I gave an interview to a French blog called Les Francs Publicitaires couple of moths back. It was a fun conversation, and my favorite question was to describe my job to Samuel's 9-year old brother. You don't know what you are really doing until you have to explain it to a child.
Strategy in creative agencies often isn’t taken seriously - and deservedly so. We aren’t doing it right. In a world that’s connected, open and interactive, strategy needs to be the same. Strategy isn't an isolated discipline or a tucked-away department that makes a cameo in the agency process by drafting a brand architecture or summarizing a competitive opportunity. It's a problem-solving approach and a methodology that can help companies grow. It can turn agencies into growth hackers for brands by pointing the way for their business in the emerging digital markets. To get into this value matchmaking game, we first need to expand what strategy (and strategists) must do.
The biggest professional insight of the past year was coming up with the Digital Design approach. It came from my experience of working with people who think of digital strategy only in terms of practices they are familiar with: engagement planning, communications planning, propagation planning, you name it. Nothing can be further from the rich and broad digital reinvention of the ways we do business and live our daily lives. I became convinced that more than a gap in knowledge, there’s a rift in values between those who understand digital and those who merely use it.
I realized it’s important to emphasize that digital insights need to be the hub of any solution and/or idea. Enter Digital Design. It’s an approach and methodology focused on solving problems in a way that improves human lives. It thinks of digital as a new source of value for both the business and the user. As an approach, Digital Design is behavior-first, collaborative, additive and evolving. It’s driven by making the world a more open, social and sustainable place. It's based on the fact that we've run out of time for solutions that are not sustainable, that hyper-consumption is a waste, and that we need a much more efficient economic activity. As a methodology, Digital Design is human-centered. It’s a set of tools and methods oriented towards creating and capturing economic value through helping people do things in a more playful, human, sensible and efficient way.
In practice, Digital Design informs strategy. The focus of strategy is on understanding problems, not enforcing a particular solution. Strategy's job is to outline the experience that connects the business and the user. Best strategies help solve problems by generating an idea on how to creatively improve human life. Best experiences are holistic: they grow business and bring value to users.
In theory, Digital Design draws on design thinking, business modeling, organizational analysis, sociology of innovation, systems thinking, complexity studies, experience design, behavioral economics, and cultural studies. Think of Digital Design as Design Thinking 2.0, updated for the dynamics of the digital world.
To bring Digital Design to life, I drafted a Digital Business Gameplan. It's a tool meant to help businesses identify new market opportunities in the digital space. I also made an overview of digital business in 2012. Coming up next are a Digital Design Curicullum and Digital Business Models. In my everyday work, I want to combine marketing and business ideas, new business modeling and revenue streams, and service design.
I had a chance to share my take on Digital Design with a lot of curious and interesting people in 2012. I was a panelist at a well-attended SxSW conversation this past March. Shortly afterward, I found myself in a good company of other keynotes at a Croatian advertising festival, IdejaX. And then, in September, I had an opportunity to realize how hard (and great) it is to guest-teach a graduate class at SVA. In December, I was again part of the fun crowd of IAB judges. Throughout the year, I had teamed up with the amazing Ale Lariu to teach Digital Strategy course. In between speaking and teaching and working, I put my thoughts in writing for Fast Company and also went back to contributing to AdAge. I plan to continue to make speaking and writing as part of my monthly routine. I look forward to teaching an online digital marketing course with MediaBistro in March.
I enter 2013 quite content. There's a lot to be done in the next year, but the past 12 months provided a solid ground for me to build off. I look forward to the fun and excitement of 2013. Wishing the same to you.
There's a flurry of reactions around Avis' purchase of Zipcar. The most daring of those proclaim how "sharing economy's entering mainstream." Wait, what? Let's get this straight. Zipcar is an hourly B2C rental car service, not a P2P collaborative consumption platform. There's nothing about it that screams sharing economy.
Zipcar's true innovation was the car rental model based on the insight that in the age where people buy music by the song, they'd probably want to rent a car by the hour. And they were right. Alas, while they were first, they were not the only one. Hertz On Demand is an hourly car rental platform launched to take advantage of the fact that increasing number of people value access to cars more than their ownership. And get this: Hertz on Demand is the same as Zipcar, but no one calls it sharing economy.
More important, however, is that Hertz On Demand has, and Zipcar doesn't, a giant fleet of vehicles and already established and profitable operation. That's where the Avis deal comes in for Zipcar. At the time of its acquisition, Zipcar's costs of maintaining its fleet are at about 65% of its total expenses, which is massive. Its operational costs are high. There's a frequent shortage of available vehicles. So, while Zipcar may be known as a leader of the hourly car rental category, in reality it's not. It's hard to compete with Hertz.
It's hard to compete with Hertz for Avis, too. Avis' On Location hourly rental service is tiny, focused on corporate renters and all around lame. It doesn't have convenient pickup locations and a substanital car fleet. So when faced with "build or buy" dilemma, Avis choose "buy" in order to remain competitive. Zipcar's acquisition will solve at least one of Avis' problems.
The conclusion is that Zipcar has created a market that has been consequently penetrated by more powerful entrants. To stay competitive, Zipcar had to become bigger. And it did.
There's nothing innovative about that, neither in economic nor in social terms. If you want to talk about real sharing economy, look at what Getaround, RelayRides, Whipcar, and Wheelz are doing. But no one's lining up to buy them, lest Steve Case. There's still a long way for P2P innovation to prove its profitability and penetrate mainstream - and for sharing economy to become a norm. When it does, it probably won't happen via acquisition.
"One prominent feature of information goods is that they have large fixed costs of production, and small variable costs of reproduction. Cost-based pricing makes little sense in this context; value-based pricing is much more appropriate. Different consumer may have radically different values for a particular information good, so techniques for differential pricing become very important."*
It's no wonder that traditional marketing and advertising don't work in digital space. Customers' perceptions of value of a product/service and their expectations of the value they'll gain are completely unrelated with the cost of creating that product/service. Companies' value proposition thus needs to be correlated closely with consumers' value perception. This value perception is shaped by Google-led commoditization of products/services, transparency of pricing, and social information - to a greater (much greater) extent than advertising. Key to success? Staying close to customer's perceptions and expectations of value. That's the path to sustainability; everything else has a short shelf life, literally and figuratively.
* From here.
Or, what Michael Porter learned the hard way. Great article on the demise of the Monitor Group. This part is my favorite:
"Why go through the hassle of actually designing and making better products and services, and offering steadily more value to customers and society, when the firm could simply position its business so that structural barriers ensured endless above-average profits? Why not call this trick “the discipline of strategy”? Why not announce that a company occupying a position within a sector that is well protected by structural barriers would have a “sustainable competitive advantage”?"
"The Airbnbs of the world are business manuals for companies to learn from and apply to their businesses. Forget Six Sigmas and Five P's. In a volatile environment, it's more important to have the agility necessary for incremental growth, a laser user focus and ability to view business through a problem-solving perspective. As digital-first companies grow and move up the value chain, their definitions of quality and value become the norm. With no barriers of entry left, big companies have no choice but adopt them."
The rest of my Ad Age article is here.
Companies seem frustratingly slow in using digital for innovation. The problem is they invariably think of digital as a value-add to their existing business. They'd rather spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on their online "presence" than invest in figuring out how digital opens up their revenue streams and transforms their value chains.
