Do You Know What You Need?

Do you know

It’s what you know.

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

It’s not who you know, it’s who knows you.

Knowledge, networks, and branding.

You have to start somewhere, and the logical starting point is to acquire knowledge. Society understands the importance of this, which is why primary and high school education can be obtained for free in pretty much all developed countries. And in many countries, university is also heavily subsidized.

But hold on a minute, you might be thinking, many high schools are not free. In fact, they can be very expensive. Think of schools like Eton, public schools in the UK, or private schools in Australia.

It’s true that many schools are expensive, but there is a good reason for this. The parents at these schools are buying something in addition to mere knowledge. They understand the importance of surrounding their fortunate child with other fortunate children. And they are willing to pay big money for the privilege. Friendship networks are a valuable resource that can open doors to a more prosperous and enjoyable life.

However, in a world where knowledge is increasingly commoditised and friendship networks can provide counsel and support but not definite opportunities, the truly important factor is to become distinctive.

The best schools understand and educate their students in the importance of finding an interest and standing out. In Australia, I was fortunate to attend St Aloysius’ College. It was a school run by the Jesuits where students were encouraged to partake is sports, music, cadets, drama, the Duke of Edinburgh program, and all manner of other extra-curricular activities. These activities were fun but they also gave the students a unique experience and story that we could tell about themselves. A brand that the boys could continue to build at university and beyond.

I am currently teaching at a university in China, and the students also seem to have an intuitive sense that branding is crucial. While extra-curricular activities may not be quite as important as they are in Australia, the students will do almost anything to obtain an ‘A’.

Nothing could be more devastating than a ‘B+’.

Of course, after the dust has settled and the exams are finished, the student who earns the ‘A’ doesn’t necessarily know or remember more than the student with the ‘B+’. But in a country with 1.3+ billion people, the costs of failing to distinguish oneself can be high – less chance to study abroad, fewer career opportunities and, perhaps worst of all, diminished prospects for a favorable marriage.

Knowledge is mandatory and networks are helpful, but branding is key.

[Side note: Congratulations to my alma mater, Oxford University, which was ranked #1 in the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, which judges the performance of 980 universities across 79 countries.]

(Image Source: Flickr)

End of the Republic

If I were a betting man, at this stage my money would be on Trump to win the American presidential election.

This is not an endorsement, or a show of support of any kind. I think a Trump victory would be a horrible outcome.

So, why do I think Trump has more than a 50/50 chance? And what might the implications be if he wins?

The world is currently experiencing turbulent times economically and politically.

On the economic front, things look a little grim. Government debt as a percentage of GDP in America, Japan and at least nine other countries currently exceeds 100%, and other countries like the UK, Ireland, Spain, Canada and the EU are not far behind. Add to this the unprecedented levels of disruption to the workforce that will result when driverless technology automates millions of trucking jobs and technology like Kiva automates the work of millions of factory workers. High global debt levels combined with systemically higher unemployment levels are not two things that scream “economic stability and smooth sailing ahead”.

Politically, there appear to be more than a few explosives in the tinderbox. The UK held a referendum, the result of which will almost certainly see it leave the EU (and who knows which countries might follow).  The recent attack in Nice on Bastille day led to 84 deaths when an Islamic militant drove a truck through a crowd gathered to watch some fireworks (and this is just one in a series of attacks in France and Belgium in recent months). And militants in Turkey are now trying to stage a coup.

May we live in interesting times.

Trump has already surprised the analytical and political community in America by gaining enough delegates to win the Republican nomination. He is yet to be officially nominated but tensions are mounting. Politico reports that “nearly half of GOP insiders in key battleground states … believe there’s a good chance violence will break out around next week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland.”

