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The metaphorical world of cancer

Thanks to Olson Zaltman's Tim Bradley for sharing an article from The Guardian in which the British charity Macmillan Cancer Support warns of the drawbacks of using battle metaphors to describe patients’ experiences with cancer.

Macmillan argues that framing cancer as a fight makes patients feel guilty for admitting fear and often encourages them to “keep fighting to the end” rather than properly planning for a good death. (64% of cancer patients want to die at home, but only 30% actually do.)

The group does acknowledge, however, that “fight metaphors” can help some people remain optimistic.

This reminds me a bit of Susan Sontag’s classic work Illness as Metaphor, in which she argues that the metaphors we use for conditions like tuberculosis (in the 19th century) and cancer unconsciously blame the victim for their condition. She argued that we should not use metaphor at all when discussing illness and its treatment, and instead should stick with purely clinical descriptions of causes, symptoms, and treatments.

Nice theory. In reality, not possible. But Sontag’s broader point is echoed in the “fight” metaphor for cancer. If you die of cancer, does that make you a loser?  If you have a particularly fast-moving cancer and you succumb quickly, does that suggest you are weak? 

The question is then, how SHOULD we talk about cancer?  We have studied breast cancer.“Journey” is a different metaphor that also describes people’s experience with that condition and presumably other forms of cancer. Should we shift our language in that direction?  If so, what about the patients who actually find “battle” metaphors to be empowering?

 

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The Magic of the :06

Six-second ads fascinate me – largely because of how good many of them are. 

It doesn’t seem like you should be able to tell much of a story in that length of time, but through the use of metaphor and symbolism and letting people’s minds co-create meaning, you can really drive home a message. In many ways, a :06 might be better than a :30 because there is no time for extraneous noise that clutters a lot of :30s.

YouTube recently challenged a number of leading ad agencies to recreate classic fairy tales using the :06 format.  The catch is they also had to use those :06 ads as part of a longer story, the idea being that :06s work best not as a substitute for longer ads but rather as a complement to them.

Some of the tactics the agencies tried included:

  1. Tease a longer ad to come: See Energy BBDO’s twist on “The Three Little Pigs.”
  2. String together a bunch of :06s to tell a longer story: See BBH China’s remake of “Hansel and Gretel.”
  3. Using :06s to build intrigue force the viewer to connect the dots: As in GREY’s take on “Little Red Riding Hood” (my personal favorite)
  4. Using different :06s to highlight different product features: 72andSunny’s hilarious remake of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”

Think with Google has more detail about the different agencies' approaches.

This format does challenge those of us on the research side to find new ways of assessing these ads because :06s often do not exist as standalone entities.  

 

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The death throes of an industry?

The April 14-20 issue of The Economist has a feature article on the funeral industry. Funeral directors are freaking out because of the long-term trend toward cremation and non-traditional services. This means lost revenue unless the industry finds a way to adjust.

We conducted ZMET research for the funeral industry several years ago. Our key finding was that many Baby Boomers see traditional funerals as overly focused on death. In Deep Metaphor terms these services are Containers where I feel physically and emotionally stifled. Conversely, the service these consumers want for themselves involves more freedom of expression. They want their own service to be a true celebration of the life they lived.  

One man described a service he attended at the home of his deceased friend. On a large table, the man’s family arranged a number of different objects that were of importance to this man’s life – his fly fishing reel, his tool box, a set of car keys, a jacket, etc – and everyone sat around the table telling stories about this man’s life, centered around these various objects. Our participant held that up as a kind of model ceremony.

I spoke at a number of national and statewide funeral director conventions a few years ago, and I developed a great respect for the people in the industry. They are deeply compassionate and well-meaning and I enjoyed spending time with them. But too many of them are stuck in the past. The audience at my presentations always fell into three camps.

  • The forward-thinking (and usually younger) funeral directors, who loved the insights
  • Those who nodded politely and said “We’re already doing this,” even though they really weren’t (probably the largest camp)
  • The outright hostile

I was yelled at during one talk. Another time a guy cornered me in the lobby of a hotel and lectured me – with a finger in my face, while his family looked on – about how the consumers we talked to were all idiots. One piece of written feedback suggested helpfully, “Shove a pole up this guy’s ass and run him out of town on a rail.”  

Some of this “People don’t know what’s best for them. Only we do” sentiment comes through in the article. One funeral director fairly screams, “Where’s the guest of honor? No visitation and empty casket, no embalming, What’s the point?”

