When the whole world was going gaga about Facebook’s Initial Public Offering (IPO), there was one man who did not fall for all the hype, looked at the numbers of the company, asked some basic questions and concluded “they don’t know how they are going to make money.” Looks like, he was proved right in the end. The stock was sold at a price of $38 per share, and has fallen since then. Aswath Damodaran was the man who got it right. “In hindsight everybody will tell you that they were bearish on Facebook. Nobody will admit to buying the shares,” points out Damodaran. He is a Professor of Finance at the Stern School of Business at New York University where he teaches corporate finance and equity valuation. In some circles he is referred to as the “god of valuation”. In this interview he speaks to Vivek Kaul.
Let us start with Facebook, you have been critical about their IPO pricing?
The trouble with Facebook is figuring out, first what business they are going to be in, because they haven’t figured it out themselves. How are they going to convert a billion users into revenues and income? And second, if they even manage to do it, how much those revenues will be, what will the margins etc. They don’t know how they are going to make money. Whether they are going sell advertising to these users? Whether they are going to sell products to these users? Services to these users? I think all they know right now is that they have a lot of users.
But if they have no idea of what to do with their users, how did they make the $4billion in sales that they did last year?
They are selling. 12% of that came from selling stuff for Zynga (The maker of popular games such as “FarmVille” and “CityVille,”). The remaining 88% did come from very subtle advertising. The question is that whether they can scale that up? Because right now it is kind of invisible. You can’t see it because it is relatively small. But if they want to generate the kind of revenues they want, you are going to see it on your Facebook page. And it is going to be very very clear that they are using what they know about you to pick those ads. And I am not sure people will be comfortable with that knowing that they are seeing not just your profile but your interactions. So they can see how old you are. What political party your support? What sports you like? It is all going to go. And that’s their selling point.
So it will be some sort of invasion of privacy?
It is not some sort of invasion of privacy. It is an invasion of privacy. The question is can they do that without people getting pissed off and saying I am leaving Facebook and going elsewhere. And that I think is the big unknown. Because let’s face it, they have not just a billion users, but they know more about these users than any other company on the face of this earth. If you want a company to find 35million people who fit a specific demographic characteristic, the place to go is Facebook. They can show it to you. The only question is that if you did advertise through Facebook to those 35million is this the kind of forum were they are inclined to click on an ad.
How does it compare with Google?
In case of Google it is a much more direct business model. It’s search. You click and that’s it, everybody could see what they were doing. Facebook is a much more subtle model. On Facebook you are talking to your friends, which is a private conversation between you and your friends, but when you see these intrusive ads on the side, you realize you are not just talking to your friends, you are talking to your friends and somebody at Facebook is monitoring you at the same time. That’s a very tricky challenge. So they have made the $4billion, but at the value (the market capitalization of the Facebook stock) they have they have to make $35billion. And that’s a very different game because that would mean a lot more ads on every page directly focused in on what the users are doing.
In face very frankly I didn’t realize there are ads on my Facebook page for a long time…
It is pretty subtle right now because they don’t have that much advertising. If you think of revenue of $4billion spread out across a billion users, you are going to see a very few ads because it is still on the sides. And sometimes it doesn’t even look like an ad. Right. It’s a Facebook friend with GM. You click on it and before you know it you are looking at GM’s product offerings. So it is very subtle right now. But it can’t stay subtle for them to make the kind of revenues they have to make to justify their price now. The kind of scary thing here is that Mark Zuckerberg has said that he wants to build a social enterprise and not a business enterprise.
What does he mean by that?
What he means by that is he built Facebook so that people could talk to each other. He didn’t want ads on it. For a long time he refused to take ads on Facebook until he was told that if you can’t take ads there is no other way to make money in this. So I am not sure how willing he is to go the distance because it is going to be a fight. It’s going to be a fight against not other social media companies but against the big players. The Googles and The New York Times of the world. This is a tough game to fight and you got be willing to act like a business and I am not sure is willing to yet.
You called the business model of Facebook, a Field of Dreams. Why is that?
Yeah. You ever seen that movie? Field of Dreams.
In the movie Kevin Costner moves to the American Midwest and he is walking through this cornfield. And hears this voice and it says “if you build it he will come”. He being Shoeless Joe Jackson, a baseball player from a 100 years ago. On the faith that these old baseball players will show up, he builds this baseball field in the middle of Iowa and everybody asks him, why are you building this huge baseball field in the middle of nowhere? And he tells them, if I build it they will come. And that in a sense is what social media companies are doing right now. They are building this place where there are lots of users and they are telling people trust us if we build this, they will come. They being advertisers, product sellers, they will come. But in the Field of Dreams they did come but I am not sure in these companies that they will.
Talking about the current price of Facebook how do you see it? Yesterday is closed at around $33.(The interview was conducted on Thursday, May 24,2012) Has it fallen enough?
I think it fell enough in those two days that you are going to get a consolidation. The next run on them will tell how far they might go back. The low 30s are close enough to my intrinsic value that I wouldn’t call them massively overvalued. I think there is enough potential in the company. If it dropped to $15 then it’s pretty much a bargain. At $31-32 its pretty close to intrinsic value
The intrinsic value you calculated for Facebook was $29?
So why was the stock valued at such a high price of $38 per share when it was sold to the public?
