Among the keynote speakers at the annual World Business Forum at Sydney’s ICC was global marketing and business transformation guru Martin Lindstrom, who – ahead of his address – spoke to Mumbrella on the power of storytelling for culture, pretending to be a woman in Saudi Arabia, why marketers need to stop living sterile lives, and the abundance of fake brand purposes.
World of Business Ideas (WOBI) held the forum over two days this week, featuring a stellar lineup of thought leaders in business. The event consumed two floors of Sydney’s International Convention Centre, attracting thousands of delegates from a range of industries.
The forum began with a keynote by innovation expert and Stanford professor Nathan Furr, before a fiery address from Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of Grameen bank, Muhammad Yunus.
Yunus’ fireside segment saw him proclaim the death of social business entrepreneurship, and the omnipresent greed which exists in 21st century society as a consequence of excessive focus on meritocratic success, individualism, corporate titles, artificial happiness and systematic erosion of creativity in children as young as 3.
Day two of WBF saw author Tal Ben-Shahar give a compelling, emotive address on gratitude and its power when embedded into leadership style, as well as former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina deliver a powerful keynote on the transformative approach to problem-solving in organisations, drawing on her humble beginnings at AT&T to illustrate the life-changing power of targeting and identifying problems collaboratively.
Ahead of his address – which the event MC claimed was ‘best for last’ – Mumbrella spoke with Martin Lindstrom, founder and chairman of the Lindstrom Company.
Lindstrom has penned several books on the topics of consumer behaviour and branding, including Brandwashed, Buyology, Small Data, and most recently, The Ministry of Common Sense.
Lindstrom previously gave a TED talk on why we need to embrace small data – a phenomenon he describes as “emotional DNA”, where proximity, observation and investigation of consumers’ behaviours and lifestyles can ultimately form the foundation of a new brand, product innovation or business.
His keynote discussed the power of small data in addition to the significance of great storytellers in business and advertising.
However, Lindstrom was emphatic that marketers today are living sterilised lives that lead them to ‘look down’ on their customer rather than empathise with them. Lindstrom also noted the peer pressure for great storytelling in ads has waned over the last decade, partly because brands get away with preaching homogenous, virtue signalling values that they don’t actually practice, and partly because too much emphasis is placed on analysing ‘statistics and spreadsheets’ over the raw small data that tells you who your customers are and what their unmet desires could truly be.
“Marketers today have become so much more rational. The ads you see these days are just not very good anymore. There’s not a lot of storytelling in them. Storytelling is in a crisis at the moment. You don’t see great communication today the way you did 10-15 years ago,” Lindstrom said.
“The people who produce those ads need to justify why they are producing them, and if an ad pops up in a context that makes me buy more, it’s easier to prove that it works. But if it’s a great story that may or may not generate value, marketers are usually told not to do it.
“It’s become a downward spiral, and that has continued on and on and on. It’s gotten to the point where great storytelling is not there, and there is no peer pressure among storytellers to deliver great work.”
“In the old days, there was peer pressure, great art directors would create amazing stories, and they would compete in Cannes or whatever.
“What’s happening is that advertising is a discipline which is no longer respected. People who dream about going into the industry then take another path. The art of what amazing communication and storytelling is is slowly diluted.”
Lindstrom is an ardent believer in the power of storytelling in leadership to cultivate great culture. When I asked whether great storytellers are made or born, Lindstrom paused before explaining they are primarily born. As a child, he would deliver painstakingly rehearsed speeches at every party his parents threw, and he believes that practice fundamentally set him up to be a powerful public storyteller.
“I fundamentally believe great storytellers begin from a very early age. I don’t think it’s necessarily something you can learn over time unless you start from young. But, the more you’re willing to put yourself out there, making the audience the guinea pig, the more you learn from it. And I don’t think you learn it from a book.”
“In our world today, powerful storytellers have that power because they capture audience and we have no attention span right now,” he said.
When it came to leaders aspiring to cultivate powerful storytelling skills, Lindstrom said that it actually isn’t too difficult to differentiate yourself and develop superior skills to your peers, given that “everyone else is pretty crap at it anyway”.
“I guess the saying is, in a world where everyone is blind, the one eyed is the one ruling. Maybe you start from a stage where you’re not fantastic at telling stories and being a speaker. But if you’re very aware of it and train train train, you will become 20-30% better than everyone else. Practice should be on your agenda every day. Your audience is either your colleagues, your company, your shareholders or the world. You can’t create an amazing culture unless you’re good at telling stories.
“Will you become like the Steve Jobs of the world? No, but that’s fine. Because everyone else is pretty crap at it anyway – and they are! There’s so much boring stuff out there, right?” he said.
When it came to uncovering small data, Lindstrom emphasised that marketers need to go in the real world and ‘live’ with their customers to prevent the downward spiral into an empathy-less approach.
“It would be a good idea if they [marketers] spent time with their customers first, rather than looking at statistics and spreadsheets. That they actually get their hands dirty and move into consumers homes. Go out with and be with them, go shopping with them. I have, over the last 15 years, spent time in 3000 different homes across more than 100 countries. I’d drag my clients out there, and they scream and kick and say why should I do it, but time after time my clients notice something extraordinary.”
“For example, I turned into a woman in Saudi Arabia, by dressing in a burqa.
I did it because we had to help the government understand why women weren’t driving in a car. The license was given to them to drive in KSA, but nobody wanted it. The government basically said it was women’s fault but I thought it was something else.
I noticed the peer pressure as a woman in Saudi. How men were harassing women, the eye contact – because I was a woman for a week!
Then we went back, and we created a partnership with the largest supermarket in Saudi Arabia, and we created a parking for women just outside every supermarket so women could walk straight in and not be harassed and show they could drive, and once they got the routine, they became very good drivers.
That is an example about how you assume one thing, but if you do the small data stuff, you begin to see another dimension. And that dimension is often very different to what the numbers are saying.”
Ultimately, Lindstrom still had some optimism for the future of brands and their ability to embody authentic purpose.
“I’d say 99% of brands are faking their purpose right now. But younger generations are getting better at seeing through that – and I appreciate that.”
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