Some Truthiness about Change and the Changiness of Truth

By Mark Barden, 2/03/2012

Putin

Quick: which came first, the man your man could smell like, sitting on his horse all bare-torsoed, or Vladimir Putin’s staged symbol of Russian machismo?

I’m not going to go as far as to say that Wieden ripped off the idea for Old Spice from Putin, but it’s a bit of a coincidence wouldn’t you say? It’s equally brilliant either way.

Thinking about this brought back fond memories of one of my own dealings with some Russians and, in turn, Putin. And this made me reflect on change and how it can happen quite suddenly, which, of course, is the whole point of being the Challenger — to make change happen.

Three years ago, Adam and I were in the middle of a global branding project with a big international company. It took us to the West Coast to work with the North America region, Miami to dance with Lat Am, Singapore to wrestle with Asia-Pac, and finally London to address EMEA. It was a hell of a gig, giving us real insight into the differences between the regions of the world.

One of the observations we were making — to tee up the necessity for belief-driven brands — was the decline of trust. For brands, businesses, indeed many of the major institutions (government, religion) trust is down in the US. There were a number of sources, John Gerzema’s excellent book The Brand Bubble, and the Edelman research on trust. And one of the questions we were raising with our audiences was to what extent this decline in trust was being played out in other regions.

The responses were varied and nuanced but one response in particular stood out. The Russians in the room (only a handful) were categorical in their trust for Putin. So unequivocal was their stand that over dinner (and too much wine) I took up the matter with them. Had this been a public act of bravado in front of the rest of EMEA? Their equivalent of riding a horse shirtless, for example, or shooting a tiger? No. And indeed they claimed that the vast majority of Russians would side with them. “All Russians trust Putin” was the only conclusion they allowed me to reach.

From the perspective of February 2012, just a week or so before the Russian election, it is clear that’s no longer true.

Now, I don’t follow Russian politics closely enough to have a well-informed POV about all this, and clearly Putin still has his fans (his approval rating at its lowest was still 35%). But the huge demonstrations, the public outrage at corruption and election rigging couldn’t be an overnight epiphany on behalf of millions, could it?

So let’s play this out a little as a thought-experiment for Challengers. Four points:

1.     Timing is everything.

Back in 2000 I led marketing at a dot bomb whose model (amongst other things) foreshadowed Groupon. And we were too early. The web was not yet the seamless, speedy, one-click wonder it is today.  A lot of people didn’t trust it and didn’t know they wanted a daily deal. We should have hoarded the cash and waited a few years. Alternatively, when Toyota started planning the Prius there were a number of signs that the US wasn’t ready for an alternative power train and early sales were disappointing. In that case Toyota had a deep commitment to the initiative based in the values of it’s executive and the deep pockets to make it happen (they lost money on every car for the first few years). So what to do:  Ask, is this really the right time to do this? If we waited a while might the idea be better timed? Is first mover advantage really what it’s cracked up to be? (it’s not always and there’s research that proves that). Do we have the money for the long haul if this doesn’t go off as we dream it will? Patience is a very rare and undervalued commodity in this fast world. Timing is always a big factor in strategy and it’s often more a matter of luck than judgment. Clearly Russia wasn’t ready to demonstrate 3 years ago and that was probably the right call.

2.     Change begets change.

Back in 2000 other business minds — potential partners of said dot-bomb — were not quite as open to business-model busting innovation created by the web as they would be today. They hadn’t yet seen it as many times as they will have now.  Mark Earls book teaches us about the herd instinct; it clearly influences the adoption of new ideas as much as the quality of the idea itself. People are basically copycats. This factor has to be at play in Russia. The disaffected will have seen and been emboldened by the Arab Spring. It started to make more sense for them to copy what they were seeing and would make more sense to those who would then see them. This is how legitimacy happens. You can sense momentum in the culture if you’re paying attention, and simply by drawing others’ attention to it as publically as you can, you help to fuel it further. This insight is behind the old “2 million people can’t be wrong” idea to lend stature to a brand. It’s an oldy and a goody. Try it. 

3.    Change can come surprisingly fast.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Arab Spring phenomenon is how few people saw it coming (the US State Dept has actually been very candid about their being taken by surprise and I remember the same feeling of surprise when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989). When the underlying conditions are right it takes just one pissed off (and heroic) Tunisian fruit seller to start a chain reaction that spreads right across North Africa. Chaos theory tells us that complex systems have this tendency to be flipped into a different phase space by a small perturbation — the infamous butterfly flapping its wings and making weather happen. I don’t mean to suggest that setting yourself on fire is a “small change” but I hope you see the point. With the complexity inherent in all markets today we have to believe that the potential for overnight change exists in them just as much as it does in Tunisia. Even Russia. I find the whole bare-foot running sensation to be a fascinating example of this. For years the running shoe companies told us that their understanding of bio-mechanics and injury prevention necessitated wearing certain types of shoes. That was the industry dogma. Then along came Born To Run, and our theories about running shoes seemed to change overnight. The old marketing model was predicated on reaching large numbers of people at once to have an impact. Today it can happen with one person doing one very profound thing. Who is your one person? What will they do?

4.    Don’t always believe what people tell you.

I’m sure my Russian friends were genuine in their faith in Putin and possibly still are. But how often do we hear something from people (consumers, voters) only for them to turn around and contradict themselves the next minute. Some years back we were doing beverage product innovation that looked at digestive health and well-being — think active cultures in yoghurt — only to be told, with absolute conviction by a client, based in research that, “This isn’t Europe. You will never get Americans to buy into gut health.” Welcome, Activia. It’s not that people lie. It’s just that the new truth needs to find its moment to shine to convince them. As has been said many times before, the best leaders are intimate with the needs of those they serve, but they lead, rather than are lead by them. They seek the new truths before others can see them.

Anyway, good luck to the Russians this week. I hope no one has to set themselves on fire in order to make change happen.

Ostrovia.


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