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I found two recent articles about two radically different corporate practices to be indicative of a fundamental divide in how brands conduct themselves in the public sphere.  Or more accurately, are seen to conduct themselves.


The first story was a New York Times feature on the dating site O.K. Cupid, which in my taxonomy is a White Box company. The reporter writes about their blog, where the company throws open the door and exposes some of the statistical insights that power their dating algorithm.  "These entertaining and potentially useful results of {their} number-crunching" are exemplary of the kind of transparency that is so au courant in branding circles.


Check it out the blog and you’ll see some charts and graphs that look like they were cut and pasted from statistics textbooks, with explanatory copy like:


"As you can see below, the number of online daters peaks at 24, drops sharply at around 30, and then gradually tapers off, as the remaining singletons either find mates or withdraw themselves from contention." 


It’s spun as an open-kimono approach that’s fully in cultural synch with open-source movement and the whole notion that a brand’s authenticity increases in a linear fashion with the level of its willingness to expose.  A hip new kind of Folies Bergère attitude that’s in stark contrast to a more Victorian form of brand repression.


The other story, which showed up in the Wall Street Journal, was about the literal "black box" that sits inside millions of Toyota vehicles, in the same way that airlines have their own so-called "event data recorders."


This device is a gold-mine of diagnostic data, with information about "vehicle and engine speeds as well as brake, accelerator and throttle positions and other data that can help determine the causes of accidents."


The trouble is, this hieroglyphic is only decipherable by Toyota itself.    In the past, way before the recall, attorneys litigating against Toyota "have butted heads over access to its black-box data, or have gotten data from the company that sheds little light on the causes of the crashes at issue."

Interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly to some, GM, Ford and Chrysler – at least in this area – are White Box companies. Their event data recorders are an open book, and can be read with "commercially available tools."  This double black box – literal and metaphorical – will prove to b a big problem for Toyota.

Unsurprisingly, companies and the CEOs who lead them have been trained in a Black Box mindset.  The paradigm of this approach is the legend – whether apocryphal or not doesn’t matter – about the secret Coca-Cola recipe that’s locked in a vault in Atlanta.   Business schools spend hours teaching their adepts about how to create and maintain proprietary competitive advantages.  

This Black Box orientation makes companies skittish about revealing any of their clockwork mechanisms to the public.  It even makes them reluctant to use Twitter in any kind of revealing way – as the way Zappos does, for example – because any glimpse into the brand’s "real" feelings is a violation of a conventional code of conduct.  And Japanese companies - of which Toyota is the premier example – are culturally inclined to be desperately insular.

By comparison, White Box companies seem so friendly, so accessible, so trusting.  They support the mists of hype created by an army of "Transparecists" like Andy Beal, who is the co-author of "Radically Transparent" and is quoted in the Times article.

But is this "Enter Here" signed nailed on the company front door just a brand gesture, a marketing ploy?  Sure, O.K. Cupid is putting some statistics out on their blog that have been collected from user behavior – and this ostensibly will allow their customers to become more successful at mate-finding – but they’re not exactly letting competitors into their sanctum sanctorum.

The media frenzy around transparency is overstating the difference between the Boxes.  Giving consumers a peek into one tiny room of your corporate house, or letting them feel "empowered" by dreaming up Superbowl commercials or the name for your next candy bar, is just Folies Bergère transparency.  

I do think, though, that there are fundamental differences between White Box and Black Box organizations.  And I’d like to see more of it.  For example, I’d like to see Citibank show consumers how much money they’ve paid lobbyists to fight the Obama administration’s effort to restrict aggressive credit card practices.  Sure that’s going to be painful.  But unless it really hurts, it isn’t really White.