“Virtuous” Brands and Companies Command Increased Loyalty, Trust and Word-of-Mouth, New Study Finds “Changing The World” is Growing Mandate For Companies

September 8th, 2009

PRESS RELEASE

Contact: Bob Kenney
Context Marketing
415-289-7575
bkenney@contextmarketing.com

“Virtuous” Brands and Companies Command Increased Loyalty, Trust and Word-of-Mouth, New Study Finds “Changing The World” is Growing Mandate For Companies

September 9, 2009 – Many consumers want to make the world a better place and are willing to reward those companies and brands that help them do so with increased trust, loyalty and word-of-mouth, reports a new study titled “Brand Virtue as a Competitive Asset.” It reports on research recently conducted by Context Marketing and Noesis Research.

According to the study, three out of four consumers report they are willing to pay more for brands they see as behaving responsibly. Of those willing to pay more, around 40 percent said they would pay as much as 10 percent more, and another 30 percent say they are willing to pay a premium higher than 10 percent.

The study also shows that consumers are willing to allow brands and companies more than one path to virtuous behavior: eight out of ten consumers report they do not differentiate between a brand’s being good for society in some way, such as producing healthy foods or using environmentally-friendly packaging, and brands that do good for society, such as supporting public service programs that address social issues.

“Many consumers seem to have a general concept of ‘modern virtue’ in mind when they evaluate brands and companies,” said Bob Kenney, Context Marketing principal. “It’s clear that what constitutes ‘socially responsible’ behavior is evolving in the consumer mind beyond the traditional definition of corporate social responsibility. Today’s consumers increasingly expect brands and companies to help change the world, even if only in small ways,” he said.

The survey was designed to capture the opinions and aspirations of a more upscale consumer segment. It included 600 working adults living in major U.S. markets, the majority of which hold at least a college degree and have a household income of $75,000 or more.

Other highlights of the study include:

  • Consumers are as willing to pay a premium for higher priced products (e.g. cars, appliances) from companies they perceive as responsible as they are for less expensive products.
  • Despite the downturn, 15 percent of respondents report they are more likely to purchase responsible brands today, while 12 percent report they are less likely. Seventy-three percent report no change in purchase behavior.
  • While responsible brands and companies appeal to both men and women, women bring somewhat higher expectations when it comes to evaluating responsible behavior. For example, 69 percent of women believe a responsible brand should “show it shares my values,” compared with 55 percent for men.

“A special strength of virtuous brands is the emotional benefits they hold for consumers,” notes Ross Goldstein, Ph.D., Noesis Research principal. “There’s a strong reciprocal relationship created between virtuous brands and consumers that goes beyond trust and loyalty and can be a significant contributor to marketplace success,” he said.

A complete copy of the study, “Brand Virtue as a Competitive Asset,” is available for download at www.contextmarketing.com.

About The Study

This study was a collaborative research project conducted by Context Marketing and Noesis Research. Data for this study was collected via online survey in U.S. major markets during June and July 2009. The total sample consisted of 600 respondents between the ages of 20 and 64, equally representing men and women. Respondents were mainly working, college-educated adults, with nearly two-thirds having a household income above $75,000.

Context Marketing is a San Francisco Bay Area consulting firm that helps companies develop communications strategy and initiatives addressing the societal issues and trends that influence brand preference and corporate reputation. Contact: 415.289.7575, www.contextmarketing.com

Noesis Research is a full service, qualitative and quantitative marketing research company, based in San Rafael, California. Noesis Research specializes in emerging trends and innovative methodologies for evaluating consumer behavior. Contact: 415.454.7900, www.noesisresearch.com

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Wanted: Online Social Marketing Manager. Must Speak Facebook

June 7th, 2009

help

Commercial brands are appearing on Facebook and other social networks faster than bargain hunters at a flea market. And, since traditional marketing departments are pretty clueless about the ins and outs of these platforms, they are turning to twentysomethings to lead the way. In fact, one of the hottest job titles these days, and one that no one could have predicted a few years ago, is that of “online social network marketing  manager.”

Pinning down the job responsibilities for this position is like trying to eat jello with a fork, but basically the title describes the social networking guru charged with leading the marketing departments through the frontier of Facebook, Twitter, and the like. Interesting challenge, this one.

Imagine this, you are a twenty something, aspiring marketer, who wants to hit the job market, and job market is drier than the desert. You have unacknowledged skills honed in the countless hours you have spent sending thousands of text messages, viewing a zillion Facebook pages, and holding interminable IM sessions, some of which last longer than your current romantic relationship. You speak the language of Tweets. You have pimped your Facebook page so it is just right, including filtering and sorting your own personal brand (your own FB page) so carefully that your parents, if they have access to your page, have no idea that you are a raging party clown and not the diligent, young, corporate rising star they proudly brag about to their friends. And you never even knew this was a skill? Well, the news is that there are brands and companies who desperately need your services. Some know it now. Others will learn it in the coming months. But all companies are going to learn that the world of social networking affords opportunities for brand building that are too valuable to give up.

