Sunday, March 27, 2016

Listen To The Data. Literally, Advice to Heed.

One part of ‘Big’ in Big Data refers to the size of the opportunity: it represents a new frontier for accelerated progress that will leave few areas of human endeavor untouched.

The other part of ‘Big’ is the challenge. Beyond the digital dexterity required to conquer unprecedented data complexity through modeling and algorithms there’s a harder, human hurdle that must be surmounted for the promise of Big Data to be realized: the physiological limits of a human’s visual system to process input, whether data or information. Visual analysis of data still dominates the business and scientific fields but we can’t handle the visual complexity from Big Data.  The emergence of infographics and performance dashboards do little to overcome the challenge.

‘Listen to the data’ may be a familiar refrain in business – an appeal to be guided by numbers not subjective whim – but an emerging field of scientific inquiry suggests taking this advice literally can generate breakthroughs not possible through a sight-based approach. Sonification is the field of turning data into sound. Multidimensional in nature, hearing presents a different set of strengths from that of vision: the fidelity of time sensitivity is 100 times greater for hearing than for sight.  

This creates huge potential for marketing whose transformative impact has yet to be explored.  Imagine the application of sonification to cross-channel customer journey assessment. The ability to convert into sound and review customer-set level interaction data across touchpoints and time can help identify meaningful moments along with their contextual influencers, from changes in auditory patters.

Sounds promising.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Don't Hack Life - Hack Yourself

As a cultural trend, hacking has evolved dramatically since it's inception. The latest exciting developments, however, exploit an approach that is centuries old.

The term hacking took off in the digital realm, the result of much publicized efforts by programmers trying to break into systems to steal their contents (a sabotage that continues to grab headlines today). Now hacking has expanded to include any activity that adapts existing methods, resources and tools, fusing them with new thinking that invents or reinvents.  It's become as much a physical world phenomenon as a digital one, and far more versatile and advanced than The A Team exploits that introduced a generation hungry for resourceful improvisation three decades ago.

Today hacking is a mindset, a way of looking at and adapting the world around us (whether analog or digital) so that it works better for us.  It's a mainstream orientation for Gen Y (Millennials) who have the ambition for life to work better and smarter to serve what they want. It's a noble aspiration indeed.

The latest frontier in hacking may not be to adapt the world around us, but rather to hack ourselves. It could be far simpler (and cheaper) to adapt our sensory response to external elements than adapt those objects or conditions that surround us.

Here's a fascinating perspective on how this might play out in the food category: Food Hacking: Electric Fork It might revolutionize dieting. Imagine if a healthy but bland tasting food could be experienced as enticing and flavorful?

As with much technology what is considered an innovation is not itself new; rather it is treading an existing path, leveraging an 'old' idea but applying it in a new medium or a new way. The forerunner to hacking one's self for food is with medicine.  Philosophically, that is what the science of pharmacology does: it adapts the body's physical, emotional or mental state not just to an inner condition but to respond to outside, exogenous ones. We've been benefiting from it for centuries.  It will be fascinating to see where hacking our response to food leads us.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

More Than Salutation, Brands Must Change How They See People To Stay In-Sync

On many levels identity is undergoing significant transformation in our culture, reflected in the zeitgeist of increased empowerment, personalized choice and self-expression. Lately there’s been renewed media attention upon the revolution in gender identity. The binary, male vs female way to identify ourselves has given way to a multiplicity of new concepts reflected in the emergence of a whole new language of pronouns and prefixes.  The development and popularity of the Furries subculture reflects not just identity fluidity but expansion, anthropomorphically.

Arguable there are few things more fundamental to how we define ourselves than our gender. For brands who want to demonstrate they understand us and respect us, how they approach us is key to getting that right.

The challenge for marketers is that culture is in flux. It’ll be a while before the dizzying gender alternatives in circulation will thin out and stabilize.  No one can predict where it will land.  Facebook can get away with it because as the social platform for the planet a huge part of its concept is rooted in connection across people’s individually created profiles so there’s implicitly a greater understanding of and receptiveness to the organic nature of how we define ourselves through culture. For other brands moving early risks a misstep, which could temporarily make the brand look foolish or worse evoke a backlash.

