Why your Brand’s Life Depends on its Humanity

June 5th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Screen-Shot-2014-01-12-at-4.46.42-PMIn Roman times convicts knew their death would be spectacle in the gladiatorial arena. Today, our lives are spectacle online.

It’s not necessary to commit a crime to enter the online arena though a confession or gritty confrontation will ramp up the entertainment factor. But be warned. The crowd is hungry and baiting for blood.

It’s okay to use your secrets and fears as currency but make sure they’re the right kind of fears and make sure they’re confessed in the right way or you’ll be torn limb from limb and left to die in the unforgiving heat of public disapproval.

According to Jon Ronson’s latest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, we’re living in a world where we compete to be as bland as possible.

Why? Fear of shame.

Ronson gives examples to show how much shaming an online gaffe can cause. There’s Justine Sacco whose life was ruined after she tweeted a joke about Africa and Jonah Lehrer, the New Yorker journalist, who was labelled a ‘sociopath’ when it was discovered he’d made up copy for his book, Imagine.

Now that people have become brands and brands have personalities, all the rules that apply to people apply to brands too.

Last year a number of well-known brands were subjected to the Twitter equivalent of a public flogging after they royally mucked up. Walmart hit the shame fan when the company’s Halloween promotional page included ‘Fat Girl Costumes.’

When the board of grocery chain Market Basket made the decision to oust CEO Arthur T. Demoulas they were forced to change their minds and reinstate him after a backlash of disapproval from employees and customers.

One of the most beleaguered brands of 2014 has to be Malaysia Airlines, which tragically lost not one, but two planes full of passengers.

When the company subsequently launched a ‘bucket list’ campaign asking people what they’d like to do before they die, everyone agreed that the last thing they’d be doing is flying with Malaysia Airlines.

This is the challenge any brand faces when it gets dressed in the morning and prepares to enter the world. Make no mistake, it’s a battleground. Get it wrong and lives will be lost before brunch.

In the cases of the above examples swift action was taken to stem the damage. Walmart removed the offending page. Demoulas was brought back into the fold. Malaysia Airlines pulled its campaign.

But were those actions enough to rebuild the trust that was broken?

In today’s marketing environment, a world where brands have personalities and are held accountable the same way individuals are, the concept of trust is the backbone of any formidable brand.

Let’s look at the definition of trust for a moment. In psychology, trust is believing that the person who is trusted will do what is expected.

In Barbara Misztal’s book, Trust in Modern Societies, she points out that trust makes social life predictable, creates a sense of community and makes it easier for people to work together.

Isn’t that exactly what consumers want from brands? To know that product and services are predictable, that they’ll do what they promise and that by choosing a given brand it will enhance and improve social connections.

This may seem like a tall order but only if you continue to think of a brand as an arbitrary logo that encapsulates a product’s delivery to market.

That way of thinking belongs in the 1950s selling washing machines. It doesn’t cut the mustard today.

Why? Because today we have personal relationships with brands. Brands don’t represent companies to us anymore; they represent emotions.

In a recent TED Talk, prof. Jacob Ostberg, describes how when people see a Nike logo, they don’t think about sportswear, they think about what they can achieve if they follow the Nike ethos of ‘just do it.’ Likewise if they use a L’Oreal product, they feel ‘worth it.’

So the question today is, what emotions do you want your brand to represent?

Take a look at the Twitter feed for Malaysia Airlines. In the last six months their tweets have adopted a spiritual edge. ‘Sometimes the heart sees what is invisible to the eye,’ they say while using the hashtag #flyinghigh.

Are they using their very visible connection to death as a way to suggest their brand is built on a deeper philosophy, that they care about our spiritual wellbeing?

In an interview with Joe Lazauskas on Contently.com, Seth Godin described trust as follows: ‘it’s human, it’s personal, it’s relevant, it isn’t greedy, and it doesn’t trick people.’

Is that what Malaysia Airlines are doing? The messages may be human and even relevant but they possess an element of trickery, and in light of their recent misfortunes, that’s unforgivable. It begs the question: have they no shame?

