Press Articles

Fast Company: How Much Is That Ice Cream In The Window? Depends On The Season


Why fluctuating supermarket prices should be coming soon.

A few years ago, driving over the Sydney Harbour Bridge, I realized something had changed.

In place of the decades-old, same-all-the-time fare, the toll had begun to fluctuate depending on the time of day and night. “That’s curious,” I thought. But my surprise was short-lived, as I reflected on how the price of nearly everything—stock prices, interest rates, airline seats, gasoline, gold, even chocolate—fluctuates these days.

As a branding guy, I’m called in when brands tank, customers flee the stores, or consumers start removing logos from their shirts. Traveling the world 300 days a year, I’ve seen more than my share of brand and retail innovations: dynamic store designs in Korea, where every wall, lamp, and shelf changes position by the hour; luxurious supermarkets in Zurich that produce butter and sausages before your eyes; ranking-based Tokyo retailers where only products selling well—this very hour!—stay on the shelves.

Our new digital universe creates fascinating—some might say scary—new opportunities for retailers. Innovations dating back to the 1950s, when the very name “supermarket” was invented, are looking like something from the Stone Age.

Consider the latest innovation from Target, a retailer previously known for sometimes ponderous decision-making. Target’s new Cartwheel app offers while-you-shop discounts to users, mostly highly coveted Millennials, up to 600 promotions at any one time. The discounts download right to the shopper’s phone, allowing her to redeem them at the cash register and save them for future shopping trips. Cartwheel even offers a “leader board,” where Facebook friends can compare how much they’ve saved. The results on Cartwheel are in: Active users increase their trips to Target, and their spending, by 30%.

Soon we’re likely to witness systems like these linked to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. If you’re well-friended, well-followed, or widely retweeted, your discounts will grow. And why shouldn’t they? If you’re the sort of person who spends two hours a day investigating the best prices and if you are connected to lots of friends, then the retailer knows you’re a great ambassador for the store. Where you lead, the world is likely to follow.

But even Cartwheel will soon become old news.

Last year I introduced a new retail concept in North Carolina. Just$ave Foods, a small discount chain, had problems figuring out why customers should choose them. Did they offer better prices than Walmart? No. Better selection? Of course not. So what could they use as their point of differentiation?

I arrived at the solution—gaming-based shopping—by considering insights into coupon shopping. Through hundreds of ethnographic visits to U.S. shoppers, I had learned that shoppers value coupons for two reasons—and discount pricing is not one of them! First, coupons are about the hunt, the joy of finding a good deal. Second, couponing helps to justify the housewife or househusband’s role, enhancing her or his sense of purpose in contributing to the family’s financial situation.

But shopping, with or without coupons, is painfully boring. Over a lifetime, the average shopper spends 23,300 hours pushing a shopping cart.

At Just$ave, we turned shopping into a game. As customers enter the store, a digital display announces: “Run! Milk is on sale—half price—for the next seven minutes!” Store-wide speakers announce: “Angus beef on sale!” We turned shopping at Just$ave into a contest, and customers loved it.

The Tokyo, Target, and Just$ave experiences lead us toward a world of creative retailing. We’re already seeing dynamic pricing in several different businesses. Since 2010, the ride-scoring app Uber has been charging “surge pricing,” as much as nine times the base price of the ride, during peak demand times. San Francisco’s gourmet meal-delivery service Sprig varies its delivery charge based on distance and time of day.

In the grocery business, the prices you pay will one day be based on several factors: your status, your popularity, and the time of day. Enter the store early in the morning, and you’ll find moderate prices. Revisit the store at 10:30 a.m., and prices will have hit rock bottom. Why? Because foot traffic is low at 10:30, and the traffic of senior citizens is high. As the day passes or the weather changes or the weekend approaches, prices will fluctuate—hour by hour, even minute by minute.

If it’s scorching hot outside, ice cream prices will be high. Is snow falling? There aren’t many takers for ice cream, and lower prices will entice them to buy. A frantic late-night run for ice cream? Don’t be surprised if the store asks you to pay an extra 7%.

Is it fair? Not entirely. But is it fair that the passenger sitting next to you on the airplane paid a different price, based on when he bought his ticket, who sold it, or—some day—how many Twitter followers he has?

We’ve turned into an instant-gratification generation, and savvy retailers are likely to follow us. The question is not if all this will happen, but when.

Ice Cream: via Shutterstock

Read More

Fast Company: How the News Business Can Survive Facebook

1The social network’s plans to control even more of the media industry squeezed a collective gasp out of publishers. Was that a last breath?

Facebook recently wrapped up a “listening tour,” hoping to lure publishers across the United States to deliver their content pages and news feeds to Facebook. The idea was that these pages would take on their own life within the mobile portion of the social media space. Since Facebook’s 1.4 billion users give it the world’s biggest platform, it goes without saying that this move would define the very future of news delivery.

