Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Maths jokes

I won't apologise for any of these. They're all classics.

Did you know that the "B" in Benoit B. Mandelbrot stands for Benoit B. Mandelbrot?

ex is having a drink in a pub and propping up the bar on his own. The barman walks over to him and asks him, "Look man, it's a busy bar, why are you standing drinking on your own? Why don't you integrate?"
elooks at the barman morosely and answers, "Why would I? It wouldn't make any difference..."

A mathematician and a physicist are busy sinking a few pints in the pub, just a few metres away from ex. They're having a great time trading arguments and philosophical paradoxes. After a while the mathematician says , "Here's a tricky little problem. Imagine you're on a riverbank, and there's a beautiful woman lying on the opposite bank, naked. With your first step, you can get halfway across the river. With your second step, you can get half as far - that's another quarter, so you're three quarters of the way across. With your next step, you can only go half as far again. This carries on for ever. You'd never reach the naked woman, would you?"
The physicist thinks for a moment, then says slowly, "Perhaps not...but I'd be close enough for all practical purposes."

Finally, a quote from one of the greatest minds of the last hundred years...

"Physics is to mathematics as sex is to masturbation" - Richard Feynman

***Update*** - heard a new one over the weekend:

A Higgs boson walks into a church. "Why are you here," asks the priest? "Well, without me you can't have mass," replies the Higgs.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Willesden Green: on the up (1)

Willesden Green. It's not the sort of place that inspires emotions of hope, creativity and joy, right? And the truth is, that Willy G could easily be overlooked. But there are some gems to be found.

Walm Lane and the east end of Willesden High Road are starting to become a bit more gentrified, with a Costa and new Foxtons sprouting near the tube station (the latter, sadly, taking the place of the highly regarded Shish), and a couple of deli-cum cafes; all these have appeared in the last few months. This all suggests that the area is becoming a bit gentrified. Here are a selection of my favourite Willesden Green spots.

Nest: take the Sunday papers
Forget about Costa and head for Nest (Willesden Green station, Walm Lane) instead. It's a straightforward café beside the tube station, offering a standard array of paninis and sandwiches, full breakfasts (excellent), coffee, cakes and croissants, with large windows and comfortable sofas. No, not somewhere to make a trip to, but as a local café it's an excellent option: independent, rewarding and cheap to the point that you wonder where their profit margins are coming from - coffees are less than £2 and croissants £1, with a full English breakfast just £5.50. A solid Sunday papers option.

Another good place for a bite is Petra (19 Walm Lane).
Petra: best of the kebab options
Petra used to be known as Shawarma Express which was by far the best of the kebab options (although I never went to Shish). With a new name and, seemingly, new management, Petra is more expensive than it was in its previous incarnation but continues to offer good Lebanese food - ignore the Willesden Charcoal Grill down the road and come here instead. I tend to go fairly late when some things have sold out, but this isn't a kebaberie just for when you're drunk - they have tasty Lebanese options like sambousek.

There are loads of really good local food shops around - a mixture of long-established and new places. Two Middle Eastern supermarkets stand out. One is Al Thmarat (21a Walm Lane) - blink and you'll miss it; it's a tiny, cramped, shadowy place right next to Petra - the sort of Platform 9 3/4 place your eye slides past, but a treasure trove of pulses, spices, and jars of olives. Just up the road is Hamada (25a Walm Lane) - slightly larger and brighter, and a good spot to pick up some bread, baklava or a big bag of monosodium glutamate (no, really).
Hamada has some meat options, but for a proper butcher try Khan Halal Butchers (1f Walm Lane) which has a solid array of beef, lamb and chicken, alongside some fresh vegetables. Forget about the two local Sainsbury's - even the larger one is pretty disappointing and more expensive than the local shops.

Khan Halal Butchers
More interesting still is Willesden Fisheries (1b Walm Lane). I keep forgetting to ask the guys who run it where they are from but my guess is possibly Mauritius, or maybe somewhere like Sudan. Anyhow, they have a great selection of fish - and it's different from most fishmongers in this country: there's no cod, haddock or sole - indeed there's hardly any flatfish at all - instead they have bass, bream, grey mullet and snapper, as well as African fish such as the river-dwelling tilapia.
Willesden Fisheries
Finally, round the corner next to Geezers barbers is a relatively new butcher - the Moura Meat Centre (10 Willesden High Road). This serves the local Portuguese community well (chorizo discussions were conducted in painfully slow English) but has some really interesting Portguese/Brazilian meat and sausage options. Well worth a look.
Moura Meat Centre
So while the Foxtons and Costa might suggest that Willesden Green might at last be starting to turn into a bland middle-class suburb, which can only be a good thing for house prices, let's hope that the more esoteric options stay in place. In the next few weeks watch this space for a little review of a few more local options.

