Apple, Tesla and Next Generation Marketing

How do you deliver a strong brand message?

About ten years ago I bought an iMac. It was one of those white plastic 17″ ones back in the day. A great computer, although this unit had some quality control issues. Through its lifetime I had to take it out for repairs at least three or four times.

When the computer was 4.5 years old, it wouldn’t start. I called Apple’s customer service and explained the situation. They asked me to, once again, service the device. I told them that this was the fourth or fifth time that the same device would be serviced, which was becoming a bit frustrating. The customer service person asked me to hold the line.

When he came back, he told me that I was correct and that his supervisor had authorized to swap the device. I was amazed, and explained that was this really ok, since the computer was so old. He said yes. The next problem I spotted was that at that point Apple didn’t carry the white iMacs anymore. The cheapest model was a flat 21″ aluminum iMac, which was about ten times the computer I had at the moment. This, too, was no problem.

I took the broken machine back to Apple. And I was completely blown away, when two days later a UPS courier rang my doorbell and delivered a brand new 21″ iMac to my home.

I have told this story dozens of times, and I am pretty sure that while Apple may have lost a few hundred dollars in replacing the machine, this kind of marketing advantage is worth more than a thousand printed ads.

A few days ago, I was even more blown away what a great product by great people can do. I mean the two comics that Matthew Inman, aka The Oatmeal, drew of his Tesla car. The value of such a message is beyond calculation, what with The Oatmeal being super popular to begin with.

But this was topped off with Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s reaction. When Inman asked Musk for his help (with 8 million dollars to boot) in building a Tesla museum, what the super CEO tweeted in response was:

I would be happy to help.

People in marketing tend to occupy themselves with brand design, graphic desing, copywriting, typesetting and a gamut of different ways of communicating how cool a product is, whatever it is.

But what with the world being more and more networked, it seems there is a marketing methodology that blows all the Mad Men stuff out of the water.

This is already in my opinion the most powerful marketing methodology. It may well be on the way to becoming the paradigm for the next generation of marketing. And it’s really simple.


a) Be nice.
b) Build awesome things.


Evolutionary or Revolutionary?

A lot of the startup scene is about creating the Next Big Thing. Ever since the idea of the Blue Ocean Strategy broke through, startup entrepreneurs have been looking into creating the next big market disruptors or in identifying new demand where none existed before.

The problem with the Blue Ocean Strategy is that most blue oceans are blue for a reason: nobody’s interested, period. While entering a competitive market may be more difficult than creating one of your own, it does have one thing going for it: a competitive market is a proof of the fact that people are interested in the kind of product or service you’re building. So maybe a red ocean is not so bad after all?

Of course, going into a market with lots of established players with big pockets is not going to be very easy. There are, however, many crowded markets where nobody has been able to properly satisfy the actual demand.

Evan Williams, one of the founders of Twitter, elaborated this well some time ago when he pointed out that while Twitter was a breakthrough service, it was effectively created as an evolutionary step on the already very lively micromessaging market.

But where the competition failed, and where Twitter succeeded, was getting the mix of features just right to meet the demand that was already there, validated by the existing competition.

So maybe instead of looking at blue oceans – markets that have no providers yet – we should go after purple oceans. Maybe we should look at the markets out there that are competitive but not yet cracked. Like office software, speech recognition or home entertainment systems. The real red oceans are things like smartphones and gasoline driven cars, where the demand is real and the supply more than adequately answers that demand.

The purple oceans are the markets where the demand is real, but nobody has yet figured out how to properly answer it.

Perhaps the biggest breakthroughs are not, after all, revolutionary, but evolutionary.


The Next Web Europe 2014

We participated in The Next Web Europe conference’s Boost startup programme last week. The conference and the programme were both outstanding. Certainly the best startup experience I have had so far.

There were really interesting talks by awesome tech gurus. Luis von Ahn, notorious for inventing the CAPtCHA, talked about distributing intelligence by harnessing human mental energy. The slightly less annoying variant of CAPtCHA, ReCAPtCHA uses your image recognition skills to actually convert scanned books to text.