It wasn’t valued. It was priced.
So why was it priced at such a high price?
Remember they weren’t pricing it on a blank slate. They could see transactions happening in the private share market where people were buying and selling Facebook shares. And there the prices were going at about $42-43. So they said if people are buying and selling at this price, these are real transactions.
What sort of stock market was this?
For the last two years Facebook has been on what’s called a private share market where people who owned shares of Facebook were allowed to trade.
So is it like over the counter?
Not even over the counter. They are actually beyond the counter. These are private companies that are not incorporated. So this is a completely unregulated share market. Like Goldman Sachs could sell shares. Players in this market are pretty big institutional investors they are not individual investors. Transactions here have particular merit because these are two informed investors transacting and they are coming to a price. And investment bankers saw that price and they said if they are paying $42, then we should be able to sell it at $38. And they also got onto the phone and they called institutional investors. They tried to gauge demand until Thursday evening (May 17,2012). And that’s why they set the price at 4 o’clock on Thursday because that’s how late they were pushing this off to make sure that there was enough demand.
Wasn’t this a throwback to the days of the dotcom bubble?
This is how all pricing is done in IPOs. IPOs are always priced they are never valued because essentially your job as an investment banker is to sell at that price. What was unusual here was that demand and supply that they gauged collapsed. They didn’t realize how thin the market was until one hour into the offering when they saw the price collapse. It started at $38, it went to $43, and then very quickly it kind of collapsed. My theory is when you price things you are building in market perceptions, what you think will happen etc. You are basing it in on momentum. That’s a very fragile thing. You don’t want mess with it. Even people who are buying based on pricing and momentum like to tell themselves that they are buying based on value. So they look for a good story and they don’t want to have their face rubbed at the fact that they are buying because everybody else is paying the price.
In case of Facebook it was quite the opposite…
If you look at what the investment banks and Facebook insiders did in the last week they almost rubbed the investors faces in this. They rubbed it in the sense that they kept hiking up the offering price, saying we know you are suckers. At the same time the insiders were selling the shares in the week leading up to the offering. If I had been the investment banker I would have spent the last week talking about the user base, and advertising because that would have given the momentum investors a crutch. I am purely buying it because of advertising revenues. Instead it was all about pricing. They made it very transparent that they were not valuing the company. It was all demand and supply. I have a feeling that if you point to midday on Friday (May 18,2012) and say that was the time when the momentum on social media companies, not just on Facebook, shifted. And if you look at what has happened since it is not just Facebook which has seen its price collapse. It’s Groupon. It’s LinkedIn. It’s the entire sector. And I wager that there are IPOs lined up to go to investment banks of social media companies, that are either being pulled right now or being dramatically repriced.
You have said in the past that Facebook has huge corporate governance issues. Can you elaborate on that?
It has got voting shares and non-voting shares. Zuckerberg has got the voting rights. It is also incorporated as a controlled corporation which basically means that you don’t have to follow the corporate governance rules (like the Sarbanes Oxley Act) that publically traded companies need to do. They can have insiders on the board.
Is that allowed?
If you are controlled corporation it is. And Facebook has been very open about that they are going to be a controlled corporation.
How does regulation allow for something like that?
As long as you make it public. If it is a controlled corporation investors have to make a judgement as to whether they care. In case of Facebook initially it looked like they didn’t care. Right from the beginning Facebook has been very open that they are not really going to be a publically traded company and that really they are a private business that wants the capital that public markets give them. But it is going to be Zuckerberg’s company.
So they won’t give out much information?
They might give out the information but you will have no say in what they do. So if they do an acquisition…
Did they overpay for Instagram?
They paid. I don’t know whether they overpaid. But the paid and there was no accountability. Zuckerberg basically decided to pay a billion (dollars) then he told the board that I have bought the company and I have paid a billion. This is not the way a company should be bought. A CEO shouldn’t be deciding what to pay overnight and you shouldn’t be telling the board of directors after you have bought a company that I just bought a company for a billion and I just want you to know.
This is like how mom and pop shops down the road operate…
It is a way a dictatorship operates. Facebook is a corporate dictatorship.
So who influenced Zuckerberg to do what he is doing?
Google set the framework that Facebook is using right now. The voting shares, non-voting shares. Sergey Brin and Larry Page are the models that Zuckerberg is using.
Can you elaborate on that?
Until Google came along, US companies generally did not have two classes of shares. Voting shares and nonvoting shares were for a long time banned by the New York Stock Exchange. So most companies didn’t even try. So if you look at Apple, you look at Microsoft they had only one class of shares. Google essentially did two things. They did their IPO through an auction rather than through investment banks. And secondly they decided to have voting and nonvoting shares. If institutional investors had risen at that point of time and said we are not buying these shares because we don’t have enough voting rights, then Google would have been forced to go back to drawing board and then come back. Institutional investors were okay with Google doing that. Once they opened that door every social media company you look at LinkedIn and Groupon, they follow what Google did.
So these shares are listed on NASDAQ?
Yes. NASDAQ allows for voting and nonvoting shares that is the part of the reason for listing on it. The New York Stock Exchange because it is in competition with NASDAQ has now also started relaxing, they want the money, they want the listings. So they will take Facebook even if it’s voting and nonvoting shares. So this will be a race to the bottom.
