CloudRaker Thoughts

For a few months back in 2018, I spent some time on research for the CloudRaker agency. Roughly put, looking at the intersection of changing retail and technology, as always with a pretty broad outlook and trying to make connections or find lessons from other fields. The deliverable was to write a couple of insights or commentary, called “thoughts.” I’m re-publishing them here as a component of my notes.

New Retail

Alibaba’s moves to extend its offline reach.

It’s fascinating to observe the East and West ‘twins’ of big tech. The Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple have Eastern (Chinese) counterparts in Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, Huawei and Xiaomi.

Amongst the parallels, it’s interesting to keep an eye on the different ways in which Amazon—most notably through its purchase of Whole Foods—and Alibaba expand offline. Jack Ma’s Alibaba follows a ‘new retail’ strategy of being a platform for O2O, or online-to-offline, where existing shops can gain a foothold online and broaden their services and inventory through the use of Alibaba’s various platforms. Most recently, the company backed India’s Paytm Mall, a company following a similar playbook and hoping to snowball to selling goods worth $10 billion this year.


Originally written for CloudRaker Thoughts.

Swarming Micro Brands

When product design, production and marketing move at the speed of Instagram trends, you get a bubbling ecosystem of Swarming Micro Brands.
Business coverage often seems to circle gigantic mega-companies or new startups, as long as they are rocketing up in scale. But often, small is where the innovation is.

Look at micro brands, for example; sometimes they're so small—almost a mere experiment—a prototype or mockup posted strategically to target certain Instagram communities. Their products can be quickly put into production and “are designed with tightly constructed and managed supply chains that can manufacture and ship a product in small batches on demand, often in coordination with a partner in China.” Some are said to generate $10M in sales with just a few people.

Admittedly, although some of those micro brands are actual, valid, "as advertised" products, the same tools and techniques are also yielded by all manner of go-getters. As one investigation shows, instead of creating a new product test-marketed on Instagram, many sellers completely skip over product creation, simply assembling ready-made goods, shipping, and clever advertising into money-making “traps.” As these tools and techniques expand the possibilities for sizes and speeds of companies—enabling super small teams to target the smallest long tail points of taste—they also present as broad a spectrum for expectations of quality. Are you buying an innovative product from an up and coming designer? Or a cheap knockoff that even the seller has never held in their hands?

Reasons to pay attention to these small outfits: emerging retail trends; an ecosystem of online services which such super quick companies leverage; a potential prototyping model for larger organizations; a glimpse at the flexibility and power of micro-targeting.


Originally written for CloudRaker Thoughts.

Dual Reactions to Online Challengers

French sporting retailer Décathlon has come to town. We look at some of the tactics they and other chains are using to distinguish themselves from online challengers.

By now it’s blindingly obvious that the internet is changing retail in many ways. The variety of solutions is quite interesting to observe. Recently, the French sports chain Décathlon opened its first store in Montreal.

They are reacting to online pressure (and traditional competition) in a few ways: First, by working on their in-store experience, focusing on the opportunity to try out their products on the spot in their wide-open aisles. Second, by integrating online and making it possible to order from home and pick up at your local outlet. Third, by opening new smaller stores in downtown cores (Munich and Stuttgart for now), making them more easily accessible for city center customers. Fourth, by equipping their staff in some stores with tablets and an app to quickly and precisely answer client queries. Fifth, by investing in training and treating their employees well, thereby boosting their level of service.

For their part, Walmart is investing massively in India and their online offering by putting a reported reported $12 billion in Flipkart, raising their participation from 60 to 80%. A definite move to both address a growing market and position themselves against Amazon.

For years, Lowe’s has been operating their Innovation Labs, working on solutions and products around Alternate and Virtual Reality (AR and VR), on-demand manufacturing, robotics, etc. All in the hope of making the in-store experience more interesting, efficient, and enjoyable.

In a way, these big chains are stretching in two directions: on one side, by investing in getting better online to fight native internet competitors and on the other, by changing how they operate to enhance the in-person experience. In an already very competitive landscape, which of these giants will be able to navigate this two-sided effort successfully? And how do those ideas move up and down between them and the smaller, more nimble but more cash-strapped players?


