‘Many managers are suckers for the guru who can provide the philosopher’s stone’

Managers like all of us are also suckers for easy answers. “Management as a discipline is in very early stages of development. The equivalent would be the subject of chemistry as it was in the fifteenth-sixteenth century when it was alchemy. For centuries people were looking for the philosopher’s stone which was some kind of catalyst which could turn base metal into gold. Management is a bit like that. So many managers are suckers for the guru who can provide the simple answer,” says Robert Grant. He is a professor of strategic management and holder of the ENI Chair of Strategic Management in the Energy Sector at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy. He is currently in India teaching a course on strategy to the first batch of students at the Mumbai International School of Business, an initiative of the SDA Bocconi School of Management in India. In this interview he speaks to Vivek Kaul.
You have talked about the fact that the knowledge and insight needed to make sound strategic decisions and guide the development of their organisations is best served by strategy teaching that is rooted in theory. What do you mean by that?
Some people would reject the whole notion of business education. Some would say that the best way to become a successful manager is to learn on the job i.e. there is no substitute for experience. Part of the whole notion of having a business school is to say that actually there are principles, and there are things that can be learnt from an analytical approach.
Can you explain this through an example?
You have individuals who appear to be successful managers and the question is what can we learn from them. Can we in anyway generalize about this? So you look at Apple and you say is Apple all about Steve Jobs? Then what was his leadership style? Here is a quirky individualistic, unconventional and a very autocratic management style. And you ask why has this worked? You look at a different company like IBM and its former CEO Sam Palmisano, who had a very different leadership style. You start looking at all these examples and say can we see patterns. Can we see something that we can generalize? Soresearch tries to generalise for this diversity of experience and then the teaching says that here are some principles that we can start applying.
You talked about Steve Jobs and Sam Palmisano two people with very different leadership styles. Which style works more often than not?
Palmisano fits in with a more observable trend you are seeing in large companies where leaders are becoming less the people who make the key decisions. The problem is that most organisations are so complex that the CEO knows maybe 2% of what is going on in that organisation. Also these days businesses have to respond so quickly that they can’t wait for the stuff to get to the CEO level before decisions can be made. So you have to have highly decentralized decision making. So what then is the role of the CEO? Increasingly the role of the CEO is to manage culture and manage the development of people within the organisation, rather than to take the role of the decision maker.
So where does that leave the likes of Jobs?
In many ways Jobs may well have been the one of the last of the old school. This was somebody who was very very hands on. In the early days he was the designer. At one level he was the Chairman of Apple Computers but he was also the project leader on the projects. He was very deeply involved in tiny details which he was incredibly emotionally attached to. So I think in terms of models of leadership probably companies are making some serious mistakes if they say the Jobs way is the way to go.
At some level he was also the biggest marketer of his company…
Yup. He was a great marketing guy because he was the founder of this incredibly successful company that was a major part of a social revolution that took computing, something that had been dominated by governments and large corporations, and taken it down to young people. He empowered young people.
So how do you see Apple performing now that he is not there to lead them?
The case with Apple is like all companies that have visionary powerful founders who go on to be their leaders. The key is can that intuition and vision of the founder, become embodied in the capabilities of the firm. The fact is that Jobs had from several years before his death increasingly distancing himself as the chief decision maker of the firm. This must mean that in terms of the culture of the company, the systems by which the products are designed, how they understand the market, technology, their users, and many of the intuitive level skills that Jobs had, have actually become embodied in the capabilities of the organisation. It’s the same with every entrepreneurial company. Can the company make the transition from a company which is entrepreneur led, family led, into an organisation which is professionally managed but has managed to embody those skills.
Does that happen?
It does happen. You look at Walt Disney. The values and the quest for quality entertainment orientated towards children and families is something that has become embodied in the set of capabilities at Disney. Wal-Mart has a culture where cost efficiency is almost like a religion. Avoiding all waste and looking for new solutions to keep costs down, was something that was a part of the protestant upbringing of Sam Walton. But it has been transferred into the company. So I think it does happen. And it has to happen if the company is going to make that transition.
In one of your research papers you write “I frequently observe a propensity to fall back on ideas and beliefs that amount to little more than folk wisdom.” Could you talk about that in a little detail?
Management as a discipline is in very early stages of development. The equivalent would be the subject of chemistry as it was in the fifteenth-sixteenth century when it was alchemy. For centuries people were looking for the philosopher’s stone which was some kind of catalyst which could turn base metal into gold. Management is a bit like that. So many managers are suckers for the guru who can provide the simple answer. Hence, all the time you have people coming up with the philosopher’s stone. These fads in management come and go. Go back to the late 1970s and the early 1980s market share was the in thing. If you need to get anywhere in business you need to have market share was the in thing. The way to get market share is penetration pricing. This is what the Japanese companies were doing. So that was the sort of thinking that dominated that era. It made sense but not in others. Since then we have had wave after wave of notions, typically given tremendous appeal by the fact that people espoused them are usually fantastic performers. People like Tom Peters for example.
I was about to take his name…
HaHa. To give them their credit most of them have a key value but it is all within a context. One of the ones that was most influential was CK Prahalad and his core competence of the corporation. For many business leaders this was a kind of a revelation that rather than going out there thinking about what does the customer want, it made more sense to start looking inside, what the hell do you well as a company? The article was written 22 years ago and now you look back and say, core competence, that is just one single thing. Now when you look at companies you say there is a whole network of things and the key is the way in which they all fit together. The tremendous danger is this belief that there can be a single idea that provides a universal solution.
How does folk wisdom prevalent in organisations at various points of time influences decisions made by senior executives in companies?
If you look at the lead up to the financial services crisis a phenomenon that you saw particularly among the retail banks was internationalizing. So nearly all the US banks, and major European banks said, we have to have a position in China. They bought minority stakes typically in Chinese banks. Look at Royal Bank of Scotland, which was a Scottish bank, and present only in Scotland. Then it acquired NatWest in Britain. Then they started acquiring banks elsewhere in Europe, in United States and Asia as well. Bank of Santander did the same thing. HSBC internationalized as well. Other banks like the UniCredit Bank started to say we need to get into the game. I remember having this executive seminar with one of the Italian banks and I asked them what are you doing right now? And I was told we are internationalizing. And when I asked them why? Because we are living in a global world, was the answer that came along. So what? This sort of notion of globalisation just takes hold of people and it almost becomes an excuse for not really thinking about what really makes sense.
