Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Telling Stories to Others (Let's Not Overlook The Ones We Tell Ourselves).

Here's a shining example of what we think about stories:

We typically see a story as something 'made up', an abstraction from the truth either completely fictitious or embellished with imagination which then removes it from the reality of the events on which it's based.

We also commonly think of stories as something we tell other people. Arguably the most important and potent stories are those we tell ourselves. Each of us has created stories about who we are. Quite literally, we had no choice: it was needed as a way of giving order to the psyche and structure to our identity. Overtime, these stories have been crafted into a coherent narrative about ourselves and our place in the world.

The intriguing part in it all is that many people are not aware that this process goes on, existing as it does usually in the subconscious. (Stephen Johnson's excellent book Mind Wide Open illuminates many ways these silent operators influence our actions.)

But if you have ever talked to a woman who colors her hair, especially one that has become and stayed a 'bottle blond', she will tell you quite calmly that this is who she is. That it fits how she sees herself and not just in the mirror; it is how she feels on the inside.

Such women do not have amnesia. They are well aware of the duplicity at their own hand and they are reminded of it at no time greater than with a showing of roots - evidence of an act of past intervention and a pressing reminder for the need to repeat it. But it does not matter and it does not violate the integrity of the idea.

Stories to ourselves are a secret pact. We know we're fibbing and there's nothing wrong with that because - after all - it is the truth in the midst of the fabrication. Psychopaths aside, we can rarely lie to ourselves and get away with it . Deep down we remember, even when we forget.

Luxury Marketing: Austere Times Call for Disarming Strategies

Even if the harsh realities of this year's economy have not touched us personally, we have not been unaffected by them.

As has been widely reported, the luxury market has taken a hammering. This year has seen a widespread climate of disapproval emerge in our culture. Mere ownership and display of luxury goods has become synonymous with an almost ostentatious flaunting, seen as reflecting a callous insensitivity to the hard times befalling so many others. There has been widespread rush to judgment, in much the same way that greets a Hummer on the roads albeit for different reasons; its existence has become an embodiment for a disregard for environmental concern..and almost a shameless pride in it.

One smart strategy is not to deny the criticism but to tackle it head-on. It is, after all, a hurdle that prevents people being comfortable buying, however much they might want (and secretly covet) the prize and long to own it.

Hats off to Porsche for adopting this approach. Anticipating criticism is captured elegantly in the headline with a tone that far from seeming defensive sounds pragmatic, evoking a feeling of being confidently prepared. An accomplishment in itself.

The key to success?
Leverage the equity that give luxury makers rooted in substance (rather than overly dependent on style) a powerful neutralizing effect: Performance.

Performance is that wonderful quality whose existence is inherently self-justifying. It represents tangible proof for what one has paid more. It is born of advanced engineering and design - noble characteristics indeed - which enables assertions to or inferences about privilege to be assiduously avoided. Porsche has even suggested that the efficiency dimension of performance represents greater environment responsibility, the idea of 'doing more with less'.

Arming the audience with ammunition in the form of knowledge serves to disarm the critics. This is the final part of this erudition -- recognition of what is so overlooked by marketers in cultivating people's relationships through brands: storytelling.

Give people things that help them to tell their stories. If we can tell a story we have a claim to having a reason. An assertion to belonging. Storytelling is a basic human need, one that helps us feel connected to others and perhaps more importantly, to ourselves:

"A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens--second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives"

Reynolds Price

Monday, October 26, 2009

Consumer Consciousness: The Third Element Redefining the Value Equation

In our last post, we outlined PERSONAL and PLANET as two recent dimensions of the value equation emerging in light of the new climate of consumer consciousness.

There's a third that most readers will have seen almost at every turn: PEOPLE.

In the era of higher standards, of greater scrutiny about what is being bought and its effects, people also want an opportunity to participate and contribute towards a greater social good. As a result, they are also expecting more of the companies they buy from, for them to do their part to improve the world we live in.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has been around for decades, but it's typically been more of a PR driven initiative to generate goodwill in order to shape perceptions than a deep-rooted embrace. Tom's Shoes is a great example of a commitment on a different scale. It donates a pair of new shoes to a needy child for every pair sold. The social good is inextricably part of its business model.

An example of a more traditional approach is Tide Detergent. The "Loads of Hope" campaign is P&G's latest CSR attempt to link 'doing laundry' with 'doing good'. (Don't get us wrong, something is better than nothing: but not only is the link conceptually a weak one - in our culture 'hope' is not something we think of in terms of 'loads' - but the scale and sustainability of the impact is modest).

Overall, this strategy is an ever popular one with marketers. The basic approach is to link consumption directly with a virtuous outcome.

Starbucks says that by buying its coffee YOU are the force behind change on a massive scale...

Volvic touts its 'Drink 1 Give 10' benefit if you buy its water (click on this recent airport commercial).

The intent of course: shape brand choice in a way that requires no additional effort by the consumer. "Keep doing what you're already doing". The act of buying is an act of giving.

Not a bad strategy (few things are inherently flawed except teapots made of chocolate). Though as Brandchannel points out: Cause Marketing Grows: but is the backlash ahead?