Originally written for CloudRaker Thoughts.

The Warby Parker Scenius

There’s a fine line between inspiration and imitation. A whole network of direct-to-consumer brands emerged around Wharton and Warby Parker—now some are discovering the hard truth.

A while ago, Brian Eno coined the term “scenius” to describe “the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.” It’s a good word for what happens in various places at various times; a cluster of people who feed off each other’s ideas and talents, making each one of them better. That’s one way of describing what has been going on around The Wharton School and Warby Parker.

The latter was the original inspiration for many startups; re-inventing the sale of eyeglasses by cutting out the middleman and shipping glasses direct to consumers. Its influence was such that it now finds itself at the heart of a network of startups in the DTC space, -companies selling direct-to-consumer. Many of the founders have gone to Wharton, have studied under the same prof (David Bell), worked alongside each other, moved on to their own projects, and shared tips and resources. Many calling on the same funders, design and branding agencies, and PR firms. All of these are great. However, in their haste to copy a winning formula many of the more recent startups forgot some important lessons.

Not all disruptions are created equal; eyeglasses were dominated in a nearly monopolistic way by Luxottica so there were unusual margins to disrupt. There aren’t that many markets like this. Like startups in other fields, the would-be disruptors didn’t realize that being online doesn’t automatically deter other middlemen and found themselves “trapped” by a new kind of landlord, having to spend massively for customer acquisition (CAC) through Google, Facebook and Instagram, in a manner analogous to what “brick and mortar” stores pay their landlord.

Some takeaways: Originality trumps imitation. There are no magic tricks, even online plays can have big expenses. Networks of collaboration are good but beware of groupthink and echo chambers.


Originally written for CloudRaker Thoughts.

Who’s Being Duped? Google Announces the Hemming and Hawing Duplex.

Google announced their Duplex service to a chorus of ‘wows’, but are there loads of ethical questions that the company isn’t considering?

Amidst all the talk about Artificial Intelligence, there is always the fear, partially warranted, of which jobs might be superseded by automation and when.

Google Duplex is a recently announced service that can make basic phone calls for you. Using a number of different voices, it can call a hairdresser or restaurant and book an appointment or reservation. The voice, intonations and responses are uncanny, to the point that the interlocutors in the demo didn’t realize they were having a conversation with a computer. The launch of Duplex brought to light a couple of issues surrounding AI’s arrival in our lives.

First, something we’ve known for a while; that ethics and privacy will need to play a big role in the development of advanced algorithms, something that has been shown time and again to not be a priority for Silicon Valley companies. Rene Ritchie, an “Apple watcher” who also thinks about technology in general, produced a fantastic short video about Google’s missed opportunities. Instead of going with the purely technical demo, they could have made a point of reflecting on the need for ethics research and influence in development, and could have addressed the responsibility they have — and hopefully take — in introducing such tools to the world. They didn’t, electing to use the announcement to endlessly repeat the term AI and flaunt their technical accomplishment.

The second issue relates closely to jobs being taken by bots. In the Duplex demo, as Chris Messina put it, you can see the human on the phone as an API. An Application Programming Interface (API) is a way for two computers or services to talk. Messina’s framing points out that there is a computer making the call on one side, a computer on the restaurant’s side taking the reservation, and a human — to put it bluntly — simply being used for voice recognition and data entry. That person hasn’t lost his or her job… yet, but is also being deceived and used purely as an interface.

AI is coming and it’s disconcerting to see so few companies stepping up to their responsibilities and giving ethics and privacy the attention they deserve. So far, Apple is taking a stand, but who will follow? Who else will carefully consider the impact of what they build, not just on their bottom line but on society?


Originally written for CloudRaker Thoughts.

Where Are the Originals Amongst the Algorithms?

When everything we view, read, and wear is globally averaged and delivered through algorithms, what remains of our originality?

Thanks to social media and global platforms like Pinterest, Instagram, and Airbnb, style seems to have grown uniform across the world. AirSpace, as some have taken to calling it.

