Fostering a More Creative Work Environment: Purpose, Power, and Politics

Creativity and innovation are always in demand.  Well, to be more accurate, the ideas of wanting creativity and innovation are always in demand. The reality is often far different. Most of us recognize the necessity of creative processes at work, regardless of whether we’re taking about strategic planning, insights development, product design, or the next big campaign. We recognize creative thinking as central to generating new ideas that lead to greater brand recognition, breakthrough products, and increased profits. 

We know all this and yet creativity is something that often dies before it can get a foothold. That begs the question, if creativity is so valuable to an organization, why does corporate culture regularly frown upon the very pursuits that lead to ground breaking innovation? Why do companies so often suppress creativity, both tacitly or overtly? While there is no doubt room for as many opinions as people, I think it largely comes down to three primary elements: Purpose, Power, and Politics.

Purpose. Companies hire people tasked with strategic thinking and innovation that they think are smart, inventive, and inclined to curious. They invest in people who tend not to think in terms of perpetuating the status quo or who are inclined to think in a linear fashion. They hire people who think differently. While those people are intriguing and exciting during the interview and indeed the first few months of joining the corporate team, they are also disinclined to conform to the standard practices of the organization. They do not sit typing at their desks, revisiting the same spreadsheets endlessly, or thinking about how to shave 10 cents off the production price of some widget. They are the people who find new product ideas while visiting the museum, create new strategies while shopping for dog food, and draw insights that can be applied to messaging through reading a Victor Hugo. Unfortunately, these sorts of activities run counter to business culture. If the activity can’t be readily quantified or tied to a specific project of the moment, it is trivial at best, a waste of time at worst. What this means is that if creative thinkers don’t conform to the expected, day-to-day behavior of the organization, they are ultimately devalued, even though it was their non-traditional methods that got them hired in the first place.

Innovative thinkers don’t simply solve problems. They are engaged in a process of discovery that is its own reward. If that way of thinking is understood at the institutional level as superfluous or meritless, then creativity and innovation die. These people have a quality that allows them to identify significant opportunities and to find creative solutions. If they aren’t rewarded or if they are devalued, they leave. And the organization loses out.

Power. Power can be defined in many ways. Most simply, it is the ability to get what you want. But what is it people want? Often it is greater power and recognition by the organization of their indispensability. Control leads to greater value and an increase sense of self-worth. Often, embracing creative thinking is interpreted by members of leadership as opening oneself to personal and professional risk. The result is that creativity is subject to conflicts from the highest levels of the organization, down to the lowest.

With power comes, many times, a decline in the ability to step outside your own way of looking at the world and embrace new ideas. While leadership leads to a unified vision and direction for the company, power often also distorts reality. Many leaders come from a traditional cultural system that rewards organizations producing regular, predictable outcomes and profits. There is a singular focus on how things should be done that often produces a lack of flexibility. Encouraging more creativity means letting go of control and questioning the status quo. This has two results. First, it means that uncertainty is now part of the business equation. Business people are, understandably, typically trained to avoid risk, making this a difficult shift in thinking. But relinquishing a degree of control frees up creatives to explore uncarted water. Embracing the way creative types think, learn, and act often means more than relinquishing a degree of control. It means reevaluating power roles and your own sense of purpose.

Politics. For all practical purposes, organizational politics are essentially an extension of the issue of power, but I separate the topic here simply because it is about those in search of power rather than those who have it. Creative thinking means being willing to think about the big picture, to embrace the whole rather than the parts. That means people are asked to do things in ways they haven’t before, thus challenging not only their worldview, but also their place in the pecking order. Once a happy rut has been established, it is difficult to get out of it. We are encouraged by the system to stay within the confines of these ruts, receive our paychecks, and maintain the status quo. We guard our kingdoms jealously. Consequently, innovation and creativity become subject to internal jockeying and stale thinking. The flatter the organization, the more likely it is that creativity can flousrish.

So What? So what can be done to foster creativity in an organization? What needs to change? First, reward people for doing things differently and providing new, creative ideas. Encourage teams and individuals to experiment with new ways of learning. Encourage engineers and designers to spend a day at the natural history museum. Promote reading books other than the latest business book – poetry, science, anthropology philosophy, whatever gets the mind running at top speed and in new directions. In other words, give people license to think and act in creative ways rather than tying them to the same chain of behavior they have been tied to in the past.

Second, there needs to be more than sustained excitement at the top. Be sure there is long-term, clear, open support by leadership and management at all levels. Make it very clear that it is encouraged throughout all levels of the organization. If leadership does not openly embrace and loudly promote its commitment to creative thinking, it will die on the vine. Ultimately, talking about being a creative organization and actually performing as a creative organization are very different things. And that starts at the foundational level.


What Can We Learn From Esports?

Esports are still in their infancy when compared to the lengthy traditions of traditional sports. Hell, it’s debated whether they even are a sport (though I would be inclined to say it’s not really relevant – just tune into ESPN’s multitude of channels and there are any number of things being broadcast they may or may not be “sports”). To my mind there are a couple of interesting aspects to the emergence of esports: the growth or the industry itself and, perhaps more importantly, what we can learn and apply to other categories.

The structure of Activision Blizzard’s Overwatch League sounds like what you would expect from the launch of a modern professional sports league. There are city-based teams with a high-cost entry that ensures serious ownership, player support in the form of good salaries and benefits, plus housing and training facilities. Weekly regular season matches with featured primetime matchups between top teams along with yearly tournaments. However, Overwatch League is an esports league, and its foundation may not only further normalize the public’s perception of esports, but also raise the standard for future esports leagues after it begins its first season later this year.

Nine city-based Overwatch League teams have been created with owners including Robert Kraft (New England Patriots), Jeff Wilpon (New York Mets), and Andy Miller (Sacramento Kings and NRG esports). The international league has teams from LA, New York, London, Shanghai, and Seoul. Season 1 will be played in an LA studio, but this is where things start to get really interesting – plans are for teams to have home and away games as soon as facilities are available in host cities.

