Off to Boston – a difficult choice between The Harvard Business Review and the Bourne Ultimatum

For me, one of the most important things in a conference is the venue. I think this is beyond a hygiene factor – it’s not sufficient not to have a bad venue; a good venue really makes a difference. So I’m off to Boston this weekend to look at venues for Business of Software 2008. Of course, you need great speakers, so I’m working on that too. So far I’ve lined up (in no particular order) Joel Spolsky, Eric Sink, Richard Stallman, Dharmesh Shah, Jason Fried, Steve Johnson and Paul Kenny. You can find out more, sign up for updates (I’m hoping to book another big name soon) and get a free eBook at the conference web site.

I don’t like travelling but at least I can use it to catch up on my reading. One of the highlights of last year’s conference was Jennifer Aaker’s talk on branding. The insight that struck me most was the way that Jennifer had analysed companies’ brands in the same way that psychologists analyse people’s profiles. For people, this type of profiling is based on what’s called the lexical hypothesis: that the words we use to describe people reflect the attributes they have. You can look at the words we use when talking about other people, perform a cluster analysis to remove redundant, correlated words and end up with a set of independent personality factors. Depending on who you listen to, and how far you simplify, and in what way, you end up with a number of factors, generally ranging from 3 to 15. One of the most famous is "The Big Five", with the conveniently acronymed dimensions of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticsm.

Jennifer has extended this approach to companies and has come up with the five independent dimensions of sincerity, excitement, competence, sophistication and ruggedness. You can plot any company’s brand against these five axes. For example, Coca Cola is a "sincere" brand while Virgin is "exciting" (although, of course, it is possible to have a brand that is both sincere and exciting since these axes are orthogonal). Your brand effects how your customers relate to you. For example, if a sincere brand breaks its customers’ trust then it is very hard to undo the damage caused, while breaking trust and then re-establishing it actually helps an exciting brand on many measures. You can find out more by googling "Jennifer Aaker" and branding.

So the first item on my reading list for this weekend is a collection of Jennifer’s papers that I’ve been meaning to read for a while. They’re not about branding, but about happiness, another area that Jennifer researches.

The second item is "The Tipping Point" by Malcolm Gladwell. I’ve heard much about this book and have always been slightly sceptical. I figure I should read it at some point (although maybe I should follow Pierre Bayard’s advice in How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read and rate it as HB minus – a book I’ve heard of that I don’t think is very good).

The third item is the current issue of the Harvard Business Review. I gave up reading this a while ago when I felt that much of the content was formulaic and empty and along the lines of "We asked five companies what their key to success was and concluded that it was to have a perfect strategy and to execute it flawlessly". I’ll try again for a couple of issues and see how it goes.

For lighter reading I’ve brought along Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut and the Golden Compass by Philip Pullman.

So hopefully I’ll come back with a conference venue and better read. More likely I’ll just watch the onflight films though. I think The Bourne Ultimatum is showing.