Monday 8 July 2024

Synthetic, fake or just sh*t?

Fur, leather, meat - when you don’t want to wear or eat the real thing, there are alternatives. These are often described as “synthetic”, meaning that they’ve been been artificially produced in order to closely imitate the natural product. 

As well as the “artificial/not natural” connotations, “synthetic” also has associations of insincerity or affectedness. Fake. But fake can be a positive too, especially if presented as a clever alternative to using up natural resources, be they animal, vegetable or mineral.

I’m a bit slow off the mark, I admit. I only consciously heard the phrase “synthetic data” a couple of months ago in a seminar about “The Future of Measurement.” It was used in this context for data generated by AI to patch holes. This made me a little uneasy, but I brushed it off - after all, we’ve been patching holes in data via statisitcal modelling and analysis for as long as I’ve been in this business, and no doubt before that.

But the mention sparked a memory from another seminar, or something I read in the marketing press. That market research organisations such as Kantar are busy with R&D on “synthetic samples” which can generate “human-style responses.”

Does the euphemistic “synthetic sample” really mean fake people?

A year ago, Kantar were still moderately cautious about “synthetic samples”.  While AI has some great applications in market research (coding open-ended responses is an obvious example), the article points out some of the shortcomings of using AI as a substitute for human respondents. For example, look at the differences here:

I’m not surprised that the AI is more enthusiastic than real people about statements that sound AI-generated. Who in their right mind would agree to gobbledegook such as “my product is a way for me to bond/connect with others who share my passion”? Particularly if it’s bog cleaner or something.

The article concludes that: 

Our conclusion is that right now, synthetic sample currently has biases, lacks variation and nuance in both qual and quant analysis. On its own, as it stands, it’s just not good enough to use as a supplement for human sample.

And Kantar advise a blended approach based on real people and supplemented with AI.

Fast-forward a year and Kantar are far more gung-ho about it all. Theyve launched an AI Lab and appointed a Chief AI Scientist . And theres a new GenAI marketing assistant, too. 

Competitive pressure, the race to be first, client demands for faster, faster - or genuine innovation and leadership? Who knows - but Kantar are not alone. Mark Ritson has written enthusiastically about his chums at an outfit called Evidenza.AI

Evidenza say we survey AI copies of your customers to build finance-friendly sales and marketing plans ... we generate hundreds of synthetic customers based on your product category ... we test your messaging with synthetic customers.

Meaning, I guess, use AI to generate marketing communication and throw it to the customer copies to get a tick on that box. No messy humans involved.

Self-fulfilling prophecy? Can we look forward to synthetic sales, too?

Cory Doctorow takes it a few leaps further in his brilliantly-titled critical piece, The Coprophagic AI crisis. From warnings about botshit ("inaccurate or fabricated content shat out at scale”) and human-created content sinking in the cesspit ("As the web becomes an anaerobic lagoon for botshit, the quantum of human-generated “content” in any internet core sample is dwindling to homeopathic levels.) he goes on to consider the consequences should AI Search really take off:

The question is, why the fuck would anyone write the web if the only “person” who can find what they write is an AI’s crawler, which ingests the writing for its own training, but has no interest in steering readers to see what you’ve written? If AI search ever becomes a thing, the open web will become an AI CAFO and search crawlers will increasingly end up imbibing the contents of its manure lagoon.

Food for thought, and I feel distinctly queasy.

It’s another example of a contained system or black box that’s easy to control. Like home-grown problem: solution advertising.

And the answer is to get out of the system, go back to first principles, get inspiration from the internot. And remember that we are responsible for the data we produce and how it’s used. This stuff does matter.

Tuesday 2 July 2024

RETROWURST: World Cup Image Boost July 2006


Back in October, I regurgitated this Extrawurst, written originally in October 2005. It was all about Du bist Deutschland, a noble idea but rather worthy in the campaign execution. The idea was to give Germans and Germany a kick of positive self-confidence about the country’s place in the world. And I commented that the following year, the job was done by hosting the World Cup. 

This month, I’ve dug out the piece I wrote 9 months later, in July 2006. The World Cup had just wrapped up. As I put it then (rather pompously) “... the repositioning of Germany has been achieved on the pitches of Dortmund, Berlin, München et al.”

I don’t think the media had got completely obsessed with the word Sommermärchen at that point, but you can sense the euphoria in my writing. Rattling on about inclusiveness and a “new Germany” - warm-hearted, friendly, welcoming and open, progressive, modern and humanly efficient.


