‘I’m not going to live to be 10,000 years old, so I’d rather just write material that someone’s actually going to use. So top-down writing works for me because it’s a very economical way to write.”
Dr Rachel Lawes is the world’s leading expert in semiotics and its application in the realm of marketing. (If you have no idea what that means, don’t worry: I asked her for the ‘explain-it-like-I’m-five’ introduction and she did it brilliantly.)
But as well as taking in psychology, human behaviour, cultural dynamics, and the examination of societal constructs, we talk in gritty detail about her writing process. Rachel’s straightforward and ‘economical’ top-down approach, together with her obvious delight in taking on a book-sized project (‘The best bit about writing is reading… Your only job is to read your heart out for four months and write about what it makes you think about the world. What a treat.’), makes for an even-more-than-usually practical and inspiring episode.
Get the kettle on and grab a notepad and pencil…
Rachel on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/rachellawes/
Alison on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alison-jones-9b09893/
The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge: http://proposalchallenge.com/
‘Kickstart Your Writing’ Workshop January 2024: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/666359076937
WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
Alison Jones: I’m here today with Dr Rachel Lawes, who is a futurist, marketer and one of the original founders of British Commercial Semiotics. She supplies semiotics to brand owners, ad agencies and marketers around the world, and she’s the author of two groundbreaking books on the business applications of semiotics.
Using Semiotics in Marketing was the first book to set out a step-by-step course in semiotics for marketers and market researchers. And her second book, Using Semiotics in Retail, won the Sales and Marketing Category of the Business Book Awards 2023. So first of all, welcome Rachel. It’s great to have you here.
Rachel Lawes: Thanks for having me on the show.
Alison Jones: It’s very exciting.
And secondly, this is an absolute first for the podcast and I’m hugely excited: we’re going to actually see you unbox that award, because you weren’t there on the night, were you?
Rachel Lawes: I wasn’t there. The whole thing was a complete surprise.
So I was at home nursing a cold. I’d been on holiday and I came back with a disgusting cold. And so that’s what I was doing. I was just in bed drinking lemsip.
Alison Jones: Thinking, oh, I won’t have won, it’s absolutely fine.
Rachel Lawes: I had no idea I was going to win anything. I didn’t really know I was in the running, you know?
And so just, I’ll tell you the story while I’m opening this box because look, I’ve got a huge box. Look, it’s a massive box here.
Alison Jones: Okay, this is terrible for anybody listening on the audio version of the podcast. If you are watching us on YouTube, you’ll see an absolutely enormous box. It’s huge.
Rachel Lawes: It’s bigger than me.
Alison Jones: Are you sure that’s definitely the award, not some garden furniture.
Rachel Lawes: Well, I did wonder about that earlier.
Alison Jones: …unboxing something random.
Rachel Lawes: Six bottles of Mr. Muscle or something.
Alison Jones: Well, whichever way, it’s going to be fascinating.
Rachel Lawes: I’m pretty sure, I’m pretty sure it’s an award of some sort. So I’m just going to… There’s a lot of tape on here okay. So, okay. I’ve got my big massive scissors.
Alison Jones: Get your big massive scissors and unbox it. Oh, that’s so cool.
Rachel Lawes: See if we can wrestle it out of its box.
Alison Jones: Do you know, this is actually better than having watched you receive the award on the night. I saw Chris, your publisher, went up to receive the award on your behalf.
Rachel Lawes: He did, yes, my very patient publisher.
Alison Jones: I mean you don’t want to hear this, but you did miss a great night.
Rachel Lawes: Were you there?
Alison Jones: Oh, I was there. Absolutely.
Rachel Lawes: Oh wow. Okay. Was it a good night?
Alison Jones: It was a terrific night. It really was. It was very glam. Very swish.
Rachel Lawes: Was it? Well, too fancy for me.
Alison Jones: I love the idea of you going up there when you are feeling rotten, sort of wrapped in a bit of a duvet.
Rachel Lawes: No, no. I couldn’t, you don’t want to go and hand your cold around to everybody, do you? It’s a really antisocial thing to do.
Alison Jones: We’re sorry you’re not there, but we are grateful you weren’t there.
Rachel Lawes: Well, here we are now, wrestling this mighty thing in its box.
Alison Jones: When they pack it, they really want it to stay safe.
Rachel Lawes: They really do, yes. They really did a good job here. But what’s inside?
Alison Jones: Mr. Muscle?
