Making sense of the conflicting narratives about China’s economic and political aspirations.

Astonishingly tone-deaf and factually questionable: “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man … they can’t even figure out how to deal with the fact that they have this great division between the China Sea and the mountains … in the west. They can’t figure out how they’re going to deal with the corruption that exists within the system. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.” (Former Vice President Joe Biden, May 1, 2019)

In recent months, we’ve been hearing a wide range of views about China’s economic and political aspirations and their potential implications for the United States.

Some of the opinions being expressed seem to be polar opposites — such as President Donald Trump’s pronouncements that the United States has been “ripped off” by China for decades.  Contrast this with former Vice President Joe Biden’s dismissive contention that China represents no competition for the United States at all.

Several days ago, the political commentator Dick Morris published an op-ed piece in the Western Journal in which he seems to be nearly 100% “all-in” with the alarmists.

The column is titled Trump Is Waging (and Winning) a Peaceful World War III Against China.  My curiosity aroused, I decided to get in touch with my brother, Nelson Nones, who has lived and worked in the Far East for the past 20+ years. Being an American “on the ground” in countries like China, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia gives Nelson an interesting perspective from which to be a “reality check” on the views we’re hearing locally.

I sent Nelson a link to the Morris op-ed and asked for his reaction. Here is what he communicated back to me: 

I think Dick Morris is correct to contend that the Chinese government’s long-term vision is bigger than just accumulating more wealth and power. In fact, I wrote about this topic in the book I co-authored with Janson Yap, when describing China’s “Belt and Road” initiatives as a geographic positioning threat to Singapore.

 I wrote:  

“As a land-based strategy, the SREB [Silk Road Economic Belt] promises greater long-term rewards for China than the MSR [Maritime Silk Road]; these would echo the impact of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, which marked the beginning of the ascendancy of the U.S. to becoming one of the preeminent economic empires of all time.”

 The context here is, if you look back through history, the world’s most dominant economic empires were either terrestrial or maritime — but not both — until the U.S. came along. As I further wrote in the book:

“After gaining control over both strategic land and maritime trade routes with the completion of the Panama Canal in 1913, America became the first land-based and maritime economic empire in history; its dominance has spanned over a century, from 1916 to the present. Uncoincidentally, the American economic empire began when the Panama Canal was completed, but the Panama Canal has arguably contributed far less to America’s GDP than the country’s investments in transcontinental rail and road transportation infrastructure.” 

In short, I am absolutely sure China’s government aspires to overtake the U.S. as the world’s dominant terrestrial and maritime economic empire, and to hold that position for at least a century if not longer. But this would not be the first time in history that China has held such a position. 

For the historical context, refer to: http://fortune.com/2014/10/05/most-powerful-economic-empires-of-all-time/. There you will see that the U.S. produced half the world’s economic output in circa 1950. China’s Song Dynasty was the world’s preeminent economic empire in circa 1200 AD, producing 25% to 30% of global output. Only the U.S. and the Roman Empire have ever matched or exceeded that marker. 

I can tell you from my considerable experience on the ground in China that the strategic vision of its leaders is grounded in much more than just backward-looking grievance and necessity. Although the 19th Century Opium Wars (which were fought during the Qing Dynasty against the British Empire, and occurred during the period of the British Empire’s economic ascendancy) are often trotted out in China’s government-controlled English language dailies, the Chinese people I know have little or no knowledge of the Opium Wars or the colonial victimization China allegedly suffered a century and a half ago.  

But they are acutely aware, and genuinely proud, of China’s emergence as a leading economic powerhouse; and this is how the Chinese government maintains its legitimacy.   

China’s ambitions, in other words, have much more to do with reinstating its former glory (the Song Dynasty economic empire) than with righting wrongs (dominance by colonial powers), and are fundamental props for maintaining the Chinese Communist Party’s grip on power. 

This view renders many of Dick Morris’ comments unnecessarily hyperbolic; for example “[China’s] goal is to reduce the rest of the world to colonial or dominion status, controlled politically, socially, intellectually, and economically by China. In turn, China is run by a handful of men in Beijing who need not pay the slightest attention to the views of those they govern or the nations they dominate.”  

No, China’s goal is to become the world’s dominant economic empire but, just as the Americans before them, they don’t have to exert the same degree of control over the rest of the world as they do within their own territory to achieve this goal.  

And no, they require constant support from the Chinese population to achieve this goal, even though they run an authoritarian state. Why else would they devote so many resources to the “Great Chinese Firewall” if there is no need to “pay the slightest attention to the views of those they govern”? 

