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What Makes You… You?

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I’ve been working on this post for quite some time. It’s purely conceptual in nature and I’m unsure of where it will go or even what it means to a degree. It’s just something that’s been mulling around in my brain for a while and I’m trying to figure out if it’s valid or valuable or if I should just move on.

My wife who is my de facto editor for most of my posts said that while she liked the general gist of this post that it seemed pompous. Great, so I’m an asshole. Well hopefully you won’t see this post as pompous but reflect on yourselves and what makes you… well you. Hopefully, you’re not an asshole.

“Human DNA consists of about 3 billion bases, and more than 99 percent of those bases are the same in all people. The order, or sequence, of these bases determines the information available for building and maintaining an organism, similar to the way in which letters of the alphabet appear in a certain order to form words and sentences.”

So where does culture fit into the mix of your DNA? Is there such a thing as cultural DNA? If you google cultural DNA there are several views of what it might be.  There doesn’t seem to be any real consensus and it’s a term that seems to be applied to a myriad of things from corporate culture to the content of one’s character and more. I’d like to apply this term to people as individuals and how you’re “defined” as it relates to marketing, advertising, brand choice and purchasing decisions.

In the marketing universe typically we bucket consumers. And we bucket them as simply as possible to ensure that we reach the greatest number of people. Age, Gender, Race, Geography, Household Income. Occasionally we’ll create custom segmentations and create fancy names for those segmentations and it’s all very clever and smart. We’ll do focus groups and ethnographies in the interest of getting to know “you”.

But what really makes you… you?

I like to think of consumers as a little bit more complex.

If you think about it everyone has what I’d like to think of as cultural DNA. It’s the what makes you… you.

I’ll use myself as an example.

I myself would say that I’m defined by at least 20 different cultures/sub-cultures/communities built up throughout my exposure to a variety of people and experiences throughout my life. This would include, Black culture specifically as it relates to the Civil Rights movement, Beat Generation writers, 60s drug culture, 80s preppy culture, 80s punk culture, early action sports culture, traditional sports culture, feminist culture, Italian-American culture, gay culture, Higher Ed Academia, NYC prep-school culture (yes it’s a culture) and so on. Then you throw in things like birth order and family legacy and things get even more complicated.

Put another way one way you could define a part of me is by my design sensibilities. I would say that I’m more “Dwell” then “Architectural Digest”. If I were to try and understand why I would guess that it was most closely related to my grandfather who was an architect who studied under Mies Van Der Rohe. Thus it’s very likely that my grandfathers design esthetic influenced my design sensibilities and in turn to this day influences purchase decisions related to various brands I migrate to.

Now what happens when you take the complexity I’ve discussed and two interesting people end up bearing children, their kids end up amassing the cultural DNA from both of their parents in addition to the cultural DNA they continually amass from external sources and sub-cultures.

And thus even more interesting and complex people are hatched.

So I guess the question is how do we take this and make it useful. Help.

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This is an extraordinarily complex post. There are two fundamental themes. The first is the notion of the changing means of how content is consumed. The second theme is that the notion of consolidation or “whole” really needs to give way to the notion of “fragmentation”.


Once upon a time we had three major networks. We came home from work. We watched the evening news. We ate dinner. Then we watched our shows. I literally grew up with M*A*S*H. MASH ran for 11 seasons beginning in 1972. So from about age 5 to about age 13 I would sit with my mom and step-father and watch MASH every week. I honestly cried during the last show.

Other shows I grew up with were “Different Strokes” (8 seasons), “Facts of Life” (9 seasons), “Dukes of Hazzard” (7 seasons), “Fall Guy” (5 seasons), “Magnum PI” (8 seasons) and of course “The Cosby Show” (8 seasons).

Hopefully, you’re starting to see a pattern. We used to “live” with TV shows. They were constants in our lives from season to season. We had relationships with these shows. Whether it was “St. Elsewhere” or “Hill Street Blues” we had prolonged relationships with shows and networks.

For the longest time every network followed a prescribed schedule. Then along came cable where repeats found new life and new audiences (or the same old ones). Then came FOX that started airing new shows when nobody else was. Then the Internet gradually began to turn things on its ear. Yet for some reason in the world of media planning and buying we still have a TV upfront.

I’ve known for quite some time that that the nature of TV shows and the way we watch them has been changing. I believe this to be a geologic change though. One in which we don’t necessarily see it happening. We make minor adaptations but there has yet to be a seismic shift.

That however I believe is coming. I’m not sure what it looks like. I’m not sure exactly when it will happen. Five years? Ten years? That’s where perhaps you can all lend a voice to predict or pontificate.

I believe that we are on the cusp of something and we need a much deeper understanding of people’s relationship with content.

What do we watch on which screen and why? Where does each “screen” fall as it relates to the trade-off of fidelity versus convenience? What is content we share versus content we commiserate about versus content we talk about at the water cooler?

We used to watch shows on a specific night. Now we may DVR a show and watch it on a different night. We may wait altogether and watch a whole season in weeks courtesy of Netflix. We may watch a show one week with friends and the next week online and the third week via a smartphone waiting at an airport.

Nevertheless, networks continue to present shows the same way all the time.

About a year ago, I watched Ken Block’s second iteration of Gymkhana.

No this isn’t Kurt Thomas’ attempt to extend his 15 minutes of fame and woeful acting skills on the heels of his early ‘80s film Gymkata. I’m talking about the founder of DC Shoes and his foray into the world of rally racing, stunt driving and the next generation of drifting.

Ken Block is a phenomenally intuitive marketer. Certainly as evidenced by his savvy in building DC Shoes into arguably one of the strongest action sports brands ever. Perhaps second only to Burton. Maybe it’s that no one felt comfortable to tell him the rules. Or he wasn’t listening anyway. Whatever it is, he knows right when he sees it.

