how a 100-year-old story can help us build better

June 4, 2010 | add comment

“You mustn’t say anything against the Machine,” says the main character of E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops. Forster’s world is one that worships technology. Communication is virtual and constant. Like instant messaging. Friends in other countries materialize before you to chat. Like Skype. Information is omnipresent, but reverb outweighs originality. Like Twitter. Oh, and the story was first published in 1909.

Eerily prophetic, this 100-year-old tale foretells how we communicate today. In doing so, it forces us to think about how we approach technology.

The next time you’re creating an iPhone app or a social media presence, etc., consider three key principles of Forster’s story that describe our age:

1. Information is more accessible than ever.

In Forster’s world, information of any sort is attainable via knobs, levers and wires. People jump from one topic to the next because there’s so much to choose from, and it’s all at their fingertips. Minds never rest, bodies rarely move away from the control board. (Might we credit the author with predicting the obesity epidemic too?)

Content is amazingly accessible in our age too. This is a gorgeous thing. From a CMO’s standpoint, it’s also terrifying. The increase in the availability of information makes it much harder to stand out amid the noise.

There are more than 125,000 apps in the iTunes Store. Every few minutes, another is submitted. What will make yours succeed? What new information are you providing, and why is your method of delivery or interaction better than existing models?

2. In-person communication is being replaced and enhanced by virtual methods.
Back to Forster. The Machine controls everything: transportation, telecommunications, lighting, music, food, death…everything. It even has a button for forgotten words. (Handy.)

Forster’s downfall was that he saw technology as a force that pushed people away from one another. He assumed it mandated how people used it. But we can choose to create things that enhance communications and bring people closer together.

We’re already doing so with virtual communications and mobile technology. Location-based services are in their infancy. That’s fertile ground not just for entertaining game play, but for helping people build relationships while navigating spaces around them.

3. We find silence disturbing.

Towards the end of the story, the Machine breaks down, and humanity goes with it. They’re lost on their own in a sea of silence. They’ve gotten so caught up in the accessibility of information that the conduit has become a crutch to their minds.

We’re nowhere near that apocalypse, but it’s an amplification of what we experience when the internet breaks. We momentarily forget how we behaved without it.

Our minds want to be filled. We’ve grown accustomed to relying on the tools in our hands to do so. Half of all time spent on mobile phones is devoted to social networking.

The next time you’re out to eat, look at the number of people on phones—texting while chatting, checking into Foursquare, taking photos of their meals. We’re overflowing with options and tools to replace silence.

Instead of simply replacing silence or adopting the “let’s build it so we have it” solution, ask yourself why you’re creating a mobile app or a Twitter presence to begin with. Because they’re popular? That alone is a poor reason. Design experiences and apps that maintain a long-term outlook, that add value on an ongoing basis.

Value is sustainable. And as the chart in this BBH post shows, it works on a range of levels, from inspiration and entertainment to utility and access. Approached successfully, it’ll invite repeat use or engagement.

In Forster’s world, silence is disturbing because people don’t know what to do without technology. We’re far more creative than that. Our problem is we don’t know what not to do with it. Taking a step back from technology and figuring out what people want and how they behave is a necessary first step in developing products and services that will delight and withstand.

real men of genius

March 7, 2010 | add comment

When I moved to New York in 2003, I had the privilege of working for the man who invented the Hamburglar (and went on to run DDB Worldwide). Keith Reinhard hired me to intern with Business for Diplomatic Action. During that time he encouraged me to pursuit my interest in copywriting, the field he started out in. I drafted a handful of radio spots for the Bud Light “Real Men of Genius” campaign that DDB Chicago ran at the time. A few worth sharing: Mr. Proverb and Cliché Reciter, Mr. Air Guitar Player and Mr. Neighborhood Dog Walker.

