Ben Perreira

My head's dropbox.

Month: April, 2013

Secret Codes

In order for people to effectively communicate each other they need to speak a common language. Before you call your local university and tell them to award me a PhD for that groundbreaking statement, let me specify.

Imagine two men are trying to figure out what color soccer ball they should buy. Man A says to the Man B, “verde.” Because both speak some Spanish, it is understood that the ball will be green. The color green has been encoded into their minds as “green” and “verde,” respectively. Man B learned Spanish after learning English and he has learned that “verde” is a close approximation to “green” almost all of the time.

Colors are about as straightforward as it gets when it comes to encoding and decoding of information.

What about something more conceptual and less objective, like “dictatorship?” Even in English this is a complicated term. What we call a dictatorship could be considered a democracy by many (e.g. Venezuela under Chavez). The way a culture uses the word alters its meaning in subtle but potentially important ways, because when one attempts to translate it something will necessarily be lost.

(See my post from November 7 on words that have no translation) 

It is very difficult to translate emotions into symbols and it is amazing that we do as well as we do. When we translate those symbols (i.e words) into another language’s similar words but ones with their own usage history, we introduce even more bias into trying to figure out exactly what is going on between someone’s ears. 


Context Creation

People who do marketing are in the business of creating context. Our business is defined by our products being different than those our competitors are selling, and by keeping it that way. We tell stories in a way that makes people identify with the brands we create. It is a simple process.

I’m slightly obsessed with the process of product consumption, and although I am probably more of a rational buyer than most, I am far from impervious to the messages other marketers send me. 

For example, I have been thinking about buying a new car.

I know that buying a car is not the best investment because its depreciates, so it is one of the worst kind of investments. However, unlike some other investments, you get to use it and sell it when you’re done with it. So things could be worse. 

Now let’s pretend I have decided I’m going to buy a car (and likely finance it because it makes more sense to pay 3% on a car loan than use a chunk of cash that I could invest in other places). My rational brain says I should buy a used one because the above-mentioned depreciation occurs at the greatest rate in the first couple years. 

But car companies make new cars very attractive. The new car smell! No license plates as I zip along mountain roads! Free scheduled maintenance!

Probably 90% of car brands do not speak to me. They are either too patronizing (this Ford spot comes to mind) or they try to be too fancy (like this Acura spot, despite a nice sports integration). 

Hyundai’s $70,000 Equus was compared to a $330,000 Bentley here. Is there a big difference between these cars? I really don’t know. 

As a consumer I am left to the few brands that use their ads to portray their brands from a perspective with which I identify. People like me who don’t know a ton about cars (unlike my brother who is a mechanic and exclusively drives early 1990’s BMWs) have to decide based on reputation and the context marketers create around the brand. 


Looking Good is a Bad Look

Apologies to the Queen for the crass language in the above clip, but it’s necessary to make the point.

A lot of us do things we think look good. We try to impress our bosses, significant others, or maybe strangers. We do just enough to not look bad, but end up regressing to the mean (i.e. mediocrity). The gap between how we look and how we think we look is often large, like it is for Barry.

So how about we start taking risks, doing good work, doing good deeds, and worrying less about covering our asses? I suspect progress would ensue for those willing to take the leap.

Giants and Windmills

I wrote the below piece last summer when I returned from six weeks in Europe. Walking through old cities and reading old books made me think about the constancy of change.

There’s a certain sobriety to be learned from those who have lived long and seen a lot. One man’s formidable giant is just a windmill in a field to another. Lessons from these old stories serve as strong motivation to make good things happen while one can. Vale.

“Six Weeks A-Wander”

Coming, all is clear, no doubt about it. Going, all is clear, without a doubt. What, then, is all? – Hosshin, 13th c. Japanese death poem.

There would be no revelation. Nothing learned that couldn’t be otherwise learned through careful observation.

I spent just under six weeks in nine cities – eight of them new to me. I was in airports, train stations, ports, metros, busses and taxis.

I walked probably 200 miles, often on bumpy streets and dragging a bag that I came to call Petit Pierre because it weighed as much as a French kindergartener.