Esports traditionally have regional-based competitions that culminate a few times a year in international tournaments (or majors) where a global audience comes together to watch teams compete for millions of dollars in prize money, and, in turn, generate ridiculous viewership numbers. Popular tournaments range from hundreds of thousands of viewers up to the standard-setting 43 million people who watched the 2016 League of Legends World Championship finals, peaking at 14.7 million concurrent viewers. Overwatch League’s city-based approach should, ingeniously, generate a global following for these regular season games in addition to major tournaments, with both growing fan loyalty for local teams as events are hosted in team cities.

It’s important to note that, according to Newzoo, Overwatch is only currently ranked as the 5th most viewed game on, the popular streaming site owned by Amazon. As such, it is still more of an up-and-comer than a proven franchise. The Overwatch League is a major play to expand its fan base, but its innovative operational standards will certainly influence the future structural approaches of more established esports like League of Legends, Counter-Strike: GO, Dota 2, and for a variety of future games.

Beyond the Overwatch League, we’re already seeing cities like Washington D.C. investing in esports by building a $65 million, 4,200-seat multipurpose arena and sponsoring NRG Esports in order to appeal to tourists and its younger population. Sponsorship and advertising opportunities will run the gamut, from ads playing during event broadcasts or in-venue, to multiple levels of involvement including individual players and teams, as well as the leagues and video games themselves. TBS, CW, ESPN, NBC, and Disney XD have all aired esports events on their broadcast channels and apps, and they are adding more to their slate in the future as they see the success achieved by online platforms like Amazon’s and Alphabet’s YouTube.

It’s not to say that the continued growth of esports hinges completely on it evolving into a more traditional sports model. It’s definitely a route that has to be explored as esports tries to more aggressively expand into a mainstream audience that has yet to validate it on the level of traditional sports. While traditional sports consumers may temporarily question the equivocations of esports on their television screens alongside poker and their favorite sport, esports long-term audience is not in doubt. Younger viewers aged 21 to 35 make up 53% of the esports audience and, statistically, enjoy watching esports as much as “real” sports. Esports have already normalized for this group and you can rest assured that the next generation will not need any further validation either.

And this is where thinking about the long game becomes important. Building brand affinity through cultural integration means building connections that last a lifetime. It’s a long-term commitment, not a gimmick. The earlier you bring a population into the fold, the sooner you become essential to the deeper cultural conversation. You aren’t reacting, you’re creating. For brands hoping to remain relevant, having a presence in the esports environment is extremely important, but so is learning from esports fans and competitors. We are watching what was once a fringe activity enter the mainstream; esports are becoming more concrete and reaching broader audiences. They are shifting culture. They are creating it. How they do it is something worth taking note of regardless of what it is your brand does.

Are Virtual Marketplaces Real? Does It Matter?

Over the past 20 years, give or take, virtual worlds have risen from the pages of science fiction and fantasy to a multi-billion-dollar industry that has slowly but surely become a large part of the lives of millions of people. Where they were once curiosities, they are now mainstays. Or at the very least, approaching that level. The fact that performance in these virtual worlds fulfills some of our most basic human needs (status, connection, power) we need to take them seriously.

And with their rise, questions around what they are vs. what they could be spring up. The debate over their social value rages as people seek to understand the dangers of virtual spaces. And few if any of these spaces are utopian. Indeed, probably driven by the anonymity the internet provides, they’re perhaps crueler than the physical world and lead to more disparate outcomes of fortune. But then, it’s not really about whether or not they’re better worlds. It’s about the fact that they are, or at least will become, worlds, and the distinction between the real and the virtual will likely cease to exist.

What a games and, increasingly, non-gaming VR environments are best suited to reveal is the degree to which social constructs such as status or morality are in the eye of the beholder. When you consider how tightly rationed progress is, be it true status or power, outside the game, how unclear the rules are, how loosely achievement is tied to recognition, and how much unpleasantness are required to be successful, the work we put into our virtual worlds seems like a bargain.

World of Warcraft is the primary example, but there are others. Destiny for example. These are open-ended worlds that have spawned all sorts of outcomes that were never written in its code: People met, fell in love, and were married. Rivalries and vendettas formed. Subcultures and cultural myths have started to take hold. Line between the game world and outside of it have blurred. Which begs the question, is the game world real? Does it matter? Are the purchases we make with virtual currencies in a virtual world any less rational than the other purchases we make? Ultimately, it is irrelevant – we make purchases and barter in digital worlds for the same reasons we buy every shirt we own after our first. To show off our wealth. To express ourselves. To demonstrate the social group to which we belong. To signal our personal taste or personal achievement. To find a mate. Value is for the marketplace to decide.

Martin Amor, CEO and founder of Hoard, understands this. His company’s goal is to enable true individual ownership of virtual goods and to create a marketplace for those goods that spans across all games and into the “real” world.

To quote him:

I started this company because I believe that there should be no distinction between virtual and real-world assets. I want it to be generally accepted that the time and effort spent on acquiring these items have real-world value. My goal is to be able to play a game one night, then the next morning go to a Starbucks and buy a coffee with some of the loot of that game.

The money with which he’ll pay for the coffee, is it real? Does it matter?

Eventually, sooner rather than later most likely, brands will be forced to reckon with a multiversal reality. It will start out of pure necessity — how do you reach your customers when they spend dozens of hours a week inside virtual worlds where you are nowhere to be found? But next will come a realization of the sheer expanse of opportunity, a new frontier perhaps unlike any we’ve ever seen. New worlds completely open to the development of ideas and experiences, unencumbered by the physical constraints of the “real” one, with a marketplace as ravenous as any we’ve ever seen.

As games become even more comprehensive, more immersive, and more populated, it seems a safe bet that the lines that still exist between realities will continue to blur to the point of nonexistence. In some cases, given the economic opportunity at play, it’s possible to imagine a full-time virtual existence being more than enough to pay the bills. Whether it’s virtual reality, or augmented reality, or something we haven’t even conceived of yet, what’s increasingly clear is this: Reality is in the eye of the marketplace, and the marketplace is going virtual.

