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?



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?


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.)


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?


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.)



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.


The Toyota Camry through the prism of ethnicity

The New York Times features a set of ads for the new Toyota Camry – same campaign, same car, but different ads depending, in part, on your race and ethnicity.

There are four ads targeted at African American, Hispanic, Asian American, and general market media consumers, respectively.

The article breaks down each ad, and includes comments from the four different agencies explaining what they were trying to achieve with each storyline – boldness for the African American audience, rebelliousness for the Hispanic audience, togetherness for the Asian American audience, and excitement for Gen Pop.

What do you think of this approach? Does it target each segment in a meaningful way? In trying to do so does it dilute the image of the Camry brand? Is Camry such an established model that it is immune to any such dilution?



Insightful column in the New York Times about why the National Rifle Association holds such powerful emotional sway over its members – and why gun control organizations do not.

In short, the N.R.A. appeals to people’s identity and sense of belonging. It attracts people who are not always, at the beginning, fervent gun right believers.  People join gun clubs not necessarily because they are rabid Second Amendment believers; they join because they just want somewhere to shoot their guns. And in those places they meet friends, and many of those friends happen to be members of the N.R.A.  So for many, membership starts as a social connector.

From there, a sense of identity builds.  As the author writes, “The gun-rights groups were not just persuading [my friends] to support gun rights; they were also helping [them] rearticulate their own lives in terms of a broader vision of the future. They were no longer just hunters. They were protectors of a way of life.”

This is in marked contrast to gun control groups, which bring people together around a shared ideology, not a shared identity.  And power is held very close to the vest, not distributed among members. The author experienced this firsthand.   “After Sandy Hook, I joined several gun-control organizations…none introduced me to anyone else in the organization or invited me to strategize about what I could do. Instead, I felt like a prop in a game under their control. I eventually asked to be taken off their lists.”

Right-of-center organizations in the US often are much better at selling their ideas than organizations on the left, simply because they don’t try to persuade people with bullet-pointed lists of policy initiatives. They tell stories, use language carefully, and tend to their followers’ emotional needs quite effectively.

 Photo by Michael Locke

Photo by Michael Locke

A beacon in the night

Legendary architect Gin Wong died earlier this month. One of his landmark creations is the Beverly Hills Union 76 gas station, pictured above.

This got us thinking more generally about Union 76. Gasoline is the ultimate commodity – each brand claims to have its own additives but gas is pretty much gas. So how do you stand out in a space like that?

Union 76 does so with a piece of iconic visual branding – its orange 76 ball.

It was originally created in the early 1960s to draw attention to a Union 76 sponsored ride at the World’s Fair.  By the end of that decade there were 7-foot orange balls looming over 18,000 gas stations in 37 states.

About 10 years ago the brand’s owner, Phillips 66 Company (then known as ConocoPhillips) began replacing the balls with more traditional signage, but after a public outcry they backtracked, installed new and slightly more red-colored balls in high-traffic areas in California, and donated several of the old balls to various museums.

Of course, any brand could have done something like this, but Union 76 did it first and really made an imprint in the minds of consumers.

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The changing face of women -- as seen by Getty Images

What does the depiction of women in stock photos mean about how we, as a society, think about the role of women?

This fascinating article in the New York Times’ Upshot section analyzes the top-selling pics on Getty Images for the search term “woman” from 2007 through 2017.  The image above on the left is the top-seller from 2007.  The one on the right is the top-seller from 2017.

Sheryl Sandberg worked with Getty in 2014 to develop the “Lean In” collection, designed to “seed media with more modern, diverse, and empowering images of women.”  Some interesting trends in that collection:

·         Among the most downloaded images from that set of images in 2017 are women working in science and engineering, but they typically run in stories specifically about women in science, rather than general stories about science or tech.

·         The most common image shows a Caucasian woman in her 20s with long brown hair

·         Images of non-white women tended to appear in stories about race and ethnicity

·         Popular this year are images of women who have dirt on them – apparently symbolizing the idea that women have grit.

The article is a feast for those of us who love to analyze image trends. If Getty Images existed in 1987 -- or 1967 or 1937 -- I wonder what the most downloaded images of women would have been then?

(Both images above ran in the New York Times online edition on September 7, 2017.  Image on left courtesy of Stephan Hoeck/Getty Images.  Image on right courtesy of Jordan Siemens/Getty Images)


The End is Nigh!

A dispatch from the cultural front from science fiction author William Gibson, who discusses our current societal obsession with dystopia and the apocalypse.

A few of his insights:

·         In the 1920s, people frequently wrote about the 21st Century.  Today, virtually no one is writing or talking about the 22nd century, which Gibson finds “ominous.”

·         “We have very little control over anything…Fantasies of staving off the end of the world are fairly benign fantasies of increased agency.”

·         Many people today – in the US and around the world – live in conditions that could be considered dystopian.

Great brands often tap into threads that run through the culture.  What might this bleak view of the world mean for marketers?  Should brands try to make consumers feel more optimistic about the future or should they explore this wellspring of cynicism and gloom?