For anyone like myself who was around during the dotcom boom, it is hard not to feel that you are suffering from déjà vu. Many of the exotic ideas and concepts that spectacularly flopped at the time have been reborn and are now thriving. Take ecommerce. Clothes retailer Boo.com was one of the biggest disasters of the period, burning through $135 million of venture capital in just 18 months, while online currency beenz aimed to provide a way of collecting virtual money that could be spent at participating merchants.
Offline, we were continuously promised/threatened with smart bins that would scan the barcodes of product packaging as we threw it away, and automatically order more of the same. And goods might arrive from a virtual supermarket, run as a separate business from your local Tesco or Sainsbury’s. You could pay for low value goods and services with a Mondex card instead of cash (though initially only if you lived in the trial town of Swindon). The first Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) were launched, providing computing power in the palm of your hand. We’d already laughed out of the court the ridiculous concept of electric cars, as typified by the Sinclair C5.
Fast forward to now, and versions of all of these failed ventures are thriving. There are any number of highly graphical, video based clothes retailers, while you can take your pick of online currencies from Bitcoin to Ethereum. We’re still threatened with smart appliances that can re-order groceries (fridges being the latest culprit), but Amazon’s Dash buttons are a neater and simpler way of getting more washing powder delivered that put the consumer in control. And Dash bypasses the supermarket itself, with goods dispatched direct from Amazon. I can pay for small items by tapping my debit card on a card reader – even in my local village shop. More and more cars are hybrids, if not fully electric, while handheld computing power comes from our smartphones.
What has driven this change? First off, the dotcom boom was over 15 years ago, so there’s been a lot of progress in tech. We have faster internet speeds (one of the reasons for Boo’s demise was its graphics were too large for most dial-up modems to download), better battery life for digital devices and vehicles (iPhones excepted), hardware and sensors are much smaller and more powerful, and network technologies such as Bluetooth and ZigBee are omnipresent.
However, at the same time, the real change has been in the general public. Using technology has become part of everyone’s daily lives, and those that are not online are the exception, rather than the rule. It is a classic example of the move from early adopters to the majority, as set out in Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm. And it has happened bit by bit, with false starts and cul de sacs on the way.
So what does this mean for marketers? It really brings home the importance of knowing your audience and targeting your product accordingly. Don’t expect raw tech to be instantly adopted by the majority, but build up to it, gain consumer trust (perhaps by embedding your new tech in something that already exists), and prepare to fail first time round. And the other lesson is to look at today’s big failures, and be prepared to resurrect them when the market has changed in the future……
It’s probably fair to say that there was a lot of trepidation about how the Rio Olympics would turn out. Russian doping, the Zika virus, political turmoil in Brazil and worries about the venues being ready on time, and up to standard, all dominated the news in the run up to the games. At a country level, Team GB’s medal count was expected to fall compared to London 2012, while time differences meant that less of the action would be taking place when it could be easily viewed by the British public.
Instead, rather than being a disaster, the games came through. There were obvious issues in terms of infrastructure, but nothing major, and while attendance was poor at a lot of sports it seems there was a real buzz by the end of the event. Team GB not only hit its stated medal target, but exceeded its London 2012 total, with medals in a huge range of sports. In football, the host nation got revenge for its World Cup drubbing by Germany, winning gold in a penalty shootout. The decision of the IAAF to ban Russian athletes helped more countries than ever before to win medals, and while there were police raids linked to ticket touting, in general the IOC bureaucrats either behaved (or weren’t caught red-handed). So who were the PR winners and losers of Rio 2016?
1. Ryan Lochte
The prize for worst public relations (and behaviour), undoubtedly goes to US swimming superstar Ryan Lochte. After a drunken night out he, along with some of his team mates, claimed they’d been robbed at gunpoint by Brazilian policemen, feeding the world’s fears about crime and corruption in Rio. Luckily for the games, the real story was captured on CCTV. Rather than being robbed, the swimmers had smashed up a local petrol station toilet, causing security guards to pull guns on them until they paid for the damage. Once the truth came out the press were able to delight in headlines such as Liar, Liar, Speedo’s on Fire – and sponsors (including Speedo) quickly dropped Lochte from their campaigns.
2. Usain Bolt
Such is the pulling power of Usain Bolt that his presence and success helped define the games. From dancing a samba at a pre-race press conference to entering the arena with dry ice swirling, he is a consummate showman, as well as the fastest man in the world. And he does it with a smile on his face, helping fans and the general public to empathise with his performances. Given the recent history of drug taking in sprint events, his performances have essentially rehabilitated the sport.
