October 14th, 2011 by Gwen McCarter
Outside of architecture, “facade” tends to be a four-letter word. It conjures up ideas of intentional and obvious pretense. But in advertising and marketing, brands have to maintain some sort of buffer between the truth of how they operate and the reality that they present to customers. The purpose of that veneer is not to pull the old bait-and-switch, but simply to ensure a positive customer experience.
Think of it this way: When a customer walks into your store, she doesn’t want to see the underbelly of what it takes to create a perfect retail environment. The end-result of that all the effort that goes into running a successful business should appear inevitably seamless, as if it couldn’t have come together otherwise. When crafted this way, spaces of all kinds have the power to transport us to new times, places, and emotional states.
But when a branded environment isn’t presented as an airtight package, a rift enters into the customer experience. The enchantment fades and it becomes abundantly clear that alternate realities exist — that the world can work in different and better ways. When that bubble bursts, the customer suddenly has to work to stay engaged. Instead of eagerly awaiting what that brand will produce next, he notices the company’s cracks and opens his mind up to other possibilities.
Fickle shoppers will always come and go, but brands have a huge say in how pleasing or frustrating a customer experience they create. Normal people don’t just storm out of stores for no identifiable reason; somewhere along the way, there was a final straw. The challenge for most brands is not to keep a pristine track record of customer loyalty; it’s to understand the key fault lines that are preventing a passable store environment from being better.
More often than not, those breaking points are in plain sight for the customer. But actionable opportunities for improvement might not jump out as readily to those within the company. And no matter how big a fan favorite your brand is, continued success means regularly assessing whether your latest efforts will dovetail with the experiences your customers want and expect (ahem, Facebook and Netflix).
Wherever you are in the process of fine-tuning the way people experience your brand, the tips that follow will help.
Take advice from people who know your customer.
It can feel irresistibly easy to institute changes from afar, but knowing which policies have a chance of working means staying close to the ground. Start by hiring someone at each of your stores to study how local consumers actually experience your brand.
Remove elements that detract from the customer experience.
Clutter is the enemy, especially when it conflicts with the brand identity you’re trying to sell to customers. If your main benefit is supposed to be convenience, for example, anything that screams inconvenience will stick out to shoppers like a sore thumb. Customers might come to expect long lines at a popular store, but avoid the appearance of needless inefficiency by re-designing your checkout area to include only as many cash registers as you have employees to operate. Same principle applies to disarray in the online shopping experience.
Make customers feel like you are listening.
There’s a lot of room to maneuver between being at consumers’ beck and call, on the one hand, and paying no attention to them, on the other hand. The first approach leads to brand chaos, the second to brand arrogance. Find the middle ground by developing smart ways to show that you know your audience. For instance, whether you run an independent small business or a national chain, host local in-store events that give you and your community a chance to exchange ideas.
September 28th, 2011 by Dave Alsobrooks
Impatience. Such a seemingly negative emotion. We recently looked at impatience and how it can creep up on us as we navigate our projects. It can often be made to work for us, but sometimes it’s not that easy. In these cases where impatience persists, frustration is a logical next step although not always the step we’d like to take. As usual, our intrepid group of bloggers will try to spin frustration on its head and make something positive out of the situation. If you’re finding yourself frustrated by a piece of work, we hope we can nudge you in the right direction.
Let’s say your company has essentially taken over the world of electronics, is a stock market darling and has legions of fans who hang on every mention of your products. That would be so awesome, right? Well, it would also create immense pressure to keep the production line going — the production line of ideas as much as devices. Enter the iPhone 5. Well, actually, don’t enter the iPhone 5. That’s kind of the problem: it’s not here yet. But it will be here soon. A quick online search of the phrase “iPhone 5″ yields 2,350,000,000 results at the time of writing. And the top 6 are individual sites created exclusively for following the rumor mill surrounding the product. That’s a lot of pent up anticipation. I believe I read the phrase, “The salivation is so palpable, you may need an umbrella.” One thing is for sure: the fanboys will certainly queue up when the 5 finally hits stores next month. But here’s another thought: could Apple actually be wearing out its welcome with some of the population? The rabid anticipation for this device is perhaps higher than it’s ever been for an Apple release. But it’s just taken SO long, that it seems people might’ve exploded if the confirmed introduction for October 4th had not recently appeared out of thin air. Pair this ongoing frustration with the rigid service contracts from carriers that we’re all subjected to and the window of i-adoption tightens for many. Every month that’s passed saw more people miss the boat. Or worse for Apple, pick another boat. It’s possible that the level of frustration with Apple over the iPhone 5′s release will create just as fervent a backlash as an adoration. Maybe it’s only a ripple, but it’s a ripple of consumers entertaining solutions other than one designed in Cupertino. And that’s never good for business.