From Berlin, Brooklyn, Buenos Aires, or Bangkok, Third Wave coffee shops are remarkably similar. The hotel lobbies of a certain kind could all come from the same designers. Apartments on Airbnb develop a common aesthetic. Restaurants follow a number of molds and cultivate their quirks to draw social media attention.

People, by and large, don’t pick and choose their own style from local influences, the bands they follow, or the tv show they like. They simply conform to varying degrees to the global averaged out look. There are still niches and subcultures but if there is any interest to them, they rarely stay “sub” for very long, copied by fast fashion firms, transmitted at internet speed around the globe, absorbed in the generic.

With online platforms we collectively, globally, unknowingly, agreed on a common look, but at least they were a series of individual decisions. Kind of. Now, with the likes of Amazon Echo, we are not just following that global average but even outsourcing it to algorithms built to optimize our compliance to the global average, to the Generic Style. With the Echo we are testing our fit and towing the line based on some obscure aggregation of individual decisions made by millions. We don’t follow 150 or 500 friends and tastemakers we’ve chosen, Echo would have us listen to an algorithmic compilation of millions of people we haven’t even picked for ourselves.

“Now YouTube tells me which videos to watch, Netflix serves me TV shows, Amazon suggests clothes to wear, and Spotify delivers music to listen to.”

Quite. And the ads we are shown are optimized to sell us something. The news the algorithm shows us is optimized for clicks and “engagement.” The style the algorithm recommends is optimized for conformity to a stylistic ideal. The cafes, shops, and restaurants are optimized for Instagramming. We optimize our jobs for a high level of productivity. We optimize our kids for a high level of success (and security).

In the midst of all this uniformity, there must still be curiosity, a need to carve out a space of originality, of individuality. How do we foster this drive for meaning in each of us? Considering all the vested interests behind those services, this will prove a very complex problem to solve.


Originally written for CloudRaker Thoughts.

Our Vehicles Are Becoming Services

Beyond the string of Uber scandals, we are at a captivating moment in transportation.

Not so long ago, you could own a car or bicycle, jump into a cab, walk or use public transport. There are now more and more offerings of “transport cocktails,” mixed modes of transportation while, at the same time, a much more varied ecosystem is forming.

Self-driving cars are starting to appear but also new ownership models like Volvo’s subscription program, which includes things like insurance and maintenance, make it feel more like buying a phone than a car. At the same time, Uber just bought JUMP, an electric bike share service. For trips under 5km, you actually move quicker by bike than by car, which means Uber is likely cutting into their own short-range service and, in a way, dispensing with drivers.

In places like China and all over Europe, e-bikes—whether owned or shared—are making huge strides in popularity, extending the kinds of users and range of bike rides, changing our understanding of movement in a city. All in all, there are now plenty of opportunities for new service models, packages, combinations, and innovation for short trips and vehicle ownership in general. One-time buys are becoming services and subscriptions.


Originally written for CloudRaker Thoughts.

Will We See the “Deconstruction” of the High Street Lease?

Huge tech companies offering services without owning the equipment, large enterprises replaced by nimble smaller firms, when will street level retail be deconstructed?

****Back in early 2015, Tom Goodwin quipped that “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.”

Earlier this month, Matt Webb shared a hunch about a change in property management; “One shift I think we’re seeing is that property owners are no longer planning (as much) on making their profit from rent. Instead rent should get them merely to break-even. Profit comes from selling services to their tenants.”

Goodwin saw these companies as interfaces to clients, positing that they “own” the relationship with the client and are thus well positioned to change markets and gain enviable positions without even owning the actual “equipment” delivering the service. Webb draws our attention to the fact that with the internet, the cost of doing business has dropped dramatically, firms much smaller than before can now play outsized role and be viable for more people. That, coupled with the gig economy, means companies don’t want long leases anymore, paving the way for owners offering more services, and new companies like WeWork or Breather “deconstructing” leases by varying the length all the way down to hourly rentals and monthly contracts.