Gymkhana 1 was originally posted about three years ago and between various posters of the video, it garnered over nine million views. Not too shabby. No doubt it was professionally shot at every level and Ken Block has money to throw at these things. Although, I’m pretty sure he’s mastered the art of OPM.

But then he came out with Gymkhana 2 (22m views). And Gymkhana 3 (25m views).

Nevertheless, while most create :60 spots and hope they’ll find viral traction on Youtube, Ken Block did it on purpose! And I know lots of people will say, “come on, we did that.” Tampax, Dove, Cadillac. Blah Blah Blah. I don’t think anyone has done it as well AND on purpose as Ken Block.

In Gymkhana 2, the video is 7 minutes and 32 seconds. They even call it an infomercial. At the beginning of the video note the following:

Bloody Brilliant.

How many people are choosing to watch your spots?

Now let’s just take YouTube and content as a whole. Consider this from the ADWEEK article by Brian Morrissey about “YouTube’s Stars”.

“The dirty secret of cable TV is audience numbers are often pitifully small, with many programs drawing under 100,000 viewers. That’s not the case for a select group of YouTube creators… The numbers they draw can be staggering. Comic actor Shane Dawson averages nearly 1.5 million views per day, according to video analytics service TubeMogul, and has racked up 670 million views of his videos over two and a half years. The typical YouTube star will average 250,000 views per video. ‘On any given night or day or two, the top 10 YouTubers will have more views than any cable channel,’ says Walter Sabo, a former ABC radio executive who started an Internet talent agency three years ago called HitViews.”

iJustine pictured to the left has more than 1m subscribers. DC Shoes… 79k subscribers.

Take that Ken Block.

Then if you consider the competing market for Hulu from this AdAge article about a new web ad video player from the Tremor/Scanscout merger.

“Tremor Media, the largest independent network, reached a deal last week to acquire Scanscout, one of its smaller competitors, in a bold attempt to consolidate the market, and create a scaled competitor to Hulu and YouTube. Separately, Undertone Networks is expected to announce a deal Monday to buy Jambo Media, a video syndication and ad platform. Two weeks ago, Specific Media snapped up BBE, one of the first pure-play video networks in the market… TV advertisers are the ones moving most aggressively into web video, looking to achieve similar goals through it. ‘I think that has been one thing that has been missing for advertisers is the ability to deliver mass reach,’ said Chris Allen, VP-video innovations at Starcom USA. ‘A lot of our clients are married to the reach metric, and TV delivers reach as fast as possible. The only way to achieve that reach online is through a network.’”

Is the :60 spot going away? No.

Does broadcast deserve its dominance and to make all the money? Most definitely not. Arguably, they are the least removed from purchase behavior. Wouldn’t it make sense that I’d be more likely if I was online to then stay online to purchase something as opposed to going from one screen to another to do so?

Are “reach and frequency” dated analytics? Do they truly get at how we consume media and connect to purchase behavior?

Once upon a time people laughed at cable as a network contender. ESPN, 24 hour sports. It’ll never work. FOX could never take on the Big 3. 24 hour news? Don’t be silly. 24 hour weather? Please!

Is Comcast/NBC really that big of deal? Not really in my opinion.

Fragmentation is the world of today. Whole is the world of yesterday.

No matter how big Comcast/NBC make themselves, the reality is that when it comes to content, they are hardly the only game in town.


McCracken, Grant  “Chief Culture Officer: How to Curate a Living Breathing Corporation”, 2010

Maney, Kevin “Trade-Off: Why Some Things Catch On and Others Don’t” 2009


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What Makes Great Ads Great?

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Last year following the Super Bowl I wrote a post about what happened to Volkswagen?  It was in response to a tweet from Marty St. George the CMO of jetBlue following VWs lackluster Super Bowl spot. The ad was mildly entertaining but hardly that compelling.  It got me wondering about what makes great advertising, great.

As if to emphasize this even further, recently I had an interesting interaction with my 7 year old daughter. I was reading “Beezus and Ramona” to her.  Despite there being a recent movie about these two precocious sisters, the reality is the books are pretty old. In this passage there was a reference to one of the most famous Alka Seltzer commercials.  I read it as if from the commercial, “I can’t believe I ate that whole thing.” When we finished the passage I asked her if she’d like to see the original commercial, fairly confident we could find it on YouTube.  We found it and my daughter would laugh hysterically reenacting it over the course of the next several weeks.

Husband: “I can’t believe I ate that whole thing.”

Wife: “You ate it Ralph.”

Husband: “I can’t believe I ate that whole thing.”

Wife: “Take two Alka Seltzer.”

As she laughed to herself, it dawned on me, this was a great ad. Iconic even.  But why?

I think in this case it was less Ralph and more his wife. A subtlety that just worked.

As I did with the original VW post I think it’s important that we need to provide a simple rating system for the quality of ads.

I think it might look something like this. Let’s consider this a spectrum in which generally a lot of the same companies generally hover in the same area.

Legendary/Iconic is just that. It’s designated as once in a lifetime… we talk about it for generations. Think DDB’s VW “Think Small” ads, Arnold’s “Driver’s Wanted”,  Alka Seltzer’s “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing”, Apple’s “1984”, Coke’s “I’d like to buy the world a Coke”.

Great  means it stands out in the category and continually performs well and is stylistically imitated. For example Apple’s “Mac vs. PC” ads now being imitated by T-Mobile stand out in my mind. Another example would be Target. It’s really hard to say the impact Target’s brand ads have had on the industry let alone on their partners brands. Target has been amazing at nurturing its own brand while leveraging iconic brands.

Good means it basically does its job. And let’s not forget, the company and product have to stand behind the work. Generally successful ads here are incumbent of being a part of a larger campaign. For example I would put Hyundai in this category. Individually wouldn’t say any of Hyundai’s advertising is all that memorable. As a part of their entire marketing effort they’ve obviously done a pretty stand-up job.