I gazed at contemporary buildings, legendary stadiums, old churches, art, parks, mountains, fjords and people.

I “communicated” in seven foreign languages, two of which I had studied before.

I was constantly lost. I was physically lost for practically the entire time, reinventing the wheel every 4-5 days when I arrived in a new city. At times, I felt lost altogether. Wondering how the story would end.

I ate the best and worst food possible. The breakfast buffet that was so welcome the first morning in Helsinki became detestable by the last morning in Copenhagen. I managed to find some great kebab in almost every city.

I paid 1 euro for a glass of rose at a restaurant in Barcelona’s Gothic District and $12.50 for a beer at a cheesy bar on Oslo’s Karl Johansgatan.

I met gypsies and representatives from the World Health Organization, beautiful women and executives from Nokia, rude Parisians and affable Spaniards, former lawyers and future lawyers, colleague connections and ephemeral hostel party-mates.

I read several books, but Don Quixote was the one that mattered most. It took me longer to read this masterpiece than it did to finish my MBA. It is the longest and most meaningful relationship I’ve ever had. I spent two years wondering how it, too, would end.

And in the end, it was exactly as it should have been. We realize that everything we have been doing along is frivolous, the fodder of simple enjoyment. Others laughed at us and we reveled in it. We will sulk at misfortune and giggle our heads off in sheer ecstasy, and, eventually, the vibration of the strings dulls into silence.

Surfing and Social Proof

I’ve discussed Robert Cialdini’s “Influence” before because it is just that good. One of his six principles of persuasion is “social proof.” Social proof is the idea that we are more likely to be persuaded to do something when other people have done it.

When I was a youngin’ I wanted to be a pro surfer. We all know how that story ends, but the middle chapters were the most interesting. 

I started surfing when I was 11 and when I was 13 I decided I was good enough to have some sponsors. I read through magazines and crude surf brand websites to find phone numbers and contacts for team managers. I had a “resume” (which amounted to my goals and interests) and maybe two photos to share. I found one company, Ocean Minded sandals, that was willing to sponsor me. They gave me a pair of sandals and a stack of stickers that I was to put on my surfboards.

It was too easy, I thought. And it was.

I continued with the same methodology, adding sponsors to my resume as I went along and learning how to position myself in a way that brands would find attractive. My ability to sell my surfing ability improved a a rate exponentially greater than my actual surfing ability.

Once team managers saw that I was worthy of being sponsored by a peer brand, they were much more receptive to talking. My “persistence” (I was annoying as hell) and salesmanship helped close the deals. Within a year I had around 10 sponsors, replacing smaller names with bigger names when I could, thus increasing the speed and size of my snowball.

Of course, this all came to a head when I was 19 and couldn’t win a heat or do any big tricks in front of cameras. But it was the best (and most fun) sales and marketing training a 13-year-old could possibly have.  

What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

At the end of the spring semester last year I boarded a flight to Helsinki via Munich with about 55 classmates and professors for three weeks of research. My group of 8 (seven students and an advisor) had set out to study mobile technology in healthcare. We had already met with a dozen field experts stateside and it was time to meet with some experts in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

I learned a ton about mHealth, of course, but the topic turned out to be a trojan horse for two more durable bits of schooling. I learned how to:

Align incentives for multiple stakeholders. We can establish that all people are ultimately self-interested, but figuring out just what action that will cause is a little trickier. In our case, the common denominator was cost, because healthcare is expensive across the board, and because there are so many parties involved (patients, insurers, technology providers, doctors, hospital administrators, government agencies, etc.) nobody really feels responsible for the costs. Creating incentives for multiple parties involved a ton of give and take. A “my way or the highway” approach will leave you hanging out to dry.

Work in a team. Some of the smartest people often forget that the biggest variable we face when trying to get something done is those around us. Just like creating incentives in a large ecosystem like mHealth is critical to making it work, the give and take in keeping a team going is at least as challenging as it is important. About six months into the process our team realized that we had this huge bundle of assets but we were not using them very well. We had to learn to contribute when we could and allow others to lead when that made more sense. Someone has to play right field, but eventually everyone gets to bat.