Dark blue swans

A few quick, semi-related thoughts.

I really enjoyed Mike Hickinbotham’s guest post on Mumbrella. Firstly because it’s short, so I actually read the whole thing (ironic yes, because this blog is chock full of posts that are way too long, there’s not one ‘top 10′ list, and I use terribly unlinkbaitable titles).

Secondly though, it’s a really great illustration of the sometimes ridiculous infighting (or just hyperbolic navel-gazing) that goes on between the two camps of advertising and marketing (two camps that I somehow found myself square in the middle of).

There is a reality that we can’t deny in what we do. As much as the Greasers, to use Mike’s analogy, may be right about the future of media, the unfortunate fact is that brands are still wanting to (and to a degree, expected to) operate like brands. Something the Soc’s allow them to do. Consumers expect to tolerate brands, not to have value offered to them by brands. For now. That will change. We know it will. In the meantime I just hope there’s no stabbings or church fires (and stay golden Ponyboy).

While I’m on the Mumbrella post, and the whole Witchery thing, I just couldn’t help thinking that both sides of the camp seem to have spent the last 2 weeks whinging about whether it was a good or bad idea, whether it was succesful and whether it was handled well . But there hasn’t been a lot of though about how events like these shape the average consumer.

You know when you get out a pair of socks and you think they’re black?

Then someone tells you they’re blue. And it’s only when you put them next to a pair of black socks that you realise they’re blue? Ideas like the Witchery jacket are dark blue swans. They definitely look like black swans, but when put next to the real thing, you realise you’ve been duped.

The problem is that black swans are pure, enjoyable events (I’m talking about internet meme’s and viral social content here, we’ll get on to the other black swans in a moment). Every time a dark blue swan comes along, the consumer is expecting one of these purely enjoyable moments. Instead, after a hard look, they hold it up to the light and realise that it’s not what they thought it was.

Every time this happens, the impact and expectation from a real black swan is diminished. So, for every failed Witchery campaign, the chances of you having a successful (and truly black swan) campaign are slipping away.

Which brings me onto war (of course!). I recently read John Robb’s Brave New War. It’s a book that is worth a read if you’re at all interested in organisational logic and the social structures inherent in any group of humans. What’s fascinating is that while we (advertising and marketing types) think we’re carving out new territory in the social web and tribal communications, the fact is that if you want to truly see the edge, you need to look at 4th generation warfare.

To save any more waffling, here’s a few choice quotes that really rang true for me:

“…whenever a state takes on a guerilla movement, it will loose. The reason is that when the strong are seen to be beating the weak (knocking down doors, roughing up people of interest, and shooting ragtag guerillas), they are considered to be barbarians. This view, amplified by the media, will eventually eat away at the state’s ability to maintain moral cohesion and drastically damage it’s global image.”

“A critical mass of participation is necessary. A certain minimum number of participants, either individuals of component groups, are necessary for microaction to translate into macroaction. It also means that without a minimum number of interactions between these participants, the statistical nature of macrointelligence won’t emerge. The simple catchphrase for this is more is different.”

“Hindsight bias is the tendancy to believe that the event was predictable based on knowledge gained after the event occurred. In effect, people unknowingly substitute current knowledge of outcomes into gaps of knowledge that were present when building earlier expectations of potential events.”

“Given the speed and complexity posed by the black swans we face, the nation-state would need instantaneous responsiveness, infinite resources, and godlike insight to be effective.”

And a final note. Mark Pesce rcomended Brave New War to me when I was doing an Amazon order. When I started reading it, I realised that John Robb was the author of one of my favourite blogs, Global Guerillas . That’s definitely the first time I’ve been excited at the realisation that a book is by a blog author, rather than finding a blog by a favourite author. I’m sure it won’t be the last though.

- February 2009