Honorable Mention means it’s functionally decent break-even advertising. The sort of advertising that speaks to knowing 50 percent of your advertising works but not knowing which 50 percent.

Much like wealth in our country the greatest ads occupy the top one or two percent.

When I wrote the piece about the VW ads of yore, I wrote it because that’s what we were used to from VW. We were used to Legendary or at least Great. Even when campaigns weren’t great, they flirted with great.

But what makes great ads great? In my mind, there are a few things and they largely rest on the following:

  • The Idea
  • Suspension of Disbelief
  • Casting
  • That little something or certain moment

The Idea – First and foremost the best ads are generated from a good idea. At its foundation, it should go without saying that any great ad is borne from a fundamentally good and sound idea.

Suspension of Disbelief – Just because you’re dealing with 60 seconds, 30 or even 15, doesn’t mean that the rules of suspension of disbelief don’t apply.  It becomes harder to suspend disbelief when you’re presenting “real life” moments. Humor is probably the most effective way to enable people to suspend disbelief. The problem is that humor which while certainly subjective still relies on two critical things. The first is timing. The second is delivery.

Consider the Sony ads with Justin Timberlake who treats them more like an SNL skit than an ad.  He’s genuinely funny and allows the absurdity of any moment to disappear.

M&M successfully uses humor to suspend disbelief. One of my favorite spots as of late is the one where M&Ms characters are in the kitchen cabinet throwing things at this guy who’s simply trying to get his pregnant wife a “snack”. He tells the M&Ms to “get in the bowl.” One of the M&Ms fires back the most common of childish comebacks, “You get in the bowl.”

Another successful use of humor is with the FedEx ad where a group of staffers are looking at a map of the world and one of them is supposed to put a pin where China is. He doesn’t know where it is and tears down the whole map to avoid being “outted”.

As such with humor, casting becomes so important. In general it’s a very little moment, a split second that makes it or breaks it and that’s usually as a result of good casting.

When you’re not using humor and presenting truly real moments the challenge becomes one of sincerity.  Now you’re in a position where it has to be believable. Generally the best work in this realm comes from clearly understanding the brand. While Disney has lost some of its “magic” in my mind, its motivation is still to be thought of as truly the most magical place on earth. Or take Folgers’ spots. I’m fairly certain Folgers’ motivation in their ads is to make you cry. But in order to pull this sort of work off, it has to be sincere. Not about the coffee but about the moment.

All this being said perhaps though what is most important for great ads are two things. A collective will. And brave clients.

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I won! (a brief interruption)

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Ok. So my next post is supposed to be on what makes great ads great. I’ll get to it, I promise but for now I’m tooting my own horn.

Grant McCracken hosts this thing called the “Minerva Contest”. They are in my view intellectual compare and contrasts on topics that are seemingly similar but not. The contests may be intellectual bragging rights but  I’ll take it. The task is as follows here. It was on the difference between PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow” and The History Channels’ “Pawn Stars”. I’m honored to have won the most recent Minerva Contest.  Below is my entry. Enjoy.

“When apprised of this intellectual compare and contrast of Antiques Roadshow versus Pawn Stars my initial inclination of those who watch either show or participate was that the primary difference would be in level of educational attainment. Immediately there’s a snob factor when you think about a distinction between the shows.

After a conversation with a producer of Antiques Roadshow, Sarah Elliott, I came to believe I was over thinking it a bit. Or at least I couldn’t find any hard evidence to support my hypothesis.

What I discovered was that while the shows could be seemingly similar, the core differences with the shows really have to do more with the nature of each show.

According to Ms. Elliott, “Antiques Roadshow is filmed over the summer. We visit six cities and travel with about 75 or so professional appraisers. Each event attracts some 5000 to 6000 attendees and sees appraisals of 10,000 to 12,000 items in a one day event.  We produce 18 original shows and two compilation shows for a total of 20 shows each season. It’s a pretty well-oiled machine.”  About her Anecdotal observations Ms. Elliott continued, “In my 11 years working on the show I can honestly say that it truly attracts the widest cross-section of America imaginable.”

Your price of entry into an Antiques Roadshow event is an item to be appraised and generally the item is legitimately believed to be antique.

Although as Ms. Elliott said, that she’s come across the “widest cross-section of America imaginable,” that’s not the focal point of the show. That’s an unintended outcome arrived at as a result of an object. When producing Antiques Roadshow she noted that they make the “object” the focal point. As far as the appraiser or person with the object being entertaining is almost purely a matter of luck.

The most important distinction about Antiques Roadshow is that there is no buying or selling of items on Antiques Roadshow. Thus motivation becomes an important factor. Once an item is appraised on Antiques Roadshow what the individual does with that item is then up to them.

In some cases clearly people will likely look to sell/auction the item but in many cases the item’s sentimental value outweighs the financial value. In one episode a gentleman has a Civil War era canteen appraised that was a gift from a dear friend.  The appraiser estimated its worth at around $5000 whereupon the gentleman says, “I guess I better keep it in a secure place then.”

With Pawn Stars motivation in almost all cases is financial. There is a financial need or want. A person enters Gold & Silver less concerned about the item’s integrity and more concerned with the cash transaction.  Or put this way, they’re only concerned about the items integrity in relation to its dollar value.

To further this dynamic there is often a level disappointment on Pawn Stars because every item the Harrison family comes into contact with they evaluate from the perspective of how much they can in turn sell it for. This means people often leave unable to have made any money.

While both shows are “reality” TV shows, Pawn Stars is produced as such and built around the dynamics of the family. This exposes a few things most notable it seems to me is pride – both generational (wanting to make Dad proud) and individual (wanting to “win” by extracting the most profit). There is also the element of risk. In many cases you see the Harrisons taking on an item, having it restored and hoping they can make a profit on the item. One could equate the Harrisons to stock brokers or traders.

