Dyson bandwagon. Their vacuum looks like and works like a Dyson, but it’s cheaper. And more important, it’s a vacuum for people who didn’t buy a Dyson when it was new and cool three years ago.

In other words, it’s a mass market version of the Dyson.

So why does the copy lead off with, "The Bissell Healthy Home Vacuum is built like no other vacuum."

Even if this is technically true, it not only doesn’t matter, it doesn’t help.

The worldview of the mass market consumer is, "I want something safe and proven and inexpensive. I want to solve my problem and move on." The copy says, "This is a vacuum for vacuum geeks." Mismatch. Write for your audience.

I’d like to buy a consonant please


B2B hits 2.0

Michael points us this to this short video: YouTube – Lick, which points to a website that’s in a very traditional b2b financial sector. But the twist is precisely the sort of storytelling I’ve been ranting about.

The Tyranny of Opportunity Cost

What is failure?

Miriam wrote in, taking me to task for calling Dell a failure. I sent her this chart of Dell’s stock price vs. the S&P 500. She told me she was persuaded.

But it got me thinking about what it means to fail.

Dell makes good products. They make a profit. They keep (most of) their promises. Lots of good people work hard every day. Are they failures?

Opportunity cost and prioritization are harsh taskmasters. When you have a lot of resources and assets to put to work, the marketplace expects that you will use them in the best possible way. If you don’t, those resources go somewhere else. So, sure, a SuperBowl ad makes your business go up. But does it go up as much as if you had spent the $2 million inventing a new product instead?

If your blog has 1,000 regular readers, are you a failure if it doesn’t reach 2,000 by next month?

This is where the tyranny comes in.

If you make all your decisions based on opportunity cost and the fear of failure, you’re almost certain to fail. Safe really is risky. The Zune is the classic example of this approach. Protecting against downside and being conservative in the face of a priority list means that you’ll choose the obvious and the predictable instead of the subtle or the remarkable. And your competition, especially those that perceive that they have nothing to lose, will surprise you every time.

The laws of the market haven’t been repealed. What has changed (due to ease of market entry, low cost of technology and manufacture and the high value of fast-moving ideas) is that the way you must capitalize on opportunity has changed.

Failure now means never failing.