Pigs Will Sing

Brand and PR is giving way to culture and purpose. So shipping doesn’t need to get better at PR and branding, it just needs to get better, and cognitive diversity is at the heart of that.

feat_pigsThere’s an American sitcom called Two and a Half Men, you might have watched an episode or two. In one of them the main character, a dissolute womaniser, has just tried—with disastrous results—to persuade his fiancée that although she’s moved in with him, she shouldn’t get rid of her apartment. His logic is that, just like the Titanic, you have to make sure you’ve always got access to a lifeboat.

Having watched the fiancée storm out in fury, he is congratulated by his brother for ferociously defending an unwinnable position by comparing his relationship to the Titanic. To which the womaniser replies, “Oh, come on, who remembers the names of boats that don’t sink?”

I suspect that those of you who can name any number of ships still afloat will now be snorting with bitter laughter at the unfairness of it all. Thinking once again how the great invisible workhorse of the world, the global shipping industry, is constantly dealt the worst of hands. Roundly ignored whilst it goes about its vital business, and then roundly abused when the worst happens.

Situation comedy is funny when it tells the truth, and the truth is that shipping is remembered for Titanic, Exxon Valdez, Costa Concordia and Sewol, and whole host of other disasters. But that situation isn’t funny. And in an industry where consensus is hard to come by—on anything—that’s something we all seem to agree on.

The ‘image of shipping’, is one of the industry’s favourite chew toys. Just in the past few months the issue has been raised at conferences at London International Shipping Week, and at the Danish Maritime Forum, and it has been highlighted in the new UK maritime growth study.

Coincidentally, or not, during the same period there have been a series of hard-hitting pieces in the New York Times about the lawlessness of the high seas, and the resurfacing of an article from 2009 about shipping’s unacceptable emissions that catapulted us to the top of the Internet.

The ‘shipping is great, you just don’t realise it yet’, bandwagon is on a roll. IMO is explaining shipping’s importance, patiently, using paper booklets and international bureaucrats to engage the digital native generation, one child at a time.

The bottom line is that at the moment shipping just doesn’t appeal to people. At best the general public is ambivalent about it, and reading some of the vitriol expressed in relation to the story about shipping emissions in the British Guardian, we should be grateful for ambivalence. Which is astonishing when one considers how intimately connected most human beings are to the sea. We love beaches, boats, cruises and watersports, but when it comes to the shipping industry, awareness of it and the prospect of engaging with it or working in it, everything changes.

At this stage the question to ask is why, and here’s the first big problem. Shipping has decided it already knows why. This is a failure of image, a failure of public relations, and a lack of strong branding. Not only has the industry already identified the problem, it is already busy delivering the solution.

IMO has appointed ‘maritime ambassadors’, and launched a series of open mornings where it frogmarches captive schoolchildren to IMO and points out to them that the shipping industry is IMPORTANT. Apparently the magic is working. According to reports the kids at IMO were inspired by presentations from the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers, the Merchant Navy Training Board, and an educational activity booklet entitled ‘The World of Shipping’ containing puzzles on trade routes and ship types and with a foreword by—wait for it—Koji Sekimizu.

The ‘shipping is great, you just don’t realise it yet’, bandwagon is on a roll. While IMO explains shipping’s importance, patiently, using paper booklets and international bureaucrats to engage the digital native generation, one child at a time, the UK maritime growth strategy is even more gung ho. It too has identified that the solution to shipping’s image problem lies in that unholy trinity of branding, public relations and marketing. According to its report what’s required is big ad campaigns, branding agencies and public relations, that can take our Cinderella industry and spin it into the hearts and minds of the public.

Now if you were reading one of those other nice, comfy maritime industry magazines, written by proper journalists according to the Maritime Foundation—read Both Barrels for more on that— you’d probably get a thousand words quoting some maritime marketing agency about how your company can join in by getting onto Twitter, and making your CEO write something for your blog. Oh, and go into your local school and tell the eight-year-olds what great fun it is working in shipping.

