The soul of SoulCycle

As you may know, the trendy fitness company SoulCycle was hit with a boycott last month after the chairman of its parent company, Stephen Ross, hosted a fundraiser for Donald Trump.

Usually boycotts like this come and go faster than you can say the word “boycott.”  But not this one – not quite. Fast Company reports that the number of SoulCycle membership purchases dropped 12.8 percent in August – a decline that is unprecedented for the company.

A number of marketing experts predicted at the outset of the boycott that it would have no effect, but they were wrong, at least on the short-term.

Those experts are now hypothesizing that a brand like SoulCycle, which essentially is a cult brand that people have adopted as part of their identity, is much more vulnerable than a run-of-the-mill brand when it does something that runs afoul of its consumers’ values.  

 Also, social reinforcement may play a factor. As one expert says, social change doesn’t just require a change in thinking – it requires social support and social pressure. In other words, if you worry your friends will diss you for being a fascist pig when you post something on Instagram about your SoulCycle workout, then you lose much of the incentive to go to SoulCycle. If you can’t brag about it, it’s less a part of your identity. And if it’s less a part of your identity, is it worth doing?

It’s still an open question whether that August decline will be lasting. News cycles move quickly and last month seems like an eternity. However, the deeper lessons about the influence of the crowd and the flip side of strong brand communities are worth internalizing.

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Something is bugging us

American consumers generally don’t embrace eating insects. As far back at 2013, however, the United Nations encouraged people to eat bugs. Many of them are high in nutritional content, taste good, and a diet of insects is probably better for the environment than a diet containing large amounts of chicken or beef.

The problem, of course, is that most of us find that eating insects evokes a strong disgust response, as this journalist discovered. One ice cream shop in the Midwest tried serving cicada-flavored ice cream a few years ago until local health officials put a stop to it – even though the health officials couldn’t come up with very good explanation beyond, “The food code doesn’t directly address cicadas.”

So if you are trying to convince people to eat bugs, what do you do?  Rational arguments such as those presented above are unlikely to work in the face of such a strong emotional aversion. So, perhaps one can look to the history of the potato, which also was once seen as disgusting. Until the 18th century, people scorned potatoes because they supposedly looked weird and, after all, potatoes were not mentioned in Bible.

What changed these perceptions was not facts but an appeal to emotions. A French scientist persuaded Marie Antoinette to wear a garland of potatoes in her hair. Next, the aristocracy began eating them. And that completely changed people’s attitudes about potatoes. The product didn’t change at all, but the frame shifted completely.


Treasures or trash?

In the wake of disasters, what governments and humanitarian organizations need is cash. Instead, what they too often get is stuff. No matter how often the message gets repeated, people love sending tangible physical goods.

New research suggests that unconscious bias plays a big role in this. People assume that their cash may be misappropriated or wasted – while they assume that the teddy bear or blanket that they send will go immediately into the hands of a grateful family.

In reality, the costs of sending tangible goods far exceed the benefits. They are just a pain to deal with, and a lot of those teddy bears end up getting burned or trashed.

The firm The Behavioral Architects conducted research to find the most effective way of dissuading people from giving goods and persuading them to give cash. Factual, rational statements emphasizing that cash is better hardly moved the needle.  What did was this statement: “Many donated goods sent to a disaster zone end up in a landfill.”

It’s not clear why, but I assume this statement activates a very clear image in people’s minds – that cute teddy bear or blanket that they just purchased ending up buried in a mountain of dirt, never to be seen again. That’s not only wasteful, but kind of sad.

As the authors conclude, this points out the importance of understanding people’s beliefs and misbeliefs before launching an attempt to change behavior.

The gospel truth

In a classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts…a study from the Journal of Marketing Management, summarized in this article, claims that accommodations, clothing stores, restaurants, and transportation options in sacred places get much higher ratings on TripAdvisor than can be reasonably expected.