After Saturday, Dark Tourism Is On My Mind

Over the weekend my daughters and I spend a bit of time explored the haunted places in our city. There are, evidently, far more than I had supposed. And as it turned out, there were far more people interested in the topic than I had thought. Ghost Tourism has boomed over the past decade, propelled by the public’s interest in the mysterious and supernatural. There are hundreds of ghost tours offered across the US, from Hollywood to New England to Savannah. Ghost tourism attracts tourists year-round, but during October it’s remarkable how many dollars are pumped into the economy. Increased tourism around the macabre delivers a multimillion-dollar bonanza that benefits hotels, restaurants and retail businesses. Last year alone, Halloween events brought in $31 million more in tourism dollars than a decade ago. Spending by locals and out-of-towners drawn to events like the Haunting on the Hill in Patterson, N.Y., delivers a welcome boost to surrounding businesses. More than half of the 80,000-plus visitors last year either dined out locally, shopped in a nearby store, stayed overnight in a hotel or visited another museum or attraction as part of their Blaze visit, a visitor survey by Historic Hudson Valley shows. Ghost Tourism has been a success and will no doubt continue to be so. But what of its more macabre cousin, Dark Tourism.

Dark Tourismhas become the logical next step in terror-based travel. If you’ve been paying attention to Netflix, you may have found David Farrier’s show Dark Tourist. It has clearly reached mainstream appeal. For those unfamiliar with the concept, dark tourism is the practice of traveling to places associated with death and tragedy. Dark tourism allows you to travel to some of the most somber and grim historical points of interest on Earth. These include things like The Tower of London, Robben Island off the Cape Town coast and the Khmer Rouge “Killing Fields” of Cambodia. Of course, places like the Caribbean islands or Paris certainly have had their fair share of death and tragedy, but the darker, more tragic side of their history isn’t generally the reason why tourists visit those kinds of places. The draw for these tourists is generally to more sinister, more morbid, more difficult to get to places.

Our motivations are complex and generally difficult to unravel. There is a mix of reverence, a degree of voyeurism to be sure, and even the thrill of coming into close proximity with death. They attract us precisely because they are repellent. They are testaments to the failure of our species to temper our worst excesses and prejudices. However, when curated and managed with care, they can help us to learn from the darkest elements of our past. Although dark tourism is already an extreme travel experience, there are some versions that seem to push the envelope. What defines dark tourism is a bit murky, but some tourists and promoters alike distinguish between “real” dark tourism and other types of tourism with increasingly grim adjectives, like war, danger, or natural disaster tourism. Regardless of the particulars of the definitions used, the underlying draw is to engage with the uglier parts of human history.

Dark tourism isn’t new, by any means. Romans visited Pompeii and people flocked to the aftermath of Gettysburg just days after the battle was over.  But while dark tourism isn’t new, what is new is how some of these sites and experiences are being marketed. Which leads to a simple question: Are we traveling to a place to heighten our understanding, or simply to indulge morbid curiosity? And similarly, what are the ethical implications?

Dark tourism can lead to profoundly moving experiences. They have the capacity to bring war, slavery, oppression, violence, exploitation, and injustice to life and deepen our capacity for compassion and empathy. They can make us more aware of the world around us and move us to action. But they can also become something of a sideshow, commoditizing suffering. And the critics who bemoan the commodification of such sites have a solid point. But they can also be catalysts for healing and change. Sites of mass killing such as those associated with the Jewish holocaust, present major challenges for interpretation and invariably lead to questions concerning the nature of motivation for visitors. They immediately have a profound impact of our psyche and open the doors to conversation.

We are not disturbed generally by people visiting the Paris catacombs, for instance, because there is no one alive now that is still affected by those events. However, when we are dealing with visiting the Rwandan Genocide memorials or the Khmer Rouge memorials, we need to be far more aware of our reasons for visiting. People in Rwanda and Cambodia are still living and affected by the tragedies in their countries. Finding a respectful way to engage with sites and listen to the people who are still living with the consequences is central to giving meaning to these places. That applies to the tourists and the people providing access alike. Ultimately, turning the location of a tragedy into a profit-making tourist attraction is not something that can be done without deep consideration. There is a clear profit motive at a number of such sites and that’s something that cannot be overlooked. Even if admission is free there are secondary revenue streams from retail, catering and so forth. There is also the question of who is getting the money from dark tourism? Visits should, ideally, be directly benefiting the communities you are visiting, not big companies or overseas investors.

The importance of the consideration of the ethicalities of dark tourism cannot be understated, and both consumers and providers may want to work together, if in the future, we still would like to know about our history through the form of tourism instead through textbooks and education. Dark tourism, like our dark history, occupies an important part of our understanding of what it is to be human.

Gym Culture Branding

While I’m not as disciplined as I should be, I am an avid gym goer (it serves as a marvelous counterpoint to my many vices). I am far from alone. According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), health club industry revenue topped $90 million last year. Today, 70+ million people worldwide are members of health clubs. Gyms are gathering places and retail spaces. They convey status, belonging, and identity. Gym communities have evolved over time into a cultural groups that extend well beyond the workout itself.  SoulCycle, for example, is marketed as an experiential group high. Joining Orangetheory makes you part of the “orange nation.” Planet Fitness, Throwback Fitness, and the Bar Method are all largely social. CrossFit is more than a method, it has become a lifestyle, with paleo diets and buttered coffee as much a part of the culture as the lifts, running, and rhetoric of strength. Fitness club brands know more people are signing up, going to classes and group sessions, and bringing their families along for the ride, but they need to understand what motivated this trend toward fitness communities in order to build them more fully. So why are gyms social spaces?