The opportunity for a brand in embracing an emerging cultural theme is that gives it a modern, progressive character.  The brand is not just of the ‘now’ it is leading the times as a social innovator.  It’s incredibly hard for brands to stand out and apart from their competition today so making this kind of move can deliver distinctiveness that is meaningful – because there are few things more personal than identity.

Trip Advisor conveys its modern recognition for gender choice by offering “Another gender identity.’ rather than only the male or female option.  It enables people to express what they don’t identify with without having to convey what they do associate with.  It avoids a rush to categorize alternatives that might leave some options unrepresented which might invoke a backlash.

Caremark, a medication fulfillment company for BCBS, have also stepped up. Inquiring about the primary insured, they asked whether it was me, my spouse, my wife or husband.  These choices do not presuppose any specific kind of orientation and signals not just a recognition but an embrace of a more open, less assumptive approach to a circumstance.

A move by a brand towards gender sensitivity might seem small but there are few things as great as gender in how we see ourselves. Brands that show they understand us by how they greet us will inspire empathy and will stand apart from those who don’t.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Elevating Value Through Values

The opportunity might have easily been overlooked. The no-charge for bag check or ticket change could have been merchandised as just that: individual product features. It would have still delivered value to consumers. But by uniting it with values the brand holds -  transparency, predictability, doing right by the customer - they enjoy greater value. The no-charge feature now embodies principles the customer believes in (or at the very least feels good about) and triggers a human connection shared with the company they are about to entrust their life to (it is air travel after all).

This is smart marketing. Giving what could otherwise have been only a rational benefit some emotional appeal makes it not only more compelling, it elevates the value consumers get by aligning with their personal values - at no cost to the company.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The ultimate hotel UX fail.

Traveling is stressful and unpredictable, disruptive to our home life and circadian rhythms at the best of times.  Helping to minimize these effects is a key part of any hotel's value in its service of its guests. Sleep in particular is the primary purpose of any stay so anything that disrupts it is very bad for business.

Designing a hotel door hanger separately from the handle it goes on has just this kind of unintended consequence. Nothing wrong with having 'Do Not Disturb' printed on the reverse side of 'Clean' - as long as there is no ambiguity in which message is the guest's intention.  It's why a holistic approach to UX is so crucial to serving up choices and interactions that achieve the desired outcome. 


Snickers hits the sweet spot, serendipitously.

Playful product messaging is a relatively new marketing development. In these evermore casual times, brands have learned that not taking themselves too seriously and having some fun can resonate better in today's culture. Brands that are playful demonstrate that they have the confidence to do so. 

Coca Cola has recently departed from years of stringent protectionism for its classic packaging design and begun to use it as a canvas for sentiment that could be expressed by someone sharing happiness.

Other brands have followed. The relaunch of Old Spice has included a similar technique.  Its deodorant stick humor gives a wink to how long the brand has been around, yet gives is an edgy, modern sensibility. 

Snickers playful approach is a relatively new direction for the brand, complementing the tv campaign 'Who are you when you're hungry?' that dramatized how different a person's character is when blood sugar is low.

Most likely the brand didn't intentionally seek to exploit the massive Netflix hit House of Cards.  Nonetheless 'Spacey' conjures up the Presidential character of that series, whose mood is so perpetually angry it is relate-able as an altered-state mood of someone incredibly hungry.  It raises the question of an interesting twist in playful packaging: referencing characters in entertainment culture.  Who's next perhaps? Bates the psycho character in Misery? Trump the Real Estate mogul-turned-angry-populist-political-campaigner? Or Oscar the trashcan grouch from Sesame street?

Tapping into cultural themes or memes gives brands a very valuable wavelength to resonate with people, whether deliberate or not.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Wise words for Planners.

Planners have to be artful storytellers.  We need to help creatives develop stories for brands and to sell our own ideas to challenging audiences (the internal clients are often harder than the ones outside). 