I drafted this table as a tool for brands to identify new value and growth opportunities in digital space. The four quadrants are, clockwise:
Addition: Making legacy business more valuable by using digital to add a new revenue stream to the core business. This means adding digital as a sales and marketing channel to brands' existing products/service marketing and sales. In this scenario, digital is considered as a value-add in the company's traditional value chain. Examples are Target, Walmart, Barnes&Noble e-commerce platforms.
Systems: Connecting products and services to create new value by assessing company's existing offerings and bundling them together via digital technology. Value that's created as the outcome is outside businesses' traditional value chain and counts as the new revenue source. Think Barnes&Noble Nook, American Express digital initiatives, Nike Fuelband.
Design: Customer-led business solutions are an incremental value-add as they make the existing products and services better from the end-user standpoint. They use laser user focus to serve their existing customers better and/or to overcome the current consumer barriers in the category. Examples are Patagonia, Simple.
Distruption: Disruptive solutions create a completely new value in the industry. Disruptive businesses have their own value chain, different from the one their industry's built around. Think AirBnB, Square.
Looking at this chart is clear that, more often than not, clients and agencies expect Disruption from digital, but are thinking of it only as Addition.
I wrote an article for Fast Company. Have a look.
First there was idea to turn captchas into ads, and now there's the lovely blank canvas that 404 "not found" pages are. While the question of traffic to those pages remains, and hence the lack of advertisers' enthusiasm to unleash their creativity here, there have been some quite positive initiatives revolving around 404.
Oh, and the image above is from the coolest 404 I've seen so far, from Threadflip.
This is something I wanted to do for a while. I made a little compilation of stuff that caught my eye this summer. Enjoy.
101 Spectacular Non-Ficton Stories Data Science is Just a Buzzword Search Insights Creative Insight of the Outsider The Perfected Self The Flea Bag How to Build Your Creative Confidence Joan Didion on Self-Respect Pinterest in the Purchase Funnel How 50 Big Companies Got Their Names The Spend Graph Jonathan Harris Rethinks Social Networking Boredom is Good for Your Creativity What Does It Mean To Be Simple? The Best Piece of Advice I Ever Got Weird Experiences Boost Creativity Risk Les Nouvelles The Origins of Creative Insight and Why You Need Grit A Visit to the Potty Lab Philosophy of Web Design Reverse Stanford Prison Experiment The Sill The Talks BuzzFeed's Strategy The Story of Enough Winners Keep Winning Luck vs. Skill Quitokeeto Empirics & Psychology Work, Life and Side Projects What's Mine Is Yours What Defines a Meme? Pictures of Millenials With Everything They Own Advertising is Hated and Failing Sara Cwynar
Image found here.
SxSW voting has started, and all of us have already encountered either one of these (or all of them). While I am not terribly optimistic about this upcoming fastival (Learn All About Hackatons! Don't Throw Your Brand Over the Cliff!), I managed to dig out a few panels from SxSW's video-enhanced-yet-still-confused Panel Picker that I'd like to see if I do go.
At the end of the day, if I skip next year's SxSW, the only panel that I would really be missing out on is this.
I will be teaching again Digital Strategy Course on July 20th here in NYC. As always, the course will be super-practical, with participants coming out of it with a bunch of hopefully useful digital thinking and doing tools. Besides that, we'll cover coming up with KPIs and setting benchmarks of success. We'll also explore tools for collaboration between digital strategists and other disciplines in the organization.
I am pretty excited as I planning to introduce my approach called Digital Thinking at this course.
Slide 6: Temple Grandin says that she is a primarily visual thinker, and claims that words are her second language. She attributes her success as a livestock facility designer to her ability to recall detail, which is characteristic of her visual memory. Grandin compares her memory to full-length movies in her head that can be replayed at will, allowing her to notice small details. She is also able to view her memories using slightly different contexts by changing the positions of the lighting and shadows. Her insights into the minds of cattle has thought her to value the changes in details to which animals are particularly sensitive, and to use her visualization skills to design thoughtful and humane animal-handling equipment. While I know nothing about the cows, I am able to holistically approach the client challenge, and visualize the possible solutions.
Slide 7: Visual approach works great in digital, because it makes us think about solutions to clients’ problems in terms of systems and networks. It requires coming up with a more integrated approach that focuses on connections and relationships between brand and customers, communities, digital and physical, etc. We are challenged to simultaneously think of a creative idea and its execution, and to develop & evolve creative and strategy in parallel. This of course changes the nature of our agency process to become more non-linear, integrated, and interactive, and redefines how departments work together.
Slide 8: The way we often talk about digital world, we talk about it in terms of abstract disruption. The problem with talking about digital in connection to disruption is that is too massive, ephemeral, and hard to relate to. We end up talking about digital changes as if they have nothing - or little - to do with us and our work. They are viewed as something to talk & wonder about - but not something that we right now need to execute by.
Slide 9: To me, these conversations about “digital future” are incredibly boring and repetitive.
Slide 10: Digital world emerged some 15 years ago, at least. That was when the disruption happened. Now we are living in the world where digital and non-digital are indistinguishable. The same way no one says “electric iron” or “electric fridge”, today digital retail is interchangeable with retail, digital sport with sport, digital tourism with tourism, digital cooking with cooking, etc. Our world is digital world.
Slide 11: I like talking and thinking about are specific macro-trends that are disrupting businesses and culture in very specific, tangible, and measurable ways. Only by focusing on particular inflection points and breaks in business and marketing, we can really use the insights about what/how digital world really changed the way the industries (cultural industry included) operates. If we understand dynamic of these macro-trends, we will be able to use it in our brand and marketing strategy, thus effectively keeping our brands competitive.
Slide 12: Sharing economy revolves around having access to used and/or pre-owned goods. It’s based on a mutual trust between participants in a transaction, rather than the abstract market mechanism (price). It is a flexible system, as it nimbly provides supply based on the volume of demand through renting, trading, sharing, swapping, and bartering. Economic dynamic based on access removes the burden of ownership (costs of maintenance, storage, service, etc). At the same time, the access reshapes the markets in which brands compete in: they are competing not only with other marketers producing new goods and services but also with the all existing goods and services. For example, think AirBnb: it extends the hospitality/tourism markets to include all available rooms in the area (and not only hotel rooms). AirBnB effectively disrupts tourism industry by offering a cheaper, more convenient, more accessible and more fun version of hospitality service offerings.
Slide 13: We leave digital traces everywhere, from the moment we open the browser. Our likes, affinities, preferences, purchase habits and communication patterns are out there for all to see (and use). Aggregates of our individual behavioral patterns tell stories about wider social & cultural trends (think sharing, cooking, driving, running, shopping, etc). Brands, in particular, are rich repositories of all this data (just think big ecommerce platforms like Target, IKEA, JCrew, BestBuy or social shopping destinations like Svpply, Fab, Pinterest, etc). They can use all this wealth of data to tell a story about their customers, a wonderful, human, relevant story that can also be used as a bonus marketing message. This “consumer-based” story is a social object that’s easy to share, identify with, relate to and compare ourselves with (and that’s more interesting than any invented ad message).
Slide 14: Social information today is overlapping with price and it provides a powerful social context for consumer decision-making. We can now “calculate” the worth of a product or service based on whether it’s green, popular, worn by a celebrity, based on fair trade practices - i.e. based on everything that’s important to us. This sort of information has always been attached to products, but the thing is that we weren’t able to see it. Digital now makes all this information visible - and allows us consider all sorts of information aside of price - and It helps us make better, more informed, more social purchasing decisions.