In a short blog post that I published in June last year I mentioned that Donald Trump “… has announced his intention to run for the White House in 2016 … Trump is a master at manipulating media attention and getting people to talk about him …”

At that stage I thought of him merely as a reality TV star, someone who was entertaining, a famous self-promoter. The prospect of him running for President seemed like it would make for good television. Little did I consider or realise the hateful ideas he would put forth in order to whip his faithful followers into a frenzy.

As I said last June, Trump is a master of building the Trump brand. He has authored multiple books, and put his name on everything from high-rise buildings to golf courses and casinos. His years of effort in building a branding juggernaut appear to have created a seemingly unstoppable force. This view was acknowledged (and more comprehensively discussed) by Politico back in October last year.

The problem for Hillary (and the Republican candidates who Trump has already defeated) is that while she might be a strong candidate, Trump is a candidate backed by the power of a global brand that conjures an alluring tale of “unstoppable and never-ending success”. His followers are not merely supporting Trump’s candidacy, they are supporting his story. They are supporting the brand.

This might sound like a subtle distinction, but it’s not.

Let me give an example.

I recently attended a talk in Beijing entitled “Advising the Next U.S. President on China” given by Elizabeth Economy, Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Ms Economy gave a wonderful speech and her view, along with the consensus in the room, was that a Trump victory would be truly unthinkable. However, despite her intellectual knowledge and conviction that Trump would be an absolute abomination, she couldn’t help smiling every time she mentioned Trump’s name.

This is extremely telling.

Trump is a man who is hurling hurtful and disgusting abuse at Mexicans, Muslims, judges, and anyone who would oppose him. And yet, when a well-meaning intellectual who opposes Trump’s candidacy mentioned his name in front of a packed audience, she smiled broadly every time.

This is not Ms Economy’s fault, but what it tells us is that the power of the Trump brand has infected even his staunchest opponents.

Intellectually she knows he is bad news, but even still she can’t resist.

And if thoughtful intellectual types are having trouble resisting Trump’s brand, what hope has everybody else?

If Trump does win, then what might the implications be for America?

Well, as I mentioned, we are living in turbulent times.

France has been in a state of emergency since the terrorist attacks in Paris last November, and plans to extend the state of emergency following the Bastille day attacks. What this means is that normal rules of law do not currently apply.

I am by no means an expert on the American political and legal system, however it is possible to imagine a similar state of emergency being called by Trump (following another inevitable terrorist attack). Conveniently, Trump might decide never to re-institute the normal rules of law and subsequently appoint himself as Emperor.

One of my colleagues here in Beijing is a Texan, and he explained to me that such a wild idea could never happen in reality because Congress would never allow it.

Maybe.

But, if the Bush family and Republican Party are collectively unable to prevent Trump from becoming the Republican nominee, then I really don’t think that Congress will be able to stand in Trump’s way.

[Please let me know your thoughts on this issue. Do you agree with me? Or are you strongly opposed?]

Who Is Your Customer?

Know Your Customer 3

When you try to please everyone, you please nobody

There was a recent incident in Australia where Aldi, a German supermarket, decided to pull a product from its shelves after receiving racism complaints.

The product in question was a t-shirt with the slogan, “Australia EST 1788”. The shirts were produced for Australia Day 2014, which will be celebrated on January 26th, Sunday week.

Before we consider Aldi’s lack of strategic nous, let’s first take a look at the slogan, the meaning behind it, and why some people think it’s racist.

The Background

The slogan “Australia EST 1788” is intended to celebrate Australia Day, and refers to the year in which the British first asserted sovereignty over the bits of land we now know as Australia.

Australia Day commemorates the day, in 1788, on which Captain Arthur Phillip rowed ashore in Sydney Cove and took possession of the land in the name of Kind George III with the view to establishing a penal colony. This was the first time that the British had sought to claim sovereignty over what was, at the time, known as “New Holland”. Legally speaking, the Federation of Australia did not actually come into existence until 1901, when the respective British colonies of Australia banded together and united under the constitution, but let’s not get technical.

