In the Age of Emotion

When historians look back on the early years of the 21stcentury they will note a paradigm shift from the closing years of the Information Age to the dawning of a new age, The Age of Emotion.  Now, there are those that would argue that in a period defined by prolonged economic ennui ROI is the only thing that really matters and pricing is the only real consideration consumers think about – the rest is fluff.  But I disagree. Why? Because we’re not talking about trends here, which are ultimately short lived, but cultural patterns which are sustained and signal a shift in worldview.levis-store-lighting-design-4.jpg

On a fundamental level, we are more in tune with our emotional needs than at any time in recent history, or at the very least we have more time to reflect on them.  We focus increasingly on satisfying our emotional needs and pop culture both reflects and creates this. It is a cycle. One needs look no further than the multi-billion dollar self-help industry as an example. Talk shows abound focusing on the emotional displays of the masses and the advice given out in front of an audience of millions.

And this growing focus on the emotional has extended into the shopping and retail experience.  Increasingly we will see a subtle, yet profound difference in the way people relate to products, services and the world around them. Retailers increasingly focus on the nature of the in-store experience, converting the space from a place to showcase goods, to a location, a destination, a stage on which we perform.  And indeed, shopping is as much about performance as it is about consumption.  Just as fulfilling emotional needs has become the domain of brand development, it is increasingly becoming a centerpiece of the retail experience, at least for retailers focused on margins rather than volume. Rationality will take a back-seat to passion as we move from the sensible to the sensory.  While ROI is the obsession today, Return on Insights and Return on Emotional Satisfaction will be the leading factors in the years to come.

For the developed world and the world’s emerging economies, time and money equate to an increased use of brands and shopping as emotional extensions of ourselves.  Status, power, love, etc. are wrapped into the subconscious motivations for choosing one location over another.  And while we are still bargain hunters, the hunt is less about price than it is about the experience of the hunt.  Again, emotion drives the process, even when we say it doesn’t. “Experience” is emotional shorthand.

Successful companies will learn to pay more attention to how their customers react emotionally and how their brands can fulfill emotional needs.  In the Emotion Age, brands will either lead the way to customer satisfaction or be left in the dust.

 

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Inspiration and Venice

It’s been a while since I was in LA, and while I’m in Venice-Beach-4.jpg
Culver City today, my mind keeps being drawn to Venice Beach. In 1905, Abbot Kinney imagined a “Venice of America,” a coastal replica of Venice, Italy, down by the ocean in west LA. Of course he did; in a city built on dreams and dreamers, anything should be possible if you imagine it hard enough. And Kinney’s imagination was strong. Over 110 years later, many of the canals he built remain today. Like the rest of LA, the community has changed, is always changing. But that’s Venice, a very particular blend of sea air and freedom that stays in your skin however far away you travel.

What this city always reminds me of is the human ability to imagine other worlds and ways of being that don’t necessarily fit what people already see in front of them. Whether in Venice or anywhere else, you never have to stop imagining. The trick is letting creative inspiration come to you freely, whether you’re a chef, a banker, or a mechanic.

Do Awards Matter? Hell Yes They Matter!

I read recently that awards in the ad industry have lost meaning, winner.jpgthat they now longer matter. While I would agree that their relevance has changed, overlooking their role in landing (and retaining) business shouldn’t be ignored. So how important to advertisers are the creative awards in reality? In this era of data and technology, one might expect marketers to talk about creative awards through gritted teeth. After all, much of their time is now spent trying to justify the value of every aspect of marketing at boardroom level.

The rational debate is not over creativity versus effectiveness, but about connecting the dots between creative prowess and advertising effectiveness. The obsession has fallen to data, with some justification. But with more data and more media channels, it is important to have a glue to keep the brand, campaign, or communications strategy together – that glue is fundamentally a great idea, which goes through a creative process to deliver an effective business result.

I certainly understand the nervousness that exists in the minds of our clients, who are trying to look good in front of their bosses. They need to demonstrate their value.  Makes sense. They would rather win effectiveness and not creative awards, which can be seen to carry a greater element of risk. But if an idea is not brave or does not grab attention, how can it be effective? It would be like walking into French Laundry and being served on paper plates. OK, that may be a bit extreme, but you get my point. For work to really cut through and drive a significant change in performance, it has to be highly relevant at an emotional level. And one of the primary ways of achieving relevance is through creativity. Creative awards are a benchmark against which not only great work, but also effectiveness, can easily be measured.