Beware of keeping your customer waiting too long.
While a bout with impatience can spur forward movement on a project, it can incite frustration, leading to rash decisions and missed opportunities. Consider Randy “Super Freak” Moss, future Hall of Famer, recently retired, but still hoping, wide receiver of the NFL. He’s had to bounce a few times in recent years from the New England Patriots to the Minnesota Vikings and finally to the Tennessee Titans. The Titans? That was just wrong. The New England experiment was the closest tenure to something that worked but it obviously didn’t really work out in the end. After Randy’s final season with the Titans, the team publicly stated they weren’t re-signing the veteran receiver. The player and the player’s agent maintained Moss stayed in freakish physical shape during the off-season and lockout. moss was ready to play for an interested team. The first problem became that teams did not show interest, at least publicly. By the middle of summer, without any offers or attention from teams, Ross quickly became frustrated and retired. No Brett Favre antics here. Peace out. Fast-forward, and now it seems that a handful of teams might’ve actually been interested in Randy’s services. They just didn’t make a public spectacle or media blitz like some teams do from time to time to grab the headlines and/or a player’s attention. We’ll never really know, but there’s this nagging notion that Randy might’ve cut himself out of another championship run by allowing himself to become frustrated with the negotiating process.
So don’t take things too personally — allow yourself to step back and evaluate the total picture if you’re ever frustrated by a situation. Especially one that could influence an important decision — like ending your career.
I’d like to end with a closer look at Washington, D.C. But not a long one — I don’t think any of us can stomach an in-depth examination. But please consider the political gridlock we witness if we happen to tune into the news any day of the week. Zero is a fairly accurate account of what’s being accomplished by our elected officials. A few folks out there might even use the same term for the officials themselves. But I digress. I’d like to propose that perhaps the gridlock is actually the fault of the voters. How, you ask? Consider recent election cycles. It seems one party is put in a majority position, but never in a true position of power. Gridlock ensues because the so-called party of power isn’t able to truly enact any part of their agenda due to forceful opposition. And so government stalls in the face of political postures and bickering. Voters sour on the situation and when a ballot next appears, they vote the current party out in favor of the alternative. And so on. Instead of curbing our enthusiasm, maybe we should curb our frustration long enough to allow an accurate appraisal of policies that might actually work rather than playing into an always-on election cycle.
It’s sometimes very tough to do, but consider letting your ideas live long enough to rule themselves out before cutting off your support or belief.
So there really are ways to channel frustration into positive gains. But we have to do the channeling to get something out of it. If, out of frustration, we allow ourselves to be swept up in feelings of authority or importance or we just plain let things spin out of control, then we’ve not moved beyond the frustration. We’ve allowed it to take control. Here’s hoping we can keep our hands on the wheel.
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Every month, we give away a free desktop image inspired by the current virtue of #smallerthinking. The current version was inspired by an actual dispenser in our office which, by the way, has since been filled. Enjoy.
1024 x 768
1280 x 800
1280 x 1024
1440 x 900
1680 x 1050
1920 x 1080
1920 x 1200
2560 x 1440
640 x 960 (iPhone)
1024 x 1024 (iPad)
September 3rd, 2011 by Gwen McCarter
In every direction, we see nostalgia for the good old days of analog — when budding technologies were splendid in their simplicity and romantic in their rough-around-the-edges appeal. (At least, that’s the view from here. My pink plastic film camera was, in 1989, undoubtedly more decrepit than fabulous.)