A more recent development in von Ahn’s microtasking portfolio is the hit language app DuoLingo, which not only helps millions of people learn a new language, but translates content at the same time.

If this wasn’t enough, DuoLingo also manages to pursue a very humanistic mission, with providing affordable language learning to poor countries. With people like this pushing the boundaries of the tech industry further, the world looks better day by day.

Another awesome talk was given by James McQuivey, the author of the book Digital Disruption. In my mind quite correctly, McQuivey argued that disruption itself is being disrupted. This is well in line with the exponential growth and internal feedback loop of technological development, as well as the law of accelerating returns.

The faster we go, the faster we can go. This in turn changes the very structure of how we go. Although, see here for a really interesting counterpoint.

Another top analyst, Brian Solis, gave his take on the future of business. Entertaining us by demolishing misattributed quotes, like Henry Ford’s “faster horse” and Gandhi’s “be the change”, he went on to show that the future of business is not just about being a visionary. It’s being a visionary in a relevant sense to your customer.

While the stevejobsian idea of averting from market analysis may have a point in a market that keeps changing faster and faster, you still have to have an idea of who’s your customer and what’s the problem you are solving. Otherwise, no matter how awesome your vision is, it’s not going to be much of a business.

There were also more critical notes on technological development. Dadara’s performance gave an important counterpoint to the social media boom, although I felt it fell flat on banality, counterpositioning social media and “good old times” in a way we’ve already heard a thousand times.

Yes, we need more human contact, but it may well be that we in fact have more human contact owing to many of the recent developments in social media, especially such as Uber, Airbnb and Tinder. See here for an interesting take.

Another critique was given by Aral Balkan. He went on to describe the post-Snowden era fears that arose after we found out that everything we do online is copied to NSA’s data mining facilities. Balkan went also to criticize, quite rightly I believe, the open source movement for not producing visionary or functional enough software.

What he called for was open software designed from the UX point of view: “IndieTech”. It was interesting to discuss this with our CTO Timo, who felt that this was in fact precisely the direction we too want to take the technical solutions in the Extended Mind. Keep the code open source, but the customer experience in line with the vision.

The second day we spent at our Boost booth. We had an awesome time chatting with all those hundreds of people who stopped by during the day. Apart from a quick lunch break, there was practically no time to rest, owing to the many people who came to try out the beta version of Extended Mind and to talk about it.

It was great discussing the UI, technology, monetization, future avenues of development and the science behind the Extended Mind.

In addition to Uber, there was another commuting innovation I was impressed with in Amsterdam: biking. The city has the most functional biking infrastructure I’ve ever seen. And that shows in there being an entire traffic system of bicyclers dominating the streets. That was pretty great.

Both Amsterdam and TheNextWeb Europe were really an awesome experience, in terms of new insight, new connections and, of course, lots of fun.

Thank you, Amsterdam!


Passive vs. Active Security

Human beings, to a varying degree, all crave security. This is why some of us stick to a lousy job and others amass all they can.

Security is a double edged sword, though. Even more so in a world where change is picking up pace by the day.

Security, in its classic sense, is static.

It is something that secures, holds in place. It means that you have the necessary resources, that you do not have to fear for personal safety, material loss or mental setbacks. This kind of security is provided by wealth, a well protected society or a welfare state. This is a passive type of security.

The passive type of security is more and more detrimental as the world keeps changing faster. This is well exemplified by the opposition market disruptors like Tesla, Uber and Airbnb have faced. Old players want to stick to an old world. Sorry to say, that world is gone already.

In the new world we need new security. And this is security that is not tied up in wealth or fame or the total penetration of a well trained police force. This is security that arises from individual dynamism: the capability to keep in motion, to dance with the changing world.

In a static world you can secure yourself by amassing wealth. In a changing world, nothing guarantees this security anymore. (To be frank, it didn’t before either. That’s why Scrooge McDuck never had enough.)

In a changing world, security is contained in change itself: your very individual capacity to change, to learn, to adapt and to create.