Those two insights are both important to keep an eye on but we’re also wondering how we can extrapolate that to retail space. With these “interface companies” grabbing market share from brick and mortar companies and with these other more nimble (and often short lived) firms, will we see something similar for stores? The popups we’ve been seeing for years as well as the hybrids of varying forms mixing shops, cafés, bookstores, and offices are both examples of reinventing street side retail but how might a “WeWork of the high street” work? Or will malls reinvent themselves with this kind of flexibility? Or perhaps we’ll see aggregators of spaces, offering “WeWorkish” space over multiple properties from different owners?


Originally written for CloudRaker Thoughts.

Come for the Protein, Stay for the Crickets

The almighty protein is showing up everywhere, so when will the butchers and fishmongers get a new neighbour?

Vegetarianism and veganism are in. Whether it’s for health or ethical reasons, there are more and more people greatly reducing or completely cutting meat from their diets.

According to research cited by The Guardian, “avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.” The Chinese government is part of the movement and has recently outlined a plan to reduce its citizens’ meat consumption by 50%. The measures, “designed to improve public health, could also provide a significant cut to greenhouse gas emissions.”

If you’ve watched cooking shows in recent years, or if you hang out in gyms, you might have noticed the prevalent use of the word ‘protein.’ You don’t include meat in your recipes, you “add a protein.” Which still ends up being some form of meat but is regularly a plant-based version or a manufactured meat replacement. The Beyond Meat burgers are placed alongside “traditional meat” in grocery store counters and are outselling beef! For years, crickets and various other insects have been spoken off and promoted but they are now actually turning up on shelves and menus. Vegan athletes are making headlines, and cross-fit plant-based stars are have gained legions of fans.

So here’s a thought: When will we start seeing the first “protein stores”? Will we soon see new signs going up a few doors down from our local butcher or fishmonger, lining up pre-marinated tofu, meat replacement burgers, cricket flour, tempeh brochettes, and lentil patties? These stores could display price, protein count, and environmental impact on their labels. Just imagine the signs, playing on our climate change and health worries, trying to one-up the butcher and his tasty BBQ-ready product!


Originally written for CloudRaker Thoughts.

Are Brands in a Red Queen’s Race?

Today’s information abundance is changing the way we relate to brands. Is the multiplication of collaborations between brands a way of staying ahead of change?

The influence of our ever increasing connectivity and resulting information abundance seem to be in a never-ending spiral upwards, and we are still finding and exploring the ways in which it affects business and society. Cyril Maury at Claro Partners has an interesting theory; he believes it’s causing the end of brands.

Fresh out of a global research project on “digital natives,” Maury noticed that the young people they interviewed seemed to be very uninterested in brands, simply buying what they like and not limiting themselves to one company. In the past, brands were useful for two reasons: to prove quality and as expressions of identity. The brand was used to symbolize a set of characteristics, a certain quality that consumers could hold on to in an information poor environment. Later on, they wanted to reflect these qualities on themselves, then use them to represent their personality. Maury believes that in our information rich times, finding quality can be done quickly and efficiently; no need to “believe” a brand—the information is out there. By the same token, people can create their own content, images, and remix meaning. They don’t need to attach themselves to a brand. They can be their own brand.

Now let's put this line of thinking alongside the recent announcement by IKEA of multiple collaborations with other brands. They will be releasing products developed with Adidas, LEGO, and Sonos, but also with Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, fashion designer Virgil Abloh, and glass and ceramics artist Per B. Sundberg, among others. In recent years IKEA also launched an Alternate Reality (AR) application, invested in a 3D printing company, and bought “gig economy” startup Task Rabbit, in part to offer on-demand assembly of their furniture through outsourced gig contractors. Quite the broad spectrum of initiatives, which involves stepping out of their comfort zone.

How do these two things fit together? If information richness means consumers step away from brands as proof of quality and as an identity signal, does that explain why IKEA, and others—think of Monocle magazine’s many “X” collaborations—launches so many projects? That definitely remains to be seen but let’s throw a third idea into this reflexion: the Red Queen hypothesis, or Red Queen Race. Based on a scene in Alice in Wonderland, where Alice runs and runs only to stay in the same place. It beckons to think: are brands running as fast as they can, coming up with collaborations left and right, just so they don’t lose ground?


