Rohit Bhargava: the power of non-obvious

Rohit Bhargava is a trend curator who believes in sharing ‘non-obvious’ ideas, and the author of five best selling business books. His Likeonomics was a 2012 best-seller. I read it in late 2015. Which shows you how switched on to trends I am.

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Reading Likeonomics helped motivate me to write a blog post about the Volkswagen scandal and why people like me are deeply mistrustful of big business. It also made me want to find out more about Rohit. I emailed him and he agreed to be interviewed.

Like everyone I’ve ever met who doesn’t have anything to prove, Rohit is modest, an expert listener and happy to be challenged. I hope you enjoy the interview.

How do you think the business world, especially marketing, has changed since Likeonomics was published?

What companies mean by transparency has changed radically. Now, for many, including huge brands like McDonald’s who have a lot to lose, transparency means taking people behind the scenes and showing them how products are made, or how recruiting is done. These are things companies were not doing five years ago. It’s a kind of brutal transparency, driven by the company itself.

Why do you think this is happening?

People are demanding and getting used to transparency. They have the power to choose one brand over another based on their impressions of the brand and are often spending more and more time choosing who they’re going to buy things from in the first place. Companies are trying to stay one step ahead of them.

How is social media influencing this?

I think “social media” is a dated phrase that smart businesses are already abandoning. You have media online, and then you have social networks and conversation. Sometimes the two go together and sometimes they don’t.  Social connections don’t necessarily always happen as a part of media … nor should they. A far better term is “social business” – and it describes what the most pioneering brands are trying to do today.  They are trying to find the right ways to have conversations with customers in the places they want to have them. And they are providing service without conversation in the places where that is more appropriate.  When I deposit a check into my bank via a mobile app, the last thing I want is a conversation. I just want it to work without any human interaction at all.

Do you think you can fake likeability?

In the short term, yes, because people take their cues from minimal things. It’s like the Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia who initially bought her likeability with a box of Turkish Delight but it didn’t last long. The truth is, you can deliver an amazing experience in the short term , but eventually the truth will come out. I once heard someone describe it like this: someone who is nice to you but rude to a waiter is not really a nice person. I think that’s true.

How do you respond when I say that, no matter how likeable business appears, it’s a waste of time unless you address the fundamental issue that it’s all about making as much money as possible for shareholders? Maximising the bottom line trumps everything.

Now you’re getting into the question of whether our system is set up to compensate and reward the right things. The obvious answer is: no it isn’t. Right now, business and our system of public investment in companies tends to reward short-term reactivity and penalise long-term strategy which may require sacrifices in the short term. This leads to bubbles and crises and rewarding the wrong type of behavior. Unfortunately, I don’t know what to do about that but I do think business can get it right.

I use the example of Costco often. Costco is in business for the long-term and cares about the well-being of their employees. They’ve decided not to go for simply growing their share price as much as they can.  Amazon minimizes dividends and instead reinvests most of their vast profit back into growth.  The most successfully built companies are the ones that don’t follow the temptation to generate short term earnings at the expense of long term success.

As a freelance writer I’m in an ultra-competitive industry where I obviously do my best to be likeable but if I adopted the Steve Jobs approach I doubt I’d have any clients left. How would you suggest freelancers employ likeability?

Well, it’s easy to be brutally honest when you’re the boss.  But if you’re a freelancer, you’re hardly ever the boss.  This doesn’t mean you should skip being honest, though.  In a freelance position, you are being paid for your expertise.  If you agree to do everything a client asks without question, you’re just taking orders – no better than an intern.  Instead if you push back, offer probing questions and share a real point of view, you immediately make yourself more valuable as a partner and that’s what I think we should all aim for.

How consistently do you apply the principles detailed in Likeonomics to your own work?

I try to live up to all of them as best I can but Truth is literally number one – in the book and in my mind. If you’re caught not telling the truth, it’s very very difficult to earn that trust back.

I blogged about the Volkswagen farrago . Apart from the obvious – not cheating in the first place – how would you have done things differently if you were them?

I think the number one thing I’d have done is found a way to take people behind the scenes and introduce them to my team of real people behind the scenes. I would have shown people how the brand was working hard to fix the mistake. A great example of making this work is the non-profit charity: water. They show their failures on their YouTube channel and it’s incredibly powerful. Sharing failure makes you human and also adds believability when you say you’re fixing things. It’s much better than a 30-second commercial.

This relates to your notion of ‘unperfection’, right?

It does. In my book Non-Obvious I talk about ‘unperfection’ (not imperfection), where companies and individuals are strategic about showing their mistakes or being deliberately ‘unperfect’. Artisan pizza that has been carefully designed to make it look like it’s been made by hand is a great example of unperfection. I relate it to the value of inconsistency, intentional discord, breaking rules that weren’t supposed to be broken. It keeps us paying attention.

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Influencing trends simply by observing them could arguably raise your value to your corporate clients. Do you consider the observer effect?

It’s certainly a danger – particularly when you consider the nature of predicting trends and how much of a self fulfilling prophecy they can become.  Having said this, I'm also realistic about the impact my predictions are likely to have on global consumer behaviour. I may be able to sway some of the large corporate groups who bring me in for private workshops and consulting to spend more time focused in a particular area. But I don’t think that has the power on its own to make a trend come true in a case where there isn’t enough argument for it.

What excites you about culture today?

What excites me most about culture today is the fact that brilliance can be recognised without the support of a gatekeeper. You can build something phenomenal or have a great idea and you don’t have to sell it to a huge corporation or navigate your way past a skeptical naysayer to have it seen by the right people all over the world.

What do you think makes a good business book?

In any great business book, the author has to have a point of view and go beyond simply sharing the traditional wisdom that everyone knows about. The other thing is that a lot of the books are very obvious, they don’t offer anything new. We have to challenge ourselves to think in non-obvious ways, not simply report.

Lastly,  why do you think you’re good at what you do?

First of all, thank you! I spend a lot of time being observant in situations when most people aren’t. I notice things that other people just walk past. Because I speak at lots of different events for different industries I have to be empathetic in the classical sense of the word. I have to put myself into other people’s situations – and doing that helps me connect with an audience no matter what they care most about

Thanks, Rohit.

Where do we go from here?

Trendspotting and curation is fun, and feeling like we know something other people don’t feeds our ego. But isn’t the ultimate purpose of Rohit’s trend curation to arm business with even more ways to sell stuff to us we don't really want or need?

To be fair to Rohit, though, he’s scrupulous about suggesting how the trends he spots can be used in good ways. When he writes about engineered addiction, for instance, he mentions the work of the Khan Academy, a wholly admirable organisation which uses gamification to addict kids to learning.

By making his own work available, Rohit is also offering all of us the tools to understand how and why business does what it does. As individuals, we too can use the power of non-obvious to resist business.

I was going to end this blog post on my usual oppositional note but, maybe infected by Rohit’s optimism, I started to think about all the opportunities we have to make good things happen in the world. It’s up to us. Because it has to be.