Just as people with no sense of shame are likely to be punished at best and exiled at worst, 21st century brands are subject to the same fate.

Never before has the humanity of your brand been so important. Forget that and the hungry crowd will quickly remind you that entering the arena comes with a price. This is no time for mistakes. Your brand’s life depends on it.






Meet Bureau 121, North Korea’s Hackers

June 5th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

North-Korea-v2They’re highly trained as part of a competitive program that lasts nine years and only takes 100 out of 5,000 applicants. They are amongst the top 1 per cent in North Korea with high salaries, the freedom to travel and unlimited internet access.

They are Bureau 121, a special cyber warfare unit. 1,800 elite hackers, North Korea’s secret weapon against its alleged enemies. In reward for their talents they are given free apartments in Pyongyang and live lavish lifestyles.

Business Insider talked to a North Korean defector, Jang Se-yul, who described how Bureau 121 works, what its aims and capabilities are. According to Jang, hacking Sony would have been child’s play for this team, as they are trained to attack countries.

Although North Korea continues to vehemently deny hacking Sony in a bid to stop the release of the film, The Interview, a Seth Rogen / James Franco comedy about an attempt to assassinate Kim Jong-un, the country’s leader, its culpability is no longer in question.

Back in June of 2014, the North Korean government issued a statement saying that if the film were released, the response from them would be ‘resolute and merciless.’ The government went further saying that if the US failed to ban the film, North Korea would consider it an ‘act of war.’

On the morning of November 24th the staff of Sony arrived to work to find an angry skull and cross bones scrolling across their screens. Their entire network was down.

A group called the Guardians of Peace claimed responsibility for the attack during which they stole up to 100 terabytes of data from Sony. In the following days, movies were leaked online such as Brad Pitt’s Fury as well as Annie, Mr Turner and Still Alice. That was just the beginning.

On December 3rd PDF files showing the passports and VISA of Sony staff including those of Jonah Hill and Angelina Jolie were leaked. User names and passwords of Sony executives are leaked. The salaries of 30,000 employees working at Deloitte, the consulting firm, were also leaked.

On December 5th the Guardian of Peace sent another threat to Sony, claiming that if their orders were not obeyed the families of Sony staff would be hurt. ‘Many things beyond imagination will happen at many places of the world,’ said the threat.

It wasn’t until December 16th that the hackers made a direct reference to The Interview, saying that if the film were released, the theaters where it was shown would be attacked too.

In the lead up to Christmas Sony decided to scrap its Christmas Day release of The Interview while Rogen and Franco cancelled their promotional tour.

On December 19th North Korea stated publicly that Sony was ‘wise’ to pull The Interview. On the same day the FBI confirmed that North Korea was behind the attacks.

Despite the damage caused by the leaks, not to mention the millions in financial losses, Sony made the decision to release The Interview anyway. It was released on Christmas Eve for rent online on YouTube Movies, Google Play and Microsoft Xbox Video and in selected cinemas.

By Christmas Day, it had been downloaded millions of times. One of the countries where it is allegedly most popular is North Korea. It’s been reported that people are willing to pay up to $50 for a copy of the film there. It’s also hugely popular in China where they’re calling it one of the best films ever made.

During Christmas week, North Korea’s already limited telecommunications network experienced problems. The network was effectively shut down. Kim Jong-un lashed out at the White House blaming America for the attacks, which President Obama has denied.

So for now, no one is too worried about Bureau 121, North Korea’s elite hacking force. Despite their best efforts, they were not able to stop the release of The Interview. Meanwhile the more statements North Korean officials issue, the more foolish the country looks.

But Jang expects that’s not the end of Bureau 121. North Korea is aware it does not have the military might of its enemies, which makes the internet a level playing field. Plus they have a wild card.

While they have the capabilities to attack other countries, North Korea’s own limited connectivity means that it is basically safe from outside attack. According to China’s IT Weekly, even if the network could be attacked, there is not much to be gained.