It’s an industry that is deeply rooted in tradition. Many funeral homes are third or fourth generation family businesses. But this lack of flexibility is how companies and industries die – no pun intended. The voice of the consumer is loud and clear.

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Healing and helping

WARC has announced its shortlist for its Effective Use of Brand Purpose Award. One of the campaigns recognized is Vaseline’s US campaign, “The Vaseline Healing Project.” The campaign has been running for two years, but it remains instructive.

Vaseline had a lot of nostalgia associated with it but it had grown largely irrelevant to the modern consumer. Everyone remembers their parents having an iconic Vaseline Jelly jar sitting on the bathroom shelf, but in a way the brand had become too familiar. Sales were slumping and consumers had begun to lose sight of the brand’s key functional benefit – healing skin. This was especially true for Millennial women, who have a vast array of skin care products to choose from.

What the brand discovered is that Doctors Without Borders uses (literally) tons of Vaseline Jelly. In impoverished areas and where there are humanitarian crises, Vaseline Jelly is a simple, inexpensive tool for healing skin and preventing hard-to-treat infections.

From that insight emerged The Vaseline Healing Project. A portion of every purchase of Vaseline lotion or jelly helps provide Vaseline Jelly and other dermatological care products and medical supplies to people affected by poverty or emergencies. To date, the brand has reached 2.5 million people in 61 countries. The initiative has been supported by a multiplatform marketing campaign, including a powerful ad featuring Viola Davis.

The brand saw a 70% increase in the number of people who said Vaseline “works better than other brands” and sales jumped after the launch of the campaign, following an extended period of steady decline. 

Corporate social responsibility is very hard to do well.  So many brands are trying to “do good,” which is laudable, but (sad to say) it’s also important for a brand to get credit for these efforts and that can be challenging. Figuring out some big idea that your brand stands for – like “Healing” or Deutche Telekom’s “Sea Hero Quest,” which capitalizes on the importance of “Connection” – and extending that  broad idea in a novel way is one path to success.

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Awful?  Awesome!

We’re in the middle of a Necco Wafer boom. The company that makes them, the New England Confectionary Company, needs to find a buyer within a few weeks or it will go out of business, so lovers of the candy, first produced in 1847, are going to extreme lengths to secure a stash in case the company goes under.

If you have ever had Necco Wafers you know they are, um, not for everyone. The experience of eating them has been compared to eating drywall or chalk. If market researchers were conducting a taste test, they almost certainly wouldn’t pass muster.

But Necco’s success is rooted, in part, in the fact that it is a polarizing brand. An article in Harvard Business Review explains how alienating a large number of people can be a good marketing strategy because those who actually like you feel like part of a special tribe. So if you rate a brand on a scale of 1-10 and it scores something like a 5, that could mean the brand is boring– or it could mean the opposite, that people have deeply polarized opinions.

Necco also capitalizes on the power of memories and symbolism.  The brand reached its peak popularity after World War II.  Not coincidentally, the US government distributed the wafers to GIs during World War II and those same people kept on buying them when they got home, even though they tasted like antacid tablets. The woman in the article above who wants to trade her car for a massive stock of the wafers says they bring back memories of playing in her grandmother’s home.

Necco is a case where products attributes don’t matter much.  Or, if anything, attributes that many perceive as highly negative have worked in a brand’s favor.

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The Smell of the Past

A Bronx nursing home is employing “reminiscence therapy programs” to help residents who suffer from age-related memory loss.

To coincide with the start of the baseball season, it is currently using six familiar scents from baseball stadiums – hot dogs, popcorn, beer, grass, cola, and the leather of a baseball mitt -- to evoke memories from these residents. This kind of sensory stimulation not only helps residents re-experience the joy they felt in the past, but also is believed to help with cognition and behavior.

This has indirect relevance in market research. Sensory cues in packaging and product experience can have just as much relevance as functional outcomes, if not more. The taste of a new snack can be closely linked to what you were experiencing in life when you first experienced a similar taste. The smell of a hotel room or new car takes you back to a certain place and time. Package designs are not just functional -- they often remind you of things. And all of this can have a significant influence on purchase behavior.

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Afrofuturism

Black Panther has eclipsed the $1B mark at the box office globally.  The movie, about the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, can be characterized as an example of Afrofuturism – “the reimagining of a future filled with arts, science and technology seen through a black lens.”

Afrofuturism has its roots in Egyptian mythology and mysticism. In a nation in which African Americans have been written out of the past (and in some cases the present) this genre asserts the power of black people to assert their intellectual control over an imagined future. 

