Gothic Churches and Retail Displays

The art of the merchandising display is the focus this week at the Global Shop conference in Las Vegas. There are giant bottles of Knob Creek, Zombie Baby Dolls, hair care products, lottery ticket dispensers and an unimaginable host of other products. Some of it is terrific, some of it is terrible and most of it mundane. What strikes me is that while all of it is eye catching, it isn’t always the kind of thing to engage the shopper.  Product features are clear and brand identification is almost always an easy task, but there is little that tugs at the heart strings, little that tells a story. And it is the lack of underlying meaning that has me thinking about history and what we can learn, and apply, from its study. Retail displays specifically have me thinking about the Gothic churches of Europe.

The Gothic age produced the great cathedrals of Europe and brought a full flowering of stained glass windows. Churches became taller and lighter, 
walls thinned and stained glass was used to fill the increasingly larger 
openings in them. Stained glass became the sun filled world outside. Abbot 
Suger of the Abbey of St. Denis rebuilt his church in what is one of the 
first examples of the Gothic style. He brought in craftsmen to make the 
glass and kept a journal of what was done. He truly believed that the 
presence of beautiful objects would lift men’s souls closer to God.

The works served several purposes aside from the architectural. First, for a population that was almost wholly illiterate, the depictions of 
bible stories would serve as illustrations and lessons for the priests and 
bishops to point to during mass. Second, they created a holy ambience that would focus the congregation. The 
stained glass would change the color and quality of the light in the knave, 
giving what to the peasant would seem an ethereal glow. This created an 
atmosphere “primed” for worship, convenient since most of those present 
wouldn’t understand the Latin lessons anyway. Third, symbolically they represented a membrane between the sacred and the 
profane. Through the window was the real world. Sin, hate, pain, suffering. 
The stained glass was a shield from that into the sanctuary of the church 
and instead made the window a symbolic looking glass into the Heavens. Quite a lot of structural and functional utility in such a simple concept.

And so I return to retail and the displays we find in them. What works well lifts the spirit. It does more than catch they eye, it transforms the experience. The pieces that don’t work are simply loud. They impart feature information, but tell no story. They are indeed noticeable at fifty feet, but they don’t invite you to come in.

As with the retail space in its entirety, its elements should, ideally, come together to tell a story that is symbolically charged, drawing the consumer and/or shopper into the story, captivating them and providing information about the human condition, not just the product. For example, the Makita display here at the conference encourages the viewer to physically engage with the tools, but it does far more. It is made of steel, rivets and brushed, beaten metal on proud display. It reflects in every element of its design the idealized imagery of labor, adding a sense of value to the professional construction worker and a sense of mythic masculinity to the novice. The display tells a story about the person viewing it, not just the product, creating a partnership between the customer and the brand.

Just like the experience that the stained glass and sweeping arches of the Gothic cathedral was designed to convey, so to should retail. And this holds true whether you are Frito Lay, Miller Lite, or Sony. That means understanding that shoppers and consumers do more than seek out information and features. They may not be able to articulate those needs in a survey or traditional interview, but they are there. It’s just a matter of uncovering them and turning them into something more than a sign.


What Insights Come From Your Toilet? Good Ones.

I am in Las Vegas this week as a judge for the OMA Awards. One would think my eyes and ears would be riveted to signs and displays. Outside the Global Shop Expo, I should be focusing my anthropological heart and mind on gambling, the spatial layout of the resort/casinos, the press of human life as in decends into unabashed hedonism.  And in many ways these are indeed the places my mind has indeed gone to, but they are not the primary places.  No, after half a day at the Sands and the other half at the Bellagio, my mind goes to toilets and bathrooms.

