Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Irresponsibility of the Customer

The success or failure of any brand depends to a large degree on the discipline of the customer.   The firm can provide an excellent product, capable of effectively and efficiently serving a genuine need – but in order for it to do so, it must be selected and employed in the proper manner.  In many instances of customer dissatisfaction, one or both of these tasks have been failed.

Dissatisfaction often occurs because the customer selected the wrong product.   They had unrealistic expectations about the benefit that the product is capable of delivering – and while the general sense seems to be that it is because of false advertising (the company claimed its product would deliver benefits it could not), this is actually quite seldom the case: the customer came with his own expectations or was misinformed by a third party about the benefits the product delivered.   This is a marketing problem, a failure to communicate the value of the product to the market.

Dissatisfaction also occurs when the product is not employed in the proper manner – or in plainer terms, when the product is used wrongly such that the desired benefit, which the product is perfectly capable of delivering, is not achieved because the product was not used in the proper manner.   This is a growing problem, culturally, because customers largely do not bother reading instructions and think that they already know how to use a product they have never used before (or have never used correctly, anyway).

Both of these issues are difficult to address in the current environment: the general attitude seems to be that the customer, like a precious child, is incapable of doing anything wrong and inculpable even when his actions were obviously wrong.    If he selected the wrong product, he is innocent and it’s the fault of the brand for having given him the wrong expectations (even if there is no evidence of their having done so).   If he used it the wrong way, he is innocent and it is the fault of the brand for not having instructed him properly (even if they ignored the instructions on the packaging).

And I see no easy solution to this problem.   Firms are already putting extraordinary effort into communicating the value of their product in an accurate manner, attempting to design their products intuitively, and providing copious amounts of documentation and instructional materials.   And still, customer satisfaction has not appreciable increased – in fact, the marginal success due to the efforts of producers has created a sense of entitlement – that it’s OK for the customer to be irresponsible because the firm will always be blamed for the customer’s lack of responsibility.

If there is any bright side to this, it is that the core customer base of a firm, those who are satisfied and repurchase the same brand, are likely responsible customers who have accepted the responsibility of selecting the appropriate product and employing it correctly.    The most irresponsible customers will likely never be satisfied by any brand, and will invariably drift from one to another, bumbling about in search of a solution they will never find.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Quotidian Consumption

It is theorized that habits are formed as a method of saving energy.  The mind attempts to find patterns in any activity, with the goal of creating a habit, and within a few repetitions is generally successful in so doing.   This is well-supported by the rat-maze experiments, in which the brain activity of rodents decreases with each repetition of the same exercise, and it’s evident in human begins as well through their daily habits.

Consider your own morning routine: there is very little decision-making effort in deciding what to do between the time you wake and the time you arrive at work: you do what you do every morning, in the same order, unless there is an intentional effort to change your patterns or something external prevents you from following your common routines.   It is as if you are on autopilot: these tasks require no thinking, and are generally not recorded in memory, so long as everything goes as usual.

Quotidian patterns lead to quotidian consumption, at least on the product level.   If you brush your teeth every morning, there is very little thought as to whether you will consume toothpaste – you simply will consume it, and repurchase it when you run out, as a means of perpetuating the routine and avoiding the expenditure of mental effort that would be required to question whether the task should be done differently, or at all.

On the level of brand, the consumption routine is less influential than the purchasing routine – another procedure that tends to run on autopilot.   The daily task of brushing one’s teeth requires the consumption of toothpaste as a product, and the monthly task of buying more toothpaste involves the selection of the brand of the product to be used.

Or more accurately, it often does not involve selection, but repeating previous behavior mindlessly in the environment of the store – going to the same store, going to the same aisle, reaching for the same space on the shelf where the brand is expected to be found.

There is, of course, and interrupt sequence: if the brand is not found in its usual spot, there’s a temporary need for mental engagement to locate it in a new location, which will become the patterned location after a few iterations.   But even then, the mind is focused on the task of finding the familiar brand, and both cognition and sensation are attuned to that task. 

While there is a chance this will provide an opportunity to consider a different brand, the more common behavior is to take the easiest route to success: to use superficial sensory input to find a known pattern in an unknown location, rather than the cognitive task required to select an entirely different brand.   Thus, even when there is an interrupt sequence that requires additional mental effort, the degree of effort expended is minimized by the nature of the decision undertaken to overcome the obstacle.

