Sunday, June 29, 2008

Goal-orienteditis or a new look at the ant and the grasshopper

I've posted before about how my latest tour through Proust has been informing my own thinking about consumer behavior, especially around questions of behavior and consistency.

Here's one of these posts under the heading "Context matters."
My point has been that most of us intuitively think of our identities as relatively fixed or at least consistent. Read just about any biography and you'll see this assumption in action as a set of events (causes, effects) are lined up to explain the fundamental principles informing a famous person's decisions throughout life. We make similar assumptions as we assign a set of actions and behaviors to various consumer segments: soccer moms, early adopters, etc., etc.,

Proust's narrator, however, is constantly remarking on the surprising unpredictability of his own inner life. Desire, feelings, motivations are constantly shifting over time to the point that Proust famously thinks of these identities as different selves, more driven by external events and contexts than some immutable internal quality of his identity.

Work on consumer behavior, especially various strands of behavioral economics, have been paying a lot more attention lately our lack of self-knowledge and inability to predict how we'll feel and act in the future. And I just read two more interesting bits are in the July/August issue of HBR.

One brief article references recent work done by Anat Keinan and Ran Kivetz in the Journal of Consumer Culture. Their work suggests that for some of us--especially the over-achieving sort--our future orientation might come at the cost of our satisfaction. In a series of experiments with students, shoppers and business people, they found that, over time, people who yielded to temptation regretted their pleasure-seeking less and less while those who put off pleasures for some more responsible choice tended to regret this self-abnegation more and more. Apparently there is an even name for this particular kind of excessive self-control: these hard-workers among us suffer from excessive farsightedness or hyperopia.

While Anat and Ran draw some fairly familiar conclusions from these findings--"a travel company might ask customers to consider how they'll feel if they pass up a family vacation once the nest is empty"--there are more interesting implications to be developed form this work.

For one thing, it suggests a new perspective on Aesop's fable of The Ant and the Grasshopper. If you've been too busy playing Wii to know the fable, you can get the gist here. According to Anat and Ran's work, the grasshopper should feel better and better about his summer of frolicking over time, while the ant will start to regret missing all the fun more intensely as he gets older. Deferred gratification will eventually feel to feel like no gratification. Maybe the grasshopper is happier at the end of the day, assuming of course that he survives the winter.

Just below this piece in the HBR is another related short by Katherine Milkman, who suggests that manufacturers should bundle wants and what what she calls shoulds together (celebrity magazine subscriptions with health club memberships) to serve our ant and grasshopper selves at the same time.

In any case, if it's true that our sense of satisfaction with our choices shifts over time, we might want to think about how a product and service impacts our satisfaction across multiple temporal dimensions: before purchase, during consumption, and as a memory of the experience. Sweet to anticipate, pleasurable to use and delightful in recollection.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

George Orwell Birthday Week special or the problem with renaming

All of us who are the business of changing perceptions know that renaming something is one of the tried and true tricks of the trade, whether it's creating categories (right-hand diamond, certified used vehicles) or making something old and familiar sound new and exciting (rewards programs, pashminas) or inventing euphemisms to disguise some troubling elements of stuff we want to do anyway (gaming, troop surge) or reframing things in more negative terms (Death tax). It's a good trick that works surprisingly well, but when we apply it to ourselves in order to assert our unique differentiating (proprietary!) practices than it start to sound both trying-too-hard lame and pretty confusing.

Over the past weeks, I've met with a bunch of companies who insisted on calling themselves something other than what common sense would suggest. While they actually do conjoint and factor analysis and run tracking studies and set up consumer panels they insist on being called something other than research companies: they are consumer conversation companies or insight companies. It's not that I don't understand the desire to separate oneself from a group of other companies that may well be mediocre or old-fashioned or less good, but the more you talk to someone about their "consumer conversation" company, the harder it becomes to understand what you are talking about, especially when the thing you are talking about has very simple, plain-language name.

I'm hardly exculpating myself from this problem. I work from a company that sometimes calls itself a next-generation branding company and sometimes an agency-consultancy hybrid, but whatever we say we are, we often get called the "agency" from the clients that hire us.

Maybe we all shouldn't try so hard to reinvent ourselves with a new name and work harder just doing it better. Is it so bad to be one of the best consumer research companies? Or agencies for that matter?