Rachel Lawes: Yes, it’s Mr. Muscle…
Alison Jones: Oh, that looks promising. That’s a Business Book Awards bag, oh, I recognize that tote.
Rachel Lawes: There’s more packages inside the package. Look, there’s a sort of, there’s a huge bag in here.
Alison Jones: Yes, that’s the fella.
Rachel Lawes: Okay. What is it? What does it say? Business Book Awards, all right, let’s find out what’s in the bag.
Alison Jones: Genuinely excited here.
Rachel Lawes: No, look, there’s more than one thing. I wasn’t expecting that. Okay. Oh look. Oh, lovely certificate.
Alison Jones: Nice.
Rachel Lawes: Very nice.
Alison Jones: Spelt everything right. Nice.
Rachel Lawes: Good. Yes, that’ll brighten up my office, make it look a bit more professional. I’ve only got the one certificate, that’s my PhD in the background there.
And look, here’s a box. This must be the thing, right? It’s got to be.
Alison Jones: That’s the thing. Yes, it’s a thing of beauty actually.
Rachel Lawes: Is it? I haven’t seen it.
Alison Jones: Yes, Practical Inspiration Helen Beedham’s Future of Time won one. So I got to see one up close and personal. We’ve won a few over the years. So they are very lovely.
Rachel Lawes: Oh, wow. Let’s have a look.
Alison Jones: Look at that. It’s real. It’s huge, isn’t it? It’s very highly polished.
Rachel Lawes: Look at the size of it.
Alison Jones: For those not watching this. Rachel’s kind of holding it up and you can sort of see me reflected in her screen, reflected in the award.
Rachel Lawes: Look at the majesty.
Alison Jones: Oh, I mean, it’s blinding. There I am look, I can see me.
Rachel Lawes: It’s very big and shiny. It’s big. It’s bigger than my head.
Alison Jones: You could do someone a serious mischief with that.
Rachel Lawes: That is fantastic. Well, that’s great. That’s going to look really nice in the background on Zoom meetings.
Alison Jones: Congratulations. It’s so exciting to have been part of it, so thank you for letting me share that. That’s brilliant.
Rachel Lawes: Oh, well thank you and thanks very much to the Business Book Awards for giving it to me. I was genuinely astonished because, well, over the years, I’ve been a marketer for 25 years or something ridiculous, and I’ve not been in the habit of applying for awards because I’m just busy all the time, you know?
And my publisher more or less insisted that I had to apply. So I’m very grateful to them for making me do that. And I’m very grateful to the Business Book Awards for actually giving me an award. So you can imagine how surprised I was.
I was just like, oh really? Do I have to fill out this form? Really? They were like, yes, you do. Fill out the form and enter the awards. And then I was absolutely amazed when I won. I was astonished. I couldn’t have been any more surprised.
Alison Jones: Well, I’m really interested in the reason for that astonishment, because it’s an extraordinarily well-written and useful and thoughtful book.
Is it the fact that it has the word semiotics in the title that tends to put people off that is sort of making you so astonished? Or is it just natural humility?
Rachel Lawes: Humility is not something I’m especially known for. No, I think that semiotics, 20-25 years ago, semiotics was a word that people found a bit alarming because they didn’t know what it meant. And I suppose qualitative researchers were wondering if it was going to put them out of a job, and designers and advertisers were like, why is this person telling us what to do and encroaching on our territory? And then people in management didn’t know how they were supposed to incorporate it into the market research mix. So 25 years ago it was an alarming word.
These days, I think it’s a very familiar word and is quite a growth industry within marketing. So a lot of brands are using it worldwide and there are more practitioners now of semiotics than there ever have been. So that’s not in itself why I was surprised.
I guess I was just surprised because I just, as I said, I didn’t really have any history of applying for prizes and awards and stuff, you know. You know what I mean? Just because there’s only one of me and I’m spending 90% of my time at work and 90% of that time is I’m serving my clients and making their brands more profitable. You know what I mean?
And then once in a while, I can take time out to write. And that leaves no time at all really for anything else. And when I say anything else, that includes applying for things, prizes and stuff like that. So I just had no history of doing it. And so that’s why I just didn’t know. I didn’t know what my chances were. I didn’t know how many other people would be involved, it seemed like other people had written good books. I didn’t know anything about the awards process.
I say all that, I’m actually a judge on the Market Research Society Awards, so I appreciate the amount of work that the judges have to put into this. So, that’s why I’m very thankful to them as well for giving me this thing because I realize the amount of effort that they have to make to make those awards happen.
