Influencer marketing and the luxury marque

Eight years ago, I was pondering the meaning of “authority” on the web. Fast forward to 2016 and the language has moved on. It is no longer about authority but about influence. Brands, including some luxury brands, are engaging in “influencer marketing”.

The web is awash with “advice” for luxury brands on the criteria for choosing the right influencers; these include relevance, reach, engagement, previous brand endorsements, and that old chestnut called authority.

But should luxury brands engage in influencer marketing at all?

I have no doubt there are some, who were influenced into buying a Breitling because of John Travolta, a bonafide and accomplished pilot and a 2007 inductee into the Living Legends of Aviation. Travolta was the face of Breitling until in 2012, Breitling shocked many by picking David Beckham. Beckham is a famous former ace footballer but now mostly a celebrity model, who reportedly turned down Calvin Klein but later appeared in Giorgio Armani and H&M ads — for underwear.

How are Breitling’s brand values aligning with this new choice of influencer? What aspirational quality or relatable values is the brand projecting with David Beckham? Notwithstanding his sporting prowess, Beckham is a peculiar and unimaginative choice of influencer for a brand that, since 1884, has been known for engineering innovation driven watches.

IMG_3407During the AW16 shows in Milan, Gucci’s Alessandro Michele officially invited — and collaborated with — Trevor Andrew whose love for Gucci had made his “Gucci Ghost” persona well known and gained him a huge following on Instagram (31K at the time of writing). Andrew bought his first Gucci watch at age 17 with the money he earned snowboarding. Gucci wasn’t giving him money to talk Gucci all this while (for the various shades of disclosure between bloggers and luxury brands, read this). He is no ordinary influencer for Gucci to engage with. He has his own creative lens on things, including to his music — he is a man of many talents — with a rip-mix-burn approach he puts to practise and that resonates with web users. Web culture has indeed moved on from the early binarity of creator v consumer, to co-creation and hacking.

Does Andrew resonate with Gucci’s brand values? They are, after all, rooted in the Italian and Florentine heritage and craftsmanship. Where does Andrew fit in? Perhaps with Gucci’s fashion leadership and success with authenticity? Andrew is authentic, creative, successful with his own style of craftsmanship. There is synergy perhaps, and Gucci put its money where its mouth is by producing a collaborative collection with Andrew.

Both brands Andrew and Gucci have influence over their audiences.

But in the collaboration, who influenced whom? It is hard to tell. It is more like a circle of virtuous mutual influence! This kind of serendipity, overlaid with a strategic twist is not available to all luxury brands.

Luxury brands are currently torn between many dualities. The democratic nature of the web, versus the exclusive, aspirational image of a luxury brand. The reality of who is spending the money now, versus the need to build relationships with the potential customers of the future. Even the heritage claim becomes difficult to ride on, when the brands are addressing markets with their own heritage vastly more expansive and richer than the luxury marque’s own.

Amid all this, the question — should a luxury brand engage in influencer marketing at all?

My considered answer to that is No.

A luxury marque is, at its core, a Veblen good. Influencer marketing — including the lazy marketer’s option of celebrity endorsement, never mind their tenuous relationship with sales — on the other hand is an attempt to get in on the bandwagon effect (economists call it “interpersonal effects on utility”). Influencer marketing, given all the variables in the mix including the influencer’s own “brand” and its values, is cognitive dissonance-inducing in the luxury brand discourse.

“But, but what about the young generation and our engagement with them?,” some might ask.

The clue might lie in a 600 year old brand that somehow survived and thrived.

With the old fashioned idea of always being the keeper and regaler of the brand story, the craftsmanship story, the collection story. Even the influencers it has worked with in recent times are now collaboratively embedded in its glorious historicity.

When it comes to influencer marketing, true luxury marques need to remember just this:

Don’t borrow someone else’s influence. Be the influence.

The medium is the message

President Obama wrote a piece on Feminism for Glamour magazine.

Curious minds want to know why that specific magazine. Here is whom the magazine is for, according to its owner Conde Nast: “Glamour is for the woman who sets the direction of her own life and lives it to its fullest and chicest. Her point-of-view is unmistakably American, unwavering in its optimism and wide open to the possibilities ahead. The dream job, the perfect look, the right guy: All are in her reach.

How would writing in that magazine ensure the article gets read by men, someone asked. Legit question.

Here is how.

Several media outlets men might read – Vox (under Policy and Politics, no less), New York Times, Rolling Stone, Time, and many others – have picked up and paraphrased the essay’s main ideas for easy reading by men. Obama thus neatly sidestepped men wondering why he is lecturing to them and got a standing ovation from women for his approach as a Dad.

