Posts tagged “New York Times”

The most important meal of the day

Culture eating strategy for breakfast at a recent custom car show…

Every company wants consumer loyalty, but not every organization knows what to do with it. The kind of fandom that expresses itself as a brand militia, while a tremendous asset, is not a force easily controlled from the top.

In a New York Times article on Chevrolet’s recent attempt to wrangle their identity back from the people by mandating GM staff to say “Chevrolet” rather than “Chevy,” Corvette racer Dick Guldstrand explains:

Once it became an American icon, America took it away from G.M. They made it a Chevy. You’re doing a disservice to all the people by telling them not to call it a Chevy.

Whether you’re talking about consumers or the members of an organization itself, a strategy based on top-down control leaves little room for passionate engagement. Cisco CEO John Chambers is remaking that organization’s entire structure around the perspective that

Leadership is not really about delegating tasks and monitoring results; it is about imbuing the entire workforce with a sense of responsibility for the business.

Ongoing engagement – through shared responsibility and shared identity – builds loyalty. And this process can only happen if an organization or brand leaves room for people’s agency, so they can create a sense of ownership and meaning for themselves.

Trash talk

I posted a few months ago on on design studio Blu Dot’s New York leave-behind/Big Brother-is-watching-you (and wants to know what you did with that chair) marketing campaign.

For anyone interested in the aftermath, Rob Walker’s latest Consumed column in the New York Times includes a few anecdotes about what happened to the Blu Dot chairs that were the campaign’s focus, and some interesting backstory from Mono, the marketing agency that put the whole performance piece/stunt/campaign together.

Endangered Species?

Will this…

Magazine kiosk, San Francisco, 2008

be going the way of these…

Dead pay phone bank, Honolulu Airport, 2008

This Engadget piece on R&D efforts at the New York Times got me thinking about what gets lost as technology changes our physical routines. How gestures like folding up a newspaper and putting it under your arm to walk down the street become obsolete.

How many aspects of our behavior are influenced by the differences between how we consume online and print-based media?

What physical routines would you be sorry to see go away?

NEVER! Except twice

Stupid bad journalism mars an otherwise excellent article about the culture of Syrian Jews in Brooklyn

No Jewish community in the world (other than two small Syrian congregations in Mexico and Argentina) has ever had such an extreme rule.

I feel like I see this sort of writing in print more often. An absolute statement followed by “qualifiers” that prove the original statement false.

Other than Brooklyn’s SY enclave, only two other communities in the world – a small Syrian congregation in Mexico and another in Argentina – have such an extreme rule.

I’d hope for better than this sort of hyperbolic and confusing storytelling.

Dynamic Crowd Wisdom

The latest edition of Rob Walker’s Consumed is about Threadless, a darling-of-the-blogosphere site that sells user-submitted/user-chosen t-shirt designs.

The voting system is straightforward: users rate each submission on a 0-to-5 scale and offer comments that range from the constructive to the unprintable. Still, some submissions never make it to the voting stage, usually because they ignore format rules, raise copyright issues or, sometimes, are simply “awful.” (Kalmikoff says that eliminating ugly designs before a vote is an infrequent but sometimes necessary measure to “protect the experience” of Threadless voters.) While most winners have scores of 2.6 or higher, one recent batch included a design with a score of 2.0. That’s because the final decision about which T’s actually get made and sold has always involved a bit of nonpublic number crunching. For example, Threadless looks at how many 0s and 5s a design gets; designs that inspire passionate disagreement often get printed because they tend to sell, Kalmikoff says.

Seems anything but straightforward! But that’s okay, I think it reveals several truths around wisdom of crowd stuff. Neat how the decision process is iterative and cumulative, as the community gets smarter and tries to game the system, and as Threadless gets smarter and tries to right the system. This sort of evolution is completely unacceptable in politics, say, but seems to be innovative when done by Threadless.

I love the blunt naivete of putting forward X choices and having people pick, and then the sophisticated noodling that comes out later as the community grows in sophisticate. It’s not unlike the elaborate hierarchy of individuals, monitoring, and other checks-and-balances created by Wikipedia, outlined by the NYT magazine last week. A simple idea and simple implementation becomes arcane and complex by inches. Is this entropy? Human nature? Evolution? Line extensions?

Chocolate and real estate

Just the other day, more news that dark chocolate can help lower pressure (seems like old news, but okay). Here’s how the SF Chron presented the story:
Front page. Two columns. One of those columns is simply a (confusing) image of swirling chocolate, providing absolutely no information whatsoever. What the hell is the front page about, here? Advertisements, eye-candy imagery, very non-news stories.

Contrast the NYT treatment of the story:
Tucked away on page 11. No hype or imagery. The front page of the New York Times is still for news, apparently.

Although these are both products in the same category (newspaper), they are really not the same kind of thing at all. Their purpose, intent, motivation, audience differ vastly. I need to stop thinking of them as a set of like items, because that lulls me (as the user) into a misleading state of expectation.