The claims of racism appear to arise due to the way in which the British established sovereignty. Although there were Indigenous people inhabiting the Australian continent in 1788, the British never signed a treaty with them (unlike in New Zealand where the British signed a treaty with the Maoris). The Aborigines were a nomadic or semi-nomadic people and did not possess a European style government, nor have an identifiable leader with whom the British could sign a treaty. With no treaty in place, the British colonies and the Australian federal government after them continued to deny native title to the land under a doctrine known as Terra Nullius; in effect claiming that prior to 1788 the Australian continent was “land belonging to no one”.

While this was certainly a very unequal and regrettable state of affairs, and took many years to rectify, native title was finally recognised by the High Court in 1992 in the landmark Mabo Case.

For some, the historical quirks of how the British came to establish sovereignty make the statement “Australia EST 1788” a racist slogan. And there will always be vocal personalities, like Nathan Brennan, Nareen Young and Matt Mason, who will be quick to suggest that this is the case.

But for the vast majority of Australians, modern Australia is an idea worth celebrating. The Australian attitudes of mateship, a fair go, irreverence for established authority, and a common understanding that Australia is a lucky country all, in one way or another, trace their roots back to its beginnings, in 1788.

Digression

It is worth noting, however, that there are good fair dinkum reasons why the slogan “Australia EST 1788” may be problematic, but it has nothing to do with racism. It has to do with the unhelpful rise of an unjustified and excessive Australian nationalism over recent years.

University of Canberra Assistant Professor Robin Tennant-Wood told SMH that “the annual celebrations [have] grown to include a “yobbo element” of excessive drinking and targeting racial minorities as nationalism increased following events such as the Cronulla riots.” Tennant-Woods was further quoted as saying, “We see this particularly in young people, draped in the Australian flag and using it as an excuse to target people who don’t look like them … Nationalism is dangerous at best and it can be downright horrible if it gets out of control.”

The traditional Australian attitudes of mateship and irreverence for established authority are placed in direct conflict with the new and problematic shows of nationalism that Tennant-Woods is talking about.

Feeling lucky to be Australian is one thing, and should be encouraged, but feeling proud and noble and better than others just because they happen to have been born elsewhere is quite another matter entirely.

And so, while it has nothing to do with racism, per se, if slogans like “Australia EST 1788” are being used by beach bogans and Australian rednecks to justify excessive shows of nationalism and drunken hooliganism, then Aldi’s decision to pull the t-shirts may, on balance, have been a good one for Australia.

Aldi’s Strategic Blunder

But I digress.

Aldi and other department stores, like Big W, made a strategic decision to support Australia Day 2014 by selling certain celebratory Australia Day products, like the t-shirt we have been discussing above.

Given that most people in Australia are not political activists, career academics, beach bogans, or rednecks, Aldi’s decision to sell the t-shirt seems to have been a pretty reasonable one. Australia Day marks the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, and the slogan references this historical event in a kind of cheeky way which makes Australia sound more like a product or a company, “Australia EST 1788”.

The vast majority of Australians would have been happy to consider buying the t-shirt without a second thought, and certainly without any thoughts of racism or excessive nationalism.

But, you can’t please everyone.

A small vocal minority of political activists and arm-chair critics decided that they didn’t like the slogan. They assumed it was racist. Racism, after all, is as good a reason as any to get angry about something.

And so, on Aldi’s own admission, “[t]he decision to remove the Australia Est 1788 design from [its product] range was taken following comments by a limited number of concerned customers.”

To avoid offending the vocal minority, Aldi removed a product that was never designed for them in the first place.

By retreating from the situation, Aldi implicitly confirms the accusations made against it and, at the same time, reduces its ability to profit from the Australia Day celebrations.

Aldi did make efforts to apologise for its actions stating, “Aldi Australia wants its customers to know it puts the community and their wishes first.” But the apology begs the question, which customers and which community does Aldi put first?