The flush toilet is recognized in the West as an icon of modernity. It is 
often the first thing that pops to mind when thinking about the bathroom, 
but the thing we discuss the least ­ it is often hidden within larger bathrooms and is the last object we want to display when we give the tour of 
the home. Even with the lack of willingness to talk about toileting, we take 
the toilet as a symbol of our civilized nature. Toilets, like basins and 
baths, are often in attractive colors or designs. We tend to believe that 
our toileting habits are the best, as are our toilets, and that they reflect 
progress, hygienic superiority and the civilizing nature of our world-view. 
But interestingly, in the 1930s only 30% of American houses had indoor flush 
toilets. In the economic boom following WWII a fully-fitted bathroom, then 
later multiple bathrooms, became standard even in modest American homes.

Sometimes aspiring families in poor countries or countries enamored with 
the image of the West will install a porcelain pedestal in their home to 
demonstrate modernity, status and progress. The toilet gives them the upper hand in terms of social capital. They may even install the toilet even if 
there is no piped water connected to make it work or a sewer system in which 
to deposit “the goods.”

Here in Las Vegas, they are symbols of opulence and leisure. Materials, colors and even sounds are orchestrated with the precision and artistry of Mozart. And it is not just Las Vegas – there is a men’s room in Hong Kong that is something of a tourist attraction because of its striking view of the city. The point is that bathrooms, toilets and plumbing are more than they perhaps seem.

In all cases, excreta must be completely disassociated from the individual generating them. They should be invisible (even unscented where possible) and above all anonymous. The system of flush toilets we use lead to communal sewers and make the separation of the individual the waste not only possible, but mandatory. Toilets provide a strange, powerful link to a 
shared identity where everyone not only poops, but that poop becomes part of 
the collective identity, both physical and metaphysical.

So why does any of this matter? It matters because we often stop looking when we seek out insights about the uncomfortable or the mundane. Ask a person about their toileting habits and the answers will be half truths. Ethnography is often thought of in terms of interviewing with a brief home tour, but toileting provides an example as to why asking people about their preferred product benefits doesn’t work. You have to expand the realm of inquiry and the means by which you collect data. If you want to understand people’s “shit” you have to visit public bathrooms, talk to the kids, etc. Similarly, if you want to understand the motivations behind buying a car, or a beer, or anything else, you have to expand the scope of inquiry to tease out those pieces of information that would normally go overlooked.  In part, it’s because people don’t know what they don’t know, but it’s also because we often take our own cultural practices for granted. With something as simple as bathroom behavior, it’s easy for us to get lost in our own worldview and stop searching. Digging deeper reminds us that the mundane is often more complex than it seems. Understanding that complexity means understanding new sources of revenue, innovation and branding potential.

St. Patrick’s Day Approaches, es hora de divertirse

Soon, another year will have passed away and the first unofficial rite of spring will be upon us.  I speak of St. Patrick’s Day. The St. Patrick’s Day Parade has a pull as strong as gravity for the residents and spectators in any city.  Kansas City.  It has the usual high school marching bands and Knights of Columbus elders with swords and plumed hats (chapeaux might express the headgear better). Folks with green hair toss beads from decorated golf carts. Green coffee leads to green beer which eventually leads to Technicolor vomit and acts of less than dignified passions.

In the U.S., St. Patrick’s Day has become a symbol of many things; the joy of excess being a primary one. But what does St. Patrick’s Day mean in in different places? In Boston it harkens back to an idealized sense of Irish identity, but what does it mean in Dublin?  Or Boise? Or Kinshasa?  In LA or Omaha, it’s easy to find proof that everybody’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. More than any other ethnic holiday in the United States, St. Patrick’s Day has crossover appeal, at least for now. It’s so mainstream, in fact, that its original meaning (as a rite of Roman Catholic, Irish-American solidarity) has been eclipsed by a broader message. St. Patrick’s Day is reinvented with every generation, being adapted to meet the needs of a wide range of populations.

In the US, St. Patrick’s Day has become a sort of all-purpose celebration of American diversity. Irish-Americans are a success story, and St. Patrick’s Day is a story of American possibility and upward social mobility. When you have Mexican kids in Brooklyn celebrating it, they are celebrating the possibilities of America and ethnic advancement. When you have Spanish-language advertising incorporating the shamrock, it is a form of bricolage that has little to do with the Saints. When you have kids of Spanish, Cuban, Greek, German, Scottish, French and Irish ancestry, as with my own, dawning the green and announcing their Irish affiliation, it is not a matter of ethnic identity so much as it is a wonderfully boisterous day to let down their hair after a bleak and dreary winter. What’s really being celebrated in the US is America, not Ireland. It took generations for the Irish to really become assimilated, and it will take generations for other groups.