“Pawning” is believed to have existed for more than 3000 years, its history rooted as a means of banking

From an article by Vonda Shines the history of pawn shops, “The word “pawn” comes from the Latin word ‘pignus,’ which means to pledge. The principle of pawning is simple. Someone has an item of worth against which they’d like a monetary loan. A pawn broker accepts it as a pledge – or collateral or pawn – in exchange for money. If the loan isn’t repaid according to its terms, the pawned item is offered for sale to the public.”

However, you rarely see the Harrison’s enter such a contract. Of course that would add an entirely new and complicated dimension to the show. Nevertheless, the character of the Harrison family still comes through clearly in the art of the transaction.

Consider this passage from a book called “In Hock” by Wendy Woloson.

“Pawnbrokers and their staff are not unlike bartenders or beauticians, whose relations with their clients are at once both professional and personal. For many the place plays a special role in both social and economic aspects of their lives.”

Antiques Roadshow originally began on the BBC a mere 31 years ago and in the US, 13 years ago via PBS. This means the show has weathered economic ups and downs.

According to the Simply Hired web site, their most recent Las Vegas trends data shows “Las Vegas, Nevada jobs have decreased 41% since April 2009.” Thus it stands to reason that the Harrison family’s Gold & Silver might see some brisk business these days. One would wonder whether given that we’re at one of the worst economic lows in our nation’s history if that has an effect on Pawn Stars success or even viability.

In short, the difference between the two shows is simple yet robust. One is about the thing and the other is about the people.


Woloson, Wendy.  2009. “In Hock: Pawning in America from Independence to the Great Depression”

Roath’s Pawn Shop, “History of Pawnbroking” –

Sines, Vonda ”The History of Pawn Shops” – –,+NV

Interview: Sarah Elliott, Producer, Antiques Roadshow, December 8, 2010″

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My Jerry Maguire Social Media Moment

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Consumers and marketers have had what I’d call an “understanding” since the dawn of time. A quid pro quo as it were. You the consumer will accept a degree of marketing and salesmanship in exchange for a quality item or service of sorts.

Since consumers aren’t really the easiest bunch to please and can be a bit leery, marketers have had to resort to a mix of surprise, delight and entertainment to woo us. We are accepting of this to a degree. For marketers, the number of mediums in which to communicate to consumers has grown seemingly exponentially. Social media has become but one of those mediums.

With the advent of the Internet and expansive growth in technology came this thing called social networking.

Us as consumers would find refuge in such a place. It would be where we would begin to part with disruption marketing. It would be a place for us to network on our terms, to exchange memes, to showcase our intellectual or professional prowess, our banal activities, pictures of our kids on the beach or of us in a video getting stuck in a drier. Whatever it was, it was ours to engage with as we saw fit on our terms on our time.

Yet something happened. What was supposed to be ours became theirs.

The second we attributed analytics to it we missed the point.

The “Accidental Billionaire” Mark Zuckerburg instead of defending us, the 500 million people he quite literally owns, he now barters.

A friend of mine once equated Facebook as a TV channel, “where I can see what my friends are doing whenever I want.” At 500 million people, it’s more than a channel, it’s a network (as in television). But just like most networks they’re equally as perplexed about how to ensure their ability to deliver effective marketing to its audiences which is of course largely the basis of its valuation.

Do we blame investors? Of course they seek monetization but should it be at the expense of the relationship with the consumer?  It’s impossible to imagine Facebook ever going the way of the dodo but Facebook’s valuation as I’ve said is based largely on the backs of 500 million people and how much advertising revenue can be extracted from the company.

This is why I love Twitter, if for no other reason than Twitter seeks to wait as long as humanly possible to decide on monetization. They seek to find a balance between monetization and consumer experience. LinkedIn I believe successfully did the same thing.

Instead of looking at Facebook and discussing what’s going on behaviorally with how we communicate with one another or our relationship with privacy or lack thereof, companies see 500 million people and think dollar signs.

We forget about what’s important about social media. And shame on us for even conceiving of the term. It’s about “social” and us marketers being so high and mighty attempt to rob you the consumer of the “social” aspect and consider it a medium, where we can what? Not contribute to the conversation but interrupt the one you’re having.  Gee, sounds a lot like TV.

Over the past few years people have used the buzzword of this being the “social economy” when the reality is we should be calling this the era of the listening economy. If only we’d actually do it. Facebook recently mined our status updates for memology. But honestly did anything useful actually come out of it other than HMU (hit me up) is the new BRB (be right back)?

Facebook has become a place of information overload. Whoever knew the brilliance of brevity in 140 characters?

Perhaps, just maybe if we would actually listen, we might find ways to contribute to conversations. This is yet another reason I believe Twitter continues to thrive. It’s a place where not only do people exchange memes but people are inherently nice. You post a tweet seeking advice about something in Paris and someone in Sheboygan, WI offers up a solution.  It’s a place where you’re essentially listening first. The ones that shout the loudest on Twitter seem to get tuned out the most and much like television advertising or banner ads fade into the background.

Perhaps we can learn something from Google’s new 500 Billion Words project called “Ngram” which was featured in a cover article in the New York Times this week.

“’The goal is to give an 8-year-old the ability to browse cultural trends throughout history, as recorded in books,’ said Erez Lieberman Aiden, a junior fellow at the Society of Fellows at Harvard. Mr. Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, assembled the data set with Google and spearheaded a research project to demonstrate how vast digital databases can transform our understanding of language, culture and the flow of ideas.”

I’m of course well aware that there are myriad of research companies that mine “conversations” and customer comments.

Consider this comment from David Gehring in a comment to a blog post called the “Death of Market Research” by Forrester’s Tamera Barber.

“Additionally, we’ve recently been diving into social media market research using tools like NetBase’s ConsumerBase product to analyze the qualitative values found in the amalgamated ‘conversation’ happening online about our client’s brands and shows. When these “non-traditional” data sources are approached with a thoughtful hypothesis and the same scientific rigor as our more traditional research efforts, we are able to derive some very powerful insights. And these insights translate well into strategic as well as tactical brand and product strategy.”