For example, Europe’s 200 best-rated tourist destinations average 3.96 stars. The sites in Mecca average 4.96 stars. A similar pattern is seen at other sacred locations such as the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jersusalem, and the Maya Devi Buddhist temple in Nepal.

The authors hypothesize that the spiritual experience of a place has a halo effect that makes people overlook or forget details they might otherwise find annoying, like a hard mattress in a hotel or slow service in a coffee shop.

The authors also discuss the quality of written reviews, which tend to be glowing for locations near these spiritual sites. Specifically, they reference other research demonstrating that reviews written in story form – in which people discuss their emotions and state of mind, and which convey a sense of place – are more persuasive than more analytical descriptions of an experience.

This may explain why reviews can diverge so dramatically, and why we perhaps we should take these reviews as something less than gospel, no pun intended. Your assessment may have less to do with your experience and more with how your feelings shape your perception of that experience


Don’t say it. Show it.

We recommend Suzanne Pope’s Tumblr, “Ad Teachings.” She discusses the ins and outs of advertising, with a number of compelling examples of ads that cut through the media clutter.

In this post, she discusses the difference between a good brief and a good ad. She argues that a good ad is not simply a brief rendered on a page or on screen, and that telling consumers what emotion you want them to feel probably will result in terrible advertising.

Rather, the point should be to actually make them feel what you want them to feel.

It sounds obvious, but is not easy to do, for some of the reasons she discusses. In the ad above, Harley-Davidson doesn’t tell people explicitly that they are a Rebel brand. Instead, they show it.

Martin Castro/Unsplash

Martin Castro/Unsplash

It’s a Grand Old Flag

A little late for Independence Day, but nonetheless interesting. An examination of the psychology of wearing clothes featuring the American flag.

Apparel brands incorporate the flag in their products with mixed success. Nike just received considerable criticism (and also some praise) for ditching a new shoe that was to feature the “Betsy Ross” flag, which to some is a symbolism of patriotism and to others a symbol of slavery.

Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger use American flag iconography in lines of clothing, as does the lesser-known brand Shinesty, which has embraced the flag wholeheartedly.  On the other hand, one of the people quoted in the articles describes how some consumers become irate when stores sell American flag shirts or car dealers fly their company flag alongside the American flag.

The author concludes that the flag is a blank canvas upon which we all co-create meaning.  As she states, “Research shows that the clothing we wear is deeply tied to our identity, belonging, self-presentation, mood, and values. So it’s no wonder that the flag, and all that it could symbolize, has become a staple of the fashion industry and many people’s wardrobes.”


486 people just like you are currently reading this blog post

When you’re making a hotel reservation and you see in red, “Only two rooms left at this price,” do you believe it?

This article by Simon Shaw of Trinity McQueen, an insight consultancy in the UK, suggests that so-called nudges like this that are rooted in behavioral science are subject to something akin to antibiotic resistance. Use them judiciously and they can be effective. Overuse them, or use them in a ham-fisted manner, and the effect not only wears off, but can backfire on the brand.

In his company’s research, 34 percent of participants expressed negative emotional reactions (like contempt or disgust) to hotel messages like the one above. This is what is known as psychological reactance – the negative blowback that occurs when people feel they are being manipulated.

Still open for debate is how pronounced this blowback is.  In other words, if people start having negative reactions to nudges like that when booking hotels, would that negativity spread to similar nudges in the healthcare space or when people think about making charitable donations?

A lesson here is that we are most susceptible to influence when we are unaware if or how we are being influenced – that applies not only to nudges, but also to the use of metaphor in communication, which also can be clever and subtle, or clumsy and obvious.

Another lesson is that marketers who want to nudge consumers must constantly learn and experiment because the nudge that worked five years ago may not be nearly as effective today.


“Good Girls,” “Mama Bears,” and “Queen Bees”

Diane Feldman, a political researcher, has posted a fascinating analysis of the challenges female presidential candidates face in “branding” themselves, the core of which focuses on implicit bias and Jungian archetypes.