Why are brands moving onto the social networking platforms? The first answer is obvious; brands need to go where their consumers are. And, consumers are gathering on the platforms. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel (although I’ve never done this, and it sounds damned hard to me). Just like billboards spring up near freeways, brands will populate the visual, social and psychological terrain of the networks.

The second reason is that brands have personalities, just like people do. And, like people, they are taking the leap to project those personalities in places where they can interact with their audience. In short, they are on the social networks for the same reason that you are. To connect, to impress, to impact, to win friends, and to let their “friends” know what they are up to. Having a social networking presence is as important today, as having an online commerce capability was a few years ago.

But, make no mistake, brand presence on a social network isn’t the same as having an online store. Even though a brand’s ulterior motive, and make no mistake about this, is commercial impact. A Facebook page, or Twitter membership is just a softer way to mix with the target market. Also, don’t think of brand pages as ads. Ads sell product. Social networking presence sells affinity, which, in the land of branding, is the secret sauce that creates craving.

But the more subtle, and maybe the most important, reason that brands are making their way to social networking land is that they are recognizing that information is the ultimate modern product. Brands must put information out there: information about themselves, information about their consumers, information about the world in which they and their products and their consumers all interact. It is no longer enough to create a good product and wait for the world to beat a path to your door. A good brand is like a good guest at a party, it brings something to the discourse that makes it interesting. These days, being smart, being funny, being cool, being knowledgeable, being connected and, ultimately, being a place that consumers can go to for information is money in the world of brand essence.

Some brands have incorporated the necessity of being media outlets into their marketing mission. Others are still using the networks to promote products. The former is pretty progressive. The latter is, um, kind of regressive, but at least it represents a good try. At this point, it takes a deft touch to understand that difference between the two. And that is the reason that forward thinking brands need to enlist the assistance of online social networking veterans to guide their efforts. Somehow, when the old marketing hands try to do it, it ends up looking suspiciously like outbound direct mail, and that is something that just can’t make the grade in the new online marketplace.

Ross Goldstein Uncategorized ,

Seen But Not Heard

June 2nd, 2009

disengaged

For the longest time advertisers have believed that capturing attention was the key to impact for an ad. Reduced to its simplest form, this meant that annoying interruptions worked as well as relevant messages. On the web, this has given rise to dancing, dazzling, jumping, glittering and just generally annoying pop-up banners. You can’t hit a page these days without these distracting images grabbing your attention. And, since they did grab your attention, it was presumed that they were effective.

As a researcher I have conducted dozens of interviews with consumers about these kinds of ads. Not surprisingly, they are almost universally disliked. Words like “intrusive,” “annoying,” “obnoxious,,” “distracting,” etc. were some of the milder descriptors consumers used to characterize these bastard children of the advertising world. Despite the negative evaluation, advertisers heard what they wanted to hear; the banners were noticed. And attention, they believed, was the holy grail of advertising awareness.

Research from the world of brain imaging promises to give us some respite from the bouncing balls of banner ads. The use of functional MRIs (fMRI) allows researchers to scan and image the brain while advertising is shown to the subject. By examining the process of attention, we better understand the dynamics of attention. From this, we come to know which ads are impactful and which ones miss the mark.

Out of this research comes the understanding that relevance enhances impact. So, for example, take the typical mindset of web browsing. The visitor is there to find something, to get something done, even if that something is to connect with friends on Facebook or to bid on an old Jimi Hendrix poster from the sixties. In short, he is there with a purpose. Now, along comes the animated banner. And, because he is ever vigilant, the consumer notices it.

But, noticing doesn’t necessarily translate to engaging. In fact, noticing, if it distracts the viewer from his or her task, is annoying and leads to disengagement. The result? Disengagement. And disengagement leads to negative associations with the brand causing the distraction. Which is, and here is the important part of the message, terribly destructive to building brand. Attention, if it is negative attention, is the consolation prize. The winning prize goes to those messages that achieve relevance. Relevance, in this context, means connection with the purpose or the content that brought the viewer to the web site in the first place.

Contextual, or smart ads, which understand the activity of the browser achieve this. If I am searching for Jimi Hendrix paraphernalia and a banner ad comes up advertising Eric Clapton t-shirts, I can incorporate the message. I am even going to be positively predisposed to like the enterprise advertising the t-shirts and, most importantly, buy from them. If, however, a pop-up for Bank of America mortgages shows up, I’m not only not interested, I am going to develop a negative attitude toward the B of A brand. All of this is intuitive, of course.

