Could you sort of, maybe, perhaps?

I’ve been thinking a lot about language lately.

On a recent trip to France, I found myself in the company of two Francophiles who had an extremely high level of English. Even still, I was consciously trying to be more concise with my language. I refrained from idioms and slang to avoid having to break the flow of a conversation and repeat myself, but the words I found myself avoiding the most were the filler words that seems to flood my hearing on a day-to-day basis: ‘Perhaps’, ‘Sort of’, ‘You know’ & ‘Maybe’. Now granted, these words are necessary in some occasions, however I recently heard:

“What time is it?”

“It’s sort of half 6.”

I’m sorry, what?

How can it sort of be half past 6? Either it is or it isn’t. The time is the time. There’s no ‘sort of’ about it. This harks back to a previous post on the power of language, but it this experience really made me realised how wishy-washy the English language can be and how littered it is on a daily basis with this dangerous lack of conviction. It’s full of these filler words that can hide the real meaning or a sense of directness that many other languages (I’m thinking namely of German) omit. Not that these other languages don’t have the words in their vocabulary, more that speakers don’t use them in quite the same way. I think this is why many people consider Germans to be direct (or as the Daily Mail reader would put it, ‘rude’) – because their language doesn’t flow with these word.

Therefore I’m (sort of) posing a question: can English be more precise? It’s half 6. Not perhaps, not sort of, not maybe, is just is. I challenge you: try and listen to see if you use these filler words in your sentences and if you’re a victim, see if you can erase them without (perhaps) causing too much offence.

Hi everyone. My name’s Asad, and I’m a brand snob.

I realised I might have a problem after the following exchange happened last week:

“I’m not buying a Kia!” I say to a colleague.

“Why ever not? They’re good you know,” he replies.

And yet I just don’t believe him. He protests that the proof is in the pudding – I need to try one and I will be won over. I’m sure I will be, however, there’s something about owning the brand ‘Kia’ that seems to jar in my head. I worry I’d be embarrassed by the key in my pocket and the badge on the steering wheel. I won’t buy a Kia because I think it will be an unreliable car, but because the brand just doesn’t have as much gravitas I would like. And I know I’m not alone after talking to friends and family about it (they are anyone’s best focus group, after all).

It’s not just automotive manufacturers such as Kia that suffer from brand snobbery. Think about it – do you buy McVitie’s chocolate digestives, or Tesco Value? Does it have to be Heinz, or can you do with Morrison’s own brand ketchup? Through a careful mixture of advertising, PR, sponsorship, promotions and direct marketing (the marketing communications mix), established brands plant seeds of trust and good reputation in our minds, and often we can’t overcome these when the new boys such as Kia or the own brands come along and try to attract us with their lure of lower prices. If anything, the extra cost of a more reputable brand further indicates better value in our minds.

So how can relatively ‘new’ (in the minds of consumers) automotive brands position themselves? Embrace the power of thrift. We see in the fashion world that shoppers love a bargain, and more and more I find people replying to a compliment with ‘it was only £10! from…” Some consumers are proud to be seen saving money, and why shouldn’t the same apply to larger purchases such as a car? I’m not for a moment doubting the quality of a brand new Kia Picanto, so why not make light of the fact that is an absolute bargain? Whilst there’s an argument that they might not want to devalue their brand, but is there anything wrong as being viewed as a good value brand for money-conscious consumers?

Branding the BRICs

Over the past fortnight, I’ve found myself thinking more and more about emerging markets again. I studied a bit of international marketing at university, which gave me a solid base of knowledge when it comes to the theories around culture differences, from Hofstede’s four principles to Edward Hall’s Beyond Culture, and it was great to revisit these at a PRCA Breakfast Briefing I attended, hosted by Sally Costerton, Chairman & CEO EMEA at Hill & Knowlton.

The theory remains unchanged, there are cultural differences in the ways of working in the East and West, and professionals need to understand, adapt and accept their colleagues or clients that stem from opposing backgrounds. However, what struck me at the talk was the speed at which we in the West need to do so. Whilst the Economist asks in its Tube station billboards on your stance on China, it’s clear to me that the rise of the East is showing no signs of stopping, with a four pronged approach from the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China).