Alison Jones: Oh yes, absolutely.
Rachel Lawes: But as a participant or an applicant, or whatever the word is, I just had no experience at all and that’s why I had no expectation of winning. And then I just about fell off my chair when my publisher contacted me the next day and said, you won Sales and Marketing.
Alison Jones: There’s about 18 points I want to pick back up on in there, it’s so interesting, but let’s start with, you might think that semiotics is now a word that is in everyday parlance for most of the population. I don’t think it is. So for those who are going, well, I don’t know what it means, could you just give us the kind of idiots guide, you know, Semiotics 101, what is it and how’s it used in marketing?
Rachel Lawes: Yes, for sure, for sure. So there’s the business end of things, right? Which is, the way that I like to start is by talking about colour, because it’s by far the easiest aspect of semiotics for people to understand, right? It’s the entry point for just about everybody with semiotics.
So everyone’s noticed that Coca-Cola is red and Pepsi is blue, and also everybody noticed that CocaCola seems to have the advantage over Pepsi in terms of sales and branding. So red is a very… a color that’s loaded with meaning all over the world.
It means different things in different parts of the world. We’re all aware that in China it means good luck and, over in the West it means a whole bunch of things like sex and energy and power.
Alison Jones: And danger.
Rachel Lawes: And danger and urgency. And it also means things like, number one, the original and the best, right?
So it’s got loads and loads of positive meanings going for it. Not just positive, but very assertive meanings, you know? Almost borderline aggressive meanings.
Alison Jones: Yes, high energy.
Rachel Lawes: You know, very assertive, bold, high energy stuff, right. Really great for any brand that wants to claim that it has always been here. It has always been number one, monolithic brands like God, you know, it’s always been here, it’s everywhere. It’s never going away. It’s the original and the only one you even need to think about.
Alison Jones: They’ve even linked it to Father Christmas.
Rachel Lawes: That’s right. That’s semiotics right there.
And then Pepsi, which is blue. It’s famously the case that in these blind taste tests that people actually like Pepsi more. They like the taste of Pepsi more than they like Coke. But in terms of branding, Pepsi finds it hard to compete. And one reason for that is this blue color, which is not that common in beverages.
But if you think about brands and their logos, is widely used in health and technology. So you could think about IBM, the NHS, Barclays Bank, all those kinds of organizations that want to inspire trust, reliability and I guess a sense of authority. Blue is a great color for that, but not so much for selling fizzy pop.
So that is the real kind of explain-like-I’m-five access point to semiotics for business people, but there’s so much more to it than that.
You know, the reason why I do semiotics is not necessarily the same reason as why my clients want me to do it for them. So the reason why academics do semiotics, and the reason why I do semiotics is because it’s not just about, oh, isn’t that interesting? Red means sex and power, and blue means trust.
It’s about understanding something about humans, about different cultures around the world, about what shapes our chosen behaviour. And it’s about understanding culture in the sense of the way we live now. Why is society like it is? And this way that we live now, why are we like that?
So for me, my PhD is in psychology and I’m never going to stop being interested in these questions about our changing world and our place within it as humans. Questions, big questions about the human condition. That is why I do semiotics.
And then my clients will say, this is great, and when you finish telling us what color to do our packaging, can you also help us think about new opportunities for innovation? How can we bring new segments of consumers on board? And so on and so on. And that’s where it gets really exciting.
Alison Jones: And what you just touched on there actually is so interesting because it really encompasses the range that I noticed when I was reading the book and which really surprised me, I’ve got to say, because I thought it was going to be really quite technical application of tactics that you can use in marketing to give your brand an advantage.
And it’s all of that, and, talk about the future of humanity and there’s this sort of broader sense of, almost anthropology and significance and it’s just fascinating. And I was really interested from, I guess from an editorial point of view, how the hell you manage that scope and then how you structure the thing and keep it speaking to its core audience while still giving them that sort of glimpse of something so profound.
Rachel Lawes: Oh, thank you. That’s very kind of you to say so. It was a book which managed itself, it would’ve been more difficult to manage if I’d tried to keep it small. But it was a, you’ve probably heard lots of authors say this, right? It was a book that wanted to be written and my only job was to deliver it.
You know what I’m saying?
Alison Jones: Yes. things just burn in the back of the brain.