BUD LIGHT PRESENTS…MR. PROVERB AND CLICHÉ RECITER

Bud Light presents Real Men of Genius.
Background vocals: Real Men of Genius

Today we salute you, Mr. Proverb and Cliché Reciter.
BV: Mr. Proverb and Cliché Reciter

You’ve got a way with words, even if they’re not your own.
You say a rolling stone gathers no moss. Have you ever seen a stone roll?
BV: Such wise words

Like an endless bowl of fortune cookies, you’ve got an answer for everything.
You can have your cake and eat it too. But when would you ever not eat your cake?
BV: Oh! That cake is tasty

Sure, curiosity killed the cat. But did it ever so much as scratch the people?
BV: Back off crazy cat

So crack open an ice cold Bud Light, man of borrowed expressions.
Because when life throws lemons, you may not make lemonade, but you’ll tell others to.
BV: Mr. Proverb and Cliché Reciter

Bud Light Beer. Anheuser-Busch. St. Louis, Missouri.

BUD LIGHT PRESENTS…MR. AIR GUITAR PLAYER

Bud Light presents Real Men of Genius.
Background vocals: Real Men of Genius

Today we salute you, Mr. Air Guitar Player.
BV: Mr. Air Guitar Player

You don’t sport a leather jacket. Nor do you wear assless pants. You don’t even own a guitar. Yet somehow you’ve become the world’s biggest rock-n-roller.
BV: Living in a dream

So what if you never made the high school band? Nobody knows you’re tone deaf now, music man.
BV: Play on!

You don’t know how to play an E chord because you don’t need to know how to play an E chord.
BV: Keep playin’ on!

So crack open an ice cold Bud Light, Johnny B not so good.
Because when the jukebox kicks in, that tavern is a one-man stage starring you. Did somebody say “encore”? I’m afraid not.
BV: Mr. Air Guitar Player

Bud Light Beer. Anheuser-Busch. St. Louis, Missouri.

BUD LIGHT PRESENTS…MR. NEIGHBORHOOD DOG WALKER

Bud Light presents Real Men of Genius.
Background vocals: Real Men of Genius

Today we salute you, Mr. Neighborhood Dog Walker.
BV: Mr. Neighborhood Dog Walker

They say dog is man’s best friend. With seven poodles to your left and two cocker spaniels to your right, you’re the most popular man in town.
BV: Man’s bestest friend

Your office is a tree-lined park. Your restroom is a fire hydrant. And your briefcase? A plastic baggy.
BV: Don’t forget the baggy

Thanks to you, Scamp no longer does his business on the living room floor.
BV: Good dog, Scramp

So crack open an ice cold Bud Light you keeper of the canines.
Because while your buddies prefer milk bones, you fancy the fresh, smooth taste of Bud Light.
BV: Mr. Neighborhood Dog Walker

Bud Light Beer. Anheuser-Busch. St. Louis, Missouri.

when good brands go brandless, part III

November 18, 2009 | add comment

A brand’s vanishing act risks being seen as oddly plucky or, worse, patronizing. This is particularly true if the reasoning behind it is rooted in a short-sighted quick fix or a publicity stunt. You might as well slap a Band-Aid onto an ulcer. In Parts I and II of this series, I looked at Muji, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Freshjive and, briefly, Al Green. Their changes in behavior imply not “brandlessness” but a desire to define a new brand or reinvent an existing one.

Motivating factors for their experimentation ranged from a new business line to product transformation to declining sales. Was it worthwhile? Redefining an established brand—even if this means making it less visible in the traditional sense—can certainly add value. But only if marketing performs in line with product and operations.

Muji’s behavior is evidence of a larger trend in which the brand is “baked in” to the product. The quotes, as you may have noticed, reference the new CP+B book written by Alex Bogusky and John Winsor. It’s subtitle captures the premise: creating products and businesses that market themselves. The book sounds like it was written by advertising gurus. Easy to read and full of clever lines. It’s as if they’re baked right into the product. Wait a minute…!

While Baked In serves as a handy illustration of how innovation fuels success, I found shortcomings in the idyllic setting it assumes. Baking the marketing into the product is of course excellent in theory, but it is far from practical or possible in most situations. The examples referenced (my favorite was the “Dog Edition” of the VW Passat ) are great, but the case studies lacked depth. I don’t know how to craft the type of atmosphere in which:
A.) CEOs, engineers and designers apply a marketing mindset to their daily jobs, or—
B.) marketers sit at the table with these folks early enough in the process to affect how the product and story are crafted.