Outside the US, similar thoughts no doubt apply. Even in the land of the holiday’s origin, where the demographic structure and national identity are in rapid transition, the holiday has taken on a new meaning. It is a celebration of overcoming adversity and the beauty of life.

St. Patrick’s Day is known as a “thick” holiday, meaning it is rich with cultural meaning and symbolism. An ethnic festival can easily change into something that’s not quite so easily identified with an ethnic group. Understanding the fluid nature of culture and the ability people have to adapt symbols to meet their changing needs is key to understanding the motivations behind behavior.

How authentic is it all?  Is there any authenticity in “authenticity”?  And does it even matter? From an anthropological perspective, authenticity once was tied to a cultural construct and typically represented an idealized version of the past. Even if that past was relatively brief in the grand scheme of history, even if it was tied to a single individual around with an idealized perception had been built, it was still part of a symbolic system that pointed to key elements of character and meaning. Authenticity placed the contemporary group, in this case the parade goer, into a symbolic lineage with the past, giving it legitimacy and defining a structure for what is and is not “real.”  In other words, “authenticity” is a kind of invented tradition and a series of symbolic markers that people believe represent how things should be.  But this doesn’t mean St. Patrick’s Day is somehow false.  It is simply transformed to take on new meaning and new relevance.

While there are those that will dismiss St. Patrick’s Day with a cynical comment about the lack of Irishness or the excess of consumption, there is something beautiful about it.  Going beyond Irish heritage, it welcomes into the spectacle a host of inner-city students, immigrants, etc.  It becomes less a symbol about nationality/ethnicity and more a symbol of community engagement and a precursor to that other expression of the awakening of spring, Easter.  There is a great deal of beauty in the shared experience of the immigrant nation and the celebration of emergence from poverty.

St. Patrick’s has lost much of its religious flavor (as has Easter), but it has gained a unifying quality. As Nietzsche said, “God is dead.”  God isn’t really dead, but his traditional form is being secularized and is evolving with cultural/civilizational forms out there. Sure the forms exist, but with a few exceptions these forms have as much relevancy to the spirit that once animated them as the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade has to the spirit St. Patrick. They may be, as Jack Whelan said, “dead forms animated by the undead energies of nostalgia, jingoism, and other passions.”



Man The Hunter and Other Shopping Myths

In 1966 Richard Lee and Irven DeVore hosted a symposium titled “Man the Hunter.” The symposium resulted in a book of the same title and attempted to bring together for the first time a comprehensive look at recent ethnographic research on hunter gatherers. The concepts that came out of the work (and work by archaeologists) were streamlined, simplified and led to one of the most endearing myths of the modern age: Men hunt, women gather.  Men are driven be the need to complete a job, that’s about it. Over time, this basic tenet has found its way into how we think about men’s consumption and shopping habits – men are driven by the need to shop ( i.e. to perform tasks) in the simplest, most efficient way.  Simple, tidy theory. The only problem with this simple, tidy formula is flat wrong.

From a purely biological stand point it might make sense. The theory goes that over the bulk of human prehistory gender roles were established wherein men, due to sheer size and strength, hunted large game and therefore were less inclined to use environmental cues and linguistic subtlety to hunt down and kill animals.  Meanwhile, given the task of rearing the young and gathering the bulk of the food that was actually consumed on a daily basis, women became hardwired for language, cooperation and the ability to tease out subtleties in the environment. No doubt there is a shred of truth in all this, but unfortunately it overlooks some major flaws in the logic. The problem is that cooperative hunting is extremely complex and relies on interacting intimately with the environment and other members of the hunting party. On top of that, while men were out hunting for large animals, it might take a damn long time to track it, kill it and then get it back home.  Consequently, men foraged and hunted small game along the way.  In other words, they were doing the same tasks as women and thus, the same evolutionary principles should be in play.  But the real key to all this is the linguistic element.