Perhaps we’re on the right path.

It seems to me, if we take time to listen and observe what social media means in a cultural context then maybe we’ll find better ways to monetize the medium in a fashion which allows for a happy co-existence.

Your thoughts?

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Our Relationship with Content

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My next three posts are going to be about our relationship with content primarily with respect to marketing.

The first will discuss the mistakes we’re currently making with social media, the second will discuss what makes great ads great and the third will make the argument that our TV is by no means what it used to be.

With that that, here goes nothing.

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Recently I was fortunate enough to watch a TED talk which featured a designer named Emily Pilloton. Emily Pilloton is a pretty impressive young woman. She wrote a book called Design Revolution about 100-plus objects and systems designed to make people’s lives better.  “At age 26, convinced of the power of design to change the world, she founded Project H to help develop effective design solutions for people who need it most.”

“In February 2009, Pilloton and her Project H partner Matthew Miller began working in Bertie County, North Carolina, the poorest and most rural county in the state, to develop a design-build curriculum for high-school kids, called Studio H. In August 2010 they began teaching their first class of 13 students.”

In my view there is a considerable shift going on culturally in the United States with consumer choice and it has largely to do with our expectations of design.

A lot of people would view America as lagging behind places like the Europe (Netherlands/Germany) when it comes to design but I firmly believe that this is gradually changing and it’s as a result of people like Emily Pilloton.

However I think it’s also as a result of companies, like Apple or Target. Some would argue that Apple’s market capitalization is an example of how thoughtful design can affect the bottom-line.

Others would argue that it’s possible that Apple’s affect on design has led to oversaturation or lack of innovation by others. I’m not so sure yet.

The other example I provided was Target. Often, I will use a Target vs. Wal-Mart analogy to help clients try to understand the types of their customers. An example would be Citibank is to Target as Bank of America is to Wal-Mart.  Target has differentiated itself among big-box stores with design.  Target even has a discussion of their “Focus on Design” on their website.

Target changed the perception of the big box store forever and arguably its ads are stylistically some of the most imitated by far. Target however is remarkably mainstream but has brought good design to Middle-America with its product selection (think Mossimo and Method).

Perhaps you can help me… What does the effect of good design say about our standards culturally and the impact and expectations on choice? Do companies like Apple or Target have that much of an effect on our overall design sensibilities? Are we better because of them? Can design in fact change the world as Emily Pilloton asserts? Does it take a confluence of things to help us evolve our relationship with design to see where else good and effective design can be applied? What are your thoughts?

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“Can I get you a Starbucks?”

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Recently I referred to Mark J. Penn’s book “Microtrends” about the notion of consumers sub-segmenting themselves into niches.  It is something that I firmly believe in but that being said, I think there are also what I like to refer to as “embedded” brands. My question to any readers of this post is there still such a thing as embedded brands?

What are embedded brands?  They are just that, embedded into our consciousness. They are our default brands. They are the reason why companies like P&G, Kraft, J&J, SC Johnson, Coca-Cola, Toyota, and others have such a stronghold on certain categories.

Embedded brands are generally mundane brands. Things like toothpaste or laundry detergent or dish soap.  Brands like Tide or Palmolive might be embedded brands. They are brands you don’t think about but interact with every day.

They are brands that enter our language. Brands such as Google. “Google it.” Starbucks has become a simple noun as opposed to a proper noun. “Hey, I’m going to get a Starbucks, can I get you anything.” Regionally being in the New England area, you will often hear people ask if they can get you a “Dunkin’s”.

They are brands that we might have adopted generationally. Our parents used it and perhaps even our grandparents before them. There is generally a perceived acceptance of quality and/or value.  They are top-of-mind brands. They are safe brands. They are brands that can recover quickly from the worst of public relations debacles. They are brands we grew up with.  Generally they are practical brands.  They are safe.

There might be up to two embedded brands in any category. An example might be Crest versus Colgate.

However what happens to embedded brands when we consider how much the marketplace and the consumer has evolved?

There is so much more to a brand promise today than there ever was before and there are so many more influences on choice.  Just think about how much the two little words “Eco” or “organic” have impacted the landscape for any myriad of products.

Subconsciously or not, brands are a representation of ourselves and as we as consumers continue to evolve and our sensibilities mature so too will our reliance on embedded brands.

What are your thoughts? What are other embedded brands?

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David Lubars Thinks You’re Dumb

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I belong to a group on LinkedIn called “Re-inventing the Advertising Agency Business Model”.

Here is where my advertising and marketing brethren pontificate on the future of advertising. In my mind it’s a useful exercise if only someone would actually do anything about it.

Lately, this issue is one of the most widely discussed topics in the marketing/advertising community. Forrester has several reports on the matter.  Fast Company is planning to dedicate the December/January issue to the “tumultuous state of advertising.” As a part of this issue they recently asked the three top creatives of three very different agencies to visually demonstrate the future of advertising.

David Lubars, BBDO’s chairman and chief creative officer said this, “Everything will continuously change, but people will always stay the same.  Go back 70 years, go ahead 50 years, a human is a human. There are primal things that will always drive us: Will this product be better, will it help me succeed, will it make me more attractive? So the technology and the way we to speak to people will change, but those fundamentals will never change.” How he visually represented this is pictured above.

Herein lies the disconnect between the consumer and marketers.

One of my previous blog posts was about the chaos that is today’s consumer marketplace. These days we can’t even agree whether or not to call ourselves consumers. Alex Bogusky wonders if the term is a dirty word. Grant McCracken offers the term “multipliers.” No matter what, they’re far more diverse, sophisticated and interesting than we’ve ever given them credit for.  And while we try various new means of reaching consumers such as geo-tagging, QR codes, harnessing viral and so forth, at the end of the day on the whole, we default to the same old same old.  No disrespect to David Lubars. I don’t even know the guy and am not so sure they’d let me in the building but the same old same old is generally what agencies like BBDO produce. Advertising to the lowest common denominator.