So globalisation is the current fad…
It is one of the current fads. The question that needs to be asked is globalisation creating any value for many businesses? In the case of retail banking you acquire banks in different countries. Then you ask are there any benefits of having them under common ownership? For starters you have to put them under the same brand. But then the regulations in different countries are different. Hence banks in different countries have to be separately funded. They have to meet the reserve requirements specific to that country. The markets are very often different and so you can’t launch the same products. So you say, well hang on, does this make sense? The same is true about telecom. Vodafone is the most international company and yet in every country it has to acquire licenses, has to establish structure etc. So the question is where are the economies of scale? So they say, maybe the economies are in sourcing. And then you start sourcing phones on a global scale. But in Japan they want Japanese phones simply because those phones had higher standards than what consumers in the UK were happy with. So you start saying where is the value being added here?
Vodafone hasn’t been doing terribly well in India…
Another of the link to this globalisation is to say where do we need to be internationally? Emerging markets. Why do you need to be in emerging markets? Because that’s where the growth is. But growth doesn’t necessarily mean profitability. All those banks that went into China most of them have sold of their holdings now. The car companies are still rushing into China building plants. In China they growth of capacity in automobiles is faster than the growth of demand. So you have the same excess capacity that you have in Europe and North America and so most of these companies are not making money in China. When it comes to telecom the emerging markets are pretty much close to saturation. India has a brutally competitive market in telecom. This is not a market where France Telecom or AT&T can say hey if we move in we are going to make a lot of money. To a lot of extent there is this sort of naïve thinking that just because you are in a growth market you are going to make money.
What has been the impact of increased volatility and unpredictability of the business environment in the last few years upon the strategic planning processes of companies?
What this means that you can’t forecast. So you have to have a planning system which is based upon the notion that actually you don’t really know, what is going to happen next week, let alone next year. And that is a major challenge. Though you don’t know what the environment is going to be you still need to make investments. The oil companies are making investments in oil fields and majorly into gas fields. These fields aren’t going to come on stream for another six, seven, eight years and then they are going to last for another 20-30 years. But nobody knows what the price of gas is going to be in six month’s time, let alone in ten years.
So the companies need to function more and more like venture capitalists?
I think you are onto something here. What companies increasingly need to do is not so much as manage a portfolio of major businesses necessarily, but at least have a portfolio of options. So they are looking at the future and saying we don’t know what is going to happen. But maybe we can engage in some in alternative scenarios now and make relatively small investments, so that if the market develops in this way, we can expand on that base and really exploit that opportunity.
Can you give an example to explain that?
Some of the technology companies are quite good at this. If you look at Google and ask what is it doing, you realise that wow it’s all over the place. And yet it is doing things that make sense in an environment of uncertain change. It started Android its mobile device operating system with the realisation that even though it was dominating search within PCs, laptops and so on, the internet access was increasingly going to move to mobile devices in the days to come. So that was a threat to Google because the question was that would these mobile devices be compatible with the Google search engine? So they decided that maybe if we have our own operating system then we can ensure all our applications are going to run on it. Then of course RIM and then Apple became the dominant players in the mobile business. Apple likes its close garden. It likes to control its own applications through its own app store and so on.
So what happened?
Google exercised the Android option, which was basically an embryonic protocol operating system. It then said we are going to launch this, we are going to invest in this, we are going to talk to major handset makers and provide them with the necessary tools to support it and so on. This despite the fact that Android was free and Google wasn’t making any money out of it. But it became a way of ensuring that their Google search engine and other Google products could make their movement into the mobile sector. Then they start saying what are the threats that we face in terms of our desktop applications? We are dependant upon Microsoft because our search engine runs on the Microsoft browser, internet explorer. It also runs on the Microsoft operating system. So again they said lets introduce Chrome. It’s an option. It’s not a massive investment. But it’s their own browser. And then they came up with the Chrome operating system as well. And it becomes an alternative. In fact they haven’t had to make a massive investment in rollout because Firefox’s Mozilla has eroded Microsoft’s clout and Microsoft is no longer dominant in the browser business. That’s one way of interpreting what companies are doing.
This approach you talk about might be possible in technology because expenses are not huge. But what about other businesses?
You look at the oil business. Nobody knows what the price of oil is going to be. Nobody knows if the House of Sa’ud is going to fall. Maybe that could be next domino. Nobody knows if the Israelis are going to bomb the hell out of Iran. So there is all that uncertainty in this business. So companies are hedging their bets. They are making investments in shale gas. They are taking minority stakes. The Chinese are taking stakes in the oil sands of Canada. But most of those are just minority stakes. But it’s enough for them to say that if it looks like that we are going to lose a lot of our upstream oil reserves, if the price of oil is going to rocket, then we are in a position now to understand enough about this business either to expand it internally or acquire a majority stake. Just looking at the options approach it means that you are building flexibility. It is building your ability to adapt.
(The interview originally appeared in the Daily News and Analysis on August 20,2012. http://www.dnaindia.com/money/interview_many-managers-are-suckers-for-the-guru-who-can-provide-the-philosophers-stone_1730122))
(Interviewer Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])

What Team Anna can learn from Nirma, Sony, Apple and Ford

Vivek Kaul

The decision by Team Anna to form a political party has become the butt of jokes on the internet. A Facebook friend suggested that they name their party, the Char Anna Party and someone else suggested the name Kejriwal Liberal Party for Democracy (KLPD).
The jokes are clearly in a bad taste and reflect the level of cynicism that has seeped into us. Let me paraphrase lines written by my favourite economist John Kenneth Galbraith (borrowed from his book The Affluent Society) to capture this cynicism. “When Indians see someone agitating for change they enquire almost automatically: “What is there for him?” They suspect that the moral crusades of reformers, do-gooders, liberal politicians, and public servants, all their noble protestations notwithstanding are based ultimately on self interest. “What,” they enquire, “is their gimmick?””
The cynicism comes largely from the way things have evolved in the sixty five years of independence where the political parties have taken us for a royal ride. Given this the skepticism that prevails at the decision of Team Anna to form a political party isn’t surprising. Take the case of Justice Markandey Katju, who asked CNN-IBN “Which caste will this political party represent? Because unless you represent one caste, you won’t get votes…Whether you are honest or meritorious nobody bothers. People see your caste or religion. You may thump your chest and say you are very honest but you will get no votes.”
Former Supreme Court justice N. Santosh Hegde said “Personally, am not in favour of Annaji floating a political party and contesting elections, which is an expensive affair and requires huge resources in terms of funds and cadres.”
Some other experts and observers have expressed their pessimism at the chances of success of the political party being launched by Team Anna. Questions are being raised. Where will they get the money to fight elections from? How will they choose their candidates? What if Team Anna candidates win elections and start behaving like other politicians?
All valid questions. But I remain optimistic despite the fact that things look bleak at this moment for Team Anna’s political party.
I look at Team Anna’s political party as a disruptive innovation. Clayton Christensen, a professor of strategy at the Harvard Business School is the man who coined this phrase. He defines it as “These are innovations that transform an existing market or create a new one by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility and affordability. It is initially formed in a narrow foothold market that appears unattractive or inconsequential to industry incumbents.”