There are those who show apprehension to the East, and for me I see two arguments. The first is that Eastern markets aren’t sophisticated enough and the second is that Europe (in particular Britain) is going to lose its competitive advantage, which presents a fear more than anything else. Indeed, in the BBC series ‘Made in Britain‘, presenter Evan Davis appears worried when he cannot find any British produce in the fridge of his Chinese ‘Dragons’ Den’ host counterpart. And whilst there is some fear, I am of the firm opinion that young people need to open their minds and allow this change to happen – and there are two trends I see occurring.

1. Understanding the emerging market consumer

If Western brands such as KitKat (mentioned in the show), BMW and Pizza Express are to survive, they need to understand the growing middle classes in countries such as China and India and find ways of marketing to them and creating a brand presence. Something that I saw on my travels in Mumbai and something Sally reiterated is that there are millions and millions of foreign consumers who are crying out for brands to appeal to them and provide them with the products and the status that they have so long provided Westerners. In fact, I would go as far as arguing that brands that are faltering in the West could do even better by changing tact and focusing on nations where consumers are earning money faster than they can spend it.

2. Eastern brands are coming West

The BBC documentary mentions Li Ning, a sportswear brand that has opened its flagship store in China, providing a customer experiencing rivalling that of Nike in London. These brands are ripe for experienced marketers and branding professionals to mature. It’s not just sportswear, today’s Independent reports that China’s Huawei is in a drive to be a smartphone leader. A sign that the dragon can’t be tamed.

Unless we start to go out there, understand new consumers and market our current brands, we’re going to see brands such as Nike and Adidas slowing dying out to the likes of Li Ning. More and more Eastern brands are appearing in top global brands rankings (China Mobile was 9 in BrandZ’s top 100 this year) and this isn’t going to change.

So either adapt (your brand to the East), adopt (eastern brands to the West), or die.

What’s that, you say? Does the English language really hold power?

I came across an article in the FT weekend magazine by Simon Kuper today that got me thinking again about language and the power it carries. The writer Angela Carter wrote that ‘language is power’, and Kuper argues the same. However his argument is based around English, saying that Christine Lagarde (French finance minister) has such a fantastic command of English and for this reason, everyone ‘instinctively turned to her to replace Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the IMF’. I’m not sure if I agree. Lagarde’s English has developed to such strength over 25 years in the US – that’s a long time to then gain the title of an excellent English communicator.

‘What’s that, you say?’ Try saying that to non-native speakers and you’ll receive a ‘pardon?’ – exactly the same word you’re trying to express but in a rather convoluted manner. And perhaps that’s where my gripe lies with Kuper. He argues that if one doesn’t speak perfect English, he or she can still triumph but there is a limit to where ‘Globish’ – ‘the simplified idiom-free version of English with a small vocabulary’ – can take you.

I’ve been through that awkward experience of being a native English speaker amongst those of continental Europe origins and found myself largely misunderstood or indeed laughed at at times when I was telling the most sober tales. At whilst it’s fair to stay I had a headstart in developing my English language nuances, I actually felt at a disadvantage to those fluent in French, Dutch, Spanish (and!) or Italian. They could fluidly converse with one another, whilst I was stuck in the corner trying to explain the meaning of the word ‘dodgy’.

So where does the power ultimately lie? With the perfect English speaker (who isn’t necessarily a native speaker, as Lagarde exemplifies) who might not find themselves feeling comfortable amongst non-native ‘Globish’ speakers? When I lived in Germany I often went through phases where I felt like I had the IQ of a child – I couldn’t express myself exactly how I wanted to. In the early stages I hadn’t quite developed the nuances of the language, the small word places, the right intonation of my voice, that could fully convey the meaning of what I truly wanted to say. Or does the power indeed lie with the non-perfect English speaker, who can not only communicate with the perfect speaker, but can also communicate with his fellow ‘Globish’ speakers feeling perfectly comfortable that they are both on a level (albeit lower according to Kuper) playing ground?

Life in a Day: film crowdsourcing at its best

I love the idea of crowdsourcing. I’ve received a few comments that suggest crowd sourcing is the lazy man’s marketing. Why come up with an idea yourself when you can get others to do it for you? I don’t agree. The basic marketing principles that have been instilled upon me have made me aware that we now live in a relationship era, where it’s up to brands to listen to consumers and cater to their needs and wants. Consumers too are more willing to share details of their lives and interests, how else can you explain the rapid growth of Facebook and Twitter?

