Posts tagged ‘capitalism’


How can we help those fooled into believing what their local brands are?

06.01.2016

How interesting to see a silly Tweet of mine make the Murdoch Press and lead an opinion column—I’m told it even hit the news.com.au home page.
   It’s a very old joke that I’ve told since 2002, when I walked along Bay Road in Kilbirnie and saw a locksmith sign in Futura. Back then, Dick Smith Electronics had its logotype set in ITC Avant Garde Gothic. I really thought it was a Dick Smith sign at a first, fleeting glance, seeing CKSMITH. The joke was born.
   Most in my social media streams got it except a couple of Australians who had likely come across it via Murdochs a day late, one calling me ignorant (not sure how you can get that from one Tweet), and another ‘ahole’ (is this a misspelling of aloha?). As the funniest guy in their media is John Clarke, who was born in New Zealand, maybe humour doesn’t reach a couple of households there if it has to be imported. And the number of times John’s taken the piss about us, to my thorough enjoyment, means that some of us can take a joke. Perhaps we just have a sense of humour. We have to: it was the only way we could deal with our PM appearing on The Late Show with David Letterman. It is, to quote the man, ‘a bit of banter. No drama.’
   The false indignation “on behalf of others” is always a comical one, because it’s usually founded on a misplaced and unjustified sense of superiority. During a political campaign, they’re the ones I find the most humorous and least authoritative. Thick skin came with that territory.
   Neither deserves a response beyond what I said on Twitter, but the second one (with a fresh new account to troll from, always a good sign of someone who won’t stand by their words) highlights a point that I have made on this blog before.
   “Ruby Pond” notes, ‘The guy is pure Oz and started when you were in nappies and tried! Stick to your foreign companies, they really help Oz.’ I’m not sure what I was tried about, not having been to court while I was in nappies, but maybe she’s depending on the fact that not everyone remembers back to their infancy.
   Well done. She got this from an American-owned newspaper website (remember, Rupert’s no longer an Australian, nor is the HQ in Australia and hasn’t been for a long, long time), and, for the record, I’m not as old as the business that Dick founded. There’s also a suggestion that I must be Australian, because, after all, everyone on the planet must be. No other countries exist. I didn’t want to get into trans-Tasman rivalry in such a situation, nor was it appropriate to give a list of Australian corporate misdeeds in New Zealand. The term off-topic springs to mind.
   I told her, ‘Stick to your foreign media, they really help Oz.’
   Hers is that simplistic thinking that gets people supporting foreign-owned businesses when they believe they are supporting local ones.
   Dick’s been one of my personal heroes since his solo helicopter flight and I’ve been a customer of the chain he founded since I was old enough to buy my own tech gear. Entrepreneurs like him are the ones I’ve always encouraged, through mentoring and through my policies. However, the sad story of the company, no longer owned by Dick, is one of corporate greed—which the founder himself has been critical of. We haven’t learned the lessons of so many economic crises: Gordon Gecko’s mantra of ‘greed is good’ continues to drive the corporate world.
   The reason so many multinationals buy local brands is to fool the public into thinking they’re supporting their own. We’re guilty of it ourselves, and I recall using the examples of Just Juice and most of our local newspapers on this blog. People closed accounts at the National Bank when it became ANZ here, because of a suspicion of, dislike of, or rivalry with Australia, perceiving National to be a local bank. The problem there: ANZ had owned the National Bank for years before the rebranding of its own subsidiary, and prior to that it was part of Lloyds TSB in the UK. A lot of Australians think Ford and Holden are domestic players (though, oddly, not Toyota, which probably builds as many, if not more, cars there), just as many Britons still think they are buying British when they shop at Ford and Vauxhall.
   The situation with news.com.au differs slightly in that that business was started in Australia by Rupert Murdoch’s Dad, and it has grown from there—but the fact remains that its HQ is overseas and that’s where it pays its tax. Help to Australians: not a lot. The Murdoch Press’s globalization agenda won’t be one that the “buy Australian” crowd would support for the most part.