3. Team GB
As I said, everyone was expecting a drop in the medal total for Britain after London, something that Team GB administrators kept repeating at every opportunity. This meant that the country’s success was even more unexpected, particularly when some early medal shots (such as Lizzie Armitstead in the cycling) didn’t come through.
However, it did create a bit of a dilemma for many people. We’re meant to be plucky British underdogs, but thanks to the skills of the athletes and coaches, and lottery funding, we now dominate in many sports. No wonder that many broadcasters seemed unsure how to play the triumphalism – the BBC’s end of games roundup was a mixture of awe and confusion.
What impressed me was both the range of sports where Team GB won medals and the attitudes of the athletes. Sports participation actually went down after London 2012, and clearly there was a concerted effort to try and address this. Pretty much after every medal athletes encouraged people to get involved, try things out and visit their local sailing/swimming/gymnastics etc. club. Let’s hope the message resonates and that grassroots sport gets a boost.
Like a lot of people, I didn’t believe that golf merited a place in the Olympics – or, if it did, it should be something more exciting, such as Crazy Golf. With many of the sport’s stars pulling out, citing the Zika virus as an excuse, the tournament looked like it was going to be a high profile disaster. Yet the sport shone through and the stars that had championed the event gave us a thrilling event, with Justin Rose winning at the death. Thanks to that, golf may well have saved its place at future Olympics.
5. British Airways
Painting post boxes gold in the home towns of Olympic champions was the PR masterstroke of London 2012. Given the time difference this sort of marketing was more difficult in Rio, but British Airways managed to pull it off, with a gold nosed plane (renamed victoRIOus) carrying many of the athletes back to the UK. Cue lots of shots of gold medal winners on the flight deck, and selfies shared on social media, probably helped by the 77 additional bottles of champagne the plane was carrying. Even the fact that a large number of medal winners, such as Bradley Wiggins, Andy Murray, Laura Trott and Justin Rose had already left Rio, didn’t detract from the triumph.
Like a lot of people I was initially shocked by the recent £24 billion takeover of ARM by Softbank of Japan. Not only was it the biggest acquisition ever of a European IT company, but it was also widely seen as the jewel in the crown of the Cambridge/UK tech scene.
A few years ago Cambridge had three stock market listed companies worth over a billion pounds each – ARM, Autonomy and Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR). All have now been acquired, with varying degrees of success – HP, Autonomy’s purchaser is still suing the previous management about alleged overstating of accounts.
At the same time a large number of the next tier of Cambridge companies, such as Jagex, cr360 and Domino Printing Sciences, have also been bought, leaving many people wondering where the next tech superstar will come from. This is particularly true as an increasing number of earlier stage businesses in exciting markets have been acquired by tech giants – Internet of Things startup Neul was bought by Huawei, Evi by Amazon and Phonetic Arts by Google. And that’s just the acquisitions that were announced. I’m sure that in many cases promising technology has been snapped up without making it into the press, as the deal size has been relatively small.
So, as someone involved in the Cambridge tech scene, should we be worried? Is Silicon Fen going to turn into an offshoot of Silicon Valley – a bit like the tech towns around Heathrow, but with a bit more IP? Thinking about it more rationally, there are two main reasons for the flurry of acquisitions, particularly of smaller businesses.
1 Cambridge’s reputation
All of these acquisitions are actually recognition of the strength of the Cambridge tech sector. Big companies are attracted to the area because of the talent and innovation on show, and are increasingly willing to take a punt on earlier stage businesses to get in first and lay their hands on new technology and IP. They’ve realised that not every acquisition will work, but that the wins should outweigh the losses. So, Cambridge’s PR has worked in attracting the largest tech companies to the area.
2 Changing mix of companies
Traditionally, a lot of Cambridge startups were built on biotech, science and engineering, either from the University or the innovative consultancies that differentiate the city from many other clusters. As Cambridge grows, a greater number of companies are software-based, which means that developing their technology is faster than when trying to commercialise a product from an interesting piece of lab research. Therefore, they are likely to have a steeper growth curve, and potentially a shorter lifespan as they reach maturity (and acquisition) quicker.
A further reason for optimism is given by the new Cambridge Cluster Map, which lists the nearly 22,000 businesses based within 20 miles of the city centre. With a turnover of £33 billion, the map demonstrates the range of companies and the strength of the local economy. A third of this turnover is made up of knowledge-intensive businesses, employing nearly 60,000 people. That’s a lot of innovation, whoever ultimately owns the companies concerned.