Originally written for CloudRaker Thoughts.

Running About for Self and Perspective

The Amish and a computer philosopher have the same idea for stepping away, discovering oneself, and making more informed decisions.

It’s always interesting to see an idea echoing both past and present. It can allow us to make useful comparisons, glean some lessons or reinforce our thinking.

First, let's take the centuries-long view of the Amish on technology. According to Jameson Wetmore who studied theirs methods, their communities don’t prohibit technology when something new comes into the community. They observe how much it’s picked up, how it’s used and how it affects the lives of the group. They can then review the impacts in relation to their values and decide if it’s something they want to keep. They also have the concept of the rumspringa or “jumping around” where between the ages of 15 and 20 years old, they are afforded the total freedom to experience the outside world, to gain perspective on their lifestyle before committing to it for the rest of their lives, or leaving to join the rest of the world.

Now let's look at a much more recent line of thought with “computer philosopher,” author and VR pioneer Jaron Lanier, who doesn’t use social media and says we should give it up. In this short interview on Channel 4 news, he talks about the addictive power of Facebook and Twitter, encourages us to delete our accounts but also gives this advice to young users: “you have to know yourself, you have to experience, you can’t know yourself without perspective so at least give it six months without social media.” He’s assuming everyone uses those platforms and is talking about a sort of rumspringa, experiencing a less connected world to know yourself better to then be able to make more enlightened and meaningful decisions based on your values.

Although in both cases these ideas are framed around technology, they can also be transposed to consumerism or various lifestyle choices. What kind of “jumping around” away from something could you envision? What do you need a clearer perspective on?


Originally written for CloudRaker Thoughts.

The Second Wave of Change in Entertainment

Big media disruptors are moving into new territory, trying to replace their content partners with their own properties—how will consumers react?

Some of the biggest media companies made their names and fortunes by disrupting one layer of the markets they entered. Netflix completely obliterated Blockbuster and all other video rental stores by becoming the one stop aggregator between movie studios and viewers.

Music downloads in general, then Napster and then Apple almost completely replaced music stores by becoming aggregators of music and listeners. Spotify did the same with the added twist of monthly streaming “all you can eat” pricing instead of digital purchases and downloads.

For the past few years, Netflix, then Amazon, Google, and now Apple (who just signed Oprah) started producing their own content, going up the chain and disrupting movie studios and TV networks by making them partially unnecessary. Now it’s Spotify’s turn to try this move—this second wave of disruption—by dealing directly with artists: “The company will not control the copyrights or ‘sign’ artists like a record label does; instead it is licensing music from artists who own their rights.” Risk then lies in trying to find a balance between new revenue and not annoying the music labels too much. In the meantime, Disney is making the opposite play by starting it’s own streaming service, which will be the exclusive place for their many brands and franchises.

Each of these companies (Spotify perhaps to a lesser degree) is not just competing with someone new but moving into completely different businesses. Netflix has been excellent at producing content, while the others are just starting or are less impressive so far. How will Disney fare with the technical side of their streaming service? More interestingly perhaps, where the first wave of disruption was largely a change in technology (brick and mortar vs. internet), this one will be very much about brands, the content producers, the platforms, and the big names they manage to attract. Consumers have shown they are willing to pay for a streaming service, but what happens when walls get higher, when some of their favourite stars, brands, and franchises are across two or three services? Will they switch? Pay for both? The battle for their allegiance should be fascinating to see.


Originally written for CloudRaker Thoughts.

Foster a Culture of Stakeholders

When the entire product chain is commodified and everything becomes easy to copy, companies should differentiate through culture and focus on stakeholders before shareholders.

Today, most "things" begin life as digital files. Paired with instantaneous communication and globalization, many actual physical products can be manufactured "anywhere” at ever lower prices.