So the shares sold to the public were nonvoting shares?
They are low voting shares. The shares that Zuckerberg owns have 10 times the voting rights, which means he has 57% of voting rights with 35% of the shares. And he will always make sure that remains above 50%.
So he can go ahead and buy anything without requiring clearance from the board?
Google for instance recently issued new shares which have no voting right at all. So that is the third layer. You have ten voting rights shares. One voting rights shares. And no voting rights shares. Zuckerberg can go out and raise as much capital as he wants. If he issues no voting rights he will always have 57%. He going to lock in that voting percentage.
But how is something like this allowed in a developed market like the US?
I don’t think it should be banned. Let the investors decide for themselves. Lots of countries you have two classes of shares. Its par for the course. And you just price it in.
It’s just that it hasn’t happened in the US for a long time?
I think you will wake up one day and see I wish I had voting rights. But you chose to be a part of this game. I am not feeling sorry for the institutional investors in Google who are crying about the fact that Google does things they don’t like. You bought the stock you live with it.
(The interview was originally published in the Daily News and Analysis(DNA) on May 28,2012. http://www.dnaindia.com/money/interview_facebook-is-a-corporate-dictatorship_1694603)
(Interviewer Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])
Central banks around the world seem to have only one solution for every problem that the various economies have been facing: print more money. And a large portion of this money has been used to prop up banks and financial institutions that would have otherwise fallen and shut shop by now. “It is unfortunate that nobody is allowed to default these days, because all these bailouts are only adding to the inflation menace and the ongoing money creation is confiscating the purchasing power of the public,” says Puru Saxena, the founder and CEO of Puru Saxena Wealth Management. Based out of Hong Kong, Saxena is also the editor and publisher of Money Matters, a monthly economic newsletter. In this interview he speaks to Vivek Kaul.
In a recent column of yours you said “the world’s stock and commodity markets are defying all logic and advancing in the face of adverse economic conditions”. Why has that been the case?
All asset prices are determined by the risk free rate of return and by suppressing interest rates near historical lows, central banks in the developed world have engineered this rally in risky assets. When it comes to investing, monetary policy trumps economic fundamentals and cheap credit triggers a rally in stocks and commodities. This is why, despite sluggish economic growth in the US, Wall Street has been rallying for over 3 years. Conversely, despite good economic growth in India, due to monetary tightening, Indian equities have underperformed over the past year!
Do you expect this trend to continue?
As long as the Federal Reserve keeps interest rates at historical lows, the uptrend on Wall Street is likely to continue. Of course, the bull market will be subject to periodic corrections, but the primary trend should remain up. In our view, the next bear market on Wall Street will arrive after several months of monetary tightening by the Federal Reserve and we are at least 3 years away from this scenario. After all, Mr. Bernanke has pledged to keep short term rates unchanged until at least December 2014, so there is clear visibility for another 2 and a half years.
In Europe, the attention seems to have shifted to Spain. I was reading somewhere that the assets of the three biggest banks of Spain are at $2.7trillion or around twice the size of the Spanish economy. And the banking sector in Spain seems to be in a pretty bad shape. How do you see that playing out?
Spain is in real trouble, but the politicians will probably not let it default. So, either the European Central Bank will bail out Spain or it will continue to provide cheap loans under its LTRO(long term financing operations) scheme. It is unfortunate that nobody is allowed to default these days, because all these bailouts are only adding to the inflation menace and the ongoing money creation is confiscating the purchasing power of the public. Already, the Federal Reserve and the ECB have provided trillions of dollars of loans to hundreds of banks and this trend should continue for the foreseeable future.
What are the other dangers that you see the European markets throwing up in the days to come?
Many European nations are essentially insolvent and they cannot repay their loans in today’s money. So, unless they are allowed to default, the central banks will probably continue to bail out all the distressed bondholders and banks. The truth is that the central banks do not want anybody to default because the losses will be catastrophic for the financial institutions; so they are shoving even more debt down the throats of these heavily indebted nations! It is easy for us to see that more debt cannot solve a debt crisis but this is the strategy the central banks have come up with and we all have to live with the consequences.
The European Central Bank seems to be going the Federal Reserve way. The Federal Reserve in 2008-2009 seemed to have been rescuing banks and companies, the ECB is rescuing countries? Aren’t some of these countries like Italy and Spain are too big to bail-out?
So far, nothing has been ‘too big to bail out’! Already, the ECB has extended over $1.4 trillion of loans under its LTRO scheme to several hundred banks and if need be, it will probably create more currency units to bail out its banking cronies. If the situation becomes desperate, then, we may even get fiscal integration within the Euro zone but we don’t think that the establishment will let the Euro fail.
In all this talk about Europe, attention seems to have shifted away from the problems in the United States, which is where it all started. How good or bad is the scene there?
Although the economy is struggling in the US; things are much worse in Europe. Fortunately, the US is in the enviable position of being able to print its own currency at will and this is a luxury which the distressed European nations do not have. Under a crisis scenario, the US can always create even more dollars out of thin air and repay its creditors, but this is something Greece, Italy and Spain cannot do! Moreover, despite having a federal debt to GDP ratio of over 100%, the US still controls the world’s reserve currency and this is a big advantage.