By trying to be all things to all people, Aldi has disappointed everyone. It has simultaneously been cast as a racist and disappointed a large number of ordinary, fun loving, law abiding Australians who would have been happy enough to buy its Australia Day t-shirt, and enjoy a cool beer by the pool.

A loss for Aldi, a dubious result for Australia, and as one Twitter commentator put it:

Know Your Customer

What Adversity Can Teach You About Branding

When adversity strikes, branding gives you resilience

This guest post is by Ryan Currie. Ryan is a product manager at BizShark.com with 5 years experience in online marketing and product development. He is on the cutting edge of developments in emerging technologies and open source projects.

IN BUSINESS, branding is crucially important. If your business doesn’t have a brand, then you may as well be invisible.

Creating a brand is akin to designing a personality. Multi-national corporations can have a brand, as can a sole proprietor. The best thing about branding isn’t the notoriety, the creativity, or even the customers you gain from crafting a really terrific brand. In actuality, the best thing about a brand is the resilience it provides.

Adversity hits every company and every professional at some point. Just think of Apple’s struggle for survival in the 1990s. The question isn’t whether you’re going to face adversity or even when it’s going to occur. The real question is what you’re going to do when adversity strikes.

Consider the case of Kentucky Fried Chicken. A smash hit throughout the 70s and 80s, selling chicken literally by the bucketful. But when public attitudes shifted around 2000, Kentucky Fried started a rebranding process and is now known simply as “KFC”.

What Adversity Can Teach Us About Branding 2What’s interesting about the KFC case isn’t just the name change, but the evolution of the brand over the course of the last decade or so. When healthier attitudes struck, KFC did what most brands would do and tried to adapt. They initially offered grilled chicken breasts and an increased number of vegetable sides, pandering to a diet-savvy audience. Their efforts bombed.

What Adversity Can Teach Us About Branding 3KFC then decided to embrace their identity and become one of the only brands on the market to offer the opposite of health – enter the KFC Double Down, a fried chicken, cheese, and bacon monstrosity of a sandwich.

KFC is hardly the only company to take adversity by the horns and figure out a way to adjust its position in the market. Other companies have done so including Apple, J.C. Penny, Lego, and even Microsoft.

Every brand is malleable – that’s important to remember – but in adjusting a brand’s position it may not always be wise to pander to the newest customer trends. Brands that look outside the box (read: 20 Piece Bucket) and find intelligent ways to evolve their unique brand position tend to be more successful.

Adversity comes to all of us. Whether you’re a business owner, a job seeker, or an entrepreneur, branding should be at the forefront of your marketing efforts. Don’t be afraid of challenges to your brand…embrace them! You may find yourself a niche you never dreamed of, and that can make all the difference.

Some People Will Get it

And Some Won’t

FOR those of you who missed it, we made a small typo on the previous post. Instead of writing “weigh your options” we wrote “way your options”. Kind of embarrassing … especially given the painstaking hours that we spend trying to make each post perfect.

Thankfully, many of you were good enough to point out the mistake.

Tim Jeffries, an experienced Sydney-based consultant who focuses on Process Improvement and Business Strategy, sent us the following helpful message:

Some people will get it 2

Tim’s comment was brief and to the point. Tim is a valuable member of the community.

Compare this with an email we received from Sam L.

Some people will get it 4

Sam’s point is well taken, we should have been more careful not to make msiatkes. We will also be much more careful in future to distinguish between words like “two”, “too”, and “to”, “their” and “there”, and “here” and “hear”.

Sam, we are sorry to see you go. That being said, your belief that the Consulting Blog somehow derives a large part of its value from a slavish focus on correct spelling and punctuation suggests that you probably didn’t belong here in the first place.

The Consulting Blog is built on three pillars only: a commitment to insightful ideas, appealing design, and a “life is great” philosophy. The overarching belief is that together we can change everything!

Some people will get it. And some won’t.