Many publishers were aghast. People in the world of branding felt something else: déjà vu. Can you hear the whisper: Private labels? Sell us your merchandise as cheaply as you can. In return, we’ll label it with our brand name and sell it in our stores, and perhaps—only perhaps—we’ll mention you in a rather offhand manner. Supermarkets love the private-label concept, since it transfers consumer loyalty into their courtyard; manufacturers hate it, since it leaves them stripped of all consumer loyalty and in possession of only one remaining strategy for leverage: price.

What does this have to do with news? Well, think about the last time you bought a newspaper. Chances are, you hardly remember. That’s how long ago it was.

For me, it’s become an obsession, avoiding typing in my credit card number when asked to pay to read an article. Just like you, I love the free New York Times, but when the system tells me my quota is up, I don’t reach for my credit card. Instead, I open another browser to get access to another round of articles. That’s just how I’ve been trained—and I’ll bet you have, too.

Take a look at the music industry. In the U.S., according to the Wall Street Journal, recorded music sales are nearly 50% below their peak from 2000. According to RIS of America, U.S. revenue from downloads of singles and albums fell 11% and 14%, respectively, in the first half of 2014; and music sales at Apple’s iTunes Store fell 13% since the start of the year.

Streaming looks like a winner, leaping 28% in the first six months of this year. If you were wondering why Apple purchased Beats Music, with its $10-a-month subscription streaming service, that’s the answer. But the writing is on the wall. A price war in the streaming music world: It’s the dynamics of private labels all over again.

In the early 1980s, far off in the Alps, the world-famous Swiss watch manufacturing industry faced a crisis similar to that confronting the music and news industries today. Though the Swiss had introduced the first commercial quartz wristwatch, they had been slow to see its potential. It was the Japanese who ran with the idea. Within one year, 66% of the analog watch industry had died.

What was the Swiss manufacturers’ response? They panicked!

But once their panic subsided, they did something surprising. Among the things the Swiss are very good at is holding alignment meetings. Remember the Phoebus light bulb cartel, organized by the Swiss in the 1920s? It fixed the life expectancy of light bulbs at 1,000 hours, a standard of obsolescence that still endures.

Every major player in the Swiss watch industry joined to launch an operation called S-W-A-T-C-H. That’s right. The disposable plastic watches were born in 1983. The Swiss turned time into fashion and fashion into a successful weapon against quartz technology. Today, the Swiss watch industry supplies content to almost every watch manufactured in the world. I’ve heard rumors that even the Rolex contains parts provided by Swatch. Today, the Swiss watch industry is thriving.

What would have happened if the Swiss had been unwilling or unable to align themselves? An entire industry would have vanished overnight.

So is the news industry’s solution really that simple: alignment?

Let’s rerun the Swiss approach, using the news industry as our guinea pig. Imagine an alignment of the entire news industry. Not an easy task, but not impossible, either, given that the entire industry is on the brink of collapse. Based on some back-of-the-envelope calculations, I reckon that if the five dominating media companies joined forces, 80% of original-content news would be owned by that collective.

The five common-front news houses would need to make just one move: no more streaming of free news. The result? No more free news for Google News. No more Facebook news feed. If you want the news, you’ll have to buy it.

Of course, there would be a deafening uproar, followed by creative attempts to secure free news in other ways. But before long, consumers would remember that news—like other commodities—costs money to produce. They’ve realized it in Scandinavia, where news houses aligned and the “free news” button disappeared.

Overnight, the ball game would change. This wouldn’t solve every problem; monetizing the online world is still an ongoing challenge. But for the first time in a very long time, the news houses would find themselves in the driver’s seat.

The clock, of course, is ticking. AOL and Yahoo have already geared up their news machines, creating the illusion of real media by hiring the likes of Katie Couric and infusing a dose of Huffington Post to their editorial departments. But these online media outlets still have a long way to go before they truly own news production.

The Swiss showed that it’s possible to turn back time. Now let’s see if the media industry can put the news back in Pandora’s box.

Photo: Flickr user Franco Pecchio

Read More

Fast Company: A Not-So-Modest Plan To Save Bookstores From The Grim Reaper That Is Amazon

3038236-2Physical bookstores have no chance if they try to compete against Amazon’s selection and price. There must be another way.

I have a love affair with bookstores: the search, the smell, the tactile sensation of turning pages. I know I’m not alone: There are lots of customers who still love bookstores.

And yet, bookstores keep shutting their doors. Is the bookstore doomed? Yes, I‘m afraid it is—if it continues to compete with Amazon on price and volume. That’s a losing battle. But if bookstores compete on qualities that Amazon will never be able to duplicate, I believe there’s hope! (Provided Amazon doesn’t open too many physical stores.)

But first, a quick trip to Milan’s Malpensa Airport. Because it was there that I noticed how passengers were directed through the airport by a system of different colored lines. Transit: red. Exit: green. Shopping: yellow. As soon as I figured out the system, I never looked up anymore; I merely followed the red stripe on the floor.

What does this have to do with bookstores?

Amazon introduced the concept of mass-reader reviews. Bookstores have the ability to take this even further. Reading the right book gives us a sense of power, influence, and newness. It makes us interesting, gives us a reason to talk, and puts us in the center of things. That’s the role a bookstore should assume.