Slide 15: When thinking about social influence, the best is to think of a forest fire metaphor. Whether or not the fire spreads doesn’t depend so much on the kind of the fire, but more on the density of trees in the forest, of how dry the forrest is, whether it rains or not, how close the trees are to each other, etc. The same is with social influence online: rather than investing money in a few celebrities, we are much better off if we spend that same money on the large number of “accidental influentials” (Duncan Watts’ term). Back to the forest metaphor: lighting a fire on a lot of trees makes it much more easier for the whole forest to burn, than lighting just one big tree. As Buzzfeed, The Awl, The Onion, Cheezburger Network, etc. have shown, people do like to share. The best strategy is then to aggregate a lot of people who like to share vs. a few celebrities who don’t particularly like to share, but would do it for money. Duncan calls this situation targeting “easily influenced people who influence other easily influenced people.” Those kind of individuals (professional sharers :) make content & memes spread much faster and wider than any pre-planned “viral” campaign.
Slide 16: This one is my favorite, because it requires doing a bit of a detective work. I stole the idea of looking for contradictions, inversions, coincidences and oddities from an innovation theorist (forgot the name). Contradictions mean simultaneous happening of two things at odds with each other, indicating a transformation of a certain trend. Oddities refer to out-of-ordinary occurrences that make us search beneath the surface or a trend or pattern. Inversions refer to unseen-before reversal in a trend’s dynamics. Coincidences are about concurrent appearance of distant and unrelated trends or patterns. Here are a few examples:
Contradictions: Millenials are 40% of the car market, but they are buying cars & driving less than any previous generation. Digital gadgets replaced cars as genY identity markers.
Oddities: Rapid growth of Instagram shows that this app is not only about taking photos and applying nostalgic filters. It’s about scratching some kind of storytelling itch among genY.
Inversions: There’s more than 40% of households in major American cities with just one occupant. This makes us accept urban tribes as a prevalent social unit.
Coincidences: Economic crisis happens simultaneously with an incredibly lively economic activity happening in peer-to-peer markets. Safe to say that the established economic logic is under a quiet but inevitable transformation.
Slide 17: The five macro-trends that I selected have the biggest impact on marketing: they bend its practices and create major inflection points in its processes and tools. These five trends are, more importantly, the inevitable starting point in digital marketing thinking: be it a campaign, a marketing strategy, a launch of a new product, a digital brand positioning or coming up with a brand purpose. Every single digital marketing venture should start from these macro-trends, because they define our approach to business challenges, consumer problems, competitive opportunity and/or brand positioning. Most importantly, using these trends as a starting point defines what digital marketing is: it’s not about the tools and tactics for execution - it is about detecting, understanding and tracking what’s going on because of digital and about building a brand around it. It’s this starting point that makes digital marketing unique and incredibly different from “traditional” marketing, which was obsessed, in a solipsistic manner, with using the brand, the category, and the product as its starting points. Digital marketing is not about media planning, engagement planning, communication strategy, and/or social media: it’s about the approach sensitive to macro-trends made possible by digital technology, and about devising a strategy that utilizes brands to amplify, recognize, or own these trends.
Slide 19: Digital marketing focuses on things that are enabled by, facilitated, spread, grow, etc. because of digital technologies and behaviors. Ask which economic and cultural trends & currents are made possible by/permitted/emerged/amplified due to digital technologies, and then start building brand strategy around it.
Slide 20: The job of digital marketing, among other things, is to figure out new monetization opportunities for brands in the context of dynamic, consumer-driven, collaborative consumption markets. Making a cheaper version of a product/service is an option as it opens up the market to a whole new set of people (this is described in detail by Clayton Christensen in his “Innovator’s Dilemma”). Another version of the same approach, according to Aaron Shapiro, CEO of HUGE, is to make a product/service more convenient, or easier to use, or more fun. New monetization opportunities for brands should be based on all of the above, and focused on adding value to a selected consumer behavior/habit and/or responding to some need. Sharing economy in particular opens up new monetization opportunities for brands, because it forces them to explore: a) how to extend the product lifecycle, b) what unused distribution opportunities exist our there, and c) how to solve some customer’s problem. In the example above VW found a way to create brand affinity and promote its vehicles by wrapping a collaborative consumption-based system around them. It’s a test drive for everyone - when they need it and when it really makes a difference in their lives.
Slide 21: Google insights for search, social listening tools, and digital ethnography tools give us insights into consumers’ habits, motivations, and expectations. They also reveal anomalies, oddities and atypical patterns that are signals that something interesting’s going on - that we should tap into.
Slide 22: There are a few points to be made here: a) the most successful advertising today is native to its medium, meaning that it organically fits with the site content, layout, and with audience expectations for the site in question. In this way, we are using the site to create a powerful social context for advertising consumption; b) media today are not only what’s directed at people, but what exists between people (as Ian Schafer pointed out). Brand content needs to be sensitive to this dynamics: we should always ask whether our creative is/can become a social object; c) consumers rely on each other and brands for finding and discovering the best content. Most of cultural products are chosen by a small group of people who have a better taste than anyone else. Brands have an enormous potential to become part of this taste-making dynamic, by directing consumer attention towards specific content/products/etc. Ask: how can my brand help evolve consumers’ tastes by exposing them to the best content/information/lifestyle?
Slide 23: There is a ton of interesting things happening outside the marketing and branding world. Those things are often way more interesting than anything a brand does. At the same time, brands can help these small, brewing currents at the edge of the culture or business achieve a mass scale and global prominence. By detecting an emerging trend at the periphery of some industry (think retail industry, in the example above), brands get to capture & own the trend and to amplify it to the level of a wider cultural conversation. Case in point: GAP combined a few brewing trends - fashion blogging, product remixing & scrapbooking, and personal fashion styling - under the umbrella of its GAP styld.by campaign, which asked fashion bloggers to remix GAP products with items from their own closet in order to express their personal style. This campaign is a win for a few reasons: Tumblr provides a natural environment for a fashion blog; GAP products live in a social context; it lends the brand legitimacy and reputation of stylists used in the campaign; it’s an easily shareable social object.
Slide 24: Transparency can help brands to create a powerful social context that shapes consumers’ brand and product perceptions. Disclosing information about company culture, green practices, and operations turns them into marketing (think Zappos blogs, Patagonia product tracker, or Icebreaker barcode). It also turns their marketing upside down: it diverts consumers’ attention from a beautiful print ad or an emotional TV spot toward ubiquitous, easily accessible information about how brands products/services fare against competing products; how do they perform within a specific social or taste graph, or how they compare on fair-trade scale.
Slide 25: To put these macro-trends in context of marketing vs digital marketing, we need to understand where the “big switch” is happening.
Slide 26: Advertising is not enough. It’s also not effective enough in changing people’s behaviors. We need to move from making funny copy and commercial ad pieces towards approaching brands as taste-makers, editors, curators, publishers, and providers of value. To achieve this, we need to start from the context of consumers lives, and see how a brand can seamlessly insert itself into their habits, expectations, and behaviors. We need to ask: can we make a product/service cheaper? can we make it more fun? can we make it more convenient? can we become more useful and more entertaining? what problem are we solving for our customer?
Slide 27: Commercial art pieces can be beautiful to look at, they can be talked about, and they can win awards. What we need, as an industry, is to start thinking about creating social objects that will turn our creative solutions into memes, conversation pieces, etc. that will sky-rocket them into the domain of cultural conversation. ROI on social objects is measured in greater brand affinity, a wider exposure, more impressions, and ultimately more conversions. Social objects is how our customers communicate and relate to each other. They are things that take part or create a relationship between people - an invitation, a social gesture, a gift, a reward. People exchange social objects as a way of relating to each other - and we want our creative to become an inherent and seamless part of social relationships.