Unfortunately that is hogwash. And, as nothing about this magazine is designed to be comfortable, I’m going to explain why. You aren’t going to like it, in fact of all the things you’ve read in Futurenautics you really didn’t like—of which there are many I’m sure—this is going to take the cake. Because in shipping we don’t like people who disagree. We don’t like people who rock the boat. That’s not the way shipping raises us. And that, actually, is our problem right there in a nutshell. But we’ll come back to that.

There are a couple of reasons why thinking better PR and branding will save shipping is stupid. One of them is pretty straightforward, the other less so.

Patriotism may be the last refuge of the scoundrel, but marketing and PR has become the first port of call for everybody with a business problem to solve. It has worked hard to cultivate its own stereotype as a magic bullet, using gravity-defying sleight of hand to turn pedestrian products and companies into world beaters. And it can’t. So that’s number one.

When it comes to stereotypes, branding, public relations and marketing—in which I include adland— is in a league of its own, and that’s hardly surprising. Creating stereotypes and broadcasting them loudly is its stock in trade, and there’s a very good reason for that. For a very long time they have worked extremely well. But the megatrends, generational mindsets and technologies that are disrupting every other industry are disrupting marketing and branding too. And that’s number two.

But in order to understand either of those reasons you first have to actually grasp what the purpose and function of marketing and branding is and why it has developed in the way it has. I have a nasty suspicion that a lot of the people calling for shipping to brand itself better actually mean they’d like a pretty logo and a strapline they can put on a nice, thick, classy brochure. Preferably with a foreword by Koji Sekimizu.

If you want to chart the social history of the world, and particularly the Western world, over the past fifty or sixty years then a trawl through the advertising archives is basically a colour coded guide to the changing attitudes, tastes and aspirations of the general public. The globalisation of consumer markets went hand in hand with the explosion of broadcast television channels, the dominance of that medium in the life of the average consumer, and our increasingly sophisticated understanding of the way that individuals respond to visual and aural messaging about products.

As the drive to sell things to people gathered pace and the time in which to do so contracted, efficiency became all-important. If you’ve got thirty seconds to make someone want something badly enough to go out and buy it then efficiency is key. In search of that efficiency those in advertising began to take a closer interest in the psychology of what makes people buy stuff.

Sesame Street realised the way to sell numbers and letters to children was with googly-eyed monsters who repeated the same, simple message. Then adland realised it worked for adults too.

Sesame Street realised the way to sell numbers and letters to children was with googly-eyed monsters who repeated the same, simple message. Then adland realised it worked for adults too.

As far back as the 1960s the much beloved Sesame Street changed everything by recognising that the way to sell children numbers and letters was with big purple monsters with googly eyes that repeated the same, simple message again and again. What adland instantly realised was that this approach isn’t something that just works for children, it works for adults too.

There are hundreds of excellent books that will give you exhaustive detail on all of this, but there are some very simple things that every marketer knows, and in my view anyone who leads a business should know. The first is that the mind is a limited container, and it’s very, very busy with important stuff like work, remembering its mother’s birthday, and breathing. As a result minds hate complexity: complexity equals confusion, so the most efficient way to enter the mind is to oversimplify the message.

But even if you manage to get into people’s minds, staying there is an even greater challenge. According to Al Ries and Jack Trout, two of the world’s greatest marketing strategists and their “22 Immutable Laws of Marketing” (read them) the mind creates its own ‘product ladders’ for categories of product it encounters, from toothpaste to ship management software. The mind can generally only remember around seven items even in high-interest categories, and in general most people will only recall about two or three. That’s why when you ask someone to name a ship, the answer they come back with is, ‘Titanic’.

That may sound like an interesting little fact that’s useful to trot out during a lull in the conversation at the next interminable reception, but it’s far more than that. Because as it exhaustively researched how it could sell us things more efficiently, what marketing realised was that those top two or three positions on the product ladders in our minds also happened to be the only profitable ones. In fact positions one and two on that product ladder account for around 60% of all sales in that category.