Creative awards also help drive innovation, explore new ways to touch the consumer, encourage the sharing of best practices. Being recognized externally for great work means that the people we employ, from strategists to designers to account folks, can be even more proud of the work they produce and know they are world class. Awards attract better talent, while keeping the best we have from looking for greener pastures elsewhere. Even the smallest shops can raise their profile with some lions, Addys, etc. Metal on the shelf and a mention at Cannes puts everyone involved on the ad world radar.

Awards are a shot in the arm, both for the agency and the clients. And clients, at least those we all dream of working with, have started to take notice because awards do heavy lifting for them as well. They raise their profile, they make them look smarter, edgier, more innovative, more effective. They make them relevant. Clients know that if you are pushing to create award-winning work for them, you are pushing to make the best work possible. And that’s a win/win for everyone.

 

Politics, Protest, and Branding

It’s not just individuals choosing to make a political statement these days. The list of brands stepping forward to voice their concerns over President Trump’s Image result for protestpolicies is growing (we can assume some will show support but I have not seen these yet). The act of creative protest is being seen by many brands as an opportunity to take a stand for what they believe in and share their identity with the world. But is a political protest the right place for brands? Is it genuine or opportunistic? And from an economic standpoint, is it wise?

As with everything like this, the answer is complex, but it comes down to internal branding, culture and employee engagement. These tech firms issued statements to reassure their own people that they care and are taking action. That internal action then flows through to an external brand perception and consumers see the brands they use and buy doing something that resonates.

In my humble opinion, brands don’t really have a choice in whether to be involved in protest now. Nearly everything is politicized in the current environment.  And as people are increasingly buying things based on what aligns with their own social values, it’s almost impossible to remain on the sidelines.

A brand can get involved in politics, but it’s a risk since people care deeply about social and political issues. Brands can make it seem like they’re taking the issue lightly. They can portray to great a sense of gravitas. That runs the risk of a brand appearing like it’s seeking attention rather than making a firm commitment to a set of values. So, when venturing into a politically-charged branding effort, campaign, etc., you’ve got to judge the climate and how the brand’s involvement will be taken, both by its most ardent supports and its detractors. Brands will get dragged into political debates, whether they like it or not, so it’s wise to get in touch with the audience, understand what matters to them, and be on the firm ground with their support. So long as it’s done from a place of authenticity, it will work.

Consumers are increasingly buying into the ethics and points of views of brands and the organizations that produce them which means there is a role for brands in political milieu. It’s wrapped up in marketing and brands with purpose. Add to this that social media has required brands to be current and conversational, and the conversation of the moment is the tectonic changes in politics, media and society.

However, not all brands should be diving into the political fray. Using something as sensitive and incendiary as the now infamous “alternative facts” comments of the administration to sell products won’t go down well in some camps. Not all brands will have permission to do so. Like it or not, history and audience affiliation shape what a brand can realistically do. If a brand belittles or trivializes something important, then that is a mistake.  But if there is a connection to the cause in some way, like Tecate’s obvious association with both Mexico and a segment of the US population that is increasingly welcoming of other cultures, then protesting the wall can amplify the protest sentiment of their target audience and build its value and connection.

In the end the best brands, those we feel a deep connection to, are those that stand for something. They are the ones that people are attracted to (or avoid). They have meaning in the broader cultural dialogue. For better or for worse, brands are stepping up and become symbols that drive beliefs – and actions. People seek out brands who fight for the things they care about. Getting it right and capturing your share of cultural relevance is simply the way of things in a politically charged world.

 

Capturing Culture

Capturing attention of a consumer is one thing. Maintaining it is quite another. And making it connect in such a way that your brand becomes meaningful in the shared human experience, perhaps the hardest part, is another still. There’s nothing new in the challenge, but as we are increasingly bombarded with marketing and advertising in every possible channel, it’s getting harder. We can easily be ignored, overlooked, or simply dismissed. Ads are competing with blogs, memes, selfies, games, cat videos, gossip, and news. Entertainment value and sharability are now the dominant forms of currency in our lives. Content has become a constant layer of engagement with the world. So how does a brand stay relevant? It almost feels overwhelming. To compete in this increasingly fluid landscape, where every interaction with the world has the potential to become a messaging platform, brands need to focus less on traditional measures like awareness and share of voice and more on connecting with the culture of the audiences they are trying to reach. Brands must compete for share of culture.

Competing for share of culture is about shared experiences where everyone can see themselves in the stories, content, and events of the day. It is about creating meaning in a broad spectrum of interactions. Why? Because at the most fundamental and unchanging levels of our being, people seek to create culture and community around the things they care about most. Whether we’re talking about broad national cultures (e.g. New Englanders), subcultures (e.g. Punks), or cultures of practice (e.g. engineers), belonging to a culture means having a shared a set of values, shared customs and history, a common language, and common worldview. They share stories, practices, and even brands. And that shared experience means that a brand has far greater relevance if it can become a fixed part of that cultural structure. The question for a brand, is how does it go about it?