An excellent example of a home grown disruptive innovation is Nirma detergent. Karsanbhai Patel, who used to work as a chemist in the Geology & Mining Department of the Gujarat government, introduced Nirma detergent in 1969.
He first started selling it at Rs 3.50 per kg. At that point of time Hindustan Lever Ltd’s (now Hindustan Unilever) Surf retailed for Rs 15 per kg. The lowest-priced detergent used to sell at Rs 13.50 per kg. The price point at which Nirma sold made it accessible to consumers, who till then really couldn’t afford the luxury of washing their clothes using a detergent and had to use soap instead.
If Karsanbhai Patel had thought at the very beginning that Hindustan Lever would crush his small detergent, he would have never gotten around launching it. The same applies to Team Anna’s political party as well. They will never know what lies in store for them unless they get around launching the party and running it for the next few years.
Getting back to Nirma, the logical question to ask is who should have introduced a product like Nirma? The answer is Hindustan Lever, the company which through the launch of Surf detergent, pioneered the concept of bucket wash in India. But they did not. Even after the launch of Nirma, for a very long time they continued to ignore Nirma, primarily because the price point at which Nirma sold was too low for Hindustan Lever to even think about. And by the time the MBAs at Hindustan Lever woke up, Nirma had already established itself as a pan-India brand. But, to their credit they were able to launch the ‘Wheel’ brand, which competed with Nirma directly.
At times the biggest players in the market are immune to the opportunity that is waiting to be exploited. A great example is that of Kodak which invented the digital camera but did not commercialize it for a very long time thinking that the digital camera would eat into its photo film business. The company recently filed for bankruptcy.
Ted Turner’s CNN was the first 24-hour news channel. Who should have really seen the opportunity? The BBC. But they remained blind to the opportunity and handed over a big market to CNN on a platter.
Along similar lines, maybe there is an opportunity for a political party in India which fields honest candidates who work towards eradicating corruption and does not work along narrow caste or regional lines. Maybe the Indian voter now wants to go beyond voting along the lines of caste or region. Maybe he did not have an option until now. And now that he has an option he might just want to exercise it.
While there is a huge maybe but the thing is we will never know the answers unless Team Anna’s political party gets around to fighting a few elections.
The other thing that works to the advantage of disruptive innovators is the fact that the major players in the market ignore them initially and do not take them as a big enough force that deserves attention.
A great example is the Apple personal computer. As Clayton Christensen told me in an interview I carried out for the Daily News and Analysis (DNA) a few years back “Apple made a wise decision and first sold the personal computer as a toy for children. Children had been non-consumers of computers and did not care that the product was not as good as the existing mainframe and minicomputers. Over time Apple and the other PC companies improved the PC so it could handle more complicated tasks. And ultimately the PC has transformed the market by allowing many people to benefit from its simplicity, affordability, and convenience relative to the minicomputer.”
Before the personal computer was introduced, the biggest computer available was called the minicomputer. “But minicomputers cost well over $200,000, and required an engineering degree to operate. The leading minicomputer company was Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), which during the 1970s and 1980s, was one of the most admired companies in the world economy,” write Clayton Christensen, Michael B Horn and Curtis W Johnson in Disrupting Class —How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.
But even then DEC did not realise the importance of the personal computer. “None of DEC’s customers could even use a personal computer for the first 10 years it was on the market because it wasn’t good enough for the problems they needed to solve. That meant that more carefully DEC listened to its best customers, the less signal they got that the personal computer mattered — because in fact it didn’t — to those customers,” the authors explain.
That DEC could generate a gross profit of $112,500 when selling a minicomputer and $300,000 while selling the much bigger ‘mainframe’ also didn’t help. In comparison, the $800 margin on the personal computer looked quite pale.
Another example is Sony. “In 1955, Sony introduced the first battery-powered, pocket transistor radio. In comparison with the big RCA tabletop radios, the Sony pocket radio was tiny and static laced. But Sony chose to sell to its transistor radio to non-consumers – teenagers who could not afford big tabletop radio. It allowed teenagers to listen to music out of earshot of their parents because it was portable. And although the reception and fidelity weren’t great, it was far better than their alternative, which was no radio at all,” write Christensen, Horn and Johnson. Sony went onto to come up with other great disruptive innovations like the Walkman and the CDMan. But did not see the rise of MP3 players.
The point is that incumbents are so clued in to their business that it is very difficult for them to see the rise of a new category.
So what is the learning here for Team Anna? The learning is that their political party may not take the nation by storm all at once. They might appeal only to a section of the voters initially, probably the urban middle class, like Apple PCs had appealed to children and Sony radios to teenagers. So the Team Anna political party is likely to start off with a limited appeal and if that is the case the bigger political parties will not give them much weight initially. Chances are if they stay true to their cause their popularity might gradually go up over the years, as has been the case with disruptive innovators in business. The fact that political parties might ignore them might turn out to be their biggest strength in the years to come.
Any disruption does not come as an immediate shift. As the authors write, “Disruption rarely arrives as an abrupt shift in reality; for a decade, the personal computer did not affect DEC’s growth or profits.” Similarly, the Team Anna political party isn’t going to take India by storm overnight. It will need time.
Business is littered with examples of companies that did not spot a new opportunity that they should have and allowed smaller entrepreneurial starts up to grow big. The only minicomputer company that successfully made the transition to being a personal computer company was IBM. “They set up a separate organisation in Florida, the mission of which was to create and sell a personal computer as successfully as possible. This organisation had to figure out its own sales channel, it had its own engineers, and it was unencumbered by the existing organization,” said Christensen.
But even IBM wasn’t convinced about the personal computer and that is why it handed over the rights of the operating system to Microsoft on a platter. Even disruptive innovators get disrupted. Microsoft did not see the rise of email and it’s still trying to correct that mistake through the launch of Outlook.com. It didn’t see the rise of search engines either. Nokia did not see the rise of smart phones. Google did not see the rise of social media. And Facebook will not see the rise of something else.
Team Anna is a disruptive innovation which can disrupt the model of the existing political parties in India. There are three things that can happen with this disruptive innovation. The Team Anna political party tries for a few years and doesn’t go anywhere. That doesn’t harm us in anyway. The Team Anna political party fights elections and is able to build a major presence in the country and stays true to its cause. That benefits all of us. The Team Anna political party fights elections and its candidates win. But these candidates and the party turn out to be as corrupt as the other political parties that are already there. While this will be disappointing but then one more corrupt political party is not going to make things more difficult for the citizens of this country in anyway. We are used to it by now.
Given these reasons the Team Anna political party deserves a chance and should not be viewed with the cynicism and skepticism which seems to be cropping up.