Well, it is over a week now since Germany crashed out of the World Cup to Italy. Since then, we have had the “little final” against Portugal where Klinsmann’s boys trotted out their stuff once more to the joy of the crowd, the real final in all its head-butting drama and even a “little victory parade” in Berlin the morning after the “little final”. Klinsmann has announced he’s standing down, but no-one here seems to begrudge him his decision and his life. The sun is still shining, the cars and houses are still sporting their flags and everyone, but everyone, is still talking about how fantastic it all was.


Turn the clock back three years and it was all a different story. The German Embassy in London, together with the Goethe Institute held a conference on improving the image of Germany in the UK. Numerous marketing experts were invited to discuss how Germany could overcome the dire perception the country has abroad, especially in the UK. I don’t know the outcome of the conference, but I think we can assume it was all talk and no Lederhosen.


Similarly, I wrote at length about the internal campaign here which ran at the end of 2005 to try and re-kindle some sort of national pride in a negative, depressed, Angst-ridden people, haunted by a past that most of them were not responsible for. If you want to have a look, check out Extrawurst October 2005. Although I claim no abilities as a clairvoyant, I did suggest that perhaps actions speak louder than words and that maybe one thing that would get Germany back on its feet would be winning the World Cup on home soil.


Well, what do you know? They may not have won the cup, but they all have nice little bronze medals to be very proud of (has anyone noticed that bronze is what happens if you mix the colours of the German flag together?) and Germany is still in a state of euphoria. Somehow, we could have saved the money from Bertelsmann & Co as Klinsmann and his merry men seem to have achieved a miracle. Just as the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, so the re-positioning of Germany has been achieved on the pitches of Dortmund, Berlin, München et al. Who would have thought it?


Internally, it seems that the German Angst has packed up its bags and left (with Sweden, or, more likely, Argentina) and people are actually smiling and talking to each other. No-one is ashamed of the black, red and gold flag anymore and people are talking with enthusiasm about how wonderful the whole event was, how splendidly the team played and generally how much fun it was to have so many visitors from around the world. No-one is even that bitter or twisted about Italy winning: the Germans believe they are winners, too.


The German embassy could have spared their conference, too as well as the German Tourist Board’s rather limp efforts in the Tube with Geoff Hurst as celebrity endorsement for what a super place Germany is (it is, really!). Externally, people and papers around the world have been deluged with images of a new Germany: warm-hearted, friendly, welcoming and open, progressive, modern and humanly efficient. Those that actually experienced it all first-hand seem to be unanimous in their praise and the effect seems to have been particularly marked with the English fans and the British media. So much so that, by the end of the tournament, any England fan who tried to provoke by singing “Ten German bombers” or similar would have felt a complete yesterday’s plonker.


I am sure there are many, many lessons that we in branding and marketing can learn from Germany’s self-generated re-positioning. I’ll just go through one or two that seem to occur to me immediately.


First and foremost, as I hinted in October last year, it’s all about actions and doing rather than saying and telling. How a brand behaves, what it does and how a person experiences it directly is far, far more important than what the brand tells you about itself, which you may or may not believe - if you’re even bothering to listen.


Within a brand, you do have to be careful about choosing which of those facets of the brand to put on the public stage and I am more and more convinced that how to choose these is more a case of gut feel and experience than any amount of analysis or research. Let’s look at the managers of the German team 2002 and 2006, Rudi Völler and Jürgen Klinsmann. Although of roughly the same footballing generation, the two characters couldn’t be more different. Völler was a fine footballer but his appeal was mainly to German males. Unfortunately, his perm, moustache and very German old-school approach sent out the wrong signals to the world at large. Klinsmann, on the other hand, is known to have a more world-open approach and his lack of macho and aggression gave him appeal to the world at large with his earlier diving antics forgiven and forgotten! Or take two players at random – Oliver Kahn, the star of Völler’s squad who spent all but one game of the 2006 tournament on the bench, is an aggressive, snarling macho titan who threw a hissy fit when he wasn’t picked as number one goalie. Contrast him with Klinsmann’s favourite sub, David Odonkor, an agile, creative, African German whose sheer delight in running up and down that pitch couldn’t have been clearer.


Only plan so far: plan what can be planned. It is important for all the hygiene factors to be in place, but you have to leave room for luck, spontaneity and, importantly, people’s participation. People have to choose themselves whether they join in, and the brand has to grow of its own accord. We can only plant the seeds and guide the plant in the right direction. I heard that there were already plans for England’s victory celebrations in place before the kick-off of the first game. Mistake.


While we’re on the plant analogy, we can do a lot to provide the right conditions for a brand to grow and flourish. In Germany’s case the arrangements made for the fan fests, travel and policing were superb. And I didn’t hear any stories about the beer running out at crucial moments! Of course, there are other environmental factors that we can’t do much about, such as the weather.