Looking back, I think commentators will see that the ARM acquisition is part of a change in Cambridge as it matures and becomes a recognised part of the global tech sector. The economy will continue to grow, but more of the capital will come from outside the city. While this means we will have fewer ARMs and CSRs, and more outposts of Amazon, Apple and Google, it won’t stop growth and innovation, which means the Cambridge Phenomenon is likely to go from strength to strength.
The success of Pokémon GO has been unprecedented. Around the world people of all ages are playing the game, in many cases spending more time on it per day than on Facebook. When the game’s servers go down players feel lost and distraught and there have been countless warnings to people to be careful when hunting Pokémon – the latest about wandering into minefields in Bosnia.
The business impact has been equally huge. Nintendo’s share price has doubled since the launch of the game, while spending on in-app purchases is estimated to be running at $1.6 million every day. Bear in mind that a substantial chunk of that goes to either Apple or Google as owners of the respective iOS and Android app stores and you can see there are a large number of beneficiaries of the craze.
However, you don’t need to be a big business to benefit – one of the beauties of the game is that there are opportunities for organisations of all sizes to market themselves. Here are five to begin with:
1 Exploit your location
Pokéstops, where players collect items, can be any sort of prominent building, including pubs, leisure centres and churches. If your premises have been designated a Pokéstop it means you are likely to have more visitors. This is the perfect opportunity to boost your business – welcome Pokémon hunters into your shop, restaurant or bar with special offers. The same goes for gyms, where Pokémon are trained and fight. Also, be smart about it – if you deploy a Lure, which attracts local Pokémon for half an hour, you are likely to also receive more visitors. Activate these when you are less busy and you can bring in visitors in quiet times as well.
2 Get people walking/cycling
To hatch eggs, players need to walk or cycle for a set distance between 2 and 10km. And you can’t cheat by driving as your speed needs to be below 10 mph (slow for many cyclists). This is the perfect opportunity to get people exercising – towns and organisations such as the National Trust should look at setting up trails that players can follow, while the NHS and the Department for Health can try and incorporate Pokémon GO playing into people getting healthier.
3 Be Pokémon friendly
One of the biggest issues to playing the game in the countryside is the lack of a reliable 3G/4G signal. I’ve been close to catching numerous Pokémon, only for the critters to escape when the signal vanishes. Again, this is an opportunity for businesses – if you offer free wifi, make it available to players and you’ll gain their goodwill and custom. Given that people are focused on their screen when playing set up a safe area, away from traffic, where they can hunt, particularly if you have a Pokéstop in your location.
4 Bear in mind this is just the start
Pokémon GO isn’t the first augmented reality (AR) game, and it certainly won’t be the last. In fact, it isn’t really that complex or advanced in terms of technology. So even if this is just a craze, there will be many more AR apps coming on the market seeking to replicate the game’s success. So anything you set up to cash in on Pokémon GO’s success is likely to be equally applicable to other apps down the line. Be AR ready.
5 Use your brand
For bigger brands, particularly those creating their own apps, there are two lessons to learn from the game’s success. Firstly, it is built on being incredibly simple to use, setting a benchmark for user experience that everyone should aim to follow. Secondly, think about how AR can benefit your brand. If you are a visitor attraction such as a castle or historic ruins, you could bring the past to life with an AR app that shows people what your building looked like in its heyday. For consumer brands or retailers, can you create compelling AR experiences that help engage shoppers – or even guide them to specific locations in your shop to find what they are looking for.
Pokémon GO’s combination of usability, nostalgia and clever technology is driving huge success around the world. Whatever size of business you are, make sure you are exploiting the opportunities it offers to your brand.
With thanks to Lucas Measures for additional ideas for this post!
Most people I know have been deeply depressed since the results of the EU referendum came out. Many clients and colleagues are EU citizens who have no idea what the future holds for them, while others work for companies that will be directly impacted by Brexit, either because they trade with the remainder of Europe, or because they are owned by businesses based in the EU.
The fact that many people seem to have been swayed by the downright lies of the Leave campaign adds to the anger, as does the hasty backtracking of Brexiteers on key pledges repeated during the campaign.
We’re left in limbo, and what’s more it won’t be resolved soon – negotiations to leave will not begin until the Autumn at the earliest, and then could take two years to complete. So how can businesses ensure that they are not casualties of Brexit, and what marketing lessons do they need to learn?
1. Strengthen existing relationships
It could be tempting to deprioritise any customers within the EU and focus on the UK only. This is exactly the wrong approach – now is the time to invest in the relationships that you have and even extend them. No-one knows what will happen when it comes to potential trade tariffs or barriers, but the best way to be ready is to build a strong relationship with customers that mean they still want to deal with you if tariffs mean your prices will potentially go up. Make the effort to go out and visit customers and get under the skin of their businesses to make yourself as critical as possible to their operations.