Every bookstore has authors popping by to sign books. This should be the heart of any smart bookstore as it brings customers close to the source.

Every author is a repository of knowledge about great books, creative thoughts, and reflections. A bookstore might ask each prominent author that visits to create a line through the store. If a store is lucky enough to host E. L. James, author of Fifty Shades of Grey, they could ask her to pinpoint 10 books she adores. Assign the color grey to her (of course!). Draw a grey line through the store, leading the customer on a tour of James’s beloved books. Interview James about these books. Which book made her cry, which changed her life, which inspired her? Record the interview, place iPads around the store, and let visitors play the video as they follow the grey line from book to book.

But recommendations can’t be the only answer. Bookstores need to tap into every customers’ sensory experience. Think of all the book genres that lend themselves to sensory exploration: all the cookbooks, gardening books, the do-it-yourself books.

The entrance of every bookstore could become a sensory exploration zone: a movable kitchen, a mini-garden, a tool shed—something which not only catches the customer’s eye, but generates interest by stimulating all the senses.

I would allocate two or three days a week for new cookbook authors to visit the store, bring their own ingredients, and use the kitchen free-of-charge. The bookstore would fill with the aroma of cookbooks! I would invite garden authors to bring pots, seeds, and plants, and demonstrate some of their garden tricks. Do-it-yourself authors could come and demonstrate their skills, everything from building a model plane to restoring a door. Then stores could promote their books—physically and online.

There’s no way bookstores can compete on price and selection with Amazon. Period.
But there’s no way Amazon can compete on the smell from the most amazing roasted chicken, the revelation you’ve just learned as you’ve witnessed first-hand how to renovate your beloved chair, or the aha! moment as Ms. James introduces you to her source of inspiration while you walk through your favorite bookstore. In short, book sellers in the physical world must borrow from the digital world: dig into user experience and engagement.

Show me the bookstore that does this, and I’ll go in a heartbeat.

Wouldn’t you?

Read More

Think holiday shopping’s ‘soulless?’ This Japanese trend can fix that

lips-1024x658-2The times when Black Friday and Cyber Monday were one-day events are long gone. Data from search engine giant Google show that close to 90 percent of shoppers have turned these days into “mini-shopping-holidays,” rather than one-day events. But the Japanese, known for turning shopping into a fine art, may be pointing the way to yet another new trend in shopping.

For decades, the Japanese culture has led consumer innovation. They introduced everything from portable music players to video cameras, from the compact discs to the cartoon obsession — and who could forget Hello Kitty? If you ask Japanese people what they’ll do on any given vacation, most will answer: shopping. For the Japanese, the term “shopping-holiday” is just as accepted as “beach-holiday.”

There’s no better place in the world to predict the future of consumption.

The newest shopping trend—which is sure to reach foreign shores soon—is also born in Japan. It is narrative-based second-hand shopping.

Pass the Baton! is a chain of Japanese stores that is leading the way in this next generation shopping that is attracting increasing attention from international trend scouts. Its flagship store, located in Omotesando, Tokyo’s high-end fashion district, runs in the face of Japan’s decades-long tradition of “use it and throw it away.” At Pass the Baton!, second-hand fashion and used home products are mixed with brand-new merchandise.

Tokyo is considered the world’s most competitive retail market, so it is hard to imagine second-hand shopping succeeding there — but Pass the Baton! is packed with customers.

What explains the chain’s success? The Japanese have managed to add a new twist that might point toward a soon-to-be-discovered global trend: storytelling.

A message posted next to a vase reads: “I had to move because I broke up with my girlfriend – my new apartment was simply too small to keep this amazing vase – I was afraid my dog would crush it.”

Pick any product from any shelf, and you’ll find a business card-sized description of the item. But that’s not all. You’ll also find a Quick Response Code (those little, pixelated barcodes that one sees everywhere these days) featuring a portrait of the previous owner. If you click on it, a small video tells you how the owner secured the item, how they maintained it, and why they decided to sell it.

The Japanese have fallen in love with the concept.

“Simply buying a product no longer gives me the thrill it once did,” says 23-year-old Kenji-san Mishima. “Pass the Baton! infuse their products with authenticity. They make me love shopping again.”

Pass on the Baton isn’t alone in realizing that consumers have become tired of factory-manufactured products. Department store MOJI has jumped on the concept by introducing a “pop-up market.” On the top floor of its flagship store in Tokyo’s trendy Shibuya neighborhood, you’ll find clothing, tableware, decoration items, and even books, each accompanied by a story about its origin. So far these are just handpicked prototypes, but if they prove marketable, MOJI plans to expand the concept to all its stores.

The Japanese second-hand movement points toward a new trend. Call it “desperately seeking authenticity.” A new flat screen television, T-shirt, drinking glass, or picture frame — no matter how nice — is essentially soulless. After decades of obsessive shopping, the Japanese consumer seems to feel this emotional vacuum. As a result, they are turning toward purchases they perceive as having a personal story.

This brings me back to Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Recession, environmental concerns, and consumption satiety may describe why this week’s consumption spree may not rise to the level of craziness of recent years.