One of the reasons for the success or turnaround of the brand Germany via hosting the World Cup was its inclusiveness. The motto about friends and guests really was lived-out: everyone felt welcome. There was never a feeling about football being an exclusively male domain or something just for those-in-the-know. Everyone really was invited, and it was extraordinary to see how many German women, including Frau Merkel, got caught up into the spirit of the whole thing.


An optimistic attitude carries a brand a long way. Before the WM, it was all doom and gloom here about Germany generally (the ageing population, the pension reform, the tax increases), the WM (hooligans, terrorist attacks) and Klinsmann and his team (hopeless) but Jürgen and the football fans carried on regardless, giving the critics and doom-mongers a sympathetic smile on the way.


Finally, I think you have to judge when enough is enough. From a P.R point of view, making it to 3rd place couldn’t have been bettered. I think that, if Germany had made it to the final, particularly through yet another “clinical” display of penalties, the new-found warmth for the country may have started cooling down as the old clichés about Teutonic invincibility crept back in.


And Klinsmann, too, has timed his exit well. He has saved the football team and the country. What is there left here for him to do?


Well, in 2024, Klinsmann has deserted his homeland for California. But Rüdi and Olli are still doing the football dinosaur stomp around press and pitches. English fans are still being warned to go easy on “10 German Bombers”.

The tournament so far has been rather plagued by crappy trains, bad weather, tales of beer running out and rumblings about right wing extremism around Europe.

Germany has had bad luck in the draw. I’m wondering how much longer they’ll be in. And how long England’s good luck will last.

Reading about Summer 2006 has made me feel nostalgic for a pre-social media age. The focus was on the big screens back then. 

But ... it’s not over until the final whistle in a couple of weeks. 

9 games is plenty of time to make history.

Thursday 27 June 2024

Body Parts


I’ve spent the last quarter-century blabbing on to whoever will listen about the expression “the consumer” - here, here and here (and there’s plenty more). It’s dehumanising, depersonalising and creates a notion of “other” that we don’t need.

Unfortunately, I have no record of my valiant attempt around the turn of the century to convince P&G otherwise. Although this slide does survive from that Powerpoint of long ago:

I can still feel the disdain in those inverted commas.

It particularly annoys me when pronounced “the consoomer”. But that’s just me being pernickety and a bit of a bore.

This depersonalisation becomes even more yukky when “the poor consoomer” is dissected into various body parts. And pounced upon by over-avaricious marketers:

“Owning more hearts and minds.”

“Increasing our share of stomach.”

And with social media, and the focus on Attention as a metric, there’s a very nasty expression that conjures up even more grisly images:

“Capturing eyeballs.”

I shudder to think what new KPIs marketers for period products, condoms or loo roll have these days.

A couple of years ago, I heard mutterings about “The Ear Economy”, but that seems to have gone rather quiet now. Or I’m going deaf.

Yes, yes, yes. It’s only words and a figure of speech.

Does it really matter?

Probably. If only because each of us is far, far more than the sum of our body parts. 

Friday 14 June 2024

Hell’s bells!


I’ve been harping on about Purpose for nearly as long as this old blog has been going. There’s this post, and this one here, then this one about all those Whys and Hows and Whats and their chums, or this about the lack of humility demonstrated by brands (or their managers), and musing on whether brands can save the world. Or not. 

Or you can do a search, or press “purpose” on the RHS, and you’ll undoubtably find many more.

Author Nick Asbury has been way smarter about his thoughts on Purpose, formulated them all into a coherent story, and published a book which was officially launched last night.

Here’s a review I did earlier.


“Your business is none of my politics”

This book is the story of how the idea of a mandatory “higher social purpose beyond profit” gripped the corporate world, especially those involved in brand marketing and advertising. And the result: how purpose leads to bad marketing - and a worse world.

It’s a view, a perspective, backed up with substance, not an academic paper or text book (thank goodness). A lot of the argument resonated with me personally. Although I don’t agree with every word (which would be weird), this book has been an immense help to me in working out why I’ve felt some unease in my work as a freelance brand consultant over the last few years.

I guess everyone who works in brands or marketing has taken their own byway to Nick’s “Road to Hell”. Setting up as a freelancer in 2003, I was interested in how to reconcile integrity and responsibility with business. CSR was the buzzword of the time. Two ex-colleagues of mine from Saatchis, Giles Gibbons & Steve Hilton, had recently set up a consultancy called Good Business and written a book with the same title, described as a “radical manifesto for capitalism.”

