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.

Living in “interesting times”

Would you rather be a dog in peaceful times? Or a human in chaotic times? When asked this, most people of course pick “human in chaotic times”.

But when offered to pick one of two — risk or uncertainty — most pick “risk” over “uncertainty”. To an extent, risk is definable, quantifiable, often tangible, possible to plan mitigation of.

Brexit is a risk. We know the British public will make its choice on June the 23rd, 2016. Both “remain” and “leave” campaigns are trying hard to get people on their side. The “remain” side is trying to mitigate the risk by highlighting possible losses Britain can incur if Brexit happens. The “leave” campaign calls their mitigation strategies fear-mongering and baseless.

But a juicier example affecting us all this year is from across the pond.

That Trump could become President of the United States is a risk, as he inches closer to the required delegate count. What he will do, as President, about foreign policy, international trade, immigration, job creation etc is an uncertainty. As on the date of writing (April the 27th, 2016), his policy positions are at best unclear, at worst rhetorical. That may change. Or not. Further, all of the members of the Congress and a third of the members of the Senate are also up for elections this year. So it is hard to say what the balance of power will look like in the final outcome. That exacerbates the uncertainty.

My startup clients seem unfazed by Brexit although Jeff Lynn’s warning about how Brexit will damage the UK’s startup ecosystem should give them pause for thought. Folks at larger company client firms are adopting a wait-and-watch stance. In practice, this means there is much inaction around. Countrywide has sounded a warning bell over housing prices. All said, the economy in limbo is slowing down and Brexit is expected to hit the UK’s growth numbers.

It is, however, an altogether different discussion when it comes to the US presidential elections. Almost everyone I speak to, both in the UK and the USA, is secretly wishing for Mrs Clinton to become President, even though the GOP is traditionally seen as the party good for business and business people. I rarely have occasion to call a situation brimming with bathos. This is one such. I am also not unaware of the filter bubble effect in this finding, because I overwhelmingly speak with people who are educated and in well-paid white collar jobs.

But that is how we often deal with uncertainty. We try and wish it away. We conjure favourable scenarios. We discuss fine detail over which we have no control.

Mostly, we bide time till the uncertainty crystallises and transmogrifies into a risk – risk we can delineate, measure, plan to mitigate for, or just accept.

Back to my dog v human question. “Better to be a dog in a peaceful time, than to be a human in a chaotic (warring) period.” This is the Chinese curse we have bastardised for the Anglophone world as: “May you live in interesting times.”

As political chaos goes, I cannot recall a year more “interesting” than 2016 in my entire career of over two decades. Can you?

Answers on a postcard, please.

The design challenge called Indian traffic [2]

An earlier, admittedly ranty post documented the weirdness that is Indian traffic. Though it focused more on vehicular traffic than on pedestrians, any good traffic system design should enable peaceful co-existence of both vehicles and pedestrians.

I have spent some time thinking about traffic systems since I have been able to observe traffic in several countries outside India, especially the UK, for a few years now. I’d say it largely works well in the UK. Except when it does not, say, when we have the wrong type of snow. Roads don’t work, trains don’t work, almost nothing works.

Yet, some sincerely wonder if traffic in India can be improved to the level it is in developed countries.

Jokes apart, traffic in developed countries, when it flows, has mainly three component parts, although not all developed countries are created equal in their traffic discipline. These component parts exist in a Nash Equilibrium, which keeps the traffic flowing.

Rules

Unlike India — where most people with driving licences have done few, if any, lessons, and most driving licence owners have never been subjected to a rigorous examination of car knowledge and driving skills — it is near impossible to get a driving licence in most developed countries without passing multistage tests of road rules, car knowledge, and driving skills.

As far as I know, road rules — that would cover speed limits, lane discipline, overtaking procedures, use of indicators and other functioning lights on the vehicles, driving behaviour during egregious weather or road conditions, prioritisation of emergency vehicles, required civic behaviour during emergencies — aren’t even fully documented in India. Documenting them and then making them available in the many Indian languages would have to be the step that precedes training and testing for licensing purposes.