  • Greater access to information about self-care and health. The abundance of resources and social media have brought on a cultural shift toward valuing health, or at least the image of health. People  seek information on therapies, healthy eating, exercise, meditation and medicine in reaction to perceived health problems brought on by previous. The result has been, at least in part, the belief that many of these problems can be mitigated by exercise – particularly structured exercise in a constructed environment. Information access has led to a stronger belief they we can stave off decrepitude and even death if we find the right exercise combination/regimen.
  • The deterioration of former social gathering places. Perhaps partly due to their obsessions with self-care and health, fewer people are making traditional nightlife hangouts such as bars and clubs their single points of connection. Additionally, fewer people are going to church or places of worship. Shopping malls are become antiquated As a result, gyms have become points of reference that indulge the need to feel in control, feel healthy, and feel part of something bigger than oneself. The gym has become a point of congregation.
  • The rare opportunity to unplug. One of the greatest challenges to being “live and in person” is that we are increasingly tethered to our technology. While many people still hop on the treadmill with Instagram pulled up, fitness classes require listening to instructors (no headphones), constant full-body motion that often ties up hands (gripping handlebars, lifting weights, punching bags, etc.), and the need to be present (finding proper form, watching others). Quite simple, while you can get work done while at the gym, it’s not easy. Additionally, the gym gives you license to unplug. It is one of the few places people can come together, disconnect, and engage.
  • Stemming loneliness. Of the more than 140,000 Americans Gallup-Healthways has surveyed so far, the individuals who report being alone all day (zero hours of social time) perform the poorest on the Happiness-Stress Index, with only 32 percent experiencing much enjoyment/happiness and nearly as many experiencing intense stress and worry (27 percent). This results in a happiness-stress ratio of one-to-one. The reverse is true for those who devote a large part of their day to social time, with the happiness-stress ratio rising for each additional hour of time spent socializing up to six to seven hours – at which point the happiness-stress ratio peaks. When these factors are added together, fitness communities specifically offer something many people are craving in an increasingly “plugged-in” but “disconnected” society: a chance to be physically and mentally present in a space where others have gathered and are also present, and everyone shares the desire to be healthy. Again, whether or not being healthy is the mitigating factor is secondary. It’s the shared quest that matters.

Building the community furthers the brand. By understanding that people go to gyms to find communities that are like-minded and physically present – that they are seeking health and information, a sense of identity in the real-life world as well as encouragement and support. Fitness brands can take an active role in providing the experiences members value:

  • Be a hub of relevant health information. People join fitness communities because they value their health both physically and mentally. Fitness apps like My FItness Pal  and gear brands like Fitbit  often post healthy recipes and wellness articles exclusive to members and users. Gyms could also share informative media with members who want a more holistic approach to their health.
  • Create social opportunities among members. Dancing in the park, happy hour, parties and other meet-ups outside of the usual class give members a chance to bond.
  • Champion and acknowledge members’ successes.  Life Time Fitness has promotions such as The 60 Day Challenge for which success stories are shared among other members. CrossFit hosts worldwide events. The point is that creative celebration of success builds loyalty.
  • Provide opportunities for non-members to engage. Trial classes, meet-and-greets and promotional activities could motivate people to try something new.
  • Create a strong, unique brand/community identity. While gyms should strive to be inclusive and open to new members, people go to gyms seeking a sense of belonging to something. SoulCycle is a great example  of how a unique experience can be built.

Ultimately fitness brands should be part of the communities they facilitate. To members or potential members craving community, belonging and interaction, a gym can be every bit as important as a doctor, a church, a job or a personal relationship. Brands have the opportunity to really double down and own a much larger narrative than “spin class” or “barre” and position themselves as health authorities, emotional support, the best part of someone’s day and a place where you can find your people.

Deliberate Coffee

The form of the beverage we enjoy today originated in the 13th century and rapidly spread throughout the Middle East. Coffee growing was exclusive to Africa and the Arabian Peninsula until the 17th century, when European colonial powers began establishing plantations in Asia and the Americas. Coffee quickly became a craze among the Old World nations, but the settlers who flocked to Britain’s New World colonies didn’t widely adopt coffee until a specific year: 1773. In the wake of the Boston Tea Party, drinking coffee instead of tea became a badge of solidarity against The British Empire’s policies. For the people who would become Americans, coffee was a symbol. More than perhaps any other consumption practice, save cola, it is central to the American national identity. But the ways in which we have consumed it have undergone a series of radical changes through American history, and these changes have shaped the core audience of dedicated coffee drinkers that exists today. At the level of the connoisseur, this is a group that skews young, but it includes consumers of all ages who stay in step with trends in coffee culture.

Ethics. As with chocolate, American coffee drinkers were for a long time content to accept the finished product from U.S. brands without giving much thought to its ultimate origin or to the conditions under which it was sourced. This changed in the latter part of the third wave, as brands like Starbucks began touting their fair-trade coffee lines. Customers were invited to pay a small premium for the knowledge that the workers who made their morning cup possible were fairly compensated for their labor.

Fair trade certification was introduced in 1988 by the Dutch brand Max Havelaar after a drop in world coffee prices hit small growers hard. In the 2000s the movement achieved its greatest impact, but controversy followed quickly. Critics of fair-trade coffee claimed that, among other problems, the system often failed to provide growers with profits exceeding the cost of certification, to target the poorest growers or to address the causes of systemic poverty. Furthermore, it incentivized growers to offload their lower-quality beans to fair-trade lines, meaning that customers were paying extra for poorer coffee.

Organizations like Fairtrade International are still working to improve wages for coffee workers and to address flaws in the system. But buying a certified fair-trade coffee may no longer carry the same moral clout that it once did.

The concern with compensation for coffee workers overlaps with, and is increasingly swallowed up in, the issue of sustainability. Coffee growers transition from shade-grown to more intensive sun-grown plants, increasing deforestation and soil erosion, and there are concerns about climate change reducing the amount of cultivable land. Consequently, the future of the coffee industry is unclear. Still, the demand for a more sustainable, ethically-produced coffee seems to be driving innovation and with it, better practices.