Perhaps consumers in the West are also starting to feel a sense of emptiness after their shopping-sprees.

If so, they may start searching for a sense of purpose in the products they buy, and the trend of recent generations — buy it, use it, and throw it out —will become a thing of the past.

The current holiday shopping season has more ho-hum than ho-ho, but maybe once Japan’s storytelling trend comes to America, retailers will be able to captivate consumers, and shopping will once again be America’s favorite and most thrilling pastime.

PHOTO: A woman walks past an image of lips at a department store in Tokyo July 30, 2010. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao
Read More

Martin Lindstrom teams up with NBC’s Today Show to help small Mom & Pop businesses survive

To show how a business turn-around is not only possible, but completely do-able in a very compressed timeframe, Today Show and I looked for 2 businesses that qualified for a makeover. Tune into NBC’s today show on February 1 and 2 for a two part series on what we did, and on what the results were.

Read More

Fast Company: The Truth About Being “Done” Versus Being “Perfect”

By Martin Lindstrom: Marketing consultant and author of Brandwashed – September 25, 2012

Ideas are easy–believing in them is the hard part

In 2010, a small California-based company opened its doors for business. They didn’t have much capital but, with a staff of only four, they did have a singular vision–to outdo Kodak. Even through the rosiest of glasses, this would not appear a feasible proposition. It’s a scenario that makes David versus Goliath look like a fair fight. But 18 months later, the company of four, which had become a company of 13, was sold to Facebook for $1 billion.

It was a sale that made headlines the world over. Instagram was the new digital sensation. They were perfectly in sync with a generation that records everything on their iPhones, and their service that enables the most amateur picture-taker’s photos to look like they’ve come out of a professional studio, was, well, an insta-hit.

Let’s go back a little farther, still. In 2003, a small mobile game development company from Finland appeared on the map. Taking their cue from the likes of Hasbro, the U.S. giant of interactive games, they wanted to create a small, fun, and dead-cheap game. Operating in the country where Nokia had so dominated the digital landscape, it came, naturally, to use smartphones as their platform. Six years later Rovio Entertainment launched Angry Birds. On May 9, 2012, the company announced the one-billionth download of the game.

Instagram and Angry Birds are not unique. One needs to look no further than Netflix and Blockbuster–and Skype and the entire telecommunication world–for similar stories. Small startups, which despite all the odds, manage to succeed against well-established conglomerates with all the expertise that money can buy.

All the aforementioned startups began with nothing but an idea. How difficult is that? Having worked with some of the world’s largest companies, I’ve come to realize that the idea is the easy part; the hard part is getting your company to believe in it.

If you’d entered Facebook’s headquarters sometime around 2010, you’d have seen a sign painted on the wall: “Done is better than perfect.” I have no doubt that if you walked into the offices of any Fortune 100 brand you would see no such thing. Their legal, compliance, or human resources departments would insist on it being removed. And yet, had Facebook waited so much as a year to perfect its model, the company might very well be where MySpace is today.

“Done is better than perfect” is not about coming up with ideas; it’s about believing in them. And having an attitude that compels you to run with the idea before it’s too late.

My ultimate dream as a kid was fulfilled by the time I was eight. This is when I visited the research lab developing LEGO. To be in the place where new toys were being developed before they hit the market–this was my version of the Willy Wonka fantasy. I’ll never forget my encounter with the head designer as he showed me the newly developed LEGO train. I could barely contain myself, it was just… well, the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

I spluttered out: “When can I buy it?” He said, “In about three years time.” That just baffled me. I wanted to know how he could project that far ahead. His answer was simple. He said, “Because we’re LEGO.” A few years later LEGO experienced its biggest drop in sales. It was the same year that the first hand-held computer games hit the market. It would take LEGO another 20 years to reduce their R&D cycle to less than a year.

Another Facebook motto says: “Move fast and break things.” Can you think of any Fortune 100 brand that is not only be prepared to say this, but actually means it? Google, Apple, Amazon, and perhaps Samsung. Anything in common? They are all innovative technology companies with a new style of leadership.

Until recently, Sony was the world’s leading electronics company, and then something went wrong. Was it lack of ideas? Having spoken with insiders and experts, I put it down to arrogance. A bit of cultural background is also relevant here. Historically, there’s always been friction between the Japanese and the Koreans. A few years ago, the Korean company, Samsung, knocked on the door of Japanese-owned Sony. They wanted to team up with Sony to produce LCD screens. Rumor has it that mainly due to cultural baggage, Sony politely refused. The rest is history. Samsung is the leading manufacturer in six electronic categories in the United States alone.

Whenever I spend time in boardrooms across the world, I can’t help but notice that courage seems to be a limited currency. No matter how the company presents itself, it seems CEOs rarely have the power one would imagine. The fact of the matter is that companies of this magnitude tend to be run by committees that make the tough decisions and take the risks. The problem is that committees rarely have courage–only people do.