We have seen Afrofuturist elements quite clearly in popular music. In the 1970s, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic incorporated “The Mothership,” a mythical space vehicle, into its performances. More recently, Afrofuturism has influenced the music and fashion of performers such as Wu-Tang Clan, Outkast, Erykah Badu, and Solange Knowles. The genre is represented in literature and art, as well.

What, if anything, does this mean for marketers who want to build loyalty among African American consumers? Are any brands tapping into this larger cultural story?  Is it possible for a brand to do so without coming off as inauthentic or, worse, culturally insensitive?

 

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Striding Woman

I wrote about Johnnie Walker’s “Striding Man” metaphor a couple of weeks ago, so it caught my attention last week when the brand announced it was replacing that logo with “Jane Walker” on a limited-edition version of its Black Label whisky in March to celebrate Women’s History Month.

This new label has been criticized for being patronizing toward women.  On the other hand, contrast this with the outdoors brand REI, whose “Force of Nature” campaign has put women more front-and-center of the brand discussion without the same kind of controversy.

Where is the line between progressive and patronizing?  How is the REI approach different from that of Johnnie Walker?  Do either of these brands risk alienating its core base of male consumers?

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Serious fun

From the realm of behavioral science and nudges – it’s Duolingo, the free language-learning platform rooted in gamification. It has 25 languages available and 200 million users worldwide.

A problem with online learning is the high dropout rate. Everyone goes into it with the best of intentions, but then life happens and you don’t finish your course.  Duolingo (whose CEO is Luis von Ahn of Carnegie Mellon) uses gamification to keep its learners engaged.

Gamified experiences typically include elements such as badges, points, leaderboards, and progress-trackers. You can find all of those elements in Duolingo.

Users set daily goals for themselves and, if they meet those goals, start accumulating what is called “The Streak.”  This brings people back to the game every day – if you have a streak of 37 straight days of learning, for example, you don’t want to break that streak and start over again.  (Even though it really doesn’t matter. There are no consequences. But you see the size of that streak on your screen and it is heartbreaking when it goes away.) 

Duolingo also lets you measure your progress easily, with lessons arranged on a virtual skill tree.

Another gamification technique is the use of non-monetary currency (the lingot). Among other things, you can buy a “weekend amulet” with this currency, which enables you to skip a day of learning on the weekend and still keep your streak intact.

Duolingo also offers badges for a variety of activities – perfect scores on a test, winning a “wager,” for achieving a certain level of fluency, etc.  And as with all good gamifications, there is a social component. You both compete with others to get badges and lingots…but you also cooperate with others to translate texts, building a sense of community while also helping yourself climb a virtual leaderboard.

One user calls it “a fantastic language learning experience, neatly wrapped in a gamified package.”

And best of all, the app does what it promises. According to one study, 34 hours spend on Duolingo equals one semester of university-level classroom instruction.  A nice marriage of form and function.

 

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Metaphors around the world

These are two wonderful examples of how brands have applied a metaphor globally, with subtle but important tweaks to accommodate cultural nuances.

For years now, Johnnie Walker has used its iconic “walking man” logo as a powerful icon across the world, but it has done so in different ways that you might not be familiar with.

In Mexico, the phrase “Keep Walking” has been used to symbolize the country’s economic progress.  In the US, it symbolizes cultural progress and diversity.  In India, “Keep Walking” is about individual achievement and striving for personal success. In China, the phrase has become a toast, symbolizing how men collectively help one another through life’s many challenges.

Similarly, Unilever has adapted its “Dirt is Good” campaign, which it uses for a number of its laundry detergent brands, including Persil, globally.

In the western world, dirt has many positive connotations – think about phrases like “Getting your hands dirty” or “Down to earth.”  Dirt symbolizes hard work, humility, and groundedness. 

Dirt is usually the enemy of detergents, but Unilever frames dirt as the symbol of childhood play, freedom, and togetherness.  This was a challenge in much of Asia, where dirt is closely linked to poverty and disease. Therefore, in Indonesia, Unilever connected dirt to a social purpose. Its communication in that country is still about play, but also about how play helps your child acquire the tools s/he needs to become successful in life.

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A Heroic Effort

This is how you live your brand purpose.

Deutsche Telekom just won the Grand Prix in the Tech category at the WARC Media Awards.  The company’s key brand message is “life is for sharing,” and typically for telecom companies a sentiment like that would mean sharing photos, videos, messages, etc.  But Deutsche Telekom has taken this broad idea the next step.