And yet he is getting heard by men, as the conversation on those paraphrased articles shows. Several men are commenting on these paraphrased pieces that while they disagree with Obama politically, as fathers of young women, they agree with him completely on this matter. This is not a surprise. Research evidence shows that when daughters are born, men change their attitudes to traditional gender roles for women. Indeed many young women may be making their dads read the article. There is also the possibility that Hillary Clinton’s popularity among young women could get a boost from this, because he spoke with them but not quite at them by referencing his daughters in the essay.

There is more to this than meets the eye though. More than Obama. More than feminism.

There is a quiet but firm change happening in the magazine world. And so-called millennials are leading it. With guidance and nurture from older, steadier, more experienced hands in the trade.

Here is a Teen Vogue piece on a young woman, presumably a teenager, on how she became a feminist. Here is a piece on how queer identity may make a person a target for violence, and another on how American culture fuels homo and trans phobia.

Glamour and Teen Vogue are not magazines common prejudices about “girlie mags” allow us to expect to do a great job of hosting and enabling such discourse on identity. But they are doing it. Anna Wintour, the tour de force in Conde Nast, is guiding a team of millennials which is doing a great job getting the unfairly reviled younger persons reading serious stuff. In other words, emergent generations are being engaged using old fashioned tools.

Their views have a platform. Their voices are being amplified by “curation” led websites that “grownups” read. Change is quietly happening, while we are too busy stereotyping millennials and younger generations.

The revolution, it is clear, is not being televised.

It is being written and read and discussed on channels that allegedly responsible adults dismiss as pointless, past-it, dying or any number of hand-waving adjectives.

Be there, or be square.

And Obama is no square, as we all know by now.

Towards a multidisciplinary future

Last week, I attended a workshop on movement building for social change.

One of my breakout groups was discussing “shared purpose”. I used the word “asymptote” to make the point that with the best shared purpose, we need to know we only make dents and some progress, and although we never fully bring about the exact change in the exact format we want, the movement gets closer and closer to our purpose over time. It caused some mirth in my breakout group.

Later in the morning, I caught myself likening the ideal scenario of the broadening of the appeal of our vision, our purpose, our movement to “fractalisation“. Both terms were, in my view, efficient, succinct, and the best explanations for what I was aiming to say.

The giggles caused by both set me thinking about the other terms with very specific meaning normally used in maths, physics, communication theory, political science, economics that I often use in specific discussions in business. Some are from secondary school maths and physics, the others from further education. A non-representative list of such words would include vector, variable, f(X), non-trivial, calculus, parametric, SNR (signal to noise ratio), transmission error, attenuation, but also words such as equity which may need to be understood in context.

I asked some of my friends, accomplished in law, business, design and academia, if they found the use of secondary school maths and physics terms odd in a business setting with educated colleagues.

A few admitted they did not know some of the terms. Some friends said they would use plainer words. Another said as a data scientist, she aims not be misunderstood. Yet another, who is the most well-informed social justice aware person I know, pointed out that oversimplification can run the risk of the person oversimplifying being seen in devalued terms. And finally, one friend encouraged me to “go Gurl!” because she is of the view that these terms can often explain business models, industrial design, UX, customer behaviour and other insights well.

I then ran a poll on Twitter and an encouraging 56% of respondents said they understand those terms, and a full 19% said that they would mock such a person.

What the Twitter survey found

What the Twitter survey found

Interesting discussions followed.

Do we mock out of fear instead of curiosity, or do we mock for broader social acceptance rather than standing out as a nerd?

Do we use specific terms to look impressive, or do we actually know what they mean?

Do we use these terms to establish superiority, or to create a shared understanding in the group, explaining with patience and genuine empathy when asked, to move the discussion forward?

Is such language isolating and credentialist, or broadening and embracing of diversity?

Before you dismiss this as an academic navel-gazing exercise, I should add this thinking was propelled by a digital insights event I attended earlier in the week. A futurist on the panel said multidisciplinarity was the future (she also had other predictions about future careers).

If we are to get to that multidisciplinary future, are we really serving ourselves, building our movement, making the right strides toward it, if we like to keep precise terms in their own disciplinary silos behind tightly drawn boundaries?

Why are we not asking to be explained by — and indeed why are we mocking — those, who let these specialty-confined words loose in other contexts, where they may fit and may indeed enrich the shared understanding of what we are building?

History shows that innovation does not always come from those deeply embedded in the specialist disciplinary networks they belong to. It comes from those who are on the edges of their discipline(s), bumping against the others on the edges of their discipline(s), or looking above the parapet to peek into what others are doing, and forming multidisciplinary teams to have a crack at a problem that one discipline alone cannot solve.