To cut a long story short, I supported the concept of corporate (maybe not brand) purpose for many years, until I noticed that it had been hijacked and metamorphised into something else. In the book, this politicising of brands is covered in detail. I still remember the days when I worked for major brands who prided themselves on being “for everyone” and made a point of actively discouraging communication that could be perceived as political.

“The Road to Hell” is free of finger-pointing, preaching and ranting. It’s written with intelligence, charm, humour - and, most importantly, hope. There is redemption - it’s up to us to follow the pointers and find it. And not be too proud to retrace our footsteps.

I don’t buy business books often these days. So many of those lurking in airport bookshops tend to go stale very quickly. But “The Road to Hell” is one that will stand up to re-reading in years to come.


As an interesting aside, that’s the version posted on Goodreads.

I tried with my friends at Amazon.

They told me to go to “H-word place” with my disgusting review.

No comment. 

Gone are the days when they lauded me as a Top1000 reviewer, but today they only really rate ratings.

Thursday 6 June 2024

RETROWURST: World Cup Beer June 2006


A bit of a funny this time - a World Cup with a difference ...


Well, it is certainly a funny old tournament with a few surprises so far. Whoever would have thought that Argentina, Brazil, Italy and Spain would get knocked out in the first round? Or that the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Tunisia would make it to the quarter finals?

Some results have been a bit more expected, with Saudi Arabia, Angola, Iran and Trinidad & Tobago making a rapid exit with no points scored, or France sneaking though to the semi-final. Or what about the England: Germany clash in the first round of the knock-out stages? Expected, perhaps, but for England to get through against such an overdose of German pride and tradition on their home ground? Commendable, but then the tragedy of being beaten by an unexpectedly strong Sweden in the quarter final…


The stars of the tournament, as expected perhaps, are the Czech Republic but the dark horse has really been Serbia and Montenegro who have knocked out Holland, Portugal, the Ivory Coast and those pesky Swedes on the way to their place in the final.


Well, you’ve twigged, haven’t you? I’m not talking about that World Cup. But can you guess on what basis this “alternative World Cup” is? It’s not too difficult: Germans as we know pride themselves on their beer and someone at Stern magazine had the bright idea of testing the beers of the 32 World Cup football finalists.


Despite some difficulties in securing products- with tales of bottles exploding en route and non-alcoholic beers being held up at the border for alcohol tax, beers were obtained for all 32 participating nations, except Togo, where the beer from the Ivory Coast went to test twice, once masquerading in a Togo shirt! The beers were tested blind by four Sternjournalists plus one beer expert from Austria (who apparently did the tasting in full Austrian traditional costume).


The beers that made it through the first round were:

GROUP A: Germany (Beck’s), Poland (Masuren)

GROUP B: Sweden (Old Gold), England (Old Speckled Hen)

GROUP C: Serbia & Montenegro (Jelen Pivo), Ivory Coast (Flag)

GROUP D: Mexico (Corona Extra), Portugal (Sagres)

GROUP E: Ghana (Akosombo), Czech Republic (Budweiser)

GROUP F: Japan (Asahi), Croatia (Karlovacko)

GROUP G: France (Kronenbourg 1664), Togo (Flag)

GROUP H: Ukraine (Obolon), Tunisia (Celtia)


The quarter finals were between England and Sweden, Serbia/Montenegro and Ivory Coast, Ghana and Czech Republic and France and Tunisia.


England got kicked out at this point, with semi-finals between Sweden and Serbia/Montenegro and Czech Republic and France, leaving this as a very European contest at this stage.


The final featured two teams from the former Eastern Europe, Czech Republic and Serbia/Montenegro. It was a close-cut thing, but the favourites won in the end with four points to Serbia/Montenegro’s three.


The comments that the judges made about the beers are interesting. The Argentinean beer, “Quilmes” was described as “like water with beer flavour” while the Iran beer, “Golden Delster” was described as “alcohol-free with milk sugar – and it stinks of old hay.” The English beer, “Old Speckled Hen” was described as “amber coloured, lovely note of hops, light toasted aroma” and England fans will be pleased to hear that this beer kicked out Beck’s (the beer, not the footballer) 5:2 at the quarter final stage.


Note, of course, that it was the original Czech Budvar Budweiser that won and not the pale US imitation. The USA, by the way, was represented by “Miller Genuine Draft” and failed to progress beyond the group stage.