One talk in the market seems to be that the Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke will initiate QE III given that Presidential elections are scheduled this year. Several Federal Reserve Chairmen have in the past have run easy money policies to help the incumbent US President who is running for the election again..
In our view, Mr. Bernanke will only initiate QE3 after a big dip in the CPI. Currently, the CPI is hovering around 2.7% and it is conceivable that QE3 will be announced when the CPI dips to around 1-1.5%. With the CPI close to 2.7%, we believe that Mr. Bernanke will find it difficult to unleash more stimulus.
You have maintained for a while that world’s developed nations are all bankrupt. In fact in a column last year you wrote “Let’s face it; many of the world’s ‘developed’ nations are insolvent and the writing is on the wall. Either these indebted states will default or they will try and inflate their currencies into oblivion.” How do you see this scenario playing out?
Given the developments of the past 3-4 years, it is clear that the policymakers do not want to see defaults. So, they have chosen the monetary inflation route and this is destroying the purchasing power of currencies all over the world. As a result of massive money creation, currencies are being debased and prices are rising all over the world. In fact, inflation is surging in most nations and people are struggling to make ends meet. In the US alone, the Federal Reserve has created trillions of dollars to bail out the banks and the ECB has also created and loaned out over US$1 trillion to hundreds of banks over the past six months! Never before in history have we witnessed such monetary inflation in so many nations and nobody really knows the consequences of this strategy.
“When the interest payments on US debt become painfully high, Mr. Bernanke will be called upon to unleash the hyperinflation genie.” This is something you wrote last year. When do you see this happening?
As long as foreigners are willing to invest in US Treasuries and demand for US government debt is high, hyperinflation will not occur. However, if one day, bondholders stop financing the US deficit and they stop buying US Treasuries, then Mr. Bernanke will have no other option but to use the printing press to purchase US Treasuries. Already, the Federal Reserve is a very large player in this market but if other investors flee this market, then out of desperation, we may experience hyperinflation in the US. Fortunately, there are no signs of that happening anytime soon as demand for US Treasuries is still strong.
Many pundits in the last few years have forecast the crash of the dollar. The biggest among them being Pimco’s Bill Gross. But that hasn’t happened. Every time there is a slight hint of some new trouble, money rushes into the dollar. How do you explain this?
In the global beauty contest, the US Dollar is being perceived as the least ugly candidate! This is why the US Dollar has not collapsed against major world currencies, although it has depreciated gradually over the past decade. If you review the world today, Europe is a mess and Japan is still struggling. So, apart from the US Dollar, we don’t really have very many choices! In the developing world, no nation wants a strong currency and countries such as China, India and Brazil are all engaged in competitive currency devaluations. Under this scenario, the US Dollar cannot really crash against other currencies because either they are equally bad or they are being held down on purpose.
What is your prognosis on gold?
Gold is in a multi-month consolidation phase and currently, it is trading under the 200-day moving average. So, in our clients’ portfolios, we do not have any exposure to gold at present. In our view, QE3 will be required to trigger the next big rally in gold and until then, prices are likely to drift lower. Furthermore, after 11 years of gains, investors should be mindful of the fact that gold is no longer cheap and the bull market is now in its mature phase. Thus, owners of gold should be very cautious and consider booking their profits on the first sign of trouble.
What about India? Which are the sectors and stocks you are positive about?
It appears as though India’s monetary cycle has peaked for now and further rate cuts should assist the Indian stock market. Usually, there is time lag between monetary easing and its effects on the economy, so in our view, the Indian stock market may not take off for another few months. Nonetheless, we remain optimistic about Indian stocks and continue to like those companies which earn high rates of return on shareholders’ equity.
(The article originally appeared in the Daily News and Analysis on May 21,2012. http://www.dnaindia.com/mumbai/interview_in-the-global-beauty-contest-the-dollar-is-the-least-ugly-candidate_1691544)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected] )
Laura Ries is a globally respected marketing consultant. Ries has run Ries & Ries, a consulting firm with her partner and father, Al, since 1994. Together they consult with Fortune 500 companies on brand strategy. Her new book Visual Hammer is just out. “The critical missing piece in most marketing programs is a powerful visual that can drive a brand into the mind,” says Laura. This book outlines the steps a brand needs to take to develop a visual hammer.
In this interview she speaks to Vivek Kaul.
You talk about marketing messages from companies ignoring half of the prospect’s brain. What do you mean by that?
Everyone has two brains, a left brain and a right brain, plus the corpus callosum connecting the two brains. The left brain is associated with verbal messages; the right brain with visual messages and is also the site of your emotions. If a marketing message is totally verbal, it ignores the right brain and especially the right brain involvement with “emotion.” What things do people remember the best? Those things that have an emotional connection. The day you got married. The day you had an automobile accident. The day you graduated from college. Etc. A totally verbal message is usually flat and unemotional. That greatly hinders the memorability of the message.
Could you explain this through an example?
The old-fashioned Coca-Cola bottle (which the company calls a “contour” bottle) communicates the fact that Coke is the original cola, the authentic cola, the real thing. Coca-Cola has also used the verbal (“the real thing”) but it just doesn’t have the same emotional impact of the bottle itself. Of course, the best strategy to use would be both. The Coke bottle (the visual hammer) and the verbal nail (“the real thing.”) They reinforce each other.
