Rohit Bhargava On What It Means to Be Non-Obvious

Rohit Bhargava

Rohit Bhargava is a leading authority on marketing, trends and innovation. He is the founder of the Non-Obvious Company, author of the popular annual Non-Obvious: How to Predict Trends and Win the Future book series, and curator of a popular weekly insights newsletter. He spoke with Reputation.com recently about what he sees as some less-than-obvious trends about influencers, retro brands and the believability crisis.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What does it mean to be ‘non-obvious’?

We’re surrounded by the obvious. We’ve got so many people giving the same sort of advice. We read the same things over and over online. It’s really hard to find unique, original thinking. When I started writing about the idea of being non-obvious, part of it was just me being frustrated at seeing the same stuff and it wasn’t very useful.

I feel like we as individuals and as professionals have a challenge to think in non-obvious ways. How do we come up with stuff that no one else is coming up with? How do we be more unique in what we’re doing?

The challenge for most people isn’t figuring out what to do with this really new awesome thing; it’s how to think in a way to come up with something that’s non-obvious. When I started doing research around this term, I noticed that it’s predominantly used in only one place: To describe an idea that is worthy of a patent. For a thing to be so original that you can get it certified as being original and protected with a patent, it has to be non-obvious.

How can people start to think in a non-obvious way?

The first step is spotting the biases in where you’re typically getting information. We know there are biases in there and we’re surrounded by media that reinforces what we already think. But we don’t really challenge ourselves to get outside of that mindset. Instead, we rely on digital tools to curate what we look at, giving us a singular point of view.

We don’t take that intentional step of saying, ‘Why do the people who don’t think like I do think that way?’

How does that shape your approach to digital marketing?

The challenge for digital marketers is to create something that is worthy of people’s time. That’s why I think content marketing has become so popular. If we just slap popups in front of people, they’ll ignore them. If we actually create something that they might want to consume, whether it’s entertainment or useful content that educates them about something, people are much more likely to spend time with that. Marketers, particularly digital marketers, are getting a little more savvy about what that means.

When brands approach you, what do they need?

One of the 2019 trends we highlight is ‘innovation envy.’ People look at Google and think they need hover scooters and ping pong tables to make their companies innovative. It’s probably no surprise to most people that that doesn’t actually work. You can’t just plop a ping-pong table into an office and make people more creative.

You can’t create more innovation within an organization from a place of envy. You actually have to do it with an intent towards changing the mindset of people … and then giving them the places where they can actually put that sort of thinking to work.

Let’s talk about another of your 2019 trends: Artificial influence.

‘Artificial influence’ was a play on artificial intelligence. It’s about the growing role we see digital personas taking in shifting perception, selling products or even turning something that used to be a fantasy into a reality. Think about holographic concerts that bring back a hologram of Michael Jackson or Amy Winehouse and put them into a real-life concert with real dancers and a real band behind them. More and more of these digital avatars on Instagram have become influencers even though they’re not a real person. As marketers, these are forms of media and ‘people’, in some sense, that are gaining trust and building a reputation for themselves. How do we relate to these forms of media?

How about the ‘retro trust’ trend you mention?

Retro trust is about living in a world with a lot of things that are untrustworthy. If we find out there’s been a data breach or our privacy has been hacked, we go back to those brands and things that we have a legacy with, that we trusted in the past.

Nintendo has been a master at this. They’ve taken their ‘old school’ games like Super Mario Brothers. Not only is there a new version that kids can play now on the Switch or other Nintendo devices, but they also have the NES Classic, which is the same one that I used. I just buy this little box for $100 and I get all the games that I used to play when I was a kid. I can experience those with my kid.

You’re seeing it in many other places as well — the resurgence of vinyl records and the bringing back of lots of classic shows like Full House. There’s going to be a Toy Story 4.

What is the believability crisis and how can brands confront it?

The believability crisis is simply the idea that consumers, in general, don’t know what or who to trust anymore. It’s harder to earn their trust and it’s harder to build a reputation. Once you build a reputation, it can fall much more quickly and it’s much more difficult to get it back. In a world like that, I think using the word crisis is not an overblown statement.

We are in that crisis because consumers are super skeptical of everything before they even look at it. The challenge for all of us who are working with brands is how to rise above that. One of the solutions I talk about is using storytelling to tell the truth proactively. There are a couple of techniques to be able to do that.

One is to tell people the backstory of where you came from and why you’re doing what you’re doing. Explain why it’s interesting and who are the real people behind it so there’s a genuine authenticity behind it.

Another is to tell the truth proactively.

How about passive loyalty?

Passive loyalty is huge because a lot of customers that companies put into the loyal category are not actually loyal. They’re just repeat buyers who are satisfied. These customers don’t talk about you. They just get what they expected and they leave. If they’re not satisfied, then they’ll go online or call you and tell you how bad you were.

None of that is true loyalty — someone who is actively sticking with you, someone who believes that you’re the best and will tell other people you’re the best if they ask. The real challenge is how to move these customers, who might be repeat buyers but not loyal, from passive loyalty to active loyalty.

What role does social listening play?

When you see conversations with brands happening, there are lots of spectators. When you see a review on Yelp or something on Twitter, it’s not a one-to-one thing. If someone posts something, you don’t know how many other people are seeing it. So the imperative for brands to respond and to engage is huge because if you don’t, everyone’s watching.

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