Don’t get me wrong, BBDO has done some amazing work and continues to do so and the sheer size of BBDO globally is beyond intimidating. Nevertheless all too often it seems like big agencies are in protectionist mode as the biggest purveyors of disruption marketing.

Every day, the 30-second spot is becoming less and less relevant. Commercials are background noise. Banner ads have become plain beige wallpaper.  Brian Morrissey recently pointed out that click through rates on banner ads have stabilized. Phew.  Good. At .09 percent. Ummm Houston… we have a problem.

Grant McCracken has a wonderful section in his book “Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living Breathing Corporation” where he refers to the “American scholar Lewis Mumford [who] offered his vision of the world created by commerce.” It looks something along the lines of the set of “The Truman Show”.  As McCracken says, “This became the intellectuals favorite thing to say about popular culture: that culture touched by commerce must be diminished by it,” when in fact the exact opposite has happened. So while Lubars would have you believe that we as consumers are primal and simple the reality is we have evolved considerably.  Sure there are ways to simplify explaining consumer purchase behavior but in general consumers are extraordinarily complex.

In Mark J. Penn’s book “Microtrends: Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes” he says, “With the availability of choice has come a rise in individuality. And with the rise of individuality has come a rise in the power of choice. The more choices people have, the more they segregate themselves into smaller and smaller niches of society.” In his book he offers glimpses into 82 of these “niches”. To me, that’s relatively daunting.

We talk about the notion of true change but the reality is we continue to produce mediocre dumbed-down work largely at the request of the client.

Agencies are still effectively layers upon layers of management with peer-to-peer alignment with clients.  That being said, clients haven’t asked for it to change much.  When the ads aren’t performing, fire the agency!

In my humble opinion it’s going to take CEO/CFO level leadership on the corporate side to force their CMOs and marketing organizations out of their comfort zones to explore agencies with new business models and to change the way in which they interact with those agencies and who takes responsibility for idea creation. And to consider bringing some of those people who generate ideas in-house.

I don’t think there is one standard “agency of the future”.  I think there will be numerous solutions providers who all find unique ways to solve client’s problems and I think the more flexible and nimble those types of “agencies” are the better they will succeed.

And in fact according to Fast Company, Kraft appears to be on the cusp of doing it.

“For the enterprising client that can see clearly through the chaos, this new world holds promise. Kraft, for instance, has assembled a growing Rolodex of 70 new specialist partners. This isn’t some fringe brand — it’s Kraft, the country’s largest food marketer, which spends some $1.6 billion on marketing every year. The company is so open to new thinking that it recently hired a startup called GeniusRocket to develop a new campaign for the relaunch of its Athenos Hummus.”

My bet is that agencies will look a lot more like production companies and content will be king. I am also betting that audience segmentation will be far less about traditional demographics (age/race/HHI) and will be more about lifestyle/lifestage/interests. As we know Facebook is betting most heavily on “groups” and I guarantee you they will mine the data of the largest groups and offer up “access” to the largest groups at a steep premium. Social media in general has proven itself as a place where people with like interests congregate irrelevant of race or household income but don’t think for a second the consumer isn’t hip to what’s going on. We as marketers must be respectful and creative as to how we segment consumers.

May the best content win.

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In Defense of Print

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One of my previous posts was about how we view written content via mobile devices. It got me to thinking about the debate of whether or not “print is dead?” This too is a question pondered by Stephanie (@stooffi) from the Penn-Olson blog and in which I’ve borrowed some points of data from. It’s also contemplated by Steve Laube in another excellent post.

They both share my sentiments that they don’t see print going the way of the dodo however we differ somewhat in our rationales. What I’d like to do here is offer some observational reasons as to why I think print isn’t dead to augment Stephanie and Steven’s very good more data driven arguments.

If you subscribed to conventional wisdom you might think that let’s say that within 10 years magazines would be ancient history with books to follow shortly behind them. You might think that certainly about newspapers and there is a decent case for that.

Jeff Gomez author of “Print is Dead” would have you think that we’re on the dawn of a print apocalypse.

Some quick stats to initially contradict those who firmly believe print is bound for extinction (from @stooffi via Sketchee):

  • 93% of adults in the U.S. read magazines
  • 96% of adults under 35 in the U.S. read magazines
  • Book sales are up 11.4%
  • Sales for higher-education publishing have increased 27.4%
  • E-book sales have increased 204% (keep in mind this is a category that didn’t exist a mere few years ago so I’d take that growth with a grain of salt)
  • 60% of consumers say they plan to purchase a tablet device within three years (what isn’t known is if they say they will purchase that device in place of a laptop)

Considering the data alone, I’m not so quick to put a nail in print’s coffin. With this being said, I’d like to offer a defense of print that is more observational relative to behavior/culture.

The first is case for print is that print is tactile.  People like tactile.  People comment on things like paper stock and gloss or matte finish with reverence.

The second is people like pictures. Big glossy, shiny, pretty pictures.

To be fair, I think it’s necessary to place a distinction on content that can be read versus content that can be viewed. The former would be lifestyle/niche magazines and the latter being more business, news and to some degree sports publications.

Logic would tell me that business, news and sports news magazines very well might have one foot in the grave because I think there’s a dramatic shift occurring in how people consume that type of content as my previous post “Where I’d like to read it” would suggest. As I write this, US News & World Report announced it is shuttering its print edition. And to add even further support this consider this recent article from clearly indicating that among smartphone users mobile is exactly how they like to consume.

However, I think we’re highly unlikely to see the demise of magazines entirely anytime soon. In fact in July 2010 there were 68 new magazine titles added versus 34 in July 2007. The difference is that most of the new titles were largely specialty magazines or magazines to serve a certain niche (often content to be viewed).