   But this is how brands work, because they encourage us to make mental shortcuts for the products and services we consume. I’ve devoted a good deal of my professional life to it. Some should encourage scrutiny because of the power they have (Wally Olins noted, many years ago, how some brands need to adopt notions that were once reserved for states), and it was hoped that, post-No Logo, we would be more inquisitive about the backgrounds to the organizations we support.
   Even though it’s our money and time, the sad thing is that this level of inquiry remains the province of the few, those people who are willing to scrutinize their own behaviour and practise what they preach. Social media have helped spread news of corporate misbehaviours (Volkswagen will attest to that) and more people are aware; but to counter that we get more information than we ever used to, and unless something resonates, will we just forget it?
   Therefore, it can only be something where people who have done the proper investigation get to have a say. And like all human endeavours, it can be scammed, so safeguards have to be built in.
   One of the reasons the Medinge Group awarded its Brands with a Conscience accolades for close to a decade was to champion the organizations that were getting it right, inviting transparency and scrutiny, championing good corporate citizenship, and engaging in socially responsible programmes. Among them were companies devoted to doing things right by the communities they were present in, whether it was Dilmah Tea, Tata Steel or Hennes & Mauritz.
   By our championing them, selected by a think-tank of leading brand professionals, we would be able to highlight shining examples of branding, as well as give them the sort of boost they deserved. If positive companies could increase their custom, and if positive non-profits could increase their influence, then we can do some good in the world.
   As people rightly want shortcuts in their busy daily lives, then the work at Medinge, if seen as an endorsement, would help them make a decision about whether to deal with that organization or not.
   It’s nice to be in that bubble, which makes me ever-grateful to get reminders that we still have a lot of work to do. If you’re genuinely desirous of helping your own, then we need to help create more ways of reminding people which organizations do just that. The Brands with a Conscience programme was definitely a very good way of doing it. What shall we do, in the post-peak-Facebook world of the second part of this decade, to get word out? Is it through video, thanks to greater bandwidth, that allows us to experience and understand more? Is this the coming of age of some form of virtual reality? Or, as we did when we first started exploring bulletin boards and email, time again for us to reach out to people in communities very foreign and different to ours through video chats—something like Google Hangouts but actually with people? (Yes, I know, Google fans, I was taking the piss.) Is Skype the service on which this can be built?
   I would have said that technology is the great democratizer, and maybe more of us should be giving out awards to truly deserving organizations, voted on by more of the public. But we come across the issue of quality versus quantity again: the Reputation Institute surveyed 60,000 people in 15 countries and still wound up with Nestlé among the most reputable firms in the world. Nestlé may do very good things in some quarters, but it hasn’t been able to avoid a lawsuit by environmental and public interests groups in California over its water-bottling operation there, or accusations by activists who believe the company wants to privatize water at the expense of public health. Volkswagen was there in the 2014 survey. We decide on image, and that image is the very thing that gets us making bad choices.
   The next innovators are already on to it, and we don’t even know that we seek it. But, in order to self-actualize, maybe organizing us—individuals, not corporations—into global communities is the next stage. We have seen Kiva work so positively, so how about making it more interactive? Naturally we will tend to choose to help those in our own countries first—crowdfunding campaigns show us that—but allowing us to understand another human being’s situation could be the challenge in a time when governments pursue their austerity agenda. Somehow, we can restore, at least to some degree, the optimism we had when we in the first world accessed the World Wide Web for the first time.