Licensed trainers and an incorruptible testing procedure would be the next essentials.

Then the state of the roads. It shouldn’t be down to a High Court to pronounce that citizens have a right to good roads. Because, so what?

Rule followers aka the social contract

Then comes the harder part. Of making a citizenry — of whom many are accustomed to saying “do you know who I am?” and “ok, do my work first, here is the cash!” — follow the process of learning and being tested to obtain a licence, with knowledge and humility, and not by sending someone else to get the paperwork done.

Some positive change, led by citizens themselves, is in evidence so there is hope on this count.

Enforcement and punitive measures

The third crucial part of a functioning traffic system is a traffic police force that catches, penalises and prosecutes if necessary the violations, no matter how minor, of road rules. This is helped by clear rules, along side specification of punitive measures for breaking them. This is further supported by a judicial system that lets traffic violation cases be tried swiftly instead of dragging them on for years, as Indian courts often do with many court cases.

So to return to the question, whether road traffic in India ever be improved to the level it is in developed countries, the answer is both Yes and No.

Yes, if India can arrive collectively at a new Nash Equilibrium of the above-mentioned factors.

No, if any of the above is missing.

The challenge for India is where to start.

Digital (and the) luxury consumers

The web, as I see it, is Ginger Rogers to the world’s Fred Astaire. Just as she did everything he did, but backwards and in high heels, the web does/ has everything the world does/ has but visibly, frictionlessly, faster.

But then those two too were role-playing. In the make-believe world of celluloid. With its own rules, relationships, frictions and language. The web, a virtual world, is no different in that sense.

A vast majority of luxury consumers have, unsurprisingly, taken to the web to consider, evaluate, buy, and well, show-off. They are choosing convenience, breadth, quality, and where available, personalised delivery. They seamlessly move between the physical world of stores, and the online world of discount-retailers, consumer review sites, official brand pages and web properties, secret and public groups discussing shared interests in a brand.

Brands and businesses, however, are slow to catch up. With such fragmentation of the consumer’s journey with the brand, it is hard to demonstrate hard numbers or directly attributable sales gains. So a traditional ROI led case for investing in social and web channels cannot be made easily.

It seems to me however that particular to the luxury and the creative sectors, some challenges are bigger than others.

The face-off between the “democratic” web and the “exclusive” nature of luxury

How do some of the well-established luxury brands deal with it? It is quite simple. They peg their expectations from the members of their various online communities correctly.

Not all fans are customers. In fact, as the Vacheron representative pointed out in Paris last week, most fans aspire to the brand and are therefore very valuable. Vacheron also has an owners’ club where current and future owners of their fine timepieces engage, converse, ask questions, answer questions, and indulge their passion for the brand.

The social media director of another aspirational luxury brand said to me, during the coffee break, that he finds questions about this “divide” offensive. After all, he went on to say, people may start with something small with us and grow with us. Of course, I agreed, having first bought just a belt from the brand when I was a young professional at 26. I have grown to admire the brand for their craft as well as cultural stewardship, over time.

It is safe to say that the democracy-exclusivity divide is short-sighted, parochial and patronizing. It may belong in a debate about sales targets but it certainly does not belong in a discussion about building a brand’s long-term value.

After all, aren’t half the advertising dollars wasted, as John Wanamaker pointed out? Why should luxury and creative brands be daft enough to expect half our social media dollars won’t be?

Finding the authentic voice of the brand

Aka how not to shill, plug, sell, cross-sell, up-sell at every opportunity?

My friend Euan Semple has written a book with a wonderful title – “Organisations don’t tweet, people do”. A succinctly stated, seminal piece of wisdom for all who wish to engage with their fans, prospects and customers on various social media properties or channels.

And people don’t just sell. They gossip, they share their joys, they show off things they bought, they share stories. Sometimes they complain. These are the moments where a brand has a great opportunity not just to be authentic but to showcase its authenticity. How would you feel in the customer’s shoes with a terrible product or service experience? Would you like to be sold-at or dismissed or barred from the community or the store? No? Then don’t do it to the customer! How hard is that?

