Ruth Mortimer: Dont be taken in by business gurus

Ruth_120It is a truth universally acknowledged that good girls love bad boys. But dodgy relationships aren’t confined to your teenage years. Even in later life we sometimes fall for the smooth talk and forget to engage our bullshit detector. And not only in our personal lives: it also happens in our business dealings too.

Perhaps this is why there are so many business “gurus” out there. Full of personal charm and speedy soundbites, most so-called experts offer common sense tied up in pretty packaging. Are brands now so desperate for guidance and innovation that they’ll buy the obvious as long as it’s wrapped up in glib prose? It seems so.

I can’t remember the last time that I heard about a guru and felt myself immediately overwhelmed by their sheer genius. Generally, their work offers a good round-up of known information with a wacky angle to draw in the reader or listener. You mean that you haven’t heard about the strategy that compares branding to poker? It’s all a game of chance, you know.

There are those rare people who can capture the zeitgeist in a concise, clever way. Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail” takes an idea that was being discussed in digital media circles and broadens it out to a wider audience. And Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” is an eloquent explanation of how social media works.

But again, neither of these ideas – turned into bestselling books – covers a subject that should have been totally unknown to the relevant audience. They’re simply offering a plausible gloss on an interesting business or cultural movement. I don’t think either Anderson or Gladwell would disagree with that.

Which brings me to the “guru” Carl Honore. I was invited to a Crowne Plaza hotel “think-tank” event recently, where the author of “In Praise of Slow” was giving a talk about his ideas. While I imagine Honore would prefer a slightly more complex explanation of his book’s selling point, it is essentially this: modern life encourages us to go fast but we need to slow down.

Now, call me cynical, but isn’t that a classic case of stating the obvious? Honore does a very witty job of exploring all the areas in which our lives are too speedy. But don’t we know that eating fast food is bad for us? And we must all be vaguely aware that taking e-mails into the bedroom will never benefit our sex life.

But at the Crowne Plaza event, Honore’s words were venerated as if he was breaking major societal taboos by suggesting you take time to read your children bedtime stories. People were keen to embrace his rhetoric and afterwards in the bar, they discussed these ideas as if they were truly transformational.

Which leads me to ask: when did we start needing people to tell us what we already know? Admittedly, it isn’t always easy to see clearly from within an organisation where days are spent getting things done rather than looking forward. But it seems that many brands are starstruck by promises of crystal-ball revelations or snappy solutions.
So what’s the answer? Gurus aren’t going to go away. But for those people who have started to wonder if they’re being sold the emperor’s new clothes, here are my top tips for keeping your finger on the pulse without the accompanying cheesy soundbites.

First, check you are not in danger of becoming a guru yourself. The Financial Times column written by fictional brand evangelist Martin Lukes is a warning to anyone falling into guru territory. How many times have you caught yourself using his spoof marketing terms unreflectingly? Beware of “creovative”, “paradigm shifting” and “change initiative”.

Second, the internet is your friend. Remember to read sites such as Trendwatching, PSFK and Trendhunter every few weeks. Many of the examples on these sites are very specific but with regular use, you may start to see broader themes emerging.

For example, if you’re a supermarket executive reading about how fresh meal-assembly stores such as Dream Dinners are taking off, you should be seeing a potential threat to your ready meals. How can you adapt your business to reflect consumers’ desires for convenience with health benefits before sales start to fall?

Third, talk to your peers. Marketers in other industries have a wealth of knowledge that could help you too. Obviously marketing a new rock band is not the same as selling an expensive face cream but there are elements they share, such as the need to build a reputation through word of mouth or keep the product’s appearance restricted to maintain exclusivity.

Even if you discover nothing at all from anyone else, then you should at least realise that you do know a fair bit about your own brand and its market. It’s a self-esteem issue and we are no different from those teenage girls that I mentioned at the start. Smooth talkers with simple answers will always be attractive; you can deal with that by having respect for yourself in the first place.

Ruth Mortimer is editor of Brand Strategy

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