Slide 28: Demographic targeting is a great starting point in every strategy. Today, however, it’s not nearly a sufficient one. Social media brought into picture interest graphs, taste graphs, and most recently, spend graphs. All of these tell us a deeper story about consumers preferences, tastes, and decision-making processes than any demographic targeting ever would be able to. They reveal connections between diverse demographic groups that we wouldn’t otherwise realize, and they reveal patterns of social influence and taste-making that we need to take into account in developing our strategy and engagement plans. More often than not, the fastest and most effective way to reach our target is through their networks of influence: people who influence their tastes, interests, and shopping choices. Instead of being satisfied with the neat demographic groups, we need to ask the following: what interest/taste personas are we targeting? where can we find them? what do they do there? what are they influenced by? what social/taste/interest networks do they belong to? what do they talk about? what language they use when talking about our product/brand or category? how do they interact with brands and with each other?
Slide 29: Too often, our marketing efforts start from a product/service that a brand offers. The best brands - digital or otherwise - think in terms of relationships. They define their brand purpose by capturing a specific behavior and/or relationship they want to own. Google’s purpose is organizing world’s information (and not search); Pepsi’s purpose is empowering communities (and not selling sugared water); Nike’s purpose revolves around running and making it better; Instagram’s purpose is to allow anyone to feel an emotional connection to photography (strangely enough, Kodak has this same purpose but it got list amid company’s rigid internal culture); Burberry’s purpose is to connect high and low culture that’s the essence of Britishness (Burberry has been worn by everyone from Queen to Sid Vicious). To succeed, brands need to ask themselves which behavior and relationship they want to build their purpose around.
Slide 30: In our industry, we are too often encouraged to think simple: to come up with a single insight, a single killer creative idea, a single course of our strategic action. Instead, we should start from the complexity of trends and patterns of consumers’ behaviors, and explore ways to amplify it them. The best way to win in today’s complex consumer markets is to recognize an emerging consumer need, a brewing trend, or an untapped distribution opportunity for our brands. Then, we should amplify it and own it. If consumers today are all about sharing, as in the car-sharing example above, we need to figure out the way how we can amplify this emerging trend and make it work for our car brand.
Slide 31: At the end, there are a few basic questions to help us kick-start our digital marketing effort. They can help us focus our thinking, inform our approach, and offer guidance for creating a winning marketing campaign - or at least one that is suitable for the digital world.
I got a minute to browse through the most unhelpful site of the web a.k.a. SxSW's Speaker Guide, but came out with a few things that caught my eye ... As anyone who ever went to SxSW knows, panels are a roll of dice. The awesome sounding panel can turn out to be a dud, and vice-versa. But, anyway, here's what I am looking forward to ...
Design and Mobile Start-Up Applying Behavior Design Lessons from Disruptors: Game-Changing Start-Ups How to Harvest Consumer Intent from Social Web The Secret Lives of Links Time Bandits: The Next Revolution in Social Interface Technology: Gesture Systems and Beyond The Science of Habits: Why We Do What We Do Ambient Location and the Future of the Interface Maps of Time: Data as Narrative Curators and the Curated Fashion and the New Taste Graph
Awhile ago, I read Duncan's article in HBR on Occupy Wall Street movement, where he asserts that the role of leaders is to serve as an image, a projection, and embodiment of values of a movement, thus making it easy to understand. I find that nothing summarizes the leader-less movements and the idea of the network-as-influence-machine better than the sentence above. Found here.
In lieu of the year's ending (and with some free time on my hands) I went through stuff that I noted last year and picked things from culture, web, ideas, apps, fashion, etc that I liked the most in 2011. Here they are, in no particular order:
Iris Apfel's appartment Digby The Meaningfulness of Lives Naked Hiking Carousels 3 main lessons of physchology Savage Beauty Think Quarterly Bayes' Theorem Jonathan's card What was there The Breakthrough Myth & The Myth of Innovation Hero Not without salt Designing for tomorrow Instagram Why being certain means being wrong The App Internet Totokaelo Spotify top tracks of 2011 Home Plus grocery store Seth Priebatsch's TED talk Code & Story Wicked Problems Runkeeper's Health Graph Misfit Ideas Down time Pitfalls of Certainty The cognitive cost of expertise Collaborative consumption Design Research Redistribution markets Bill Cunningham New York Square Good design Certified Pre-Owned Mohawk General Store Kevin Slavin's TED talk Satisficing vs. Optimizing Dissonance Online fashion marketplaces The year in reading Social Flow Kinfolk Curisma Gimme Bar Arrested Motion How consumers interact with Facebook Delight by design Why we are not hiring creative technologists MIU MIU Glitter-finish sandals Facebook makes brands stupid Sharing economy The Fancy Foursquare + Square Apple TV Innovators share their thoughts Bucketlabs Drunken online shopping The never ending story The Economics of Happiness The obvious, the easy, and the possible Strangers and groundbreaking ideas Creatures of comfort MNZ Store Social Games Disruptive hypotheses La Garconne GroupMe Svpply sets 1Q84 TaskRabbit Le Havre This isn't happiness Maurizio Cattelan at Guggenheim Venmo A brief rant on the future of interaction design Lanvin AW 2011 Shop Terrain Retromania The world's biggest family The power of metaphors Mikkat Market Bicycle curriers Retronaut Give a smile On the edge Talent is nothing without focus and endurance Henry the Worst Wantful Puppy Elite 7 major problems The isolator Koi pond The history of high five Brands are simple Trendland Cereal Couture Idea Mensch Its this for that
The other day I came across this image (regretably, can't remember where), and it striked me as a lovely way to summarize the problem of fitting digital media into marketing thinking. Yes, we still have that problem. We are collecting Likes and views, measuring awareness, and resizing content - all instead of accepting that the rules of the game are through and through new and trying to understand them.
Good old Roland Barthes had a point. If only he could see this year's lineup of movies, he would probably allow himself a smile. Think Muppets, Star Trek, Tron, The Smurfs, True Grit, Arthur, etc. In this day and age a "humiliating repetition" assumed a form of a "retromania," or obsession with the cultural artifacts of one's own immediate past. Brian thinks it's the aversion to risk that drives the culture industry (film, TV, music, fashion, design). Why would a studio/designer/TV producer invest a ton of money into something new when they can invest it in something that worked so well the first time around? The strategy seems simple enough: to reach your target, the only think you need to do is to dig up things that have been popular in that very same generation's childhood. Other generations follow because there is nothing like a nostalgia for something that we have never experienced (how many times have you heard a lament about how awesome New York was in the '70?). I think there's more than risk-aversion to it, though. I think the trend has more to do with a macro social and economical trend that can be best described as "the end is near" and "catastrophes are reality." Faced with uneasy facts of global warming, economic breakdowns, political insecurity, and - above all - a lack of a clear path to overcome these hardships, people look for comfort of their not-so-distant life that they recognize and feel safe in. I only wonder what kind of movies Chinese make these days. I bet you Karate Kid ain't one of them.
p.s. there's an interesting book on "retromania." I've read only a few pages but it looks promising. You should check it out.
Some time ago, I did an interview for IdeaMensch, which describes itself as a "community of people with ideas." It turns out a lot of people found it interesting, so I figured I might as well copy it here. Enjoy.