Yes, Trump’s trade war with China is important but his motive is to reverse the flow of jobs and capital out of the U.S. to China, which is not the same thing as launching an “economic World War III.” At a more practical and mundane level, it’s to fulfil a pile of campaign promises which Trump made when he was running for President, and to secure the loyalty of his base. 

_______________________________

So there you have it: the perspectives of someone “on the scene” in the Far East — holding a view that is more nuanced than the hyperbole of the alarmists, but also clear-eyed and miles apart from the head-in-the-sand naiveté of other politicians like Joe Biden.

Let’s also hope for a more meaningful and reality-based discourse on the topic of China in the coming months and years.

“Wake me when it’s over”: Corporate podcasting goes over like a zinc zeppelin with employee audiences.

Just because podcasts have become a popular means of communication in a broader sense doesn’t mean that they’re the slam-dunk tactic to successfully achieve every kind of communications objective. Still, that’s what an increasing number of large corporations have decided to do.

And yet … an article by writers Austen Hufford and Patrick McGroarty that appeared last week in The Wall Street Journal paints a picture of what many of us have suspected all along about podcasts that are produced by corporations for their employees and other “stakeholders.”

These self-important testaments to “corporate whatever” have as much impact as the printed memos of yore – you know, the ones with sky-high BS-meter ratings – had.

Which is to say … not much.

Invariably, podcast topics are ones which next to no one in the employee trenches cares anything about. As a result, corporate podcast open stats are abysmal – running between 10% and 15% if they’re lucky.

And the paltry open rates alone don’t tell the entire story. How many people are tuning them out after just a minute or two of listening, once it becomes clear that it’s yet another yawner of a topic that senior leadership deems “important” and that corporate communications departments try mightily but unsuccessfully to bring alive.

More often than not, the production values of these corporate podcasts have all the pizzazz of a cold mashed potato sandwich. Consider this breathless declaration by PR director Lindsay Colker in a December 18th Netflix podcast:

“I think that Netflix has taught me so much more than information about a job. The person that I was, coming into Netflix, is an entirely different person than the person I am now.”

This response, posted by a Netflix employee on the Apple iTunes store site, is all-too-predictable:

“Hard to follow, boring and dry hosts, and tooooo long.”

Or this recent American Airlines podcast that covered the company’s three major strategic objectives for 2019. After company president Robert Isom described the strategies for the podcast audience, host Ron DeFeo, an American Airlines communications vice president exclaimed, “That’s awesome!”

Employee reaction was far different. Here’s one response from an American Airlines pilot:

“How about you tell me why I should listen to this? A healthy employee doesn’t live and breathe their job 24/7, and the last thing they’re going to do after being on a plane for 12 hours is listen to a podcast.”

Ouch.

Perhaps because of this kind employee pushback, one company, Huntington Ingalls Industries, permits its workers to count the time they spend listening to the company’s podcast on their time sheets.

One suspects that absolutely every HII employee is posting 15 minutes on their timesheets each time a podcast is released – whether or not they’re actually listening to it. (That may also explain why each HII podcast is strictly limited to just 15 minutes in length …)

Every company interviewed by the writers of The Wall Street Journal story admitted that engagement levels with their corporate podcasts are disappointing.  PPG Industries’ response is illustrative.  With only a few hundred listeners tuning in each month out of a total employee base of more than 47,000 workers, “We have a ways to go,” admits Mark Silvey, PPG’s director of corporate communications.

What do you think? Will corporations find themselves riding a wave of success with their podcasting?  Or are they swimming upstream against the triple currents of apathy, ennui, and snark? Will corporate podcasting become tomorrow’s “obvious tactic” or end up being yesterday’s “glorious failure”? Feel free to share your perspectives with other readers.

Chief Marketing Officer: The most thankless job in the corporate world?

Few people I know would claim that being the Chief Marketing Officer of a company is a job without risks. Indeed, numerous articles in the business press point to an average length of tenure in a CMO position that is often measured in months rather than in years – indeed, the shortest length of time among all C-level jobs.

And now, a recently completed survey of CMOs  underscores just how wide-ranging the reasons are for those employment characteristics. Branding consulting firm Brand Keys tested a number of issues to see which are the ones that keep CMOs “awake at night.”

Three-quarters or more of the respondents to the Brand Keys survey reported that every factor presented was significant enough to cause them to lose sleep.  Leading the list with near-universal high-alert concern is ROI factors. Other factors of concern to nearly every respondent in the survey are big tech and data security issues.