What is newsworthy is the deleterious effect that intrusiveness alone can have. For the longest time it was believed that getting noticed was the most important thing, even if the attention it garnered was negative. Now, research is demonstrating that the negative attention erodes the image of the brand, and that, one hopes, will result in fewer distracting pop-ups.

Ross Goldstein Uncategorized , ,

Survival of the Collective

May 21st, 2009

collective

“These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Those words, first authored by Thomas Paine in 1776, reflect the truth that in times of duress true character emerges. And now, in the midst of a major economic crisis, we are witnessing a shift in the basic foundation of American values. The era of rugged individualism is being replaced by a new attitude, albeit one that has its roots in the heritage of American culture. What is displacing the “up-from-your-bootstraps” approach to survival? It’s collectivism; “we are all in this together” is replacing “every man for himself.”

Collectivist thinking isn’t really anything new in America. It’s just that it has periodically fallen out of favor. Our earliest pioneers lived by the ethos of working together and helping each other out for the common good. One of the best examples of this is the Western expansion of the 19th century. Although a common myth portrays the solitary homesteader family surviving on their own grit, the truth is that the pioneers crossing the Oregon trail or the Santa Fe trail moved as a collective herd. They collected in staging areas until they had a critical mass of wagons before moving out onto the perilous trails leading to the wild West. Yes, they were brave men and women who sought their individual destiny in the promised lands of California and Oregon, but they also were wise enough to know that they couldn’t do it alone, that there was safety in numbers, and that the well being of one depended on the well being of the other;  ultimately they survived as a group or they perished individually.

The contemporary rebirth of collectivism is the result of a “perfect storm” of circumstances. A major factor is the discrediting of the major institutions that have formed the foundation of America. We can start with the downfall of the economic system; the banks have failed, and Wall Street has been undressed to the point that its greed is no longer considered a cute and quirky asset but, rather, a deep seated character flaw. And the banks aren’t the only institutions that are in decline. Congress has the lowest approval rating in history. The church is perceived to be less and less relevant. Family ties have dissolved as the population has become more mobile. And, despite the rebirth of belief that is embodied by Obamaism, the residual trauma of the Bush administration leaves all of us wondering where the next betrayal of American values will come from. Aren’t we all just waiting for the other shoe to drop?

In short, the public has turned away from relying on big institutions to bail them out. Replacing the big institutions is the distributed, collective effort of one-to-one, community based activism.

A great example of this trend is a web site called  The Lending Club. The Lending Club is built upon the idea of peer-to-peer lending. The essential function of The Lending Club is to construct a bridge between those who need a loan, and can’t pry one loose from their local bank, and individuals who have some capital and are looking for a place to put it. It’s kind of like a flea market for currency. This is social networking in a meaningful and powerful way. The operation of the site is simple. Potential borrowers submit a proposal describing their need. The site serves as a screening house, evaluating the request against parameters like credit scores and debt-to-income ratios. If the application makes the cut, it is registered on the site, where potential lenders can review it and decide to fund it, or not.

So far so good. But, here is where the idea takes off. The exchange of currency is the vehicle, but the opportunity to do good for others provides much of the fuel.  By sifting and sorting the requests, the lender has the opportunity to express his or her individual values by literally putting their money where their mouth is. Or, as the site indicates, its a chance to “do well by doing good.”

It’s a win-win. Borrowers get better rates, currently about 8%, which compares very favorably to the local bank, (assuming that the local bank is even making loans). And lenders see a net return of about 9%. That’s only 1% less than Madoff offered, and we all know what happened to those investments. A review of the site shows that the loans are benefitting borrowers in very personal ways: paying off credit card debt, new equipment loans, education loans, getting out of military and need to get started in a small business, etc. Of course, The Lending Club isn’t totally philanthropic. They do charge a fee and there are other provisos and disclaimers which make it clear that this is first and foremost a business. But still, as an articulation of the impulse to pitch in and help each other, and a manifestation of the distribution and scalability afforded by the Internet and social networking, this is truly innovative. So far The Lending Club has realized more than 4,000 loans, totaling more than $36 million. And, with competitors, like Prosper Loans Marketplace and Virgin Money USA entering the marketplace, and no end in sight for the credit freeze from more traditional lending sources, the future looks pretty rosy for these kinds of enterprises.

