Snobby no more

Abercrombie & Fitch has been, for years, a highly polarizing brand – kind of a “mean girls” brand.  Many teenagers loved it; many others loved to hate it.

However, in the face of plummeting sales, A&F yesterday launched a new marketing campaign. Gone are the brooding, shirtless dudes and snobbishness.  Now the message is inclusiveness.  There is even a new logo.  The store experience will change, too.  They will become much brighter and slightly less heavily scented.  Essentially, they are trying to become a “casual luxury” brand for people in their 20s who loved the brand as teenagers.

It may be a tough road for A&F.  Its rivals American Eagle and Hollister have already carved out their own inclusive images that young shoppers seem to find appealing.  Moreover, A&F isn’t necessarily a warm, fuzzy brand that a lot of people are inherently rooting for.  Many people who are in their 20s and 30s found the brand intimidating and exclusionary, while many teens just find it un-cool.

(The Wall St. Journal article above is behind a pay wall, so if interested you can listen to the Marketplace story about the new A&F here.)

Better nudges, better citizens

As we (thankfully) near the end of the 2016 presidential campaign,  a couple of ideas for increasing voter turnout (and civic responsibility, in general) from the pages of the New York Times.

The Times cites several examples of governments that have gamified civic responsibility.  China has reduced instances of sales tax evasion by turning tax receipts into scratch-off lottery tickets. One study found that the new tax revenue amounted to 30 times the cost of the lottery prizes.

In Los Angeles, a project called Voteria offered $25,000 to a randomly-selected voter who cast a ballot in a 2015 off-year election, the kind of election typically plagued by very low turnout.  The lure of a cash prize increased voter participation by 46%.

Not everyone loves the concept.  One high-minded commenter on the Times article sniffs, “Using incentives to ‘nudge’ people into their duties is at odds with the notion of a self-governing citizenry. In a republic, citizens are supposed to be motivated by civic virtue.”   But in the context of a world where many leaders and would-be leaders seem to lack civic virtue, is this really such a profane idea?

Facebook tried something even simpler – just reminding people.  When users logged into Facebook in September they were greeted with a reminder – “Are you registered to vote?  Register now to make sure you have a voice in the election.”  On the first day of the campaign, a nearly unprecedented 123,000 Californians registered to vote or updated their registrations.  Other states saw similar activity.

Ending the pernicious problem of public poop

Thanks to Jess Kukreti of Olson Zaltman for sharing this NPR story on the Global Sanitation Fund’s efforts to eliminate open defecation in Nepal.

The organization is experimenting with a strategy called Community Led Total Sanitatation (CLTS). A typical activity includes residents being led on a walk around the village while a group facilitator points out piles of human feces and asks who is responsible.  If someone can identify the culprit, the group leader hectors that person them with questions like, “How does this make you feel? Do you feel good about that?”

Some have criticized this “shaming” approach for being offensive and condescending.  Perhaps. But it also has been successful, helping to nearly eliminate open defecation in Bangladesh.

Emotions like shame, disgust, and guilt can be tricky.  In a traditional marketing context, research shows they can backfire.  If consumers perceive that a brand is trying to manipulate their feelings of guilt, they find that communication to be less credible, they are less likely to actually feel guilty, they lose trust in the company, and they can even become angry at the company.

This situation is probably a bit different. Not only is this not a “company” trying to promote a “brand,” but also CLTS is using guilt/shame to inhibit behavior that clearly violates social norms – rather than using it to persuade more people to buy a specific brand of laundry detergent, for example. So guilt/emotion has the power to motivate people here in a way that it might not in a classic marketing effort.


You see them on your Facebook feeds.  You see them in market research.  The people who think nothing good has happened since 1981. The people who hate everything.

This article tries to get inside the heads of these vexing killjoys – and it builds its narrative around people who relentlessly criticize Pokemon Go.

Research suggests that some are like this just because they are sour people by nature.  But other times folks play the contrarian to make themselves stand out against the masses.  In one study, if you told participants they were average in some respect, they were more likely to speak out against the majority opinion in a subsequent discussion.

Does this mean anything for market research?  Not infrequently we encounter respondents in research who seem to reflexively dislike anything that is put in front of them. Do we screen out those people somehow?  Do we do something at the start of the interview to put them in a better mood?  Or is it in some way beneficial to hear the opinions of these nattering nabobs of negativism?

One small step for VR...

Some clever and innovative marketing from a company you might not necessarily expect it from – Lockheed Martin, the global aerospace and defense giant.

They created a virtual reality experience called “Field Trip to Mars.”  Kids climbed aboard a bus to attend a science and engineering festival in Washington DC, but suddenly found that this was no ordinary school bus.  It became a rolling VR headset that gave the students a sense of what it would be like to travel across the face of the red planet.

This is part of a community outreach program to get elementary school kids hooked on the possibility of space travel and generate interest in STEM fields. The “Field Trip to Mars” won 19 awards at Cannes this summer.