In terms of implicit bias, Feldman argues that although people implicitly associate men with leadership positions more than women, that this may not matter in some circumstances and can even work to the advantage of a female candidate. For example, in a “change election,” when voters crave a big transformational shift, being perceived implicitly as a non-traditional leader may be helpful.

Feldman also discusses the role of archetypes such as The Ruler (“Queen”) and The Caregiver. Her position on The Caregiver is quite nuanced. She argues that voters – especially women voters – expect a female candidate to show Caregiver qualities and balance strength with compassion. However, in order to connect with a candidate who fights for victims, you have to see yourself as a victim to believe she is fighting for you. And most people don’t like to see themselves as victims.  

I wonder what this means for Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy? From what I have seen, anyway, there isn’t much of The Caregiver in Warren’s tone. Instead, she seems to clearly position herself as The Warrior. In her announcement speech she used the word “fight” something like 30 times. Her language on the stump is full of violent metaphors (which is not to say she is literally advocating violence, of course.)

Can that sort of rhetoric work coming from a female candidate? Or is it perhaps more acceptable coming from a female candidate because it seems less threatening that it would from a man?  Can Warren, as an older white woman, get away with those kinds of metaphors more easily than, say, Cory Booker, who is a younger African American man?


It’s a blog post about a Tide ad

Excellent video from Mark Ritson of Marketing Week, who breaks down the evolution of the memorable series of “It’s a Tide Ad” spots that ran during the 2018 Super Bowl.

Tide was facing a challenge here. How to stand out when you are a long-standing dominant brand in a boring category where you can’t really see the product benefit.

The insights were twofold: 

  1. Other brands in the detergent category were obsessed in their communication with elimination of dirt, which is at the lower level of the benefit ladder. So, there was an opportunity to go higher on the ladder and focus on clean.

  2. People in advertising are all preternaturally clean. So, in a way, every ad is a Tide ad.

But topping it off, of course, is that the execution of these insights was funny, unexpected, and brilliant.

The is the first in a series of videos in which Ritson discusses, in detail, the thinking behind some of campaigns that have been recognized with Effie Awards over the last 50 years.



Some metaphors are hard to understand. This New York Times article analyzes the (possibly) recent trend in some cultures, including American culture, of comparing babies to food.

 Think about phrases like “She is so cute I want to eat her up!” or “He is delicious!” Pregnancy apps and various parenting books compare the size of the fetus at various points of gestation to different forms of food.

One theory is that food is familiar so it eases the anxiety of being pregnant. Another is that food is connected to love and therefore using food metaphors to understand a baby is easy and natural.

A weird hypothesis, but my favorite for some reason, is that these terms are an example of “cute aggression,” where people are overwhelmed with positive feelings upon seeing a baby – and expressing the desire to eat, crush, or bite said child somehow brings them back to a state of balance. (I don’t recall experiencing this with a baby, but I think I have experienced it with various dogs.)

The NYT writer points out that this is a cultural thing. In many places, if you say you want to eat someone’s baby you would be perceived as weird or even hostile. So I wonder why this metaphor, at this time in history, and in some cultures, has become so prominent?


NPS has its Detractors

Marketers (and, increasingly, people in the C-suites) love Net Promoter Score (NPS). However, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, headlined “The Dubious Management Fad Sweeping Corporate America,” attempts to debunk the practice.

If you are unfamiliar, NPS is based on a single question asked of consumers: “On a scale of 0-10, how likely are you to recommend this company’s product or service to a friend.”  If you answer 9 or 10, you are a promoter.  If you answer 0-6, you are a detractor. NPS is calculated by subtracting the percentage of customers who are detractors from the percentage who are promoters.

A consultant from Bain wrote in the Harvard Business Review that NPS is a predictor of growth and the “best predictor of consumer behavior.”  Companies have recently begun tying NPS to employee bonuses and revenue projections. NPS is frequently cited on earnings call by Fortune 500 companies.