Security can also be found in searching for what you really want to do, to keep on learning new tricks every year, to keep tabs on what is going on in the world, and most forcibly, to find meaning in the service of the well-being of other human beings.

This is a new kind of security, one such that is not susceptible to the structure-disrupting forces of an accelerating world.

This is active security.


Imagination and Creating a Future

It strikes me as odd how we have been brought up to use our imagination backwards.

Imagination is one of the most powerful ways of thinking. It helps us create new things, to figure out new ways to solve problems, to shape the world into new shapes. Imagination is, as Einstein put it, more important than knowledge; knowledge is limited, but imagination contains the entire Universe. Yet we use it upside down.

Most of our imaginary moments are spent in filling in the blanks of everyday life. If a friend won’t answer your call, your imagination kicks straight in. Maybe she’s mad at you for something? Maybe she’s been in an accident and is now lying by the highway? Maybe she has decided to take a surprise retreat in Tibet, and you won’t hear from her in the next ten years? Of course, it could also be that she’s forgotten her phone home, but that would be, well, way too unimaginative.

And yet this kind of blank-filling is at best useless and at worst detrimental. It is not a rare relationship that has started to unravel at these imaginary musings. We are quite economical creatures knowledge-wise, and where we don’t know we usually imagine. Since imagination usually taps into the more emotionally laden visions, it does not serve us that well in filling up the blanks of the everyday life.

On top of this, there is the fact that we rarely use imagination where it actually serves us well: in imagining the future.

We have been led to believe that things stay more or less the same. But they don’t. And those people who are crazy enough to imagine a new world are the ones who actually end up creating it. Yet it seems that not that many people do.

In imagining the future, we can envision new products, new social settings – a better life for ourselves and our loved ones. Even the entire planet if one dares to dream.

And this is where imagination really shows its brawn. It is the compass for the future that can show us things we could maybe one day build. Without this imaginary vision, we will keep on sailing through a fog, towards a destination that nobody knows about.

We need more epistemic humility in our everyday life. We really know dreadfully little both about the big things in life, but also about the little things, like your friends’ not answering the phone. And we should really be wary of our imaginary reactions in filling up the unknown blanks between what we know.

We need more imaginary foresight too. While we know dreadfully little about how things stand now, and even less about how they will be in the future, we are not quite as helpless about the future as one might think.

As Peter Drucker once said, the best way to predict the future is to create it.

And the best way to create it is to imagine it first.


It’s the End of the World As We Know It?

The first thing that struck me when I saw the Guardian apocalyptic headline and its derivatives hit social media was this:

NASA probably really didn’t fund a study on the end of the world, and the world probably is not going to end.

The title was “Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?”

First of all, no, this is not a NASA study, but rather a study that has some minor derivative funding from NASA. The media storm is embarrassing up to the point that NASA issued an official statement on their emphatically not supporting the arguments proposed in the paper.

Now, I am obviously inclined towards the kind of techno-optimism criticized in the study, so in that sense my position is far from neutral to this topic. But seriously, drawing an argument from the demise of the Roman Empire and the Han Dynasty to predict the fall of present day civilization? It’s like saying it’s stupid to think that you could get from Beijing to New York in twelve hours, since you couldn’t do that a hundred years ago.

To boot, it is even arguable that in a very relevant sense neither the Roman Empire nor the Han Dynasty really even ended. Throughout human history, most human civilizations have not in fact really collapsed (in terms of being wiped out permanently  from the face of the Earth), but rather they have morphed into something new – of course, often following some dramatic cultural shifts.

The case of the sustainability of resource use is, however, a very important one. While we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go. And with developments in some areas, new problems have arisen that need to be addressed.

To this end, we need both solutions arising from technological breakthroughs, as well as changes in our mindsets regarding consuming material stuff. It is by pushing forward where we can, and holding back where we need to that we can resolve these issues.

But these are issues that we can emphatically resolve. No dynamic system moves on inevitably on a mechanistic track, least of all a system comprising of as complicated beings as humans.

I suppose the real historical lesson you should draw regarding apocalypses is that there have always been doomsayers certain of the looming apocalypse.

Yet here we are.