So, while the fair-trade movement has lost some of its luster for connoisseurs, but that doesn’t mean that they have stopped paying attention to the ethical aspects of coffee production. Today’s conscious coffee drinkers are less likely to look for a Fairtrade America or Rainforest Alliance label and more likely to ask questions about what the providers of their coffee are doing to fight against environmental degradation and systemic poverty.


Gone are the days when coffee companies didn’t feel the need to share anything more about their product than a brand logo and some vague ad copy. Coffee drinkers  want to know about how their coffee was grown and sourced, but they also want in on the wealth of information that was formerly confined to industry professionals. There is an ever-growing demand for coffee roasters to provide not just high-quality beans but an degree of education to go along with them. Savvy brands have gone to great lengths to educate their customers about the correct terminology, the right way to define flavor notes, and how to cup. In addition to home-brewing seminars and cupping sessions for the entire catalog, these centers offer a weekly tastings with a different theme for each session. Educating customers on tasting notes has the potential to both increase their engagement level and tailor marketing to their individual tastes.

But an industry insider-level knowledge of coffee includes more than ways to describe flavor profiles. Consumers are also motivated to learn about regional characteristics, roast types, and brewing methods. Some of this information can be found in third-party publications and enthusiast websites, but much of it is provided directly by the cafés and roasters. Customers expect to have a particular coffee explained to them in detail and to make sure that the next one is even more exactly suited to their specific sensibilities.

Experiences. One aspect of café culture that has evolved from its second-wave roots is that coffee enthusiasts expect not just a delicious brew but a memorable experience as well. This tendency helps to explain the existence of latte art and the spectacle around events like the World Barista Championship. It is also manifested in the classes and educational resources already mentioned, and in simple in-store gimmicks like having a dedicated pour over station on certain days of the week. Many coffee companies that run brick-and-mortar establishments make money and engage customers by offering both branded merchandise and a curated selection of home-brewing gear, allowing a quick coffee stop to become an immersive shopping experience.

While subscription boxes are hot in most areas of retail, the number of coffee subscription services shows that this is an especially productive niche. You can have fresh, highly customized coffee delivered to your home by one particular roaster or by a company that curates products from different roasters.

Coffee tourism may be a logical next step in the quest for experiences, and there are already a number of tours available for interested travelers. The combination of ultra-premium coffees and existing tourism infrastructure of places like Jamaica attractive destinations for coffee tourists, while countries like Brazil, Costa Rica, and Ethiopia are working to build their tourism reputations.  The all-inclusive coffee resort remains a dream, but enterprising farmers are bound to pursue this potentially major source of additional revenue.

What Should Coffee Brands Do? One of the most visible trends in American coffee culture is the growing transparency of the companies providing the coffee. Customers learn to value the source of the drink instead of the black-box brand identity of Folger’s or Maxwell House. So in this climate, what value do brands add to coffee? How can they expect to cultivate customer loyalty? There are still a number of roles that coffee connoisseurs expect brands to play, including:

  • Middlemen. Individual consumers don’t have the knowledge or means to import beans directly from foreign farms, so getting the product to customers is always going to be the top job of American coffee brands. Each company, from small local roasters to big chains, is competing to secure the best beans at the lowest prices. Making the right partnerships with farmers is key, and it can be used as a way to build up the brand’s distinct identity.
  • Guides. Coffee connoisseurs want help finding the beans that most closely match their tastes, whether that help is provided by an expert employee in a brick-and-mortar establishment, a community seminar or a helpful online resource. Spreading industry knowledge to empower customers should be a central part of any coffee brand’s mission.
  • Good citizens. Okay, you sourced your beans from a group of great small farms that you found out in the middle of nowhere. But did you incentivize sustainable agriculture with organic, shade-grown coffee? Did you send employees on a retreat to build a school for the underserved communities around these farms? Are you actively striving to provide rights and fair wages to the workers? These are the things that coffee enthusiasts want to see far more than fair-trade label.
  • Flavor alchemists. Look at the whiskey world for an analogy. The initial market dominance of blends emphasizing consistent quality gave way to a growing interest in single-malt and single-grain varieties. Now independent producers like Compass have emerged with small-batch blends that combine single-malts to create exciting new flavor profiles. Coffee brands should be using this same approach, creating blends that call attention to each component but try to be more than the sum of their parts.
  • Status symbols. To put it bluntly, most coffee farmers in developing countries don’t have the resources to bring in their own designers and marketing gurus to boost their product’s image. It’s up to stateside brands to add the packages and gimmicks that will entice customers and stick in their memory. The most successful brands will cultivate a loyal customer base that will use merchandise and word of mouth to act as walking advertisements, just because they think you’re so cool.

The core consumer in this incipient fourth-wave coffee market is more informed and more deliberate than ever before. They have a massive variety of options to choose from, so roasting good beans will never be enough; brands have to show their impact, share their knowledge and give the customer a memorable time. Applying these strategies correctly will create an atmosphere of community, authentic connection and goodwill extending all the way from the coffee drinker to the coffee grower, with the brand in the center to reap the benefits.

Marketing Coffee’s Third Wave

Third wave coffee is arguably the most recent wave in coffee history. While the first wave made coffee ubiquitous across all nations, and second wave changed the way Americans consumed coffee, third wave has had just as dramatic of an impact. Third wave coffee can be boiled down to one central feature: the coffee itself. The goal became not to customize taste or sell as much as possible, but to extract and reveal as much flavor as possible out of a single cup of black coffee.

As a result, coffee got very nerdy, very fast. People began to scrutinize every aspect of the substance, from seed to brewing technique to mug in order to learn what makes a truly magnificent cup of coffee. Different regions of the world have unique flavor profiles, and even coffees from opposite ends of the same country may have a marked difference in taste. Similarly, coffee connoisseurs want to know how the coffee was processed, how the seed of the coffee bean (the cherry) is removed from the fruit, what the Ph balance of the soil is where it’s grown.