When life is work

Thanks to Tim Bradley for sending this article about the science of work – specifically how much time you spend at work and HOW you spend that time.

The columnist, John Brandon, was set off by a comment from Marissa Mayer, who boasted that the recipe for Google’s success was people who, in the early days, worked 130 hours a week.  As Brandon says, “[That] recipe is seriously flawed. Working 130 hours does not lead to success. Working smarter leads to success.”

Research shows that in order to do quality work breaks are critical – they prevent boredom, help us reassess goals, and most importantly help us retain information and make connections.

Perhaps the people at Google did work 130 hours a week, but the company’s success may have come in spite of that herculean effort, not because of it.


The recent spike in the popularity of superheroes in the US (and perhaps globally – I am not sure) fascinates me. Perhaps it is a reaction to the terrorism and war that have plagued us since 9/11.

The New York Times ran an analysis of the photography of the Black Lives Matter movement and found that many of the iconic photos that have emerged from news coverage of BLM (including the one above) have framed black protagonists as superheroes.

These photos illustrate the power of imagery to express and reflect feelings that we would struggle to capture adequately in words. As the critic explains, “What these images do is make elaborate internal states like patience, fearlessness, anger and dignity temporarily visible.”

Gamifying life

Here is an interesting take on the broader implications of the Pokemon Go phenomenon. 

Jason Anderson – who managed business intelligence teams at Microsoft Xbox and founder of Datagame, which builds gamification tools for online research – offers his perspective on what has made Pokemon Go so successful, what it suggests about the future of augmented and virtual reality, and the possible red flags it throws up about the value of market research.

In Times Square, follow your always knows

Kellogg faces somewhat of an existential business challenge – Millennials don’t eat much cereal.  So the company has been thinking about all kinds of ways to make plain, old dry cereal more interesting.

On Monday, the company opened an all-day cereal café – Kellogg’s NYC -- in New York’s Times Square.  The café serves $7.50 bowls of Kellogg’s cereal, spiced up with ingredients like lime zest, pistachios, marshmallows and thyme.

Do you really think people would pay $7.50 for a bowl of cereal?  Why, yes.  Yes they would.   

The way the cereal is served is also pretty cool. It comes out of red cabinets in grocery bags and includes prizes both small and, occasionally, large (like tickets to “Hamilton.”)  One of the café’s designers said, “We wanted to create these emotional references.”

What do think…is this idea “coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs” or is it “Gr-r-reat!”?

The psychology and language of victim-blaming

The authors of a new study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin have published a column in the New York Times explaining why some people tend to blame the victims of crimes – consciously or unconsciously.

In short, people who favor what the authors call “binding values” – loyalty, obedience, and purity – are more likely to blame victims than people who favor “individualizing values,” like caring and fairness.

Language can affect these perceptions (and presumably subtly reflect them as well).  Language like “Dan forced Lisa” makes people more empathetic with the victim than language like “Lisa was forced by Dan.” The authors conclude by arguing, “Focusing less on victims and more on perpetrators…may be a more effective way of serving justice.”

(image by Benedicte Muller for the New York Times)

As you like it

One of my favorite quirky books is Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt, which discusses the unconscious factors that influence the way we drive (driving drivers, if you will).

The author is out with a new book entitled You May Also Like, whose central argument is that there are things that we truly like – and things that we like mainly because other people like them, or because they have symbolic meaning, or because of some semi-conscious contextual factor.

Vanderbilt discusses his latest work in an interview for the FiveThirtyEight blog. The blog features an excerpt from the interview but you also can download the complete audio.

We often shape our preferences to distinguish ourselves from other people.  I like BMWs in many ways.  They are good-looking cars that perform well. However, I’ll probably never drive one because one of the most condescending prigs I have ever known drove a BMW; so the car, unfortunately, is linked in my mind to that very unpleasant person.

Other times people claim to like things (foreign films, perhaps) that they never actually consume.  When we say we like something, it’s sometimes because “liking” it helps us feel more like the kind of person we want to be.

Also, context plays a big role in whether we like something or not.  In this interview, Vanderbilt mentions the concept of “lawnmower beer.”  It might not be a beer with a complex taste profile that you would drink in a fine restaurant, but it tastes pretty darn good a 90 degree Saturday afternoon after you have mowed the lawn.

Vanderbilt is a gifted writer and the topic is of great relevance to our work.  I can’t wait to pick it up.

The ethical woman

Who is more ethical, men or women?

According to NPR correspondent Shankar Vedantim, there is a widespread belief that women are more ethical than men.  The flip side of that is that we are unconsciously biased to punish women more severely for ethical transgressions.

In one study, people punished “Jane Moranti” much more severely for a hypothetical case of Medicare fraud than “Jack Moranti.”  (130 days in prison vs. 80 days). In the real world, studies of the disciplinary proceedings of the American Bar Association reveal that female lawyers were again subject to more severe punishments than male lawyers for the same ethical violations.

We know how negative stereotypes and biases can affect the way in which we treat people.  This study shows that sometimes even a positive stereotype can have a dark underbelly.