Bear with me for a moment, because this talk about language is where the myth of male shopping patterns as an extension of “Man the Hunter” breaks down. Human beings are the only animal with the capacity for language.  With have both wonderfully large areas of the brain devoted to it and a general physiology that allows us to create the sounds we do (e.g. the hyoid bone). Why does it matter?  Because language is inherently symbolic.  The sounds in the word “tree” have nothing to do with the object itself, for example.  The long and the short of it is that the human brain and the ways in which we understand the world are hardwired to make use of symbolism.  And shopping is a highly symbolic act.  Overlooks the underlying behavioral structures and you miss tremendous opportunities. It’s all rather heady stuff, but the result is simple. Context shapes everything and whether hunting or shopping, there is more to our behavior than meets the eye.

First of all, men will always say they dislike shopping and that they treat it like a task.  Shopping is a job and all about efficiency and finding the best deal (this is the point at which all of us men are supposed to eat a steak and thump our chests).  Men say it, but is it true?  No, it is not. We say it because as a culture we have been trained to say we hunt, we solve problems and we see shopping as a task.  It is a cultural norm we use to define our masculinity, not a reflection of reality.  As with all shopping, there is an element of performing a task – we shop for groceries because we die if we don’t eat.  Men, and marketers, like to think that’s the end of the discussion, but it is not.  Shopping, unlike consuming, involves a series of subconscious, symbolic interactions and men, just like women, respond to these symbols.  So what are the examples?

First, men often use shopping as a tool to teaching values and cultural norms.  It is most obvious when you see a father and son in a sporting goods store.  It isn’t enough to track down a new baseball glove. Fathers use this time, this shopping time, to teach the boy how to select a good glove, how to be a good and sport and how to bond with the child.  Watch a father shop with his daughter and you see similar teaching moments emerge. The retail environment becomes a stage on which he can impart wisdom and reinforce his role as father.

Which leads to the second example.  Men use shopping to establish and reinforce gender and marital roles. For example, when husbands and wives shop for groceries together, there is more going on than simple provisioning of the household. Men frequently slip items into the cart that are not on the list. The catch is that they do this when their wives can see them. It isn’t about sneaking a treat into the cart. It is about using shopping as a means by which playfulness and sexuality are rekindled. In terms of the general shopping process, men defer to their wives’ expertise in all things domestic, even when they are perfectly capable of selecting the right foods. Body language becomes more timid and responses to question take on more hedges and/or apologies. The shopping becomes a platform for defining household roles.

Which leads to the third example.  Men using shopping to display skills and mastery.  In a retail setting that makes men feel as if they articulating their knowledge and skill to the world, they become more likely to make random purchases.  Watch men in hardware stores or when buying a car.  They tend to exhibit more non-verbal cues of strength (standing straighter, more use of the precision grip, etc.) and tend to spend more time examining objects in detail than they would in other settings.  The catch is that they frequently have no more expertise than anyone else.  In this instance, shopping is a way of establishing status and self-worth.

Finally, though they may not want to admit it, men use shopping as play time.  The retail experience is a playground, plain and simple.  The catch is that the space needs to make men feel like they have license to play and explore.

So, Man the Hunter is a myth but what does it mean to you? Simply, quit thinking about Man the Shopper as if he is exclusively task driven. Take advantage of the symbolic and subconscious triggers that will get him to buy more products and become an advocate for your store.

  • 60% of men are using mobile apps when shopping, so do more than provide deals. Use language that reinforces his role as a good hunter, teacher and/or spouse.  Design interfaces as games.  Provide outlets for displaying his skills to the world. The point is that he needs more than 10% off his purchase.
  • Develop retail environments and signage that reinforce his need to show his prowess and intelligence.  Use language and imagery that can be used as tools for teaching his children, not just as points of information throughout the store.
  • Use signage and displays that make him feel comfortable in a seemingly non-male setting.  Signage should be used as part of the overarching retail design strategy.  Incorporate “hidden” treasures in the retail setting that make him want to explore.
  • Incorporate male-focused elements into your general media strategy. If you sell candles (a traditionally female target audience), consider partnering to set up a display at the meat counter of a grocery (men, after all, are the “expert” grillers in most homes).