However, academic research suggests much of this is nonsense. Studies suggest there is no correlation with revenue and that NPS doesn’t predict consumer behavior better than any other survey would. Moreover, the data also tend to be very noisy and require much larger sample sizes than typical surveys.

Even the guy who invented NPS calls many of the applications of the tool, “completely bogus.” The former CEO of Symantic and Intuit says too many companies mistake the score for real insight. It is a number, not an explanation.  (There is usually a “why?” question as part of NPS but companies too often ignore that information, and even that can only provide very limited insight.)

Intuitively, there is something about  NPS that makes sense. You want customers think positively about their experience with you – that goes without saying. So maybe it isn’t that NPS is garbage, but rather that it is one tool that should be viewed in context rather than sold as a be-all-end-all answer.


Shoes make the person

If you are Kiwi Shoe Polish, developing great communication would seem like a challenge. Shoe polish appears to be pretty close to a commodity category, a decidedly unglamorous category, and Kiwi -- at least in the US -- is an old, iconic brand recognized by nearly everyone.

So where do you take that creatively?

Last year Kiwi introduced a print and social campaign featuring the shoes of famous people, with copy that brings those famous characters to life and illustrating their “first steps” to greatness. The ads include the shoes of Muhammad Ali, Amelia Earhart, Abraham Lincoln, Florence Nightingale, Vince Lombardi, and Ernest Hemingway.

I may be overthinking this, but when I saw this I asked myself, what is the connection to Kiwi, specifically?  What is the big insight? I am hypothesizing that the ads are playing off the old maxim, “Shoes make the man” (Or woman). Kiwi makes your shoes look great, which reflects on you. Therefore you shoes are kind of an extension of the wearer.

(Kiwi is no stranger to attention-grabbing advertising. Its “Portraits Completed” campaign was a winner at Cannes in 2017.)


In search of the perfect nudge

For the last decade or so, since the publication of the seminal work on behavioral science, Nudge, so-called “nudges” have become a popular tool in marketing and social policy circles.

For example:

  • Defaults are important. If you have to opt out of a 401K plan, you are much more likely to use the plan than if you have to opt in.

  • Reminders can be important because people simply forget things. In Peru, Bolivia, and the Philippines, monthly reminders to set aside money increased saving and helped account holders meet their financial goals.

  • Small incentives can help. In India, offering parents a small bag of lentils incentivized mothers to bring in their children to complete a full course of vaccinations.

Sometimes, however, local factors can affect the influence of these nudges. For example, it has been established that social norms are a very effective way of influencing people to pay their taxes. (This means messages like, “Join the 98% of people like you who pay their taxes on time.”)  However, in Poland, messages that used punitive language were far more effective.

In Ekiti state in Nigeria, social recognition increased the accuracy of health-care record keeping by 13 percent. But it neighboring Niger, such incentives made no difference at all.

In short, gold-standard behavioral science tools become gold-standard for a reason – they generally work. But cultural differences can play a disruptive role, which suggests experimenting with a number of approaches before deciding on a definitive way forward.


The making of Mayor Pete

Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy for the Democratic nomination is fascinating from a branding and communication perspective.

First, he is letting his supporters control his brand identity. The design firm Hyperakt has created an online design toolkit that aids supporters in creating their own yard signs and other materials in their own way. So the design agency is serving as facilitator, not gatekeeper, and is empowering supporters.

The campaign also is incorporating subtle messaging in its visual identity.  There is an image of a bridge that is a central part of his branding (representing bridging the divide that exists in the country) and the various color schemes are intended to bring to mind team sports, which his campaign believes will appeal to voters in the Midwest and also build a sports-like loyalty among his supporters.

Third, he seems to be modeling the George Lakoff linguistic approach to progressive messaging. In his speech announcing his candidacy, he made a clear attempt to redefine, in progressive terms, the meaning of the word freedom

He also is avoiding “fight/warrior” metaphors, which are prominent among other Democratic candidates, but which are at odds with Lakoff’s “Nurturant Parent” vision of successful progressive messaging.