Whether leading a team, building a startup, or growing a business. what are you doing to bring that multidisciplinary thinking on board?

How are you building your movement towards the future?

Four For Friday (33)

Nearly everyone has an opinion on “robots“. My nerdier friends get excited and talk about the latest advances; my sociologist and anthropologist friends shake their heads and bring up issues of inbuilt prejudices and morality; some of us STEAM types, who operate on cusps of disciplines, see the possibilities and the risks and get alternately curious, elated, worried.

This week’s links — far more numerous than four! — are about artificial intelligence, robotics, consciousness and machine ethics.

If you have ever used Cortana, or engaged in pointless back-and-forth with Siri, you already know that speech recognition platforms are getting better at context recognition. Bigger developments are in the works.

A leading unnamed bank in the UK is testing Amelia to help its staff assess mortgage lending suitability of applicants. Amelia is an AI and machine learning driven cognitive platform, a machine agent, to assist or perhaps, replace human agents in some customer interactions. Colloquially, a “robo-advisor”.

… traditional automated response systems, which are pre-recorded menus, equipped with speech recognition software that guides customers through a range of options, are cumbersome.

Amelia, however, has contextual filters which allows it to understand loosely stated problems and recognise sentences that have the same meaning but are structured differently.

When faced with foreign queries, the system will call upon a more experienced human agent to help resolve the issue. It will then listen in to the human-to-human interaction and create new steps in its process ontology, which will enable Amelia to address the same type of issue with subsequent callers.

Transactive memory ably assisted by cloud sharing may be a reality by 2030, according to Ray Kurzweil who spoke earlier in the year about it.

Kurzweil predicts that humans will become hybrids in the 2030s. That means our brains will be able to connect directly to the cloud, where there will be thousands of computers, and those computers will augment our existing intelligence. He said the brain will connect via nanobots — tiny robots made from DNA strands.

“Our thinking then will be a hybrid of biological and non-biological thinking,” he said.

The bigger and more complex the cloud, the more advanced our thinking. By the time we get to the late 2030s or the early 2040s, Kurzweil believes our thinking will be predominately non-biological.

Many of Kurzweil’s predictions have been on the ball. So this one is worth watching. Meanwhile a new startup is working on transferring people’s consciousness into artificial bodies or deceased humans. Considering the question “what is consciousness?” is still unresolved, this will be fascinating to watch. Not least because of the many questions of medical ethics arising from the way they word their value proposition now.

“We’re using artificial intelligence and nanotechnology to store data of conversational styles, behavioral patterns, thought processes and information about how your body functions from the inside-out. This data will be coded into multiple sensor technologies, which will be built into an artificial body with the brain of a deceased human. Using cloning technology, we will restore the brain as it matures.”

Is our fascination with machines and making them “human-like” new?

Far from it. This beautiful essay looks at medieval technology and human fascination with things invisible but powerful. It is hard to imagine now how exciting it must have been back then to see a galvanometer needle move.

In the 19th century, scientists and artists offered a vision of the natural world that was alive with hidden powers and sympathies. Machines such as the galvanometer – to measure electricity – placed scientists in communication with invisible forces. Perhaps the very spark of life was electrical.

Even today, we find traces of belief in the preternatural, though it is found more often in conjunction with natural, rather than artificial, phenomena: the idea that one can balance an egg on end more easily at the vernal equinox, for example, or a belief in ley lines and other Earth mysteries. Yet our ongoing fascination with machines that escape our control or bridge the human-machine divide, played out countless times in books and on screen, suggest that a touch of that old medieval wonder still adheres to the mechanical realm.

Finally, machine ethics. The Human Computer Interaction Lab at Tufts University is tackling an important problem in robotics: “How exactly do you program a robot to think through its orders and overrule them if it decides they’re wrong or dangerous to either a human or itself?

This is what researchers at Tufts University’s Human-Robot Interaction Lab are tackling, and they’ve come up with at least one strategy for intelligently rejecting human orders.

The strategy works similarly to the process human brains carry out when we’re given spoken orders. It’s all about a long list of trust and ethics questions that we think through when asked to do something. The questions start with “do I know how to do that?” and move through other questions like “do I have to do that based on my job?” before ending with “does it violate any sort of normal principle if I do that?” This last question is the key, of course, since it’s “normal” to not hurt people or damage things.

The Tufts team has simplified this sort of inner human monologue into a set of logical arguments that a robot’s software can understand, and the results seem reassuring. For example, the team’s experimental android said “no” when instructed to walk forward though a wall it could easily smash because the person telling it to try this potentially dangerous trick wasn’t trusted.

