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An iconoclast is someone who destroys religious symbols. The classical example of iconoclasm is a guy named Konon, who you may or may not know as Leo III the Isaurian - further proof that names were more interesting 1200 years ago.

Today we use the term a little more loosely. It’s common to associate the term with business figures who up-end markets; Steve Jobs comes to mind. (Steve I the Appleonian?)

To Gregory Berns, Distinguished Chair of Neuroeconomics at Emory University (a fine institution that made the mistake of granting me a wholly undeserved degree) and author of Iconoclast: a Neuroscientist Reveals how to Think Differently, an iconoclast is “a person who does something that others say can’t be done.”

Setting aside the needless redefinition of the word iconoclast (what’s wrong with innovator?), Berns’ book provides excellent, and well-researched, information on how, and why, people generate iconoclastic (innovative!) ideas. 

In the process, the book also provides some insight, from the perspective of neuroscience, on how to market those ideas.

Summarizing the results of several research studies, Berns shows that dopamine – sometimes thought of as the ‘pleasure chemical’ of the brain – is highly associated with the desire to seek out new experiences.  Individuals with highly active dopamine systems are more likely pursue novel experiences and – here’s the kicker – young people have more active dopamine systems. The bottom line: market new ideas to the under-thirty crowd, they’re more receptive.

But what does this mean if you have to market to people who, like me, wouldn’t survive very long in the world of Logan’s Run? (This is tech blog, if you don’t get that reference you’re in the wrong place. Turn off your com-put-er, call a friend and start making fun of geeks).

Still with us? Good.

If you’re target demographic are grey-hairs, Berns points out that wrapping new ideas in the ‘cloak of familiarity’ can drive a “new idea to be adopted by a large percentage of an older population.” In other words, don’t position a new idea as ‘revolutionary’ to a 50-year old C-suite executive; demonstrate how it fits neatly into the world he or she already understand.

There’s much more to the book and, despite the misuse of the word iconoclast, it’s worth reading. There’s also a fabulous section that details which illegal narcotics to take in order to stimulate iconoclastic thinking. Buy the book for neuroscience, read it for the psychotropics.

 

This past Monday, as I feverishly refreshed Engadget’s live Blog of Steve Jobs presentation at the WWDC conference, I was reminded of this excerpt from the book about the development of the Segway, Code Name Ginger, and this quote from author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery:

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”

Apple has access to the same sort of raw material (in the form of people, technologies, strategies and tactics, etc) as their competitors, and yet is a very, very different company than all of them.  I’m not going to speculate as to why that is, this TedX video makes one argument, but I do think part of the answer – as suggested by the book excerpt linked to above which heavily features some of Steve Jobs thinking on promotions – is that the company is just more sophisticated and disciplined when it comes to marketing than most other technology companies.

Jobs presentation at the recent WWDC – and really, all his presentations – is a great showcase for some simple, straightforward marketing principles that more companies should employ:

  • Intensity: Apple treats its news like a precious commodity, hordes it, and announces it all at the same time. On Monday Jobs had 8 pieces of news. Most companies would string those out over 8 press releases and each would achieve the attention it deserves. By packaging them together their inherent news value becomes more, not less, significant.
  • Simplicity: Remember this article in the New York Times about the problem the US military has with PowerPoint? Apple doesn’t have that issue. Ever. Presentations are simple. A concept a slide. A word or two a slide. A picture in place of words whenever possible. Our minds seem to be wired to want to communicate in complex forms but to only understand things when cleanly and simply presented.
  • Credibility: Want people to understand how wonderful you are? Establish your credibility by showing them real, functional solutions (um, WiFi issues notwithstanding), and get partners and customers to help tell the story. If you’re giving them a big stage, they’d be crazy not to want to share it.
  • Beauty: Maybe it’s just me, but when Apple communicates something, it takes the time to make sure it’s presentation is, well, aesthetically pleasing. Look at the Engadget pictures. Sure the slides are text, or photos of hardware, but they look good. There’s nothing bad about being easy on the eyes.
  • Narrative: The presentation recognizes the importance of narrative, something I’ve written about before. This isn’t just a series of product introductions, it’s a story about what ‘we’ (Apple) are doing to innovate and create an even more compelling next generation of products. Narrative is important, it’s how people think, process and store information. There’s a story, an innovation story, behind everything Apple does, and it works.

Half Moon Bay that is at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech. Reflecting on what I found to be some of the best ideas shared yesterday:

- How can social media be leveraged to make your employee talent more highly engaged? Gary Hamel of London Business School cited a Towers Perrin study across 16 countries, and it found that nobody has more than 20% of employees who say they feel highly engaged. If we can engage customers, allow them to congregate and engage with collectively work around a problem, why can’t we do more with our talent?

- Where is your platform strategy? This was a recurring theme; that innovative companies are providing platforms as a strategy to allow others to build things for them.

- CC Per Annum. OK, I just made that up, but after hearing CEOs Michael Dell, Marc Benioff and Brad Smith all cite at different times in the afternoon just how many customer conversations their companies are having annually, I think we’re going to start seeing that as a communications department proof point in an effort to show innovation from the outside in. For the record, Intuit has two billion customer conversations per year.

- Books, toys and web services? I had wondered how Amazon Web Services had come to be. Jeff Bezos shared that Amazon built web services for themselves over four years ago in an effort to free up their engineering hours that were not directly adding customer value. The idea came up a few years after that to get into the web services business. I also like the analogy he used – that we’re moving into a new world where like a brewery, they’ll be able to focus on the beer and not on having their own power generator to produce it.

- Best insight of the day: Small business owners will happily share tips and advice with other similar small business owners as long as they’re not in the same zip code. Florist to florist, etc. Just think of the opportunities to facilitate that for a company like Intuit.

Which brings me to the some of the best remarks of the day, made by Intuit CEO Brad Smith. I had never seen Mr. Smith speak before, and he has a pretty polished approach, so much so that I worried he was going to be too smooth and salesy. Many around me agreed. But he ended up surprising us all and really delivered a candid commentary on his challenge; He said they’re asking themselves at Intuit, will their 25 years of success be an accelerant or inhibitor? He says the answer is with the youth in the company. He gave a great anecdote. TurboTax is a 20+ year old product, so there is resistance to change. An engineer proposed that they put the live user community inside the product for the first time – so users can talk to other users while doing taxes. They took a risk, did a test. Guess what happened? 44% of users asked the questions and got community answers, and at a higher accuracy rate than ever before. He concluded, “And it cost us zero.”

It was a great day. And I’m looking forward to more. Oh yeah, and Neil Young is here.

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