Getting to position number one or two on that ladder means creating an incredibly powerful proposition that not only cuts through the noise, but delivers the lasting emotional resonance necessary to maintain its foothold. That’s a tough challenge. And it got tougher with the death of the salesman. No longer did you have a guy turn up on the doorstep and point out all the features of the vacuum cleaner, or the brush set, or the encyclopaedias.

Housewives no longer went to a grocer who told them what was the best deal of the day and picked the produce for them and put it into a bag. Now she glided around supermarkets and made her own choices about what she picked up and put in her basket. We have moved from a world where things are sold, to one where things are bought, and that is why the brand has become so incredibly important.

Whilst the googly-eyed purple monster may be the tactical tip, there’s a whole strategic berg under the water that the public neither sees nor understands. That massive berg is the brand.

A good brand pre-sells the product. It means that when that housewife stands in front of the serried ranks of detergent in the supermarket and reaches out her hand—and that moment has a name actually, it is called the Zero Moment of Truth (ZMOT)—it is your product that her eager fingers close around. But don’t think this is only applicable to consumer goods, this is as important for GE as it is for Coca-Cola. And what it illustrates is that whilst the googly-eyed purple monsters are the tactical tip, there’s a whole strategic berg under the water that the public neither sees nor understands. That massive berg is the brand. And the ultimate goal of a brand is to reduce all the complexity of what it is, does and stands for, to one simple and easily understood phrase. And if you’re really, really good, just one word.

The biggest brands in the world have spent billions of dollars trying to own words in our heads. Perhaps the greatest brand ad of all time for my money is one created by a Japanese agency for Volvo. It sits on a plain white background and there are no words at all. It is an image of a safety pin bent into the shape of a car. It illustrates beautifully what Volvo has spent decades and billions doing. When it comes to cars Volvo owns the word ‘safety’ in most people’s heads.

But here’s the really interesting thing. Volvo doesn’t just sell safe cars. It sells all sorts of cars, some of which go extremely quickly, or over rough ground. But it doesn’t try to own that real-estate in your head. What the big brands that have been created in the decades until now have done is to concentrate on one simple value and benefit and then leverage that position to sell you anything else they choose.

This is the concept of singularity and relevant differentiation, around which to date great brands have been forged. Your brand has to make people believe that it has a singular and unique benefit, one that’s really different. But—and here’s the kicker—it also has to be absolutely relevant to your target audience. And that’s not all, your company has to have a unique, sustainable competency and avowed strategic intent, to deliver against that benefit. It has to be one that your competitors are not delivering against, and which they will find difficult to in the future. Finally, the benefit must be unique, compelling, motivating, understandable and believable.

If you can do that, so the logic goes, you can sell anything to anyone. And possibly the most pure expression of that paradigm is Virgin. Created by Sir Richard Branson more than 40 years ago Virgin has ruthlessly (he really hates being called ruthless, by the way) exploited the traditional mass broadcast channels like TV. Using both advertising and public relations Branson has leveraged his own personality via memorable stunts, to craft something which is less a proposition and more a corporate personality, based around, and symbolising, both individualistic attributes and quality of service.

Most brands are created to shift product, and Virgin has shifted plenty, from cola to airline seats, but what Virgin has managed to do is to make the brand the product. If there were ever an example of a brand that stood for everything and nothing, Virgin is it. And they know it full well. As Robert Devereux, former Chairman of the Virgin Entertainment division and Richard’s brother-in-law told me when we talked about it few years ago, Virgin doesn’t really own anything or run anything. What the Virgin Group has become is a huge family office with a portfolio run by professional investment managers. The value of that portfolio is around £5bn with around £120m coming directly from the licensing of the Virgin brand itself.