Rachel Lawes: It was just ready to be born and all I had to do was assist at the birth process. That was it really, you know?
Alison Jones: Well, you say that.
Rachel Lawes: I guess, having said that, I’m going to say that my ideas about this book changed about halfway through, much to the great alarm of my publisher.
So when we first set out, I was in fact planning to write a book, which is of a smaller scope, more predictable. So, here are some tactics that you can use in store. And in fact all the stuff that you see in the first half of the book, which I know is useful and people do want that from me. I know that because they ask me about it all the time.
But then a number of things happened while I was writing. Notably I realized that to write about shopping is to write about humans and their psychology, and also that to write about retail and business, inevitably to write about the future and that I could not ignore the future, and that the world we live in is changing extremely rapidly thanks to digital culture. And it seemed to me that I had some kind of a responsibility to tell this story about where we’re heading.
And then in the middle of all that as well, I developed a huge shopping addiction, just to keep things really interesting. So the book kind of changed direction and is a better book as a result, but it’s certainly larger in scope and yes, but honestly, it kind of decided itself what it wanted to be.
Alison Jones: And let us into the sort of the back channel of the conversation with the publisher around that, ‘you know this really straightforward book I was writing about marketing tactics…’ How did you frame that conversation?
Rachel Lawes: Yes, well actually we’re going in another direction now. But I think it’s a better book as a result. It would’ve been a useful book, but now it’s, you know, I mean, I’ve written two editions of my first book plus this one, and this one on retail is my personal favorite because it asks those really big, complex questions and explores a lot of interesting stories about humans, you know.
Alison Jones: It really does. And it also, as you say, that sort of personal element of, you know, oh, I’m not particularly interested in shopping. Oh wait, it turns out I’m completely addicted. That sort of personal insight running through it was really interesting.
Rachel Lawes: Oh my God. It was really a journey of discovery. I learned a lot about technology, about China. I learned a lot about why people around the world are so unhappy about what’s going on, why have we got a global pandemic of mental health problems. Yes, I learned quite a few things about myself. It was a really interesting rollercoaster of a writing journey.
Alison Jones: Somebody needs to make a film of you writing this book, but tell me a little bit about your process as well. I mean, you say you just had to birth it, which everybody who’s written a book is sort of going, I kind of know what you mean. And also, it’s not that simple, is it, Rachel? So tell us about your actual writing process. What tools, systems do you use? What’s your method?
Rachel Lawes: There is a method which I will use every time no matter what I’m writing about, no matter what the subject matter is.
So I’m not somebody who makes things up as they go along, you know? I’m very much… I like structure and I like to write from the top down. So if I’ve got a contract to write something new, you know, my very first question is going to be: what’s the word count on this?
Alison Jones: Yes.
Rachel Lawes: That’s what I want to know first, because honestly, I’m getting older here. I haven’t got time to waste writing stuff that’s not going to get into print. So I don’t need to be doing discovery writing for six months at a time, especially when I’ve got a business to run. So I’m going to want to know what’s the word count, so what are we aiming for?
Let’s say it’s 80,000 words. Okay, well that sounds to me like it’s going to be about 12 chapters. And then I’ll decide on an overall story to tell across 12 chapters. So originally when I started that book on retail, I thought I was going to tell the story, it was going to be about, broadly about, how shopping and retail looks viewed from the point of view of the consumer, and then how it looks from the point of view of the business, especially the retail marketer. That was the plan really.
But then as I was writing, I discovered that also consumers, for the most part, live in the present day. Because they don’t have many choices to do otherwise, many other options. Whereas businesses are very future focused and they have a lot of power to change and shape the future because they’ve got money and they’ve got business structures and logistics and they can make things happen. So that’s when I realized that I was writing about the present day and the future.
But the process is the same. You know, you just kind of put a large story together, like the one-sentence pitch that you could divide broadly over 12 chapters, and then I’ll divide those 12 chapters into usually four sections. So we’ve got like, you know, three chapters each per section. Figure out what kind of theme or topic do I want to address per section, divide that into chapters. Remember, I know the word length of everything at this point. All the chapters are going to be the same length. Divide the chapters into sections and divide the sections into a number of paragraphs. And that’s what I mean by working from the top down. And all of that will go into Trello, because I like project management tools.
So all of that will happen in Trello and then I’ll simultaneously use Trello as a kind of pin board for collecting resources. So, as I’m doing all of this, I’m reading a lot.