Consider a reason why? Have you been in a teenager’s room lately? If you’re looking at BOP or Tiger Beat online via an iPad, you can’t rip out the picture of Justin Bieber or Katy Perry and put it on your wall. Or rip a picture out from eurotuner of that sweet tuned BMW M3. Or the rad picture of Shaun White flying out of a half-pipe.

In addition, I believe a good amount of people still appreciate the “coffee table” book. This and certain magazines are a way we brand ourselves.  For many they’re forms of “decoration” carefully placed around the home.

Chief among the reasons I don’t see print as going away anytime soon is that we haven’t changed how the youngest learn to consume print. Yes, my two year old niece can take out her Dad’s iPad, turn it on, flip three screens and start a game but how she learns to consume print will likely not change anytime soon. In fact, recent research would suggest that college students haven’t taken to eReaders as expected. And this might be a logical place to begin to see a cultural shift.  I’m still not entirely sure we’ve crossed the chasm with eReaders/tablets. There I said it.

Granted my father-in-law is 74 and has had a Kindle since its inception. This inspired me to ask a few people with eReaders why they bought it.  Number one reason? Because they travel a lot and that way they don’t have to carry a physical book. Airport bookstores consider yourselves warned. However, this lumps those who purchase eReaders/tablets into a specific category. In this case the eReader fill a specific need that people are willing to change how they consume content.

I’ll offer one final example of how embedded the way we learn to consume written content is.

I have two daughters ages 7 and 4. The two of them participate in a program called the “Thousand Book Club”.

This is a program where at their elementary school there are some 200 bags of books.  Each bag has 10 children’s books. The goal of the program is to either read (or be read to) 1000 books by the time they finish kindergarten.  It’s a wonderful program as you might suspect but the point is that it’s a heavily quantitative experience with books.

At the end of the day we’ve only barely begun to change how we interact with written content and until that happens drastically, I don’t see print going away.

What do you think?

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Today, one can argue that the consumer marketplace is exceptional fractured. As a society we may do things in groups but what these groups look like has changed dramatically. Companies segment consumers all sort of ways but it generally involves falling back on household income, gender and race or ethnicity. For the purposes of any efficiency in marketing it is still required to find the greatest number of individuals to market to. But the reality is as most commercials will show, there’s really very little actual insight there.

Take a look at most commercials and they either simply push a product or play off a general consumer sentiment.  Beyond that there is usually very little there to actually connect with the consumer.

Not too long ago I was approached by the agency for New Era, the baseball hat and apparel company. They said that there was a flaw in their segmentation of customers and wanted help understanding what it was and perhaps a better way to segment their customers. They segmented them by “Urban”, “Suburban” and “Fan”. The flaw was simple. You could reside in suburbia, have urban sensibilities and be a fan. Furthermore it didn’t really tell you anything about their customers. We designed a segmentation based on how people wore their hats. The initial breakdown was as follows:

So how does this new possible segmentation inform?

It can inform in multiple ways.  It enables us to truly understand the consumer and what social groups they might belong to. Are they action sports kids? Maybe. But that’s not good enough. Because there are sub-cultures within action sports groups. Are they action sports hip-hop kids or action sports metal kids? BIG DIFFERENCE. Are they college frat boys? Are they girls? Are they “rad” girls or “bad” girls or “good”  girls or “emo” or “goth” girls or “preppy” girls?

If you map the types of hats to sales you can identify patterns or anomalies that will heavily dictate what and how much product you might supply to various retailers. You can identify where you might participate in or sponsor events. You can identify which radio stations you might advertise on or if you do at all.  The insights and variables are virtually endless.

As the consumer landscape becomes increasingly fragmented, it’s not something to be scared of or intimidated by but it is necessary to get out of your traditional comfort zone and start being creative with understanding your customers. And funny thing is, the more you actually show that you truly understand your customer, the greater loyalty you will inspire.

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As I gear up for tonight’s episode of AMC’s “The Walking Dead”, I was struck by something from last week’s episode.

If you haven’t been watching the new AMC series, the story is that a Sherriff awakens from a Coma to discover that the world has been overwrought by flesh eating zombies.  Simple premise however character development is really quite excellent as you’d expect from AMC.

In last week’s episode there is a scene where a young man in his mid to late teens is being asked to investigate if there is a safe way out a certain situation. In this scene he’s reluctant because he’s typically been by himself and ever since he’s been a part of a group all hell has broken loose.

The Sherriff defaults to be a natural leader and tells the kid, to speak his mind. An interesting dynamic is taking place here and isn’t to go unnoticed.

He basically says he’ll do it but if he’s going to do it, he’s going to do it his way.  The Sherriff agrees on behalf of the group. What happens next is interesting. With tactical precision this “kid” proceeds to say what he’s going to do and how and then gives precise orders to everyone else. Everyone has a specific job for a reason.

If I didn’t know any better, this kid has probably played a game or two of Halo or Ghost Recon.

This moment would not have struck me if I hadn’t actually witnessed something similar a several years ago (sans the zombies).

I was at a bachelor party in Montreal and a bunch of 35 year old guys were going to try our hand at paintball.  We’re all smart, well educated guys with a passing interest in military and cop movies and so forth and we thought we’d do pretty well. Especially when we saw who we’d be competing against. A bunch of scrappy 16-18 year olds with pimples and ill-fitting pants.  We would fail to observe that they all brought their own equipment and that they were discussing strategy from the moment they got there.

The game would commence and ten well-educated 35 year olds would be “dead” within the first 5 minutes of the game. It was like shooting fish in a barrel for these kids.

How the hell did this happen?

It’s simple. Most of these kids grew up not having read one Tom Clancy book but have all mastered every one of the Tom Clancy X-Box games and had done it in “groups” via headset with other kids all over the world. Not only were they able to live out close quarters combat via first-person shooting games and mastery of strategy but they were able to live it out real-time as well via paintball. And they were good. After two games of getting our asses summarily handed to us we did exactly what you might expect. We bribed two of their best kids to trade teams if only to save our pride. Then we proceeded to let a 17 year old tell each one of us where to go and what to do.

