THE CHANGE2020 FEATURE
Extract from Forthcoming New Title by Mal Fletcher
The next few decades will witness the greatest challenges to human survival in our history - and the greatest opportunities for creative fulfilment.
A new but rapidly burgeoning field of transhuman technologies will emerge, promising us all kinds of physical and mental advantages as we meld our human tissue with mechanical or organi-mechanical materials and nanochips. Need a memory upgrade? Simply inject this nanobot into your brain. At the same time, this sparkling new technology will leave many of our children - and their children - grappling with the question, 'What does it really mean to be human?'
Meanwhile, a rapidly expanding global population will bring threats of ever greater food shortages and, as the global climate crisis wears on and water supplies dwindle, we will see major wars fought over this liquid gold.
Some of the most exciting yet potentially unsettling changes will come in the areas of information-gathering and the marketing of ideas. Already, aggressive and ubiquitous marketing exposes each of to between1600 and 3000 commercial messages every day (depending on which experts you read). Writing in the 1970s, Alvin Toffler - perhaps the original 'career futurist' - correctly predicted an age where the pace of change and the exponential explosion of information would leave people feeling disoriented and depressed.
Yet what we see today is nothing compared to what's just around the corner. Communication companies will squeeze every bit of advertising they can into even the smallest available spaces. A New York Times reporter coined the phrase 'phonespace' to describe the open airtime just before phone calls are answered, which could and probably will be used for 'sonic branding'.
Gradually, branding will find its way into almost every human activity - even into our physiology itself. The philosopher Jacques Ellul once noted that from the Industrial Revolution on, we've gradually allowed technology into our workplaces, then into our homes, and now increasingly into our bodies. Companies in the biotech industry will race each other to develop and brand human body parts, such as artificial blood substitutes. 'The fluids we put into our bodies - from water to beverages - are the most branded items on the planet,' writes Faith Popcorn, 'so it's logical that the fluids in our bodies [will] get the same treatment.'
In the face of this, she writes, there will be a 'backlash against the excessive branding of every inch of space and time in our lives [which] will be expressed by a rush to use generic, unbranded products - and raw materials - whenever possible.' She calls this reaction against branding 'brandlash'.
Even in today's world, the pushing of products and images is leading to a 'clutter' problem for big business. Coca Cola spent $33 million for the major sponsorship rights to the 1992 Olympics. Despite Coke's huge advertising push, only 12 percent of TV viewers realized that their product was the official drink. Another five percent thought Pepsi was the sponsor!
For individuals, the glut of information is leading to stress, confusion and cynicism - take a bow, Alvin Toffler. Forced to think on-the-run and to reject ninety percent of what we hear as irrelevant to our lives, we tend to hear only a small part of a message before deciding whether it's for us or not.
Because we're surrounded with so much hype and commercialism, we tend to listen more to word-of-mouth chatter about products and ideas than what advertisers say. Marketers, as is their want, have found a catchy brand for this - 'buzz'. Newsweek magazine defined buzz as 'infectious chatter; genuine, street-level excitement about a hot new person, place or thing.'
The world of business is, in many areas, only slowly waking up to the power of buzz. Researchers have been busy trying to uncover what it is that makes people talk up an idea, or share it with their friends. The findings are interesting, especially for a business or organization looking to influence the future in some meaningful way. (I'm assuming that, because you're reading this book, you're up for more than just making a profit and stashing away a comfortable pension… If you're not, there's probably not much point reading any further…)
Buzz travels via networks: groups of people who are connected by similar interests or needs. I know, it's common sense - no need for experts to tell us this much. And some people act as buzz creators: they connect more people than average to a new idea. You probably know some people like that. In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell entertained us all with his stories of mavens, connectors and salesmen - people who collect ideas, network and enthuse respectively. Finally, say the experts, buzz doesn't just happen. It looks informal, but the process can be encouraged. Buzz can be deliberately stimulated.
How It Works.
Looking further into how buzz works, advertisers have found that buzz is easier to create, or encourage, when the product or idea:
i. Contains something useful: when the idea gives people results right away.
ii. Can be previewed: when people are offered a sneak preview of what the idea can do for them, an opportunity to 'try-before-you-buy'.
iii. Features a story with a hero or charismatic leader: when the focal point is a person who has qualities other people want to emulate.
iv. Can be passed on easily to others: when give-aways or other incentives make it easy for people to share the idea or product with others.
v. Delivers what it promises: when the idea does not over-promise and under-perform.
vi. Is not too predictable: when the product or concept contains something daring and risky.
vii. Contains an element of mystery and surprise: when the product offers a tantalising hint that there may be more to come, as if you need to stay with it to discover the full benefits.
Time out! Think about all that. What was the last truly gripping novel you read - the one that had you up at all hours, itching to turn the next page? What was the last truly great movie you saw? Chances are, they were both characterized by the qualities listed above.
Communications technologies are moving us away from the linear communication techniques of a mainly text-centric culture, to the more mosaic, piece-meal communication of oral or story-telling cultures. As this process continues, we will find that buzz becomes not only the most powerful form of advertising, but the most potent way of sharing ideas, full stop.
This obviously has huge implications for us in business, in media, in politics, in every sphere of leadership. We simply won't be able to move ideas forward, enlisting people's support for change, unless we're able to mark off every point in the buzz checklist. These will be the criteria by which people judge our ideas and the products or services we're offering them. And, in an age of over-exposure, among the most powerful of these criteria will be the last two on the list: unpredictability and mystery.
In the next decade or so, the greatest enemy to sharing any worthwhile message, be it political, social, religious or in the realm of entertainment, will be predictability.
We are wired to be curious, to want to push the limits of our knowledge, to discover what lies around the corner. We will increasingly look for ideas and products that quite simply surprise us. This will matter to a business, organization or leader that seeks to break through the background noise and achieve some kind of lasting influence.
The pressures of life in the fast lane - and it's getting faster, folks - are forcing people to adopt dismissiveness as their default setting. A generation after the Boomers screamed 'Make love, not war,' and 'Hell no, we won't go!' young Gen-Xers were coming out with a different cry: 'Whatever…' This was not so much a cry of rebellion as a sigh of resignation. 'Hey,' it says, 'don't come to me with any more choices to make. I've got enough of those already. Just do whatever…' This was a generation in options overload.
Today, the Whatever Generation is in leadership of major corporations and even political parties - and where its members are not in positional leadership, they're almost certainly the ones offering the leadership of innovation. Yet their inbuilt wariness, their natural bias toward irony and cynicism, makes moving them in line with a grand vision potentially more difficult. Their hard-worn pragmatism makes it harder for them to get excited about the 'big idea'.
Leadership will increasingly become the art of capturing and holding people's attention.
The success of a leader will be calibrated according to his/her ability to break through the clutter long enough to be heard and understood; long enough to get people to own the message as if it were their own invention. In leadership, we will increasingly need to ensure one thing above all else. That the only thing people will ever predict about us is that we'll surprise them, for the good, every time.
© Mal Fletcher, 2008. All rights reserved. Extract used by permission at malfletcher.net.