Sunday 20 September 2009

Back to the future

back-to-the-future I’m very excited.  I’ve just got the new Dan Brown novel “The Lost Symbol” and already I’m a third of the way through it. 

Without giving away the plot to those who haven’t got it yet, it’s safe to say that it includes the usual mix of secret societies, mythology, symbology and real life locations in a way that really brings the novel to life – and starts you questioning reality based on fiction.

However while this blog isn’t a book review what did intrigue me was a section in “The Lost Symbol” where one of the lead characters demonstrates how breakthroughs in science today were actually already documented in ancient texts centuries ago.  From string theory to multi-dimensional universes, all of these things were apparently discussed in ancient documents.

Now I don’t know how true that is, but the reason it struck a cord was because I’ve also been reading some older books recently including Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard (first published in 1957) and Propaganda by Edward L. Bernays (first published in 1928).  What’s really interesting about these books is that barring a reference to steam ships in Propaganda and shortening in Hidden Persuaders, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d been published recently.

In Propaganda, Bernays describes one of the problems facing society, saying:- 

“[] today, because ideas can be instantaneously transmitted to any distance and to any number of people, this geographical integration has been supplemented by many other kinds of grouping, so that persons having the same ideas and interests may be associated and regimented for common action even though they live thousands of miles apart” - 1928

Indeed he quotes H. G. Wells who had written in the New York Times “ Modern means of communication – the power afforded by print, telephone, wireless and so forth..[].. have opened up a new world”.

Bernays then goes on to describe some of the tens of thousands of groups listed in the World Almanac – which I guess would be the fore bearer to Facebook Groups – listing groups such as the “Association to Abolish War”, the “Anti-Cigarette League” and the “Ayrshire Breeders Association” – all of which can now be found on Facebook in one form or another over 100 years later.

Whilst we think that social networking may be something wholly new, in reality we have simply changed the channel – made it more visible and accessible – but we haven’t really changed the underlying activity.

In Hidden Persuaders, Packard describes some of the techniques being used by agencies in the 50’s to sell goods.  Given this was over 60 years ago, little has changed.  Yes, phrases like “the little woman” when referring to a housewife wouldn’t play so well these days; however when he describes some of the issues marketers faced back then, we’d do well to pay attention.

For example, when discussing the issue that “you can’t assume people know what they want” he uses the case of a major ketchup company who decided to change their bottle design based on customer complaints.  In interviews most customers indicated they preferred the new bottle the company was considering however when it was then launched it was overwhelmingly rejected in favour of the old bottle – what customers had stated when interviewed didn’t match with what they did in practice.

Almost 30 years later, one of the biggest global brands made exactly the same mistake when Coke launched it’s new flavour in 1985 after extensive customer research which indicated it was preferred - only to find it was wholly rejected by the public and had to be pulled.  This despite blind taste tests indicating they really did prefer the newer recipe.  The book Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion discusses this and indicates that it probably had more to do with the psychology of “scarcity” and how people react when they think something is in short supply or they are losing something.

Going even further back, in 1894, Richard Sears, co-founder of Sears said "We Can’t Afford to Lose a Customer” and so to help retain customers he used a number of techniques over the next 10 years including:-

  • Printing testimonials from satisfied customers
  • "Club Order Program" - Encouraging customers to combine their orders with friends or neighbours to share in discounts
  • "Customer Profit Sharing" - giving the customer a one-dollar certificate for every dollar spent.

searscertKeep in mind, this was over 100 years ago and we essentially have a company utilising a loyalty programme, peer based feedback and elements of social networking.

Sometimes I think we get so wrapped up in the technological advances that we forget that what's important is not how we say something – the technical channel by which it’s transmitted - but what we have to say and even more importantly what we actually do.

Times change, technology moves on – but basic human needs and desires remain the same – and success depends on meeting and exceeding these, whatever century we are in.

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