At another company, on another wall I noticed another slogan: “Let the consumer build the brand.” This was Skype. Skype is not a Fortune 100 brand just yet, but with Microsoft’s recent $8.5 billion acquisition, it may soon become one. With widespread recognition in the developed world, and almost no advertising, this slogan rings fortuitously true. Bear in mind that Skype is less than nine years old, and its blue icon has found its way to millions of computer screens with not a single ad.

I often conduct the Skype challenge with my clients. If all advertising was banned, and the game was to increase sales, what would you do? You’d be surprised to find how creative even the least creative person can become. But what’s even more surprising is that most have never so much as entertained this as a possibility. As one executive explained, “Why should we? We’re running one of the most successful companies in the world.”

There was a time when he was probably right–but no longer. The reality is that there’s a new set of rules in town, and they’re scarily simple. They’re also scarily powerful once you get them. However, getting them right is the hard part. If you can claim the management of your company truly lives by the mantra that “done” is better than “perfect,” and that the organization’s survival is about moving fast and breaking things, then you need to ask them if they’re prepared to cut out advertising. It’s more than likely their answer would still be, “No.”

But at this very moment, someone is hanging one of those fine Facebook posters on their business’ office wall. And like David, armed with little more than a slingshot and a stone, they’re acting on pure courage and just going for it, because that’s one of the rules of survival today–not tomorrow.

[Image: Photo mashup by Joel Arbaje]

Read More

Fast Company: What Teddy Bears, Picture Frames, And Condoms Have In Common

By Martin Lindstrom: Marketing consultant and author of Brandwashed – September 10, 2012

You may not be able to buy love, but perhaps you can buy a related feeling: security

If you’ve followed my work over the last couple of years, you’ll know how I consider spending time in consumers’ homes an essential part of my work. As increasingly more of our time is taken up with emails, sitting in board meetings, and finding ways to navigate the global financial crisis, we’ve forgotten those who are really paying our salaries–the consumer. Research reports and focus groups are good at defining demographics, but fail to reveal those small personal insights that can transform a brand. This is why I’ve spent thousands of hours in consumers’ homes trying to understand what makes consumers tick (and what doesn’t). This has resulted in many fantastic insights–including finding out what teddy bears, picture frames, and condoms have in common. (More on that soon.)

The industry term for this type of investigative work borrows from anthropology–it’s called an “ethnographic study.” In theory, it does not require that much. All that’s needed is a pen, a notebook, and a family willing to invite you into their home where for a few hours they briefly share their lives. You’d be amazed just how much you can learn by observing people–enough even to change the entire philosophy of a company. And that’s my mission. I drag my clients into their consumers’ homes to let them discover firsthand who the people that pay their salaries really are.

Sometime I take CEOs who run multibillion-dollar companies and board members along on these visits. Their job is to observe. We sit around kitchens in North Carolina and Mississippi. There we defer to boys whose fingers fly across controls of Game Boys and PlayStations, or young girls who groove to Adele. Little do these families know that every move they make or question they answer could redefine the future for millions of people.

I remember once I took a client into a family home where they failed to refrigerate the very popular beverage he presided over. They nonchalantly explained that they’d run out of fridge space. Yet in all the company’s communications they’d emphasized that their drink is one that must be consumed cold. However, in this family home other household items were in place. Milk was in the side of the fridge door, eggs were in the egg tray, and fruit and vegetables were in the drawers. There were other beverages being kept cold, but not this CEO’s company’s drink.

This may not seem too big a deal, but when a beverage manufacturer is earning millions from a drink that’s best served chilled, it’s important to know why the Vitamin Water has taken priority, and his company’s drink has been relegated to the pantry floor.

It took two years to work through the obstacles. The key issue involved parents’ resistance to their children’s consumption of a drink that they didn’t think had any nutritious value (which it indeed had). With research and a lot of hard work, parents accepted the drink and eventually felt comfortable with it in the fridge, alongside the juice and milk.

During ethnographic visits it is my habit to take in everything in the home. I notice what’s hanging on the walls, I peruse the books on the shelves, the DVDs lying around the living room, the magazines in the bathroom, and, if I’m to be totally honest, I’ll even rifle through closed drawers. After years of going into people’s homes, I began noticing a steady increase in, well, teddy bears, picture frames, and condoms. I date this change back to 2009. Besides being kept in bathroom and bedside-table drawers, I now began seeing condoms displayed in glass vases like candy. Then there are the teddy bears. For over a century they have been a feature in young children’s bedrooms. However, it seems that these days teddy bears are growing older with the children they initially comforted. It’s quite likely you’ll still find them on the pillow of an average teenage girl’s bedroom, and even beyond.

What could explain this? The answer came to me as I began spending time with some of the more sophisticated retailers whose window displays are using pictures in frames. They’ve also been hanging framed images along the entrances to their store–and not just a few images but as many as 40 or 50. It’s a psychological reality. The less secure we feel in a financially unstable universe, the greater our need to “frame our lives.” As Keisha M. Cutright, an assistant professor of marketing at Wharton points out in a Journal of Consumer Research paper, picture frames help us feel secure.