Ana Andjelic is digital strategist at Droga5, an independent advertising agency that is best described as creatively led, strategically driven, technology friendly and humanity obsessed. At Droga5, Ana brings contributes her digital knowledge and skills to a super-talented team of creatives, strategists and technologists. Prior to joining Droga5, Ana worked as digital planner at HUGE, Inc, The Barbarian Group, and Razorfish, where she combined consumers’ behavior with technological trends to help brands in digital space. Ana’s specialties are digital branding, digital marketing, social media and experience design. Ana sometimes speaks at industry events, and was a guest lecturer at Miami Ad School and HyperIsland. She also occasionally writes for Ad Age, and regularly shares her thoughts on her blog, I [love] marketing.
Ana Andjelic is a graduate of Columbia University, where she earned her Ph.D. in Sociology, and New School University where she got her M.A. in Media Studies. She is from Belgrade, Serbia and lives in New York City.
I am working with an amazing team on the really fun projects at Droga5 and also plotting a website that would tell a story about things that I have learned in New York in the past 10 years. It would an interactive story told through photos, videos, quotes, maps, things, and people. I am excited about it.
As a professional in the evolving digital marketing industry, and having an academic background in technology and organizational studies, I felt a compelling need to combine my academic knowledge with the insights from my practical work. Often, there’s a yawning gap between academia and industry. Which is a bummer. But my blog was conceived mainly based on my need to provoke people to think differently. Or just to provoke them.
I get to work around 9, and from then on, it’s a fast-moving train. Sometimes I am on it, and sometimes under it. There’s a lot of thinking and talking to people on my teams. There’s also a lot of work on coming up with structured arguments for clients. Then, a lot of revisions and making my thoughts clearer and better. There’s also a lot of constructive friction in this process, which I love.
It’s a collaboration. It’s about recognizing the seed of an idea, testing a few of those with the creatives, and then working together to turn those into something that people will get excited about.
I was once in an ad for some Internet provider in Belgrade. A horrible idea. I had to wear a skin-tight silver dress made of some super-polyesther material, have a really, really heavy makeup and some space-y hairstyle. But it’s not the Star Trek look that got me, it’s all the waiting around at the shoot for everything to be ready. I don’t know if I learned anything from it, really. Maybe that every job requires patience.
If I could give myself advice now, going back, it would be one word: CHILL. I’ve always been in a horrible frenzy. If I gave myself more time to take things in, stop and think more, I would probably end up being happier. And would have driven people crazy less!
Always meet new people. You never know who knows what and where an idea can come from. People are wonderful repositories of knowledge and insight. They are also fun to be around.
I used to be terribly scared of awls. I am still wary of them.
Stop making things. This world doesn’t need any more stuff. It needs smarter systems. It needs better ways to connect things that already exist. Become obsessed with connections, all sorts of connections – useful, fun, unexpected, helpful, informative. Then think how to insert things into them so that you create something new.
The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande. He talks about decision-making and problem-solving in complex environments. Everyone who ever wanted to make something in the digital space would find his thinking useful.
I would probably be writing. I’d be writing more on my blog, for industry publications, I’d write a book. It would be a mesh of organizational thinking, technology, media, and human behavior. And it would be set in New York City.
Noah Brier, @heyitsnoah – because he is the most wonderful, curious, humble and innovative person I know.
Diana Hong, @dddiana – because she is the coolest girl ever and the most amazing industry professional.
Bud Caddell, @bud_caddell – because he is really passionate about knowledge and isn’t shy about it.
My boyfriend makes me laugh all the time. He has a wonderful way of looking at the world and the most articulate way of conveying his observations on life’s curiosities.
I think that we need to come up with a way to think about strategy a bit differently. Less linear, more system-like. More improvisation, more trying things out, less prediction and less singular answers.
I am co-teaching the first-ever, all-day digital strategy course on November 18 in New York City. Along with the two amazing ladies (and the super-accomplished professionals), I am going to cover everything that ranges from how to write a digital brief, what are success stories and why there were successful, how collaboration between digital strategists and creatives should look like, to how to sell digital strategy to clients. More information about the full day agenda is here: http://digitalstrategycourse.eventbrite.com/
You should come, it's going to be fun! And bring friends :)
The image above is from Trashr, which connects supply and demand of discarded goods. Everyone who's lived in NYC for a while knows what gems can be found discarded on the street. Why not create a market around it? One man's trash is another man's treasure, after all.
There are a lot of social media strategists around. I know and like quite a few of them. The trouble is, this role can be viewed as a canvas for the ad industry's struggle to capture and define its own evolution.
The main problem with all roles revolving around social media is the limited (and limiting) career path. Just imagine: one can be a community manager; then a senior community manager, than a director of community management, and then ... what? Narrow specialization prevents this person from both assuming a higher managerial role (as he/she doesn't have the necessary breadth of expertise in leading multi-disciplinary teams) and from playing a more important client-facing role (since he/she can't help client with a broader brand and business strategy).
It's inherent in the role that people assuming it will inevitably, sooner or later, move onto something else. But how? Being pidgeon-holed by their tactical tool belt, social media strategists despite their title, rarely get to actually do very little strategy. In the unfortunate agency process, they come in once insights have already been formed and ideas have already took shape. But it's not only the process to blame: the social media people, themselves, are hardly able to bring to table brand and consumer insights in a way that planners do.
So what's to do? It would be wrong to say that any specialization is undesirable. It's only tactical, and not strategic specialization that sucks (think Flash designers).
Advertising strategists have the most diverse backgrounds, interests, skills and knowledge and these - if formulated as a specific strength within a wider context of understanding digital behaviors - can prove to be invaluable areas of specialization. But specializations we talk about are those like digital branding, e-commerce, gaming, digital communication, or behavioral economics. These are vast, dynamic areas, and they don't suffer from the danger of becoming obsolete when some new tool or tactic or behavior shows up.
And right there - in posing the problem as a challenge of understanding digital behaviors - is the possible way out. Viewed in this context, social media become the question of interactions, interpersonal and group dynamics, influence and movements. The catch is to redefine the specialization not in terms of social media, but in terms of social behaviors.
Because, social media strategy that starts from behaviors is never going to become obsolete. We only have to ask how social media makes our consumers' behaviors more informed, more fun, or better. Will placing customer service on Twitter achieve our brand's goal? Will activating community achieve it? Or, should we use social media for advertising? The answers - and the tactics selected - all depend on what behavior we want to modify.
The way for social media strategists of today to survive is to start thinking less about the toolset they have on their disposal, and more about the social dynamics they are trying to create or influence. My bet is that it will become easier for them to operate on the strategic level, to envision the path to brand and business objectives, and to advance their career path further.
This one is interesting. Out of sheer fun, during a dinner at this past SxSW, a few of us thought that would be fun to create a panel with a sole purpose of talking about something no one talks about because it is off-boundaries. Well, thanks to Matt Van Hoven, a persistent guy, this became a reality and we are submitting a panel proposal that does exactly this.
An honest disclaimer: I never thought that it would become a serious thing until I saw Matt's email this morning ... copied here below:
Brian, Ale, James, Ana, Liron,
I just came across this quote which, although it is meant to originally apply to NFL, is in fact a lovely description of the way we experience events these days. Just think time spent on Twitter or Instagram or YouTube yesterday in anticipation of the hurricane Irene. More fun and interesting that the rain outside was the wonderful suspension that conversations, photos, and updates exposed us to.
I found this quote here.