This has meant the separation of creation, design, brand, and sales from manufacturing, like the famed “Designed by Apple in California”, whilst the product is made across the planet and assembled in China. In turn, some manufacturers can then produce very similar objects for multiple customers.

As a result, many of the brands we buy from are, in large part, simply a mix of ideas and digital files. How can companies then differentiate themselves for customers and employees? The answer has often been brand and design but more and more it’s actually (or also) meaning and culture. What does the company stand for? What does it value? Are they all about money or some higher purpose?

As Namrata Patel explains, “more now than ever, consumers, particularly millennials, are spending their money on products not only for the functionality they provide, but also for the meaning they convey. Purchase of the product signals not just your taste, but also your personal values.”

Those consumers, as employees, are also looking for meaning and want to find their values mirrored in their workplaces. Marc Benioff, of tech giant Salesforce, believes companies need to go further than before and not simply be thinking of stocks: “We’re moving into a world of stakeholders. It’s not just about shareholders. Your employees are stakeholders, so are your customers, your partners, the communities that you’re in, the homeless that are nearby, your public schools.” Patagonia is regularly touted as an example of a sustainable organization but they also go further, making sure that employees resonate with the company and can “bring their whole self to work and apply what they know to the business.”

Like “authenticity” a few years ago or “purpose” later on, culture and meaning might soon be regarded as trends. But, like many words eventually treated as a flavour of the month, they have a core of truth: they represent an actual need expressed by people, whether they are buying a product or buying into a company as an employee. So beyond the trends, does your culture carry meaning? Is it reflected outwards and inwards, not just in slide decks?


Originally written for CloudRaker Thoughts.

Favour the Inconvenient

Making everything convenient also makes everything—including us— uniform and boring. Let’s look for seams, for the slow, the difficult, the inconvenient.

“Convenience seems to make our decisions for us, trumping what we like to imagine are our true preferences. (I prefer to brew my coffee, but Starbucks instant is so convenient I hardly ever do what I ‘prefer.’) … Convenience has the ability to make other options unthinkable.”— Tim Wu

It’s as though everything today has to be smooth and easy, convenient, frictionless, and seamless. But sometimes friction and seams are good, they force you to stop, they make things unique. Sure, it’s convenient to order everything with one-click through Amazon, but is it pleasant? Joyful? Are you growing and experiencing? Are you challenging yourself or what’s expected of you? It might take longer to walk somewhere and buy from your local shop, maybe you won’t even find the exact thing you’re looking for, but maybe you’ll find something unexpected and better. Maybe you’ll even bump into someone or have a nice chat with the salesperson, clerk, butcher, or barista when stopping for that impromptu coffee you decided to grab on the way. Life often happens in the inconvenient seams of the world.

What are you missing when picking convenience over serendipity?


Originally written for CloudRaker Thoughts.

The Massive Assumption Behind a Lot of “Blockchaining”

There are many dreams around the use of the blockchain for tracking products through a supply chain but at their heart is often an important step missing.

The hype and valuation craziness around Bitcoin has died down a bit at this point but there are still aspects to be interested in around this cryptocurrency. For starters, what it’s built on:

Bitcoin is a currency built with the blockchain, a technology that allows developers to make unique, provable, unalterable “blocks,” attach them together (thus the “chain”), and keep track of every transaction occurring on said chain. You can see it as a gigantic, shared, digital ledger.

Proponents of the technology are working on dozens of different use cases for the chain, usually around things that are digital but could be made unique (where normally digital files can be copied over and over again without loss) or around things that are physical but could be associated to a block and thus tracked digitally. The latter is usually presented as a solution to all sorts of uses around the tracking of products, like containers being shipped around the world, car parts, or any other valuable “thing” that is inefficiently being handed from company to company in multiple steps across borders. This piece on private blockchains and the supply chains gives a good idea of what the system is currently like:

“With little or no automation, no streamlined communications disaster systems, no real visibility to anything during transport, and built on legacy systems over a century old, it is a pressing public safety problem.”