“Baked in” is the exception to the rule. I agreed with almost everything that was in the book. But countless factors need to be aligned, some before a product is conceived much less rolled off the assembly line, for it to work. If it does, bravo. It may earn a place among an elite group that includes Muji, Google and Burger King’s Chicken Fries. Yet even if there is a delicious story baked into the product waiting to be told, the story isn’t always meaningful to the consumer. When the iPod launched, it’s distinct design and white headphones broke through. It also had an amazingly captivating and aggressive communications campaign that was entirely distinct from the product. Anything can be baked into a product. That doesn’t mean it will move off the shelves. Whatever’s baked in still needs to be communicated 99% of the time.

I began this series talking about symbiosis and the need for marketing to perform alongside product and operations—for them to complement one another. This holds true for all brands—new, stale, reinvented, rehashed, etc. If your business philosophy and communications align with what your audience cares about, it will be infinitely easier to get them to engage with your brand. Experimentation implies risk. All the more reason to be strategic in your actions. The difference between a well thought-out experiment and an irreverent publicity stunt will be seen in the bottom line. Address shortening attention spans with long-term thinking. Otherwise, the bird on the zebra’s back will only call attention to his crooked stripes.

when good brands go brandless, part II

November 12, 2009 | add comment

In Part I of this series, I looked at the idea of an established brand crafting a new identity and what that meant for Starbucks’ experimental café. When compared to Muji, it became clear that—regardless of name or logo—product and design are central to communications. Some of Muji’s products are created by known designers. While their names are absent from the work, they are associated with and, thus, represent the brand. Such behavior is sustainable.

This next post looks at two cases that seem hasty in comparison. In one, a company hid its ridiculously recognizable golden arches when introducing a product in Japan. In the second, a small clothing company dropped the logo from its product line. Were these mere publicity stunts? I’m not partial to spoilers…read on.

Last year, McDonald’s introduced the Quarter Pounder to Japan by way of two “Quarter Pounder Shops” in Tokyo. They looked like lounges, if not couture boutiques. The sleek, dark, minimal interiors had no name, no logo, no arches. The only food on the menu? Quarter pounders (regular or double) and French fries.

My friend Ayaka, who is from Tokyo, recalls seeing promotional posters without even realizing the McDonald’s name and logo were absent. This isn’t surprising, given that their food and packaging are so identifiable on their own—as was the smell of crisp fries wafting from the shops, I presume.

I didn’t find much in the way of other feedback. McDonald’s was chasing after a soundbite of attention and got little in return. The underwhelming reaction can in part be explained by location. The stores were opened in a metropolis defined by “sensory-overload.” The company might have found greater opportunity in opening them in rural Japan, where the nail that sticks out begs to be hammered. I did come across this amazing, campy site (golden arches included). Ayaka tells me it introduces the people who make the beef for McDonald’s, demonstrating that their food is trustworthy and healthy.

Moving on…

What about when a product line attempts to transform, if not reinvent, a brand? Not long ago, street wear fashion label Freshjive decided to drop all logos from its merchandise. Owner Rick Klotz cited disillusionment with marketing and a desire to re-focus on design as his motivation.

Consider this: Al Green began putting his effort into gospel music when his R&B records weren’t selling well. Do I doubt the true motives of either Green or Klotz in these instances? Not really, but as a native to the midwest I assume earnestness. Money may well have provoked the change in behavior. (Side note: I love you, Al Green.)

Klotz is even nixing logos from tags on the inside of t-shirts (more on that in this PSFK article). I imagine Freshjive’s core following will applaud the anti-logo decision. It seems to have been prompted by product design and stripping away anything that getting in its way. Plus, it is a smaller, more trusted company. But will the lack of identity hinder their success in reaching and retaining new consumers?

