Filed under: Empathy
Happy New Year, everyone! In case you’ve lost track — I certainly have, and I run this place — this is Better Than New, a blog chronicling the shouts and murmurs of the innovation business at the intersection of culture, design and business. A number of other projects, including Cult of Mac and something top-secret, have taken my eyes askance, but I’m hoping to return to something like a regular posting schedule in the new year. I’ve even created an hour time slot on my Outlook Calendar for it. And now, the post!
Each New Year brings with it a seemingly endless stream of retrospectives. From the best movies and TV shows to the most loathsome human beings, every category of life in the last year is dissected and analyzed. In recent years, the latter variety of list has come to predominate. Filled with bile and cutting wit, such lists are often hilarious and downright mean ways to reflect on our wider culture.
This genre has become so popular over the past decade, in fact,t hat they have moved beyond the pages of obscure, cynical humor publications and into the mainstream press. Fortune, for example, created a list of the “101 Dumbest Moments in Business 2007,” which purports to help us remember the wild, wacky, and, well, dumb moments that helped define the business world last year. What the package actually manages to do is highlight the mindset that people in deep in the business world take when observing the wider culture in which they do business.
The list is fine when it aims directly at pressing issues of corporate malfeasance or downright boneheaded business decisions — Merrill Lynch’s entire last year, Eli Lilly marketing Prozac to dogs — but careens off the rails when asked to consider any issue that largely exists outside of the board room. Fortune, and by correlation its readers, is dangerously out of step with ordinary people. Take entry no. 9 on the list, which takes French newspaper Le Monde to task for praising Pixar’s Ratatouille as “one of the greatest gastronomic films in the history of cinema.”
Far from being an absurd assertion about a cartoon featuring a rat in a kitchen, Le Monde‘s effusive praise is pretty much right, from its expert depiction of life on a gourmet restaurant cooking team, the limited opportunities for women in the high-pressure food industry, and even the brilliantly rendered and joyless food critic Anton Ego. Not to mention the gorgeous dishes designed by French Laundry maestro Thomas Keller. From stem to stern, Ratatouille has made it cool to be a foodie. And it brought its parent company Disney $600 million in revenue. Millions of people obviously agree with Le Monde about the movie. Why doesn’t Fortune go find out why? People are not crazy. In their own minds, everything they do makes sense. But too often in a world that values rationality above all else (business), we dismiss the tastes and worldviews of everyday, average folks.
Evidence that Fortune editors are out of step with the bigger culture is evident in item 59, writing up Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” self-distributed, pay-what-you-like download model as a huge misstep. “Can’t wait for the follow-up album, ‘In Debt,'” the cynical headline writer reports. Har! The writer of the blurb note that 62 percent of downloaders paid nothing for “In Rainbows” while the remainder voluntarily paid an average of $6 for the collection. Radiohead could have made so much more if they had sold the album through its former label, EMI, right? Actually, no.
Most bands make less than $1 per album sold. Radiohead, even including those freeloaders, got paid an average of about $2.40 per album. If the band actually saw 1 million downloads, as rumored, they cleared well over $2 million in a single day, well over what equivalent sales would yield. Only through the eyes of someone solely focused on the health of corporations could “In Rainbows” be viewed as a failure. Yes, Radiohead’s decision meant that a ton of revenue destined for EMI didn’t go to anyone. But on a personal level, “In Rainbows” brought the members of Radiohead a huge amount of money, used nearly emissions-free online distribution, and also gave the band greater control than any major group in history. Fortune sarcastically referring to the next album, “In Debt” is so far off the mark I scarcely know how to respond. How could Radiohead go in debt? They distribution cost them a few thousand bucks in bandwidth costs, and they own their own studio. Going with a major label is far more likely to put you in debt, particularly when studio and promotion costs exceed the artist’s cut, as it often can.
I could go on, but I’ll stop there. This list is not, in and of itself, a crisis. But it if accurately reflects how acquainted most business people are with the wider culture, than we’re in for tough times. After all, how on earth do you know what people will want to buy if you can’t even figure out what they value or why they do the things that they do? It’s a signifier of a business world out of step with the rest of the world. Only by reconnecting to what people care about will companies of all kinds be able to sustain their growth. And that takes a dogged pursuit of empathy.
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