Autonomous cars and luxury marques

Aston Martin, James Bond’s car of choice (except when he went through a BMW phase), showcased a powerboat at Monaco Yacht Show this year. Writing in the Financial Times, Philip Delves Broughton laments that Bond’s legacy is being junked by this luxury marque and outlines the dangers of brands diversifying into unrelated categories, especially those far away from the brand’s core, while also acknowledging the financial pressures that may have brought about the powerboat.

Those are great arguments; indeed they are in line with the “we have heritage” argument that keeps many a luxury brand in that strange place where they are simultaneously desirable and at the risk of going out of business very fast. Those are also arguments that arise from a steady state style of thinking applied to the stark challenges faced by luxury businesses.

The challenge is altogether different. Existential, in fact.

As autonomous vehicles get on roads outside the Bay Area, indeed here in the UK not far from the Aston Martin Headquarters, the existential crisis facing luxury marques in cars is too urgent to ignore. They overwhelmingly pitch their cars as being about the pleasure of owning and driving a car as beautiful such as the Vanquish (I have my preferences but please feel free to imagine the marque that makes you go weak at the knees here!). There is a primal connection between the man and the (stunning) machine that is at the heart of the purchases of such cars.

With autonomous cars around the corner, the makers of such luxury cars may go out of business altogether.

What will be their offering, their raison d’être?

What deepest desires in our hearts will they be appealing to, with their beautiful — but self driving — cars?

Yes, I hear you cycling through Kübler-Ross. I am doing it too so you are not alone.

Meanwhile, let’s not pretend that the Aston Martin AM37 powerboat is only about the financial bottomline. There are existential choppy waters ahead. Aston Martin has found one way to navigate them. Unlike Bond, makers and purveyors of such luxury vehicles may not live to die another day. They have to think fast to remain relevant and in business at all. More previously unthinkable business models may be forthcoming from luxury car makers.

Mr Broughton meanwhile can perhaps take solace in the possibility of the next boat chase on the Thames featuring an Aston Martin! Bond’s heritage may be alive and well. For the time being.

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.

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?

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.