Seemingly with no boundaries, we’re breathing new life into old charmers, from Polaroid and Lomography to turntables to rotary phones. Even hand-written letters have been experiencing a resurgence. In large part, it’s no wonder why we crave slow, tangible pleasures; an always-on digital life can be maddening. And if we allow ourselves to be fully caught up in that existence, impatience for everything to operate like clockwork can lead to burnout.
But that trend hasn’t kept on going and going and going just because we are sentimental creatures craving escapism from the world as it is. There has to be more to the story than just that.
From at least one angle, the most interesting part of returning to analog rituals is how they can reinvigorate our hectic business and creative routines, giving brief respites from chaos that help us put our hands back in the fire with fresh enthusiasm.
There’s no shortage of research supporting activities of this kind. Says NYU psychologist Joshua Aronson, keeping our minds nimble is crucial to keeping and growing mental capacities:
“A decade ago, we thought you got what you were given at birth and that was pretty much it. But now we know the number of brain cells can increase throughout your life through neurogenesis. There’s great evidence that shows if you really work on a skill, the part of the brain associated with that skill grows. The mind is like a muscle. If you don’t keep exercising it, it will atrophy.”
But science aside, people engage in restorative mental activities — and keep on doing so — because they work. Plan and simple. If they didn’t work, I doubt even the most patient among us would be choosing peaceful ashrams and monasteries as vacation destinations or engaging in daily meditation at home.
Of course, rituals work differently for each of us; it doesn’t matter how you slow down as long as the experience inspires you to get back in the game.
Lucky me, I recently came into possession of a 1937 Remington typewriter that creates just that kind of experience. When I tap-tap-tap on that thing, old facilitates new. You see, each of the keys is connected to a circuit that, with the help of a USB cord, feeds my typing into an electronic document on my computer. The typewriter physically slows my hands down, which slows my mind down, which helps me feel more satisfied with what I have so deliberately produced. It helps me focus on the task at hand, not least because I know I have a digital copy to go back to and edit whenever I want.
But slowing down doesn’t necessarily require tools.
A cliche though it may be, I go on walks to get ideas. It worked in college when I drew a blank about the paper I had to write for my German philosophy class. And it works today when I want to write something creative but feel like my mind needs room to spread out. So I leave the digitally charged air of my apartment and venture out. More often than not, I arrive home with something I’m dying to commit to paper.
They say we must “slow down to speed up.” And by finding our own ways of keeping the creative juices flowing, this modern life can be a sustainable thing.
What are your rituals for coping with and making the most of a fast-paced life?
July 29th, 2011 by Dave Alsobrooks
Thanks for traveling with us through a year -or so- of #smallthinking. For those just joining us, we are taking our faithful following (I can say faithful because we oblige an intimate crowd) through the process of ideation and execution. Our notion is that smaller ideas get to live, breathe, evolve (and we discuss this in more depth over on Facebook). Whereas, big ideas get to fester, fabricate and #fail. Not always. But the reality is, to coin a phrase, “It’s a mad, mad world.” A world that’s waiting for you to either a.) blow up (in a good way) or b.) just blow up. We are all citizens of this impatient world. In fact, some say today’s Gen Y-ers never even learned patience. The push forward is intense, even crushing at times, from the news cycle, to the sports world, to the art world, to the advertising world, and so on. It would seem impatience is a universal truth. What do you think?
Let me be clear. We’re not advocating impatience by way of thinking smaller. We are, however, acknowledging it. And attempting to learn from it, understand it and use it to our advantage. With any project there comes a time… like now if you’ve followed our #smallthinking project… when one can get into a bit of a rut. The optimism that accompanies the launch of any project is accompanied by a healthy dose of adrenaline. In my case it is also accompanied by this, or this or these. Once the going gets tough, our instincts, which we’ve mentioned before, compel us to reevaluate the strategy, move the goalposts or maybe just cut and run. This is the point where we need a strong stomach. Second guessing a project’s worth is one of the the first major hurdles to success. And let me just say there will be more.