Particularly for products that are part of a quotidian consumption cycle, it is exceedingly difficult to become the brand of choice or to get the customer to change their preferred brand.   It is likewise difficult to accidentally disrupt brand loyalty unless a conscious effort is made to do so – which may, perhaps, support the notion of routinization-and-minimization pattern among vendors.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Six Core Detrimental Aspects of Technology

In my studies of technology, I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon: credible proponents of technology tend to concede its disadvantages.   Admittedly, this may be chicken-or-egg, in that it is their willingness to concede imperfections that creates a sense credibility as opposed to the fanatics who deny any possibility of imperfection.   But having noticed this tendency, I’ve gone back through my reading notes to find common themes, and have noticed nine themes that seem to be repeated:

1. Technology Debilitates the Mind

A common criticism of technology is that id debilitates the mind.   Because we have spreadsheet and word processing software, the literacy and numeracy of the general population has suffered greatly: distressingly many people cannot spell words or do simple addition in their heads because they have become reliant on technology to do it for them, so they do not practice or do not even develop the basic skills.

In one sense, being able to automate basic tasks and devote the mind to higher concerns is a benefit – but the loss of basic understanding can have catastrophic results when one has the ability to do something without the foundational knowledge to understand quite why it is done.   What occurs in that situation is paralysis rather than advancement: anyone can perform at a certain level, but the level cannot be advanced because the foundational knowledge has been lost.

2. Technology Makes Us Lose Touch with Reality

Technology depends on reducing reality to a simplistic mathematical model, ignoring what the creator of the technology does not know or does not understand.    There is a quality of unreality that comes with anything virtual, and those whose primary experiences are virtual form a foundational set of knowledge and believes that is relevant only to events that conform to the simplistic model on which the technology is based.

For practical purposes, this handicaps those who are dependent on technology with the notion that if their favored technology cannot do something, then it simple cannot be done.   For qualitative purposes, the reduction to a simple model creates blinders to factors that are not considered by that model, which may be of significant importance to the overall qualitative experience.   We lose touch with the richness of reality by accepting the limitations of technology.

3. Technology is Dehumanizing

In order to succeed in any system, a person must adopt the qualities of that system – and if a person does so for a long enough period of time, they do not merely adopt these qualities, but internalize them: they become the kind of person they pretend to be in order to be successful within a limited system defined by artificial rules – which may not be the kind of person they need to be to succeed in any other system without the limitations and rules.

This may seem abstract, but consider the impact of social media on the social skills, particularly of the younger generation: to be successful in social media, one must present a false-front in a system that has no restriction or discouragement for behavior that is not acceptable outside of that system: hence individuals whose primary socialization took place in the virtual world are often ill-suited to socializing in face-to-face encounters.   This has long ben true of a small number of isolates, considered “geeks” or “nerds:” by mainstream society, but has recently become evident in the general population.

4. Technology is Always On, but People are Not

Human beings have a limited amount of time – the waking hours of the day at most, but even less given that our ability to maintain attentiveness is even more limited than that.   Where technology is constantly intruding, relentlessly prompting to mind to action, the quality of experience is considerably diminished.   We are not “always on” but “always zombified,” overdrawing our reserves of time and attention to do things in the most efficient and least effective manner.

The problem is compounded by the self-involvement of technology: each technology considers itself to be the most important need of the moment, and struggles to gain top-of-mind acceptance.  The human mind is unable to focus on or prioritize its own workload with so many technologies screaming “look at me” at every given moment.  Smartphone addiction is a common example: workers are texting with their friends when they ought to be giving attention to their work, and answering work-related emails when they ought to be giving attention to their families, because their priorities are structured by technology rather than common sense.

5. Technology Fragments Identity and Promotes Inauthenticity

It is only within the past few hundred years that humanity has been faced with the necessity of serving in multiple and distinct social roles and the awkwardness that occurs when those roles overlap – leading to the fragmentation of identity and personality.   That is, our success in a role depends on the adoption of a personal that is capable of being successful in that role – and while we have had limited success managing three or four core identities, technology is demanding that we adopt dozens, role-switch constantly, and often face the awkwardness of overlapping roles.

