branding, psychology

Familiarity breeds contempt? Maybe not…

Heuristics are mental rules of thumb, simple efficient rules or generalisations which help us to make quick decisions in everyday life.  One of the interesting heuristics that comes up in the book I’m reading at the moment – On Second Thought by Wray Herbert – is the Fluency Heuristic.  It probably won’t come as a surprise to you that if words are written in a harder-to-read typeface, we take more time to process them and hence think more deeply rather than making a snap decision.  The aspect of this heuristic which most intrigued me, however, was the idea that making something more difficult to read or less familiar, makes us value it less.

The example given in the book was of participants in a study ‘buying’ items from a menu of commodities.  Each participant was given the same currency and commodities, the only difference being the typeface in which the menu was written: a clear black font or a difficult to read grey script.  According to Wray, participants in the study consistently rated identical items as less valuable if they’d used the menu with the more unfamiliar script.  He describes how this finding generalises not just to scripts but to other perceptions of familiarity.

How does the way you present your product or service affect your customers’ perception of its familiarity, and hence perhaps its value?  One interesting example is naming your company.  Many smaller high-tech companies use technical-sounding syllables for their names, such as Abgent, Microvisk, Prosonix.  This tech-speak can be important in establishing brand and credibility in a high-tech space – however is it influencing your customers’ perception of value?  Are simpler-sounding names such as Cobalt Light Systems or Oxford Instruments more likely to be valued highly by consumers?  This is certainly the case – according to Wray – for the value of companies during IPOs on the stock exchange.

A company’s name is of course a small part of its brand: the logo, typeface, language on the website and experience with the product are all part of the mix, and each product may have a different, more accessible consumer-facing name.  Next time you’re considering your brand, take a moment to think about its accessibility – whether that’s the typeface, the name or the language – and how that influences perceptions of value.

business management, entrepreneurship, sales

Benefits, not features: but benefits to whom?

Sell the benefits, not the features.  It’s one of the most basic of sales lessons, and has been said many times before.  What often remains unsaid is ‘the benefits to whom?’  It’s really important that you work out who you’re selling to, and put yourself in their shoes.

One classic example is investors versus customers.  I sit on a dry-run panel in Oxford, UK for companies looking to get angel investment.  Most of the companies who pitch have a decent presentation.  Some of them (much to my delight), start with ‘I can solve this problem for my customers’ rather than  ‘my product/technology is great, it works like this’.  However very few start with ‘my company is a good investment because…’ They’ve taken on the benefits not features message, but have forgotten to adjust to the audience.  Show an investor that you have a big market hungry for your unique solution, you’re an experienced team and you know who will buy you out or what your exit strategy is.  Convince them that you’re an opportunity not to be missed and that their money will come back many fold – and then back it up by describing why your customers will buy, how your technology works and how you will beat off competitors.  All of the detail is important, but the investors need to be inspired, need to see some clear benefits to themselves before they’re interested in those details.

The same goes for any presentation.  You have just a few minutes to convince someone to pay attention to what you have to say: so start with the benefits to them, and then move on to the detail once they’re convinced it’s worth listening.  Put yourself in their shoes, and ask the crucial question: why do I care?

Got any other tips and tricks for working out what your audience wants to know?  Has the ‘why do I care?’ question helped you change your perspective before?  Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

innovation principles

Comparing ideas: like for like?

View from Ben Macdui shared from

In the innovation landscape, many local minima occur: ideas which are better than their peers in the immediate locality, but not necessarily the best overall.  These ideas are often very different in character: perhaps one is a service, another a product; one is cheaper but the other has added benefits, one solves two problems and creates another, whilst the other is only partially a solution.  Comparing them is like comparing the heights of different mountains – or the depths of valleys – by walking over them and looking from one to the other, without recourse to GPS.  Like the mountaineers of past generations, who once thought Ben MacDui, not Ben Nevis, was the highest mountain in the UK, innovators naturally find it challenging to judge ideas against one another simply by exploring them.

Instead a different perspective is required: a bird’s eye view, if you will.  This is where criteria become incredibly important.  It’s really key to understand from the outset what makes a good idea, what you really care about, how much you value different attributes.  Spending time up front exploring criteria for success is rarely wasted, and often comes up with surprising answers.  It’s not quite a black and white as GPS, but it certainly beats a random walk.


Ann Widdecombe

Ann Widdecombe has been a popular celebrity recently.  I saw her for 10 minutes or so on Who Wants to be a Millionaire.  During those ten minutes she really made an impression.  She came across as a confident, capable, down-to-earth, but more than anything, decisive.  Where many people – including her celebrity teammate – would dither indecisively after discussing the options and coming to no clear conclusion, Ann was right in there with a decision once no more information was forthcoming, and she didn’t seem to regret one of them.

Decisiveness – or at least the ability to make decisions – is a trait often talked about in the context of great leaders.  Very few people are both decisive and have good judgement.  Even fewer also refuse to regret decisions already made, though this last skill is possibly the most important of the three.   I have no idea if Ann Widdecombe regrets, and other people are better placed than I to judge if her decisions were good ones, but I was left in no doubt as to her decisiveness.  British politics has truly lost a lion – one with the courage of her convictions.

innovation principles

Innovation ≠ Idea Creation

Often the insight in innovation is choosing and developing the right ideas, not in coming up with them in the first place.

I have worked on innovation with many blue-chip companies such as Shell, Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo.   Often, they’ll come asking for an idea, a solution, the  ‘golden bullet’ that will solve a key business or technical issue.  However I’ve been struck by how often the value in an innovation program is not the ideas that are generated, but the frameworks used to explore and classify the portfolio. Sometimes the solution is already there, ready to be drawn out from the shadows and built into a winner.  Other times there is no right answer – but it turns out the question could be avoided.  Or perhaps the internal team are already doing the right thing, but management needs to be convinced.   Even if your program has come up with the right idea, it still needs to be identified and developed to a level where its value is evident.   An army of ideas is no use if no-one can tell who has the loaded gun.


An invitation to talk

Hello World!

I still remember the first time I wrote those words, when as a child I created my first rudimentary computer program on our battered Acorn computer. Since then my programming skills haven’t got a whole lot better, but I have learnt a lot of other things about life.

I’m particularly interested in innovation, entrepreneurship and the way our minds work, and through this blog I’d like to share with you some of my thoughts and the lessons I’ve learnt.  More than that, though, I’d really like to hear your thoughts and discuss ideas with you, so please do comment on my posts. I will try and reply to everyone who invites a dialogue.