Mythology, It’s What’s For Dinner

Mythology is perhaps the most archaic and profound record we have of our collective spirit. From the inception of cave art, and presumably long before that, we find myth and myth-making as a fundamental element in relating to the mysteries of life, the cosmos and the world around us. It goes beyond recounting the day’s events and the mundane, giving life to the essence of what it means to be human. Myth is the symbolic revelation of eternal “truths”, an expression of our collective psyche and our role in the unfolding of the universe. As it relates to brands and marketing, it reminds us, or should remind us, that while features are central to a product, they are only a portion of what drives us to select one thing over another. If we think about brands as myth, as stories conveying something grand and extraordinary, we generate more than a passing interest in the consumer, we establish a connection to something transcendent, something that speaks to the underlying need to find meaning in the world.

In this case, I return to the idea of the universal hero in myth. Why? Because beyond buying a product to fulfill a functional need, we frequently seek out products and brands that allow us to step into a role that is greater than ourselves.  There are certain patterns which recur across cultures regardless of time and distance. Jung called these patterns and Joseph Campbell immortalized them for the non-scholar. And while there undoubtedly flaws in the possibly essentializing nature of their analyses, the fact remains that the underlying currents of these archetypes hold true, regardless of the minutia.  Archetypal images embody the most essential elements of the human drama. The trickster, the hero, etc. manifest themselves across space and time. They are a repertoire of instinctive human functioning. As an example, consider the archetype of the universal hero.

As it relates to marketing and advertising, we pay attention to stories that have conflict, resolution and challenges that allow us to project ourselves into the role of the protagonist.  A problem (i.e. monsters/struggles) is overcome by brands (i.e. hero/ heroine) reestablishing order in the universe.  The hero myth tells us that the character’s courage to suffer the burdens of fear and the conflicts within his personality set him apart. In myth, the ego is banished to a world full of opposites which war with each other within the personality. Out of the conflict something new and marvelous emerges. The journey of the hero typically includes most of the following stages:

  • The Call: the character leaves his ordinary life to enter an unusual and often supernatural world.
  • The Trial: there she/he encounters one or a number of challenges.
  • The Reward: a boon the hero receives as a result of his trials, usually accompanied by a new knowledge of self and the cosmos.
  • The Return: the hero must consciously decide to return to his world, sharing the new-found knowledge. Here the hero applies her/his new skills, powers, and understandings to somehow make his world a better place.

The advertising for Dodge Ram trucks often follows this motif, tying the truck (and the driver) to overcoming a series of challenges that only this brand can cope with. The driver is able to step in where other brands fail and vanquish the problem. He emerges stronger, wiser and more powerful than his counterparts. Similarly, cleaning products frequently do this.  The would be heroine is confronted with an impossible task of cleaning a bathroom. Armed with a specific brand, she not only vanquishes the problem (the monster), but is able to demonstrate both her prowess and knowledge to other members of the family, sharing the product/hidden knowledge with other members of the group.

Another mythological archetype that appears frequently in advertising is the Trickster. The trickster is a figure who plays tricks or otherwise disobeys normal rules and conventional behavior.  The trickster figure, whether as a deity, folk hero or literary figure breaks the rules of the society, the gods or nature, usually, albeit unintentionally, with ultimately positive effects.  With the help of his wits and cleverness, he evades or fools monsters and dangers with unorthodox manners. Therefore the most unlikely candidate passes the trials and receives the reward. The character of Mayhem as a representation of the Allstate brand or the Trix Rabbit represent the archetypal motif of the trickster. And they work because, like the hero, they conform to an underlying, universal storyline that entertains, teaches, and makes sense of the world.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because advertising and marketing often engage at the superficial level of the mind. That’s fine for a one-off campaign – it’s clever, it’s catchy, it captures an audience but only for a moment. That kind of thinking captures features and, occasionally, benefits. And while that may be good for point of purchase or short-term gains, it doesn’t establish a brand as something enduring. If you think in terms of designing a message or a campaign from the standpoint of mythical archetypes, you create something powerful, moving and universal. You create something timeless. You create devotion. And without that, a brand isn’t a brand at all, it is a commodity.

Marketing Is Poetry

 ‘TWAS a death-bed summons, and forth I went

By the way of the Western Wall, so drear

On that winter night, and sought a gate–

The home, by Fate,

Of one I had long held dear.

I can still recite that bit of poetry without much effort. The custom of memorizing poetry in public school is largely long gone, but there is merit to it. As a kid, I failed to realize the significance of poetry, but with age comes some degree of wisdom (or so I would like to hope) and I have come to the conclusion that what we do today, be it as a researcher, a strategist or a designer, can benefit from reading and reciting poetry. A poem does not convey a message is the same way as prose, it does not signify in the same manner. When poetry is consumed, words are judged in relation to things, and the text is judged in comparison to reality. A poem establishes a system of significance, generated by processes such as accumulation and the use of descriptive systems. It evokes responses, demands a reaction. And that is precisely what makes it relevant for marketers.

Prose is generally interpreted along a vertical axis, known as the paradigmatic axis or the axis of selection. On this axis, we look for the meaning of the text based on selected referents and terms, following the metaphors and metonymies, or by trying to attribute a coherent meaning to the passages. The message is typically fairly straight forward and the associations with other words clear. But unlike prose, in the semantics of the poem the axis of significations is horizontal. The poem doesn’t attempt to refer to reality, but to establish a coherent system of significance. As such, a poetic text must be interpreted in terms of the relationships that develop amongst the words.