Finally, how would a Republican opponent go after him? Often, Republicans have made subtle attacks (or, in President Trump’s case, not-so-subtle attacks) on male opponents’ masculinity. Buttigieg is gay and a veteran so it is unclear whether those kinds of attacks would stick. They can’t frame him as a coastal elite, given that he is a small-town mayor in Indiana.  It would be hard to paint him as a fringe radical, given his demeanor, appearance, and small-town bonafides.

Maybe they would try to frame him as weak or naïve, which could stick given the narrowness of his experience. Is it predictive that this cover story of New York magazine refers to him as a “boy” and features an image that closely resembles Steve Carrell’s depiction in promotional signs for The 40-Year-Old Virgin?

Overall, he is a fascinating candidate with a highly non-traditional background and unorthodox communication strategy. It will be interesting to see how it plays out for him.


Indelible brand memories

The Museum of Brands in London is using branded products and packaging to enhance the lives of people with dementia.

 The director of the museum says that she often hears people walking around and getting excited about the childhood memories sparked by specific package designs or ads. This gave them the idea for a project called Brand Memories, which will run for two years and consists of a series of activities and events designed to help patients suffering from dementia.

 The sessions are held both at the museum and also at care facilities.

As Erin Tuckey, the community development assistant at the museum, explains, “Even when the memory of the session fades, the positive impact on the person’s mood may stay, and can also give families and carers an opportunity to interact with the person with dementia in a positive way,”

The museum says multi-sensory items and common everyday items like soap and candy tend to trigger the most powerful memories.

(In the US, there are a number of similar programs that encourage dementia patients to get together to talk about baseball, poetry, or music.)

 This reinforces the importance of brand memories. When people connect a brand back to childhood that often suggests some very powerful, often unconscious associations that still influence purchase behavior and perceptions.


Construal level theory

Last week I was speaking to a client who mentioned “construal level theory,” which I had never heard of before. What it comes down to is this: The more distant an object is, the more abstractly you will think about it.  And “distance” can mean temporal distance, spatial distance, or social distance.

This is why we sometimes overcommit to things – when we are planning for events three months from now, we don’t think as much about the details as we do when those events are occurring three days from now.  Also, we tend to have more empathy for people who we perceive as similar to us in some way.

In marketing, if you are able to see in touch a product you become a little bit more likely to buy it because it’s distance from you has been reduced. Or an innovation can seem useless in the abstract until you actually see how it works and how it can affect your daily life.

Construal level theory also explains the fantastic reviews of Peter Jackson’s recent film, They Shall Not Grow Old. It’s a documentary about World War I. Typically film from that war is black-and-white, grainy, and jerky due to the technological limitations of cameras at that time.  Those films also don’t include sound. As a result, the war seems pretty distant. 

Jackson cleaned up those films, colorized them, and added ambient sound – thanks in part to the help of forensic lip-readers. The difference is incredible. No longer are the soldiers just shadowy figures on a screen. They are people who look like us and we can begin to feel empathy for the horrors they experienced.


The timelessness of a good story

Many marketers preach about the power of stories – and they are not wrong. An article in Harper’s goes into depth about stories, their history, and how they work.

The author explains the universal power of stories by discussing “Little Red Riding Hood.”  Cultures all around the world have some version of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Clearly, it leverages universal themes even though the details of the story are a little different everywhere because of cultural nuances. 

 Other folktales like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Rumpelstiltskin” go back thousands of years for the same reason. As one expert quoted in the article says, the stories can go back further than the language used to tell them. The problems and challenges we face are, in some ways, very different from those of our ancestors. But in other ways, they aren’t that different.

Stories also require tension – “a bad guy.”  Villains in stories, even long-ago, were metaphors for real world threats that people faced. Therefore, they enabled a form of simulation that improved people’s mental and social skills and ability to overcome conflict. In short, stories had tension because they were teaching people how to survive.