Grass roots collectivist action is going to gain in popularity, filling the gap where larger institutions have failed us. Of course, commercial enterprises and brands will also try to get on board, positioning their marketing to appeal to the growing community spirit. Some will be authentic, with genuine programs and outreach that will make a difference in community life. Others will be shams to appear that there is heart where there is really only pocket. But, having come through the past decade and a half of rugged individualistic, I got mine, up by my bootstraps, end the give away, authoritarian, trust the big guy zeitgeist, it is truly refreshing to see a change in the wind.

Hell, even the Republican fog machine attempting to label Obama as a socialist is getting no traction. Recent polls indicated that the percentage of people who are concerned about his “socialist” tendencies is lower than the percentage who identify themselves as Republicans. Now that’s change we can all believe in.

Ross Goldstein Uncategorized ,

Tribal Times for Modern Branding

May 21st, 2009

tribal

Once upon a time human culture was organized around tribes. Tribal identity was the beginning, middle and end of selfhood. Your particular tribe could have been an accident of geography, genetics, race, religion or any one of a thousand different organizing principles. But, whatever its origin, tribal identity was essential to a sense of who you were.

But over time, as people and cultures became more mobile, tribal identity became less relevant. Individual freedom and idiosyncratic aspiration became the symbol of self. This varies from culture to culture, of course, with the U.S. and its celebration of individuality leading the way, but as a global trend tribes lost a lot of their meaning.

I was reminded of this recently when I was thinking about the groups that have sprung up spontaneously on some of the social network sites. For example, I’m an avid cyclist, and I came across a group on Facebook called Euro Style. This tongue in cheek site hosts contributions from members who celebrate, in a somewhat dogmatic and oppressive way, the Euro Style of cycling. Here is a quote from their code:

Image and style shall be the primary concerns of the Euro Cyclist. When suffering, one must focus first on maintaining a cool, even composure and second on performance. Winning races is an added talent, and only counts if said Euro Cyclist wins with appropriate style.

Or, consider this:

Legs shall be SHAVED year-round. ABSOLUTELY NO EXCEPTIONS. Certain hair removal creams are endorsed only on a case-by-case basis. One shall never show up to a race (be it large or small) with ANY amount of stubble visible on one’s legs.

Now these, along with the lengthy list of acceptable bicycle parts and vendors and stipulated postures, poses and attitudes, are meant tongue in cheek. Except that they aren’t really. This tribe really does exist. Maybe not as organized and as rigid as the group would have you believe, but the tribe is real. We don’t have a secret handshake, but, believe me, we recognize each other, greet each other according to the code, and know our status by the subtle signs and symbols we all know. After all, tribes not only bind, but they have rules that help you know where you stand in the tribe pecking order.

The Internet has facilitated the formation, distribution and organization of tribes in a way that would have been unimaginable fifteen years ago. It has connected people in a vast and profound way, bridging the gaps of time and distance. The result is a wave of affiliation that is a direct and powerful expression of the human need for connection. It is a rebirth of tribal identity in earthquake fashion.

Here are some of the tribes that I belong to on Facebook:

And then there are the tribes that don’t seem like tribes until you find yourself engulfed in the bosom of tribe wisdom. I’m thinking here of the many online retail sites that have recommendations and reviews from other visitors. Thinking of buying that recent release by Malcolm Gladwell on Amazon? Did you read the reviews of other visitors? Did you get recommendations from Amazon that informed you that others who bought this particular book also bought book X? Did you get additional recommendations from Amazon on books that you might like based on your previous selections? Guess what? You are a member of the tribe of Amazon buying, Malcolm Gladwell reading, social trend studying.

Or, did you go to Talking Points Memo or The Huffington Post for news today? (OK, I admit it. I’m a leftist, cycling enthusiast, fashion fixated Amazon Kindle tribe member. And, I’m sure that there is an intersection where all of these tribes meet to form one uber tribe…probably at the Peets coffee shop in Mill Valley.)

If you visit these sites, or any of the zillion different news blogs, you are a member of a tribe. Of course the tribe existed before the blog. For example, I’m sure there was a tribe of New Yorker readers who would gather in places to banter and show their erudition by citing recent articles. But, they had to congregate. And that took time and came with obstacles. The Internet has provided a ready made platform for the magic ingredient of tribalism, social interaction. The dialogue is the dynamic here. And there is no shortage of opportunity for the exchange of points of view. With that comes the affiliation that is a natural endpoint to  the exchange of ideas.

All in all, this offers a ripe opportunity for brands to piggyback on the tribal trend. Some are already doing it. There are brand tribes on Facebook. Apple has done a good job here, capitalizing on the brand affiliation that bonds Apple user together, by having several Apple groups, one for iPod and others for other products, as well as one for the mother brand itself. BMW has a similar presence. And, just so you don’t go away thinking that it is only the aspirational brands that are capitalizing on tribe building, you can find a group organized by Safeway. Which points to a truism of brands — they serve functional, as well as aspirational, needs.