The mantra of our increasingly complex world has, oddly enough, become "think simple." As interconnections multiply and problems become messier, we are encouraged to reduce them to a single answer, a single solution, or a single killer insight to address an unpredictable web of moving parts. This panel is going to convince you that simplicity is a false god, especially when it comes to creating things in digital. Making digital stuff starts with interactions between data, people, and things. It mixes technology and storytelling. It produces a mesh of small, iterative experiments that work together to create new behaviors. We promise to explore why and how a new model of creativity must champion agility, adaptability, experimentation, noise, and most of all, relationship building.
1. What's the difference between a simple and a complex problem?
2. Why does that difference matter when making digital things?
3. What does a creative process look like that respects complexity?
4. How do you build, launch, manage, and learn from many small experiments rather than one big product/campaign/message?
5. How should complex relationships shape creative strategy and execution?
Tags: Complexity, Creativity, Design
Link for voting: http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/ideas/view/10045?return=%2Fideas%2Findex%2F10%2Fpresenter%3AAna+Andjelic
This is the presentation I was carrying around on iPad to my job interviews in June, instead of my resume. I realized that, more than a list of places, clients, and projects that I have done in the past, nothing inspires a conversation like talking about the way I think about things, what I find interesting/important, and what I am passionate about.
Having a social object at the meeting makes the assessment of the work fit easier because two parties are involved in an equal-footing exchange (instead of one-sided conversation style that's a staple of interviews). It also allows a person to tell a story in a personal way that puts work & extracurricular accomplishments in the real-life, relevant context of someone's life (always more interesting than just listing stuff that someone has done). It shows, too, a person's presentation skills and ability to build an argument (which is potentially super-useful for client presentations & meetings). Finally, it's a tangible display of someone's simple know-how of how to put a beautiful-looking deck together.
And it worked out for me, in the best possible way.
p.s. For the obvious reasons, I took out the four case studies that are part of the original deck; they served as examples of my past work & my thinking approach to specific client tasks + deliverables. But everything else is there!
p.p.s. The part of "data mining" is taken from Julian Cole and the part of it is mine.
Bud and I would love to talk about complexity at the next SxSW, so we started thinking, plotting, and writing, and this is what we came up with... It's basically a summary of everything that he and I have been obsessed about in the past months, and is an attempt to get more people to start thinking about complexity. Hope the panel happens!
In a nutshell:
Have you ever been to a kid’s birthday party? It’s chaotic, unpredictable, fast-moving, and fun. It’s either the best thing or the worst thing, but you can’t know in advance which of the two is going to be.
Today’s digital world is a little bit like kids’ parties. It just involves a lot more people. And anything that has to do with a lot of people doing a lot of things is complex. To create something in the complex space forces us to think differently about the approach to, processes, and products of creativity.
This new creativity starts with interconnections between data, people, and things. It deals with the web of a bunch of small moving pieces that create intricate feedback mechanisms and new behaviors. It mixes code with the story and it’s open and iterative. It’s methodology relies on complexity’s own tools for solving problems. It's not about coming up with the new creative formats, but in making new connections. It’s a medium, not the product.
Complexity can be scary when connected with creativity. But it’s also unbelievably inspiring. It offers the maximum creative flexibility and the maximum executional options. It makes us realize that simplicity is a false god and that the new rule of creativity is looking for intuitive solutions that don’t reduce complexity but that thrive in it.
This panel is going to answer the following questions:
You can see the revised & submitted proposal here.
*Or, why the holistic approach works better in digital.
It doesn't reduce the complex situation to a causal, simple explanation. Instead, it's looking for intuitive solutions that seamlessly fit into people's behaviors. All well-designed products, services, and games are intuitive. Again, they are not simple - they intuitive.
The popular belief is that the contrast to complexity is simplicity. It's not. It's making things intuitive.
It helps that holistic approach inspires thinking through associations, both in their literal and metaphorical meaning. Literally, associations-as-in-connections are everywhere and exist between everything (people, information, tools, ideas). Metaphorically, associative thinking inspires us to make unexpected connections between things; and to recognize the innovative opportunities in the process.
Since it forces us to look beyond the obvious, holistic approach encourages "what if," rather than "why" and "how." It's non-linear and allows for the unexpected - both of which are in stark opposition to reductionist agency thinking a.k.a. "find the best strategy for solving a problem, discover one key dimension of consumers' behavior, define one thing that this advertising message is about." Instead, it's pushing for imagination and creativity: both in concepting and in execution.
Embracing the complexity of the whole situation is in fact a necessity in digital space. What we are dealing with are unexpected, ever-evolving movements and unpredictable connections. They generate micro-tensions and antagonisms that are ripe with cultural potential that has a direct consequence for brands. We are grappling with a networked social influence, and detecting "accidental influentials" in a given situation is as critical for campaigns as it is unpredictable. Irrationality of human behavior doesn't help matters, either: people's sensitivity to the design of information environments and activities of others is a powerful engine for behavioral change and needs to be utilized more in digital marketing campaigns. Then, there is data about individual and collective patterns of activities, and their aggregates act as a shared communication object with powerful storytelling potential. These sorts of stories disrupt the traditional model of authorship over advertising narratives. And finally, collaborative consumption and redistribution markets are constantly showing us where consumers' behaviors and needs are going: they represent a compelling lab for finding new sources of value that brands can deliver outside of their usual production/consumption value chains..
There are all challenges that resist obvious solutions and cannot be reduced to a single-cause explanation. So what to do? If complexity of the environment prevents one way of responding to the client task and if it prevents predicting the success of a single creative solution, then the best is to put all this complexity right at the center of the strategic problem-solving process.
This is hard. The need for strategy comes from our, human, anxiety in the face of uncertainty. Strategies are "anticipation machines" designed to help us know what the future will be before it happens. Complexity prevents this - but at the same time the problem is not unsolvable. If we can't have foresight, we can have hindsight. And a lot of those. The hindsight comes from standing close to the edge, which in plain language means merging strategy with its execution.
The good news here is that yes, while complexity creates a lot of challenges, it at the same time gives us tools to solve them. All one needs to be is crafty. (Big ups to the most brilliant Julian Cole for sharing some of his ideas about all of this).
In practical terms, this means that methodology for dealing with complexity needs to revolve around complexity's own tools. And, believe it or not, these tools are everywhere. Forget about eMarketer, and Forrester, Sysomos, and all that stuff. They won't solve the problem of originality of your campaign or of a real behavioral challenge that you want to create with your target audience.
What will solve the problem is a little game called digging for clues. I often use Wordle to run customers' reviews of the product/service/brand through it. It lets me uncover the common themes and the possible sources of tension or cognitive dissonance that are useful as insights for a campaign. GoodReads and apps like WANT! uncover what people identify with, how they define themselves, what is important to them, and what captures their collective imagination - all of which provides context in which a campaign is going to be received and what can make it resonate well with its target. Sites like 43Goals on 43Things and Daytum give us insights in human motivation, in different roles people are playing, what are their strivings, how they make choices and what are their frustrations. This helps come up with the ideas for inspiring and facilitating behavioral change for our target.
Our understanding of the wider context of our audience's lives allows us to recognize cultural micro-tension, sources of influence, data that we can use for marketing, or needs that allow us to create an exchange market around.
It lets us capture the new territories for our brands and to come up with the "what if." A new way of looking at things, perhaps, but that's exactly the point.
There's an interesting white space to be explored that goes beyond just visualizing data. A ton of online retailers (and just about any e-commerce site) has enormous amount of data on people's affinities, likes, purchase patterns, sharing patterns, communication patterns (and all other possible patterns), all filtered by time and location. That's a lot of information.
