This may be one of the most important questions for FMCG companies and Bill Gates has seen the opportunity.
Everything you think you know is wrong. That’s the bad news. But, according to Swedish academic Hans Rosling, a man whose ideas are passionately championed by Microsoft founder, and billionaire-philanthropist, Bill Gates, we are all – essentially – surrounded by good news. It’s just that none of us can see it.
Not entirely convinced? Then read Rosling’s worldwide bestseller, Factfulness, and, I promise, you will be. Because, as it turns out, he possesses what might well be the rarest of all human gifts – the ability to make stats exciting. And the intelligence to fashion them into arguments which are profound, compelling and – ultimately – persuasive.
“One of the most important books I’ve ever read...” Bill Gates.
So much so, that Gates has called Factfulness: “One of the most important books I’ve ever read―an indispensable guide to thinking clearly about the world,” and, in a recent interview, went even further, “Hans believed the world was making remarkable progress, and he wanted everyone to know about it. Factfulness is his final effort to help people identify areas where things are getting better and spread that improvement. It explains more clearly than almost anything else I’ve read why it’s so difficult for people to perceive progress. He offers clear, actionable advice for how to overcome our innate biases and see the world more factfully.”
And it is this last point – seeing the world more factfully – in which, I believe, lies the biggest opportunity for business.
NMD now more important than NPD
For me, the key damascene moment in the book came when Rosling asked a group of global finance managers at a major bank this question:
"How many of the world’s 1-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some form of disease?”
A whopping 85% got the answer “very wrong,” being overly pessimistic. (*Answer at bottom of the page.)
He then uses this insight – a too negative worldview, especially when it comes to the developing world – to discuss the potential market for sanitary products. And how, he believes, blue-chip consumer companies are overlooking major market opportunities. Whilst working overly hard on NPD in the developed world, desperate to grab share in very crowded markets, they are blinkered to the opportunities for new market development right across the planet.
To highlight this analysis Rosling makes the simple point that, “every pregnancy results in roughly two years loss of menstruation.” And then links this to the dramatic worldwide decrease in the numbers of children each individual woman has. Fewer children equals more menstruation, more menstruation means more need for sanitary ware.
Why not then – instead of desperately trying to create more margin in the West – simply go where the volume sales are, in the developing nations?
Mr. Rosling’s passion for numbers – The Joy of Stats
You may have come across Rosling before. He presented the BBC television documentary The Joy of Stats, as well as the documentary, Don't Panic — The Truth about Population. As an academic, he passionately believed that numbers – if seen correctly – could change the world. Although backed by much thorough and complex research, in essence, what the cheerfully insightful Swede was saying is very simple. As he argues in a 2014 TED Talk, “The first thing needed to think about the future is to know about the present.”
Thanks, in part, to “preconceived ideas” which come to us all through the media, Rosling’s years of research convinced him that we humans are all essentially “ignorant” – not capable of seeing and grasping actual reality –and therefore far too pessimistic about the state of our small blue planet. Collectively too despondent, as a species, and so unable to develop effective strategies to tackle its – admittedly many – problems. Business, or otherwise.
In one of his last TED Talks – sadly he died in February of 2017– Rosling neatly demonstrated this overly negative groupthink by highlighting data based on a question he asked journalists at a conference. It was about the worldwide percentage of children who have been vaccinated against major diseases. Both US and EU media professionals scored very badly, only 20% and 6%, respectively, getting the right answer. As Rosling might say, everything you think you know is wrong.
In the search for ultimate truth then, the blind really are leading the blind.
“The problem…,” says the Uppsala University professor, “is not that people don’t read and listen to the media…but the media doesn’t know themselves.” In the search for ultimate truth then, the blind really are leading the blind.
And, once you have added your own “personal biases” and “outdated facts” into this collective fog of confusion, the result, Rosling says, is: “When asked simple questions about global trends―what percentage of the world’s population live in poverty; why the world’s population is increasing; how many girls finish school―we systematically get the answers wrong. So wrong that a chimpanzee choosing answers at random will consistently outguess teachers, journalists, Nobel laureates, and investment bankers.”
No longer jungle VIPs?
In a Guardian article, Rosling wrote that what he calls an “overdramatic worldview” draws people to the most negative answers. “It is not caused by simply out-of-date knowledge,” he says. “My experience, over decades of lecturing and testing, has finally brought me to see that the overdramatic worldview comes from the way our brains work…we are hard-wired with instincts that helped our ancestors survive in small groups of hunters and gatherers.” Another way of putting that might be: 50,000 years ago, only the pessimists survived.
In Factfulness, Rosling elaborates further on the ways our evolutionary instincts shape us, focusing specifically on how we process narrative. “We are interested in gossip and dramatic stories,” he says, “which used to be the only source of news and useful information. This craving for drama causes misconceptions and helps create the overdramatic worldview.”
So, based on his own analysis, the 7.5 billion human inhabitants of Planet Earth would be, collectively, dumber decision-makers than the random calculations of its estimated 300,000 chimps. This insight, you might surmise, would be an actual cause for genuine pessimism. But Rosling, a born iconoclast if ever there was one, thought the exact opposite is true.
Lands of Opportunity
What, practically speaking, the psychological insights Factfulness presents might mean for brands and companies are that – as mentioned above – right now, all around the world, clear business opportunities are being overlooked. Especially, he believes, in the developing world which is so often subjected to a flood of unrelentingly negative news articles. Because our “overdramatic worldview” hides them from us.
As Bill Gates says, when commenting on Rosling’s book, “With rare exceptions, most of the miracles of humankind are long-term, constructed things. Progress comes bit by bit. We’ve cut the number of people living in extreme poverty by half over the last twenty years, but there was never a morning when ‘POVERTY RATES DROP INCREMENTALLY’ dominated newspaper headlines.” Which is precisely how successful businesses develop, isn’t it? They, too, are long-term, constructed things, with progress coming bit by bit.
They still did worse than the chimps
In January 2015, at the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Rosling stood up and asked questions in front of “One thousand of the world’s most powerful and influential business leaders…” They still did worse than the chimps. Just think then, of all the business opportunities those grandees are not seeing?
As Rosling, himself, concludes “This is Factfulness: understanding as a source of mental peace…it can and should be part of people’s daily lives.” Even more so, I’m convinced, their business strategies.
How many of the world’s 1-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some form of disease?” ANS: 80%