In telling a compelling tale our words must be human in their connection yet precise in its expression.  What we say comes from how we say it. To connect with meaning words matter far more than most people realize. In makes all the difference to how people feel and to how they act. And as this charming story shows it's not just words that matter, it's the insight behind them that give them power.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Simple Drama of a Product Truth

It's rare these days that a single feature is enough to drive brand preference. Especially with technology like mobile phones which come armed with a supply of apps that stretches utility to an almost inexhaustible limits.

But the appetite for video consumption generally and TV everywhere (TVE) in particular is so prolific among the Gen Y and Z cohorts that download speeds can be a very big deal and disruptor. So universal is the pain of seeing action frozen seemingly for an eternity that it's enough to cause most of us to abort the attempt. (The bounce time from a stalled internet search is on average about 6 seconds - no wonder major retailers like Walmart and Target watch response time performance like a hawk.)

BGH takes this familiar experience and use it to differentiate the brand, hitting us where we know it hurts the most (second perhaps to being unable to make a call when we want).

The beauty is in the suspense and of ultimately making the audience feel the situation.  After all, if we feel then we understand, and do so more convincingly than any rational attempt to persuade might achieve. This has long been the war between client and agency, certain as each party is to the most effective mechanism for unlocking belief.  

Thankfully on this occasion, the right path was taken by both.  Judge for yourself.  Would a factual approach have had more impact, and been more memorable?

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Science Discovers the Place For Space in the Human Brain

Many congratulations to neuroscientists May-Britt and Edvard Moser and John O’Keefe for their seminal work defining the brain's GPS system. They've found the place that gives us our sense of place. 
Winners of the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physiology their discoveries represent the physiological basis for the mental mapping and spatial wayfaring ideas that were at the heart of my 2012 SXSW presentation 'How digital maps navigate the human condition. It’s arguably one of the most important areas of human cognitive activity. Their work is an exciting starting point for so much further progress in this field.

Check out the pioneering work that won them the 2014 Nobel Prize. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Color distracts when products have little to add.

You'd expect two of the world's powerhouse brands to be more imaginative when it comes to product extensions.  But within a month of each other Nike's Fuelband SE and Apple's iPhone 5C depended on the same cosmetic element to try to fan the flames of consumer demand: color.

Both companies have fallen flat.  Partly they're victims of their own success.  We expect so much from these brands because they've trained us to expect greatness.  Separately Nike and Apple have an enviable repeated history for innovating in their respective categories.  They even have achieved it in partnership, through Nike +. Which is why their recent introductions are disappointing.  The accompanying functionality tweaks were exactly that: incremental and more focused on correcting earlier issues than deepening experience value.

Gizmodo review: Nike Fuel SE

In the case of the iPhone 5C, the tightly controlled approach to product design that Apple is known for is extended to color.  A narrow range of options seems positively out-of-step with the times.  Contrast it with the vitality from Motorola moto phone whose customization options for both handset and earphones are a celebration of expression and individuality.

Beyond the tactic of using color to jazz up a product with no more news the marketing too falls flat. The device of a colored phone on a colored background is shockingly lacking in imagination. Compare this with the bold iconic silhouettes of iPhone advertising that launched the product.  This is a pale and far poorer attempt.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Online Dating Invokes the Lord's Blessing

Really, it's a bit cheeky but certainly on brand.

If you're a Christian, then you want nothing more than to believe your romantic partner has been ordained by none other than the holiness himself/herself.

So it a wry move on the part of Christian Mingle to invoke the Lord's endorsement...or at least the imply that matches at its site are nothing short of just that.

Why look anywhere else?  You'd just be searching for something that's against the Lord's wishes.  And that could have Old Testament consequences.  (Better play it safe.)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Where The Right Answer Is a Question

Hats off to the Exploratorium in San Francisco. This exactly captures the reaction it is striving to evoke from its visitors, young and old alike.

The Exploratorium goes where flat-footed edu-tainment cannot tread. It's a collection of brilliantly crafted exhibits designed not just to educate but to spark a sense of wonder and stir curiosity within. Each display has been purposely made to compel its audience to physically interact with it, to engage in the sort of playful experimentation that yields rewarding results and engages the participant in a willing game of detective work to figure out what's going on.