Can a tribe really be organized by the brand itself? From the top down? Well, the presence of the brand groups on Facebook, and the growth of social networking on retail sites suggests that the brand can, and should, take the lead in creating the tribe. But, it can’t act alone, utilizing the old fashioned bully pulpit of one way information flow. Modern brands and good Internet citizens must remember that the platform provided for brand dissemination has raised the bar of authenticity. Because there is now a robust open channel between brand members, the power of tribal branding has moved downstream, into the hands of the tribe members themselves. The tribe members are as influential and essential as the brand itself. It is this fundamental truth that marks the boundary of tribal authenticity. Brand as leader, maybe. Brand as participant, probably. Brand as member of the tribe, definitely.

Ross Goldstein Uncategorized

Cosmetic Neurology for Our Exponential Times

May 11th, 2009

pills

We are living in exponential times. Consider these tidbits of information which I just captured from the 2008 Did You Know YouTube entry, composed by Karl Fisch, Scot McLeod and Jeff Bronman:

  • There are 31 billion searches registered on Google every month, up from a measly 2.7 billion in 2006.
  • The number of text messages sent and received every day exceeds the total population of the planet.
  • The total amount of information in one week of the New York Times exceeds the totality of information an average person would come across in his lifetime in the 18th century.
  • 4 exabytes of unique information will be generated this year. Although you might not know what an exabyte is, consider that this amount is more than all of the information generated in the past 5,000 years in total.

So, how are we to manage in this avalanche of information? Trying to stay apace is like trying to out swim a tidal wave. There are tools, of course, like Google Reader and other aggregators that automate the process by reaching out to information sources,organizing and consolidating the information. They are helpful, but if you plan to use one be prepared for a steep learning curve as you figure out the mix and match configuration of these different platforms, tools and devices.

Then there is always the head in the sand approach. This is the “ignorance is bliss,” school of information management, characterized. Appealing in its simplicity, but probably not too adaptive in the long run. Besides, if you got to this page, you are too far gone to seriously consider this approach.

But, don’t despair. There are a host of neuroenhancing drugs that are currently in use, and more are just around the corner. Drugs like Ritalin and Adderall, designed for ADD and ADHD are enjoying soaring popularity for their off label use to increase concentration. Same thing for Aricept, which is typically prescribed for early stage Alzheimer’s disease and Provigil, which is designed for the treatment of narcolepsy. All of these and similar neuroenhancers are supposed to be used to counteract the cognitive deficits of specific syndromes, but a lot of people swear by their use, assuming that more concentration, focus, and greater cognitive stamina is just the leg up that they need to succeed. Not surprising, then, that these kinds of drugs are enjoying their greatest popularity in the Ivy walls of the Northeastern colleges, where students exchange the drugs themselves as well as inside information about how to use them and what symptoms to present to garner the diagnosis necessary to pry a prescription from the family doctor.

And, as the popularity of the drugs increases, are we prepared to deal with the ethical issues accompanying their usage? If cosmetic surgery in the form of breast augmentation makes women more desirable in the dating market, is there anything wrong with cognitive enhancement in the form of neuroenhancing drugs making the user more desirable in the academic or career market? If laser surgery sharpens vision, what is wrong with a simple drug to sharpen concentration?

I am not suggesting, at this point, that we have enough data to make a definitive decision, either ethical or in terms of efficacy on this issue. There is research as well as anecdotal data that these drugs increase a particular kind of mental “stick-to-it-ness,” but have no impact on creativity. And, there is no clear conclusion about long term side effects of extended usage. So, maybe this is a passing trend. But, I doubt it.

What does seem clear, though, is that we are at the intersection of two powerful trends. One is the growing challenge to stay current with the information flow. The other is the trend of to optimize performance in a competitive world. With these two coming together, I have no doubt that ultimately ethics will lose the battle to efficacy.