And why should film makers be any different?

I was fortunate to catch Life in a Day, and if you’ve been on the YouTube homepage lately you will see their banner ad. Described as ‘a thrilling piece of cinema’ by The Times, the documentary film consists of clips from film makers all over the world that were submitted to YouTube to share what they did on the 24th of July 2010.

A few people I have spoken to have asked me how on earth such a film could work, in the same way non-believers of crowdsourcing ask how a resulting idea could function? With master editing work and an extremely good soundtrack. the 95 minute film shows morsels of humans’ day-to-day lives across the world in such a way that you feel part of each of their stories. From the cancer sufferer, to the global Korean cyclist, I had the impression that I was part of something big as well as very insignificant indeed. The daily routines of hundreds, if not thousands of human beings shared in this film just went to show the communality of people as well as the subtle differences we all have. From getting out of bed on one side or the other, to the food we eat based on our local cuisine.

Without ruining too much of the film I wanted to blog my recommendation to go and see it. It really is brilliant. Even if you don’t admire the quality of the video footage, hopefully you will enjoy the very skilful editing and the fact that the film is made up or reasonably ordinary people who have gone out of their way to contribute to a brilliant idea. Much like a very good piece of branded content that has been crowdsourced.

I’m in a shopping centre, get me out of here!

I rarely enter shopping centres. There are three reasons why I might:

1. To try out a product I will buy online

2. I am with someone else and helping them find something

3. I can’t find the clothes I want on ASOS

I’m a big fan of online shopping and today I realised that the Internet has spoiled me. If I know what I am looking for, I can find it almost instantly and purchase in the blink of an eye. I’ve therefore become impatient – I don’t want to spend (read: waste) time trawling through aisles. The whole task seems unproductive and expensive to me. However, there are many that derive pleasure from entering a shopping centre. Indeed, on a trip to India I discovered many would use the shopping centre as a hub for socialising. The same was true for Bratislava.

So today, I joined this cohort and visited a local shopping centre and I want to share my experiences of a well-known British retailer.

John Lewis

I entered John Lewis with my mother with the aim to purchase a new TV. Our efforts were thwarted upon arrival, when we discovered the clearance sale starts on Thursday the 23rd of June. Therefore, why would we buy anything today with the fear that in a week’s time, we would feel shortchanged? I know there’s marketing theory behind this, but to me it seemed like a catch twenty-two. How can John Lewis advertise their sale, without leaving customers feeling dissuaded to buy on the day?

Nonetheless, we continued into the store as this provided us with time to research what we want. The store staff were quick in acknowledging us, however I was disappointed by their lack of knowledge to answer simple questions, such as what’s the difference between an LED and an LCD TV? If we’re splashing out hundreds of pounds, surely they could do as little as educate us to make our decision easier? ‘Well, one is brighter, I think’. Hardly left me inspired.

The second question I posed was more of a test, I sort of knew the answer but I was interested to hear what the staff had to say. ‘So why would I pick a Samsung over a Sony?’ ‘Err, well I would say Samsung,’ says the store assistant. ‘And what’s that?’ I ask. ‘Well I’ve had one for five years and it’s great. That was it! Rather than provide me with a list of rational reasons why I’d pick one over the other, he justified his own purchase and passed on his advocacy to me. What hope do Sony marketers have, when their resellers are advising customers based on personal preference?

This sort of reinforced what I’ve been thinking about for a while. We’re continually reading that today’s shopper is armed with a wealth of information through their mobile (indeed, Ogilvy recently published some research on this) and therefore the challenge to retailers is really to educate themselves to keep up with the consumer. One might argue that this is particularly prevalent with technology purchases, but it also applies to clothing (online price vs. high street price) and food (nutritional values & sourcing). If traditional bricks-and-mortar outlets are unable to arm staff with the knowledge that can provide the consumer with more of a value add than simply being able to physically touch the product, then Mary Portas really does her work cut out to try and save the high street.

(Oh, we’ve found the TV we want and we’ll probably buy it on the John Lewis website when the sale starts later next week. Internet – 1, High Street – 0.)

Are social networks killing social lives?