Among other revelations, the study indicates that the more we’re under pressure–from a sluggish economy, a rough job market, you name it–the more we feel the need for a secure environment to live in. This need for stability also offers a plausible explanation for why people are adding framed images to the walls of their homes. It also explains the longer-living teddy bears and the increase in condoms. Teddy bears provide comfort and a direct link back to the “good old days,” a time of rosy memories when we imagine everything was wholesome and good. And condoms? Psychologist Belisa Vranich offers a similar explanation: It’s all about feeling safe in a world that seems to be increasingly unstable. Here, safety means something different than it does when talking about teddy bears, but the mental security is just as real. Perhaps this is why condom sales have soared 16% over the past four years.

As you might imagine, I dread the day when I walk into a home and see a framed picture of a teddy bear holding a condom. I wouldn’t know where to begin my analysis of what that might mean.

Read More

Fast Company: The Chick-Fil-A Way: Why Brands Should Have Stronger Opinions

By Martin Lindstrom: Marketing consultant and author of Brandwashed – August 16, 2012

There’s more to that recent crispy controversy than you might think. Take a deep breath—and then take a public position.

Chick-fil-A, a Georgia-based fast food chain specializing in chicken sandwiches recently entered a highly exclusive, and not always savory, league of brands—that is, brands with opinions. It happened, as you may have heard, courtesy of COO Dan Cathy, the son of S. Truett Cathy, a devout Southern Baptist who began the company in 1961. The owners of Chick-fil-A had long been supporters of Christian family values, and active sponsors of organizations and conferences dedicated to preserving what some call the institution of marriage.

However, when Dan Cathy went on the radio speaking of “God’s judgment” raining down on those who “advocate same-sex marriage,” the heated (sizzling, crispy, etc.) debate that ensued raised Chick-fil-A’s profile on both a national and international level. While I firmly oppose the Cathy family’s views, as a branding man I can’t help but admire the (likely unintended) value of the misadventure. Up until a few weeks ago, I, for one, had never heard of Chick-fil-A. I’m sure I’m not alone.

It’s been a while since the glory days of brands with opinions. The once-famous liberal bent of Ben & Jerry’s has softened. Sure, we’ve seen attempts by the companies such as Diesel, who trumpeted fairly innocuous opinions, but the truth of the matter is the world of brands has become oh-so-Corporate, with a capital C. And when brands do wade into the choppy editorializing seas these days, the results are often sloppy—see also: Cole, Kenneth.

The past decade has, in fact, seen a systematic depletion of courage in business in the United States. Every major corporation has come to fear shareholder backlash. In this world of increased job insecurity, there’s an even greater fear of igniting the ire of an aggressive writer somewhere in the back lots of the blogosphere. Companies now shy away from igniting any storm that may lead to a lawsuit. The reality is that they’ve become petrified of causing any kind of conflict, and so they opt for the safer middle of the road.

But isn’t time ripe for a game change? It wasn’t that long ago when CNN was the leading global news channel, and then in 1986 FOX entered the arena. The world of news has never been the same since. Objective views have been replaced with subjective opinions. It seems we can’t get enough of it, and those leading the ratings race seldom allow facts to get in the way of a good story. We see this everywhere, from Howard Stern to The Simpsons to the endless number of subjective opinions pouring out of blogs on every single subject.

Then we have brands. Most are working overtime to be everything to everybody, and the only commitment they’re prepared to make is when they dare to share an opinion about one of their own. Think Coke Zero in preference to Coke, or Oracle’s latest $10 million offer to IBM to see if it can out-perform them. As for real opinions, the kind that shape our world and challenge our beliefs, well, they’re nowhere to be found.

As one who is quick with his opinion, I believe that you can’t be friends with everyone, and the day that you try, you are doomed. Of course there will always be exceptions, but these are mostly to be found in smaller companies with less to lose. And, yes, the bigger the company, the higher the risk, and the greater likelihood they’ll travel along tried and trusted paths. But what of the rest? Why are they choosing to stay in the middle of the road? Opinions are such that they can divide and unite at the same time, and perhaps for this very reason we are still talking about Pepsi Vs. Coke some 15 years after the ads aired.

The time has come to bring back opinionated brands. Ben & Jerry’s political positions were not manufactured in their marketing department or on their advertising agency’s drawing board. It was a real expression of values when they chose to rename their Chubby Hubby, Hubby Hubby in celebration of Vermont legalizing same-sex marriage. They even went so far to feature a cartoon image of two men marrying beneath a rainbow. Their choice in the 2008 presidential election was celebrated with the flavor Yes Pecan, echoing President Barack Obama’s ‘Yes, we can!’ slogan. Hell, the company founders were once even arrested outside the Sudanese Embassy after protesting the horrors happening in Darfur. Ben & Jerry’s is a rare brand, indeed. Though to a lesser extent, the company continued pursuing controversial issues even after it been taken over by Unilever, the multinational food corporation.

Today, brands should take a cue from rock stars, many of who are unafraid to speak out for causes they believe in. Lady Gaga has supported the repeal of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell;” Annie Lennox and Elton John began fighting for AIDS sufferers in the days when people were afraid to even whisper the word. Of course, corporate culture is vastly different from rock culture, but as the growing number of socially considerate businesses indicates, there is a place where politics and profits can happily mingle.

