Are Cigarettes A Model For Climate Change Comms?

With the US bowing out of the Paris Climate Accord and the head of both the Energy Department and EPA openly questioning climate science, I got to thinking about how the government ever got its arms around cigarettes. Back in the 1960s, people knew smoking wasn’t such good idea, even if they chose not to think about it. Its negative effects had been noted hundreds of years earlier, by England’s King James I in 1604, who called smoking: “…lothsome to the eye, ...

What Consumers Are Told About Tech

The Economist’s Nicholas Barrett interviewed Douglas Rushkoff about the way digital tech companies practice what he calls extractive capitalism: though digital tools are inherently flat and collaborative, tech companies driven by VC or equity valuation suck up all the data on which these networks are based, turning users into a resource to be exploited. He’s right (give the too-brief podcast clip a listen here), though I think there’s a communications element to it. Capitalism requires markets in which to function, whether specifically defined like trading ...

What’s Wrong With Brands These Days

P&G’s commercial “The Talk” has generated millions of views and shares, and generated lots of commentary both supporting and deriding it. It’s a shoo-in for some sort of award next year in Cannes. It’s also a perfect example of what’s wrong with brands these days. You can imagine how it came to be. Research said that consumers want to get authenticity and relevance from companies, and online behavioral data suggested the most sharable content is the least commercial. And, let’s face it, detergent ...

BASF Innovates For Butterfly Conservation

By Anna Spiewak Remember as a child, when you played outside in the summer, your restless eyes would fixate on one amazing creature—the big, bright black and orange butterfly flying about, then suddenly it would sit on a flower. That’s when you’d quickly run after it, attempting to catch it, but you never could. Today, it’s almost impossible to imagine that your children or grandchildren might not get to experience the same in a few years. Populations of the monarch ...

Persuasion in the Age of Why Not?

Believing that the world is flat is a thing these days, proving again the persuasive power of “why not?” I mean, why couldn’t it be true? It looks flat to me, so the idea jibes with my personal experience. I don’t know who took pictures of the Earth as a globe floating in space (and floating on what, since space is a vacuum…or is it?), so they could be fake, as could all this nonsense about us orbiting ...

Microsoft Deserves A Bigger Purpose

Microsoft plans to fire 3–5,000 employees, primarily in sales and marketing. It’s a drop in the bucket (more than 120,000 people work there), but evidences a fundamental shift in its business. For most of the company’s history, sales really meant taking orders from customers who didn’t know better (or had few to no alternatives). It ran an effective monopoly thanks to Windows OS, which it dutifully and regularly updated in order to collect successive rounds of income. Sales amounted to ...

Volvo Dares To Stand For Something

Volvo has announced it will stop making cars powered by combustion-only engines by 2019. It's a shockingly smart, if somewhat risky strategy. The Swedish carmaker once made quirky sedans (my parents owned a 244 just like this one) and built a reputation for safety, then transitioned to a more mainstream, if somewhat uninspiring luxury brand. Ford bought it for $6.5 billion in 1999, and sold it for only $1.8 billion a decade later, after helping crash US sales ...

Sustainability Is A Business Metric

A recent study by Merrill Lynch found that “good companies can make good stocks,” though not as a stand-alone metric. It’s a good start. It turns out that high ratings for environmental, social and governance practices, called “ESG,” evidence lower stock price volatility and declines, even if those companies don’t always outperform their peers; in fact, their stock prices do worse compared to others in healthcare, tech, and consumer products. Why the disconnect? I say it’s all a matter of definitions. ...

I Want A Tesla Toaster

News that Tesla may be considering its own streaming music service suggests there’s no limit to what it could do. I want a Tesla Toaster. It’s not inconceivable, if you think about it, considering the confluence of three attributes in the company and its leader: First, describing Elon Musk as a bold, visionary exec is probably an understatement, considering one of his smaller ideas is to populate the Solar System. That doesn’t mean he’s always right, or even reasonable, but ...

Is Big Data A Black Swan Killer?

The dream of big data is to make experience predictable, and black swan theory says it can’t be done, at least not wholly reliably. Both are right. A black swan is some major event or accomplishment that surprises everyone, defying predictions because it relied on causes that nobody considered, like when a stock market price bubble bursts, or somebody invents fidget spinners.    Such events seem predictable in hindsight, suggesting 1) they were inevitable, if only people had known ...

