Authenticity and Vedic wisdom for luxury brands

Alicia Keys, the talented musician and singer, was in the news recently for having chosen decidedly to eschew makeup. In a monograph in a newsletter, she said she feels no need to cover up any more. She talked about her journey to self discovery and finding her authentic self which did not need to be hidden under layers of makeup.

On cue, and missing all the irony of Keys’s commentary, Harper’s Bazaar featured 74 models in selfies with the faces they were born with. Hashtag #nomakeup.

Ladies & Gentlemen, authenticity is now on trend, and branded.

In a related development, one of my favourite web friends, Jackie Danicki, has started writing Burned Out Beauty, a beauty blog which is my new not-so-secret indulgence. She was the original beauty blogger in 2004 on the world’s first beauty blog Jack & Hill.

Jackie is not being a contrarian. She took a break, so to speak, and she is back doing something that she loves, enjoys and is knowledgeable about. Jackie is authentic.

The good thing about being authentic is there is no need to be contrarian.

But how can brands find where their authenticity lies? Indeed what is authentic and what are the sources of authenticity?

Eagle-eyed readers will remember my agonising over the “authenticity” of the Porsche symposer some time ago. I ruminated on it a while. After all the car is man-made, as is the symposer, and it is humans that manifested the Porsche vroom in the car’s engine as well as the symposer. It is not about the engine, it is about the sound. Once I had reached that essentialist unifying thread, I was at peace.

Where a sensory signal is not the only or the main signature of the brand, a brand may have to work a tad harder to define what it stands for, what its authentic self is.

A beautiful and effective tool is to be found in a Vedic method of inquiry.

What the essence of something is is often arrived at by answering what it is not.

Neti-Neti. Not this, not this.

Unlike other fixed signals of authenticity, the process of Neti-Neti also accommodates indeed nurtures growth and reinvention. If we are no longer something, if we no longer stand for something, we are one step closer to being our authentic and whole self.

So with brands.

When luxury brands with deep heritage struggle to reinvent themselves and their relevance in a world with modern technology and newness, they can choose to look inward and answer what they are not.

What are you not, any longer?

Authentic & still relevant

Motivation as a design assumption

Holacracy. MOOCs. Food labels.

Holacracy isn’t working. MOOCs have low completion rates, and an estimated 90% drop-out rate. Food labels to help consumers make informed choices show mixed effectiveness and decidedly no downward impact on public health concerns re obesity.

Other than not working as well as optimistically assumed in their wake, they have one more thing in common.

Their design assumes that people have self-motivation in heaps, and when faced with choices, they draw upon that self-motivation to make the best decisions for themselves.

From organisations, to education, to nutrition and health, the assumption of the “highly motivated and self-interested individual” does not stack up.

The reality is different from the design assumptions made.

As Buffer found out from its year-long no-managers experiment, people were expected to direct and motivate themselves, the lack of managers soon became overwhelming, and an implicit hierarchy emerged nonetheless.

Similarly MOOCs assume that a highly motivated and self-driven student is the only kind around. A self-motivated student will benefit from auto-didactic methods disproportionately more than a peer who isn’t so driven. As a teacher, I can attest to these phenomena too: students have variable levels of motivation, cognition and learning capacity; they may or may not understand the sequentiality of learning certain modules i.e. prior art in a field, which, of course, is more essential in some fields than in others; they may not understand some content and that can be demotivating in itself; they may not have the time or dedication to complete assigned readings; and last but not the least, they will always have have questions and if not, a facilitator teacher can make them question their tightly-held beliefs in a setting that makes them think.

In other words, willpower depletion, by the many demands made on us by life, is a real phenomenon.

The design problem that technology entrepreneurs keep dreaming of does not have to bring about “disruption”. It is more complicated than that.

The design problem is to keep people with varying motivations involved, and progressing.

If at all we achieve step change or “disruption”, the design challenge is to do so the existing tools of facilitation and enabling, along with new tools of technology and emergent social contexts, to address the same problems of variable motivation, cognition, and commitment to learning.

A designer assuming a bottomless pit of self-motivation in its audience sooner than later discovers the ordinariness of the human condition.

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.

Luxury watches and tech: who is driving whom?