This was hardly a life or death situation but we recognized that left to our own devices we didn’t stand a chance.  While it might seem counterintuitive for a bunch of type-A alpha males to default to some kid, it was the smartest thing we could have done.

We won by a hair.

So when the world is being overrun by Zombies… I’m looking for those guys.

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Where I’d like to Read it

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I’m on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn. All three of which I access most often from my phone.

I read blogs. I read industry rags. I read magazines. I read the newspaper. About the only thing I don’t read very often are books. Often because I’m too busy reading other things. Or watching and observing TV, things or people.

Most of the things I read, I read digitally and a lot of the time I do that from my phone (BlackBerry Torch).

What I do most often besides make calls, email and text… is read.

I’ll occasionally look at a YouTube video but I really don’t foresee watching TV or a movie from my phone even if I could.

Twitter is a place where you can connect with people from various affinity groups at 140 characters a tweet. However, for me and I think many who utilize Twitter in a professional capacity it’s become my de facto clipping service. I can’t remember the last time I’ve actually held a physical printed edition of a newspaper in my hands.  I read the New York Times on my phone. In my opinion the New York Times mobile edition is best in class. Here are some others that get good marks in their mobile form (please feel free to comment and add to this list)

  • (Boston Globe)

To be fair there are others with good mobile versions but oddly enough all too often when I’m pushed content via Twitter I get dumped in to the full site. I clicked on thirteen various links and ten out of thirteen times was led to the “full” site.  Only, and brought me to the mobile site. This is especially true with blogs. This usually means trying to resize it to fit my browser page and to do this without having to scroll left to right and top to bottom. A frustrating exercise that usually leads me park the content via  Instapaper is a helpful tool but should be unnecessary.

Now some might argue, “Well that’s your phone’s fault.” I’m not quite sure whose fault it is but I can say that if you’re to believe most advertisers from wireless carriers I’d venture a guess that within three to five years the ONLY phones that will be available to consumers will be smartphones. Wireless carriers and manufacturers have us watching football games and TV shows on our phones and doing these elaborate searches and posting and sending pictures.

Consider some thoughts:

  • A recent tweet from @BrettGreene suggests that “Within 3-5 years, mobile devices will be the FIRST screen for users accessing the Web. #ProfsChat (via @davidoxstein @CKsays)”
  • According to the Twitter Blog, “Total mobile users has jumped 62 percent [April 2010-Sept. 2010], and, remarkably, 16 percent of all new users to Twitter start on mobile.” Roughly about half of all Twitter users do so from a third-party mobile app.
  • @jmoore700 who is the Chief Media Officer for the ad agency Mullen recently tweeted, “The power of mobile, 200mm people now use Facebook through its mobile app, a threefold increase since last year.”

Now most importantly consider the following two graphics from a recent study done by Handmark recently featured in a article.

Overall, it would seem to me that we have a long way to go before the way it’s portrayed that we’ll interact with our phones is actually how we’ll interact with our phones.

That being said, I think the data is a pretty big wake-up call that content providers need to be in lockstep with carriers and manufacturers. The companies that do this early and well (in addition to providing good content of course) will be the first to create the most significant brand loyalty in the mobile medium.

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Why Twitter Really Works

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Recently I came across the following Tweet:

“RT @MalikYoba: RT…Twitter makes me like strangers I’ve never met and Facebook makes me hate people I know in real life.”

I couldn’t help but agree but I didn’t know why. That was until I received a copy of Grant McCracken’s new book, “Chief Culture Officer”. This is an excellent read named one of the best Innovation books of the year by Business Week and one of the best Big Idea books by CEO Magazine.

But I digress.

In “Chief Culture Officer” McCrackan references the old Nike ad “Tag”. I remember the ad vividly.

In it is a live version of tag played out in the middle of the day on urban streets. Mr. McCrackan offers a few theories on why this ad resonated and what it meant to us culturally. The third of those theories is what he calls the notion of the “generous stranger”.

Although referring to the ad, he might as well be referring to Twitter as well in saying,

“’Tag’ evoked a third trend we might call the ‘generous stranger’. For many of us first notice came in the form of a bumper sticker that read ‘Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty,’ a phrase so influential it now has its own Wikipedia entry. Several thousand years of cultural practice and religious teaching had encouraged us to think of generosity as a personal gesture that passed between known parties.  The ‘generous stranger’ trend suggested that it was better when things passed between perfect strangers. “

And thus Twitter suddenly makes perfect sense.

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Recently I was having a conversation with a colleague. She’s a director of marketing at a large .com enterprise. We’ll call her Julie.

She was describing to me how hard her job is these days and how little confidence she has in decision making.

When I look at advertising today and most marketing for that matter I believe that this is a sentiment shared by many a CMO/Director of Marketing.

We’d like to say there is tremendous innovation going on but if I’m not mistaken, didn’t the Super Bowl ads sell out a full three months ahead of schedule this year?

If you live in places like New England, around this time of year you’re faced with having to deal with leaves.  The once beautiful foliage is now dispersed all over your yard and to preserve your green grass you’re advised to do something with it. Techniques vary, my personal favorite is to pay someone else to deal with it but my wife has frugal sensibilities and thus there I am on a lovely Sunday with this 2-stroke contraption strapped to my back known as a leaf blower. This is hardly a precision instrument but useful.

As leaves are flying about it dawned on me, this is what Julie was talking about. This is what consumer marketing has become. An exercise in trying to corral leaves.

Once upon a time, they sat on trees and were easily categorized. Oak, Maple, Redwood, Japanese Maple and so on.

But then they all changed colors, fell to the ground and there was no order anymore.

And so is the job of anyone who works in marketing these days. To try and create a natural, efficient and sensible order to the chaos of these leaves being blown amok.

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