Listed below is how each of the factors tested by Brand Keys turned out with CMOs in terms of “losing sleep” over them.

90%+ lose sleep worrying about:

  • ROI/ROMI factors
  • Big data, big tech and big security issues
  • Establishing trust with customers
  • Innovation, AI, technology and marketing automation developments
  • Consumer expectations regarding privacy and transparency

80%-90% lose sleep worrying about:

  • Managing social networking
  • Creating relevant advertising content
  • Successfully deploying predictive consumer behavior analytics/technologies
  • Dealing with consumer advocacy and social activism
  • Developing long-term strategies that align with corporate growth goals
  • Having the ability to engage with audiences – not just find them

At the “bottom” of the pile … 75%-80% lose sleep worrying about:

  • “Democratization” of the digital world and protecting brand equity within it
  • “Political tribalism” and its effect on brand reputation
  • Being relevant when tweeted about
  • Keeping consumers engaged with the brand
  • Creating better cross-platform synergies for marketing campaigns
  • Creating an “unlearning curve” to move away from legacy marketing metrics
  • Creating marketing synergies among different generational/age cohorts
  • Being replaced by the chief revenue officer

This last worry factor – losing their job – seems almost preordained given the tenuous circumstances more than a few CMOs deal with in their positions.

… and likely made more so because CMO’s are quick to be blamed when things don’t go well, even if they aren’t in the strongest position to effect the changes that may be needed. “Responsibility without authority” is the stark reality for too many of them.

What are your thoughts about the dynamics faced by CMOs in their companies?  Whether you speak from personal experience or not, I’m sure other readers would be interested in hearing your views.

 

Does “generational marketing” really matter in the B-to-B world?

For marketers working in certain industries, an interesting question is to what degree generational “dynamics” enter into the B-to-B buying decision-making process.

Traditionally, B-to-B market segmentation has been done along the lines of the size of the target company, its industry, where the company’s headquarters and offices are located, plus the job function or title of the most important audience targets within these other selection criteria.

By contrast, something like generational segmenting was deemed a far less significant factor in the B-to-B world.

But according to marketing and copywriting guru Bob Bly, things have changed with the growing importance of the millennial generation in B-to-B companies.

These are the people working in industrial/commercial enterprises who were born between 1980 and 2000, which places them roughly between the ages of 20 and 40 right now.

There are a lot of them. In fact, Google reports that there are more millennial-generation B-to-B buyers than any other single age group; they make up more than 45% of the overall employee base at these companies.

Even more significantly, one third of millennials working inside B-to-B firms represent the sole decision-makers for their company’s B-to-B purchases, while nearly three-fourths are involved in purchase decision-making or influencing to some degree.

But even with these shifts in employee makeup, is it really true that millennials in the B-to-B world go about evaluating and purchasing goods and services all that differently from their older counterparts?

Well, consider these common characteristics of millennials which set them apart:

  • Millennials consider relationships to be more important than the organization itself.
  • Millennials want to have a say in how work gets done.
  • Millennials value open, authentic and real-time information.

This last point in particular goes a long way towards explaining the rise in content marketing and why those types of promotional initiatives are often more effective than traditional advertising.

On the other hand … don’t let millennials’ stated preferences for text messaging over e-mail communications lead you down the wrong path. E-mail marketing continues to deliver one of the highest ROIs of any MarComm tactic – and it’s often the highest by a long stretch.

Underscoring this point, last year the Data & Marketing Association [aka Direct Marketing Association] published the results of a comparative analysis showing that e-mail marketing ROI outstripped social media and search engine marketing (SEM) ROI by a factor of 4-to-1.

So … it’s smart to be continually cognizant of changing trends and preferences. But never forget the famous French saying: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Family-owned companies: Do they continue to have the best business reputations?

While public perceptions of “greedy businesspeople” have always been part of the sociological landscape, over the years opinions about family businesses have tended to be more forgiving.

That perception appears to be holding. A newly published report reveals that people trust family businesses significantly more than businesses in general.

The trust levels are ~75% for family-owned businesses versus just 59% overall.

That finding comes from a survey of ~15,000 respondents age 18 or older conducted by research firm Edelman Intelligence, which is part of the Edelman marketing communications firm.

The research was conducted across 12 country markets and are contained in the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer report.  In addition to the United States, the other country markets that were surveyed included:

  • Brazil
  • Canada
  • China
  • France
  • Germany
  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Italy
  • Mexico
  • Saudi Arabia
  • United Kingdom

Not only do the respondents in the Edelman survey trust family businesses more, they themselves would rather work for a family business.