Ross Goldstein Uncategorized ,

The Upside of the Downside

May 11th, 2009

upside2

The economic downturn, otherwise known as the Great Recession of 09, has produced a singular type of abundance; a surfeit of stories announcing our collective, cultural belt-tightening. Here comes the comeuppance that many pundits claim has been due for some time. Take, for example, the recent Time mag report by Kurt Anderson, The End of Excess, in which he reports that America has been on a spending spree that was doomed to bring us to ruin. It’s no longer Morning in America. It is Morning After in America. Here is the way that Anderson talks about the recalibration of expectations that is upon us: The same goes for our individual senses of lifestyle entitlement. During the perma-’80s, way too many of us were operating, consciously or not, with a dreamy gold-rush vision of getting rich the day after tomorrow and then cruising along as members of an impossibly large leisure class. (That was always the yuppie dream: an aristocratic life achieved meritocratically.) Now that our age of self-enchantment has ended, however, each of us, gobsmacked and reality-checked by the new circumstances, is recalibrating expectations for the timing and scale of our particular version of the Good Life. Which, of course, fuels the ferocious anger at the Wall Street rich even now getting richer with subsidized eight-figure bonuses. Anderson compares us to the wily coyote character who would launch himself off the cliff, and, with legs still spinning, linger in mid-air until gravity took hold. Welcome to the gravity pull of economic reality: In the Road Runner cartoons, after each fall, the coyote is broken and battered but never dies. America isn’t going to expire either. But unlike him, we will be chastened and begin behaving more wisely. For years, enthusiasts for unfettered capitalism have insisted that the withering away of enterprises and entire industries is a healthy and necessary part of a vibrant, self-correcting economic system; now, more than at any time since Joseph Schumpeter popularized the idea of creative destruction in 1942, we must endure the shocking and awesome pain of that metamorphosis. After decades of talking the talk, now we’re all obliged to walk the walk. Shock and awe, indeed. And, I suppose there is some comfort in the knowledge that institutions will survive and that the urban renewal project of our economic infrastructure will give way to a renaissance of industry and initiative. But that sounds pretty abstract, particularly if you are dealing with downscaling of individual expectations, hopes and aspirations. On a more personal level, though, there is another potential benefit to the rejiggering of our lifestyles. And, to see this we have to study the way that Europeans have been resolving the conflict between success and life satisfaction. They have been doing it  for so long that it has been institutionalized into the texture of their lifestyle. I’m talking about the concept of quality of life here. When Americans visit Europe we are impressed by the European pace of living. You know what I mean — start work whenever, close down for lunch, take an hour and a half for that lunch, follow it with a siesta (or a midday encounter with a secret paramour in some parts of the continent,) another espresso, no work on the weekend, no biz calls in the evening, no e-mail intrusions, and a minimum of six weeks (paid, no less) vacation. We Americans have had a love-hate relationship with this phenomenon, both envying it and deriding it as something alien to our Horatio Alger, manifest destiny, nose to the grindstone, never say die work ethic. Instead, we in America have celebrated The American Dream which was, and is, for many a workaholic, guilt tripping nightmare. With the new reality of economic downturn we may be forced to embrace, even celebrate, the quality of life paradigm. And, isn’t that a paradox; having to learn to love something that makes us feel good. But, before we do so, it might be a good idea to look at what it is in European culture that makes the good life so good. Over the course of several years, I have spent chunks of time in Italy. One day I had a conversation with an Italian friend (Over an extended afternoon expresso. They don’t have “coffee breaks” there. They go and have coffee. Sit in the cafe. No “to go” cups symbolizing the brevity of their break.) We were talking about the differences between the pace of American life and Italian life. He put it this way, “In Italy, if your father is a butcher, you can become a butcher. And you can have a lot of pride in being a good butcher. Maybe you expand the shop a bit. Maybe you don’t. But, the point is, you are a butcher and have no shame. You focus on being the best butcher you can be. In America, if your father is a butcher, you are honor bound to be a surgeon. Anything less is a failure. The energy that you Americans put into making it to the top, we put into enjoying where we are.” And there it is. The monkey of upper mobility is on our American backs, placed there not because of any desire to punish, but as an incentive to realize the American dream. Each generation has it done to them, and then turns around and does it to the next. It’s like a great generational game of “tag you’re compulsive.” The dream is never satisfied, because the concept of “more” is essential, and “enough” is rarely, if ever, well, enough. Say what you will about the caste system of European society, and there is much to criticize about its segregation, its elitism, its xenophobic attitude toward outsiders, it does provide a vehicle for self-acceptance. And that may be the most poignant lesson for us to learn from our current situation. If nothing else, if we can learn to slow down a bit, to put the brakes on the constant drive for success, and to stop mistaking motion for progress, we will have come a long way. Of course, many will say that we have lost our drive, that we are slackers, that we have given up, but I don’t see it that way. I see it as an opportunity to take a studied look at what is really important and to make conscious choices that fit with our priorities.

Ross Goldstein Uncategorized ,

Managing your cyber-self

May 5th, 2009

blog_cyber

I spent two hours yesterday tidying up my cyber-self. With the integration of Facebook, Twitter and WordPress, there was a lot of digital debris that needed to be straightened up. Also, working with an aggregator, an iGoogle page with an embedded Google Reader widget and surfing through a few new web sites…Well, you get the picture. And you have probably had the same feeling. There is so much inbound and outbound traffic that I was feeling like an air traffic controller with ADHD.