Furthermore, the desire for transparency stems from the fact that coffee is such a labor intensive crop. There is a long history of exploitation and forced labor in coffee and sometimes buying from third world nations can lead to inhumane working conditions. The market soon demanded transparency and information out of their coffee makers. The information helps discerning customers understand what flavors to expect from a coffee, yes, but it also ensures that workers in these other countries are receiving a fair wage for their efforts. Or so we hope.

In order to differentiate themselves from the giants of Caribou and Starbucks, third wave coffee shops focused on being small, unique, and superb. Everything from the flavor of the drinks to the aesthetic of a café became a challenging ground for identity. Not only is the atmosphere of a third wave coffee shop unlike anything so commercialized, but it also encourages local shopping. Coffee shops became a source of home town pride, with a sense of protectiveness—as their beloved coffee house is only available in one specific town. That sense of pride is only furthered as third wave shops begin to express opinions about coffee through coffee. With this most recent wave, every variable of coffee making becomes an avenue to express a philosophy about how the coffee should be roasted, ground and brewed. Aside from being the favorite haunt of hip teenagers and telecommuters, third wave coffee shops may live, breath and bleed a particular philosophy about how to prepare coffee—and their customers as well.

The dynamic between third wave shops and their public is more flexible than larger, second wave operations. Coffee in general was stepping away from a formulaic approach and entering a more experimental phase. In some ways this perspective shift focused more on the journey than the destination. With so many variables in the preparation of coffee, each was viewed as a tributary for exploration and discovery. Vertical integration rose as a handful of coffee companies started buying machinery in order to roast in-house, completely transforming the definition of “fresh” coffee.

Certainly the sheer freshness of roasted-that-morning coffee made a difference, but in truth, many of these coffee companies are looking for more control. More capacity for learning, experimentation and ultimately expression. Second wave coffee almost held a “good enough” attitude towards making delicious drinks. Third wave is closer to gourmet dining. There are always more techniques to master, more experiments to run, more influences or knowledge to obtain. Like athletes, artists or musicians, one can always improve on something about coffee. As of now third wave coffee has borrowed from the wine industry, the farm to table movement, and a fiendish craving for information.

Building Craft Beer Bands When “Craft” Is A Thing Of Mystery

There’s a story that’s often being sold to beer drinkers. On the one hand, you’ve got 800 pound gorillas: the faceless corporate giants who mass-produce tasteless, watery beer by stuffing it with corn and rice and other things that make purists cringe. On the other hand, there’s the artisan: the little guys with an undying commitment to quality and flavor, who brew every batch by hand with a heart full of love, a bucket of rare hop varietals and a pinch of yeast extracted from dating back to the Sumerians. The problem with this story is that it’s at least 20 years out of date, and more importantly, it bears little resemblance to how the most dedicated and active craft beer enthusiasts view the industry.

Cynical advertisers on both sides of the supposed divide find it to their benefit to perpetuate the myth. Large independents like Samuel Adams and Sierra Nevada are straining against the upper limits of what could be considered craft brewing. Or more accurately, they’re actively working to raise those limits so that they can stay in the club. Meanwhile, giants like MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch are openly courting lovers of simple beer and hoping that the “snobs” won’t notice that they now own beloved craft brewers like Anchor Steam, Goose Island, and Ballast Point.

If brands want to connect with American craft beer enthusiasts, they are going to have to understand what the market trends are that drive drinkers’ choices right now. Surprisingly, “making good beer” doesn’t appear to be the best way to attract the business of highly invested beer drinkers anymore. That doesn’t mean that they’ve all lost their sense of taste; it just means that the craft beer world offers such a variety that quality is no longer the best way to distinguish your brand. So where do brewers head?

The language of “Craft” matter. Craft beer used to be a nebulous category that conveyed both quality and independence, but increasingly it is defined by size, ownership, and production. The Brewers Association defines “craft” as:

  1. Producing fewer than 6 million barrels of year annually
  2. Less than 25 percent owned by “a beverage alcohol industry member which is not itself a craft brewer”
  3. Utilizing flavors made from “traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation”

That’s not to say that the BA’s definitions are stable or that they coincide exactly with what is in the minds of craft beer enthusiasts. For example, its past criteria excluded “adjunct” grains like corn, rice or oats, which are now generally accepted as fair game for many craft brewers. They also used to cap the production level at 2 million barrels. With the success of companies like the Boston Beer Company and Boulevard Brewing they’ve had to make to accommodate their growing production levels.

The purchase of many icon craft breweries by giant corporations has led to a crisis within the craft beer community, as taste no longer serves to distinguish the independents from the majors. To inform drinkers, the Brewers Association created the independent craft brewer seal, an authorized indicator that the product is an authentic craft beer. As of fall 2018, more than 3,700 craft brewing companies had adopted the seal, representing more than 80% of the volume of craft beer.

Widespread use of the seal should go a long way toward informing beer drinkers about the craft status of the beer they’re drinking, and displaying it looks like an essential move for up-and-coming brewers. It’s too soon to predict whether the growing visibility of the independents will counteract the tendency of successful brewers to sell out to the majors. It also remains to be seen whether enthusiasts will tolerate leaving all the power in the hands of the Brewers Association to decide what is and isn’t craft beer. But it isn’t too soon to say that the shifts in the industry are making marketing challenges more complex.

Craft beer and inclusion. It’s also worth noting that in recent years we’ve seen a minor backlash against the craft beer community, focusing on the belief that enthusiasts are overwhelmingly straight white men with beards. Data does show that white people, professional men in particular, make up somewhere around 75% of the craft brew consumer population. Other demographics, then, constitute a major untapped source of revenue for brewers. And they signify an image problem for brands. If craft brewers can figure out how to authentically connect to women and people of color, they could sell a lot more a lot more beer.