The choice of instant feedback channels seems to have scared CEOs into submission. Previously the worst that could happen was a bit of bad press and a few outraged letters dumped in the mailbox. These days, everyone can vent his or her indignation and rage on Twitter. This is precisely the problem. It’s the reason why negative opinions in the world of branding cut deeper than ever before. The consequences are immediate, and they hit with a forcefulness that can leave even the most resistant members of senior management feeling kneecapped.

We now live in a world led by Wow! Pow! Ciao! Our attention is captured by the immediate. Our reaction is passionate, and sometimes ferocious. And just as soon as we’ve let off steam, we give it away. In this new reality, senior management needs to become more mindful of the process and grow a thicker skin in order to share their opinion and stand for something in the world. There’s risk involved, to be sure, however there’s an even bigger risk involved in taking the middle road—not least of which is the heavy traffic already clogging the space.

[Image: Flickr user Elevert Barnes]

Read More

Fast Company: London 2012: Wow. Pow. Ciao

By Martin Lindstrom: Marketing consultant and author of Brandwashed – August 2, 2012

The London 2012 Olympics is up and running. The world is deep into the elation, the tears, and the cheers. Every media channel is jam-packed with stories of triumphs along the road.

But hold on a moment.

In 2007 a new London Games logo was presented to the public. It resisted the iconic imagery, opting instead for a geometric configuration that on close inspection revealed itself to be the numerals 2012. The public outcry came from every corner of Britain, where it was criticized as a national embarrassment. Within 24 hours of it being launched, 40,000 complaints were filed by the general public demanding it be scrapped. Some compared it to a deconstructed swastika, while others professed an animated version might trigger epileptic seizures. Iran added fuel to the debate when it contended the logo was racist. As they saw it, the four jagged numerals spelled “Zion,” a biblical term for Jerusalem.

At the time, London’s Olympic Committee stood firmly behind a logo that had cost £400,000 and been a year in the making. The chairman, Lord Coe, was adamant that the troubled design was all about “reaching out and engaging young people.” Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, weighed in, saying he believed it to be “an early indication of the dynamism, modernity and inclusiveness with which London 2012 will leave its Olympic mark.”

And then, without so much as another word, the logo slowly faded away. Sure, traces of it remain on the official homepage and a few other corporate-like places, but it’s mostly missing from the popular culture surrounding the games. What adorns everything Olympic in London right now consists of the five colorful rings accompanied by a serif text that reads quite simply “London 2012.” But most astounding thing of all is not that the questionable logo has taken a back seat, but that the millions glued to their televisions or digital screens don’t seem to have noticed its absence. I call it the “Wow, Pow, Ciao” phenomenon, a result of our media-saturated world.

  • Wow: We see something that offends us, we’re shocked and outraged, and then, all fired up.
  • Pow: We take to email, Twitter, Tumblr, and text to vent our horror and dismay to all and sundry, and then, almost as soon as it began…
  • Ciao: We’re on to something newer, more interesting, and perhaps even more controversial.

Admittedly, the logo was pretty ugly. But, in retrospect, I can’t help but wonder if the awfulness of it was worth the fuss. After all, how many of us can remember the Shanghai 2008 logo or, for that matter, Athens in 2004, or Sydney in 2000 (to say nothing of the hideous Olympic mascots)? I know I can’t. However, those of us of a certain age have no trouble remembering Coca-Cola’s rebranding fiasco that occurred in 1985. When the company reformulated their recipe in response to Pepsi taking over the lead marketing position, there was an enormous public backlash to the New Coke. Despite the fact that all market research showed people considered the new version tastier, the company was bombarded with over 400,000 calls and letters protesting the change. Wall Street declared the exercise a gigantic failure and Coca-Cola quickly reverted back to its classic formula. Now, 27 years later, Coke and Diet Coke hold the top two marketing positions, followed by Pepsi.

A similar fate happened to Kraft when they tampered with Vegemite, a dark brown spread used on toast in Australia. In the process of improving the brand, they changed the name from Vegemite to iSnack. Australians felt part of their national identity under threat, and spontaneously boycotted the renamed product. After just four days of iSnack hitting supermarket shelves Kraft succumbed to consumer pressure, and Vegemite was reintroduced to its adoring public generating record sales.

We’re now all part of an instant-gratification generation. As we happily take to Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook to air our grievances, a curious phenomenon is happening in tandem. Life apparently begins over again within the space of a few seconds–just like a goldfish. The French have a phrase for it. They call it succès de scandale. In the U.S. we call it: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Here today, gone tomorrow. In the twentieth century it was a term that was used with a fair amount of cynicism.

Today, the cynicism is all but absent, and no one seems to notice or even care. The wow is coming from the sporting action. People are tweeting about Ye Shiwen, the young teenage swimmer from China whose winning time in the women’s 400-meter medley outclassed the men. They’re bemoaning Michael Phelps’s disappointing performance and celebrating the wins. As for the misbegotten logo, well it’s bowed out without so much as an English goodbye.