The upside of all this digital integration is a streamlined, unitary presence. The downside is that the various platforms, pages, applications and what not can get out of sync, which is disturbing, to say the least. And that is what prompted me to dig in and hunker down on the computer yesterday. The problem is that I am working with less than advanced knowledge about how all these things work together. As an indication of my clumsiness, I just got a note from a friend, correspondent, twitter follower that she appreciated the note that I sent her yesterday.  Except that I didn’t know that I sent anything out. By the way, she has a really cool tweet at  twitter.com/presentry. She is posting little, visual tweets that illustrate just how limiting text can be, and how powerful images can be, in expressing an idea. I recommend it.

All of this got me thinking about what social networking and online interaction is going to look like in the future. Some day we will look back at Facebook and Twitter much like we now look at AOL, Netscape and the WELL, brave pioneers that broke the trail, but became obsolete, replaced by technologies that far surpassed them in both form and function.

In the future, I think, we will see today’s early entries, like FB and Twitter, however whiz bang and advanced they may seem, as somewhat awkward and inelegant expressions of the need for basic human connection. Right now we are very aware of the boundaries between the different platforms and applications, the ways that Twitter provides a vehicle for one type of communication and Facebook another, and Flickr still another yet. But, aren’t all these different modes of communication all in the service of the same basic, human need? The flow of interpersonal connection? In the future, the technology will fall into the background and content and context will, once again, come to the foreground. And none too soon, because with an emphasis on content and context, on meaning, we will stop getting meandering messages announcing that someone we hardly even know, and could care less about, is about to have a taco in Sausalito.

Oh, and by the way, I think I got it all together yesterday afternoon. At least I thought I did, until I found out today that I was sending out photos of the view from my office window without even knowing it. And if you got one of those errant missives, I’m sorry. Oh well, tomorrow’s another day and another opportunity to, once and for all, get it all working right.

Ross Goldstein Uncategorized , ,

The New Normal

May 5th, 2009

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I heard an interview with consumer behavior psychologist Paco Underhill on the McNeil Lehrer News Hour Friday which got me thinking about what the next phase of American consumerism is going to look like. There is no shortage of consumer pundits who talk about this subject under the broader heading of the “new normal.” The idea of predicting changes and trends is a voyage in treacherous waters, only undertaken by the brave and the foolish, so here I go. You can decide which category I fall in.

Here is the problem in a nutshell. The old consumer paradigm was one of conspicuous, “I got mine, ain’t life grand” consumerism. The marketplace engine was fueled by the high octane belief that more was better and the sky was the limit. Across the board acquisition was a sign of vitality, even if debt reached staggering heights . Now comes the financial crisis of 2008-2009 and the buying frenzy has become a distant memory. Austerity is the current zeitgeist, and it is being adopted by both those who should have been a bit more austere for some time now and those who really don’t need to be, but don’t want to incur the wrath of others by showy shopping.

Fine, so far. But what comes next?  Underhill makes a somewhat dire prediction that “the engine of buying is going to shut down,” and that we are in for a “recalibration.” Maybe so. As he points out, 60% of disposable income in North America is in the hands of the 55+ consumer, and that they really don’t need to resupply themselves with anything more than socks and underwear. He makes a compelling case for a paradigm shift in our values and behavior.

Add to this the results of a recent Gallup Poll finding that  53% responding to a recent survey say they are spending less, and of that 53%, 32% say that this is a change that has leg;  that they intend to continue with their frugal ways. Hence, the “new normal.” But, headlines aside, this begs the question about the rest of the total sample, the 47% who say they aren’t spending less. (Indeed, 17% of their sample say they are spending more, not less. Makes you wonder what corner of the economy they are living in.) And what about those who say they are spending less, but that the change is only temporary. This group makes up the remaining 21% of the 53% who are saying that they are spending less. They are spending less now, but are itchy to return to the mall.

Here’s where I get a bit skeptical about the early predictions of a landmark shift in American consumer culture. Making these kinds of predictions is skating on thin ice. Remember how everything was going to be different after 911? Thought leaders called this a transformational event that would produce enduring shifts in our values and behavior. Except, it didn’t. “Post 911,” which became a shorthand for “everything you believed is no longer true” may have been a rallying point for some hideously doubtful political policies, but how much did things really change? Of course, there was little real initiative for substantive change from the feckless Bush administration, but even if they had called for something more substantial than a return to shopping, I wonder if it was really in the American DNA to realize any kind of larger shift.

So, what comes after the current crisis? Are we really looking at a “new normal?” Less spending and more saving? And, would this have taken place anyway, independent of the economic downturn because the Boomers are buying less in the seniority? And much of the younger generations rejected consumerism just because they reacted against the Boomer spending lust. Those people aren’t shifting their values. They were already there.