Each of the examples explored thus far points to the increasing importance of brand interaction (which Ian commented on in my previous post). Marketers need to think about brands in a contextualized atmosphere that takes into account how they are experienced as well as how product and operations function. This is all the more important when the motivating factor is publicity or money as opposed to, say, a philosophy shared with the consumer. I’ll conclude this series with a third post that summarizes my thoughts on brand behavior and the need for a symbiotic relationship.

when good brands go brandless, part I

November 9, 2009 | add comment

If a product has any sort of defined presence in the marketplace, going “brandless” may seem impossible—or potentially foolish. Intrigued by the logo-less café that Starbucks opened in Seattle this summer, I set out to explore that and other intentional moves to drop, disassociate or reinvent a brand. In comparing these efforts to Muji—a brand built on being brandless (sort of)—I looked at what value there is in seeking symbiosis and adopting a long-term perspective when experimenting with a brand.

Japanese retail store Muji was founded on principles of design minimalism and environmentally friendly practices. It has a “no-brand” policy, meaning you won’t see a name or logo on its wide variety of household and consumer goods—clothes, home furnishings, travel containers, etc. Spending very little on traditional advertising, Muji’s success lies in word of mouth. The brand appeals to those drawn to clean aesthetics (read: design snobs). It is authentic in that its lack of a brand has become the brand.

On the other side of the Pacific, in Seattle, is 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea. Refurbished chairs, wine by the glass, treats from local bakeries…all the makings of an indie refuge. Though the wavy-haired goddess logo is nowhere to be found, its website says “Inspired by Starbucks”—roundabout speak for “owned by” the coffee giant. The atmosphere draws inspiration from the original Starbucks on Pike Place. But confusion as to why Starbucks buried the name prompted reactions that were skeptical, if not cynical. In opposition to the smattering of positive comments on the 15th Avenue blog, one particularly amped up individual said, “FRAUD!!!!!!!! FAKE!!!!!!!! PHONY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Somewhere Holden Caulfield is smiling.

Starbucks is the world’s largest coffeehouse chain. Backlash was to be expected, despite their embracing a local community. The café is a one-off…an experimentation with a specialty sub-brand. It’s an attempt to regain authenticity by better serving a local neighborhood and catering to customers disenchanted with the formulaic chain. Starbucks is certainly big enough to handle such an experiment and the accompanying criticism, despite increasing competition from lower-priced rivals, as this Huffington Post article notes. Some found their behavior sneaky, but was it that different from when McDonald’s held majority ownership of Chipotle? Both are examples of fortune 500 players appealing to consumers seeking a different type of eating or dining experience.

Size notwithstanding, what distinguishes Muji from Starbucks is that its operations, product and marketing are inseparable. That’s why it doesn’t need to advertise. Few brands are so well aligned. So what value was gained in opening the 15th Avenue café? We don’t know just yet, but its store, product and marketing are at least on parallel tracks. I think it was wise to avoid the Starbucks logo. This is not an indie-looking Starbucks. It is a neighborhood coffee shop, one that supports and features local artists, musicians, poets…and even brings in tea masters to share their knowledge. Such behavior is supporting a new brand and vice versa. A second café is in the works.

And speaking of McDonald’s…

In Part II of this series, I’ll explore a logo-less move McDonald’s performed last year while introducing the Quarter Pounder to the Japanese market. Stay tuned.

berta’s tap room

October 14, 2009 | add comment

My dear grandpa Woody Berta owned a tavern in Ottawa, Illinois, across from the post office. He sold it years ago, but Berta’s continues on, with a pool table slightly askew and burgers arriving on toasted buns. Local legend Woody makes occasional appearances.

In the Tap Room’s heyday, my grandpa had a small flyer printed by the local Union boys. The front says “Berta’s TAP ROOM” and has a drawing of a bubbly martini glass. The lower right corner reads “Air Conditioned for Your Comfort.” The inside shows a map of the city limits. And the back…the back! It has one gem of a poem, reprinted below. My grandpa doesn’t remember who wrote it, but talk about “atmosphere.”

When you’re startin’ out some evening
And the night is cold and drear…
I’d suggest you stop at Berta’s
For a little “Atmosphere.”