On another note, the Germans were the masters of anti-hype about their team here in the build-up. The team that has now gained that so-familiar horrible unstoppable momentum of efficiency that always ends in tears at penalty shoot-outs were all-but-written-off at the start of the tournament (“we’ll be really pleased to get through the first round”) and Stern even published a consoling article for fans should the team make an early exit: Things Germany is World Champion of. Some of these are predictable: in export, in number of tax laws, in submarine construction – but did you know that the Germans are also World Champions in running backwards, donating to charity, robot football (well, perhaps we knew that…), spitting cherry stones or the quaintly-named Arschbomben-Springen der Damen (“Ladies’ Cannonball/Divebomb)?


It’s enough to make you reach for a Jelen Pivo!


I do wonder if this influenced me 14 years later, in the midsts of Covid, to hold an alternative Eurovision - with wine. And if I remember rightly - difficult in the circumstances - Italy won that one!

Thursday 23 May 2024


 A German network pal of mine recently asked what gets people’s goat about LinkedIn, for a talk he was preparing. Although he called it a rant. 

Replies (in no particular order) included: toxic positivity and enthusiasm, humblebrags, Simon Sinek, “Great Leaders do ....”, banal everyday experiences dressed up as profound insights “My cat was sick in the kitchen today. Here’s what I learned”, or once-in-a-lifetime experiences dressed down as business tricks “I proposed to my girlfriend this weekend - here’s what it taught me about B2B sales”, being scammed - yes, you ghastly creatures that want your grubby hands on my pension, woe-is-me victim stories, self-righteous virtue-signalling posturing, AI-generated and AI-stolen bullshit content, a general lack of lightness all around ...

Phew. I recognised most of it, along with the cultish nature of the site as described here by Coco Khan. She bemoans that the site now has its own language - no surprises there as it’s all prompts and AI. It takes a bit of effort, but I refuse to sound like a 5-year old at a party with a bouncy castle and a clown ("super-excited and thrilled!”), to “reach out”, to blab on about authenticity and vulnerability or read posts that hundreds or thousands have already liked.

What made me sad was Coco’s description of her friend whose experience is rich and diverse, yet doesn’t fit neatly into the boxes of LinkedIn. Know the feeling. And she puts it well when she says: “It’s shifting how we see our accomplishments, what we assign value to and what we don’t.” 

I am not a brand, I am a free woman. Or something. 

But, as a freelancer I’m stuck with it. Sort of at its mercy.

I’ll play the game up to a point. But I’m happy to be LinkedOut when it comes to real life.

My German pal, who’s smarter than me with this sort of stuff advised doing some proactive culling to get the algorithm working more in my direction. And it was strangely satisfying.

Thursday 16 May 2024

Hung up


When I started this blog, I didn’t have an iPhone. It was iPod that brought me into Apple, followed by a MacBook and only then, the capitulation

I started using social media on a laptop, and as far as I'm concerned,  Facebook can stay there. I’ve never had the app on my phone, and it’s been a good decision. Ditto never joining Twitter. Although I’ll admit to having the Instagram app in my pocket. 

Have I missed out? Possibly. My biggest question is whether, had I leapt onto TikTok in the early days, might I have made something more of my children’s books? But somehow, I doubt it. I have a secretive nature (the clue's in the name) and I am now rather thankful that if I’m rising anywhere, it’s into obscurity.

The topic of mobile phones, social media and the potential damage they’re doing to people’s mental well-being, particularly the young, is hard to avoid these days. The sense of nostalgia for a world they never knew is strong amongst young people, as expressed in this article by Freya India. (Although I remember being obsessed with the 1950s and before in my teens, so maybe it’s part of growing up.)

There’s an interesting study out this week from More in Common  . The topline conclusion is that the Brits are more hung-up on their smartphones and more in favour of restrictions than people in France, Germany or the US. Here are just a couple of charts:

44% of Brits go for an hour or less without looking at their phone, compared to only 25% of Germans. That’s a major difference and one I can well imagine from my UK trips. 

Lots of questions, obviously.

Is it push or pull? It’s certainly more difficult to get by in the UK without a smartphone than in Germany, even with something as simple as paying for car parking. 

What are people checking their phone for? The weather? Messages from colleagues? News? Football scores? Or how many likes they’ve clocked up in the last 10 minutes?

Regulation and implementing restrictions is a huge area, and one where all parties - with conflicting interests - have to find common ground and work together. Government, social media platforms, telecoms companies, academics and health professionals ...

One thing the More in Common report does point out, which makes a lot of sense, is that all technology is not equal. This isn’t about technophobia, and of course smartphones have many beneficial functions. 

Surely it’s not too much of a challenge to make a helpful, useful phone for young people? With the functional stuff but less of the potentially dysfunctional?