Portigal in the New York Times Magazine!

I was interviewed by Rob Walker for his most recent Consumed column, about unconsumption (in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine).

In a sense, what Freecycle has done is channel the same blend of utility and pleasure that motivates consumption itself. Steve Portigal, a business-strategy consultant based in Montara, Calif., founded a Freecycle group for the San Francisco area’s coastal communities in 2004. “Getting something you need and getting rid of something you don’t need are both satisfying as problems solved,” he points out. But while we’re all well trained in the former, the latter often exceeds our patience and know-how.

I’ve written here before about Freecycle. Also, Walker has a good thread on unconsumption on his blog. I think it’s a fascinating area that is ripe for more exploration and solution development.

Finding new cultures in our own backyard

The New York Times reminds us that we don’t have to travel to exotic Asia to enjoy the thrill of discovering new cultures.

Then the Wal-Mart Jews arrived [in Bentonville, AR]

Recruited from around the country as workers for Wal-Mart or one of its suppliers, hundreds of which have opened offices near the retailer’s headquarters here, a growing number of Jewish families have become increasingly vocal proponents of religious neutrality in the county. They have asked school principals to rename Christmas vacation as winter break (many have) and lobbied the mayor’s office to put a menorah on the town square (it did).

Wal-Mart has transformed small towns across America, but perhaps its greatest impact has been on Bentonville, where the migration of executives from cities like New York, Boston and Atlanta has turned this sedate rural community into a teeming mini-metropolis populated by Hindus, Muslims and Jews.

It is the Jews of Benton County, however, who have asserted themselves most. Two years ago, they opened the county’s first synagogue and, ever since, its roughly 100 members have become eager spokesmen and women for a religion that remains a mystery to most people here.

When the synagogue celebrated its first bar mitzvah, the boy’s father – Scott Winchester, whose company sells propane tanks to Wal-Mart – invited two local radio D.J.’s, who broadcast the event across the county, even though, by their own admission, they had only a vague idea of what a bar mitzvah was.

“Jesus was Jewish,” one D.J. noted in a dispatch from the reception at a local hotel. The other remarked, “I love Seinfeld.”

Shortly after he moved to the area, Tom Douglass, a member of the synagogue who works in Wal-Mart’s logistics department, made a presentation about Hanukkah to his son’s kindergarten class. The lesson, complete with an explanation of how to play with a spinning dreidel and compete for chocolate coins, imported from New York, proved so popular that the school’s librarian taped it for future classes.

Then there is Ron Haberman, a doctor and synagogue member, who has introduced Jewish cuisine to the county. His new restaurant, Eat This, next door to a new 140,000-square-foot glass-enclosed Baptist church, serves knishes, matzo ball soup and latkes. To guide the uninitiated, the menu explains that it is pronounced “LOT-kuz.”

Not everyone is ordering the knishes, but Christians throughout Benton County are slowly learning the complexities of Jewish life. Gary Compton, the superintendent of schools in Bentonville and a member of a Methodist church in town, has learned not to schedule PTA meetings the night before Jewish holidays, which begin at sundown, and has encouraged the high school choir to incorporate Jewish songs into a largely Christian lineup.

“We need to get better at some things,” he said. “You just don’t go from being noninclusive to being inclusive overnight.”

Surrounded by Christian neighbors, Bible study groups, 100-foot-tall crucifixes and free copies of the book “The Truth About Mary Magdalene” left in the seating area of the Bentonville IHOP, the Jews of Benton County say they have become more observant in – and protective of – their faith than ever before.

Marcy Winchester, the mother of the synagogue’s first bar mitzvah, said, “You have to try harder to be Jewish down here.”

In some ways, this is no different than other periods of Jewish migration and immigration. It’s a little off-putting to read about cultural illiteracy in the US but of course it shouldn’t be too surprising. Still, there’s something about the New York tone of the article (where, of course, everyone is Jewish?) that I find irksome. I’m not sure how I feel about “Wal-Mart Jews” and “The Jews of Bentonville” – perhaps those are terms used by those folks, themselves, but in the context of the article, it’s just slightly mocking in a way that seems out of step with the rest of the article. Their tone is all over the place.

And this is a front page story! Cultural criss-cross! Wal-Mart! A chance to say “knishes” in the body of a piece! It’s gold, gold I tell ya!

viral user-generated meme content goes mashup

The Chron gets on board with the whole viral-meme-user-generated-content thing. At least in their articles.

The SoaP meme began, as most great things do these days, with an individual blog entry. Screenwriter Josh Friedman recounted his adventures with doctoring a script for a movie about — why not? — snakes. Snakes on a plane. Snakes on a plane with Samuel Jackson. Could it get better? It could not, reasoned SoaP fanatic Brian Finklestein, a law student at Georgetown University who started last year as part of his quest to be invited to the movie’s world premiere. His blog has since morphed into SoaP central, gathering news, rumors and the latest spasms of SoaP-inspired creativity.