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Posted in branding, business, cars, culture, globalization, humour, internet, marketing, media, social responsibility, technology, UK, USA | No Comments »


When mistrust brings us together

13.11.2015

I can be staunch on IP protection in a lot of cases—but in the case of Martin Shkreli of Turing Pharmaceuticals AG hiking the price of an Aids drug from $13·50 to $750 per pill, not so much (for obvious reasons). If you’re in pharmaceuticals, then there has to be some element of wanting to benefit enough of humankind so that they can be, well, alive to better society—or, if you want to be monetarist about it, so they can consume more products and services. Whichever side of politics you’re on, productive people are a good thing for everyone except the arms’ industry. Yet the pharmaceutical industry is the one that’s trying to patent natural ingredients and phenomena—and that’s a step too far. It was something we were taught at law school that could not happen—how can a corporation own nature?—so for the industry to challenge both that jurisprudence smacks of greed. If you didn’t originate it, you shouldn’t be able to own it. Even if it could be protected, nature has been around long enough for that protection to have lapsed. Patenting genes? Please.
   Sure, everyone has the right to make a buck from intellectual endeavours, but their track record needs to be a lot cleaner. Why was there so much opposition to TPPA et al? Because there had been far too many cases of corporations taking the piss when it came to basic rights and established laws, and governments haven’t upped their game sufficiently. I love the idea of global trade, the notion “we’re all in this together”, but not at the expense of the welfare of fellow human beings. Simply, I give a shit. Hiking the price of something that costs $13·50 to $750 is laziness at the very least—let’s profit without lifting a finger—and being a douchebag at the worst. And I don’t believe we should reward either of these things.
   I have a friend who is against vaccinations—not a position I agree with—but his rationale boils down to his mistrust of Big Pharma. And why should he trust them, with these among their worst cases? (As far as I know, he doesn’t oppose other forms of IP protection.) Somewhere, there’s something that kicks off various positions, and corporate misbehaviour must fuel plenty.
   Meanwhile, here’s Martin Shkreli’s point of view, where he doesn’t see his actions as wrongful, as told on Tinder, and as told by Yahoo. His view is that Turing isn’t making a profit and he needs to find ways where it does. He has a duty to his shareholders. It seems incredibly short-term—one would hope that innovation is what turns around a pharmaceuticals’ business—and we come back to the notion that it all feels a bit lazy.

A version of this post originally appeared on my Tumblog.

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Posted in business, leadership, social responsibility, USA | 1 Comment »


Creating real value, and that’s not what Facebook and Twitter do

17.06.2014

My forced Facebook sabbatical came to an end in the late morning. So what did I think of it all?
   One of my Tweets last night was: ‘I hope [it is temporary], though I have found people out for 7–12 days now. Now it’s Monday I hope they have got over their hangovers!’ At the time I thought: this Facebook is probably not a 24-hour operation. These guys are probably off for the weekend, and they work part-time. We might see them on Monday morning, US time, or whenever they come back from Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, Bill Cosby Day, or whatever it is they celebrate over there. Oh, it’s California, so they are probably stoned.
   Sixty-nine hours weren’t quite enough to break my habits, though they were beginning to change. No more was I looking up Facebook in bed before I go to the office, or having a quick gander at night. But on the desktop, I left one tab open, which would always draw me there to have a glance at what friends were up to.
   The timing was a bit exceptional: we had the top 23 pages for the Miss Universe New Zealand 2014 finalists to launch. Had it not been for that, I wonder if I would have bothered with Facebook at all. I had queries to field, direct messages to respond to.
   The direct messaging is obviously separate from the rest of Facebook, as it was the one thing that hadn’t failed. But everything else was worsening: initially losing liking, commenting and posting, then losing the fan pages I administered. Friends could not see my wall, while a few who could see it tried to like things and were given errors. Aside from a few exceptions, no one seemed to think this was out of the ordinary and worth chatting to me about. Not that I mind this: they could all get in touch with me via other media. But this signals that it is OK to get an error when liking something, and shrug it off as temporary, because we believed Facebook when it told us to try again in a few minutes. Never mind that in Facebookland, ‘a few’ means 4,000. We have low expectations of these dot coms.
   So when people joke about how these things always tend to happen to me, I wonder. I’ve always maintained they happen to us all. Maybe the difference is I don’t believe these buggers when they tell me that things will be back in a few minutes, because invariably they don’t. So I put an entry in to Get Satisfaction, or on this blog, so others don’t feel they are alone.
   And if I had found the limits of the site—because I believe on Vox I did in 2009, when exactly the same thing happened, and the techs had no way out—then Facebook should know about this.
   Facebook was, through all of this, useless. It had closed down its Known Issues on Facebook page, which seemed foolhardy, because this certainly was a known issue with the increasing number of Tweets about it. There were no acknowledgements, and most of the time, feeding anything into its report forms resulted in errors. Sometimes I got a blank screen. Its own help pages told you to do things that were impossible. If it were any other firm, people would be crying bloody murder or wanting their money back. (And I am technically a customer, through my mayoral campaign last year.)
   A few other accounts came back, for the people I interacted with on Twitter and Get Satisfaction in the same predicament.
   So what now? I might Facebook less. The 69 hours were a good reminder. One of the things I had watched during the sabbatical was the following video via Johnnie Moore, where Douglas Rushkoff speaks about how these big innovators aren’t really adding value, only capital. He gives the example of Twitter:

The company that was going to be the maker of things now has to be the site where he aggregates the other makers of things … so that you can show multi-billion-dollar returns instead of the hundred millions that you were doing … You know, for Twitter, I just saw yesterday, they’re failing! Only $43 million last quarter! Isn’t that awful? Oh my God! Only $43 million, which is, I mean, how many employees do they have? I think that would be enough but their market cap is so outlandishly huge, so much money has gotten stuck in there, that they’re gonna be stuck looking for a new way to somehow milk more money out of an otherwise great tool and they’re gonna kill it. They have to—they have to, ’cause they need that home run.

   Can we expect there to be greater innovation in such an environment, for any of these platforms? If we aren’t feeling the same buzz we once did with these sites, there’s a good reason, and the above is part of the problem. They aren’t creating value any more, only market cap and stock, or, as Rushkoff says, ‘static capital.’

This is what [Thomas] Piketty was really writing about … Capital has the ability to actually create profit, so all these companies, all this development, are really just different versions gaming the system rather than rewiring the system, rebooting it, which is the opportunity here.

   I spent part of the last few days looking at the PDF proofs for Lucire Arabia, where at least I know I am part of making something that is creating value and, through its content, helping people. While my original motive for being on Facebook et al was promotional, for my businesses, I have to question if that was the best use of my time, and for creating value. Facebook organized my friends, as Google organized the web—now that those are done, there is the next step.
   I left Vox—or rather, Vox left me when the site died and I was no longer able to post—and put more time elsewhere, namely into my first mayoral election campaign. I knew I was creating an opportunity to help people, and the upshot of that is the free wifi system we have in Wellington today (ironically probably very heavily used to update Facebook). It meant more than a means to Facebook and Instagram: the bigger picture was to signal to the tech sector that Wellington is open for business, and that we aren’t being left behind in an industry that can create frictionless exports and intellectual capital.
   We aren’t quite there again in 2014, as Facebook is back, but it may be worth contemplating just where I’m creating value for business and society when it’s not election year. This year, I don’t have a book planned—but it may have to be something where a good bunch of people are going to get some benefit.

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Posted in business, internet, New Zealand, politics, publishing, technology, USA, Wellington | 1 Comment »


Even as Liu Xiaobo gets a Nobel prize, Beijing can be smug

12.12.2010

As I watched actress Liv Ullmann read Liu Xiaobo’s address, ‘I Have No Enemies’, on BBC World, I was quite moved.
   The address is what the Nobel Prize-winning author and intellectual delivered prior to his sentencing by a Red Chinese court for subversion.
   What is fascinating is the dignity with which the words are written, showing respect even to his prosecutors.
   Liu even discusses how the human rights in the prison at which he is held have greatly improved since the first time he was locked up there, saying that the ‘enemy mentality’ that Red China once held is disappearing in favour of a more humanist approach.
   Given that he knew he would be found guilty just before Christmas 2009, the address is remarkable for the hints of optimism he holds for his country.
   Liu Xiaobo will not, by himself, see through a wholesale change in the way the Communist Party is running mainland China, but he is representative of many forces which will, some day, make the country freer and more open.
   He is also representative of the area with occident and orient disagree: human rights. While those campaigning for Liu’s release should not stop, his address puts a lot of things into context.
   Mainland China, as it opens up, has tried to find a balance between governmental intervention and the market-place. Even Confucius has been partially recognized by the Politburo as a way to reinforce the state’s position, somehow reinterpreted along the lines of: we bring you prosperity, you give us your loyalty.
   As much as the internet is patrolled, there is a tendency for people to wish to be more free, and blacking out TV screens behind the Bamboo Curtain or resorting to censorship simply makes people wonder what they are missing.
   Where the country might yet succeed, however, is keeping a firm hand on change. Instead of the rush that saw to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Beijing is being pragmatic. As unbridled globalization and a corrupt, conspiratorial financial system has seen to two economic downturns in the last decade, and as the US’s politics move to extremes, the occident is giving fuel to Beijing’s methods. That’s not something that we should feel happy about, nor should we tolerate our commerce being run to further class structures in our societies.
   Liu has been likened to Nelson Mandela by Nobel committee chairman Thorbjørn Jagland. Mandela made a similar speech on the eve of being sentenced to treason in 1964. While Liu has his supporters, and I do not proclaim to be any expert on South African history, my feeling is that the former president was known to far more of his own people. There are also other differences to the other Nobel winners who have not been able to attend, be they Carl von Ossietzky, Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walesa and Aung San Suu Kyi.
   The chief difference is that fewer of us living in the occident in 2010 can be as smug or as preachy. While I support calls for Liu Xiaobo to be released—the jailing of a man exercising the same rights you and I do in criticizing our governments shows, in my mind, the weakness and insecurity of the critiqued régime—there is a real lesson for the rest of us.
   We cannot be in a position to insist on change if we keep supporting governments that weaken our own approaches to human rights. If we vote in a government that widens the distance between rich and poor—and history has more than often shown us which do—then we are letting down our most downtrodden citizens. If we fail to tidy up the mess our business sectors have left in their wake, then we are simply allowing their mistakes to recur.
   For every failure we chalk up because we let things remain the way they are, the more Beijing’s politicians can sit back and accuse us of hypocrisy.