What the area badly needs, though, is a decent pub: Angie's is fun but not for the faint-hearted, while the Queensbury is just a sterile yuppie cliche. Hopefully we'll see a better option appearing in coming months.

Friday, 22 July 2011

From Pizza Express to Starbucks: premium brands extend their options

The power of premium brands, eh. The other day, my girlfriend (who drives to work) and I were walking along the pavement when she grabbed my arm, turned towards a thirty-something power-dressing woman clutching a coffee, and muttered to me wistfully, "I wish I got the train to work in the morning, so I could clutch a Starbucks cappuccino on my daily commute."

Then, after a moment, a nervous laugh: "I got so carried away, I forgot I don't even like coffee!"

Transferring a successful restaurant brand into a supermarket staple, without losing brand values, is a tricky balancing act. Pizza Express have negotiated the tightrope well without losing their vision, even branching our into sundries such as dressing.

Rather surprisingly, Pizza Express feature in the "top ten most working class brands" as reported in a recent study by research/strategy agency Britainthinks which looked into the differences between a self-defined middle class and working class.

Interestingly, according to Britainthinks, 71% of Britons consider themselves middle class, although according to the National Readership Survey, 55% of the population would be defined as "middle class" according to the well established standard NRS social grading system.

The study reports some key findings differentiating attitudes between the self-defined middle and working classes, and some key traits of the working class: particularly interesting for me was the fact that the "working class" generally consider themselves "above" another class - the non-working class; and that television habits are distinctly different; the research living up to the cliché, the self-defined working class prefer soaps and reality TV, while the self-defined middle class are busy watching the Antiques Roadshow.

A side question here about methodology: were respondents asked at the beginning of the survey to define their class, and then asked questions subsequently? If so, I would suggest there might be a danger that respondents felt their answers should "conform" socially to their stated class. This might also help explain the clichéd cafetiere which was supposed to be the item that summed up the middle class (contrast a cringeworthy pair of workman's boots - dirty, of course - for the working class).

All the usual C2DE suspects are there - KFC, Iceland, The Sun - but celebrants of rocket and parma ham, Pizza Express sneak into the top ten. Deborah Mattinson of Britainthinks wondered if the launch of supermarket products might have had something with Pizza Express's new-found fame as a working class icon.

Marketing textbooks are littered with examples of brands launching in new markets, or launching new product lines, diluting their brand values, and losing brand equity as a result. Pizza Express took the gamble of launching into a crowded market with their supermarket pizzas and are seemingly as strong as ever; an even tougher challenge is faced by Starbucks, who launched their VIA instant coffee brand in the UK last year.

Where Starbucks lead in the social media space, others follow - their MyStarbucksIdea co-creation concept spawning hundreds of case studies across Slideshare - but, according to Starbucks head honcho Howard Schultz, instant coffee has been in the pipeline for twenty years (although I note that a caramel flavour has been introduced partly following a suggestion via the community).

Conventional wisdom suggested that a premium brand like Starbucks was taking a foolish risk by launching an instant product - I'm not so sure. There's a difference between "premium" and "only for special occasions"; Starbucks isn't the sort of brand they'd like to treat yourself to once a month - it's a brand that wants to be part of your daily routine, as my girlfriend proved. The middle class cafetiere cliché lifestyle without the washing up to go with it. More engagement with the brand (to go with your CD collection). Of course it's easy for me to say, a year after the brand was launched, safe in the knowledge that it's been immensely successful!

But how exactly do you launch a product like this into such a crowded space? The Internet Advertising Bureau have published a little case study video of an ad tracking study undertaken by GfK.

A promotional piece by the IAB it may be, but the research clearly shows an augmentation in reach with online advertising, and demonstrating the success that digital ads have in improving both product awareness (up 19% compared to the control group), and also brand favourability and purchase intent. Product awareness was already quite high amongst the target female audience, and with this group it was purchase intent which was boosted most. The video touched on the differences between portals (for high reach), lifestyle sites (where consumers are really engaged with the site, for a longer period of time) and social media; it was inferred that social media advertising gave the best value for money in terms of driving brand favourability and purchase intent for a low cost. Food for thought.

Three songs

Three songs which have nothing in common...

Vikter Duplaix - "That Night"
Rednex - "Cotton Eye Joe"
Prince - "Darling Nikki"

There is a reason for posting those three songs. Don't even ask. As you were.

For the record, I've mainly been listening to Gesualdo's Tenebrae this evening. Startlingly good.

Friday, 15 July 2011

The one that got away

There are few things in life worse than wondering what might have been. A moment, an opportunity, dithering, worrying, the moment passes, the opportunity lost. Then years of wondering what would have happened, had the opportunity been seized. "Should I have been bolder? Should I have done something stupid?" Years of imagining that the moment is still attainable, running scenarios over in your head, ever more fanciful ideas. Futility and reality need not be a concern where imagination is required.