The Oldest Innovation: Monopoly

Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods is further evidence of its plan to corner the market on retail. It’s about consolidation, not innovation. In fact, controlling an industry, otherwise known as a monopoly, is the oldest innovation known to business, perhaps because it’s the most elegantly simple: Dominate a market and its pricing, and there’s profit to be made by taking out costs It’s what Walmart has been doing for years. Just ask any vendor how much fun it is to ...

Technology Valuation

Tons of tech innovation is hidden inside large companies. It goes unrecognized because it’s hard to reveal, and nobody’s looking for it. Big companies are prisoners to the innovation narrative. Wall Street loves companies it can classify as “pure plays,” which means they do obvious things in focused ways. Tech startups, or any company that uses data as its raw resource and final output, are among the more pure. Many have users that aren’t connected to any revenue, and others ...

Paris, Exxon & Energy Innovation

A libertarian friend of mine recently told me not to worry about President Trump’s rejection of the Paris Agreement, and disdain for environmental policy in general. “If innovation in renewables can survive competition in a free market, then it’s far likelier to be successful,” she said. “The government shouldn’t be in the business of picking winners, anyway.” I agree, sort of. Renewable energy’s replacement of fossil and nuclear fuels is a question of when, not if. Solar and wind ...

Trading Privacy For Safety

Aaron Swartz once said, “It’s no longer OK not to understand how the Internet works.” This quote has surfaced from at least one digital expert in response to British PM Theresa May’s calls for more regulation of the Internet, in hopes of preventing “the spread of extremist and terrorism planning.” It’s meant to say that 1) She doesn’t know what she’s talking about, since clamping down in the way she suggests is technically impossible, and 2) No person ...

A Tale of Two Cities

The West Coast’s Snap Inc (parent of Snapchat) announced it had lost more than $2 billion about the time I came home from Hannover Messe, a huge industrial trade show in Germany. The contrast between the two “cities” couldn’t be more stark. Hannover Messe featured the world’s leading companies that do all the heavy lifting, literally, that makes the world work. Factories. Transportation. Energy. Stuff that consumers take for granted. An endless array of exhibit halls were filled with robots ...

Should Brands Talk Politics?

Consumers don't like it when brands take political or social positions, yet they want brands to become more socially active and responsible. The disconnect was revealed in a recent study, entitled "Brands, Agencies and Political Values," sponsored by the American Association of Advertising Agencies, or "4A's." I wonder if the fluid idea of "brand" has caused the appearance of conflict where there is none. Since brands aren't things, it's impossible for brands to do things; the vague concept of ...

Amazon’s Retail Plan Isn’t About Books

What’s up with Amazon opening a store in Manhattan, with hundreds more coming to towns that used to have book stores?  It has very little to do with books. It’s funny that Amazon’s “unique” approach to book retailing involves listing bestsellers, displaying gizmos for reading, and displaying book faces instead of spines. There’s a Barnes & Noble in Union Square that does all of those things, even if it does so differently. Amazon’s bookstore VP said “the purpose of ...

Ford’s PR Problem

Mark Fields lost his job running Ford this week. Sadly, it had nothing to do with how he ran the company. It had everything to do with the PR Ford got, or didn’t get when it came to autonomous cars and other tech stories. Matthew DeBord wrote a brilliant explanation of what happened, though the New York Times inadvertently described it in a sentence: “Mr. Fields, a 28-year veteran of Ford, was a victim of rapidly evolving expectations for carmakers ...

The Circus Isn’t Dead, It’s Everywhere

Last night, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus gave its last performance. People have always turned to escapist entertainment as a salve for the brutality of everyday existence. The Romans invented the word “circus,” meaning “ring,” and built such facilities to house horse races and historical reenactments (along with gladiatorial combat, thereby overlapping somewhat the role of amphitheaters like the Colosseum). Our idea of a circus originated in the late 18th century as a trick-riding show in London, to ...

Three Things You Should Know About Interviews

A company exec in front of a live camera is a unique opportunity to connect directly with an audience. So why are so many of them so bad? Spend some time watching the daytime programming at CNBC, for instance, and you’ll see what I mean. Most interviews are filled with buzzwords and non-news that have me remarking “wait, he didn’t even answer the question” more often than not. Such stumbles don’t come with lots of hard work: PR people prepare ...