So when I realized that I was writing a book about the future, I stopped writing and read about 40 books about the technology of the future. I had to tell Kogan Page, don’t worry, it’s going to be fine. It’s all going to be fine, but I’m just going to stop writing for about a month because I need to read all this stuff. So as I’m reading, I’ll capture things I think are important and just put them in the right bit on the Trello board so that I know which part of my story they’re pertinent to. And then I’ll just essentially just write it piece by piece, not necessarily in the same order that it appears in the book.
Usually, to be honest with you, I’ll begin by writing the stuff that I personally think is the most engaging because it gets my energy up.
I’ll do the fun bits first, honestly, I mean, it’s all fun, of course, but I’ll find the bits that I’m personally the most excited about and do that first because it gets my energy up and it helps me to discover the bit of fire, which is really essential. And then that will smoulder throughout the whole rest of the book.
That’s what you’re aiming for.
Alison Jones: It’s a masterclass in how you just go about the workman-like job of putting a book together. Absolutely love that. You’ve got your system which is Trello and it means you’ve got somewhere to put stuff that you find, which is… if you’re trying to rely on bits of paper around the house, you’re doomed, aren’t you? I mean, or you’re just kind of having things on your bookmark bar and you’ve got that top-down sense of when you sit down to write the piece that you’re going to write on, you know, X topic, you know how many words that’s going to be and therefore you know when you’re finished and what the scope needs to be and how it fits with everything else.
Rachel Lawes: And I deliver a manuscript that exactly does what it says on the tin. So if I say I’m going to deliver a book of 12 chapters that is 80,000 words, that’s exactly what you will get.
Alison Jones: How does that differ from academic writing?
Rachel Lawes: I used exactly the same process for doing my PhD. That’s how I learned how to write a book.
Alison Jones: That’s so interesting.
Rachel Lawes: So my doctoral thesis was just the same length, actually yes, it was 80,000 words. Same length.
Alison Jones: Yes, a normal monograph length.
Rachel Lawes: Yes, just the same length. Well, 80,000 is really like the length of a, well, it’s the length of both my books, so yes, there you go. So that’s how I wrote my PhD.
At that time, I was a lot younger and less experienced with writing, and the stakes felt very high because, you know, it’s a situation where you’re going to be examined on what you’ve written and so forth. And so it was quite a stressful experience. But then when it came time to write a book for Kogan Page, 20 years later, I was like, oh yes, I know what to do. I’ve done this before. You just make a plan and divide it up into chunks and write it from the top down, and then that way you don’t waste any effort. When I was younger, I used to write a lot of stuff and I didn’t do anything with it, you know?
And I’m not going to live to be 10,000 years old, so I’d rather just write material that someone’s actually going to use. So top-down writing works for me because it’s a very economical way to write.
Alison Jones: They do say that no plan survives contact with reality for very long. And you’ve already talked about how you realized as you were writing that you had to change.
So just tell us about that balance between having a structure that allows you to keep going, but also holding it lightly enough that you can adapt it as you go.
Rachel Lawes: Well, the process that I’ve described, you can use that for writing any book of 80,000 words, on any topic at all, you know, so what I’m describing really was just a kind of shift of focus.
At first I thought, I knew it was going to be about retail and shopping. At first I thought I was going to write a book which talked about shopping and consumers and what’s going on when they’re shopping. Followed by some stuff about businesses and how they think about retail marketing. And about halfway along there was a shift of focus and I realized that actually that wasn’t it.
That I was writing about the present day, and then I was writing about the future, and then it became a much better, more interesting book.
Alison Jones: So was it just a matter of updating the Trello board?
Rachel Lawes: Yes, it was. Oh my God. We went through, yes, that Trello board was updated on a daily basis, but the structure of the thing didn’t alter. It was really just a form and content question. The form of it really didn’t alter at all, what altered was the content, but because the structure’s quite robust you can put any content in there. But yes, there was a point where I had to stop writing and just read everything I could get my hands on regarding technology in the future, which my publisher was a bit like, are you sure, can we do this on time? You’re going to be okay with meeting the deadlines? I was like, yes, don’t worry. I’m a fast reader.
Alison Jones: And it’s interesting isn’t it, because there are some people for whom that would be an absolute disaster. They were off down a rabbit hole and you’re never going to get them back.
Rachel Lawes: Oh man. It was the best bit.
Alison Jones: Well, my next question to you actually was going to be what do you love most about it? What do you enjoy about writing?