The end result in all of this is simple. Stop thinking about men as hunters and you will sell more merchandise. Keep thinking of them in this tired, old cliché and watch an overlooked opportunity pass you by.

Food, Blood and Marketing

Package it, slap a label on it and sell it for $4.99 a pound. It’s as simple as that when you’re selling groceries, right? Hardly. Food, meat in particular, is tied to cultural sensibilities about production, cleanliness, family values and a host of other topics. Meat, like Norman Rockwell images of the American farm, is myth. We’ve been conditioned to turn away from the origins of our food and respond to blood and death with repulsion. Or have we? With the emergence of a “foodie” nation and a growing movement interested in eliminating those things we deem bad for us (nitrates, high fructose corn syrup, glutens, etc.) we are learning to appreciate where our food comes from again. But how far are most of us willing to go? Understanding what organic means doesn’t mean we’re ready to embrace everything. Take blood.

Blood is one of the least used parts of the pig and it’s a terrible waste.  Not just in resources, but as a culinary experience. And in many cases, it endows the adage “blood is thicker than water” with a wealth of meaning. It, like the butchering, is part of a family tradition — it creates bonds of familial piety, it teaches lessons about the importance of food is the greater social milieu, it pulls people together in a primal understanding of the role of the family bond in survival. It even teaches us about cosmology.  It may look like just a bunch of blood and gore, but it is so very much more. But the idea of selling blood as an ingredient at the local grocery, or even a natural food store like Whole Foods, is probably more than most Americans are willing to stomach, literally and figuratively.

With wealth comes the desire to learn about where our food comes from, how it’s produced and what exactly is in it. But in a postmodern world where our food is often more a badge than an actual need or culinary norm, we have limits to what we’ll accept. The point is that shopping for food is an increasingly complex process as has less to do with securing calories than it does with symbols and meaning. And the same can be said for most products. If you’re a marketer, that means understanding layers of complexity that may have gone overlooked in the past and developing strategies to account for that complexity. Anything less and your plan is a bloody mess.


Marketing More Than Features: Windows to the Soul

We spend an awful lot of time marketing features to individuals; neat little segments that correspond to the demographic data we glean from surveys and similar devices.  We talk about features, function and material benefits. The catch is that people work, live and think in terms of a socio-cultural system. That means they are frequently doing more than buying things and that the reasons for their choices (and the marketing they respond to) are more complex than what the numbers tell us.  As an example, look at how we frequently market something as seemingly functioanl as windows.The window is more than glass.  It holds symbolic meaning on numerous levels and tells us a great deal about a culture, a time frame, the nature of a place, etc.  It is a liminal juncture that serves as both gateway between the inside and the outside world. Liminality is a period of transition where normal limits to thought, self-understanding, and behavior are relaxed – a situation which can lead to new perspectives. One’s sense of identity dissolves to some extent at this juncture. These can range from borders at the entry to a house to airports or hotels, which people pass through but do not live in. The window is a transparent border and signifies a powerful transition between the inside and the outside world.  The window signifies the border between Place and Space.

Not surprisingly, there seems to be a great deal of discussion around curtains, blinds and the ways by which we frame our windows. In some cases these mechanisms are primarily functional, serving to block out interaction with the outside world and limit the ability to look into the closed space of the home.  They serve to cut off interaction.  In other instances they define the environment, framing the outside world in an ornate display that turns it almost into an abstraction. The frame signals that what is going on outside is beyond the bounds of the lived experience.  It also signifies that the window is something special, something with meaning and power, to the person or people within the home.