Last week it was reported that since July 2014 Bureau 121 has grown in size and now has almost 6,000 hackers on its team.


Has the Internet Damaged Youth Culture?

June 5th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

photoIn the days before the internet, experts dictated our cultural landscape. These reclusive authors or respected critics were regarded as ‘qualified’ and had an untouchable air.

The internet changed all that. Today, anyone with something to say has access to the cultural conversation and can contribute either via a creative project, such as a blog or video, or be a critic, posting reviews on sites like Goodreads or YouTube.

The internet has made the conversation two-way, immersive and immediate. Old-school thinkers believe this devalues the conversation, taking it away from its established ideals, and horror of horrors, allowing the barbarians through the gates.

In the last decade this flood of youthful ideas into the mainstream conversation has forced traditional institutions to change how they think about production and presentation. Take theatre as an example.

When we visit the theatre we expect to find our seats, the lights dim, the audience goes quiet and the show begins. Watershed, a cross-artform venue in Bristol, is home to the immersive theatre group, Punchdrunk, that encourages audience participation, making them part of the production.

‘It’s amazing how regimented we have become in our cultural habits,’ said Dick Penny, director of Watershed, in an interview with The Guardian. ‘Companies such as Punchdrunk have turned those conceits on their head. Rather than devaluing the traditional approach, it just shows there is another way of doing it.’

Technology has changed creative presentations by lowering production costs. Now, anyone with Internet access can set up a blog, website or video channel. All it takes is a little knowledge, persistence and an ability to connect with an audience.

However, the internet has created an audience that is fragmented and fickle. The typical Generation Y adult or Z kid is subscribed to numerous sites and has a short attention span. But, is fiercely loyal to the brands they connect with.

Instead of feeling disempowered like generations before them, the Internet Generation understands that not only do they get to contribute to and shape conversations, they also get to decide what’s cool irrespective of what critics say. The 50 Shades phenomenon is an example of this.

One organization that has tapped into this audience is Vice Media. Set up as a print pop culture magazine in the 90s, Vice has become one of the most influential online broadcasters attracting more than 150 million users each month.

Vice was named Media Company of the Year at the 2014 British Media Awards, with the judges citing its ability to ‘disprove the myth that digital content needs to be short-form or throwaway to be successful.’ VICE proves the internet is a forum for hard news.

Vice’s co-founder Shane Smith told The Guardian: ‘Young people, who are the majority of our audience, are angry, disenfranchised and they don’t like or trust mainstream media outlets. They’re leaving TV in droves, but music and news are the two things that Generation Y in every country are excited about and interested in.’

Music demonstrates how the internet has changed our listening habits and tastes. A pre-internet music fan had a collection of albums that strictly reflected his preferences. Today, the average tween can have thousands of songs stored on their phone with access to thousands more via Spotify or YouTube.

‘My son has grown up with access to any music he chooses and has an encyclopedic knowledge. If he finds a band he likes, he will trace all their influences and listen to all those bands too. There is a library of culture that is readily available to young people, which my generation just didn’t have,’ said Penny in the same interview.

With so much information out there, the internet has spawned a new type of critic, who is more of a curator that zones in on books, films or products that he or she loves. The explosion of book reviewers on YouTube is an example of this.

Others become brand advocates such as 24-year-old Zoella, who runs a make-up channel on YouTube that has an audience 26 times the size of British Vogue and is what advertisers call a ‘crowd-sourced people’s champion.’

To say that the internet has damaged or devalued youth culture is to miss the point. It’s done nothing to dampen the fundamental urge to create but it’s changed the way culture is shared and talked about. It’s made us all part of the conversation.


Have We Entered the Era of Digital Narcissism?

April 29th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Is digital narcissism a real issue or is it a just a term made up by the media to fuel scaremongering around our use of technology? For nineteen-year-old Danny Bowman who tried to commit suicide when he couldn’t take the perfect selfie, the issue is all too real.