The false allure of the 'brain as computer' metaphor

Here is a really thought-provoking essay about the widely accepted metaphor of "Brain as Computer."  Most people think of the brain this way. You probably do, too, even though you might not know it.  But this metaphor -- which the author argues isn't true -- dramatically affects how we think about what our brain is capable of.

Branding by Bey

Thanks to Jerry Olson for drawing my attention to this column about what marketers can learn from Beyonce.

Beyonce is brilliant at creating buzz around her album releases (the music industry equivalent of product launches). The author explains that more traditional marketers can take several lessons from her:

1.       Develop a rock solid brand identity

2.       Understand your community

3.       Engage with your community

4.       Build momentum

5.       Take risks

Interesting perspective on how Beyonce works diligently, through all avenues, to build and maintain her personal brand.


Thanks to Olson Zaltman's Joe Plummer for sharing this article from The New Yorker about the sense of touch.  It discusses how scientists are innovating around touch in ways that could transform healthcare, gaming, navigation, pornography, shopping, and fashion.

Imagine being able to touch clothing before you buy it online…or being able to walk down the street in a new city and feel a nudge that tells you which way to turn.

An atlas of the brain?

A new study in the journal Nature explains why a good story can be so engrossing.

Researchers at Cal-Berkeley tracked brain activity in people as they listed to podcasts of “The Moth Radio Hour.”  What they discovered is that the stories activated areas across the brain, including networks associated with the senses, emotions, and memory. As you can see above, the brain lights up like a kaleidoscope.

A more detailed discussion of the research can be found here. What the researchers have found is that, at a more granular level, specific words consistently “light up” specific areas of the brain.  As a Princeton neuroscientist observes: “The ethical implications are enormous. One more benign use would see brain activity used to assess whether political messages have been effectively communicated to the public.”

The Virtual Holiday

Lufthansa has brought virtual reality to the airline industry.

Airline travel has become largely commoditized and consumers tend to focus on time and price when selecting a flight. Lufthansa, however, is seeking to differentiate by promoting its passenger experience.  And what better way to do that than to let people experience that experience (virtually) before boarding the plane? 

At a trade show in Berlin, Lufthansa let visitors experience the seats and the service on board – and then took them on a short “virtual holiday” to San Francisco.

VR is still a novelty, for the most part, but the novelty will wear off soon enough as the technology inevitably becomes more accessible to the masses.  Meanwhile, brands like Lufthansa, The North Face, the National Football League, Hasbro, and Marriot continue to pioneer the use of VR in marketing.

Not just fun and games

Minecraft is, in many ways, today’s Lego – and more.

A  New York Times Magazine feature, headlined “The Minecraft Generation,” explains how the game is inadvertently is teaching a generation of children about coding, problem solving, and civic literacy.

From a marketing perspective, the game has been successful in spite of (or, really, because of) its lack of clear rules. Because you essentially teach yourself the game, learning as you go along, online communities have sprung up where players share tips and tricks. Those communities have fostered a deep loyalty to the game.

Some also suggest that Minecraft has become a “third place” for kids – somewhere they can go to be free.  Not only are they mentally free in that they can escape the scrutiny of parents and teachers, but also they experience a sense of physical freedom as they move unrestrained through a virtual space, doing whatever the hell they want.  This is in stark contrast to the “real world” where fearful parents often limit their children’s wandering.

Brilliant article about how a simple game has complex roots in human psychology and is possibly making an impact far beyond what the creator of the game ever imagined.

Let me call you sweetheart

As an expert in this article says, the tongue could be a window to the psyche.

The article above summarizes recent research into the correlation between taste and our behavior and emotions.  Some of the highlights:

  • Research suggests that people highly attuned to bitter tastes tend to startle more easily than those not so well attuned to bitterness.
  • The enjoyment of bitter tastes is associated with higher levels of antisocial behavior.
  • Volunteers judge transgressions more harshly after drinking something bitter than after drinking water.
  • Thinking of love can make plain water taste sweeter.
  • After a happy event, volunteers rate a lemon-lime sorbet as sweeter than after a negative event.

Maybe this helps us understand where certain gustatory metaphors come from – like when we call someone a bitter person, or when we call them sweetheart, or when we say “that victory was sweet.”

Wait a beat before you eat

As a result of being a father of two young children – and also as a result of years of squeezing “lunch” into a 30-minute window between ZMET interviews – I eat like a wild animal.  A meal has become something be devoured, not savored. Stopping for a moment to take a pic of my food certainly doesn’t enter into my thought process. 

Apparently, I am missing something. According to new research in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, taking pictures of your meal can make the meal seem tastier.  This is especially true of more indulgent meals, but can even be true of healthier meals under certain circumstances – like if you believe other people are also eating healthy meals.

This lines up with research conducted in 2013, which suggested that performing a short ritual before eating influences our evaluation of the food. The pause before consumption delays gratification, builds anticipation, and makes the food seem tastier.