(The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on August 4,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/politics/what-team-anna-can-learn-from-nirma-sony-apple-and-ford-404843.html)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])

"In future, VCs will help launch new brands. Tata, Reliance had better watch out"

Companies are in a perpetual race to expand sales. And the easiest way to do that is to expand their well known successful brands into other categories. As marketing consultant and author of many bestsellers Al Ries puts it “If a brand is well known and respected, why can’t it be line extended into another category. That’s common sense. That’s why Xerox, a brand that dominated the copier market, introduced Xerox mainframe computers. A decision that cost the company billions of dollars. That’s why IBM, a brand that dominated the mainframe computer market, introduced IBM personal computers. In 23 years of marketing IBM personal computers, the company lost $15 billion and finally threw in the towel and sold the operation to Lenovo, a Chinese company.” Ries is the author of such marketing classics (with Jack Trout) as The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing and Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. In this interview to Vivek Kaul he speaks on various aspects of branding and marketing.
You have often said in the past that there is a a big difference between common sense and marketing sense. Could you discuss that in some detail with examples?
Common sense is another way of saying “logical.” Almost every rule of marketing is not logical, it’s illogical, which I defined as “marketing sense.” It takes years of study and personal experience to develop good marketing sense. Yet too many management people dismiss the ideas of their marketing managers because “marketing is nothing but common sense and who has better common sense than the chief executive?” Line extension is a typical example. If a brand is well known and respected, why can’t it be line extended into another category. That’s common sense. That’s why Xerox, a brand that dominated the copier market, introduced Xerox mainframe computers. A decision that cost the company billions of dollars. That’s why IBM, a brand that dominated the mainframe computer market, introduced IBM personal computers. In 23 years of marketing IBM personal computers, the company lost $15 billion and finally threw in the towel and sold the operation to Lenovo, a Chinese company. That’s why Kodak, a brand that dominated the film-photography market, introduced Kodak digital cameras. In spite of the fact that Kodak had invented the digital camera, the company was never successful in marketing the cameras under the Kodak name. And recently Kodak went bankrupt.
With all the experience you have had consulting companies all these years which area of marketing do you feel that marketers have the most trouble with?
We have had the most trouble working with large companies marketing big brands. And the issue is always line extension. Companies want to expand their sales so they figure the easiest way to do that is by expanding their brands into new categories. In other words, line extension. We have worked with Burger King, Intel, Xerox, IBM, Motorola, Procter & Gamble and dozens of other companies that invariably wanted to expand their brands whereas we almost always recommend the opposite strategy. Narrow the focus so your brand can stand for something. The second issue is timing. We have always recommended that companies try to be the first brand in a new category. But that is a difficult sell to top management. Their first question is usually, What is the size of the market? Of course, a new category is a market with zero revenues. And many, many management people never want to launch a product into any category that doesn’t already have a sizable market. We worked for Digital Equipment Corporation, a leader in the minicomputer market. We tried to get them to be the first to launch a personal computer for the business market. (IBM eventually was the first to do so, but without a new brand name which led to their failure.) In spite of days of meetings and presentations, the CEO of Digital Equipment refused to launch such a product. “I don’t want to be first,” he said, “I want IBM to be first and then I’ll beat their specs.” After IBM launched its personal computer, Digital Equipment followed, but never achieved more than a few percent market share. Eventually the company more or less fell apart and was bought by Compaq at a discount price.
How can a No. 2 brand compete successfully with a leader?.
What a No.2 brand should do is easy to explain, but difficult to execute. A No. 2 brand should be the opposite of the market leader. Why is this difficult to do? Because it’s illogical. Everyone assumes the No.1 brand must be doing the right thing because it’s the market leader. Therefore, we should do exactly the same thing, but better. That seldom works. Take Red Bull, the first energy drink and the global market leader. One reason for Red Bull’s success was the fact that it came in a small, 8.3-oz. can that symbolizes “energy,” like a stick of dynamite. So almost every competitive brand was introduced in 8.3-oz. cans and marketed as “better” than Red Bull. Except Monster, a brand introduced in 16-oz. cans in the American market. Today, Monster is a strong No.2 brand with a 35 percent market share compared to Red Bull’s 43 percent share. Also in the American market, BlackBerry was the leading smartphone until Apple introduced the iPhone. BlackBerry had a keyboard. Apple eliminated the keyboard and used a “touchscreen” instead. Mercedes-Benz was the leading luxury-vehicle brand until BMW came into the market. Mercedes vehicles were big and comfortable, so BMW became smaller and more nimble, as dramatized in the brand’s long-running advertising theme, “The ultimate driving machine.” As a matter of fact, BMW introduced the campaign with a two-page advertisement headlined: “The ultimate sitting machine vs. the ultimate driving machine.”
Do long running marketing campaigns help? How many companies have the patience to run a marketing program for two or three or four decades?
Next to line extension, that’s the biggest problem in marketing today. Companies don’t run marketing programs nearly long enough. The best example of a long-term successful campaign is the one for BMW. “The ultimate driving machine” strategy was launched in 1975 and the company still uses the same slogan today. That’s 37 straight years. Most marketing programs don’t last longer than three or four years. That’s way too short a time to make a lasting impression in consumers’ minds. I can’t recall any major marketing program, except for BMW, that has lasted more than a decade or so.
In a recent column you wrote that logic is the enemy of a successful brand name. What did you mean by that?
By “logic” I mean what you would use as a brand name if you did not study marketing and had no experience as a marketing person. In other words, common knowledge versus specialized knowledge. It’s like the Sun and the Earth. Common knowledge would suggest that the Sun revolves around the Earth and not the reverse. Look out your window and it’s obvious that the Sun is moving and the Earth is standing still. But specialized knowledge knows that isn’t true.
What is the connection with brand names?
As far as brand names are concerned, logic or common knowledge suggests that a generic name like Books.com would be a better choice than Amazon.com. If the prospect wants to buy a book, then logically the prospect would go to a website like Book.com or Books.com.
But a marketing-trained person knows that isn’t true. It’s not how a mind words. When a person hears the word “Book,” he or she doesn’t think it’s a website at all. It’s the generic name for a category of things. On the other hand, thanks to its marketing program, “Amazon” has become a specific name for a website devoted to selling books. So when a person thinks, “I want to buy a book on the Internet, he or she doesn’t think “Books.com,” he or she thinks “Amazon.com.” In almost every category, a specific “brand” name performs better than a generic “category” name. Google.com is a better name than Search.com. YouTube.com is a better name than Video.com. There is a caveat, however. In the absence of a marketing program that establishes a brand name in consumers’ minds, a generic name could do well.
Why do you say that as a general rule, any name that specifically defines a category is bound to be a loser?