You say that most marketing messages are abstract ideas built around concepts like good consumer service, superior reliability, dependable performance etc. Why is that?
In general, a major corporation would first develop a verbal strategy for a brand. Then the company would “sell” the verbal idea to top management before they bring in an advertising agency to develop the idea. And since most corporate executives are left brainers, they readily accept verbal ideas. There is a lot of evidence that top management is dominated by left brainers. Right brainers are usually introverts and not very talkative. Left brainers usually are extroverts and very talkative. Now which type is likely to make it to the top of any organization? A quiet, introverted left brainer. Or a talkative, extroverted right brainer. When a CEO makes a speech, he or she usually stands behind a podium and reads from a Teleprompter or from a script. Totally word-oriented and a sure sign of a left brainer.
But exceptions are always there…
There are exceptions. Steve Jobs of Apple was a right brainer, but of course, he was once fired from Apple. After he returned to Apple, his “speeches” involved a screen 40-feet wide and enormous visuals, not exactly the type of speech a left brainer would make.
Could you share some of the most abstract marketing messages with us?
Here are some recent slogans from major global corporations. starting with the letters A and B.
ABB: “Power and productivity for a better world.”
Accenture: “High performance. Delivered.”
Air France: “Making the sky the best place on earth.”
Audi: “Truth in engineering.”
BlackBerry: “Be bold.”
Bridgestone tires: “Your journey, our passion.”
British Airways: “To fly. To serve.”
None of these slogans can serve as verbal nails because they are not specific enough. They are typical abstract ideas that need to be brought down to earth before they can be visualized. I could go through the rest of the alphabet and give you dozens of similar slogans. All abstractions.
You write “Words are what they use the most and are most familiar with. Yet there is a lot of evidence that visuals play a far more important role in marketing than do words”. Why do you say that?
The reason Visual Hammer is such a helpful concept is that very few companies are actually using visual hammers. That’s why successful examples are few. The lime in the top of a Corona beer bottle. There were dozens of Mexican beers imported into America, but until the arrival of Corona none used a visual hammer. The lime help to communicate the fact that Corona is an authentic Mexican beer. Thanks to its visual hammer, Corona went on to become the best-selling imported beer in America and the best-selling Mexican beer on the global market. It also was ranked by Interbrand, a branding consultancy, as the 86th most valuable brand in the world (and the only Mexican brand on the list) worth $3.9 billion. The last time I was in Mumbai, a diner at the table next to us ordered a Corona beer. And sure enough, the waiter served the beer with a lime on top of the bottle.
Any other example?
The red soles of, a French designer who regularly tops The Luxury Institute’s index of “most prestigious women’s shoes.” In 1992, he applied red nail polish to the sole of a shoe because he felt the shoes lacked energy. “This was such a success,” reported Mr. Louboutin, “that it became a permanent fixture.” The red sole was the hammer, but what was the nail? It was the stiletto (heel heights of 120mm or more) which Louboutin helped bring back into fashion in the last two decades. To build a brand you need both: The red sole and the stiletto. Let me give you another example. BMW, for example, owns the word “driving,” an achievement that lifted the brand from nowhere into the world’s largest-selling luxury-car brand. But what put the “driving” idea into the minds of consumers? What’s was BMW’s visual hammer? It was a long-running, consistent series of television commercials showing happy owners driving their BMW vehicles over winding roads. “The ultimate driving machine” was the nail. But it was the visual hammer was put that idea into the mind.
You write in your new book “Unless there is an instant connection with a verbal idea, a visual becomes nothing but wasted ammunition in a marketing war.” Can you elaborate on that through an example?
There is a lot more to say about how visuals are received by the brain and how verbal messages are received. For example, you are driving down a street and a stoplight in front of you changes to “red.” Your foot hits the brake . . . without conscious thought on your part. That’s the right brain at work. If a stoplight used words (Stop, Caution, Go) instead of visuals, your left brain would have to first translate those type-set words into “aural” sounds that your mind could understand. That takes time and effort. You might be reading an article and you get to the end of a paragraph and suddenly think to yourself, What was that all about? In other words, it takes effort for your left brain to understand printed words. With a visual, however, your right brain can almost instantly understand a visual and react to it.
How is that linked to building a brand?
In building a brand, however, visuals are only effective if they “say something” about the brand. Advertising is filled with visuals, but very few visual hammers. It’s only things like the Coke bottle (authentic cola), the lime on top of a Corona (authentic Mexican beer), the TV commercials showing happy BMW owners (the ultimate driving machine), which hammer the nail in.
You have repeatedly talked about the visual hammer hammering the verbal nail. What do you mean by that?
The Marlboro story is probably the best example of the power of a visual hammer. We don’t like to feature it, however, since smoking is such a health hazard. Before Marlboro was launched, there were four exceptionally strong cigarette brands in America: Lucky Strike, Camel, Chesterfield, Winston. All of these brands were “unisex,” in the sense that they appealed to both men and women. In general, they pictured both men and women smoking.
Marlboro narrowed the focus to men only. (Another strategic concept that we strongly recommend for an also-ran brand.) In other words, Marlboro wanted to become a masculine cigarette. And the cowboy is perhaps the best visual to use to communicate the masculinity idea.) In America today, Marlboro outsells the next 13 cigarette brands combined. Marlboro is also the largest–selling global cigarette brand.