As the street banner suggests, it is particularly well suited for helping youngsters learn. The setting encourages them to be absolutely fearless in their pursuit of knowledge. Any self-consciousness they might have about the limits of what they know, or of making mistakes or worst of all failing - the collection of forces that might otherwise hold them back and rob them of an enriching experience - melt instantly away the moment they step inside the Exploratorium.

You could also say that a hallmark of an good account planner is to work in a similar way. We didn't have a child-like capacity for play in mind, we were thinking rather about the role to stimulate further investigation. To deepen the inquiry in a meaningful way that advanced understanding of the challenge at hand, through iterative probing that gets quickly to the heart of the matter.

There are many situations in the communications or consumer behavior worlds in which a question being evoked as a response to a stimulus - or as the effect of an interaction - would be a vast improvement to what it elicits today.

Inspiration to do better, fluttering in the breeze on Gough street above the heads of commuters making their way wearily to work.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

What's The Best Way To Make Careful Decisions?

Good decisions are rarely made carelessly. So there's an intuitive logic behind making careful decisions, whatever climate of decision making might prevail at the time.

In this era of flux, one characterized by many practitioners and pundits challenging existing principles in search of new and more reliable wisdom, this subject of intuition vs analysis and their relative value in decision making is highly topical.

In our view, the issue is rooted in a timeless theme of management science: the issue of thinking vs feeling in decision making.

The idea of using feeling in the context of decision making makes many people uncomfortable which is why intuition gets a bad rap. Emotion is associated with a lack of discipline and robustness in analysis (with good reason to some degree). The fact that intuition cannot be attributed to a specific place, to a linear, observable, concrete set of facts also makes it an easy target. Intuition cannot be explained. It emerges or not.

This character of intuition raises the other main driver of discontent that emerges with reliance upon it: the lack of control. Management needs to be confident it can replicate results, to assure the effective use of resources and ultimately the return to shareholders.

Which leads us to the underlying human issue in play here, which in my view is trust. Decision making begets responsibility and accountability. One feels no better having put that trust in the hands of so called 'experts' whose predictions and recommendations prove subsequently to be wrong than in an internal capacity which transcends tangible analysis and which cannot be explained.

Sound use of intuition depends on sound judgment, itself a product of experience and the right kind of reflection. As with any tool, erudite use comes from knowing how to use it and when. And when not to. This I believe, cannot be taught nor prescribed and in part sustains its immense value among those practitioners who do it well.


The topic was a provocative one shared in the Working Knowledge Bulletin by Harvard Business School by Profession James Heskett. The Full article appears here, and inspired a lively disucssion among a dispersed community.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Imagination (And Sound Effects) Make A Basic Search Story Sparkle

We've been writing of late about stories. As marketers are challenged to connect more presently and meaningfully with people, we think story telling is taking on ever greater importance. It's not just a familiar device from which we learn, it's one of potent and enduring human value.

Here's a delightful example from Google. The search behemoth is promoting what it's best known for - its utility as a search destination and tool. What might otherwise be dry has been given deft emotional delivery through a charming story. While the concept that plays out is a highly engaging one, there is something refreshing about the simplicity with which it is done (a deliberate expression of brand character we surmise). Creatively speaking, heavy visual emphasis on the search box might be considered a sizeable constraint. But using the search box as an engine to evolve the drama is shrewd indeed. Sound effects, too, are judiciously employed to give a real warmth and emotional valence.


A Time For Levi-Strauss

The famous anthropologist and a jeans brand share the same name. While we were saddened at the news of the french intellectual's passing, we're commenting today upon the latter. The jeans brand has itself not been in the best of health in recent years. Grant McKracken points to this in his recent book Chief Culture Officer, by lamenting the billions of dollar in market opportunity the company missed out on by failing to understand the changes fashion in happening around it.

On the streets of San Francisco are examples of spirited Levi's advertising that fits the times. Jeans are a well-worn medium for self expression so it's no surprise that the brand is promoting a belief which it hopes will be shared by the followers it seeks. An added strength in the work (below) is that the themes echo the sentiment of the zeitgeist. Being a time of austerity and uncertainty has forced many people to question old priorities and focus on qualities that are basic yet enduring. We think it's a good move.