Then, years on, reality. A line is drawn, finality, closure. The opportunity will never exist again. The rabbit has bolted the net, never to be seen again; the one that got away, to be left only with a lingering lifetime of imagining "what if", dwindling away into a mere shell of a memory. A shell maybe, but that husk will never decay.

We move on; perhaps maturity is realising that most of life's daydreams are never fulfilled.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Getting the balance right between search and social media

In the last few days an American study for Google has shown that search, rather than social media, is the biggest driver of word of mouth.

The timing of this announcement was interesting, as it coincided with the launch of the Google+ social network. Forget all the excitable "Is it a Facebook killer" chatter; it is a logical progression for a search engine to move towards more human-generated content - based on both your own preferences and those of your contacts.

I haven't played with Google+ yet (OK, OK, what I mean is I haven't had an invite...DAYS behind the times, darling) but my hope would be that rather than merely offering an alternative to established social networks, that it would integrate heavily with other Google products, and I imagine that Google themselves are thinking the same way. Much is being made of the "circles" concept, but I would think that there is more at stake with heavy integration with YouTube, Blogger and, yes, search. The "+1" concept, alongside the recent trend for including acquaintances' tweeted link in search results  already means that Google are actively "socialising" their search offering. In an excellent blog post, Simon Mainwaring says that "search...is becoming increasingly inward facing, with the individual as filter."

As a colleague of mine pointed out, this may limit our own personal web somewhat, if we are restricting ourselves to search results based on the preferences of others. He has a point; the fact that we are naturally social  creatures, I hope, won't be an excuse to diminish the breadth of our web universe. However, this provides an immediate reference point - if time is short, then a link that your friend has recommended is likely to be your first port of call over anything else. I hope this can be extended into Google+ to make it a content-driven social network; Facebook has no handy way of storing your favourite content in one place ("Likes" are a mess), while social bookmarking sites are sprawling and geek-heavy. If Google get this right, Google+ could be a Digg killer.

But it seems that search itself is a social phenomenon, which leads us back to the Keller Fay study. They don't go into methodological details but claim that "conversations referencing search are thought by consumers to be more credible and more likely to purchase, compared to those that reference social media." They emphasise that offline word of mouth dominates online; but that both TV and internet content drive those conversations (online and offline). And of the internet content that drives conversations, it's the stuff found in search engines that is the most influential.

This goes slightly against the fashionable line of thinking that all conversations just happen organically, that we're purely influenced by those around us, and that there are no tangible drivers; I think it also makes sense. We ARE all capable of thinking for ourselves, of looking for things we like, then finding them (and I'd say this study vindicates Google's search algorithm somewhat if we're liking the things we find via search!) and sharing our favourite content. After all, isn't it natural to TRY and influence people?

This research is a clear warning that "buzz" agencies need to do more than just creating some snappy content, shoving it on Twitter and Facebook and waiting for the rest to happen organically. Ultimately, if brands are measuring their word-of-mouth success purely by numbers of retweets and Facebook Likes then they will fail; the interactions between our online conversations, offline conversations and, critically, the actions we take as a result, that are most important. It transpires that the internet and TV have equal importance in influencing consumer conversations, but that the internet is used as an information checking tool (as one might expect) and that search, in particular, has more bite: "conversations referencing search are thought by consumers to be more credible (+25%) and more likely to lead to purchase (+ 17%), compared to those that reference social media."

By subtly integrating their various products yet keeping them disparate, boosting their core search product, and offering a simplified interface to social networking, Google are taking the fight back to Facebook - and it seems they have a new lease of life.

Update: this article in the International Business Times is worth a read.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

The day I met Cy Twombly

I met Cy Twombly once in 2002, in Edinburgh. I was working at the Assembly Rooms, promoting Festival shows. One sunny morning I bounced up to a chap sitting having a coffee in the Lane Bar. Talking quickly and animatedly, I told him - in rather more detail than he would presumably have liked - about the show. Now I was always pretty good at promoting shows to people, but the lone gent sipping a coffee at 10am tends to be an irascible species. He nodded and smiled politely, and thanked me for the flyer.

"By the way," he continued, "I have a show of my own on at the moment. You must take a flyer of mine." And with that, he handed me a large white flyer on posh white card, and I left the poor man in peace.

I remember raising an eyebrow as his show was on at Inverleith House - so he must have been somebody. I also remember that he had an unusual name. Then I forgot all about it.

It wasn't until years later that I saw the name again - a Twombly painting was on sale, estimated price £2 million. By sheer chance (and being painfully untidy) I still had the flyer. Sure enough, this was my guy.