2. Target the US
One immediate consequence of the Leave vote has been a slump in exchange rates between the pound and other major currencies. This means that for those selling abroad, they are currently more competitive – particularly if you are a services business that is not buying in raw materials from overseas to make products. So look at how you can exploit this by marketing to Europe and the US and coming up with new offerings targeted at their particular needs.
3. Develop new markets
Brexiteers claim that we don’t need Europe, as we should focus on trade with emerging economies such as China, as well as internally within the at the moment United Kingdom. So do look at how you can market yourself to new countries – what is required and what advice/grants can you access to build a presence in new areas?
4. Show you are open for business
As many commentators have pointed out, companies can only play the hand of cards they are dealt – unlike Boris Johnson they can’t just walk away from the mess we are in. As we move forward it is time to show that you are going to focus on the positives. Invest in marketing to spread the message that you are open for business and ready to take on the challenges of the next few years. This is equally true if you are an international company or a local one – people are looking for reassurance, so ensure that your marketing reflects this.
5. Focus on the value you deliver
Even if there will not be a recession in the UK, there is likely to be an economic slowdown of some sort. The companies that survive will be those that deliver real value to their clients, rather than just winning business due to costs or familiarity. Go back to basics, talk to clients and understand what the benefits are that you deliver, and market these strongly to existing and new clients. This might mean pivoting your business, or introducing new services, and that can be difficult, but might be necessary for your survival.
Nietzsche’s quote that “that which does not kill us, makes us stronger” has already been trotted out many times, but it is not a bad place to start post-Brexit. Unless you plan to flee the country your business needs a plan to move forward, and following the marketing ideas above is a good place to start. If you have any further suggestions don’t hesitate to add them in the comments section below.
As I write this, Thursday’s EU Referendum looks too close to call, although polls seem to indicate that the Remain camp is moving back on top. I don’t want to use this blog to discuss politics, particularly having seen the mindless abuse that the Leave camp has subjected Remain supporters to – see the comments on Rio Ferdinand’s thoughtful and well-argued Facebook post as an example.
Instead I want to look at the public relations and communications strategies around the campaign, and what it means for PR professionals, and more importantly for political dialogue in this country going forward. I have five conclusions:
1. Lies are going unchallenged
While both sides have come out with some pretty unbelievable statements during the campaign – voting to Remain will prevent World War 3, for example, the Leave campaign seems to be basing its central positions on the complete untruth that the UK sends £350m to Brussels every week. This ignores the rebate that is applied BEFORE any money changes hands, and also ignores all the other grants and support, such as to agriculture that the UK benefits from. Despite being proved to be a palpable lie by experts such as the independent UK Statistics Authority, it is still being peddled by the Leave campaign. It seems that interviewers have given up challenging Leave spokespeople on this, and newer misinformation such as the alleged imminent arrival of hordes of Turkish migrants following their country’s accession to the EU – an event that is highly unlikely to ever happen.
2. Experts are bad
Linked to this communication strategy is painting any expert that disagrees with Leave as not worth listening to. The IMF, Barack Obama, other European leaders, business leaders, David Beckham, Rio Ferdinand, Nobel prize-winning economists – they are all part of a conspiracy against the general public. Indeed, Michael Gove himself said “The UK has had enough of experts” – presumably why he is at the head of the Leave campaign.
On a more serious note this distrust of knowledge is mirrored in Donald Trump’s appeal in the US – and shows that the traditional dislike of politicians has spread to anyone in authority or positions of influence. This is deeply disturbing as it removes one of the major planks of an advanced democracy – people spend years studying a subject, become an expert and then use their knowledge for the greater good. Why bother when a man with bad hair can solve the world’s problems by shouting and building a wall?
3. The devil has the best tunes
Incumbents always have a hard job. People may be innately conservative (with a small c), but they have a record that they can be judged on. By contrast the Leave campaign is freely promising the earth, spending the mythical £350m on a whole raft of schemes, from the NHS to farmers, despite having neither power nor accountability. As anyone that has repitched for a piece of business knows, it is easy for rivals to upstage you by gulling clients with ideas that you know are impossible to implement. This makes the Remain campaign’s job harder, particularly as their opponents’ rhetoric gets more and more fanciful.