Why is it very difficult today to put a verbal idea into a consumer’s mind without a visual hammer?
The world is awash in words. This is especially true because of the Internet. Consumers are drowning in Emails, Tweets, Facebook pages and other web-oriented media. To cut through the clutter with a verbal message only is extremely difficult unless you have a revolutionary development. And if you have a revolutionary development, you probably don’t need much marketing help. In 2010, the five largest advertisers in America were AT&T, Verizon, Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota. Together these five brands spent $6.9 billion on advertising. What was the verbal idea, or slogan, used by each of these brands? I’ll guarantee that few consumers would remember. Here they are.
AT&T . . . “Rethink possible.”
Verizon . . “Rule the air.”
Chevrolet . . . “Chevrolet runs deep.”
Ford . . . . “Drive on.”
Toyota . . . “Moving forward.”
None of these slogans can be effectively visualized into a hammer. That’s why, in spite of the $6.9 billion, most consumers don’t remember them.
Could you share some marketing messages from companies which have good visual hammers and why do you think they are good?
In general, it is difficult to create a memorable visual hammer. One exception is for leader brands. Any simple visual used consistently with a powerful leader brand can become a visual hammer.
The “Golden Arches” of McDonald’s.
The “Swoosh” of Nike.
The “Tri-Star” of Mercedes-Benz.
What these visual hammers are communicating is “leadership,” and leadership is probably the most important verbal idea for a brand. If consumers perceive your brand to be the leader in a category, your brand can maintain that leadership for decades. Hertz in rent-a-cars. Kleenex in pocket tissue. Heinz in ketchup.
You say that unlike a verbal idea, a visual hammer can cross International borders with no translations necessary. Could you explain that through an example?
The Coke bottle, the Marlboro cowboy, KFC’s Colonel Sanders, Mercedes-Benz’s Tri-Star, Corona’s lime are all global visual hammers that say something about the brands. Coca-Cola is sold in 206 countries and 74 percent of the company’s revenues come from outside the United States. Coca-Cola can use the same contour bottle visual in every country, but trying to translate a single slogan into dozens of different languages would be very difficult. And sometimes a verbal slogan just cannot be translated into another language. For example, my dad (marketing guru Al Ries) wrote a book called “Bottom-Up Marketing,” a verbal idea that works well in English. But the Spanish translators of the book couldn’t find any Spanish words that could capture that idea. (They were all vulgar expressions not suitable for a book title.)
Coca-Cola’s exceptionally-strong visual hammer puts its major competitor in a difficult position. What should Pepsi-Cola do?
Narrow its focus. In general, you cannot find a visual hammer with a broad conceptual idea. You have to narrow that idea. For example, BMW could have used “performance” as its verbal strategy, but how would you visualize that verbal idea? Instead, they narrowed the focus to “driving,” an aspect of performance. That allowed them to run “driving” TV commercials to drive in the idea to prospects.
So what is Pepsi-Cola’s new verbal strategy, just announced last week. “Live for now.” How can you visualize a conceptual idea like that? You can’t. Years ago, Pepsi-Cola had a verbal idea that could be visualized. “The Pepsi Generation.” In other words, Pepsi was appealing to the youth market, the Pepsi generation, a narrow-the-focus concept. That idea could have been easily visualized. As a matter of fact, even today, most consumers remember The Pepsi Generation, but none of the dozens of other slogans the brand has used.
You write “Today, “The real thing” lives on in newspapers, magazines, books and television shows in spite of the fact that Coca-Cola used the slogan only once, for just two years, more than 40 years ago.” The real thing was a slogan that Coke used just once for two years, 40 years ago. But it lives on. So why does the company keep coming up with all these different slogans which no one can remember?
The dominate concept in the advertising field is “creativity.” Ideas are evaluated based on how creative they are. But what is creativity? An idea is usually considered “creative,” if it’s “new and different.” An old idea used before can never be considered “creative.” That’s why Coca-Cola refuses to use it. There’s also the influence of the advertising agencies that handle big accounts like Coca-Cola. Advertising agencies live or die based on their abilities to win awards in the annual creative contests. And you can’t win an advertising award if your advertising is not creative. Take Marlboro which has used cowboy visuals ever since its launch in 1953. I don’t believe Marlboro has ever won an advertising award because its advertising is not “creative” in the usual sense of the word.
(The interview was originally published on May 14,2012, in the Daily News and Analysis (DNA). http://www.dnaindia.com/money/interview_marlboro-is-probably-the-best-example-of-the-power-of-a-visual-hammer_1688368).
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])
Ravi Batra is an Indian American economist and a professor at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Unlike most economists who are in the habit of beating around the bush, Batra likes to make predictions, and he usually gets them right. Among these was calling the fall of communism in the Soviet Union more than ten years before it happened. Batra is also the author of many best-selling books like The Crash of the Millennium, The Downfall of Capitalism and Communism, Greenspan’s Fraud and most recently The New Golden Age. In this interview he speaks to Vivek Kaul.
You are a great proponent of the Law of Social Cycle. What’s it all about?