I attended the first of the CIPR’s Social Summer series on Thursday, entitled ‘How to get ahead in social. How to build your online reputation’ given by Stephen Waddington, MD at Speed Communications. Timely really, as I’ve just started this blog and starting out in PR means I’m getting to grips with managing reputations and more interestingly, online reputations. After all, someone’s first point of reference normally is to ‘google it’, and so what happens when someone google’s you?

The talk itself was interesting, and Stephen covered a number of useful online tools such as Twitter, Linkedin and About.me, all of which feature highly on Google search pages and can be controlled by you to build your online reputation. However, what stuck me was the comment: “At talks, the audience are not interested in the speaker as they are all busy following the conversation on Twitter.” I always tweet at talks and follow hashtags because I’m intrigued to know what others in the audience think of the speaker. But why don’t I just turn to the person next to me and ask? Surely striking up a conversation would be easier? This has led me to think about whether social networks have been impairing people’s abilities to hold a conversation face-to-face, and this comment really struck a chord, namely as he was right, I was more interested in Twitter at some points as opposed to the content of the presentation.

There are some that argue technology is having an adverse effect on human interaction and I agree to some extent. I find myself hiding behind the screen of my smartphone or the screen of my laptop should I not wish to engage in conversation with someone. It provides a wanted distraction to communicate with other people rather than confront what’s before you in the physical realm. Dangerous this may be, it’s more and more common, and I find myself pushing for no phones/laptops in meetings to ensure face-to-face communication is as meaningful as possible.

Speaking to a colleague on the way out, I was very interested to hear him say ‘the days of long lunches with clients has long gone in PR’. Coming into the industry during/post recession, I have to say wining and dining of journalists and clients doesn’t happen. Either they don’t have the time or there are no funds to do so, and thus face-to-face contact is in decline. However, social networks such as Linkedin and Twitter make is possible to create an ongoing dialogue that is so needed in certain cases where you want to build trust and a relationship with someone you might not have the chance to meet. I often find myself tweeting journalists, bloggers and speakers as I don’t have the opportunity to meet them in person. And for that reason I am of the opinion that whilst human interaction is suffering to a degree, the benefits that social networks bring, such as a larger pool of people to ‘talk’ to and the opportunity to develop a continual conversation vastly outweigh the drawbacks. Also, turning to another person in the audience would generally require smalltalk and niceties that hashtags eliminate. Social networks provide cut through, as you can find out exactly what you want to know, as people say exactly what’s on their mind. After all, that is what Facebook asks you before you type in a new status.

The youth and the technology*

I’m very lucky to have two nieces (aged: 11 & 5) and two nephews (aged: 13 & 1). The more time I spend with them, the more geekily excited I get about the future whilst simultaneously feeling behind the times aged 23. It’s been amazing to watch them grow up and I am always interested to see their interactions with technology, be it with a computer, a mobile phone or even a kitchen appliance (we made a grilled cheese sandwich, and I had a 5 year old instruct me on how to operate it).

What really amazes me is that the younger two are iPhone proficient (yes, even the 1 year old). Touch gestures are all they’ll ever know of mobile devices and what they’ve come to expect, and anything with buttons just isn’t cool. It creates a sense of awe for me around Steve Jobs. One man has changed the way we interact with mobiles and has influenced what we’ve come to expect of technology. What, you mean it doesn’t automatically sync, have the latest apps and can play Peppa Pig? Not interested. My nephew couldn’t unlock my HTC Desire, so he promptly gave up trying and moved on to the football next to him.

Meanwhile, the eldest is ‘so over’ the iPhone aged 13 and has moved onto a Blackberry. Why? ‘Everyone’s got an iPhone, I want to be different’. That’s the same reason I moved onto Android, and I’d count myself as an early adopter. Whilst iPhones are great, and I do miss mine at times, what is going to be the next big thing? Sure, an iPhone 5 or mini might be on the cards, but will either be a radical step from the current range? How can Mr Jobs recapture the early adopters whilst appealing to the masses? I’m not sure they can, but I’ll be interested to see any attempts…

*I realise I’ve written my first blog on Apple – slightly controversial but it won’t become a trend!

It’s time to blog

I’ve been thinking about blogging for a very long time now, and I’ve finally got round to starting one. I’m going to use it to post my thoughts and opinions on the PR and social media worlds – the industry I work in, as well as on cars and technology – two of my biggest passions. Hopefully there’ll be something here that appeals to like-minded people out there.