So how can we channel impatience toward something positive? Well, it starts by realizing that our impatience is healthy in the early stages of a project’s development. We are still hungry. We wish to see our idea through to fruition. But we haven’t trended yet. Yet! What does that mean? The short answer is it doesn’t mean our concept is dead. It may be dying for a number of reasons, but it’s not dead. Check the airway! Begin compressions if needed! Once we acknowledge we’re still in the game, we can reassure ourselves that our impatience isn’t a calling card for the endeavor at hand. In many ways it’s a reassurance that we still care.
So take a deep breath. Not every musician works with Cole Haan before they release a major label album. Not every artist is an international superstar at the age of 22. Not every US President is elected in his forties. These folks were impatient with their reality, for sure. They found a way to channel their impatience into next steps. So we are aiming for practical impatience here, not the meteoric kind.
The cold reality is that impatience can lead us to failure if we give in to its whims. And then we move on to the next thing. And the next. You get the picture. Sometimes a slow burn is where the magic’s at. In the end, nothing is really finite, except as they say, death and taxes. BTW, if either of these are a problem, we have bigger issues to face. Anyway, we should be just as impatient with failure as our own optimism. And we needn’t view these difficult teaching moments so much as our defining moments. We should see them for what they really are — teaching moments. Where we are in the process (early on, mind you), we are allowed rebuttals and recourse. But we will hopefully learn from our miscues. It should be easy to see how impatience and conjecture and ambition and failure are good things. At least for now.
June 2nd, 2011 by Dave Alsobrooks
We’re currently looking into ingenuity as part of our #smallthinking series. I got a firsthand experience of what ingenuity looks like yesterday, when I was privy to a tour of the Shopbot facility here in Durham, NC. I was excited to see what I thought was one machine, but what turned out to be several working units and some higher level concepts floating in the ether.
The folks at Shopbot, including Ted Hall, the founder, are obsessed with details. They make sure they have the best quality rails, motors and electronics to run their super-cool digital fabrication machines. Partly, because clients clamor for them, but partly because Ted wants to make sure the machine runs well enough for his own use if nothing else. He really believes in the Shopbot mission which seems to be placing digital fabrication capabilities in the hands of people who might not otherwise be able to enter the category. So while some of their competitors charge MUCH more for comparable machines, Shopbot keeps putting out hi-test units at a fraction of the cost. There are currently about 7,000 or 8,000 machines in use across the country.
It’s really cool to see these machines at work. They sound like Star Wars droids at work, but with much less sarcasm. Their movements are precise. I walked on the floor at the Durham facility with a notion of typical applications: wood, routers, furniture, signage, etc. Nothing too fancy. But Ted changed the trajectory of my thinking by placing these tools into the realm of digital fabrication. To him, digital fabrication is not about automating old ways of making things. It is really about finding completely new ways of making new products. Bringing ideas to life. For example, we saw a 5-axis machine that basically cuts out the tray you place your mini-pretzels on when you’re in an airplane. Somebody has to make these things, right? The Shopbot enables the designer to build in certain features that would otherwise require two or more machines. Anyhow, think of this machine hooked up to a Kinect, so that anyone could carve out human figures with a few mouse clicks. Woah! That’s a new way of getting something done.
So the inspiration I took away was to constantly look for news ways of doing things. Try them out. See what works. Keep asking ” What if?” There’s a lot of ingenuity going on in the Shopbot brain trust. A lot of “what if?” questions. And, it seems, a few answers to boot.
March 30th, 2011 by Gwen McCarter
In the mockumentary Best in Show, the film’s antics are interrupted midway by a quiet scene where Meg and Hamilton Swan, the neurotic power couple played by Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock, reminisce about how their mutual adoration for catalogs brought them together. Spilling all the details, they describe how their young love was first kindled by the likes of J.Crew and L.L.Bean (not to mention Starbucks and Mac laptops). Hamilton used to be such a huge “J.Crew person,” and both of them, we’re led to believe, still carry that mantle proudly.
This vignette sets up brand loyalty as something of a lifelong affair, with the most steadfast followers displaying a kind of devotion that can seems almost religious. While the scene serves as fine proof that the “preppy” J.Crew aesthetic has become etched as fact into the shared American psyche, it also misleads us by assuming that brands possess some kind of intrinsic power over people. Marketers should beware of making the same mistake.