The company identified an enemy of the idea that “life is for sharing” – dementia, which robs people of people of memories and connections. This insight, combined with the desire to overcome concerns about the potentially harmful impact of big data, led Deutsche Telekom to create a mobile game called Sea Hero Quest, which tracks players’ navigational abilities, the deterioration of which is an important warning sign for dementia. (There is also a virtual reality version for gamers who own Samsung Gear.)

The game is creating a global data base of spatial awareness that would have taken scientists decades to build on their own. Two minutes of gameplay equals about five hours of traditional research. Deutsche Telekom also is supporting scientists who are analyzing these results for breakthrough insights into the course of dementia and its diagnosis.

An example of how data collection on a massive level can be a force for good – and an example of CSR at its finest.

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Why does everyone hate this commercial?

I thought I was the only one.

This Apple commercial has sparked boundless quantities of online rage. There is an entire reddit forum (tastefully titled, “F*** this commercial!”) dedicated to it.

I’ll admit, I had a similar reaction. There’s nothing wrong with it until the last line, where the young woman looks up from her iPad and asks, “What’s a computer?” I am not really sure why I want to throw a shoe through my television when she utters that line…but I do.

It would make for an interesting piece of research to understand what unconscious alarm bells this line is setting off in people. I’ve done some self-examination and, beyond the fact that it comes off as insufferably smug, I can’t figure out why it annoys me so much.

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That Smell

I stumbled upon this product – Duke Cannon soap – in the grocery store last week. The awesomeness stopped me in my tracks.

The New York Times today describes why most humans are really bad at describing scents. The theory goes that most of us live in relative odor-impoverished environments and therefore our lexicon for smell is correspondingly impoverished. (We often find in our research that the same could be said for taste. What does a lemon taste like? Well, it kind of tastes like a lemon.)

Sometimes in research you can overcome that with metaphorical exploration. In messaging you can do something similar with metaphors, as Duke Cannon has figured out. (“Smells like Naval Supremacy”).  The whole package, not just the description of the scent, tell a unique story about the brand.

(They also have “Duke Cannon Big Ass Beer Soap,” which is made with Old Milwaukee.)

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Behavioral Econ 101

The American Marketing Association has published an article that serves as a valuable primer on behavior economics (or, if you prefer, “behavioral science”) and its impact on marketing. 

As Joel Rubinson of Rubinson partners notes in the article, “Every marketer has to understand what it means, particularly for the brands and products that they’re trying to manage. You have to study it and have a point of view about it. You have to be able to say that these ideas are somehow embedded in the rationale of your marketing program.”

Philip Kotler suggests in the article that behavior economics is old wine in new bottles, and he is right in many ways. We have known about the power of the consumer unconscious for years. However, these are not theories that have been systematically applied across the discipline, nor have they benefited from a lingua franca that connects academics and practitioners.

The article contains some illustrative examples — like how the placement of a snack bar at Google’s offices have nudged employees toward healthier food choices. But more than anything it explains the importance of knowing the language and texts that are increasingly becoming a part of the marketing world.

(As a side note, The Business of Choice by Matthew Willcox is a must-read for learning about how recent breakthrough insights in behavioral science can be applied in a marketing context.)

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Send in the Clowns

Audi last fall introduced its “Clowns” campaign. It was a departure from Audi’s traditional straightforward, earnest communication — and it is working.

This campaign uses a troop of clowns to symbolize all the other idiots on the road (not you, of course) and the stupid things they do…and  suggests that Audi’s safety-focused technology (seniors, cameras, radars, and sonar equipment) will keep you safe — “Clown Proof” as the tagline puts it.

The metaphor is clever. Many automotive ads that emphasize safety features treat driving hazards quite literally — the careless child bicycling down the sidewalk, the rock that tumbles onto the road from an embankment, etc. This campaign really stands out in its lighthearted, metaphorical treatment of a quite serious topic. The contrast between the lunacy happening on screen and the mournful “Send in the Clowns” soundtrack is another memorable creative touch.

The results have been impressive. Associations between Audi and "intelligent technology" have jumped 14 percent in the second half of 2017 and it also led the market in “desire.”

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Oops!  (not really)

You really wanted to drop your phone.

Thanks to our Olson Zaltman colleague Tim Bradley for sharing an article in the October 2017 Journal of Marketing Research that suggests that when presented with the possibility of purchasing an upgraded model of something we own, we tend to become more careless with the versions that we already own. In other words, when we know we can buy an iPhone 10, we’re more likely to drop and shatter our iPhone 8 and then say, “Drat!  I guess I have to buy a new phone.” (Here is a New York Times summary of the research.)