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Posted in China, culture, internet, media, politics | 17 Comments »


How MG Rover mirrored the developments at Lada

02.11.2010

I still have Adam Curtis’s The Mayfair Set, a TV series charting the decline of British power and the rise of the technocracy, recorded on video cassette somewhere. I consider him someone who can see through the emperor having no clothes, and in The Mayfair Set, he certainly saw through the Empire having no clothes.
   As I type this, John Barry’s ‘Vendetta’ is going through my head as an earworm: the series used this piece as its theme tune.
   On my friend Keith Adams’s Facebook page was a link to Curtis’s blog at the BBC website, titled with a reference to another song, this time from Maurice Jarre’s Doctor Zhivago score. Curtis begins by saying that he uncovered a 1977 film about two British Leyland workers heading to Togliattigrad, where the Жигули (Zhiguli, or Lada to those of us outside the Soviet Bloc) was built.
ВАЗ-2101   At Togliattigrad, the managers used the chaos that was allowed to prevail to set up their alternative economic structures to line their own pockets—and corruption was rife.
   He writes, ‘What then happened is murky, but it is alleged that the managers in effect looted their own factory.’
   So far, so good. It read as a story about the bad old days of communism—till Curtis draws the clear parallels between Togliattigrad and what happened in the last days of the remnants of British Leyland. The Phoenix Four used money meant for the plant for themselves.
   Curtis again: ‘The Phoenix directors systematically restructured the business. They did it in a way that ensured that many economic benefits flowed not to MG Rover and the thousands of workers, but to the directors themselves and the man they appointed chief executive of MG Rover.
   ‘The [government] report [into the collapse of MG Rover] is over 800 pages—and it is a fascinating snapshot of our time. It lists all sorts of schemes with names like “Project Slag”, “Project Platinum” and “Project Aircraft”—all of them designed to try and bring profits not into MG Rover but into the holding company set up by the Phoenix consortium.’
   No more western superiority here: chaos—whether in the political, social, cultural or commercial realms—breeds opportunity for many. The trick is always to ensure that the opportunists are those who can put things right, rather than selfishly benefit themselves.
Beyond Branding cover   Some might see Curtis’s blog entry as a criticism of the monetarist, technocratic system—as was The Mayfair Set.
   But it is equally a story about how the absence of transparency breeds systems that benefit the few—regardless of whether the background is communism or capitalism.
   These are themes that we at the Medinge Group explored as early as 2003 in Beyond Branding, written in the wake of the Enron collapse. We’ve partly stayed on the same theme over the last eight years, because history shows us that transparency is often the enemy of inequity and unfairness. And even the technocracy.

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Posted in branding, business, cars, leadership, politics, TV, UK | 1 Comment »