This will lead inexorably to an inexorable crisis of identity: when I must be so many different things to different people at different times, which of these personas represents my true self?   This existential crisis is already evident in popular culture, which has failed to evolve or produce anything new in two decades – it is simply adopting and adapting, trying to be many things at once, and failing in having an integral identity.

6. Technology is Fragmenting

The emergence and adoption of technology fragments social groups into the “haves” and “have-nots” of that technology, and it takes considerable time for a technology to achieve ubiquity.  Arguably, ubiquity is never achieved: even in the present day, there are households and communities that do not share in centuries-old technologies such as electricity, running water, indoor plumbing, and paved roads.   And in considering such things to be ubiquitous, the “haves” distance themselves further from the “have-nots”: anyone who does not “have” is not important, not worth considering even as a member of humanity.

The problem is that it’s not just one technology that creates such a schism, but every technology.  What results is a complex binary matrix that creates very small segments of society that have or have-not a specific subset of technologies that contribute to membership and participation in a given subset of culture.  And the result is a culture so fragmented that it makes very basic questions unanswerable: what is culture?  What is society?  Such things, once very basic to human identity, are absent in technologically advanced locations.

Other Detriments

Outside of those six, there remains a rather large list of detrimental factors – I have recorded a total of twenty-seven – but many of them seem trifling compared to those core six, or a subset of one of those categories.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Auditing Brand Performance

One of the most critical factors in strategic planning is aligning the brand to the demands of the market.  It is also one of the most neglected tasks: insiders believe that they know what is important, that the customer share their perspective, and that the brand is already associated to the qualities most desired by the market.   This is often done without auditing the brand’s performance in the mind of the market – and as a result, it is often tragically wrong.

Foundational Research

The foundational research for a brand performance begins with qualitative research: ask a balanced blend of individuals who purchase your brand, individuals who purchase other brands, and prospects who have not yet purchased the product, “what qualities are important to you when shopping for [product]?”   

Then, in a qualitative study, ask separate groups of people to answer the following questions:

How important is [quality] when you are shopping for [product]?
To what degree does [brand] deliver [quality]?

It’s important to ask separate groups these questions, as answering both in a single session will likely corrupt the study (their answer to the second question will be tainted by their desire to be consistent with the answer they gave to the first).

The Audit Graphic

Creating a meaningful graphic is a simple matter of plotting each quality on a graph: the horizontal placement of the quality corresponds to the degree to which respondents consider it important and the vertical placement corresponds to the degree they feel it is already associated to your brand.   Then, draw a line (in blue in the example) that marks the 75% point on both axes, splitting the graphic into four quadrants:

Quadrant A represents brand strengths.  These are the qualities that customers care about very much, and they already believe that your brand delivers upon them.   You have already achieved these goals, should spend a little as necessary to maintain them, and should be very cautious about any initiative that would jeopardize them.

Quadrant B represents brand weaknesses.  These are qualities that customers care about, but your brand does not deliver.   This should be the primary focus of strategic efforts – either to modify the product to deliver these qualities or focus advertising messages to convince the market that your brand already does deliver upon them.

Quadrant C represents waste.  These are qualities that are not important to the customer, but are highly associated to your brand.  Chances are that the firm undertook considerable effort and expense to deliver these qualities, and that their achievement does nothing for performance.   These are areas in which you can cut back and employ the budget in more productive ways.

Quadrant D represents potential misdirection.   The qualities are not important to the customer and not important to the brand, and it would be a mistake to pursue them.   Convincing the customer it is important will move them into quadrant B, investing in them will move them into quadrant C, and attempting to do both is perhaps overly ambitious.

Extending the Use of the Audit Graphic

There are two other ways in which the brand performance audit can be used:

First, conduct a brand performance audit of a competitor – preferably one that is outperforming your firm in the mind of the market.   This will help to identify the reasons that customers value their brand over yours.

Second, conduct an internal brand performance audit – that is, ask insiders rather than customers what they think.   This will help to identify critical misperceptions within the culture of your own firm that are causing time and money to be spent on the wrong things.