Ben Perreira

My head's dropbox.

Month: May, 2014

Somber Reflections

As a student at UCSB I lived in Isla Vista. IV is as close to a collegiate paradise as you can get. I constantly tell family friends to send their kids there because it was such a great experience for pretty much everyone I know who went there. The combination of a UC education, living on the beach, the hills a few minutes’ drive away and throngs of young people everywhere makes it a special place. I still have several friends who live in Isla Vista and I visit frequently. In fact, a large group of my friends usually holds a reunion in the area on Memorial Day weekend every year. A wedding between two friends who met at UCSB meant the venue was moved this year. Otherwise we would have all been a couple of miles away.

When I heard about the shooting I immediately knew what the streets if IV would have looked like on a Friday night – students riding bikes to parties, picking up alcohol, getting a last minute bite to eat before looking for some fun, others would be coming back from the library after a long day of studying. IV is one of few places in which bikes have the right of way (the local Sheriffs would disagree, but it is the de facto rule). The thought of a car driving at speed through IV is scary. The thought of a gunman in that car is unfathomable.

I’ve spent the past few days thinking about this rampage. How could anyone do this?

Some have pointed to misogyny as a reason. I’m not a mental health professional, but having grown up around a lot of people whose backgrounds mirror that of the killer (from wealthy parts of Southern California and ending up in Santa Barbara for college), and having read through much of his manifesto, I have a different take.

To be clear, I do not sympathize with the killer at all. I do not think what he did was just in any way. I think it was horrendous, but I also think attempting to understand it is a worthy exercise.

Read any page of the killer’s manifesto and you will see the word “sex”. He becomes obsessed with sexuality and relationships. It appears to me that the killer’s obsession with lack of sex as a reason for his rage is a red herring. It is his own retroactive Freudian self-analysis going back to childhood that has been sullied by an adult lens.

Sex is symbolic of love, which is symbolic of the deepest kind of acceptance. Throughout the manifesto he describes becoming enraged when he saw couples being affectionate toward each other. He later speaks of wanting to lure beautiful people to his apartment and kill them first because he assumes they have the best sex lives.

Without a doubt the killer was brilliant. He saw himself as an ubermensch. Perhaps the only thing he failed to capture was why other people didn’t see and treat him as such.

The irony is striking and tragic. The killer was handsome, smart, and came from a wealthy family. That put him in the minority of how American society (however wrongly) evaluates males as suitable mates. He was, on the surface at least, more sexually desirable than many of the men around him.

He describes his loneliness and isolation while at the same saying the sorority he was targeting was full of women who “would” have rejected him. His self-loathing was so deep that he set out to kill those who had not yet wronged him in retribution for all those who, in his mind, had.

If you take gender out of the equation this goes far deeper than misogyny. He felt he was the victim of a conspiracy of sorts. In his mind, men and women alike rejected him as a viable member of society, but women rejecting him made him less than human. His words: “The females of the human species have never wanted to mate with me, so how could I possibly consider myself part of humanity?” (p. 135).

Dating in Isla Vista can be humbling for anybody. The volume of desirable prospects seems outweighed by the competition, all of whom seem to have an edge. However, the idea that good looking people have robust sex lives while average looking people (with whom the killer seems to identify) struggle to get in is a farce. The people in IV who I was aware of having had the most, um, “opportunities” were those who figured out that meeting a suitable match requires enduring constant rejection from less suitable matches. It’s a numbers game, if you will. Those type of people tend also to be very socially adept. A pretty face helps, but a timely joke  and general affability can carry much more weight.

He didn’t need to go far to find information on this. UCSB boasts one of the country’s top programs in the study of human sexuality, with a wildly popular undergraduate course taught by Janice and John Baldwin.

It seems that the killer’s desire for social acceptance goes far beyond sexuality. Sexuality is more of a symptom than what he was craving at a more base layer – being understood and valued by those around him. Diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, he lacked the ability to pick up on subtle social cues. His inability to communicate from a young age likely contributed to that. Likewise, he lacked perspective on what relationships entail.

A hyper-idealization of relationships and sexuality combined with an inability to engage in the minor interpersonal elements of communication required to create and sustain relationships (love or friendship) appears to one of the sparks of the killer’s rage. More succinctly, he was frustrated that he was unable to get something that didn’t really exist.

People blame mass shootings on many things. We blame guns or hatred for certain groups – religious, national, gender, or otherwise. We claim that the shooters are just evil and that these incidents are isolated. Those can be ways into the true motivations, but they tend to be band-aids themselves.

Further, these things we commonly blame for mass shootings are larger social issues that are much more difficult to change. We should start with the things we can most quickly address, then the others as possible. Changing an entire culture’s views around gender relations takes a little longer than, say, updating protocols around how law enforcement reacts to calls from relatives or therapists of troubled people.