Luxury products, it seems, are being trampled over by technology-enabled products enticing luxury customers.

Apple created its own version of ceramic enforced gold. The real number of the Apple watches in gold casing shipped remains a mystery although an estimated total of 10M pieces are expected to have shipped by the end of 2015.

Apple approached Hermès, the 600 year old luxury marque for a collaboration. Possibly so Apple could open a new market for itself and Hermès could make its mark on tech savvy luxury buyers.

Hermès, however, is an odd choice, seeing as it is far from being the top luxury watch maker and seller. Apple gets to borrow Hermes’s aura, their channel and possibly their customer base — Hermès does not market aggressively to its masstige customer while its prestige customer may or may not like being sold to — and Hermès gets to sell some fabulous leather straps to Apple. The collaboration looked like Apple is driving it.

Meanwhile out of Rolex, Omega and Breitling, the top 3 luxury watch marques, only Breitling has dipped its toe in the smartwatch waters. With its Breitling B55 Connected.

Brietling’s vision is to make the phone subservient to the watch, to enhance the watch. To wit: “In creating its first connected chronograph, Breitling has applied a new philosophy placing the smartphone in the service of the watch so as to enhance its functionality and conviviality. The instrument of the future.” The Breitling B55 Connected builds on the earlier launch of B50, which is an an electronic multi-function chronograph movement, with analogue and digital displays. The idea was to serve pilots — Breitling’s primary audience, but also its aspirational audience — better and to pave the way for other developments.

A few others have made their first moves too. Gucci unveiled a high fashion version of Will.I.Am‘s smartband. Will.I.Am’s role as the creative innovation lead in Intel’s wearables business is not widely known. He is not afraid to fail or experiment. Movado has teamed up with HP to create an Android and iOS compatible watch – the Movado Bold Motion – which uses Bluetooth connectivity and vibrations and visual cues to upcoming important things, all while looking stunning as Movado watches do. At Baselworld 2015, Bulgari unveiled its Diagono Magnesium Concept watch. The watch uses WISeKey’s NFC chip to unlock an application that can store encrypted data on the cloud and communicate with other devices within its range. The data is reportedly secure in an underground bunker in the Swiss Alps. Um, ok. WISeKey’s technology works with both Android and iOS. Then there is Tag Heuer’s Connected, which runs Google Wearable OS, and the order numbers have just been upped significantly to serve the upcoming holiday demand.

With all these options, one wonders: What does a customer choose first — the watch or the technology platform/ OS? More to the point, will the technology platform ever drive a watch purchase?

Curious, I conducted an unscientific survey of (admittedly male) friends, who own watches each costing over £10,000. Unsurprisingly they are all eyeing the Tag Heuer and the Breitling, but not as their main watches.

“Look, I need the battery to last weeks not 6h. I sometimes have two flights to catch in a day and a tight meeting schedule in between.”, said one.

Another said, “As I become more senior, I am less interested in being available to all messages and people all the time. I need time to reflect, uninterrupted by pings and notifications, and as far as I can tell that is all smart watches are doing right now.”

“Whatever it is, I ain’t changing my mobile phone for a god-damned watch. Something will come along that suits me and does not ask me to suit it. Capiche?”, said another. Ooh, burn.

So, if the smart watch is not the main watch, is the connectedness spiel just another nice-to-have and not really a need-to-have feature?

What does that mean for the market that can actually afford luxury smart watches?

Who understands this subtlety of customer behaviour in the luxury market?

It sure ain’t Apple. Or HP. Or even WISeKey.

The luxury brand, on the other hand, owns the customer relationship and understands their customers’ behaviour and quirks. The brand also gets to choose which tech to use, and may choose technologies that are OS-agnostic so as to serve all of their existing customers. The brand, if not inclined to investing in development by itself, could always reach out to wearable companies such as Olio Devices, which were among the first to understand that the customer doesn’t want to change her phone OS, based on the watch she covets.

So, back to — who is driving whom as far as luxury watches and tech go?

Tech may have started it all but tech isn’t driving the conversation in this space any more.

As luxury goes, consumers rule, and luxury brands are expectedly showing a more subtle understanding of the consumer than tech players may assume.

PS: I am an all-in Apple ecosystem user.

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.”