It can feel like a matter of instinct, the way we gravitate toward certain brands and reject others. And it often seems as if a brand’s larger message, the lifestyle it promotes, can capture a person’s imagination. But in our complex marketplace, instinct is not that simple. In the past, brand loyalty might have given a built-in advantage to companies able to own a particular a niche. And when we only had a handful of stores in town to rely on, familiarity with a brand name served as a helpful starting point. But the process of winning and keeping customers has been complicated by the fact that we simply have more alternatives than ever before. Now, we’re captivated by individual products that we can experience for ourselves.
As Fast Company’s Co.Design said just a few weeks ago, brand monogamy makes less sense in a marketplace that encourages us to explore our options:
“Today’s consumers are stingier with their brand loyalty than in the past because they can afford to be: they are burdened only by an abundance of choice and knowledge.”
As a result, we’d expect to find more people asking “Where can I find the product I want?” instead of “What can I find at my favorite store?” But if product loyalty is the priority for more consumers these days, not everyone has taken the memo to heart. Many marketers still seem to idealize an abstract notion of brand loyalty, assuming their most important task is to reach customers on that higher level. This comes despite recent warnings that companies should be striving to connect with customers through authentic, personalized interactions, not one-way brand messages.
During a recent visit to our local J.Crew, for instance, I saw the store embracing its core image with fresh vigor. No longer merely preppy in a timeless sort of way, it’s become downright preptastic. A charicature of its former self, its current look and feel can only be described as bedazzled-bohemian-chic. (You’ll know it when you see it.)
Amid those efforts to magnify the brand, the products I found in the store were without. My mission was simple: find a few little shirts suited for the warmer weather now creeping into North Carolina. What I found was an armful of Extra-Small tank tops, all of which were too baggy. At 5’11” with a reasonable amount of muscle, baggy is the last thing I had expected or hoped to find. So, while the store used to be a reliable place to pick up an item or two that I could fold into my own style, it now preaches a notion of fashion that doesn’t work for me. And because I’m one of those product-loyalists who will move on to the next store to find what I want, the case for brand loyalty just took another hit.
That’s not to say the store isn’t doing well. Sure, it’s been guarding against the sales drops that retailers have experienced lately, but according to buzz, J.Crew is staying afloat in a still turbulent economy because it offers customers good value for the price and an array of (ahem) “classic” items.
But it does raise the question of how long some companies — and their marketers — can expect to build a future on good old-fashioned brand loyalty while others focus on diversifying, innovating, and experimenting through products that excite us. Too many marketers assume that brand loyalty drives product popularity when it’s the other way around: customers fall in love with products first and brands second. Where would Apple be as a brand without the iPhone or iPad, for example? The truth is that die-hard fans become so for concrete reasons. If you assume that brand loyalty emerges out of anything other than loyalty toward experiences and products, you’ve lost touch with your audience.
February 11th, 2011 by Dave Alsobrooks
February 4th, 2011 by Gwen McCarter
This month’s edition of Fast Company reports the triumphant return of the matchbook-as-marketing-tool. You might be wondering what the big deal is, but this is exactly the type of trend I like to see.
For one thing, it demonstrates creativity — in this case, a reinvention of expectations and purpose. After all, with more and more states jumping on board the smoking ban bandwagon (35 of them, at last count), matches might have seemed as if they were on their way out. And we’re not talking about your big 250-count “strike anywhere” boxes, which will live on as long as we have gas stoves, power outages, candle-lit dinners, and wood-burning fireplaces. (By the way, has the design of that box ever changed?) No, we mean the diminutive boxes, books, and occasional tubes that we’ve all received over the years at restaurants, bars, hotels, weddings, fashion boutiques, and who knows where else. And after all this time, to breathe new life into something as seemingly functional as a matchbook certainly requires a little ingenuity. What we’re seeing here is a reevaluation of what the object means.