Read More

Fast Company: For Brands, Being Cool Is As Hot As Sex

By Martin Lindstrom: Marketing consultant and author of Brandwashed – July 7, 2012

We all know why sex sells, but coolness? It’s mercurial, ethereal, and hard to measure. So why does everyone care so much about it?

The decision was made–and then made headlines across the globe.

In the U.K.’s high court, Judge Colin Birss presided over Apple’s fight with Samsung, in which Apple claimed Samsung’s Galaxy tablet was way too similar to its iPad. The judge disagreed. In his ruling he said that the Galaxy “does not have the same understated and extreme simplicity which is possessed by the Apple design.” And then came three little words that reflect one of the biggest, most powerful ideas in business. The Judge declared that the Galaxy is “not as cool” as the iPad.

Now Apple is a brand that’s been considered cool from the moment the first Macintosh was introduced in 1984. Cool is something every technology brand in the world aspires to be. BlackBerry and Nokia would pay millions to be associated with the trait, if only they could. So would shoe makers, car manufacturers, clothing labels, and probably every celebrity on the planet. Cool is–and has been for some time–the hottest word in branding, and every brand wants a piece of it.

Cool is also mercurial, ethereal, and hard to measure. That hasn’t stopped a group of psychologists from conducting a three-part research study investigating the essence of coolness. The results of their investigation were surprising. But first, let’s take a step back in time.

Values, which serve as a kind of architectural framework, underpin a brand. This keeps the brand solid and consistent. In other words, a brand is a little like a person you form a trusting relationship with; you rely on it to perform.

In their search to be cool, brands often aspire to align their values with well-known personalities. In the 1990s, Madonna was all the rage (really, check out this vid for a few reasons why). “We want to stand for what she stands for,” were the words on the lips of every marketing executive I spoke with. Back then, she was less preoccupied with staying young, and more focused on making interesting dance music and compelling, sexy videos. She was cool.

During the first part of this century, the notion of cool shifted to people like Richard Branson. His entrepreneurial spirit and, well, cool, was highly appealing to a new generation of marketing professionals. They wanted what he had, and brands were subsequently steered in similar directions as Branson’s Virgin group.  Cool brands manage the delicate balance of being well-defined entities, as well as being highly desirable. Often this comes from a close association with a single word: think “search,” and you think “Google”; or “safety” and “Volvo” pops to mind; “cowboy” conjures “Marlboro.”

So what is the essence of cool? Just last week the Journal of Individual Differences published the results of a study led by Ilan Dar-Nimrod, a psychologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York. The researchers set out to define coolness beyond a general understanding of what’s nice, likable and popular. For the study 353 volunteers were asked to submit adjectives they associated with coolness. Surprisingly, the word “friendly” topped the list, followed by “personal competence.”  This ranking positioned socially skilled, popular, smart, and talented people as being the ultimate in cool; individualist hipsters featured lower on the list. Bar-Ilan concluded: “Coolness has lost so much of its historical origins and meaning.” That is: rebels are not hot. Or cool.

Another attribute figured prominently in this recent study: physical attractiveness. The prominence of “good looks” in the study echoes the results of work I carried out for my most recent book, Brandwashed. During my $3 million study into the way word-of-mouth works, I asked a family of five to secretly promote brands to a cadre of their friends, family members and colleagues. During this experiment, I learned that the key to the family’s success was neither their extensive network, nor their gift of the gab; it was their good looks.

A slew of books published in the last year attest to this.  Daniel Hamermesh describes why attractive people are more successful in Beauty Pays, whereas Deborah Rhodes’s The Beauty Bias argues for a legal basis to prohibit discrimination against those who are not gifted in the looks department.

A while back, the BBC made a television documentary about the importance appearance plays in our lives. One of Britain’s top models was made to appear frumpy for a day. She was then tasked with a variety of roles–to look for a job, to approach people on the street for directions, and to randomly offer help to others. At the end of the day, she was asked to assess how important her looks were in achieving what she’d achieved. Without hesitating, she answered: “Everything.” She was flabbergasted to find just how unhelpful people were during her day as an average-looking person.

So here’s a wild hypotheses: If looks go a long way to defining a cool human being, how does this relate to brands? Apple has sleek lines and stylish displays, but does the brand have a sense of humor?  Is it sociable? Well, yes. Just look at those winning ads where the uncool guy took on the role of a PC, and the fun, socially engaging and handsome guy was a Mac. Which brand would you prefer to be?

Can this revised formula for coolness be adapted to every brand and category? Perhaps. As with everything, I’m sure there are exceptions, but it is an intriguing thought. As brands become increasingly sophisticated in their strategies to capture the hearts and minds of consumers, so more sophisticated means of identifying, defining and locking in the perfect set of values is required. Of course it’s one thing to theoretically label your product or store cool, in the hope that the consumer will concur; it’s quite another to achieve it. But with good looks, a dose of humor, and a splash of social awareness, you may yet realize the dream.

[Photo illustration by Joel Arbaje]


Read More