Bowman dropped out of school, lost his friends and would take up to two-hundred images a day as part of his quest to capture the perfect photo of himself. He would take ten pictures immediately after waking up. Frustrated by his failed attempts to take the ‘perfect selfie,’ Bowman eventually tried to take his own life. He overdosed but was saved by his mum.

‘I was constantly in search of taking the perfect selfie and when I realized I couldn’t, I wanted to die. I lost my friends, my education, my health and almost my life,’ he told The Mirror. The teenager is believed to be the UK’s first selfie addict and has had therapy to treat his technology addiction as well as OCD and Body Dysmorphic Disorder.

Part of his treatment at the Maudsley Hospital in London included taking away his iPhone for intervals of 10 minutes, which increased to 30 minutes and then an hour. ‘It was excruciating to begin with but I knew I had to do it if I wanted to go on living,’ he told the Sunday Mirror.

Bowman is not alone. There are more than 80 million photos on Instagram that have the hashtag #me and more than 31 million with the hashtag #selfie. A recent study by the Pew Research Centre confirmed that 91 percent of teenagers have posted a photo of themselves online.

Part of the reason for their popularity? ‘The cult of the selfie celebrates regular people,’ says Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., faculty director of the media psychology program at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology.

‘There are many more photographs available now of real people than models.’ And posting selfies is an empowering act for another reason: it allows you to control your image online.

‘I am painfully self-conscious about photos of myself,’ admitted Samantha, a nineteen-year-old from Missouri. ‘I like having the power to choose how I look, even if I’m making a funny face.’

The problem says psychologist Jill Weber, Ph.D. is that there’s a danger a person’s self-esteem becomes tied to the comments and ‘Likes’ received when they post a selfie. However, these comments are based on not who a person is but rather what they look at that given moment.

Dr. Weber says the trend tends to be more common amongst young girls who only see themselves as lovable or worthwhile when others value them. ‘In my experience, girls who repeatedly post selfies struggle with low self-esteem,’ she said.

‘Selfies frequently trigger perceptions of self-indulgence or attention-seeking social dependence that raises the damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t spectre of either narcissism or very low self-esteem,’ said Dr. Rutledge in Psychology Today.

While selfies give young people the chance to see ‘ordinary’ people online, it also gives them the chance to compare their images with those of celebrities. Even though we’re all aware that celeb shots are photoshopped, it doesn’t stop people wanting to look as good as Beyonce or Miley Cyrus.

What these young people forget is that stars like Bey and Cyrus have a team of stylists to create their images. In short it takes work! Very often these young people are not prepared to put in the work, so when they don’t get the same results, they feel frustrated and their self-esteem plummets.

As a result, psychologists now believe that online manifestations of narcissism may be little more than a self-presentational strategy to compensate for a very low and fragile self-esteem.

Be that as it may, our fascination with the selfie doesn’t look like it’s going to dissipate any time soon. A quick glance at Instagram shows the variety of selfies now in circulation: selfie at the gym, selfie in the car, selfie in the bathroom or bedroom, selfie with a pet or just woke up selfie are just some of the categories.

And a few weeks ago, the University of Narcissi in Greece, launched a degree course on selfies which will form part of its undergraduate sociology degree. It will focus on why the ‘power of the selfie’ and why it appeals to so many.

Issues explored include whether the selfie encourages a projection of a false persona, how peer pressure plays a role in the trend’s world domination, and why selfies can have negative emotional, mental and psychological effects.

Despite all the controversy there are times when the selfie can be beneficial, which the Cancer Society proved when they ran their #nomakeupselfie campaign. Countless women posted images of themselves sans make up online and raised millions for cancer research in Ireland and the UK.

Whatever your opinion on the practice of the selfie, there’s no doubt that this epic trend is revealing a whole new side of human nature. The question is this a side we really want to reveal?

New Film Tackles Sexism in American Media

March 28th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Are you aware of the on-going misrepresentation of women in our mainstream media? Chances are you’re not but don’t worry, you’re not alone. These days we’ve become so accustomed to seeing women bumping and grinding, fawning and disrobing on screen, we’re immune to it; in fact we see it as normal.

