Black Swans and Brands

I’ve just returned from holiday and included in my reading was The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb: he postulates that life is more influenced by random events that are almost impossible to predict than so-called forecasts and predictions. As an example he gives 9/11: if we couldhave predicted it, it would never have happened. We would have had bullet proof locked doors on all aircraft and 24 hour fighter patrols around the twin towers. The same could be said for many things from the growth of the Internet to the sub-prime disaster. Of course pundits will try to justify by hindsight – but the point he makes is that random or unpredictable events will have more impact than we ever can imagine – we have only to look at such events in our own lives or our own lifetimes.

The concept of the ‘black swan’ comes from Karl Popper, the philosopher of science. He maintained that science cannot prove anything, but only disprove. He used the example of the swan – science would have maintained that a swan is a big white bird: we can infer from all our knowledge of swans that this holds true for all swans. Until our discovery on the other side of the world of a black swan. In the same way, Newtonian Physics held for us since the 17th Century – until Einstein came along – and his explanation again held true until Quantum theory came along.

So where does this apply to brands? If we look at the history of brands we also see how important random, unpredictable events have been. Look at the growth of the Internet and the emergence of Google, the crash of Anderson consulting because somebody got greedy – we can think of many examples where surprising brands defied accepted thinking and took the markets by storm and others where random events brought established brands to their knees.

This is not an argument against planning and standard prediction, but common sense suggests that standard planning will at best result in standard results. We need to change our thinking to open our minds to randomness… to accept and look for the serendipitous. That is where the great brand ideas come from and the great opportunities. Remember French nuclear testing in the 1990’s? Who could have foreseen that UK consumers would react by ceasing to buy French produce… including wine? The rack space allocated to French wines in supermarkets shrank, new world wines flooded in to fill the vacuum and Australian and New Zealand brands especially became firm favourites in the UK.  Ironically from the antipodes… like the black swans.


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