At the beginning of the month “peace pilgrim” Mark Bishop’s planned two year walk from Bristol England to the birthplace of Ghandi in India came to an early end. His plan was to carry no money and rely on the kindness of strangers to get free food, lodging and transport. This worked well from Bristol to the south coast of the UK and across the English channel, but it failed when he reached Calais on the other side where he could not explain his project to the local people. The problem is that the French speak French.
There are many lessons that you can draw from this episode. First of all it shows the value of language learning -- last year I already blogged the point that you cannot rely on English alone. It also shows the value of research; the fact that the French speak French is noted in many reference sources, including Wikipedia. Research would also have told Bishop that he landed in the worst possible part of the country. If you talk to friends in the north of France you will learn that Calais is where asylum seekers from all over the world gather to try to get to the UK. People there are naturally wary of people trying to get stuff for free and there was no way they could tell that he was different. My informants in the region also unanimously said that he would have received more help if the trip had been covered in local media.
And this leads us to the most important learning from this debacle: it shows the importance of preparing people with advance communications before you ask for anything. If Bishop had talked to some local media before the visit to Calais his requests would not have fallen on stony ground. In the same way advertising prepares your mind for the moment when the opportunity to buy a product appears. You may not like to admit it, but no matter how rational the reason for buying something you will probably leave it on the shelf if you have never heard of the product or the brand. All those brand names you see on signs everywhere really do work.
This lesson is valuable not just for advertisers and would be adventurers. It is also relevant in day to day business. A classic blunder of communications I see way too often is when someone presents some new proposal to their management or perhaps to a customer. The proposal is well researched and well presented but people have never seen it before so they are immediately diffident and reject it. A much better plan is to prepare the ground before you go into the meeting. Talk about your new idea in advance so it is not so unfamiliar and try to get buy in from some other people who will be in the room so that they will be nodding as you speak. Selling an idea is just like selling a product and you will rarely be successful unless you see it as a process, not an isolated incident.
Mark Bishop may have failed in his first attempt, but at least he gave many people something to think about, even about topics he maybe did not anticipate.