The video in the link — please click through for the 1min long clip — shows a robot that is programmed for intelligent rejection of an order that puts it at risk or comes from an unauthorised person.

To the untrained eye, not concerned with either the technology or the ethical implications, this sufficiently advanced technology looks like Arthur C Clarke’s ‘magic’. However to many of us, this raises interesting and important questions about future developments. The algorithm embodies the biases and prejudices of the humans who design it. Including unconscious bias which doesn’t go away with “training”.

The year 1968 was not so far back in time but back then, 2001 was far out enough in time. This was fiction then, but as we close 2015, we are getting closer to making it a reality.

“Open the pod bay doors, Hal.”

“I am sorry, Dave, I am afraid I can’t do that.”

 

 

Four For Friday (32)

I occasionally play a game with my friends, where I rapidly say some words aloud and they respond with the first visual image that pops up in their minds. It is a rough version of the IAT and some fascinating conversations result from there.

With the word “creativity”. I hear responses ranging from names of luxury brands, to activities such as drawing or fashion design, to adjectives people associate with “creative people”. It is common though astonishing to me how so many people think creative people are different from them in ways they could not articulate.

This week’s readings are all about creativity.

While it is evident that announcing a creativity department does not help organisations, managing creative people has always been tricky. Not least when research finds how creative people are likelier to have dubious ethics.

However, being creative also has an undeniable dark side—one that can be very costly for companies if left unchecked. Research has shown that while creative people are adept at coming up with new ideas, they can also be more likely to engage in morally questionable behaviors. In a set of studies, Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely at Duke University found that creative thinkers are better at rationalizing dishonesty than uncreative thinkers. “Thinking outside the box” can lead to acting unethically.

The explanation sounds simple but worth pondering over.

The idea that creativity is rare leads to a sense of entitlement; if you are creative, you see yourself as more deserving than others. Leaders reinforce this when they don’t hold creative people to the same rules as those who are less creative, or when they give them special treatment.

Can we all be creative? Are we all already creative and just don’t know how to give expression to it? Here is an interesting perspective on broken sleep as a creative window. The whole essay is worth reading.

Night also triggers hormonal changes in our brains that suit creativity. Wehr has noted that, during night-waking, the pituitary gland excretes high levels of prolactin. This is the hormone associated with sensations of peace and with the dreamlike hallucinations we sometimes experience as we fall asleep, or upon waking. It is produced when we feel sexual satisfaction, when nursing mothers lactate, and it causes hens to sit on their eggs for long periods. It alters our state of mind.

Prolactin levels are known to increase during sleep, but Wehr found that (along with melatonin and cortisol) it continues to be produced during periods of ‘quiet wakefulness’ between sleeps, triggered by the natural cycles of light and dark, not tied to sleep per se. Blissfully zonked out by prolactin, our night brains allow ideas to emerge and intertwine as they might in a dream.

Wehr suggests that not only have modern routines altered our sleeping patterns, they have also robbed us of this ancient connection between our dreams and waking life, and ‘might provide a physiological explanation for the observation that modern humans seem to have lost touch with the wellspring of myths and fantasies’.

Ekirch agrees: ‘By turning night into day, modern technology has obstructed our oldest avenue to the human psyche, making us, to invoke the words of the 17th-century English playwright Thomas Middleton, “disannulled of our first sleep, and cheated of our dreams and fantasies”.’

This is an oldie but a goodie by John Hagel that I re-read this week – the manifesto for a passionate creative person.

… we celebrate the passionate and dedicated individuals in all fields who have both led us to where we are now, and are creating and shaping the future. They are explorers, pushing back the limits of our current understanding. They pioneer new ideas, discover new truths, and tirelessly innovate. They actively seek out new challenges and connect broadly with others to solve them. Though they come from every occupation and background, they are unified by the sincere belief that they can leave the world a better place than they found it.

And lest we should think all this is airy-fairy bunkum, I came across this heartening story of Cuba’s creative voices are dealing with constraints.

Very early on the second day, when we were working together to think about how our group might concoct ongoing meetings, one member, a self-described pedagogue who helps lead Cuba’s school of design, said ‘Of course all Cubans are designers. Take for example my car: it’s an old Peugeot from France with transplants, an engine from Russia, a German carburetor and a steering system from Italy. To live here, one has to be a designer.’

Constraints lead to creative solutions, something known as Jugaad in India. Making such constraint-led creative fixes sustainable and scalable is the problem definition, the chasm between creativity and innovation.