Consider how a mind works. If I say “coffee,” you literally hear that word in your mind spelled with a lower-case “c.” It’s a common noun, or a generic word that stands for an entire category of things. The same reasoning hold true for a more specific name like “High-end coffee shop.” If I say “Starbucks,” on the other hand, you literally hear that word in your mind spelled with a capital “S.” It’s a proper noun, or a brand name that stands for a specific chain of high-end coffee shops. Oddly enough, you can use common English nouns in another country as brand names? Why is this so? Because consumers don’t know the meaning of these common words. So these words become proper nouns instead and usable as brand names. For example, a stroll down a street in Copenhagen turned up these store names: Biggie Best, Exit, Expert, Face, Flash, Joy, Limbo, Nice Girl, Redgreen, Sand and Steps. Nice brand names in Copenhagen perhaps. But they wouldn’t work in America.
What do you mean when you say that “the internet is exceptionally good at promoting web, not physical, brands.” Could you explain through examples?
First of all, consider the fact that the Internet has created a host of new, very-valuable Internet brands including Amazon, Google, Facebook, YouTube, Groupon, Pinterest, LinkedIn and dozens of others. How many new physical brand names were created on the Internet? I can’t think of any. The Internet is the newest, latest medium. It attracts people who are interested in what’s new and different on the Internet. So there is intense interest in any new website that promises a revolutionary way to handle some of your affairs. But there’s not the same level of interest in new physical brands. Like a new toothpaste, or a new camera, or a new breakfast cereal. That doesn’t mean that new physical brands can’t take advantage of the PR potential represented by the Internet. They certainly can, but it’s going to be more difficult for a physical brand to get a lot of attention on the Internet than an Internet brand.
You recently wrote that “If you don’t have the right strategy, good tactics won’t help you very much. And social, like all media, is a tactic. What concerns me is that too many marketers have elevated tactics — especially those of social media — to the level of strategy.” Could you elaborate on this statement?
Our leading marketing publication is called “Advertising Age.” I have suggested facetiously that the publication should be called “Social Media Age,” because a high percentage of the stories the publication writes about involve social media and marketing on the Internet. Strategy is seldom mentioned. One reason for the intense interest in the Internet is because many aspects are easily measured. A video on YouTube, for example, will be measured by: (1) The number of “Views.” (2) The number of “Likes.” (3) The number of “Dislikes.” And (4) The number and content of “Comments.” That’s a range of responses no other medium can deliver. No wonder marketing people devote endless hours to evaluating the success of Internet programs. But suppose a marketing program is not successful. Do you blame the strategy or the tactics? Today, it’s too easy to blame the tactics. My feeling, however, is that most of the time strategy is at fault.
Are there any ideas on branding which you have espoused in the past which you have now junked?
Yes, we used to think that brand names ought to communicate something tangible about the brand. Duracell is a good example. It suggests that the appliance battery is a “long-lasting” brand. But today, there are too many competitors in any given market. A tangible name like Duracell is likely to be surrounded by many other brands with similar names, confusing the consumer. A meaningless name is often a better choice. It allows you to develop your own unique meaning for the brand. Google is a good example. Initially it meant nothing, but today it means “search.”
What is your opinion on big brand names. India has a lot of them like Tata and Reliance. And they attach these names to every business or product they launch? How do you view that?
That’s line extension and it might work today in India, but would never work in America. In America, there are too many competitors in every category with distinctive brand names. A line-extended name like Tata and Reliance would be at a serious disadvantage here. Why does it work in India? I’m not an expert, but I believe that India suffers from a shortage of venture capital as compared to the United States. It’s hard for an entrepreneur to launch competitive brands to Tata and Reliance because it’s difficult to raise enough money for their introduction. But I believe that will change in future so both Tata and Reliance should be concerned about the future of their brands.
(Interviewer Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])

'The best thing that can happen to Google is that all its new products fail early'

Michael Brandtner is one of the leading branding and focusing consultants in Europe. and Associate of Ries & Ries. Beside his consulting work he is a frequent speaker on the topics of branding and positioning. “All my presentations start with “Brandtner on Branding”. But “focusing” is still the most important job to do in branding. A brand without a focus has no power at all in the long term. Take Sony! What does Sony stand for? Fifteen years ago Sony was a brand superstar. Today it is a burned out brand,” he points out. In this interview he speaks to Vivek Kaul.
You are a focusing consultant. What does a focusing consultant do?
I help companies to find the right focus for their brands. Most brands today are unfocused. That means that they try to stand for many different attributes at the same time. In a typical brand statement you will find phrases like this: Our brand stands for high quality, great service and innovation. Maybe this makes sense in a brand or positioning statement. But it sure makes no sense in the mind of the customer. Today, if you want to be successful, you need a powerful focus like “driving” for BMW, “breathes” for Geox or “search” for Google. The most powerful brands today are built around a single idea or even better a single word. That is the focus of a brand. And in my consulting work I help companies to find this one word.
What does it take for a company to be focused?
It takes strategic long-term thinking. You really must decide what your brand should stand for. Here in Europe Ryanair is focused on “low fare” airline. Today Ryanair is the most successful airline in Europe. Most other airlines are unfocused. They try to appeal to everybody. Of course most other airlines are in trouble today. Or take the Automobile industry. The brands in the so-called mushy middle are in trouble. The real successful brands are at the high end like Porsche, BMW. Mercedes-Benz, Audi or Lexus or at the low end like Hyundai or Kia. The brands in the mushy middle are unfocused. The brands at the high end or at the low end are focused. So I predict that Hyundai will become the largest Automobile brand in the world.
How does it help if a company is focused?
For most managers it seems not logical to focus. They still believe that the more you have to sell the more you will sell. It sounds so logical. But it isn’t. Marketing is not a battle of products. It is a battle of ideas. So if you want to win the marketing war, you have to focus on the right idea. Here is an example from Germany: In 1988 Dr. Best was just another toothbrush with a market share of about five percent. Then the brand becomes the first “flexible” toothbrush. This idea is the focus of the brand. They only make flexible toothbrushes. The advertising is focused on the flexible idea. They developed a powerful key visual or better called visual hammer with a tomato to dramatize the benefits of a flexible toothbrush. Dr. Best is flexible, flexible and flexible. Today the market share is over 40 percent. This is the power of a clear defined focus. A focus is more than an idea, it also a long term direction for the brand. It is the single idea that helps a brand to dominate a category.
Any other examples?
Take Opel. Opel is a European car manufacturer that makes a lot of different car models. But Opel has no focus. Why should anyone buy an Opel? I don’t know. Most people don’t know. In the mind of the prospect Opel is just another manufacturer of different car models.
What does it take a company to be all over the place?
Not much! A brand becomes successful with a single idea even a single product like Red Bull as the first energy drink. Then the management starts to add a “sugarfree” Red Bull and even a Red Bull Simply Cola. In most companies this is a natural way to grow a brand. And it is the perfect way to lose focus. This does not happen overnight because it is not easy to change the mind of the prospects. And that is the big problem with the issue of brand- and line-extensions. You can expand a brand over a long period of time and you are still clearly positioned. Then one morning you wake up and you have to realize that your brand does not stand for anything anymore. It takes time to build a brand and it takes time to destroy a brand. Take Sony! What does Sony stand for? Fifteen years ago Sony was a brand superstar. Today it is a burned out brand.