For those who are interested, the Orwell reference above is to his famous essay "Politics and the English language," which should be mandatory and repeated reading for everyone, but especially for everyone in marketing. Here's one of the most quoted passages, but in honor of his birthday, I recommend reading the whole thing. It's not long and it's in the public domain. You can find it here and a bunch of other places:

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Schools-out-for-the-summer-special or sample of one suggests taglines still sticking

Lots of people in the biz, including me, have speculated on whether taglines still have an important role in the brave new world of marketing, but as the attached documents attest, the most disseminated lines--both old and new--remain memorable, at least in the consciousness of this nine-year-old--a daughter of a colleague. She was given these worksheets as an assignment in her class earlier this year. She obviously did pretty well.

It suggests that the best taglines still stick in impressionable young minds. What it says about the state of education....well, I'll force myself to avoid drawing generalizations from this single example so as not to fall into a state unrecoverable depression.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


I've been reading the word "agnostic" a lot again (or still) lately, and just about every time I find it kind of annoying. Maybe it's because it's just jargon and all jargon (and marketing jargon in particular) is annoying (for the obvious reason that it's a lazy replacement for a more precise and thoughtful description) but I think there is something especially annoying about the use of the term which I'd describe as an exaggerated pretense to open-mindedness.

The assertion of channel-agnostic approaches or media-agnostic solutions or agnosticality in general is, I think, supposed to suggest a marketers willingness to embrace any potential solution vs. the one that used to make the agency the most money, but in almost every case, the marketer in question is really asserting his or her place among the new guard and privileging new media over old.

If agnosticism just means thinking about the best solution, shouldn't agnosticism be cost of entry when it comes to media planning? If media planning involves any planning at all? And/or if the contemporary use of the word is supposed to assert the agency's willingness to forgo the most profitable media choices in the interest of the client's business, what does this mean when it comes from a digital agency spokesperson? Does it mean that they might recommend television ads if they determine that's the best solution?

And is it worth at least acknowledging the fact that that agnosticism, in it's original philosophical sense, is really about skeptical doubt and the impossibility of knowing a particular thing because of limited information, when the very thing marketing strategist are supposed to do is provide POV's based on evidence and experience. How agnostic is that?

Okay, maybe that's irrelevant, but it adds to my multi-leveled irritation about the use of the word in our biz. It's competing with "dimensionalize" for relative unbearability for me, but I'm sure you all have your favorites as well.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Judging the Jay Chiat awards on a really hot day in Boston

Spent another delightful morning with Gareth Kay of Modernista, Jeff Flemings of Digitas and Lesley Bielby of Hill Holiday earlier this week evaluating 20 or so entries for the planning awards. Last year, we all agreed that the entries were pretty lame, lacking some of what Jeff called "craft skills," like clearly identifying the target.

Everyone agreed that the batch this year was a lot more solid, with plenty of planning fundamentals on display. Business problems were defined. Targets identified. Brands and products differentiated from competition.

At the same time, we all felt that most of the entries didn't go far enough. The majority of entries didn't describe how planning had much of an impact beyond identifying an insight that informed the creative strategy. All the NDA's I signed prevent me from me coughing up the details. But by way of an abstract example, you could say that many of the entries helped define a new way of looking at a product or brand (e.g. wine isn't about flavor but about smell) but then didn't help inform how we might powerfully communicate this new perspective (kinds of scent that resonate with consumers, moments when you notice scent, the emotional power of scent).

In other words, each of us--as planners in very different kinds of marketing co's--all agreed that good planning needed to help create and inform the development of ideas beyond the basic creative idea, identifying details that create and guide executional possibilities. I think it was Jeff who described the batch as marked by "missed opportunities."

We all envied the assignments and would have been happy to get them. And we all longed for the planners involved to be--in Lesley's words--a little more "brave." The core of an original idea either failed to develop beyond the strategy or ended up in a conventional execution.

Still missing too from most of the entries were any innovative research techniques (though the entries often worked hard to position their shop-alongs as breakthrough) or research findings that directly fed into the work or much in the way of interesting new media applications. We're hoping that the entries from all these hot digital shops we keep hearing about ended up in some of the other committees.

Of course, we all know what happens to our bravest ideas in practice. And it's easy to second-guess the hard work of our colleagues from the comfort of an air-conditioned room in Chinatown. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't aspire to take advantage of all our opportunities with the bravest ideas possible.