A more precise and very trendy version of the supply chain case is the idea of tracking the provenance of more organic “things,” like a box of mangoes, a free-range, no-antibiotic chicken, a roll of cashmere wool from a specific producer, a bag of organic fair-trade beans for a highfalutin coffee shop, etc. This way the consumer could know exactly where the product came from, how it was produced, how it was shipped, etc.

The end goal is laudable and the blockchain might even be the right solution. But here’s a trick for the next supply chain blockchain idea you hear about (or almost any blockchain project): ask if the process is already digital. As mentioned above, many of these concepts are actually looking at a largely un-optimized and analog system. The benefits heralded for a blockchain transition are dependent on first making everything digital: contracts, shipping bills, customs checks, etc. Attaching unique identifiers to each and making everything trackable might work well with a blockchain, but think of the hand-wavy assumption that a massive project would make it all digital in the first place. Then think of the scope of what that means. Still sounds simple?


Originally written for CloudRaker Thoughts.

What’s Your Soft Power?

Authenticity, transparency, social responsibility. Those are all well and good and serve a purpose. But what really represents your organization at its core? Take a page from the countries’ playbook—look for your soft power.

For a few years now there have been discussions and multiple articles and books written on topics such as authenticity, values, and social responsibility for companies. More and more consumers, it is said, now take into account the values and social stances of companies when picking products.

Whether it’s Ben & Jerry’s pioneering this “movement,” Patagonia in recent years, or WeWork and their no-meat message, many companies through the years have put forward their social values to promote a message. “Some might argue that in certain cases the message comes across as a call for attention rather than a shoutout to an important issue, but it remains to be a choice an increasing number of companies are making.”

But not everyone reflects on such broadly impactful ideas like the environment, climate change, or clean water. And not everyone feels it’s their place to take such stands. For companies wishing to share more of themselves and find kindred spirits among consumers, it might be interesting to take ideas from a concept usually reserved for countries: soft power.

Coined in the 90s by Joseph Nye of Harvard University, soft power can be described as:

The ability to affect others through the co-optive means of framing the agenda, persuading, and eliciting positive attraction in order to obtain preferred outcomes. […] The types of resources associated with hard power include tangibles such as force and money. The types of resources associated with soft power often include intangible factors such as institutions, ideas, values, culture, and the perceived legitimacy of policies. […] Hard power is push; soft power is pull.

The people at Monocle magazine, for one, have been using the term a lot in their rankings of countries. Germany’s Goethe Institute is a cultural institute active worldwide, which creates soft power for the country; France and Japan are two countries whose culture draws admiration and goodwill from everywhere in the world, reflecting on each country as a whole. Social policies and good design provide a similar positive vibe to Scandinavian countries.

The idea is not that different from the social values we started with but this broader vision opens the door to more varied views on how an organization might show more of itself. Project management software maker Basecamp can be seen through that lens. Yes, they are pretty much doing content marketing with their books and Signal v. Noise blog, but mostly they are not talking about how great their product is, giving tips on using it, or doing listicles. They are affirming and sharing their culture. Their soft power manifests in great influence and respect for they way they do business.

Apple, other than keynotes and colourful ads, don’t do that much in terms of promoting their policies and values or even their culture—most of what we know is usually because of obsessive observation by fans. They do promote their environmental and privacy policies, but it would be hard to argue that the bulk of their soft power comes from their obsession with design.

In the end, what we are thinking about here is not that different from the authenticity, values, and social responsibility angle. Rather, it’s a slight change in perspective. Perhaps what you need to be thinking about showing is not just what’s currently cool or respected and what you happen to agree with. Perhaps what best represents you is what’s core to who you are as an organization and what are you good at. Look at your team, at your work. Write down what you obsess about; listen when new recruits or clients come to you and note how they describe your company; ask around internally: what couldn’t your team live without?

Keep compiling these obsessions and distinctive qualities, then find a next step to make them even more valuable. Perhaps it’s setting aside an offsite day to think about those ideas more deeply. Or making a list of related questions to start meetings with everyone on your team. You’ll know more about your organization and maybe even find your biergarten or your Swedish meatball. You’ll understand your soft power.


Originally written for CloudRaker Thoughts.