Sure enough, retail brands use this info for personalization and better targeting. But they are missing out, big time, tho: if only they turned this "individual-focused" model upside down and used their data for all sorts of community dynamics, they would be able to influence & inspire people's behavior on a much larger scale. In other words, they'd be able to turn their vast data repositories into marketing.
The simple truth behind using data as marketing is that people are sensitive to the design of information environments and that others are instrumental in individual motivation (yes there are plenty of wonderfully self-motivated people but we are ultimately social animals). Combine those two things and you get a powerful engine for behavioral change. And this is hardly new: personal fitness industry has become an expert in pulling personal + community info and turning it into a motivation & statistics engine. Transport the fitness industry's approach to retail and all of the sudden there's an opportunity for creation of a data-driven feedback loop revolving around products instead of one's body.
The outcome is a shared communication object - a story around products' use based on aggregated information about all possible individual patterns and discrepancies among them. These stories provides a powerful shopping context - and a bonus marketing message. Since brands are all about fitting into the context of people's lives, why not also make a story on how this is actually happening.
A bonus feature: some ideas on how to combine 43goals, daytum, dailymile and runkeeper all in one to create information context with a storytelling potential.
Sharing motivations. Renovating kitchen? Buying stuff for the party? Going through the first 3 months with a new baby? Motivations help. There's no need to create a personal profile; it's enough for an individual purchase bundle to be displayed in the "recent purchases section" so others can react to it. (Yes this requires sharing, but this being FB age, we may need to get over it. Besides, think of the grotesque things that runners' share on DailyMile or Runkeeper after long-distance races).
Rating purchases on emotional scale. Shopping is equally passion-driven activity as fitness, so let people share how they felt after different purchases: some of them are "blah" as they are a pure necessity (toilet paper), some leave us feeling good (i finally got that Drano), and some of them we are really really enthusiastic about (in my case, clothes, shoes, and books). So, why not share the feeling [the forbidden word in e-commerce site design]?
Personal infographics (weekly, monthly, yearly, lifetime). Enrich the basic shopping account data on how many objects by category a person has purchased this week/month/year so they have insight on how their household shopping budget is distributed. Or, give a weekly/monthly breakdown of how many times a site was visited per person; how many savings in discounts and deals a person accumulated and what it means translated in a dollar figure (bet it will make a lot of people feel good about themselves). The interesting part is that brands can aggregate all this information and publicly display it for everyone (of course, you can also filter it just by your friends, via FB connect). It allows us to see where the happiest shoppers live (which zipcode, state, country), where the busiest ones are, and where the most eclectic ones; which product category has the most passer-bys, etc.
"Screen time." Filter and display product categories/times/locations by the longest and shortest "screen times" on the site/section/page. Distill it down to the individual level and give a scoop in what times of the day warrant the longest screen times and which ones the shortest (a lot of insomniacs shop at 2am, you know who you are).
Goals. People often shop with a specific goals in mind, like "clean out my closet" or "clean my bathroom" project and a brand can come in here to help people achieve them in the best and fastest possible way by display a number of people who want to do this at the same time as you do, and share experiences of those who have done it. Add here progress tracking and challenges, and a "complete a task" function becomes something with an individual context and meaning.
Face-Off Time. This one can be called "passive game," because people are not always dying to play. But, they do like to compare themselves to others and see how they fare. Simply displaying data about which neighborhood has bought the most green products or which one saved the most or which one donated to charity the most can spur a competitive spirit (not to mention instill a sense of achievement). Rewards can come in here too: reward everyone in the same zipcode with a surprising discount at the checkout because they hit the X dollar amount in green products or in savings or simply display the rewarded neighborhoods for everyone else to see.
This morning, NYT ran an article about GrubWithUs. I've seen this service some time ago - it basically gathers strangers around the dinner table - but now it reminded me of this wonderful Benjamin's sentence above. Every new tool and service is simultaneously new and old: it has a sort of nostalgia that let us glimpse in the way things might have been. While some people find it sad, GrubWithUs reminded me of the old-world tradition of travelers eating together in the road taverns and sharing stories of their journeys over food. That's what modern travelers do: come together for a brief moment, exchange their stories over food, and continue their journeys. Romantic, nostalgic, and amazing.
To stay with Benjamin a little longer, these sort of experiences/chance encounters are contained in his concept of a "flaneur" (wanderer) which he used in the 1920s to describe a modern urban experience defined by casual connections: "The flâneur has no specific relationship with any individual, yet he establishes a temporary, yet deeply empathetic and intimate relationship with all that he sees." Sounds crazy familiar, and not so rare: there are other services that exploit the potential of these casual, weak ties to the max. Skyara that defines itself as 'a marketplace to offer fun things to do, meet new people, and share experiences' [just like a children's playground] or Dodgeball/Foursquare, or Hash where strangers gather to run together & solve clues on the route [a tribe].
I really, really like this Benjamin's idea of nostalgia. I see it happening over and over today, where old-fashioned routines, forgotten customs and rituals are revived in ways that we are too often tempted to view as "alienating." That's where the lovely paradox is: the behaviors that existed way before any modern communication technology are brought back to life precisely because of it. So the things that we deem the most innovative - and uniquely digital - may as well turn to be the most nostalgic of all.
A while ago I came across the Where To Get It app that helps us identify + find stuff others are wearing. It's basically a searchable database of street fashion. Then, a few days ago, Amber posted the LeafSnap app that identifies trees by their leaves. Take a photo of any leaf, and the mystery of its name and origin is solved. I did a bit of search and found out that there's also a thing called IntoNow that identifies TV content that you are currently watching, right down to the episode (I guess TV Guide does the same thing, but this seems faster). And then, there's imaginatively named IdThis which strives to identify anything, as long as you submit a photo of it.
A possible useful ID tools that I'd like to see: take a photo of your skin and get a recommendation on the SPF you need to wear. Or a skin care you need to get. And no, this is not based on the lame "diagnostic tests" that cosmetics companies offer, but on an actual searchable database of people's real skin types and their characteristics. Or take a photo of a stain and it's immediately matched with a database of all possible stains to offer an answer.
Shazam was of course the first in this territory of transparent information, and when you think about it, it makes a complete sense to warp a number of processes (search, asking others, inquiring with the experts, looking up our own old stuff) into a single scan. Of course, it usurps the question of expertise (in the cases above: fashion, arborism, music, entertainment), but that's another story.
It just crossed my mind that someone will come up for a "Shazam for people" where you can just snap any random person on the street and learn ALL about them. Hey, just a thought.
The other week I read this great post by Russell Davies called "Playful." It reminded me of my general approach to marketing strategy based on not telling people stories, but making them feel they are part of stories.
And that's really not that hard. People are already part of each others' stories anyway.
Data tell wonderful stories. If displayed right, they at the same time make the imagined communities visible and make us feel part of them, by sheer human drive for comparing themselves with & competing with others. They also tell us something broader about ourselves as a group - what we like, what we find romantic, popular, cool, what's the best of, what's the worst of. It's a story that's is simultaneously personal, communal, and open-ended.
Details on interfaces [on any interface] also can tell great stories - they give us subtle cues that help us pretend for a moment that we are doing something else, that we belong somewhere else, that we are someone else. We don't need more than a few clues/details to start playing a role. That's how our brain works by default - we fill out the missing pieces of a situation based on our own memories and experiences.