While appreciating his efforts, New Line has kept its corporate hands to itself. ‘They’re excited about what’s going on online, but they realize if they get involved directly, the organic, spontaneous feel will be gone,’ Finklestein says. ‘A lot of what’s fun about this is that people are doing everything on their own. If the studio became involved, it would lose whatever charm and cache it has. I’ve gotten phone calls from marketers asking what they can do to make this work for them. The answer is that there’s not much you can do — except not sue your audience. The music industry can learn from this.’

Very well put. For a more in-depth exploration of this type of approach, check out Rob Walker’s classic article about Alex Wipperfurth and the letting-things-be-what-they-are marketing for Pabst Blue Ribbon. Walker, by the way, who writes the Consumed column for the NYT magazine, now has a blog.

By the way, User-Generated Content is now referred to as UGC (or so I read in Media magazine), and Snakes on a Plane is now referred to as SoaP. How cool(?) is that!

Floating Signifiers

From Stuart Elliot’s email-only column today

A Reader Writes: In asking you a question recently about the music in an AT&T commercial, I mentioned a college paper I wrote about “floating signifiers in popular culture,” and in answering me you asked what that was.

This is probably more information that you (or your readers) want to know, but the concept of “floating signifiers” comes out of post-modernist cultural criticism building on the language of semiotics.

Signs and symbols tend to communicate specific meanings to those who use them. That which is signified is somehow related to one or more signifiers. For example, the American flag is a signifier of both the nation and of patriotism to that nation. Logos are designed and created to become signifiers for specific companies or products, and can eventually become signifiers for entire life styles.

Floating signifiers are no longer attached to their original meanings. Either through the passage of time and changing values or intentional manipulation, they become attached to new, totally unrelated meanings. The song “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was effectively used by the advertising world to shift the meaning of the “grapevine” from the gossip mill spreading rumors of infidelity, which the song lyrics originally signified, back to a literal grapevine, the source of all those dancing California raisins. They successfully created a floating signifier.

In the case of Toyota using the music from the sea chantey “A Golden Boy Again” in a commercial about football, Toyota was attempting to shift what they thought was a football signifier to their vehicles – not knowing that the song had not been successfully separated from its sea-chantey origins.

That left many viewers wondering why an auto maker would associate itself with “drunken sailors.” In this instance, the advertising world was not successful in creating a floating signifier because the song was too strongly attached to its original meaning.

A nice little essay about meaning and media and culture!

Poor interoperability is a major challenge to good user experience design.

This type of thing seems disturbingly common nowadays: I am preparing to book a hotel for an upcoming conference. The hotel is part of a chain I’ve never stayed at before, so I decide to see if they’ve got some sort of affiliate program or bonus/loyalty/mileage thing, before I book.

I sign up for the program and get my number about 12 hours later. I tried to book online but because I was looking for a conference rate (without a code) I gave up and ended up calling.

And they don’t show my loyalty number.

I’m looking at the auto-generated email, with the number in bold text. And we try several times. They try my name, everything. And give up. Even though I have the “receipt” on hand. No dice.

So the convenience factor – not having to read out every single piece of contact info I’ve already entered, not having to specify room preferences that I’ve already entered, all gone.

They pointed me to the service number for the loyalty program, and the person I speak with explains it may take 7 to 10 days for a newly issued number to be available to the rest of the hotel systems (such as reservations). He was able to quickly put the number into my reservation for credit, and both people I spoke to were incredibly helpful and genuine (besides being forced to read some clunky scripts), so this isn’t really a complaint about bad service, but really an eyebrow-raised in amazement over bad design.

Shouldn’t a requirement of the system they design to create and issue the loyalty numbers be rapid integration with the reservation system? Isn’t a likely use scenario going to be booking of a reservation very quickly after creating a new account? IT systems in silos is scary for what it prevents.

I guess the band-aid would have been to explain this limitation in their “welcome” email but that might have been too big a peek behind the curtain. They did inform me it would take 48 hours to issue the new account at the beginning of all this (although that also seems silly, what are they doing, checking my references?)…

In general, poor interoperability is a major challenge to creating a good user experience. And this example seems highly typical.

Recently rolled out an integration of their home delivery accounts and web-content accounts (I think to help sell their premium access service), but they did it in a terribly clumsy and confusing way, leading to service calls to agents who had no information (I was told, after a lot of vague language like “when you go out of the system you have to come back and and when it asks for your account you enter your number” to wait 24 hours and try again) and no interest in helping (“this is all the information we have. We can only read this out to you; that’s all we can do.”)…a disaster, as far as I am concerned. Maybe it’ll be better now, but the NYT hurt their brand pretty badly, at least in my case.


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