Mass shootings like this can be prevented. We just need to be willing to figure out how.

Thanks to my friend Jake for the long and spirited discussions on the topic as well as feedback on this post.

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Faking It

Last night I went to watch five startups present their ideas to a room full of techies and investors in Santa Monica, then met a friend for drinks at a nearby wine bar. My friend is a lawyer who knows a lot about branding and trademarks. Our discussion grew especially spirited when we started talking about counterfeit goods and copying designs. 

In 2012 In-N-Out sued the founders of CaliBurger for opening a “tribute” to the California chain in China. Today QZ posted an article that states that half of the Chateau Lafite wine sold in China is counterfeit. While I don’t want to single out China, a very large and growing economy is fertile ground for counterfeit goods. 

The point about copying other brands is a larger one: the damage to a brand is generally pretty minimal. Imitation is the ultimate form of flattery, they say. Being copied is a sign of strength. Just ask Apple

Why don’t counterfeit goods damage a brand, one could reasonably ask?

New entrants (i.e. copycats) copy products that are too expensive for a large portion of the population. Someone who wants a real Rolex is unlikely to consider instead buying a counterfeit Rolex for 1/4 the price. S/he is going to ensure s/he has bought the real thing. Peace of mind is part of the value marketers add to a product. They remind buyers of the history or process by which a product is made. A counterfeiter sells only a cheap veneer. 

How we use a product after we buy it is also an important part of this equation. I sometimes use the anticipation-experience/ use-memory model to outline the three stages of product purchase. Since memory is generally the longest and most complex stage, as well as self-regenerating (e.g. you create your own memories with your car), having an authentic product is critical. Imagine showing your friends your fake Rolex that cost you $1000. Your self-image around owning a genuine Rolex and the image your friends have of you as an honest person suffer from that purchase. All of a sudden $1000 seems like a pretty high price to pay for something that is symbolic of only phoniness.

I find the article about Chateau Lafite interesting because it speaks to the power of branding. Few products are subject to the placebo effect in the same way wine is. It could be the air of elegance combined with the complexity of taste compounded by alcohol, but something about wine makes the bullshitter is us come out. Chateau Lafite’s brand would certainly be damaged by counterfeiting if counterfeiters are selling the wine at market price, indicating purchasers are being fooled by the branding (and, of course, their own senses of taste). The net effect of the damage is the amount of market share lost to counterfeiters selling the product at market price.

The people who know, know. They ensure what they’re paying a large premium for is the real thing. Sure, companies can help protect their brands by making this easier to do. But the rest of the people who bought counterfeit goods probably weren’t going to buy your product to begin with. Buying knockoffs, be they counterfeit or not, at a cheaper price will always be a practice for a large segment of the population. Great ideas will always be copied. I’ll take my chances (and margins) by building a strong brand and continuing to innovate in ways that would only exhaust copycats. 

 

Good Problems

Jay Z and I have a few things in common. We both like basketball, a strong beat, collaborating with talented people, surfboards and identifying problems.

My operations professor in business school liked to talk about bottlenecks. To promote efficient operations, one must identify a bottleneck, solve the problem, then identify the next bottleneck. “What if there are no bottlenecks?” someone asked. “There is always a bottleneck,” he replied, chuckling.

I have a friend who works for a leading energy drink company. Last year the company identified its bottleneck, which is also one of the best problems a brand can have: there are more people love the brand than there are people who purchase the product. Now, this problem is not exclusive to the energy drink brand. Nike probably has the same issue (although the barrier to purchase may more frequently be economic). But when your product line is small and everything on it is considered unhealthy by your detractors, who otherwise love your brand, you have your work cut out for you.

I recently attended a talk with the founders of a new beer brand that has a similar dynamic: great branding and a small product line. The CEO mentioned parenthetically that apparel sales were better than beer sales.

So what do you do if you’re at a brand like either one of these?

First, acknowledge that there will always be people who don’t want to purchase your core product. It sounds obvious but it can be hard to accept.

Second, figure out how you can use everyone who is exposed to your brand, purchasers and non-purchasers alike, to your advantage. This is sometimes referred to as propagation. If I love a brand video that the beer company produces, but I don’t drink, or I only drink certain brands of beer, I may still pass the video along to my social network. Or I may pick up a case of the beer for a party I’m attending.

I wrote a couple weeks ago about the need to look at things in a nonlinear fashion. Marketing doesn’t work like this: spend money reaching person X, person X buys product from brand. Person X has several streams of influence lap upon him before he ultimately decides to buy a product. Brands that understand this are able to find new ways to reach the people who will ultimately purchase or consume their product. They also create zealots who are willing to do irrational things to share the brand’s message (i.e. purchase a hat with a logo, driving revenue and free advertising and conversation). These people help turn a good problem into a good business.