The author argues, “A story is really a way of thinking—perhaps the most powerful and versatile skill in the human cognitive repertoire. The increasingly large brains of our ancestors, all the more attuned to the world’s complexity, needed a way to organize this overwhelming torrent of information, to pass the multiplicity of experience through a reverse prism and distill it into a single coherent sequence. Stories were the solution.”

Photo Credit: Unsplash/Eaters Collective

Photo Credit: Unsplash/Eaters Collective

What’s in a succulent, mouth-watering name?

There are numerous reasons we should eat less meat. It’s better for the planet. It’s better for our bodies. And non-meat options also can taste really good.

The problem is meat also tastes good and, furthermore, the way we describe meat and meat-based dishes sounds really good.  A Bison Prairie Burger or a Double Angus Beef Burger sounds lot more mouth-watering than a Vegetarian Burger or a Meat-Free Burger, names which tend to focus on what the product lacks and therefore primes people to think about what they are missing out on.

As detailed in this NPR story, recently featured on the wonderful OZ Twitter feed, the World Resource Institute’s Better Buying Lab recently teamed up with food companies in the UK and US to learn how names affect preference for meatless options.  Names that highlight the provenance of a particular food, its flavor, or its mouth feel make a big difference.

For example, when Panera changed the name of its “Vegetarian Black Bean Soup” to “Cuban Black Bean Soup,” sales rose 18 percent. When Sainsbury’s in the UK rebranded its “Meat-Free Sausage and Mash” as “Cumberland-spiced Veggie Sausage and Mash,” sales skyrocketed 76 percent.

Consumers unconsciously form consumption visions (mental simulations of what the product experience will be like) before they select a meal from a menu or a shelf -- and the way that meal is described seems to have a massive effect on that consumption vision.

As stated in the article, this sounds like Marketing 101.  But apparently it is not, because those who make and market vegetarian and vegan options have long given short shrift to the value of a tasty-sounding name.

This is a great example of a marketing nudge at work. No need to hector people or guilt-trip them into eating better. Just make the healthy food sound tastier.


Photo credit: Business Wire

Photo credit: Business Wire

Old brand, new tricks

Increasingly, brands are trying to reach consumers in ways that go beyond traditional advertising. Tide laundry detergent is pretty good at this.

P&G has announced it is taking its mobile laundry service app nationwide after a successful run in selected test markets. You drop off your laundry in a Tide drop-box at your local supermarket or in the lobby of your apartment complex and then use the app to submit cleaning instructions. A local cleaner will pick up your stuff and the app will notify you when it is ready for pickup – washed, sorted, and folded for you.

Tide also is also known for its “Loads of Hope” program, which brings mobile laundromats to areas that have been devastated by natural disasters. It was an early adopter of the Amazon Dash button. And, in terms of more traditional marketing, its 2018 Super Bowl ads were a big hit.

Tide is an old-school brand in a prosaic category, but it has still figured out ways to keep its brand fresh and relevant for modern consumers.



Caring = healing

Does it matter if you like your doctor? Research from Stanford suggests that it does.

In one study, patients received a pinprick test, like the ones you get when you are tested for allergies. One group of patients was then examined by a doctor who was silent and stern.  Another group was examined by a doctor who reassured them, “From this point forward, your allergic reaction will start to diminish, and your rash and irritation will go away.”

Just this one statement of reassurance led patients to report that their rash was less itchy. The physician didn’t provide any kind of treatment; the words alone did the job.

In a similar study, patients were again given a histamine pinprick.  One group got a warm, friendly doctor who was confident and worked in a clean office.  Another group got a slob in a messy office who made hardly any eye contact and seemed unsure of himself/herself.

All patients were given a placebo skin lotion. Patients with the warm, confident doctor reported that the lotion decreased their itching. The patients with the less engaging doctor reported no change.

As the authors conclude in their New York Times column, “To really help people flourish, health care works better when it includes caring.”