In 1978, to the laughter of many and the ridicule of a few, I wrote a book called The Downfall of Capitalism and Communism, which predicted the demise of Soviet communism by the end of the century and an enormous rise in wealth concentration in the United States that would generate poverty among its masses, forcing them into a revolt around 2010. My forecasts are derived from The Law Of Social Cycle, which was pioneered by my late teacher and mentor Prabhata Ranjan Sarkar. Lo and behold! The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and Soviet communism vanished right before your eyes. And in 2011, the United States witnessed the birth of a social revolt in the form of the ‘Occupy Wall Street Movement’, which opposes the interest of the richest 1% of Americans. The nation now has the worst wealth concentration in history.
So what is this law?
It is an idea that begins with general characteristics of the human mind. Sarkar argues that while most people have common goals and ambitions, their method of achieving them varies, depending on innate qualities of the individual. Most of us, for instance, seek living comforts and social prestige. Some try to attain them by developing physical skills, some by developing intellectual skills and some by saving and accumulating money, while there are also some with little ambition in life. Based on these different mentalities, Sarkar divides society into four distinct classes: warriors, intellectuals, acquisitors and labourers.
Can you go into a little more detail?
Among warriors are included the military, policemen, professional athletes, fire fighters, skilled blue-collar workers, and anyone who displays great courage. The class of intellectuals comprises teachers, scholars, bureaucrats, and priests. Acquisitors include landlords, businessmen, merchants, and bankers. Finally, unskilled workers constitute the class of laborers. The division of society into four classes based on their mentality and occupations, not heredity, is at the core of Sarkar’s philosophy of social evolution. His theory is that each society is first dominated by the class of warriors, then by the class of intellectuals, and finally by the class of acquisitors. Eventually, the acquisitors generate so much greed and materialism that other classes, fed up by the acquisitive malaise, overthrow their leaders in a social revolution. Then the warriors make a comeback, followed once again by intellectuals, acquisitors and a social revolution. This, in brief, is The Law Of Social Cycle.
That’s very interesting. Can you explain this through an example?
Applying this theory to western society, we find that the Roman Empire was the Age Of Warriors, the rule of the Catholic Church the Age Of Intellectuals, and feudalism the Age Of Acquisitors, which ended in a social revolution spearheaded by peasant revolts all over Europe in the 15th century. The centralised monarchies that then appeared represented the Second Age Of Warriors, which was, in turn, followed by another Age Of Intellectuals, this time represented by the rule of prime ministers, chancellors and diplomats. Since the 1860s the west has had a parliamentary rule in which money or the acquisitive era has been prevalent.
What about India?
India’s history is silent on some periods, but, wherever full information is available, the social cycle clearly holds. For instance, around the times of Mahabharata, warriors dominated society, then came the rule of Brahmins or intellectuals, followed by the Buddhist period, when capitalism and wealth were predominant; this era ended in the flames of a social revolution, when a great warrior named Chandragupta Maurya put an end to the reign of a king named Dhananand, and started another Age Of Warriors. Dhan means money and ananda means joy, so that dhan + ananda becomes Dhananda or someone who finds great joy in accumulating money, suggesting that the Mauryan hero overthrew the rule of greed and money in society.
How do you see things currently through The Law Of The Social Cycle?
Today, the world as a whole is in the Age Of Acquisitors, while some nations such as Iran are ruled by the clergy or their intellectuals. Russia is in transition from the warrior era to the era of intellectuals, while China continues in the Age Of Warriors, which was founded by Mao Tse Tung in 1949 after overthrowing the feudalistic Age Of Acquisitors in an armed revolution. As regards Iran, applying the dictum of social cycle, I foresaw the rise of priests or the Ayatollahs in a 1979 book called Muslim Civilization and the Crisis in Iran. For ten thousand years, the law of the social cycle has prevailed. Egypt went through three such cycles before succumbing to Muslim power. Muslim society as a whole is now in the Age Of Acquisitors. Some Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Pakistan, Malaysia and Bahrain are still in the acquisitive age, while some others such as Egypt and Libya have recently seen a social revolution and are in transition to the next age. The wheel of social cycles has thus been turning in all societies, albeit at different speeds; not once in human history was it thwarted.
Any new predictions based on this law?
The United States along with India are now on the verge of a social revolution that will culminate in a Golden Age. That is what I have predicted in my latest book, The New Golden Age. The American revolution is likely to occur by 2016 or 2017, and India’s should arrive by the end of the decade. This is the way I look at some popular movements such as the Occupy Wall Street Movement in the United States, and those started by Anna Hazare and Baba Ram Dev in India. They reflect people’s anger and frustration with the corrupt rule of acquisitors. Such movements are destined to succeed in their mission, because the rule of wealth is about to come to an end.
One of your predictions that hasn’t come true is that about the Great Depression of the 1930s happening again
It is true we have not had another Great Depression like that of the 1930s, although the slump since 2007 is now being called the Great Recession. The difference between the two may be more semantic than real. The Great Depression was not a period of one long slump lasting for the entire 1930s. Rather, there were pockets of temporary prosperity. The first part of the depression lasted between 1929 and 1933. Then growth resumed and the global economy improved till1937, only to be followed by another slump. This time there has been no depression, but at least in the United States people’s agony has been nearly as bad as in the 1930s. Farming played a great role in society at that time so that the unemployed could go back to agriculture and survive. This time around, that has not been possible. Millions of Americans are homeless today as in the1930s. Still the 1930s were the worst ever, but my point is that American poverty today is the worst in fifty years. The wage-productivity gap, consumer debt and the stock market went up sharply in the 1920s, just as they did after1982. The market crashed in 1929 and then the depression followed. So I concluded that since the same type of conditions were occurring in the 1980s we would have another great depression. However, what I could not imagine was that, China, one-time America’s arch enemy, would lend trillions of dollars to the United States. Note that so long as debt keeps up with the rising wage gap, unemployment can be avoided. In other words, China’s loans postponed large-scale unemployment in the United States for a long time, but not forever.