There is a powerful concept in Japan around the idea of uchi and soto. The basic concept revolves around dividing people into in-groups and out-groups. When speaking with someone from an out-group, the out-group must be honored, and the in-group humbled. This is achieved with special features of the Japanese language, which conjugates verbs based on both tense and politeness.  One of the complexities of the uchi-soto relationship lies in the fact that groups are not static; they may overlap and change over time and according to situation. Obviously, the concept applies to space, place and the transitions between the two.  The transitions are usually visibly marked in some way to signal that the dynamic of an interaction is about to change. The window works on a similar principle.

So what does this mean for someone designing or marketing windows, curtains, blinds, etc.? It means that the window is more than a series of feature and price points. It means that people endow windows with special meaning and that the things we use to frame them and reflect the cultural lives and realities of the people using them, and that changes the message entirely.  How does the window fit into the concept of “home?” What are the various meanings of “home” and how do you design or market to those?  As with so many things, it isn’t about the product, it’s about where the product fits into a person’s life.  Speak to those things and you’ve changed the nature of the conversation between the product, the brand and the people involved in the buying decision.

Smoke Signals: Information in an Age of Selective Bias

In the quest to connect every citizen of earth and expand the ideal of the Renaissance Man that we’ve held so dear since time immemorial, (which was allegedly sometime in the 1500’s) we’ve instead reverted to a tribal method of information consumption that shrinks our individual perspective and is creating a fragmented and myopic population.

Think of information consumption as a parallel to food consumption. On an individual level, we crave sugars, salt and fats. For most of human history, these were difficult to obtain, so when these are available our instinct is to gorge. Now, while all three are difficult to avoid, we still have an urge to consume as much as we can, leading to obesity.

On a macro scale, we learn to love certain foods. We typically are conditioned to prefer local or regional cuisine and ingredients. It’s why everyone thinks their mom has the best pot roast or the best spaghetti. It’s also why if you’re a Texan in China and see BBQ on the menu, you’ll linger over the menu even if you know it won’t be the same.  The behavior that informs media consumption is remarkably similar to these same concepts, now more than ever.

Why? Choice and availability. Instead of allowing media and information to broaden our perspective we are instead picking our  sources for information a la’ cart that already conform to our worldview. Think Fox News pundits for conservatives or Air America for those left of center. One can also compare media sites in America to sites based in the U.K. (BBC) or Saudi Arabia (Al Jazeera) to see how the culture reflects in the presentation of news. An individual’s worldview can be described as the fundamental cognitive orientation of an individual that includes normative postulates, philosophy, values, emotions and ethics. It is the framework through which an individual interprets and interacts with the world.

How does one develop their worldview? As with your palate, familial, social and cultural factors play a large role in shaping a worldview during development. As one gets older, the sphere of influence expands from family to family friends to peer groups and trusted informants.The twist is, with greater interconnectivity and communication than ever before, it appears that worldviews are shrinking. The amount of information an average American ingests daily has increased exponentially, while the range of information has decreased; evolving us into us into an arguably more myopic nation than we were 10 years ago.

Considering the fragmentation of media sources, it shouldn’t be surprising that news and information consumption is looking more like a landscape of competing tribes than a multi-channeled entity. Social media, the internet and smart phones allow us to talk to anyone at any time. They’ve also given every consenting subscriber a platform to publish or share ideas. If we’re not turning into our favorite news channel or reading our segment or demographically oriented magazine, we’re reading opinions and “journalism” from blog websites or social media figures we trust.

Why do we trust them? Is it because they’re operating as transparent entities? Do they have a track-record for accuracy? More often than not it’s because they tell us what we want to hear, or at least in language we understand. It’s the concept of subculture as applied to media. We trust and give attention to outlets or channels that conform to us.

So what? How do businesses and media outlets evolve to succeed in this rapid paradigm shift? Do we as capitalists find ways to exploit this for monetary gain, even if that means our culture is dumbed down to the lowest common denominator? Do we redact our fragmented news landscape to put action behind the words of praise we offer to the Renaissance Man ideal? In reality, the only way to do that would be censorship. Perhaps the real question is, “How do we monetize the new paradigm without compromising our culture?”