Why marketers are like Hong Kong’s compulsive elevator button pushers

Dave McCaughanIn this guest post, Dave McCaughan suggests that the practices of many marketers in Asia have come to resemble the habit among Hongkongers to frantically stab the close button in elevators.

So I am guessing that if you have lived in a few cities in a few countries, as I have, then there many things you love about them, and a few that really niggle. There are many things I will miss about Hong Kong. Favourite restaurants (The Red Pepper, The American, Posto Publico, Olive), a few pints at Smugglers on a nice evening, most of all hiking in the hills.

Hong Kong is really one of the great cities of the world for getting outside and getting some exercise. But (there is always a but) now that I have very recently left Hong Kong a thought about something that really bugs me: the misconceptions of what is efficiency and that damn “close” button in elevators.

If you have lived in that fine city then you know what I mean. For reasons that make no sense people in Hong Kong are obsessed with the close button. I can not remember getting into an elevator and someone not hitting it. Whether the door was already closing, whether people were still walking toward the door, whether I was standing right next to it. I have read articles about the habit in the newspapers, I have written about it elsewhere myself. I have asked dozens of people about it and it is always just as annoying.

Button pushersNow I know I have allowed it to get to me. Who really cares about elevator doors? However it is symptomatic of a much larger issue. The misunderstanding that Hong Kong lives under that it is efficient if it is fast. That in turn leads me to think about how marketers mistake speed for service and quality. Stay with me on this…

I was bought up with an elevator etiquette that said that when you entered you pressed the button for the floor you want then stepped to the back and wait for the door to close. If you saw someone approaching it was ok to lean forward and hold the open button. You never touched the close button. Afterall it would automatically close after a few seconds anyway. and to press the close button was just being pushy. And a waste of effort as, again, everyone knows all elevators today automatically close. Leave it to the machine to do the work for you and save the energy. That after all is why we have machines, to save us the effort and allow us to be more efficient.

Of course elevator etiquette differs.

When I lived in Japan I noticed that a lot of people would enter and stand near the button panel and then hit the close button when all others seemed to be in. After a while I found out it was considered courtesy to do so, and as a senior member of the company I was working at I was not expected to do the door opening/closing as that was for someone “more junior”. It was still annoying to me -“just leave the door to automatically close” I would mumble anyway. I would try little tricks like standing next to panel just to watch how people react. Today that is trendily called a social experiment. I was just doing it to see what people did. Being Japanese most looked at me awkwardly, puzzled as to the breach of the status quo.

But in HK it takes on a whole new level. I have been pushed out of the way, had people reach around me from all angles, seen others shoulder each other out of the way to be the one who hits the close button. On a quick sample of 100 occasions earlier this year people hit the close button before their floor destination over 40 times. And on six of those times they forgot to press their destination floor number all together.

The fanaticism goes to punching the close button endlessly from the second you enter the elevator until well after the doors are closed (guys the elevator reacts to the first push, all other effort after that is the opposite of efficient, it is a waste of energy!) , to hitting it while the doors are already closing.

So I started to ask all sorts of people “why”. The answers usually fell into three groups :

– For some it was simply a case of “I always do that because I always do it” or the ‘it’s just normal’ defence.

– A second group claim “my mother/father/friends/colleagues always have done it so i thought it was normal” or the ‘i am just following orders’ defence.

– Then there is “I am just being more efficient” line which is a defence all on its own

So gaining three seconds on the automatic closing is efficient? Closing the door before that person who is eight feet away can get a hand inside is efficient? Hitting the close button before people are half out the door is efficient?

As I interrogated people about this (yes, the researcher in me could not help himself) what i discovered was that people were using the word efficient when they meant being faster. Now put aside the number of times I have seen people pumping the button in a panic at every stop and then when they get out themselves they saunter along the hall way.

What really struck me was that “efficiency” was actually a means of sounding efficient. When really they meant speed.

And there is a difference.

In HK, I have noticed people often, usually, confuse the two. Efficiency is about doing something in as little time as possible, with the least effort to get to the best possible result. It is a formulation that takes into account three things : time taken, effort taken, quality of result. You might say I should include cost of effort and you would be right but again don’t confuse getting something done fast as necessarily saving money.

Too often in today’s world we see “speed” being used as a false measure of achieving a good result. In HK efficiency is often used as the national signature. A contradiction when most people work incredibly long hours and seem to always be tired. Worker exhaustion does not seem like a viable result of efficiency.

Now think about this and the broader world of marketing. It strikes me that too many marketers are now “pushing the elevator button”. They are in such a hurry to close the deal, make the sale, get the result that they are far from being efficient. Instead on focusing on quality of service that means people will never have a problem they try to get potential customers to move on fast. And I guess they hope that once that door is closed all will be forgotten.

We hear and see a lot of examples of marketers (and especially their various agencies) believing that they need to keep pushing out new promotions, special deals and sales in order to keep people from trying something else. And the belief is that turn around must be fast … “because people in HK get bored fast”. So the answer to not being interesting to is to throw out even more deals.

Hmm, does that sound like a lack of faith in the brand?

Dave McCaughan is a writer, speaker and researcher. He is the former APAC strategy director of McCann Worldgroup.


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