A Different Future For The Ford 1,400

Ford  plans to fire 1,400 staffers, and many media outlets suggest the move is intended to appease Wall Street by cutting costs (the stock is down and Tesla’s up, so the latter is now “worth” more than the former). Ford’s in a tough spot, for sure. Incessant talk about autonomous driving dominates most every conversation in the automotive sector these days. I attended this year’s auto show in Detroit, and it was fascinating to watch reporters grill car companies (and their ...

Brands That Dare To Offend

Tiffany, Levis, Intel, and a slew of other brands ran ads last week in support of America’s continued participation in the Paris Agreement on climate change. I wonder how many consumers are going to stop buying diamonds, jeans, and PCs. Remember, lots of Americans don’t believe in climate change, and even more just assume it won’t effect them. Won’t they find these ads offensive? Of course, at one level it’s just a publicity stunt. Tiffany’s stand-alone ad, and a larger group ...

Why Do Airplanes Make People Go Nuts?

There have been a few notable instances lately of people beating up each other on or near airplanes. Get ready for more of them. A passenger breaks his nose when he’s evicted from a United flight. An American flight attendant who dings a passenger in the head with a stroller gets all but challenged to a duel by another passenger. A fight breaks out in the terminal over Spirit flight cancellations, one takes place on an ANA flight before it ...

Technology Has A POV

It’s accepted wisdom that technology is nothing but a neutral tool that has no inherent meaning or effect. It’s also not true. The truth is most evident in information technology. Resource planning and supply chain software, and all of the gizmos and apps attached to those programs, have changed how businesses are run. Decision makers aren’t just better informed, but they make decisions at different times and in different ways. Plans that were once forward-looking are now invented and managed ...

The Innovation Communications Challenge

It’s just not fair. Elon Musk has recently promised to connect human brains to computers, visit the Moon and populate the solar system, and send a self-driving Tesla across America (Uber sees cars flying in a few years). I’m sure there’s a startup somewhere working on time travel. You want to publicize the improved efficiency you successfully delivered to a customer’s facility, for which you were paid good money. Zzzzzzz. No amount of access or glossy production can make up ...

The Robot Apocalypse Starts With Ping Pong?

I just watched a robot play ping pong. I’m at Hannover Messe, which is a giant industrial trade show that’s chocked full of every type of automation imaginable. Automation is technology that gets work done without people intervening. Robots are a subset, but so are “smart” things like engines, pallets, even entire vehicles, not to mention the computer programming that enables it all. Robots tend to be the poster children of automation because their movement suggests agency that only we ...

Why Not Autonomous Everything Else First?

A fully autonomous kitchen would be far more interesting to me than a self-driving car. We are told stories about the, er, drive to autonomous vehicles as if it were our generation’s Manhattan Project or Moon shot. Car companies and their suppliers are pouring money into development and spending on PR, as tech companies large and small are doing the same. Why not autonomous everything else first? I mean, kitchens function much as they did 50 years ago. Even considering ...

Tesla Isn’t Worth More Than GM Or Ford

Sometime last week, Tesla's equity share price topped $300, which means the company is worth more than GM or Ford. Only it isn't. I see at least three lessons for communicators: First, forget telling your stakeholders (or worrying) that stock valuation has any connection to reality. There is no objectively reliable math that supports Tesla's price; it's what James B. Stewart in the New York Times calls a "story stock," which means that investors have bought into a narrative of ...

United Shows That Social Starts In Reality

As United goes going through the kabuki drama of ugly social media post, corporate apology, and the opining of marketing experts, it’s showing every brand a deeper truth: All business is social now. I know that might sound like announcing water is wet, but I’m not talking about the role social media played in revealing United's recent clothing and overbooking policy snafus. I wasn’t on either plane, but it sure seems like the passengers were treated like bystanders, at best. ...

Kendall Gives The World A Pepsi

You’ve already heard about Pepsi’s ad in which Kendall Jenner leaves a fashion shoot to hand a can of soda pop to a cop at a street protest. It’s demeaning to real protests. It draws on imagery from the 1960s. It’s whitewashing. No, it’s just a really bad ad. You don’t even need to see it to know why, since Pepsi explained that it was "trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding." I would have ...