How does it hurt if a company is not focused?
If a brand has no focus, it will end up standing for nothing. That is the problem of Sony today. And maybe it will be the problem of Samsung tomorrow. Samsung is also unfocused. But today Samsung has the Galaxy. The success of the Galaxy is the main reason why most people think that Samsung is a hot company and brand. But Samsung as a brand does not stand for anything specific. Do you know what Samsung stands for? I do not. Fifteen years ago many people thought that Sony was a hot brand because of the success of products like HandyCam, CamCorder and Trinitron. These products faded away and Sony was left as an unfocused brand that stands for nothing specific. Now Sony is in deep trouble. It is like in the political world: If a political candidate tries to appeal to everybody, he will appeal to nobody. Take Barack Obama in 2008! He really did a brilliant move by focusing his entire campaign on one word, on “change”. “Change we can believe in” became his battle cry. That is the power of a focus.
Since everybody is talking about Facebook these days, how focused is a company like Facebook?
Today Facebook is a focused brand and company. Facebook stands for “social network”. It is the leading social network in the mind.
What about Google?
Google as a company is in the process of becoming unfocused. Google as a brand is still focused, because it still stands for “search” in the mind of the customers. It is still the ultimate search engine. But if Google is successful in expanding the company, it will destroy the focus of the brand. The best thing that can happen to Google is that all the new products under the Google brand will fail early.
How do you view the potential of Facebook when it comes to brands advertising themselves?
Facebook is not an advertising medium. It is much more an information medium. To but it even better: It is an interactive information medium. On Facebook people are interested in information, in conversation, in gossip, in buzz. But they are not really interested in advertising. On Facebook marketers have to think more like editors than like classical advertising people.
How does a marketer market in the world of Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and what not? How do you see social media changing marketing?
Social media today is totally overhyped. For many people it is a medium that will change the world of marketing as we know it. Here is my point of view: Social media is an important medium, but it is still only a medium. How important is television as a marketing channel for a company or a brand? It depends on the company, on the brand, on its strategy, on its messages and so on. How important are Facebook or Twitter or blogs as marketing channels for a company or a brand? It depends on the company, on the brand, on its strategy, on its messages and so on. For some companies and brands social media will become very important, for other companies and brands social media will only be another information medium like the web-site. For a car brand like BMW or Audi Facebook may be a great medium, because both brands have a lot of fans and a lot of relevant news for these fans. For a tissue brand Facebook is more like an additional web-site to give some basic information about the brand. Every company has to find out for itself how important Facebook, Twitter or blogs are in the media mix.
What’s the biggest branding mistake that a company can make?
(1) Believing that brand- or line-extension is the ultimate strategy to grow a brand.
(2) Believing that the better product will win
(3) Believing that it is easy to change the perception of customers with advertising.
Especially companies in trouble are doing these three things at the same time. Typical example here in Europe is Opel! Opel is in trouble. The typical reaction: We have to launch new models under our brand name to win market share. We have to build better products than the competition, because customers prefer better products. We have to change our logo and we have to launch a new advertising campaign to change the perception of our brand. Will it work? Of course not. Opel needs a new focus. Take Apple! About 15 years ago Apple was in trouble. What did Steve Jobs? He launched the iPod in 2001. He focused his efforts on a new brand to rebuild Apple. The success of the iPod did more for Apple than all other marketing efforts combined. It was also the base for the iPhone and the iPad. Steve Jobs knew about the power of a clear defined focus. He built three leading focused brands in only one decade, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. By doing this he made Apple the most admired company and brand in the world.
What are the areas of marketing according to you which marketers have the most trouble with? How can they address it effectively?
Still many management and also marketing people confuse reality with perception. That`s why they believe that the better product will win. Not true. The better brand will win. New Coke was the better product. Coke Classic is the better brand. Who wins? Coke Classic. Marketing is not a battle of products. Marketing is a battle of perceptions.
Could you elaborate on this point a little more?
Most companies are still building or investing in better products. But they should invest in better brands. Take Nokia! Nokia is the dominant brand for mobile phones. But Nokia is a weak brand in smart phones. Nokia stands for mobile phone, not for smart phone in the mind of the customer. So what is Nokia doing? They try to build better smart phones like the Nokia Lumia. Maybe the Lumia is a great smart phone in the factory. But in the perceptions of the customer it is just another smart phone on the market. Nokia should stop building better smart phones and start building a better smart phone brand. To achieve this they have to do two steps: Step one: Nokia has to create a new category of smart phones with a new powerful app. Step 2: Nokia has to give this smart phone a completely new brand name.
Why are big companies unable to launch successful new brands? They usually end up buying other brands. Like Google bought Orkut or Facebook bought Instagram recently.
The reason behind this is the so called corporate ego. If a company has a powerful brand name, it will tend to use this “powerful” name for all products. That is good thinking inside the company, but it is bad thinking outside the company. For the Kodak management is was logical to use the Kodak name also for the digital products. But this does not make any sense outside the company. Why should anyone buy a digital camera from a photo film company or brand? Kodak is not perceived as an expert for digital cameras. That`s the point. So it is not a bad strategy for big companies to buy new brands. If Google had launched a web-site for video search on its own, they would have probably called it Google Video. Instead they bought YouTube. Google now owns two strong brands and also market leaders in the search engine business. Google is the ultimate search engine. YouTube is the ultimate “video” search engine. Additionally Google has also Android. That is a great multi brand strategy. Google+ on the other hand is only a me-too social network. That’s a bad brand strategy.
So what does that mean?
That means: Companies have to overcome their corporate ego to launch second brands. But there is one very important point. It is not enough to launch a second brand first of all you need a new category. Take Microsoft in the search engine business! It is regardless whether the call the search engine MSN Search or Bing, because the strategy “launching a me-too search engine” is wrong. That means: If you launch a second brand, you first will need a new category. Without a new category you should not launch a second brand at all.
(Interviewer Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])

(The interview was originally published in the Daily News and Analysis(DNA) on June 11,2012. http://www.dnaindia.com/money/interview_the-best-thing-that-can-happen-to-google-is-all-its-new-products-fail-early_1700670)

People should listen to market experts for entertainment, not elucidation.

Michael J. Mauboussin is Chief Investment Strategist at Legg Mason Capital Management in the United States. He is also the author of bestselling books on investing like Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition and More Than You Know: Finding Financial Wisdom in Unconventional Places. His latest book The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing is due later this year. In this interview he speaks to Vivek Kaul on the various aspects of luck, skill and randomness and the impact they have on business, life and investing.

How do you define luck?