I know that, and Robert knows that, and now you do too. But the vast majority of people who interact with the Virgin brand each day don’t really understand that at all. Ask the guy in the street and he will tell you that Sir Richard Branson is a great entrepreneur running a multifarious business empire. But he isn’t. And Virgin doesn’t do much to counter that misapprehension. The truth is that there are some massive inconsistencies between the values the Virgin brand espouses and the reality of its operations, and under the old broadcast paradigm that was manageable. But that was before social technologies started to drive the kind of transparency that was unimaginable in the 1980s.

Shipping wants a Virgin brand, something which stands for everything and nothing, but the new transparency is putting even that uber-brand under pressure. It couldn’t get away with passing off a 20-year-old’s legs as Helen Mirren’s today, and it’s having trouble squaring its social conscience with Branson’s status as a tax exile.

Back then when Helen Mirren starred in a Virgin Atlantic ad all about legroom in which her legs were the sex-drenched focus of the ad, but belonged to an anonymous 20 year old model, very few people took much notice. Imagine if that happened now? Whereas the Virgin machine could comfortably contain that inconsistency in the late 1980s, it’s beginning to struggle with others today. How does it square the social conscience of Branson’s brand with the fact that he lives as a tax exile? How does the Carbon War Room sit alongside someone who owns an airline, and wants to send the wealthy elite into space?

These are the difficult questions occupying Virgin now as it begins to realise that the transparency it’s being subject to is exposing the flimsiness of its values. One suspects that when shipping folk talk about better branding and PR they have precisely the Virgin model in mind. Something that stands for everything and nothing. A brand we can all leverage across whatever we like, that is strong enough to glide over inconsistencies and is media-savvy and nimble enough to control what people think about the industry.

And I think that’s really the key word here. Control. It is what brands, and companies, once had. And it is at the heart of understanding the new order. Because that control has almost completely shifted out of the hands of the organisation and into the hands of the public. The general public used to be something that companies broadcast information to. Now they are individuals who have to be engaged in conversation. Millennials and Gen Z’s don’t trust brand and company messages they way they used to. They get their information from each other, sharing experiences good and bad and forming opinions on businesses, events and industries without reference to the PR line. In real time. With video. And emojis.

That is why shipping’s first, and most grave mistake is to assume that we should either seek, or are in a position to start controlling in any shape or form, what the public thinks about us.
To be fair to the advertising and marketing industry, it gave repeated health warnings about the dangers of assuming brand and PR was a panacea. “Advertising doesn’t create a product advantage. It can only convey it,” was one of the famous utterances of Bill Bernbach, founder of DDB Worldwide.

The idea that a brand exists separately from the company, or that reputation can be maintained by high-quality PR on behalf of the industry via a select pool of friendly print journalists is dangerously outdated.

And yet companies around the world are at a point where they have carefully crafted mission statements, distilling their key brand benefit, signed off by senior management, and then trotted out religiously by the PR department on media releases directed at traditional media journalists.

But the world is just getting too complex for that. The idea that a brand exists separately from the company, or a reputation can be maintained by high quality public relations on behalf of the industry, via a select pool of friendly print journalists is dangerously outdated. A mission, and a brand that encapsulates it, isn’t enough any longer.

So what is? The answer lies in the new fast-growing digital companies we’ve seen emerge in the past few years, the ones leveraging exponential technologies and new business models to deliver exponential growth. These exponential organisations have something very interesting in common. In this new age of transparent business and new generational mindsets these mega-companies have exchanged mission for purpose, and brand for culture.

In the book ‘Exponential Organisations’ Salim Ismail and my Futures Agency colleague Yuri Van Geest characterise it as a ‘Massive Transformative Purpose’. What it boils down to is, why are we doing this work? And why does this organisation exist? The answers that companies like Uber, Quirky, AirBnB and Google give to those questions don’t outline a mission, but an aspiration. “Organise the world’s information,” is Google’s. It’s both imaginative and ambitious and it’s designed not to state what the organisation does, but what it hopes to accomplish.