Then, of course, there are objects. Luxury brands figured this out a really long time ago that even a small luxury object can become this big symbolic thing for a person. Buy a mere Burberry scarf or a Marc Jacobs keychain, and you already feel part of a club - of a movement of those who are fashionable, stylish, cool, trendsetting. It simultaneously gives us a pretense and identifies us as part of something bigger. It's not a mere graspable escape from our "ordinary" lives that movies or Real Housewives of all zipcodes lend; it's having an actual, tangible cue for playing a role. Fast-shift from fashion objects to all stuff, and you can achieve the same thing: give a commodity a wink, a story, a myth, and it instantaneously transforms its use into something richer, more complex, and more imaginative. Apple does it; BMW does it; even J.Crew has gotten pretty good at it. Imagery and possibilities for pretending are all around us. Digital didn't kill the imagination - it made it impossibly and wonderfully accessible.
And yet, and yet.
For some reason, the operative word of the web is 'functional' and not 'fun.' Without the doubt, functionality is a sine qua non and the lowest common denominator, but the problem is, it's really not a competitive advantage anymore. It's not 2002, after all. Utility trumps aesthetics online, but why, almost by the rule, does it need to trump the human imagination, too? Every time I go to any e-commerce site, I want to die of boredom. Yes, I "complete the task" and I dutifully go through "the user flow" without much noise. But sadly, together with the noise, any signal has vanished, too. That's to say that I simply don't care which e-commerce brand's behind the site, because they all work the same. What they can do is to play differently.
On the opposite end are the obsessively *fun* marketing campaigns. There seems to be some sort of compulsive need create hyper-intense entertainment where everything is clear, everything is obvious, everything is simple. Don't let people think for a second! Tell them the story! Make sure that they really, really get the story right! I wonder where that totalizing marketing instinct came from. There's the imperative that, after watching a video/visiting a minisite/seeing a billboard, "people need to come out with a single clear idea what the brand is about." Um, why? A game with a single rule is boring as hell, and a game where everything is laid out in advance is equally dreadful.
The problem is, both campaigns and websites demand 100% of our attention; and imagination works on clues, details, open spaces, on possibilities, not actualities - on filling things in. Clarity and simplicity kill credibility, because they take away any opportunity for participating and pretending and imagining. After all, things are not fun if you don't work for that fun a bit. People never finish a video game and say, oh how unbelievably straightforward and clear this has been. Or see a movie, or spend their time on Facebook and Twitter and conclude the same thing.
Most likely, they don't know what made their experiences so fun. And you know, they don't even care.
Brands have a role in culture. This statement sounds even better if framed as brands' role in some cultural tension. This how they achieve their broader relevance and social meaning: they help people identify with it, tell their own story about it, participate in it, understand it.
I wonder. There’s a trap here.
By the time a brand jumps on a cultural tension train, the chances are it has already left the station. Once recognized, the tension is not so tense anymore. It becomes a story. It’s quite a safe position for brands. It’s also a passive one, and not only because it deals with a something that has happened, but also because it’s based on reconciling people’s behavior with an already established cultural frame.
But tensions are interesting.
They are their most interesting when they are still brewing. That’s the moment before they become a culture and a behavior – the moment of suspense, ambiguity, and murkiness. And that’s when brands need to capture them: before it’s clear what’s going to come out of it and well before there’s a story to be told.
Luckily for us, cultural tensions are brewing all around.
For example, think car brands: there’s a pressing need to recognize the tension between the millennials driving less and them being the 40% of the car market; of digital gadgets and apps replacing cars as markers of identity; of in-car technologies lagging behind their digital expectations; of car pollution and them being green. All of these are real, brewing tensions that create a serious antagonism between people’s judgments, tastes, and motivations and the ways car brands are managed and marketed; and if they are not yet big enough to be considered a behavior, they are the most certainly real enough to make brands reconsider ther strategy.
Or think retail brands. Privacy, intimacy, sexuality, self-expression, ambition, or ownership are all spaces of tension. Digital exposes so many brewing & contradictory tensions that’s unclear how we should think and feel about what’s beautiful, sexy, successful, or creative. In most cases, though, retail brands are not those leading our understanding of any of this. Their voice is lost among all the tools, information, and others’ choices that ubiquitously surround us and help us navigate the world around us. In this scenario, brands’ waiting for something to become a trend is a losing proposition.
What does this mean for brand strategy?
All the brewing micro-tensions give brands the unique and unprecedented opportunity to capture the underlying antagonism, turn it into a zeitgeist, and elevate it to a topic of a conversation. Brand strategy becomes less about tension solving, and more about tension setting: taking a cultural current that’s not known enough, broad enough, or mainstream enough and turning it into a bigger cultural movement.
Like amplifiers, they put the emerging tension right at the center of their brand strategy.
A true usefulness of brands is to help us recognize & exploit all the micro-tensions around us. By getting to own a cultural tension, brands go beyond just telling a story about it in a “help people participate in culture” way. They let us explore the white space that cultural tensions open & make us an active part of any conceivable story that comes out if it.
Now, this can really change behavior on a larger scale.
The other week, I got a brilliantly challenging question from Stuart Smith. He saw my presentation on Creativity and Complexity and asked me how to reconcile semantic & emotional complexity of brands with the need for the consistency of their global deliverables.
That's a nice one. After all, what's the benefit of complexity? Well, the human experiences are rich and nuanced and often really ambiguous. There are no two people that experience a same thing in the exactly same way. So, if human experiences aren't simple, why should brands be? The best brands are indeed those that are able to keep this complexity intact, without falling into the trap of reducing it the only one narrow aspect (the statement, the medium, the audience).
Think Apple. The most famously elegant brand around is, in fact, pretty complex. Where does this complexity come in? Counterintuitive as it may sound, it's in design. The design of Apple's products is intuitive enough to appeal to everyone. Steve Jobs never defined the "target" for his products. He never exclaimed that he wants to "appeal to 18-24 year old men," for example. And intuitive is not the same as simple. In fact, it's pretty far from it. Intuitive things retain the complexity of experience without simplifying it to a single dimension.
Or, think Converse (I have some sort of emotional hangup with this one). Thoughout the years/decades of being around, Converse created a rich & multidimensional brand, based on layers upon layers of accumulated cultural meanings & signifiers. Instead of being part of some pre-designed brand experience, these cultural connotations come from memories that are simultaneously personal (mine) and that cross the boundaries of country and audience (everyone's). This sort of collective memory can only be created from associating products with experiences that are so deeply personal that they become universal.
Both of these cases remind me of boundary objects. They are things that "have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable, a means of translation. They are plastic enough to adapt to local needs and constraints of several parties empoying them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identitiy across sites. They are weakly structured in common use and become strongly structured in individual use. The creation and management of boundary objects is a key process in developing coherence across intersecting communities."
So people have thought about this one before.
Good. Because, in my own experience, complexity is great for creatives. It gives them the maximum inspiration & creative flexibility and the maximum executional options. It also creates thinking/outputs that are emotionally robust and nuanced enough to provide a backbone for many years of creative work for the brand (and removes the on-off campaign mentality) - you can go back to the well many times without repeating yourself. Second, complexity breeds many executional options, and secures that they are adaptive and adaptible to the fuzzy digital environment. Third, complexity has really become the only way, when you think about it. The old school planning mantra, narrow everything down, make things obvious, make things clear, doesn't get today's brands' problems solved. It just ignores them. Not the risk I'd take.
And besides, clarity is the enemy of magic.