Of course matches “have a certain charm,” as Fast Company notes. But the imaginative part of this matchbook revamp is more than that, and it’s beautifully clear: these objects are tiny pieces of physical culture. Products of a particular time and place, they are not just a tool; they are, simultaneously, an experience.
Picture this: when a company gives me a matchbook with a distinctive design, they’re giving me an invitation to remember them over and over again, and to recall the (hopefully) amazing evening out I had at their new restaurant. I want to keep hold of those memories, and so I hang onto the matchbook. It has become infused with meaning of one sort or another, so I don’t throw it away as I might an event flyer. And by keeping the matchbook, I get reacquainted with the brand each time I use it. In short, these matchbooks are a way to reinforce unique and intimate brand experiences with a tangible, unmistakable token.
Not too shabby for an object that had allegedly seen its heyday come and go. Another new and inventive way that repurposing is becoming all the rage.
January 5th, 2011 by Gwen McCarter
For weeks, I’ve been musing about what it means to be bold today. If you think this task has the potential to snowball into an awkwardly grandiose endeavor…well, you’d be right. And so, I’ve also been thinking about how to avoid that problem: It’s usually helpful to ask smaller, more pointed questions, seek fewer ostensibly comprehensive answers, and look around to see what’s in the air. All good tactics for evading pointless speculation, and for achieving something concrete and timely.
I suppose I’m a product of my experiences, and after all my years in school studying cultural difference, it’s clear that what I’m really interested in is not the definition of boldness, but rather how boldness gets enacted in the world. (If you have anecdotes of your own, post ‘em here!)
You see, this whole thing started a little while ago when friends of ours asked us to name a few of the Triangle’s boldest leaders. And what made that question interesting to me was the difficulty I had answering it. Of course, some aspects of boldness never seem to change: courage, defiance, and a rare ability to shake things up in a way that inspires others to do great things, too. But it also feels as if talking about boldness has become a more perplexing task.
Why? Simply put: because it’s easier to give the impression of being bold today without actually delivering. And as a result, the purpose of boldness has become murky. More than anything else, what’s missing is a greater emphasis on action. If there’s one sure thing about boldness, it’s that no one will know you’re a bold thinker if you aren’t a bold actor, too.
To illustrate the point, we need only think about noise. Chatter. A veritable din. We live in a society where more people are free to voice their opinions than ever, and everyone with Internet access also has a soapbox within reach. In many ways, this democratization via technology is empowering. And as Malcolm Gladwell wrote last October, it’s not our imagination that social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and various blogging platforms are “making it easier for the powerless to collaborate.”
But Gladwell also warns against mistaking online activity for real-world action. The digital setting is often confusing because boldness online can feel both satisfying and effortlessly productive. If we want use the example of activism, social movements that grow online can amass a follower base of millions. All the same, the palpable impact of those virtual efforts can be an entirely different story. Gladwell happens to cite the Save Darfur Coalition’s Facebook page as one place where participation is high but commitment and investment are relatively low (he puts group membership at nearly 1.3 million and the average donation at 9 cents). But the same could be said of a number of other initiatives — social media-based or otherwise – that don’t or can’t place enough emphasis on backing their bold online campaigns up with tangible follow-through.
So, for most everyone, it wouldn’t hurt to spend a little more time in action. At the same time, a single bold act cannot be your end game; it needs to be well conceived as part of a larger strategy, supported by other, more sustained initiatives.
For example, when it comes to bold fashion statements, the trick is to be arresting. Inciting people to discourse is a good thing. But that type of boldness still can’t stand on its own. There has to be more depth. Think about Lady Gaga’s raw meat dress from last September. That garment has earned its keep in the popular imagination — for better or for worse — but it’s not all the Lady herself has to offer. It’s just one part of her public persona that is also comprised of hit songs, popular music videos, and sell-out live performances.
If there’s a lesson here, it’s that boldness needs a purpose. Being bold for its own sake might sound like a positive thing, but it should make sense in the grand scheme of your personality — or your brand’s personality, for that matter. Today, seizing someone’s attention with a stunt is not enough. You have to get people talking, get them moving, and keep them that way. So go ahead and experiment with being bold, but make sure you can keep the revolution going.