The authors explain this as our way of unconsciously resolving cognitive dissonance. We want that new product but we also feel guilty about ditching an older product that still works perfectly well. But if we break that old product – dilemma solved.

One of the experiments described in the paper – some people in a lab were given a mug. Others were given the same version of the mug but were made aware that a newer, better mug was available. The people who knew a better mug was available were significantly more careless than the control group when asked to place their mug atop a Jenga tower.

How to overcome this tendency? Think about donating your old items to other people. That makes you more careful again.

I wonder if there are limits to this tendency?  Mugs and phones are relatively low price-point, relatively low emotional attachment items. New car models come out every year but do we drive more recklessly as our cars become older? Will I be more reckless with a 75-year-old set of dishes that my grandmother owned than I would a set that I just bought last week?

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The worst ad ever created

It is this one, right here.

As part of a settlement with the US federal government, tobacco companies are running ads warning against the perils of smoking. The resulting ads, not surprisingly, are almost comically terrible and will convince approximately zero people to stop smoking.

The placement is also very narrow: Five times a week for a year during primetime on ABC, NBC, and CBS, and also five full-page newspaper ads in 50 daily newspapers. As anti-smoking advocates argue, young people don’t watch much primetime network TV and they certainly aren’t reading hard copies of newspapers so the audience for these messages is limited.

Fifty years ago, before people knew the risks of smoking, maybe these ads would have had some impact (that is, if you didn’t fall asleep during the first 10 seconds). But if you’re smoking in 2017, either your addiction is extremely powerful or you just don’t care about warnings like this. There is certainly no new information here.

Perhaps more effective approach would be to leverage behavior science, which is what Australia has done. They have mandated that cigarette packs feature graphic imagery of ravaged lungs, gangrenous feet, and cancer-ridden tongues, among other horrors. It takes a strong stomach to look at these images, which may unconsciously nudge people to keep their cigarette packs out of sight (and thus, maybe, out of mind) or might discourage people from buying them at all. (Australia’s packaging also is stripped of any brand logos, and merely lists the brand name in plain white font.)

 

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How a regular person like you can defeat the greatest chess player alive

What are the limits of self-improvement – and of the human mind?

Here is a Wall St. Journal feature about a very intelligent young man who went about testing the limits of that question. Max Deutsch is a casual amateur chess player who used AI to try to train his mind to play chess at the highest level. His goal was to train for one month, and then defeat the top chess-player in the world, Magnus Carlsen.

In the Hollywood version of this, Carlson is probably some evil guy who gets his comeuppance at the hands of this young upstart. In the real-life version, Carlsen is pretty likeable and accommodating – and he wipes the floor with this guy.

If you’re into chess the move-by-move visuals that go along with the story are pretty neat. Also if you know anything about chess you will also realize that the writer’s claim that Deutsch was “winning” the match early on, although it adds dramatic tension to the story, is a stretch. Stillit makes some pretty interesting statements about the capacity of the human mind.

(If you don’t have a WSJ subscription, or if you are in TLDR mode, you can watch a video summary of the story.)

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No brand wants this

Olson Zaltman has just published an article on Medium about the perils brands face when wading into political issues.

Exhibit A: Papa John’s. Its CEO John Schnatter has been quite vocal about his opposition to NFL players kneeling before games, going so far as to blame the league for his company’s falling stock price. Now the white supremacist publication The Daily Stormer has claimed Papa John’s as the “official pizza of the alt-right.”

Schnatter has been forced to come out and condemn white supremacists and urge them not to buy his pizza. Nevertheless, no brand wants to find itself in this position – and it seems like it all could have been avoided pretty easily.

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Curiosity > Conviction

Nothing breakthrough here, just a primer on confirmation bias.

In short, we see the world not as it is, but as we think it is or as we want it to be. This particular bias affects how we seek information, how we interpret that information, and how we remember that information.

Interestingly, one study reveals that exposing people to information that runs counter to their existing political beliefs activates parts of the brain associated with physical pain – which may explain why, at least in the US, we seem to be increasingly trapped in partisan information bubbles.

Perhaps we would be a in a much different place if everyone just cared about politics less – or if we had more boring candidates. If I am lukewarm about a politician, I will more willingly receive information that counters my perceptions of that person. But if I am deeply committed to that politician, and my belief in him/her is part of my identity, then I shut down.  As the author suggests, we should “approach life with curiosity, not conviction” if we are to overcome confirmation bias – not just in politics but in everything.