Then next morning bright and early
When the “shakes” are getting’ near:
Yeah…you’re getting smarter, brother,
Woody fed ya too much beer.

When you’re reachin’ for the aspirin
’Cause your stomach’s feelin’ weak,
It’s ’cause Chuck was leanin’ heavy
On the bottle—so to speak.

Then you face the little woman
With those alibis galore…
When she’s finished in the bathroom—
Wipin’ Berta’s off the floor.

But you’re wrong, it isn’t whiskey
That’s got ya feelin’ queer—
Ray just poured an over-dose*
Of Berta’s “ATMOSPHERE”!!

*Ray was one of my grandpa’s brothers

god speaks from above

September 28, 2009 | add comment

God am I a fan of billboards quoting the almighty! If you haven’t seen them, chances are you’re on the right side of the Mason-Dixon. They’re more frequent in the South, like Waffle Houses. I recently compiled a list of ones friends and I have seen dotting the highway between here and heaven (I invented a few too). Buckle up.

“Have you read my #1 bestseller? There will be a test.”

“Burger for dinner on Friday? Have fun in hell.”

“When I call you up, it won’t be on an iPhone.”

“Your crazy ex-girlfriend isn’t the only one watching your every move.”

“We need to talk.”

“You know that ‘love thy neighbor’ thing? I meant it.”

“Follow me.”

“Pontius Pilot never flew an airplane.”

“Where else is bread and wine on the house every day?”

“Turn here for guidance.”

“I’ll be back.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger God

emoji puzzles me

August 21, 2009 | add comment

How do you measure an app’s success? The number of downloads, stars in the ratings, user comments, etc. Emoji, one of my favorite iPhone apps, led me to up the number of texts in my iPhone plan—a tremendous success metric for AT&T, anyway.

This Japanese application is a keyboard-accessible library of adorable (and occasionally odd) emoticons and pictures that spice up mobile messages, notes and emails. I love it. Though one downfall: it only works with other iPhones (thus augmenting the unfortunate “members only” mystique). In fact, depending on which non-iPhone you’re sending a text to, the message may vanish entirely…making it the mobile equivalent to lost laundry socks. The app still has upwards of tens of thousands five-star ratings.

My pal Stephen Koch told me about a game he and a few friends play where they use Emoji to illustrate band names. The recipient of the message has to decode them. I hopped aboard came up with a handful. Some are caveman-level easy, others are a bit obscure. G’luck.

Note: scroll down for answers

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A. The Beach Boys
B. The Stone Roses
C. Cat Power
D. The Killers (from Las Vegas)
E. Cut Copy
F. Guns and Roses
G. Red House Painters
H. Band of Horses

what is technology doing to serendipity?

August 10, 2009 | add comment

In Vacation (the original, where the family truckster heads to Wally World) Clark Griswold turns to Ellen and says, “Why aren’t we flying? Because getting there is half the fun. You know that.”

He’s talking about serendipity—making fortunate discoveries by accident. While plenty of Griswold’s road trip discoveries were less than opportune (e.g., cousin Eddie’s Hamburger Helper), his point is that serendipity is inherent to the journey. And thanks to technology, it’s under attack. Wait…what?

Last week, I read William McKeen’s New York times article (aptly titled “Serendipity”). He believes technology undercuts serendipity. While it leads to more choices and greater efficiency, in his words “there’s an emptiness in finding something quickly.” Because it is so easy for us to find exactly what we are looking for, we lose out on those dear moments of surprise that leap out from the shadows and send our hearts racing in unanticipated directions.

Coincidentally, I saw a friend’s tweet linking to Steven Berlin Johnson’s reaction to the McKeen article. SBJ’s take? Technology increases serendipity, making it easier to find random information or wander down non-linear paths. He refers to serendipity as “stumbling across something accidentally that is nonetheless of interest to you.” Keep that last bit in mind.