Moreover, if they know a company is a family-run business, they’re three times more likely to be willing to pay more for its products or services.

Not everything is quite so positive, however. Compared to businesses in general, family-run businesses aren’t viewed as innovators (only ~15% compared to ~45%), or drivers of financial success (just ~15% vs. ~43%).

Even more discouraging is this finding:  Although in actuality family-run businesses are often major sources of philanthropy, only ~17% of the Edelman survey respondents view these companies as leaders in helping to address societal challenges. So, more work appears to be needed to attain the recognition that is deserved in this arena.

Another common perception – and this may be a more accurate one in reality – is that family-run businesses are skimpy in their willingness to share financial and other information about how their businesses are run.

But the most potentially harmful perception is the opinion the general public has about successive generations of family members managing family-run businesses. “Next-generation” CEOs are ~17% less trusted than founders.  They’re also considered far more likely to mismanage the business – not to mention being seen as less committed to the success of their enterprises.

In short, an inherited business, like inherited wealth, is viewed with suspicion by many people, and it’s more likely to be perceived as “undeserved.”

So, the portrait of family businesses isn’t completely rosy … but the reputation of these enterprises remains better than for businesses in general.

More information and key findings from the Edelman report can be found here.

What does the Equifax data breach tell us about the larger issue of risk management in an increasingly unpredictable world?

It’s common knowledge by now that the data breach at credit reporting company Equifax earlier this year affected more than 140 million Americans. I don’t know about you personally, but in my immediate family, it’s running about 40% of us who have been impacted.

And as it turns out, the breach occurred because one of the biggest companies in the world — an enterprise that’s charged with collecting, holding and securing the sensitive personal and financial data of hundreds of millions of people — was woefully ill-prepared to protect any of it.

How ill-prepared? The more you dig around, the worse it appears.

Since my brother, Nelson Nones, works every day with data and systems security issues in his dealings with large multinational companies the world over, I asked him for his thoughts and perspectives on the Equifax situation.

What he reported back to me is a cautionary tale for anyone in business today – whether you’re working in a big or small company.  Nelson’s comments are presented below:

Background … and What Happened

According to Wikipedia, “Equifax Inc. is a consumer credit reporting agency. Equifax collects and aggregates information on over 800 million individual consumers and more than 88 million businesses worldwide.”

Founded in 1899, Equifax is one of the largest credit risk assessment companies in the world.  Last year it reported having more than 9,500 employees, turnover of $3.1 billion, and a net income of $488.1 million.

On September 8, 2017, Equifax announced a data breach potentially impacting 143 million U.S. consumers, plus anywhere from 400,000 to 44 million British residents. The breach was a theft carried out by unknown cyber-criminals between mid-May 2017 until July 29, 2017, which is when Equifax first discovered it.

It took another 4 days — until August 2, 2017 — for Equifax to engage a cybersecurity firm to investigate the breach.

Equifax has since confirmed that the cyber-criminals exploited a vulnerability of Apache Struts, which is an open-source model-view-controller (MVC) framework for developing web applications in the Java programming language.

The specific vulnerability, CVE-2017-5638, was disclosed by Apache in March 2017, but Equifax had not applied the patch for this vulnerability before the attack began in mid-May 2017.

The workaround recommended by Apache back in March consists of a mere 27 lines of code to implement a Servlet filter which would validate Content-Type and throw away requests with suspicious values not matching multipart/form-data. Without this workaround or the patch, it was possible to perform Remote Code Execution through a REST API using malicious Content-Type values.

Subsequently, on September 12, 2017, it was reported that a company “online portal designed to let Equifax employees in Argentina manage credit report disputes from consumers in that country was wide open, protected [sic] by perhaps the most easy-to-guess password combination ever: ‘admin/admin’ … anyone authenticated with the ‘admin/admin’ username and password could … add, modify or delete user accounts on the system.”

Existing user passwords were masked, but:

“… all one needed to do in order to view [a] password was to right-click on the employee’s profile page and select ‘view source’. A review of those accounts shows all employee passwords were the same as each user’s username. Worse still, each employee’s username appears to be nothing more than their last name, or a combination of their first initial and last name. In other words, if you knew an Equifax Argentina employee’s last name, you also could work out their password for this credit dispute portal quite easily.”

The reporter who broke this story contacted Equifax and was referred to their attorneys, who later confirmed that the Argentine portal “was disabled and that Equifax is investigating how this may have happened.”