Rachel Lawes: Reading, reading. The best bit about writing is reading. Do you know, it’s just so great because as you probably guessed by now, I’m kind of a workaholic. I said earlier I’m at work 90% of the time and 90% of that time I’m doing work for my clients.
Because that’s what pays the bills, pays the mortgage, and I love it, you know, I’m in this really happy situation where I get to pick and choose who I work for and what kind of projects I do. So I’m always working on something interesting. However, I’m always working on somebody else’s interesting thing.
And so when I finally started to write books, which I could have done it a lot earlier, but I just waited until I was really ready. I found myself in a situation where, an amazing situation, where I can go like, all right then, well, I’m basically just going to close shop for let’s say four months. And I kind of write things that are interesting to me.
Alison Jones: Yes.
Rachel Lawes: And this is where I get to do the project that I want to do. And it’s like doing, a bit like doing a self-funded market research project. So the books I’ve written have all been written during the summertime when business is a bit quieter in the summer anyway normally, so I would just say, well, that’s it, if you want to do business with me, you’re going to have to wait till September because I’m closing the business basically, essentially closing it for four months and then it’s like being a student again. It’s intoxicating. You feel drunk on freedom, you know you’ve got four months where your only job is to figure out what is interesting to you, what makes you want to get up in the morning? What are the books that you think are so exciting that you just cannot put them down? Where your only job is to read your heart out for four months and write about what it makes you think about the world. What a treat. That’s the best bit.
Alison Jones: If anybody’s reading this and thinking, oh, is it worth it? I mean, that’s like a shot of adrenaline, isn’t it? It’s just that if you look at it that way, look at it as a sort of almost like it’s self-indulgence and self-development all kind of mixed into this glorious project that you do.
Rachel Lawes: Yes, it’s amazing. Imagine if you could just do anything you wanted. It’s that.
Alison Jones: This is what you do. Brilliant.
If you could give somebody who’s kind of maybe hesitating on the side at the moment, not quite sure whether to plunge in, or maybe they’ve plunged in and they feel like they may be drowning a little bit in the whole kind of book-writing thing, what would be your tip for them?
Rachel Lawes: Top tips? I think my biggest tip is that you must care passionately about your subject matter. Because if you don’t really care, there are so many business books out there, frankly, that are written by people who are not really committed to the subject matter. If you’re thinking that you want to write a book because you’ll make some money out of book sales, you just forget that idea right now, okay.
You’re not going to make any money out of book sales. Those days are a long, long way in the past, right? So just don’t, don’t, and in any case if you’re just writing a book because you think you can make some money out of it, readers are not stupid, they can tell. They’re not going to be happy with you when they find out that you just wrote a long commercial for yourself.
Alison Jones: A big sales piece.
Rachel Lawes: And again, if you’re just writing a book because you’re trying to drum up business, just honestly, why don’t you just make life a bit easier on yourself and just make an ad? Just place an ad, it’ll be a lot quicker and ultimately cheaper because you’re not going to be un-waged for four months while you’re writing. Like, why would you torture yourself if your only interest is to generate more business. So just don’t, don’t, these are not good reasons for writing a book.
There’s only one good reason for writing a book, and that is because you care passionately about telling this story that you want to tell. That’s it. That’s the only reason there is. And if you feel it that much, that you’re willing to go without pay for four months and suffer and age 10 years and deal with all the many frustrations of the publishing process, if you are willing to do that to yourself. It’s because you’ve got a story that has to be told, that you just can’t sleep at night until you’ve got it off your chest.
And if you really care about it that much, that book will write itself and it will be the best thing that ever happens to you.
Alison Jones: Amazing. Thank you. And you’ve read a lot of books recently. I know this now. So would you like to recommend us one?
Rachel Lawes: Yes, I’m just going to pick one. And it actually wasn’t one of the many books on technology in the future that I read in preparation for writing this book on retail, although I read some terrific ones. But if we’re going to, I think there’s a difference between business books and books which happen to be written by business people.
So if we’re talking classic business books, I’m actually going to recommend a book that I read a really long time ago, which was Blue Ocean Strategy. Back in 2004 which is Renee, let me see, Mauborgne, I’ve probably pronounced that terribly wrong. And W. Chan Kim. And it’s a really famous book as you know.