The future of marketing lies in the intersection of cultural knowledge, data, technology, and content. Insight springs from being able to craft a story that is transformative – it must react to changes in the environment, but it must also drive change through creating conversations that shape more than individual targets. Those conversations must change (or have the potential to change) worlds. To gain share of culture, brands (and agencies that support them) need to develop expertise in generating real insight. Any and every approach to a marketing problem will need to integrating cultural understanding, data, technology, and content into their platforms and campaigns. Gatorade is one example of how this comes together. They have developed an entire marketing ecosystem around the idea being a Sports Fuel Company. They use data to better understand both social and athletic trends allows them to organize their users into different audience groups and adapt the conversation at a moment’s notice. The tools on the website allow users to tailor their nutritional needs with their workout and improve their performance. And, perhaps most importantly, their brand represents more than food and drink – it represents the aspirations and needs of athletes who see themselves as a special group with a shared understanding of the world. It speaks to their dreams as well as the practical realities of daily training.

In the end, brands that focus on owning cultural moments in people’s lives, and develop the expertise to speak to them at the right place, in the right way, at the right time, will do more than capture consumer attention. They will capture something more valuable than share of voice. They will capture share of culture and become fixtures in peoples’ lives.

 

Getting at the Heart of Consumer Understanding: Cheap, Fast and Tactical Isn’t the Answer

Sitting in a meeting not long ago, I couldn’t help overhearing someone comment that the presentation of the rationale for a campaign they had just sat through was too “academic”.  What struck me was the distinction he made between academics and “real businessmen” like himself.  The word “academic” is, of course, loaded but one of the underlying meanings to so many would-be paragons of business is that “academic” means complicated, useless or detached.  Now, while I would be the first to agree that people with an “academic” bent to their work can be prone to laying the jargon on fairly thick at times or wanting to give details that some people might feel aren’t needed, the ones that gain recognition and traction in their field and across disciplines (including business) are anything but detached or lacking in their ability to articulate game-changing product and business solutions.  The practical and the academic are NOT mutually exclusive and indeed, there is a desperate need to start incorporating some of that “academic” approach back into businesses.

These days, there’s a fixation on returning to surface-level research in marketing. Cheap. Fast. Tactical.  Strangely, being obtuse is frequently presented as being savvy.  Stupidity masked as brilliance.  What defines current research demands will not work in a market still defined by mass extinction. Change is needed and change doesn’t come from shallow understanding. If a company is going to be successful, if a company is not just looking to survive but prosper into brand prominence, it has to do more than quantify and type its constituents. Above all, it must really understand the consumer. Truly understand its consumer at a deep level. Of course, the people in most companies would argue that they do just that; they have reams of data to prove it. They’ve spent countless hours and countless cups of coffee in focus groups asking people for their opinions. They’ve stopped shoppers in the mall, watched them at the check out and run survey after survey. They have tapped into Big Data and can tell you that 67% of Prius owners in Cleveland also buy 7.4 ounces of coffee on Tuesdays at 10:17 a.m. And if you propose something requiring a bit more depth, it is often  “too academic” – I have to wonder if “too academic” would applying if they were talking to their cardiologist.  “Sorry doctor, running all those CAT scans before putting in that stint seems too academic.  Just stick that fucker in there and it will probably be ok.  It’s just my heart, it’s not that complicated.”  This isn’t too say that finding and insight don’t need to find simplicity and clarity, or that jargon should be minimized.  But is to say that simply dismissing good methods, information and insights because they don’t fit easily into a bullet point or that they require more than a few moments of thought is dangerous to legitimate innovation. 

The problem is that meaningful understanding doesn’t come through focus groups, surveys or mall intercepts. And while Big Data is great for getting at what is going on, it rarely points to why. Understanding doesn’t come from one-on-one interviews, hidden cameras or diaries. These things, like participant observation, are all part of the tool kits used by a range of researchers to talk to consumers but talking is not understanding. Sorry to say this to my business brethren, but sometimes good work does indeed require deep thinking, complex ideas and time.  Not everything need be the fast food solution to developing insights.  Nor should it. So what does it mean to understand our customers?