Consumer Consciousness: Two Forces Redefining the Value Equation.

The bubble of indifference has burst.

Until recently, it used to be very different. Consumers cared about functional performance and price...and cared about very little else. Like how products were really made. The ingredients they really contained. What they really did to the body. So the reasoning went, if it was available, it had to be safe. Governments regulate, after all.

Nothing like crisis to wake people up. And shaken up they have been. Toxicity in toy paint, lethal ingredients in pet food, health threats in the food chain (fruits and vegetables), ever rising cases of cancer, and obesity on a mass scale among not just adults but children. This is the PERSONAL dimension that evolved the value equation of what people buy. No longer is buying convenience foods so easily divorced from the health consequences of doing to. Marketers are responding with convenient foods that force less of that trade-off. It is a good development.

The consumer value equation is also being redefined by another key dimension: PLANET. The environmental crisis has precipitated a shift: people en masse are making a direct personal link between what they consumed and the impact they were having on the planet.

The result: a time of greater scrutiny but if anything higher standards. People care more about what's in products and how they're made. They have to know, it's almost not a choice. The cost of indifference - personally and for the planet - is too high. Companies are responding by making better products.

A new kind of involvement and a new strategy has emerged among consumers: asking question and demanding answers. The smart companies are recognizing this is a new age of transparency. Avoidance is an option but not a good one. Being part of the conversation is a way companies can shape the dialogue about them, thought the days of control are over. Trust has been broken and companies now have to earn it back.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Adjacent Opposites of the Gastronomic Scale

Opposite ends of a spectrum by their nature don't usually meet. You'll find a curious exception on Market street at Montgomery in San Francisco. On the left, Japanese Sweets makes dessert delicacies and beside it hotdog vendor, Zog's Dogs.

No doubt these two attract different clientele. An intriguing contrast nonetheless.

Platform Thinking: History Beats Jarvis' Edict by 170 years.

In What Would Google Do? Jeff Jarvis makes many great observations about the new rules of business success that have emerged in the last 10 years.

One example is platform thinking, in which products and services deliver the utility they were designed to, but which users go on to embrace and use for purposed well beyond the original intent.

Jarvis gives the example of Craig's List and Google Earth which have been adopted in new ways never originally envisioned. And with the dramatic popularity of apps for its handheld device, Apple's iPhone is perhaps the ultimate testament to platform thinking by delivering utility that have nothing to do with the phone at all.

We were delighted to find a historical predecessor to this digital idea by some 170 years.

An emigrant ship Niantic was moored and then marooned at a site now deep in the heart of San Francisco's financial district. It was covered in a shingle roof and housed offices and stores on the upper deck, while the hull became divided warehouses. A wonderful historic example of people taking an idea, making it their own and giving life to new uses, ones delivering valuable utility that was never anticipated by the original builders. Like their digital counterparts today, we're sure they were equally pleased.

[Click on image to enlarge]

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Lax grammar sends the opposite message

In LA this week, returning a rental car to the airport I passed a white truck. Its sides were emblazoned with the company's name, which was intended to describe the business it is in:

Nothing may seem wrong but something is seriously awry.

The company is in the business of transporting perishable items, one presumes for the restaurant or hotel trade, and perhaps even hospitals. Careless grammar, however, suggests that fragility and decay are what befall the logistics themselves that the company manages. Not likely to inspire much confidence in the service, needless to say.

The fix is simple: Perishables Logistics.

One imagines that the company has no idea it is sending the opposite message to the one it intends, all because it misses the letter 's'.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Reaching Back to the Past in a Time of Flux

Storytelling has very much been on our minds. In a recent talk to some students at SF State University we'd proposed it is the essence of account planning. Of course, its roots are altogether more human, for storytelling is a crucial cultural mechanism, vibrantly alive today in the digital age of Facebook updates and tweets, of Flickr and blogs.

This latest social media initiative by Virgin on Facebook strikes an appropriate chord with the times, not just because of its invitation to be part of a global village (Marshal McLuhan anyone?) but through its promotion of Elders.

Elders are a timely idea for two reasons:

First, it affirms the idea that there is value to the opinions of generations that precede us. The elderly have become significantly marginalized in US society, not so much due to intent but nonetheless through a shift over time. Retirement communities have removed them from the mainstream and deny us an opportunity to learn from the richness of their experience.

The second reason we think the idea of Elders is timely is because the term harkens back to an earlier time of storytelling, in which their knowledge was shared at the gathering around a communal fire. For sure, it was a time when life expectancy was half what it is today! But like the campfire itself, there is a simplicity, an enduring warmth about the intimacy of physical (rather than distributed) connectedness.

We believe this yearning is in direct response to what confronts so many people today: the contradictions and ambiguity, the uncertainty of extremes, the fragmentation and convergence and of the deeply unsettling flux, one in which the old rules have already given way and nothing has yet has emerged to replace them. We'd say that yearning for 'old ways' for a former time is not isolated. Like the emergence of artisanal character in the world of consumer goods in recent years, it is a response to it. A way of coping with it. Until sureness should return underfoot, there shall be more of it to come.