To my knowledge I've never seen a Cy Twombly painting "live". But Cy Twombly, dubbed the greatest "post-Abstract Expressionist", who died three days ago aged 83, will always fill a little place in my memory.

News of the World advertisers need to think less about facts, and more about perceptions

The public and political reaction to the News of the World phone hacking has been unprecedented. It's rare that the response to a political or media issue is so unanimous and hostile. While there is lots of hyperbole and hand-wringing, I feel this is one of those times where it is entirely justified. Vince Cable must be feeling very smug at the moment. But brands who advertise in the paper will be nervously judging the mood and trying to work out what urgent changes they need to make to their marketing tactics.

Lot of research will be in progress at the moment to determine just how toxic an association with the NOTW actually is. In monetary terms, how does the loss of cash (from buying the ad space) and value generated by the advertising, weigh up against the loss of brand equity from the downturn in corporate reputation? As Keith Trivitt points out, brand reputations can take years to build but can be tossed away in a matter of days.

This research might be asking how seriously the whole episode is perceived; how the NOTW reputation has suffered; how consumers would be disposed towards brands who advertise in the NOTW; and, perhaps most importantly, to get a sense of how long this whole shitstorm will last for. My guess is that brands would be best advised to pull their ads from the NOTW with immediate effect, sit tight and monitor the situation in the coming days, and quietly carry on as normal after everything's blown through. The losses could be measured in the tens of thousands in most cases - chickenfeed to many brands. This can be offset by the uplift in brand equity as the result of a "good" (in the eyes of the Twittersphere) response.

Ford is a case in point. A solid, firm response was met with a positive reaction online, notwithstanding the point that their media buying agency, Mindshare, are simply putting more ads in the Screws' sister paper, The Sun. Other brands can minimise negative sentiment with decisive reactions. Yes, there is an argument against doing anything rash. But this is a world where "rash" and "social media" are bosom buddies.

The Co-Operative would do well to learn that. Contacted early for a reaction, a spokesman gave the rather blunt reply, "These are allegations. We have no plans to withdraw our advertising."

This was badly misjudged for several reasons. Firstly, they badly judged the prevailing wind. I have never seen a social media backlash as savage and prolonged as this one (most flare up and die down in a few hours). Next, the Co-Op's brand is built on a central platform of an ethical stance. If you shout loudly about "taking ethics to the next level" then the last thing you want to be doing is letting people actively associate you with such a putrid affair. To repeat the point: brand reputations are built carefully over a period of years...why throw it away? Thirdly, the fact that at the time they were only "allegations" is neither here nor there as far as the brand is concerned. A brand is simply "a collection of perceptions in the mind of the consumer" according to Nigel Hollis. That's all; just a set of whims, visions, discernments, not rational but only in our minds. The Co-Op does indeed have a strong brand identity, but given that that identity itself is irrational, why justify the marketing tactics with such a wooden, rational response? It sounded as if the Co-Operative were trying almost to stick up for the Screws - I can think of no logical reason why. It is instructive to note that apparently more tweets were sent to the Co-Op on Tuesday than to any other NOTW advertiser.

As for the loss in revenue, there is likely to be a short term downturn in readership. On the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised if there were a lot of people who went to the NOTW site to take a sneaky look (I must confess to this) only to be knocked back by the paywall. So online traffic is unlikely to pick up in the short term. Inevitably, it leaked out that Ford's media agency, Mindshare, had just transferred their ads into the Sun; brands which take that risk (or indeed any Murdoch title) should be poised to drop that hot potato at short notice depending on what unveils in the next few days. The situation continues to develop at volcanic pace.

One interesting side note from a social media perspective is the lack of propagation of opinion from Twitter through to Facebook. I follow a variety of people on Twitter across marketing, research, social media, political, musical and theatrical circles, as well as a handful of local people, and at times nearly half of my Twitter feed has been part of the #notw feed. On Facebook, however, where I'm friends with 400 people in a balanced cross-section of society (OK, I know, I would say that) there was almost no sign.

Most importantly of all, has this rage extended offline? As I type, a feature on Today asks residents of a London estate, who buy the NOTW, their opinions. Based on a convenience sample of course, and unscientific in every way, but all the people spoken to thought the behaviour was "disgusting" or similar, while several said they wouldn't buy the paper at the weekend (although one said she still would). They weren't asked about the brands, so advertisers will have to await the results of their questionnaires to determine the likely loss in brand equity.

Finally, a few articles to read: some fantastically savage vitriol and anti-Murdoch hostility from Peter Oborne, Matthew Norman and Damien Thompson. The coverage in Marketing Week, spearheaded by Lara O'Reilly, has also been excellent.