Admittedly, it’s difficult to define “understanding.” It’s convenient to use an operational or behavioral definition where we begin with the maxim that somebody who reacts appropriately to X understands X. For example, one could be said to “understand” Japanese if one correctly obeys basic commands given in Japanese. But in context, this is a terrible inadequate definition. A person can execute the command, but may miss the fact that it was given in sarcasm. If a native English speaker tells another native speaker to jump off a cliff, they understand they subtext of the phrase, but a non-native speaker may not pick up on that. This is why idioms and metaphorical language are usually the last linguistic concepts to ingest when learning a new language. Understanding implies a much deeper ability to interpret and create, especially in a foreign or unknown context.  And it’s this interpretive element that defines “understanding” and what real consumer/users understanding means for a brand.

“Understanding” is an ability to reason from an inductive perspective and pull together seemingly disparate bits of information into something cohesive. An inductive researcher approaches the analysis of data and examination of practice problems within their own context rather than from a predetermined theoretical basis. The approach moves from the specific to the general, which means that the research team looks at things in a completely fresh and unbiased way. Anthropology is built on this fundamental principle and goes beyond providing a company with the raw understanding of human behavior, innate responses and bio-social needs. It provides a richer method for understanding how these pieces fit together and, more importantly, how people craft these pieces in a given context.  Because anthropologists take an inductive approach, it means they learn as they react and are taught about what is important by the people with whom they work.

For businesses that are attempting to pull themselves out of the muck of the economy over the last seven years, now is the time to start thinking in terms other than one-to-one ROI and short-term sustainability.  Now is the time to start thinking about how to change and define what’s next, not just what’s happening this quarter.  Human beings are complex, absurdly complex. These complexities are amplified by a postmodern condition where speed, mutability and fusillade of advertising bombardments are the hallmarks of existence. It simply isn’t enough anymore to know that family X prefers crunchy or smooth.  Companies need to understand “why.”  Take something as simple as peanut butter. They need to understand how people shop for food in general. They need to understand how people cook with it peanut butter.  They need to understand the changing conceptualization of food as it relates to a sense of identity in a social network. They need to understand the changing landscape of the family meal. In other words, rather than thinking about incremental change and upticks of 2% in their specific category, they need to think big, be bold, and look for real insights. They need to get beyond the numbers, which are safe, bland and devoid of meaning, and get at the stuff that really matters.

Too academic?  Maybe.  On the other hand, Honda and Toyota changed the nature of perceptions about cars in America because they took the time to learn.  Their brands became synonymous with quality and efficiency even as others created increasingly problematic gas-guzzlers.  Why didn’t’ Ford fall into that category?  Because Ford, in the middle of a hugely successful brand turn-around, took the time to explore that “too academic” work and apply the findings in new, creative, genuinely innovative ways. Why did Subaru gain market share and increased loyalty when others lost ground (other than building terrific cars)? Because they launched a campaign that spoke to bigger human issues and ignored mediocrity.

The point is that opportunities do not lie in the obvious, they lie on the outskirts and it is up to us to knit together the relevant pieces.  Armed with this depth of understanding – real understanding – businesses can develop products and brands that do more than produce small incremental profits.  They can develop brand loyalty and brand advocates. They can transform their businesses and become iconic.  They must, because as we know, the basic rule of evolution is simple: adapt or die.

 

Metaphor and Design

“Metaphor is for most people device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish–a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” George Lakoff

As rational people who like to rationally talk about doing rational things, we like to think we choose products based on what we can see, hear, feel, taste and touch. Is this a good beer? We taste it. Is this a good car? We drive it. We like to believe that we make our judgments by distinguishing tangible distinctions. But is there’s a lot more to the equation than just our five senses. There is more to it than cataloging functional benefits. There are the subconscious elements, the deeper meanings, the other intangible benefits that products offer, which factor into the formula and influence our decisions.

The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They have deeper meanings that intertwine the supposed rational with the symbolic. They govern our everyday functioning, from the expression of complex beliefs and concepts down to the most mundane details. These systems of meaning structure what we perceive, how we perceive it and how we act upon those perceptions.  They inform us how to get around in the world, how we relate to other people and even how to select objects of consumption. Our conceptual system thus plays the central role in defining our everyday realities. And we structure concepts in relation to each other.  Take the concept of argument as war: 

  • Your claims are indefensible.
  • He attacked every weak point in my argument.
  • I demolished his argument.
  • I’ve never won an argument with him.
  • You disagree? Okay, shoot!
  • If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
  • He shot down all of my arguments. 

We do this all the time – time is money, data is geology, clothing is theater.  Consequently, understanding associations between concepts is pivotal to turning insights into action, whether you are designing an object or a strategy.

Pure metaphor.