But Jennifer Siebel Newsom doesn’t see it as normal. She’s appalled by it and that indignation led her to make Miss Representation, a film, which highlights the on-going and ingrained sexism in American media.

The seed of indignation was planted when she became pregnant with her first daughter. An actress herself, she looked around the entertainment industry at the continuous degradation of celebrities such as Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, and was horrified to think this is the world her daughter would grow up in.

From the get-go Siebel Newsom confronted the difficulties of making a film about sexism in media. When she approached female directors to direct the movie, they all turned her down, saying that they’d never work again if they got involved in the project. In the end, Siebel Newsom directed the movie herself.

Despite the directing challenge, she assembled an impressive line-up of powerful women to bolster her argument. Those women include Nancy Pelosi, Condoleezza Rice, Katie Couric, and Gloria Steinem along with academics and activists who reinforce the film’s thesis that the degradation of women on screen prevents women from holding positions of power in wider society.

The film opens with a dizzying array of statistics that show just how pervasive the media is. The average American teenager consumes more than 30 hours of television a week; 10 hours of internet; 4 hours reading magazines and 3 hours watching movies.

‘The media is the largest communicator of culture, and we know that if US culture continues to limit and undervalue women, then that message is being communicated around the world,’ says Siebel Newsom.

She attributes the root cause of this imbalance in media to patriarchal society, but she says that the media perpetuates the problem because it continues to tout the message that women’s only value lies in their body shape or youthful appearance.

As one example, just think of how common it’s become in recent years for news anchors to ask female politicians about their fashion choices or cosmetic surgery. In one film clip, an interviewer asks Sarah Palin, ‘come on, just admit it, do you or don’t you have breast implants?’

The wider implications of this imbalance are numerous. Firstly, the film notes that women make up 51 percent of the American population, yet the percentage of women in congress hovers around 17 percent and hasn’t changed since 1979.

In the telecommunications industry, one of the powerful industries in the world, the number of women in top positions is just 3 percent. Those kinds of gender inequalities are true for other industries too including pharmaceutical, medical, law, entertainment and unsurprisingly, media, where women hold only 5 percent of top positions.

Siebel Newsom cites the lack of credible female role models on screen as directly responsible for the lack of ambition on the part of young girls. ‘When the media doesn’t portray positive, or even accurate, female role models, you get this whole notion of if you can’t see it, you can’t be it,’ she says.

But young girls are aware of the problem. One girl, about 15-years-old complains that her female classmates spend too much time in the bathroom putting on make-up. She doesn’t understand why they’re doing this when they’re supposed to be at school to ‘learn.’

Jim Steyer is the CEO of Common Sense Media, a professor at Stanford University and one of the film’s contributors. He says, ‘media and technology are delivering content that is shaping our society, they’re shaping our politics, our national discourse and most of all, they’re shaping our children’s brains, lives and emotions.’

Because of the constant stream of sexually overt women that litter our screens, girls are growing up with the message that their only value is how they look and boys are growing up with the message that that is the only way to value women, according to Jean Kilbourne, another of the film’s contributors and author of Killing Us Softy.

The film cites advertisers and capitalism, both derivatives of our patriarchal society, as the chief harbingers of this message. The old adage, ‘sex sells’ is now the dominant principle guiding all branding decisions and nothing will change until that changes.

But it is up to consumers to implement that change. To accompany the movie release, Siebel Newsom has launched a campaign on Twitter, Not Buying it, where “people are able to call out sexist media and use their consumer power to challenge it.”

Using a Twitter hashtag and an app, people can publicise and share sexist advertising when they see it, and encourage others to contact the company or boycott the brand. We have a long way to go, but this film is a timely reminder that we can no longer afford to be passive consumers of media, because when we are, the wrong people take control.

Is There Any Shame in the Selfie?