I hesitate before anticipating anything like a paradigm shift in spending. Here’s another way to look at it all. I believe that we will see some changes, but they will be more modest and subtle, although maybe no less meaningful, than those predicted by the pundits. We will return to the shopping arenas once the economy shows signs of recovery , and we will continue to use our purchasing power as a way to define ourselves. But, and this is a big but, the objects of that consumer energy will shift. Glitz and glamour objects of self-definition will likely give way to quieter expressions of who we are and what we value. There may be a “new normal,” but don’t expect it to be characterized by extreme austerity. Instead, look for you and your neighbors to be putting your dollars into items that express what really matters to you, from the inside out, not into items that are meant to impress others. No longer will it necessarily be the new boat, the flashy diamond, or the McMansion. Instead, we are likely to see a growth in things like the educational vacation, the sabbatical, and the voyage inward.

Of course, as I said above, only the brave and the foolish make these kind of predictions. Which camp are you in?

Ross Goldstein Uncategorized ,

Mono-tasking versus multi-tasking

May 5th, 2009

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I stumbled across an ad in the NY Times today for Sprint mobile services. The message is contained in the copy, which went as follows:

Welcome to the Now Network.

Population: 49 million

26,488 people are sending work emails from a restaurant

2013 people are sending work emails from a hair salon

And 267,389 people are sending work emails from work

272 people are twittering about a marathon

37 while running themselves

They are picking up the pace

Now.

So, think about this. If you are being annoyed by the guy next to you who is disturbing your meal with constant email activity, you are not alone. Apparently, at any point in time there are almost 27,000 other email slaves who are doing the same thing. Which, is either comforting because it means that you are not alone, or distressing because you are thinking that you should be emailing too.

In full disclosure, I have to admit that I have often been one of those who grabs his iPhone immediately after being seated and fills the dreaded, “empty,” waiting minutes by diving into email-land. Even when it has only been a couple of minutes since the last check. So, no moralizing here. But, a question; what has happened to the idle, introspective interludes? The moments of disengagement when we were left to contemplate, what? our salad, our lives, our relationships, whether the Celtics will make it beyond the first round of the playoffs? And what of our meal companions, the ones we are sitting with or just sitting near. Conversation is killed when the tapping on the phone keyboard begins. An electronic “do not disturb” sign flashes. You can just ask my family (or yours, if they are still talking to you, about it.)

I am reminded of some focus groups I conducted several years ago. The groups were gathered to evaluate the message contained in an ad promoting the “endless connection” that a wireless PDA could provide. I can’t remember the exact copy, but the vignette presented a worker bee, maybe mid level executive, lounging on a beach in Hawaii, clearly in full vacation mode. Except for one thing. He was downloading a report to read in between forays into the surf. So, you get the idea. Always be connected. Never out of reach. Virtual engagement.

Well, the ad got dumped on. The focus group members, biz guys and gals all, were quick to complain that the storyline presented was the bane of their existence, not the boon. That, despite their best efforts, they felt the siren call of the constant connection, just like a chocaholic sees salvation in a Hershey bar. And they hated it. But, when the conversation moved beyond whether they liked the message or not, into the relevance, or benefit of the concept itself, was it appealing?, their mood softened. Yes, they acknowledged, there was a virtue to the continuous connection, and though they hated themselves for it, just like any compulsive hates his compulsions, they would probably rise to the bait presented by the ad.

This ambivalence about being connected is fascinating to me. It brings to mind an old expression, “Sometimes you can’t get enough of what you really don’t want.” Now, that expression probably came from some psycho-babble, relationship, Dr. Phil type doctor, but it certainly reflects our love-hate relationship with connectedness. And, with a glimpse to the future, I am told that the latest status symbol in Hollywood is to be unreachable. Not reachable…yes, you read it correctly. No cell phone. No e-mail. And, to solidify this lofty status, people dialing your phone get connected to a voice mail box, but the message says, “Sorry, this mailbox is full.” And then, nothing. Cold disconnection. Left out there with no way to reach the unreachable one, who has now, since becoming unreachable, become even more desirable than he was when he was a mere twitter away.

These trends, both the dominant one of constant connection and the emerging one of “now you see me, now you don’t,” represent the tug-of-war of our time. We are now enabled by technology and the wizards of Twitter, Facebook and the like, to create a constant milieu of connectivity. Do we really want this? Is multi-tasking a survival skill for the modern era? What will become of the ability to focus on one thing, one task at a time? I’d love to know what you think. That is, if you have read this far without your attention being hijacked by your Blackberry.

Ross Goldstein Uncategorized