Sometimes, when luck is with you, you can just show us something that isn’t your product at all and tell us it is. This is the use of  pure metaphor: something that stands in for your product that helps clarify and convince. This is obviously a good idea when your product is intangible, but also when the product is, frankly, dull, complicated or has no contextual frame of reference.

I once saw a poster in a library. In it, a hiker was pausing on a beautiful vista overlooking the Grand Canyon, the awesome spectacle looming before him. The poster could have been advertising Timberland or Arizona tourism or even cigarettes, but headline instead read, “Knowledge is free. Visit your library.” Visually, the message was the perfect use of metaphor. A library visit is like an odyssey through immense, spectacular country; it goes beyond the things housed there speaks to the underlying sense of discovery, exploration and surprise.

Fused metaphor.

Unfortunately, pure metaphors are rare, the reason being that it’s simply easier to create a fused metaphor. With a fused metaphor, you take the product (or something associated with it, the way a toothbrush is associated with toothpaste) and attach, or fuse it, with something else.

Objects, at least from a design or advertising perspective, that are modified in some way are often more engaging to us. We are, after all, naturally curious creatures. Unmodified images are often just clichés or stale representations. Disrupting the symbolic structure and associated metaphor primes the viewer’s psyche, drawing them into product or message to make sense of what’s going on. For example, one of advertiser David Ogilvy’s famous ideas was “The Man in the Hathaway Shirt,” who wore an eye patch and was thereby more interesting than a man who didn’t. He wasn’t just the your typical handsome man, he was a wounded, brave, paragon of masculinity with a story to tell.

Unlike pure metaphor, fused images help contextualize the selling argument for us. we don’t have to leap quite as far when part of what we’re looking at is what’s for sale.

So what? At its most basic level, design is about people rather than the objects and spaces we construct.  Design facilitates interaction between people and brands, mediated by the products and spaces those brands construct. We think in terms of solving problems (addressing functional needs, increasing efficiencies, etc.), but problems aren’t unchanging.  They are fluid and influenced by a host of factors, from basic function to notions of status to whether or not they make sense in relation to our worldview.  Because genuinely innovative, new ideas are almost always the product of juxtaposition, they can be nearly impossible to quantify in terms of risk or acceptance. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to reduce risks.  

Why? Because metaphors endow products and spaces with human-like characteristics, making them more approachable and usable. They couch them in concepts with which we are already familiar and make the process of acceptance easier. They also make conversion from insight to object, space or message easier in the same way, by grounding them in concepts people understand, they can more readily see differences and similarities.  They can more easily envision what materials, words, colors, etc. will resonate and can start to readily think in new directions.

Doing so simply requires using a different set of tools than those typically used to test peoples’ reactions.  This is when the use of metaphor in the design process becomes most important. Metaphor provides us with the means to understand complex spaces, things and relationships. Like the example of “argument is war,” imagine applying the same model to designing a product.  Food as spirituality, for example: 

  • This dish is heavenly.
  • This ice cream is divine.
  • Bacon is good for the soul

Ask yourself these questions:


1. What is this product? What does it do? The logotype for Exhale, a pulmonary disease therapy company, demonstrates visually what they do best: they help us breathe better. Each subsequent letter in the logo is less heavy and lighter in color than the previous. As we read the name, we realize and understand its meaning through this visual metaphor.

2. How does it differ from the competition? One of Herman Miller’s annual reports used transparent paper stock to suggest the serendipity of innovation: You look at one problem and sometimes see through it, the answer to another.

3. What’s the largest claim you can make for the product? That it’s a dog shampoo that dogs actually love? Then put the shampoo in packaging designed like something else they love: a fire hydrant.

4. What is this product’s central purpose? One annual report for the Calgary YWCA emphasized the organization’s work with battered women, so the report itself was torn and distressed. The headline on the beat-up cover: “Last year over 11,000 Calgary women were treated worse than this book.” This metaphor may even be stronger than if they had used actual photographs of battered women, since this approach is less expected. 

Once the metaphor is defined (and there will no doubt be more than one metaphor in the mix in many cases), other associations will start to emerge.  If associations are made between food and spirituality, for example, what does that mean for color palette choices, brand elements, package design, etc.?  That leads to defining not only the functional aspects of the design, but the story behind it.

And design, particularly when thinking about design of something that is new or takes an existing brand in a totally new direction, is akin to creating a story.  There are tensions, themes, characters, frames, etc.  Conflicts, tensions and interactions become connectors between ideas and actions. And like the elements or any story (or the type of story), metaphor allows you to categorize, structure and create boundaries with the information you work with.  The final result is a strategy for design that makes sense to the consumer.