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Likely theory

Indira Kannan 

Good business is all about making your company and its products likeable. Consultant and Georgetown University professor tells Indira Kannan about his latest piquantly titled book

from Portugal recorded her first YouTube video in 2007 just for fun, strumming a guitar and covering a Sheryl Crow song. Three years later, she was an unlikely YouTube star, earning millions of views and an invitation to perform as an opening act for Shakira’s concert in South America. Ana, however, was not an aspiring singer, and she didn’t upload her videos to become famous, she even included all her outtakes and mistakes. The secret, then, of her popularity? “Likeability”.

To advance your business or your career, you need to be more “likeable”, argues in his new book, Likeonomics. But wait, don’t tell him how many “likes” you’ve managed to tot up, or “friends” or “followers” either. Being likeable, he says, is about more than just collecting clicks on social media.

“There’s a lot of people trying to sell the secret social media formula. But it’s very difficult to first of all stand out, and second to get people to believe that that’s actually true,” says Bhargava in an interview. “And so what I tried to write about was where does social media fit into this broader challenge of being more believable as a person and also as a company. Because if you focus on that as the bigger challenge, then what you have is an idea that goes beyond just, ‘Create a great page and here’s how to do it’.”

Likeonomics is the second book by 37-year-old Bhargava, a Kanpur-born and now Washington DC-based marketing consultant for Ogilvy and an Adjunct Professor of Marketing at Georgetown University. If the title reminds you of the 2005 bestseller Freakonomics, a book that took economics into the realm of popular culture, Bhargava acknowledges it inspired the title of his book.

He started working on the book after reading a story in a business magazine which illustrated a notion that he thought was obvious but saw few people paying attention to: “The basic principle that we tend to do business with and build relationships with people we like.” The book expands on the principle with the help of examples from the corporate world and popular culture, including the legendary Dale Carnegie, a lawyer turned Jerry Maguire-like sports agent, and Portugal’s Ferreira.

The book also addresses examples of successful businessmen who were nevertheless seen as unlikeable — the late Steve Jobs, and Oracle founder Larry Ellison — to explain that likeability is not the same thing as being nice. Says Bhargava, “What it comes down to is that nice people are afraid to tell you the truth, they just want to be nice. And likeable people do tell you the truth and they have a point of view, and it’s the point of view that actually translates likeability into likeability with respect, and that is a really important difference.” The book uses Jobs to prove this point, recalling CEO Mark Parker’s experience. When asked by an interviewer about the best piece of advice he had received, Parker said he had called Jobs for guidance shortly after becoming CEO. Jobs told him, “makes some of the best products in the world… but you also make a lot of crap. Just get rid of the crappy stuff and focus on the good stuff.”

It’s not enough to be personally likeable, Bhargava says. The objective is to make your company or product more likeable as well and grow your business.

Bhargava outlines the five principles of “Likeonomics”: truth, relevance, unselfishness, simplicity and timing. Explaining the first principle, he argues that telling the truth about traumatic events in her life helped television talk show host Oprah Winfrey build her huge audience and become one of the richest and most influential women in the world. He also cites the example of car rental company Avis turning its second position in the marketplace to its advantage with a truthful, yet effective advertising slogan in 1962: “Avis is only

No. 2. We Try Harder.” Over the next four years,

Avis was able to expand its US market share threefold.

The author says unselfishness can be profitable, quoting from the Ethisphere Institute’s ranking of the World’s Most Ethical Companies, showing that by 2011, “ethical companies” were outperforming the S&P 500 list by a third. Bhargava discusses the example of members-only bulk retailer Costco, which he says has a rule that branded goods cannot be marked up more than 14 per cent, and private-label brands more than 15 per cent. Costco is also reported to pay its employees double the minimum wage, and nearly 50 per cent more than its closest rival. Yet, he notes, while the $89 billion company is not a Wall Street favourite, it has grown 15 per cent annually since its founding in 1983. Bhargava poses the question, “Why don’t more companies adopt this approach to business if it works so well?” One reason could be, he writes, the view that “businesses (and people by extension) are inherently selfish”.

In recommending simplicity, the book says, “Complexity can sometimes be described as a good or necessary thing. Usually, it isn’t.” It also recommends visual thinking and drawing pictures instead of using just words to simplify ideas. That’s a process Bhargava himself used when working on Likeonomics. “I used a concept that’s very common in Hollywood or filmmaking but [that] a lot of people in business don’t tend to use as much, which is storyboarding. And the idea is that it’s very visual — write down a story, write down an idea, group things together and by doing that you’ll start to identify big trends.”

The author believes the principles of ‘Likeonomics” would be extremely relevant for Indian businesses, especially given their visible presence in the services sector. “The industries that usually see the relevance immediately without much description are anyone who’s in a services-based industry.” His first book, Personality Not Included, was translated into nine languages. Bhargava says Likeonomics is on track to double that figure, because he has used several examples from around the world. “There’s a very international side, people want to use this idea and they don’t want it to be just an American idea.”

Bhargava describes his target reader as someone defined by their phase in life rather than their occupation. “The really powerful message from the book is when someone is in that moment when they’re trying to think about changing something in their life, whether they’re changing jobs, they’re about to start their own business, they’re about to enter the workforce after being a student for some time, those are the moments when this principle really starts to hit home for people. Because those are the moments when we’re really hungry for that new idea that will help us be successful in the new thing that we try.”

Likeonomics will be available in an Indian edition later this year, perhaps with a fresh foreword and different endorsements.

The Unexpected Truth behind Earning Trust, Influencing Behavior, and Inspiring Action
Author: Rohit Bhargava

Publisher: Wiley
Pages: 184
Price: $24.95

First Published: Sat, September 01 2012. 00:38 IST