These are BHAGs—Big Hairy Audacious Goals—and they are the kind of thing that Millennials and Gen Z’s with their keenly developed sense of the relationship between people, profit and planet are drawn to and engaged by. That’s why these companies and others like Apple have developed massive tribes around them who buy into the purpose and the culture and take the message out themselves to the world, because they believe it’s the right thing to do.

And what does shipping offer by comparison? A desperate, rigid focus on trying to make a profit. Now, in days gone by that might have been enough, but these days not even the bankers can get away with it.Of course the totemic irony is that shipping is failing to make money. And it’s failing to do so at the expense of the environment it pollutes, the low-cost labour it exploits, the regulations large parts of it ignores, and the customers it disappoints with monotonous regularity.

Shipping has become decoupled from any purpose, so it’s no surprise that it’s become rudderless and directionless. Counter cyclical investment in tonnage and lowest-cost, lowest-common-denominator service is not a purpose, it’s an excuse. And you will find no sympathy or engagement from the smart Millennials and Gen Z’s while it continues.

The industry has recognised that its poor image is impacting everything from investment to recruitment, but what it has spectacularly failed to realise is that shipping doesn’t need to get better at PR, marketing and branding. Shipping just needs to get better.

Those outside shipping are utterly mystified as to why the shipping industry cannot see this. From the perspective of the average Millennial, shipping is a pig, and the constant efforts of the interminable list of maritime associations and organisations to pump out good news press releases, is just so much lipstick. But explaining that to the shipping industry pig is like teaching one to sing. It’s fruitless and eventually it irritates the pig. And that’s because of all the problems shipping has, its most intractable is its culture.

“We are so siloed, we expect to hear that someone has 20 or 35 years in shipping, and we value that, and if you can’t demonstrate that then we aren’t interested in talking to you at all.”

What a Millennial is interested in is a conversation. But maritime doesn’t do those. The culture of PR in our industry is traditional and pre-social. The role of the PR department is a big guard dog that makes a decision about whether it thinks you’re worth wasting its valuable time on, and then either tears your throat out, or tries to hump your leg. Here at Futurenautics it’s about 80/20—and we’ve really struggled to get where we are today. If you’re a member of the general public, forget it. The message is that PR people are professionals. And they’re very, very busy.

But where does that attitude come from? It’s part of the cultural myopia that’s embedded into shipping and it’s driven by a lack of diversity of thought, what I’m calling cognitive diversity, and experience that’s rife in the industry. At a recent Futurenautics roundtable on Big Data Capt. Kuba Szymanski, Secretary General of InterManager put the problem in a nutshell.

“If I asked you to give me five examples of a shipping industry, ship management company where someone has not been promoted from within the industry you will struggle,” Kuba said. “We don’t have the example of a British Airways CEO who is now leading MOL or Maersk because we only train and promote from within. We are so siloed, we expect to hear that someone has 20 or 35 years in shipping, and we value that, and if you can’t demonstrate that then we aren’t interested in talking to you at all. It would be nice to have someone who came from the outside and got into senior management.”

Kuba gets it, and he isn’t alone. There are voices of reason popping up all over the place, but they aren’t getting any traction. Take the Danish Maritime Forum for example. The avowed intent of this ‘unique’ event is, and I quote, “to unleash the full potential of the global maritime industry to increase long term economic development and human wellbeing.” Wow, good for them. That is one big hairy audacious goal.

And how did they go about achieving it? Here’s how. Someone who has spent their entire working life in the shipping and maritime industry personally invited all the people currently working in the shipping and maritime industry whom he considered to be important and influential to talk to each other about the shipping and maritime industry. And who did he get on the stage? The Crown Prince of Denmark, a bunch of shipping ministers and—oh, you’re good, you’re way ahead of me, say it with me now— Koji Sekimizu.

It will be absolutely no surprise to you whatsoever to hear that there was broad agreement about what the woes of the shipping industry were, and on the need for better PR, but no obvious unleashing of full potential. More a ‘coalition of the willing’. Maybe next year.

Shipping has become decoupled from any purpose, so it’s no surprise that it’s become rudderless and directionless. It’s only mission is to make money, and it isn’t even managing that.

