Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Made To Stick

Chip and Dan Heath examine the reasons behind the success of some advertising messages.

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Chip and Dan Heath. Random House. 291 pages.

Why do some ideas stick? Many of us have heard and then repeated stories that may have possessed some immediate believability but were later refuted or contradicted by facts.

A few weeks ago, for example, author Seth Godin featured a brief riff on his blog about the supposed failure of Chevrolet's Nova automobile in Latin America due to the ''fact'' the its name means ''doesn't go'' in Spanish and buyers stayed away as a result. With my facility in that language mostly limited to dining selections, I'd always believed the story, but Godin, citing the reliable rumor debunker www.snopes.com said it ain't so. But I'd been willing to believe it because it made "sense.''

Another story, featured in this new book by the Heath Brothers (not the jazz musicians, alas) involves a man, seduced and abandoned, who then awakens in an ice-filled bathtub. He calls the police, who ask him if there's a tube protruding from his back. He answers in the affirmative and is told that he's been victimized by an organ thief who has made off with his kidneys.

Never happened.

Yet the story is still repeated. Other fables, like Al Gore supposedly claiming to have invented the Internet — which he never said — are also repeated because, well, they ''stick,'' meaning they meet several standards that cause us to accept them as if they were the truth.

According to the Heaths, there are six key qualities that make an idea stick: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotion and story.

Simplicity is obvious; if it's a complicated thing, it's too easy to misunderstand or forget. Unexpectedness is no surprise either; sharp copywriters know that the best way to get a point across is to catch people when they least expect it. Writer and advertising executive Roy Williams likes to point to a part of the brain, ''Broca's area.'' Apparently when ideas are presented in an unexpected way, they get past our defenses through there.

Ditto with emotion. The Heaths use the Lone Star State's successful ''Don't Mess With Texas'' anti-littering campaign as an example of using emotion to promote acceptance of unappealing or unexciting ideas.

Stories are a powerful means of communicating ideas, too, as they contain a variety of symbols, images and values presented in ways that resonate with different cultural groups possessing similar values.

In addition to the discussion of their six keys, the Heaths present quite a few examples to illustrate them. But that's not all; they provide a number of successful templates that they say can be populated with specific ideas. It's not an entirely plug-and-play proposition; some assembly is required, as well as making sure that all the pieces ''fit'' and make sense.

Their tone throughout is very low key and positive, but the content is pretty powerful. I've heard and read much of this stuff before, but by placing it all into this pleasant and persuasive context, a lot of the familiar ideas seem to have a bit more authority and persuasiveness.

What do you know? They stick!

Originally published in The Miami Herald

Monday, March 1, 2010

Good business: Some companies actually do the right thing

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi looks at a more caring form of entrepreneurship

Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning
Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Penguin. 244 pages.


The dichotomy is real.

On one hand, business has gotten lean and mean: costs cut, suppliers squeezed, employees seen as mere commodities.

On the other, people demand increased accountability, greater choices, less artifice, more humanity

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor, author and business consultant, examines these conflicts and contradictions in this interesting and easily digested volume. He explores these issues and the back story of how we got where we are and what it portends..

He writes: "For the past century or so, business leaders have made credible claims to the effect that allowing for the operation of a free market, unfettered by social and political regulations, would improve the quality of life for everyone. As a result, our mental model of how the world works has become one in which production and consumption, the twin poles of economics, are the benchmarks of prosperity and well-being.

"Any fraction of a percent drop in consumption becomes a flag of distress that sends investors scurrying for shelter. After the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, one of the most often-heard responses from political and business leaders was: `Go out, and buy. Don't let the enemy threaten your way of life.'

"While this worldview offers an easy solution and is convenient for those who benefit from it at the higher levels of the supply hierarchy, is a way of life that has consumption as its highest aim really that rewarding?

"Yet, however dispiriting the historical record may seem to be, human nature is not, in fact, based on greed alone. In every historical period, there have been individuals who care for more than their own profit, who find fulfillment in dedicating themselves to the advancement of the common good. The struggle between selfishness and altruism has run throughout history like periods of sunlight and shade on a summer afternoon.''

Csikszentmihalyi looks at several companies that have embraced more humanistic and less mercenary paths — without sacrificing profitability.

Patagonia, the maker of rugged apparel, began as an extension of founder Yvon Chouinard's love of the outdoors and mountain climbing. He developed equipment for himself that caught on among fellow climbers, and the company took off.

But then, upon realizing that his innovative gear was responsible for increasing the scarring and pitting of his beloved mountains, he developed new techniques and equipment that left the land unharmed.

The company evolved into a manufacturer of outdoor clothing, and Chouinard's high standards required his clothing to be the best and toughest available. But when he realized that the cotton used in its manufacture was grown with the aid of petroleum-based pesticides that left polluted pools in the cotton fields, he spearheaded the use of organically raised fibers.

The tale of Patagonia and Chouinard is one of several used by Csikszentmihalyi to illustrate ''flow,'' defined in this case as the natural integration of sound business practices with intelligent, sensitive and sensible behavior.

He also uses the term to define the state of being wherein one almost loses oneself in the act of doing something.

Depending on individual values and experiences, each reader will come away with something a little different from this book, underscoring the author's notion of society.

Originally published in The Miami Herald