4. Language and tone
In his famous essay “Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell wrote “Never use a long word when a short one will do.” He saw keeping language simple as a way to communicate with the wider public, and get across complex theories in ways that were understandable to all. What he didn’t foresee was for the same tactics to be used to actively bamboozle the populace with glib statements that cannot be put into action. Again, this is very similar to the rhetoric employed by Trump in the US election. Looking at the campaign names Leave is much more active and punchy than Remain – it sounds more exciting, masking the real message in a dangerous way.
When he promised a referendum David Cameron said that he’d only argue for Remain if he received concessions from the EU in certain areas. While he did negotiate improvements, this illustrates his half-hearted approach to the whole issue. He has dramatically underestimated his opponents, appeared ambivalent until campaigning began and struggled to match the passion of the Leavers, who have been working up to this point for over 10 years. Cameron seems to have failed to have learnt the lessons of the Scottish Referendum which showed how difficult it is for the status quo to be positioned as a positive choice. Ultimately, he may well pay for this lack of passion with his job – whichever way the vote goes.
The EU Referendum is a once in a generation event, therefore it is right that arguments are made with passion – the vote really does matter. However what campaigning shows is that there is a deep fissure developing between the electorate and those they elect, with trust breaking down and people turning away from the facts, and embracing hearsay and lies. The ironic thing is that the people the Leavers are led by (Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage), are as much a part of the establishment as their Remain opponents – they are simply happy to embrace the disaffected and turn their grievances against their political rivals. The rules of political communication have been not just ignored, but completely ripped up, meaning that whatever the result it will leave a fractious, divided and ultimately poorer political landscape across the UK.
Sometimes listening to captains of industry being interviewed can be a yawn-inducing experience. They’ve been media-trained to within an inch of their lives and appear to have been sent off with a stern warning that anything they say will immediately impact their stock price/company survival/job prospects. The result? Cagey, bland and message-filled interviews that don’t get across their personality or that of the brand that they represent.
Of course, there are exceptions who engage with the audience while still getting their message across, but for many, fear of failure stops anything interesting being said. As a PR person I find this really frustrating, as it is a missed opportunity to communicate.
Therefore it is always entertaining to hear from those CEOs who have built a brand on not giving a damn on what they say and seem to deliberately go out of their way to antagonise interviewers. Michael O’Leary of Ryanair immediately comes to mind, but he seems to have mellowed – O’Leary has even said that “If I’d only known that being nice to customers was going to be so good for my business I would have done it years ago.”
Another case entirely is Mike Ashley of Sports Direct, who has combined an appetite for controversy with not caring about speaking to the media. Given his reputation for frank speaking I can see why his PR handlers have kept him out of the limelight, so like many I was expecting fireworks when he appeared in front of House of Commons Select Committee to discuss working conditions at his Shirebrook warehouse. However, I was surprised at what I heard. Rather than bluster and defensiveness he admitted past mistakes, such as not paying the minimum wage, and said that the company’s size meant that it had probably outgrown his ability to run it. And all this after previously stating that he wouldn’t appear at the session and that if they wanted to speak to him, he’d send his helicopter to ferry MPs to his company HQ for an interview.
So what caused this road to Damascus moment? I think partly it was the realisation that, like O’Leary, being hated by your customers and the public isn’t a long term business strategy. Competition is fierce in the retail market, and while many shoppers may not care about the working conditions behind their cheap trainers, others do. There is such a thing as bad publicity – stories about a female member of staff giving birth in the Shirebrook toilets as she didn’t want to call in sick and risk her job is bound to resonate widely with many people. By admitting errors and saying that the company was going to change he’s now one step ahead of his critics, though the focus will be on him to deliver on his promises.
Another reason was that his actions give him the chance to occupy the retail moral high ground, given the ongoing investigation into the collapse of BHS, which has also seen leading figures in front of parliamentary committees this week. Former boss Dominic Chappell (who bought the business for a pound from Sir Philip Green), was accused of “having his fingers in the till” by one of his associates, described as a “Premier League liar” and of threatening to kill the chief executive after he challenged him on his behaviour. In turn Chappell’s testimony tried to shift the blame to Green, who he claimed had bankrolled his purchase (with more than a pound), and was behind the decision to put the chain into administration. Green will now get the chance to defend himself in front of the committee, so expect more mudslinging. Given his contrition it all makes Ashley look like a paragon of virtue – something that may help fulfil his desire to buy BHS in some form.
For anyone talking to the media, they should keep these examples front of mind. Develop your own style, tailor it to the audience in order to engage with them, and take the time to go beyond the pre-written message if you want to be remembered for the right reasons. Whether you are Michael O’Leary, Mike Ashley or just talking to your trade press, invest time in the interview and you (and your company) will reap the benefits going forward.