A descriptive system that emerges in poetry is a group of words, expressions and ideas that are used in the text to designate the parts of the whole that the author wants to represent. Its structure  involves similarities in form and position among certain words in the text, similarities that are rationalized and interpreted in terms of meaning. Each word is made up of one or more semantic features. For example, the word “monster” contains the semantic features: living being, big, ugly, frightening, inhuman, etc. These elements paint a picture. They force us to imagine and think. As the reader progresses, accumulation filters through the semantic features of its words, thereby overdetermining the occurrence of the most widely represented feature and cancelling out the featurtes that appear less frequently.  For example, if we encounter the words “rose”, “tulip” and “sunflower”, then we might think that the shared feautyre is /flower/; if to this list we add the words “grandiose”, “woman” and “art”, then the overdetermined feature will be /beauty/. In this way, the features take the place of the words, and by substituting in this manner, the reader will come within reach of the poem’s significance.

It matters because at the heart of any brand or design lies the poetic expression of what we want the brand to mean. The poetic system is usually a set of stereotypes and conventional ideas about the word with which it is associated; this is how the reader realizes, when we make mention of nothing more than dancing, for example, that we are talking about an youth. So to is it for marketing and advertising done well.

Whether we are crafting a series of words in a campaign or developing a stylistic “language” for a group of objects to be associated with the brand, we are attempting to develop a system of meaning that overdetermines and allows the customer to interpret a range of finite meanings at a glance. The Nike swoosh, the phrase “Ram Tough”, the “story” conveyed in a billboard for Schlitz, they are all extensions of poetic discourse. And like the poem from Thomas Hardy that I learned so long ago, a poem lasts, tying meaning to the things the things we value in our lives, including brands.

The “Authenticity” of Culinary Tourism

When walking around in highly frequented areas of France, Italy, or San Francisco there are no shortage of restaurants boasting assurances of authenticity and regional cuisine, but how many of the claims provide diners with accurate representations of the regions culinary history and traditions? Does the same hold true in New York? Or Alabama? I believe it does. While walking around Birmingham a couple of years ago with my daughters we found ourselves wandering in search of a meal that could provide us with an accurate representation of the South’s unique culinary history. Walking from one blistering hot street to another we set our sights on a restaurant with an inviting exterior and a menu listing iconic local dishes like ribs, collard greens, fried oysters, etc. Feeling hungry and hopeful but somewhat suspicious of the lack of local clientele we found a place, took our seats, and explored the menu. After digging into our bland, greasy chicken it became clear to us all that the restaurant’s goal was not to celebrate the rich culinary history of the region but to fulfill the necessary task of quickly feeding tourists and other visitors with barely recognizable renditions of the traditionally rich and saturated flavors of the South.

With the growing influx of visitors cities and countries host yearly comes an industry that operates on tourist spending and the fact that these visitors must eat. The rapid acceleration of globalization in recent years by means of transport, communication, and technology have brought about extreme changes in food production and consumption. Though questions of authenticity in food are highly contested examining the impacts of globalization on regional culinary tradition is important. There is a concern that cultural imperialism and Mcdonalidisation may lead to homogenization that can result in a “global palate” as well as a “global cuisine”. The homogenizing force of globalization  is thus commonly seen as a threat to the close connection between food and place, the taste of place or ‘terroir’. Is it possible for terroir to exist in dishes that are altered to become more suitable and accessible to the palettes of non-natives? Is there an emergence of a new terroir muddled and impacted by globalization or is it producing culinary experiences devoid of any real sense of place?

When traveling, tourists often search for senses of novelty while at the same time scouting the security that comes with familiarity. In recent years questions of authenticity and tradition have been at the forefront of conversations regarding food. Is cuisine that exists to serve tourists palettes a threat to regional gastronomical traditions or an entity that can exist within itself without tainting traditional and historical meal preparations? This isn’t easily answerable being that the notion of “authentic” food is so highly contested – many argue that the nature of food and culinary traditions are never static due to constant shifts in population, technology, and tradition. In other words, “authenticity” may be a sham. Can a place’s tourist food industry remain solely a tourist industry or will the “globalization of taste” have impacts on the palette of the local and shift the their tastes and practices?

I believe there is hope. We have become a nation of foodies. The same can be said of most countries. Culinary tourism has been a growing trend for the past few years, with gourmands travelling halfway round the world to eat at celebrated restaurants. But now the trend is shifting away from expensive, “star-chef” dining towards more authentic, grass-roots culinary experiences. Travelers want to travel to the food, not the other way around. We want to taste top-quality, hyper-local produce at its source, in the very spot it is grown or made by small, artisan producers. We are looking to eat simple home cooking, where the flavors are sensational.

The end result seems to be that while there will always be a place for restaurants catering to culinary blandness, the increased desire for something that fits into the total travel experience, rather than being a sideshow element of it, will help preserve cultural traditions. Or rekindle them. Locals are savvy. They’ll capitalize on this cultural shift and in doing so take control over their culinary traditions, opening up opportunities for themselves, culinary tourists, and the travel industry as a whole.

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.