Can a depression still occur?
Yes, it can, but only if countries are unable to create new debt. Such a likelihood is small but cannot be ruled out. On the other hand, if for some reason oil prices shoot up further to say $150 per barrel, the depression will be inevitable.
How do you see the scenario in Europe playing out?
In Europe and elsewhere the nature of the problem is the same, namely the rising wage gap, so that production exceeds consumer demand, and the government has to resort to nearly limitless debt creation. But the PIIGS — Portugal,Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain — show that government debt cannot rise forever and when debt has to be reduced there is further rise in unemployment. The European troubles are not over and we should expect the debt problem to linger for years to come.
The dangers in Europe have suddenly taken away the attention from the United States. What is your prediction about the United States the way it currently is?
So long as the United States is able to borrow more money either from the world or from its own people, its economy will remain stable at the bottom. But there is a strong sentiment now among most Americans that the budget deficit must come down, and the laws already passed aim to bring it down from 2013 on. This is likely to raise unemployment in that year and beyond. 2012 could also see real troubles after June when the already rising price of oil and gasoline starts hurting the economy. If the speculators succeed in raising the oil price towards their goal of $150, there could be another serious slump by the end of the year.
Do you see a dollar crash coming in the years to come?
Yes the dollar could crash against the currencies of China and Japan, but I don’t see this happening before July. After that the global economy could be as sick as it was in 2008. The scenario would be reminiscent of what happened in 1937 when the global depression made a comeback. Something similar could materialise again in that the Great Recession could make a resounding come back. However, I don’t see an alternative to the dollar at this point because the whole world is in trouble. For the dollar to fall completely from grace, Opec would have to start pricing its crude in terms of a different currency and I am not sure if that is possible.
What do you think about the current steps the Obama administration is taking to address the economy?
The Obama administration has followed almost the same policies that George W Bush did, and in the process wasted a lot of money to generate paltry economic growth and some jobs. In fact, the government has been spending over $1.5 million to generate one job. This sounds bizarre, but here is what has happened since 2009. The administration’s tack is that we should keep spending money at the current rate to lower unemployment, even though the annual federal budget deficit has been around $1.4 trillion over the past two years. It seems apparent that the main purpose of excessive federal spending is to preserve or generate jobs. This is a point emphasised by every American president since 1976, and especially since1981 when the federal deficit began to soar. This is also how most experts defend the deficit nowadays.
Could you elaborate a little more on this?
In 2010, according to the Economic Report of the President, as many as 800,000 jobs were created, and the government’s excess spending was $1.4trillion, which when divided by 800,000 yields 1.7 million. In other words, the US government spent $1.7 million to generate one job. The economy improved in 2011, providing work to 1.1 million people for the same expense. So dividing $1.4 trillion by the new figure yields $1.3 million, which is now the cost of creating one job. Thus, the average federal deficit or cost per job over the past two years has been $1.5 million.
Is it prudent to be wasting precious resources like this?
I don’t think so. The trillion dollar question is this: where is it all going, when the annual American average wage is no higher than $50,000? Obviously, it must be going to the so-called 1% group or what the Republican Party calls the job creators, i.e., the CEOs and other executives of large corporations.
Could you explain that?
Let us see how the main culprit for the mushrooming incomes of business magnates is the government itself. This is how the process works and has been working since 1981. The CEO forces his employees to work very hard while paying them low wages; this hard work sharply raises production or supply of goods and services, but with stagnant wages, consumer demand falls short of growing supply. This then leads to overproduction and threatens layoffs, which in turn threatens the re-election chances of politicians. They then respond with a massive rise in government spending or huge tax cuts, so that total demand for goods and services rises to the level of increased supply. As a result, either those layoffs are averted or the unemployed are gradually called back to work. This way, the CEO is able to sell his entire output and reap giant profits in the process, because wages are dwindling or stagnant even as business revenue soars. In the absence of excess government spending, companies would be stuck with unsold goods and could even suffer losses. In other words, almost the entire federal deficit ends up in the pockets of business executives. With such a vast wastage of resources, the economy has to falter once again, and I think the second half of 2012 will be just as bad as 2008. The Fed will then revive Quantitative Easing III, but it will not help.
What about the entire concept of paper money?
Paper money is here to stay, but in the near future there will be some kind of gold standard as well, so that money will be partially backed the government’s holding of gold. This way there will be a restraint on the government’s ability to print money.
Any long term investment ideas for our readers? Are you gold bull?
Gold and silver may still be a good investment for 2012, but not for the rest of the decade. However, if there is excessive violence, then the precious metals could shine for a lot longer. I used to be very bullish on gold, but with the metal having appreciated so much already, I am now on the side of caution.
(A shorter version of this interview was pubished in the Daily News and Analysis (DNA) on May 7,2012. Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])