The way I think about it, luck has three features. It happens to a person or organization; can be good or bad; and it is reasonable to believe that another outcome was possible. By this definition, if you win the lottery you are lucky, but if you are born to a wealthy family you are not lucky—because it is not reasonable to believe that any other outcome was possible—but rather fortunate.
How is randomness different from luck?
I like to distinguish, too, between randomness and luck. I like to think of randomness as something that works at a system level and luck on a lower level. So, for example, if you gather a large group of people and ask them to guess the results of five coin tosses, randomness tells you that some in the group will get them all correct. But if you get them all correct, you are lucky.
And what is skill?
For skill, the dictionary says the “ability to use one’s knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance.” I think that’s a good definition. The key is that when there is little luck involved, skill can be honed through deliberate practice. When there’s an element of luck, skill is best considered as a process.
You have often spoken about the paradox of skill. What is that?
The paradox of skill says that as competitors in a field become more skillful, luck becomes more important in determining results. The key to this idea is what happens when skill improves in a field. There are two effects. First, the absolute level of ability rises. And second, the variance of ability declines.
Could you give us an example?
One famous example of this is batting average in the sport of baseball. Batting average is the ratio of hits to at-bats. It’s somewhat related to the same term in cricket. In 1941, a player named Ted Williams hit .406 for a season, a feat that no other player has been able to match in 70 years. The reason, it turns out, is not that no players today are as good as Williams was in his day—they are undoubtedly much better. The reason is that the variance in skill has gone down. Because the league draws from a deeper pool of talent, including great players from around the world, and because training techniques are vastly improved and more uniform, the difference between the best players and the average players within the pro ranks has narrowed. Even if you assume that luck hasn’t changed, the variance in batting averages should have come down. And that’s exactly what we see. The paradox of skill makes a very specific prediction. In realms where there is no luck, you should see absolute performance improve and relative performance shrink. That’s exactly what we see.
Any other example?
Take Olympic marathon times as an example. Men today run the race about 26 minutes faster than they did 80 years ago. But in 1932, the time difference between the man who won and the man who came in 20th was close to 40 minutes. Today that difference is well under 10 minutes.
What is the application to investing?
The application to investing is straightforward. As the market is filled with participants who are smart and have access to information and computing power, the variance of skill will decline. That means that stock price changes will be random—a random walk down Wall Street, as Burton Malkiel wrote—and those investors who beat the market can chalk up their success to luck. And the evidence shows that the variance in mutual fund returns has shrunk over the past 60 years, just as the paradox of skill would suggest. I want to be clear that I believe that differential skill in investing remains, and that I don’t believe that all results are from randomness. But there’s little doubt that markets are highly competitive and that the basic sketch of the paradox of skill applies.
How do you determine in the success of something be it a song, book or a business for that matter, how much of it is luck, how much of it is skill?
This is a fascinating question. In some fields, including sports and facets of business, we can answer that question reasonably well when the results are independent of one another. When the results depend on what happened before, the answer is much more complex because it’s very difficult to predict how events will unfold.
Could you explain through an example?
Let me try to give a concrete example with the popularity of music. A number of years ago, there was a wonderful experiment called MusicLab. The subjects thought the experiment was about musical taste, but it was really about understanding how hits happen. The subjects who came into the site saw 48 songs by unknown bands. They could listen to any song, rate it, and download it if they wanted to. Unbeknownst to the subjects, they were funneled into one of two conditions. Twenty percent went to the control condition, where they could listen, rate, and download but had no access to what anyone else did. This provided an objective measure of the quality of songs as social interaction was absent.
What about the other 80%?
The other 80 percent went into one of 8 social worlds. Initially, the conditions were the same as the control group, but in these cases the subjects could see what others before them had done. So social interaction was present, and by having eight social worlds the experiment effectively set up alternate universes. The results showed that social interaction had a huge influence on the outcomes. One song, for instance, was in the middle of the pack in the control condition, the #1 hit on one of the social worlds, and #40 in another social world. The researchers found that poorly rated songs in the control group rarely did well in the social worlds—failure was not hard to predict—but songs that were average or good had a wide range of outcomes. There was an inherent lack of predictability. I think I can make the statement ever more general: whenever you can assess a product or service across multiple dimensions, there is no objective way to say which is “best.”
What is the takeaway for investors?
The leap to investing is a small one. Investing, too, is an inherently social exercise. From time to time, investors get uniformly optimistic or pessimistic, pushing prices to extremes.
Was a book like Harry Potter inevitable as has often been suggested after the success of the book?
This is very related to our discussion before about hit songs. When what happens next depends on what happened before, which is often the case when social interaction is involved, predicting outcomes is inherently difficult. The MusicLab experiment, and even simpler simulations, indicate that Harry Potter’s success was not inevitable. This is very difficult to accept because now that we know that Harry Potter is wildly popular, we can conjure up many explanations for that success. But if you re-played the tape of the world, we would see a very different list of best sellers. The success of Harry Potter, or Star Wars, or the Mona Lisa, can best be explained as the result of a social process similar to any fad or fashion. In fact, one way to think about it is the process of disease spreading. Most diseases don’t spread widely because of a lack of interaction or virulence. But if the network is right and the interaction and virulence are sufficient, disease will propagate. The same is true for a product that is deemed successful through a social process.
And this applies to investing as well?
This applies to investing, too. Instead of considering how the popularity of Harry Potter, or an illness, spreads across a network you can think of investment ideas. Tops in markets are put in place when most investors are infected with bullishness, and bottoms are created by uniform bearishness. The common theme is the role of social process.
What about someone like Warren Buffett or for that matter Bill Miller were they just lucky, or was there a lot of skill as well?
Extreme success is, almost by definition, the combination of good skill and good luck. I think that applies to Buffett and Miller, and I think each man would concede as much. The important point is that neither skill nor luck, alone, is sufficient to launch anyone to the very top if it’s a field where luck helps shape outcomes. The problem is that our minds equate success with skill so we underestimate the role of randomness. This was one of Nassim Taleb’s points in Fooled by Randomness. All of that said, it is important to recognize that results in the short-term reflect a lot of randomness. Even skillful managers will slump, and unskillful managers will shine. But over the long haul, good process wins.
How do you explain the success of Facebook in lieu of the other social media sites like Orkut, Myspace, which did not survive?
Brian Arthur, an economist long affiliated with the Santa Fe Institute, likes to say, “of networks there shall be few.” His point is that there are battles for networks and standards, and predicting the winners from those battles is notoriously difficult. We saw a heated battle for search engines, including AltaVista, Yahoo, and Google. But the market tends to settle on one network, and the others drop to a very distant second. I’d say Facebook’s success is a combination of good skill, good timing, and good luck. I’d say the same for almost every successful company. The question is if we played the world over and over, would Facebook always be the obvious winner. I doubt that.