October 21st, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

If you think it’s just your annoying friend and Rihanna that are constantly posting selfies online, think again. At the moment, there are around 90 million selfies on Instagram. Yes, 90 million! Facebook, Flickr and Twitter are awash with the selfie too.

Head tilted, lips pouted, hair flicked and camera held at arm’s length is the classic selfie pose that’s been popularized by stars like Kim Kardashian, Kelly Brook and Tyra Banks. Rihanna takes the art of the selfie to another level by posting pics of her buttocks or of herself with two huge joints in her mouth.

But then Rihanna wouldn’t be Rihanna if she didn’t take things to another level. For the vast majority of selfie-image makers, it’s not about pushing the boundaries on social mores. Instead, it’s simple a way to record a moment in time and share it with family and friends.

Katie, a student from Birmingham, posts a selfie a few times a week on Twitter. ‘I like it because my family live far away and I can show them what I’m up to. I also use it before I go out, to ask friends if they like what I’m wearing. If I get positive feedback, I feel a bit more confident going out.’

There’s no doubt that this is part of the lure of the selfie: the ability to take a photo of yourself, control how you look, share it instantly with the world and garner approval that makes you feel good.

The term ‘selfie’ was first coined in a ‘how-to’ photography guide by the photographer, Richard Krause. He wrote, ‘The guesswork that goes into selfies often results in serendipitous photographic surprises.’

In February 2007 the photo-sharing site Flickr created a group called ‘selfie shots,’ defining the selfie as: ‘A photograph of oneself in an arm-extended posture. Not to be confused with a photo of oneself in a mirror or other reflected surface.’

But the biggest turning point in the rise of the selfie came in 2010 when Apple launched its iPhone 4 which had a front facing camera that enabled users to easily frame and take photos of themselves.

The release of the iPhone 4 coincided with the launched of Instagram, another photo-sharing app that features easy-to-use tools, which can blur and enhance amateur photos. By April 2012, Instagram had more than 100 million active users.

Michael Pritchard is the director general of the Royal Photographic Society and he attributes two factors to the rise of the selfie. Firstly, he says that that the ‘cameras on smartphones are incredibly good.’ The second reason is the increasing number of single people in today’s society.

‘The number of single-occupancy households is rising, more people are divorcing and living single lives and people go on holiday by themselves more and don’t have anyone else to take the picture. That’s one reason I take selfies: because I do actually want to record where I am,’ he explains.

The idea of people wanting to record where they are and what they’re doing is nothing new. Caveman carved on cave walls for this exact reason. Fast forward a few hundred thousand years to the Renaissance and Europe was witness to a huge rise in the popularity of portrait painting.

Wealthy families such as the de Medici’s became infamous because they regularly commissioned up and coming artists of the time to paint their portraits. Many artists also became famous for painting self-portraits. During his lifetime in the seventeenth century, Rembrandt painted more than one hundred self-portraits charting his life over forty years.

Other artists who are well-known for their self-portraits include painters as varied as Albert Durer, Vincent Van Gogh, Gustav Courbet, Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol.

Isn’t part of the excitement of modern technology is that it allows us all to tap into our inner artists, granting us – to paraphrase Warhol’s famous words – our fifteen minutes of fame?

For celebrities the appeal of selfies is different. It allows them to have a sense of control over their public image, something which crudely snapped shots taken by paparazzi robs them of. That said the key to a great selfie is a veneer of casualness, which masks an intentionally posed shot.

The person in the photo should looked relaxed, equally aware of their own narcissism and vulnerability. We should feel like we’re peering into a private, caught-off-guard moment, even though we know we’re not.

Again Rihanna is the master of this art. Leading PR Mark Borkowski says, ‘every aspect of Rihanna’s life is about her letting people in. Some people are very natural and normal about it and completely comfortable with being ‘on’ and that’s fine. But it becomes unstuck if it’s not real. A selfie has to be ‘the real you’. It works if you can give people a manageable piece of reality which is who you are.’

The verdict? There is no shame in the selfie, as long as you make sure you’re ‘keeping it real.’ Happy self-snapping!