Where brewers tend to go wrong is by assuming that it’s possible to bring in the missing demographics by devising new beer recipes. The widely accepted common wisdom states that men like IPAs while women prefer fruity or spiced beers; why couldn’t we find the beer types that appeal to black or Hispanic consumers as well? But the truth is that we don’t have hard data on these supposed preferences, and there’s no reason to believe that offering different varieties will bring in drinkers who previously have shown little interest in beer. What beer do women like? It’s an asinine question. In fact, pandering to women and minorities by offering beer styles that the brewer wouldn’t otherwise be interested in is a great way to undermine a brand’s reputation for quality and authenticity. If you want to combat craft beer’s image problem and bring in new drinkers at the same time, a better bet is to strive for diversity among the people making the beer.

Where’s the technology? TV advertising remains the traditional domain of the giant beer producers, and it’s rare to see craft brewers other than outlier Samuel Adams trying to beat them at their own game. Where smaller brands should look to connect with devoted customers is through social media and apps that have appeared in recent years. Untappd and Barley give users the ability to log and review beers, as well as to receive special offers and learn what’s available at nearby watering holes. Reflecting what we’ve seen about the politics of the craft beer world, Craft Check offers to verify that a given beer is truly independent instead of a covert major.

Loyalty programs provide an enticing opportunity to court return customers and gather data about what fans of your brand enjoy, but they probably won’t be feasible in the near future. The patchwork of state and local blue laws, which often prohibit giving beer away for free or offering people incentives to drink, combine to keep such programs from being scalable. While waiting on legal reform, brewers should focus on opening lines of communication with customers and offering them new beer suggestions.

Collaboration builds tribes. Most craft breweries are regional affairs without national distribution networks. Very few of them have the advertising budget to do much. For brands seeking exposure, collaboration tends to be the most low-cost and effective strategy for increasing name recognition. A common approach is collaboration on a particular beer between two breweries or a brewer and a chef, which has the effect of theoretically multiplying each brand’s exposure and fostering a sense of camaraderie over competition. The key point is that by creating a sense of connection and collaboration, a brand also creates a sense of identity. It creates tribes that anyone can join.

So what? As crowded as the craft beer market is, you might expect it to be increasingly competitive, with ruthless breweries buying up the brands that they can and driving the others out of business. But for the most part, this mentality hasn’t taken over the market yet. That atmosphere of benevolence and fair play is a big part of what the most dedicated craft beer drinkers find so appealing. Celebrating smallness, community, and authenticity go a long way in fostering the brands. This also helps drive greater diversity in the consumer base by establishing a sense of shared identity between consumers.

Is the Local Food Movement Over? Hardly

Since the organic food movement took off decades ago, a growing group of conscientious consumers have shown themselves to be interested in the quality and nutritional value of the food they put into their bodies. Over time, this movement has evolved to include greater questions of environmental impact, local economic development, etc. Local food sales swelled from $5 billion to $12 billion between 2008 and 2014, and they are expected to hit $20 billion this year. Interest in farmers markets has grown more than 370% in that time, and over 20% of households eat local regularly. People care more than ever about where their food comes from, how it is treated, whether it is good for them, and how it impacts the environment.

But the reality is that the movement has its limitations, detractors, and problems, and some people have begun to call it into question. Shifts is economic stratification, sociopolitical identities, lack of clarity on the labeling, and simple access to these foods are making the decisions to buy harder. So how can the local food movement evolve from where it is to help consumers make the decision process easier?

Eating Local. For all the holes in the locavore argument, there are many ways in which the movement has succeeded:

  • Local food sourcing, even if some produce is coming from 400 miles away, can help diversify economies by offering opportunities for smaller family farms and growers to network with local businesses and farmers’ markets.
  • Local food networks can spark innovation as farmers try to live up to the advertised environmental benefits of the locavore movement and reduce food waste in the production process.
  • Local food can build communities around farmers markets, restaurants, local groceries and other related businesses that participate.

But there are deeper connections for many of the people who deeply value the “eat local” movement. Quite simply, they want to believe their food is not evil. That it comes from a good place. Ideally a sparkling, clean land free of pesticides and greenhouses gases, and full of frolicking livestock eating as much wild grass as they please before becoming meat. Unfortunately, the reality of farming doesn’t necessarily mesh with the ideal. And it’s at that point where things can break down.

The problem is vague definitions, such as what constitutes “local” and the fact that proponents of the movement often cite iffy science such as reduced “food miles” as an argument that local food reduces the carbon footprint in food transportation. The commonly held belief that reducing “food miles” is always good for the environment because it reduces the use of transportation fuel and associated carbon dioxide emissions turns out to be a red herring. Indeed, local food uses about the same amount of energy  per pound  to transport as long-distance food. Big box chains can ship food more efficiently –  even if it travels longer distances –  because of the gigantic volumes they work in. Plus, ships, trains and even large trucks driving on interstate highways use less fuel, per pound per mile, than small trucks driving around town. Dissenters point out shortcomings of local farming ad nauseam:

  • Local farms Can’t feed enough people.
  • Local farms that actually employ organic practices aren’t efficient.
  • Local farms can’t scale without losing either their integrity or their profits.

While these may all be valid points, few of them help consumers in the immediate sense. People want the ideal. Despite the negativity cited above, consumers primarily need to know that their food is “clean” and trust the people who make it.