The Immediate Impact on Equifax’s Business

In the wake of these revelations, Equifax shares fell sharply:  15% on September 8, 2017, reducing market capitalization (shareholder value) by $3.97 billion in a single trading day.

Over the next 5 trading days, shares fell another 24%, reducing shareholder value by another $5.4 billion.

What this means is that the cost of the breach, measured in shareholder value lost by the close of business on September 15, 2017 (6 business days), was $9.37 billion – which is equivalent to the entire economic output of the country of Norway over a similar time span.

This also works out to losses of $347 million per line of code that Equifax could have avoided had it deployed the Apache Struts workaround back in March 2017.

The company’s Chief Information Officer and Chief Security Officer also “retired” on September 15, 2017.

Multiple lawsuits have been filed against Equifax. The largest is seeking $70 billion in damages sustained by affected consumers. This is more than ten times the company’s assets in 2016, and nearly three times the company’s market capitalization just before the breach was announced.

The Long-Term Impact on Equifax’s Brand

This is yet to be determined … but it’s more than likely the company will never fully recover its reputation.  (Just ask Target Corporation about this.)

Takeaway Points for Other Companies

If something like this could happen at Equifax — where securely keeping the private information of consumers is the lifeblood of the business — one can only imagine the thousands of organizations and millions of web applications out there which are just as vulnerable (if not as vital), and which could possibly destroy the entire enterprise if compromised.

At most of the companies I’ve worked with over the past decade, web application development and support takes a back seat in terms of budgets and oversight compared to so-called “core” systems like SAP ERP. That’s because the footprint of each web application is typically small compared to “core” systems.

Of necessity, due to budget and staffing constraints at the Corporate IT level, business units have haphazardly built out and deployed a proliferation of web applications — often “on the cheap” — to address specific and sundry tactical business needs.

“Kid’s Day” at Equifax’s Argentine offices. Were the kids in command there, one is tempted to wonder …

I strongly suspect the Equifax portal for managing credit report disputes in Argentina — surely a backwater business unit within the greater Equifax organization — was one of those.

If I were a CIO or Chief Security Officer right now, I’d either have my head in the sand, or I’d be facing a choice. I could start identifying and combing through the dozens or hundreds of web applications currently running in my enterprise (each likely to be architecturally and operationally different from the others) to find and patch all the vulnerabilities. Or I could throw them all out, replacing them with a highly secure and centrally-maintainable web application platform — several of which have been developed, field-tested, and are readily available for use.

__________________________

So, there you have it from someone who’s “in the arena” of risk management every day. To all the CEOs, CIOs and CROs out there, here’s your wakeup call:  Equifax is the tip of the spear.  It’s no longer a question of “if,” but “when” your company is going to be attacked.

And when that attack happens, what’s the likelihood you’ll be able to repel it?

… Or maybe it’ll be the perfect excuse to make an unforeseen “early retirement decision” and call it a day.

__________________________

Update (9/25/17):  And just like clockwork, another major corporation ‘fesses up to a major data breach — Deloitte — equally problematic for its customers.

The disappearing attention spans of consumers.

Today I was talking with one of my company’s longtime clients about how much of a challenge it is to attract the attention of people in target marketing campaigns.

Her view is that it’s become progressively more difficult over the past dozen years or so.

Empirical research bears this out, too. Using data from a variety of sources including Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, Facebook and Google, Statistic Brain Research Institute‘s Attention Span Statistics show that the average attention span for an “event” on one of these platforms was 8.25 seconds in 2015.

Compare that to 15 years earlier, when the average attention span for similar events was 12.0 seconds.

That’s a reduction in attention span time of nearly one-third.

Considering Internet browsing statistics more specifically, an analysis of ~60,000 web page views found these behaviors:

  • Percent of page views that lasted more than 10 minutes: ~4%
  • % of page views that lasted fewer than 4 seconds: ~17%
  • % of words read on web pages that contain ~100 words or less: ~49%
  • % of words read on an average web page (around ~600 words): ~28%

The same study discovered what surely must be an important reason why attention spans have been contracting. How’s this tidy statistic:  The average number of times per hour that an office worker checks his or her e-mail inbox is … 30 times.

Stats like the ones above help explain why my client – and so many others just like her – are finding it harder than ever to attract and engage their prospects.

Fortunately, factors like good content and good design can help surmount these difficulties. It’s just that marketers have to try harder than ever to achieve a level of engagement that used to come so easily.

More results from the Statistic Brain Research Institute study can be found here.