Would you say that when a CEO’s face is all over the newspapers and magazines like is the case with the CEO of Facebook , he has enjoyed good luck?
One of the most important business books ever written is The Halo Effect by Phil Rosenzweig. The idea is that when things are going well, we attribute that success to skill—there’s a halo effect. Conversely, when things are going poorly we attribute it to poor skill. This is often true for the same management of the same company over time. Rosenzweig offers Cisco as a specific example. So the answer is that great success, the kind that lands you on the covers of business magazines, almost always includes a very large dose of luck. And we’re not very good at parsing the sources of success.
You have also suggested that trying to understand the stock market by tuning into so called market experts is not the best way of understanding it. Why do you say that?
The best way to answer this is to argue that the stock market is a great example of a complex adaptive system. These systems have three features. First, they are made up of heterogeneous agents. In the stock market, these are investors with different information, analytical approaches, time horizons, etc. And these agents learn, which is why we call them adaptive. Second, the agents interact with one another, leading to a process called emergence. The interaction in the stock market is typically through an exchange. And, finally, we get a global system—the market itself.
So what’s the point you are trying to make?
Here’s a key point: There is no additivity in these systems. You can’t understand the whole simply by looking at the behaviors of the parts. Now this is in sharp contrast to other systems, where reductionism works. For example, an artisan could take apart my mechanical wristwatch and understand how each part contributes to the working of the watch. The same approach doesn’t work in complex adaptive systems.
Could you explain through an example?
Let me give you one of my favorite examples, that of an ant colony. If you study ants on the colony level, you’ll see that it’s robust, adaptive, follows a life cycle, etc. It’s arguably an organism on the colony level. But if you ask any individual ant what’s going on with the colony, they will have no clue. They operate solely with local information and local interaction. The behavior of the colony emerges from the interaction between the ants. Now it’s not hard to see that the stock market is similar. No individual has much of a clue of what’s going on at the market level. But this lack of understanding smacks right against our desire to have experts tell us what’s going on. The record of market forecasters has been studied, and the jury is in: they are very bad at it. So I recommend people listen to market experts for entertainment, not for elucidation.
How does the media influence investment decisions?
The media has a natural, and understandable, desire to find people who have views that are toward the extremes. Having someone on television explaining that this could happen, but then again it may be that, does not make for exciting viewing. Better is a market boomster, who says the market will skyrocket, or a market doomster, who sees the market plummeting.
Any example?
Phil Tetlock, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has done the best work I know of on expert prediction. He has found that experts are poor predictors in the realms of economic and political outcomes. But he makes two additional points worth mentioning. The first is that he found that hedgehogs, those people who tend to know one big thing, are worse predictors than foxes, those who know a little about a lot of things. So, strongly held views that are unyielding tend not to make for quality predictions in complex realms. Second, he found that the more media mentions a pundit had, the worse his or her predictions. This makes sense in the context of what the media are trying to achieve—interesting viewing. So the people you hear and see the most in the media are among the worst predictors.
Why do most people make poor investment decisions? I say that because most investors aren’t able to earn even the market rate of return?
People make poor investment decisions because they are human. We all come with mental software that tends to encourage us to buy after results have been good and to sell after results have been poor. So we are wired to buy high and sell low instead of buy low and sell high. We see this starkly in the analysis of time-weighted versus dollar-weighted returns for funds. The time-weighted return, which is what is typically reported, is simply the return for the fund over time. The dollar-weighted return calculates the return on each of the dollars invested. These two calculations can yield very different results for the same fund.
Could you explain that in some detail?
Say, for example, a fund starts with $100 and goes up 20% in year 1. The next year, it loses 10%. So the $100 invested at the beginning is worth $108 after two years and the time-weighted return is 3.9%. Now let’s say we start with the same $100 and first year results of 20%. Investors see this very good result, and pour an additional $200 into the fund. Now it is running $320—the original $120 plus the $200 invested. The fund then goes down 10%, causing $32 of losses. So the fund will still have the same time-weighted return, 3.9%. But now the fund will be worth $288, which means that in the aggregate investors put in $300—the original $100 plus $200 after year one—and lost $12. So the fund has positive time-weighted returns but negative dollar-weighted returns. The proclivity to buy high and sell low means that investors earn, on average, a dollar-weighted return that is only about 60% of the market’s return. Bad timing is very costly.
What is reversion to the mean?
Reversion to the mean occurs when an extreme outcome is followed by an outcome that has an expected value closer to the average. Let’s say you are a student whose true skill suggests you should score 80% on a test. If you are particularly lucky one day, you might score 90%. How are you expected to do for your next test? Closer to 80%. You are expected to revert to your mean, which means that your good luck is not expected to persist. This is a huge topic in investing, for precisely the reason we just discussed. Investors, rather than constantly considering reversion to the mean, tend to extrapolate. Good results are expected to lead to more good results. This is at the core of the dichotomy between time-weighted and dollar-weighted returns. I should add quickly that this phenomenon is not unique to individual investors. Institutional investors, people who are trained to think of such things, fall into the same trap.
In one of your papers you talk about a guy who manages his and his wife’s money. With his wife’s money he is very cautious and listens to what the experts have to say. With his own money his puts it in some investments and forgets about it. As you put it, threw it in the coffee can. And forgot about it. It so turned out that the coffee can approach did better. Can you take us through that example?
This was a case, told by Robert Kirby at Capital Guardian, from the 1950s. The husband managed his wife’s fund and followed closely the advice from the investment firm. The firm had a research department and did their best to preserve, and build, capital. It turns out that unbeknownst to anyone, the man used $5,000 of his own money to invest in the firm’s buy recommendations. He never sold anything and never traded, he just plopped the securities into a proverbial coffee can(those were the days of paper). The husband died suddenly and the wife then came back to the investment firm to combine their accounts. Everyone was surprised to see that the husband’s account was a good deal larger than his wife’s. The neglected portfolio fared much better than the tended one. It turns out that a large part of the portfolio’s success was attributable to an investment in Xerox.
So what was the lesson drawn?
Kirby drew a more basic lesson from the experience. Sometimes doing nothing is better than doing something. In most businesses, there is some relationship between activity and results. The more active you are, the better your results. Investing is one field where this isn’t true. Sometimes, doing nothing is the best thing. As Warren Buffett has said, “Inactivity strikes us as intelligent behavior.” As I mentioned before, there is lots of evidence that the decisions to buy and sell by individuals and institutions does as much, if not more, harm than good. I’m not saying you should buy and hold forever, but I am saying that buying cheap and holding for a long time tends to do better than guessing what asset class or manager is hot.
(The interview was originally published in the Daily News and Analysis(DNA) on June 4,2012. http://www.dnaindia.com/money/interview_people-should-listen-to-market-experts-for-entertainment-not-elucidation_1697709)
(Interviewer Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])