Easing the concerns. Some local farms, markets, groceries, and restaurants are telling their stories well, but many fall short on specifics. They rely on buzzwords like “locally sourced,” “GMO-free,” “grass-fed” and “organic” that are easy  for consumers to question. Moreover, beyond boilerplate descriptions on a home page, the personalities behind these community staples are often muted on social media and barely visible in real life, negating, or at least diminishing, trust. If the “eat local” movement is truly meant to build trust and community between consumer and vendor, then the brands participating should feel more like part of that community. The following strategies can help their narratives along:

  • Talk openly about specific food practices on all media platforms. If you are a family farm that always fully harvests, note it and explain why. Talk about your last harvest. Speak openly if you had to use a pesticide and note why you thought it was a less harmful one than a conventional farm might use. If you are a restaurant, talk about the family farm and what practices they use that you like. Do you freeze the burgers when they come in? Why? Grocery stores, what are you doing to reduce food waste?
  • Work to benefit your community in ways that also engage your community. Do you give day-old bread from Joe’s Family Farms to the homeless? Invite a local high school football team to help hand it out. Have a member of the farming family and an owner of the grocery store present to socialize with the participants. Part of telling a good story is creating a good story in the first place.
  • Collaborate with other local vendors to solve problems your audience cares about. People care about the local economy and about food waste. They eat local, after all. So what if you, the restaurant, teams up with a local soap-making business that can turn your organic bacon grease into an all-natural surface cleaner?
  • Get personal. If you and your wife opened a Southern-themed pub to honor your grandmother who supplied moonshine to the Appalachian communities during the Prohibition era, tell everyone how she used to tie you to a chair to help you sit up straight and told the best jokes after knocking back a few. People will be reminded of his grandma.
  • Strive to live up to their ideals. You might have to use pesticides sometimes. You might have to harvest half your crop to meet demands. You might use too much water. But where you can, let buyers see how you are always working to improve. Show them that you are saving up for irrigation sensors. Find a new all-natural pest deterrent that they will be on board with. Form new relationships with environmental/community goals in mind.

The locavore movement as it stands has been extremely effective. Most people still sign on for local simply because they have seen time and again that their peers accept it as “good.”  With so much information available about, people have learned to distrust advertising and look to influencers and sources they “know.” That’s largely what drove them to the local food movement in the first place. Remind people that “local” means connections and community, not just practices.

Forgotten Audiences: Women, Mobile, and Gaming

You can find any number of articles online that will trumpet the news that nearly half of the world’s gamers are female. But what does that figure really tell us? What the data often miss is that this side of the gaming world skews considerably older than the male equivalent; the average woman playing video games is 37 and financially independent. And in fact, women outnumber male gamers in the 50-64 and 65+ demographics.

With an audience of adult women gamers whose numbers are nearly double those of boys under 18, it is important to question why so many games seem designed with adolescent males as the default audience. But just as critical is the question of why middle-aged and older women don’t seem to be targeted for any gaming news or entertainment content of their own. What sets them apart and makes the industry as a whole feel comfortable ignoring them?

The key to this mystery is the perceived divide between “hardcore” and “casual” (terms that seem suspect from the outset), with middle-aged women relegated to the latter category. And while it’s wrong to assume that casual gamers don’t deserve our attention, it is true that their tastes are very different from the (largely young and male) hardcore gamers. This older segment of women prefers to play mostly puzzle and strategy games, most often on a mobile device. They gravitate toward the type of “snackable” games that can be picked up and put down at a moment’s notice.

Historically, women have not been particularly well-served by the sedentary nature and limited distribution of traditional games. But casual mobile games have made inroads with women who previously never had the opportunity or inclination to set aside time for lengthy gaming sessions. Prior to the advent of mobile, a person might sit in their basement and play for an hour at a time. Now, the games are always with us.

Many studies that examine the role of women as video game consumers approach them fundamentally as a single monolithic audience, which runs the risk of erasing the distinctive qualities and needs of middle-aged and older women. When you read that 30% of people watching YouTube gaming videos are female or that 21 million people subscribe to the top 10 female gamers on the platform, it might be easy, though debatable, to come away with the impression that women are already reasonably well served and well represented in the world of gaming content. But to what extent do these figures only reflect engagement of younger women? Without studies that break down these numbers across different age demographics, it’s difficult to say.

There is an increasing number of influencers on YouTube or Twitch who focus on mobile gaming, but these rising stars are largely male and almost always young. And an examination of the most popular female streamers doesn’t appear to overlap much with the age range or game preferences of the women who are devoting the most time and money to video games. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, either, since we know that middle-aged women are playing on their phones and often on the go. How many of them are interested in sitting down for hours to watch never-ending game streams? And how interesting would it really be to watch someone else play Pokémon Go for hours? Games like this are only expected to hold players’ attention for a few minutes at a time.

Middle-aged women who play casual mobile games deserve to have gaming content that speaks to them on their own terms, and it’s not likely that streaming video is going to do the trick. Dedicated websites focused on mobile game news and reviews would likely do well, especially if they were optimized for reading on mobile devices. Smartphone apps that allow users to rate and review their favorite casual games with a social dimension (think Goodreads for games) would also have the potential to be more accessible than YouTube or Twitch. Middle-aged women have shown that they are willing to spend plenty of time and money on their favorite casual games, so why force them to rely on word of mouth to discover new favorites?

The media is paying lots of attention, especially in the wake of Gamergate, to the issue of how to make gaming a more inclusive space for women. And while this impulse is welcome and important, it tends to be concerned with girls and younger women who are actual or potential members of the hardcore gamer audience. Recruiting more female developers and creating games with woman-oriented narratives might revolutionize gaming culture, but it won’t necessarily change the lives of women who enjoy stealing a few spare moments to play Candy Crush. Identifying middle-aged women who like mobile games as “casual” gamers shouldn’t be a reason to write them off or neglect their unique information needs. But just as gaming culture hasn’t been quick to embrace them, they haven’t tended to identify with the culture. That’s why it will be easier to create new gaming content hubs from scratch with female casual gamers as the target audience than to rope in middle-aged women with a new Rooster Teeth series or a special section on Kotaku.

Just as the average middle-aged female gamer isn’t likely to join an Overwatch league, she probably won’t be well served by the type of gaming content that speaks to the people who do. But she represents a huge and well-off market segment whose spending power has yet to be fully tapped. King, the hugely successful developer of Candy Crush Saga and other popular casual games, was acquire by Blizzard for $5.9 billion. But the games themselves are only the tip of the iceberg. Content creators have the opportunity to create an entirely independent media ecosystem for casual gamers and her friends if they’re brave enough to throw away the blueprint and try some new ideas.