And I read it at a time when I was, I’ve had my business for over 21 years now, and I was going through a period where I didn’t know what direction I wanted to go in with the business, and I guess I was feeling kind of insecure about it. And so I went on holiday, which is the only sensible thing to do in a crisis. And went to Spain and sat on a sunlounger next to a pool and read Blue Ocean Strategy, and it gave me a lot of courage because it…
Alison Jones: …you realized you were in the Red Ocean mindset.
Rachel Lawes: Yes, yes, because it’s for those who haven’t read it, it’s just telling you that look, in your industry or the category that you work in, you’ve got loads of competitors and they’re all fighting over the same thing because they haven’t got any new ideas and they don’t know what else to do.
And so, of course you feel insecure and anxious, if you and like a bunch of other sharks are all fighting over the same small pieces of meat. So, just give yourself permission to have new ideas.
Alison Jones: Move into the Blue Ocean
Rachel Lawes: And move into a Blue Ocean and start doing some things that nobody’s done before. And I know it’s easy to say, but I found it quite liberating.
And you know, the classic example in that book is Cirque de Soleil, and how they revolutionized the idea of circuses. So circuses had previously been about lion and tigers and this and that. And the example in Blue Ocean Strategy is that, well, they got rid of the lions and the elephants and they made a sort of hybrid circus performance with ballet. I mean, I have a hard time believing that the people at Cirque de Soleil sat down and thought that using a committee, because why would you? It’s like, honestly, ballet is a very middle class thing. It hasn’t got that much of an audience. It’s like opera. It’s got loyalists, but it hasn’t got that much of a global audience, you know?
If you’re sitting down to design a business that was going to appeal to as many people as possible, ballet is not the number one thing I would put in it, you know, so I find it hard to believe that Cirque de Soleil was designed in a rational way by a committee. It feels like it’s just what somebody wanted to do.
Alison Jones: Yes.
Rachel Lawes: Somebody just wanted to do it. In the same way that I just wanted to write a book about the future. So I wrote a book about the future, and that’s what I got from Blue Ocean Strategy. Just, honestly, just have courage and identify what it is that you want to do more than anything else. What would you do if there was nothing stopping you? Just do that and you’ll be fine. There you go, that’s my top tip.
Alison Jones: And it’s a lovely counterbalance to the very rational tactics that you outline in the book as well. It’s like, you do all this stuff, this is sensible and these are things that you can do that will improve your brand and your awareness and the response that you get from people and there’s this really intuitive human element to it as well, which I find very refreshing.
Rachel Lawes: Yes, and what I know is that, I’ve been in the semiotics business since it was a very, very new thing and I was one of only three practitioners in the UK when I first started out. And there was a lot of scepticism and there was a lot of, honestly, there was no reason to think really that it was going to launch successfully.
So many people had sceptical questions like, how this all sounds very subjective, and how do we know you’re not just making it up? And what’s all this nonsense about culture? And we’re perfectly fine doing surveys, thanks very much, and all this type of thing. And so I just used to talk about semiotics, the way I’ve been talking to you about it this morning, and enthusing and telling interesting stories about humans and shopping and where are we going as a society, and people started to give me work, and that’s been my only method of promoting the business since the day I started. It’s just that now I do it in book form, you know?
Alison Jones: And it can reach more people.
Rachel Lawes: Yes, exactly. So I think that’s my tip to anybody. Just identify what it is that you want to do more than anything else, and just be passionate and excited and committed. And just shine. Let it shine. And then people will come to you and give you their money.
Alison Jones: You heard it here. If people want to find out more about you, more about the work you do, more about the books you’ve written. Where should they go?
Rachel Lawes: LinkedIn is a good place to look me up. LinkedIn is a good place to check me out, not because I post on there all the time, but because, although I do sometimes, I sometimes just post amusing pictures from my desk and stuff like that, but also because it’s a great way to find out where I’m appearing.
So I do a lot of conference speaking, and different types of events, digital events, live events. I do dozens of these things each year. So lectures, I do a lot of guest lecturing. If you’re an academic and you’re listening to this and I can probably be persuaded to come and talk to your students. So yes, I do a whole lot of that type of thing.
So LinkedIn is a great way to find out what’s on, where am I appearing this season and how you can get a ticket?
Alison Jones: Who’s your supporting act…. brilliant.
Rachel, it’s been an absolute joy talking to you. Thank you for unboxing for us. Thank you for sharing your really, really practical stuff and the hugely energizing and inspiring stuff as well. I really appreciate it.
Rachel Lawes: Awesome. Okay. Thanks very much for having me on the show.