The tragedy is that this was considered by all concerned to be a massive success. How can that be? It is because the shipping industry is run by white, late middle-aged, middle class men who have got to the top by conforming to the beliefs and prejudices of those layers of similarly white, middle-class late middle-aged senior management who have gone before. Go on. Argue with me. I dare you.

I warned you that you weren’t going to like this. No one likes to hear this kind of stuff. And that’s the reason that there weren’t any dissatisfied customers, or whip-smart Millennials with data in their pockets and a purpose in their hearts who would stand up in front of the pig and call it one to its snout on the bill in Copenhagen. That’s why the really interesting, truly disruptive thinkers behind companies and brands like RightShip, Xeneta, ShipServ and even Inmarsat and Rolls-Royce weren’t on the stage either. It’s why none of the people behind the data-driven shipping technology start-ups that keep getting in contact with me are even on the radar of the Danish Maritime Forum. And it’s why the shipping pig is likely to end up as sausages.

Chris Andersen former editor in chief of Wired magazine once said, “The reality is that most of the world’s smartest people don’t have the right credentials. They don’t speak the right language. They didn’t grow up in the right country. They didn’t go to the right university. They don’t know about you and you don’t know about them. They’re not available, and they already have a job.”
That’s a warning to industries who are willingly and actively revisiting their long held assumptions, recognising and adjusting for the bias in their organisations whether it’s based on gender, race, age or historic industry beliefs. Where leaders are deliberately and desperately seeking out people who will irritate and challenge them.

What our industry needs is some cognitive diversity, and it needs it badly. Farming has recognised it needs it too and it’s trying to inject some via an initiative called AgriHive. Founded by an Australian farmer who saw that the damaging cyclical nature of farming was driving more and more people out of it, AgriHive doesn’t pull together a bunch of eminent farming experts. Instead it creates summits where it takes a dairy farm case study and puts it in front of a range of business leaders and CEOs from completely different industries. They specifically look for people outside agriculture because what they want is a broad spectrum of other industry knowledge. Because as Einstein said, you can’t solve problems with the same thinking that created them. He could have been talking about shipping today.

Shipping never really did brands and PR because it never felt the need, and large swathes of it still doesn’t. But we’re beyond all that now anyway. Brands are already giving way to purpose and culture, God help us. All this tactical fiddling around the edges making schoolchildren fonder of us is fruitless, and, like the pig, I’m beginning to get irritated by it.

This industry is reaching the Zero Moment of Truth. In this new world there is nowhere to hide, and no way to control what people think of us.

That’s because the opportunity to create exponentially successful organisations that use data, prediction, analysis, connectivity and all the rest of it to transform the shipping pig’s ear into a silk purse is just so achingly obvious it’s almost funny. If you want a BHAG then ending the managed dissatisfaction shipping delivers at the moment and using it instead to transform the way the world moves is about as big, hairy and audacious a goal as you can hope for. And it’s the kind of purpose that the people shipping needs to engage might just be interested in helping to pursue.

Like the guy in Two and A Half Men, I have to admire shipping for ferociously defending an unwinnable position, but the reality is that, as the great Bernbach said, “No matter how skillful you are, you can’t invent a product advantage that doesn’t exist. And if you do, and it’s just a gimmick, it’s going to fall apart anyway.”

This industry is reaching the zero moment of truth. In the new world there is nowhere to hide, and no way to control what the general public thinks about us. As transparency scythes through shipping the world is reaching out its hand, and deciding whether to pick us up or leave us on the shelf.

The shipping industry pig needs to stop slathering itself in lipstick and singing its own praises and take a long, hard look at itself in the mirror. And it has to accept that what’s looking back is unappetising to the majority of people. That’s the first, essential step.

Then, and only then, will it have the slightest chance of going the whole hog, and learning to fly.



Images © Getty Images/Richard Termine, Sesame Workshop/Virgin

This article appeared in the October 2015 issue of Futurenautics.


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