My opinion stands somewhere between those of McKeen and SBJ. Call me out for taking the easy road, but I think technology increases the amount of serendipity while decreasing the potency of it. Technology makes it incredibly easy for me to find content both related to and independent of what I’m looking for. I’m a few clicks away from figuring out what to do with the lemon balm growing in my window garden. And perhaps while I’m clicking, I’ll find a tasty recipe for lemon shortbread cookies. Or I’ll go completely off track and (somehow) end up reading about the new G.I. Joe movie. I wouldn’t encounter these while thumbing through The Complete Book of Herbs.

Serendipity, however, implies randomness within the equation. It is accidental in that it doesn’t relate to what you were doing or searching for. Technology makes the “randomness” less random (if more frequent). Sites like StumbleUpon and Pandora, both brilliant, expand my cultural or musical horizons within certain genres, but they don’t dabble far beyond the boundaries of my core interests. I guess I could make them, but that’s not what they’re intended to do. Some see sites like these as supporting homophily—the enemy of serendipity.

While there is an endless amount of fascinating and irreverent content online, completely random searches aren’t often fruitful. That is where they parallel the pre-internet days of yore. Scouring library shelves and rolling up your sleeves in some good, old-fashioned research is a painstaking process, but it makes those fortuitous occurrences all the more enchanting. For more on the internet, homophily, and hopes for a serendipitous digital future, have a look at this Ethan Zuckerman post. And here, my friend Ida Benedetto recaps Zuckerman’s take on serendipity and how we consume and interpret media.

While technology has made the road to serendipity narrower, that road is full of more frequent and more relevant surprises—in that they related to areas you’re already interested in. I still love getting newspaper ink on my fingers knowing I’ll find articles and stories that will never show up in my RSS feeds.

come on, get happy

May 15, 2009 | add comment

A glass half full will always lead to disputes—unless, perhaps, it is half full of whiskey.

Last month, I was invited by Ian Fitzpatrick to contribute to the Optimist Conspectus, a “compendium of contemporary optimism, one perspective at a time.” (Here’s mine) The Conspectus asks What you are optimistic about? and then looks at commonalities among the answers.

Ian—of Boston’s Almighty—started the project after observing a proliferation of optimism despite global unrest, the economic quagmire and a host of other planetary hazards (see: swine flu). Ian wants to explore where all this hope stems from, by visualizing shared words and perspectives. The plan is to create a map of optimism. I like the sound of that.

A few other perspectives I particularly enjoyed: Neil Perkin (fingers crossed for the Stone Roses), Matt Moore, Faris Yakob.

My cynical side shines on occasion, but I believe in optimism and the powers of collective hope. According to my local library, at least 178 others do too—that’s how many before me requested Michael J. Fox’s new book, Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist. The two-part question on my mind is this: Is optimism greater when times are difficult? And if so, why is it easier to be optimistic when the metaphorical skies are cloudy?

I think this resurgence of hope is rooted in a greater effort in seeking it out…and a greater appreciation when we do find it. I liken this to the upward trend in restaurants offering home style cooking. Just as we find comfort in mom’s casserole, we are eased by those glimmers of hope that tomorrow will be better than today. In the midst of a recession, optimism is to our minds as breakfast food is to our appetites. We appreciate it. We crave it. And we want it served all day long.

There’s no shortage of optimism in our industry. PepperDigital’s Sam Ford, who also contributed to the Conspectus, summed up the why in saying “recessions provide a very helpful culling and pruning process for most industries. Outmoded practices and processes get re-evaluated and phased out, and companies are often forced to innovate or fade away.” If history is any teacher, now is the ideal time to churn out some exquisiteness. As explained in this BusinessWeek article, recessions act as innovation catalysts…they can be a good thing for your company. Consider these two welcome additions to my life: Trader Joe’s and Apple’s first iPod—both arrived in the middle of economic downturns in 1958 and 2001, respectively.

Why wouldn’t we always try to innovate? Throw laziness and disillusionment out the window. Now is the time for the big guns to start acting like start-ups, for the start-ups to keep experimenting, and for the experimenters to enforce greater constraints. As for you? It may just be time to cue up Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” and slide across the floor in your socks. Sans trousers. It’s just that exciting.