It is kind of difficult to pick the best story about an authentic brand voice from the ones I heard in Paris. But Kenzo stands out in how it retains the spirit of the brand, while being playful, inventive and engaging all the same.

Finding an authentic voice does require brands to be comfortable with their own identities and their own DNA and their own values.

In others words — what do you stand for? And are you willing to speak up for it?

Influencers and the shades of grey

This is the most fun part. It is an open secret that luxury brands pay well-known faces and people with large social media following considerable sums to promote their products. It is however easy to see the payment dynamic when it is a celebrity talking about an overcoat or a handbag named after her.

What happens when it is a person on whom people rely for expertise and knowledge? Do brands pay her too? If they do, where is the disclosure? And what is her trade-off? Is she willing to trade-off her own brand’s hard-won reputation to build a luxe brand’s reputation? Does a full disclosure hurt or harm her “recommendations” and her influence? How does a consumer trust the “recommendation” of someone who is being paid to say nice things about a brand? What if there is no full disclosure? What about trust?

Then there are the mass influencers. Brands don’t give straight answers about them. Some say they pay these bloggers in kind. All very nice, but when did anyone last pay their rent in perfume bottles, or pay for their grocery by swapping a handbag or a pair of worn-only-once shoes? This is an unreal and unsustainable – and dare I say, arrogant – way for brands to think.

I asked some of these joyful (read: squirm-inducing) questions in Paris last week. Um, no joy. The jury is out, it appears. Brands must consider the hard choices carefully and in my view, plump for full disclosure from influencers.

So here is what I think about this “digital consumer” thing.

In the pre-web world, brands could tell their stories and consumers would listen passively.

Now it is a conversation and like any conversation, there are disagreements, segues, detours, tangents as well as commiserations, empathetic moments, Aha-moments and moments of sheer joy.

I think things have changed for the better, don’t you?

PS: For my full notes from the Luxury Society event in Paris, please see this.

A Passage To India (2010 ed) and the other R-word

When EM Forster wrote A Passage To India, the Indo-British relationship was one of the ruler and the ruled, of imbalances in power. Things are different now in 2010. Britain lags behind and grapples with an economic crisis of monstrous proportions, while India’s economic growth gallops along at 8.5%.

Naturally, all eyes are on David Cameron and his 90-strong high-powered ministerial and CEO delegation to India, billed as a “jobs tour” to which Cameron is bringing a “spirit of humility“.  The delegation led by Mr Cameron confirms how India remains, despite all its frustrations, a potentially strategic customer, partner, supplier and sometimes a competitor to British businesses. As such India’s growth has direct implications for British business, as we in Britain seek growth markets and profits to deal with the continued chill in our home economy.

Earlier this week, the Financial Times, in its editorial, argues that India needs to go for stronger growth (registration required). Among other points, the FT argues for improved infrastructure and productivity, liberalisation in retail sector, furthering liberalisation in the banking sector, and investment in basic health and education.

All valid points indeed.

A fundamental requirement to enable such business is that businesspersons from both countries are able to travel to meet with each other, and not just on high profile trade delegations. Not least because both the UK and India  are nations thriving on the back of the SME sector and their chief executives rarely get to join ministerial trade delegations.

Travel between India and the UK is hamstrung: by the increasingly onerous requirements for an Indian to obtain a British visa in India, and by the sheer volume of visa applications being made by British persons in the UK for travel to India. One area ripe for quick and major reform in both countries is enablement of business travel.

In doing so, the other R-word – reciprocity – is as important as any reform. It would not be remiss of Mr Cameron’s and Dr Singh’s governments to take bold steps to make it easier for British and Indian businesses to travel, and then to trade and collaborate.

Starting with a mutually cooperative visa regime. One that makes it easier for British businesses to find their passage to India in the modern times.

Other links:

Nitin Pai writes: Cameron comes with a different mindset

BBC’s Economics editor Stephanie Flanders: Osborne in India

Dean Nelson on the whys and the what-fors of Indo-British links