Archive | January 2010

Readability Means Access

(This is a repost from http://theperipheries.posterous.com/ when I published it last fall. It was an interesting thought that I wanted to have filed on this blog.)

Growing up, I’ve always thought it was strange that I was enrolled in AP English literature classes and was reading the classics with relative ease while I couldn’t read a mortgage contract to save my life. Initially, my reaction was to blame the education system for teaching me a skill – deciphering the metaphors and symbolisms of dead white men – that had no application to the modern world. But even after grad school, I still can’t figure out the differences between three health insurance plans.

Allison Arieff, a NY Times columnist, wrote an interesting piece calling for support of a national design policy. Part of her argument is that official documents like contracts, mortgages, credit card information are inherently hard to read for the average American – never mind a high school kid. The consequence of having a national design policy would be the liberation of information to the masses.

Whether it’s intentional or not, poor design has kept crucial information hidden from the people who need it the most. People who are buying their first home, getting their first credit card, or frantically filling out a form at the emergency room are all vulnerable to making mistakes while making these very important decisions.

Clear and understandable documents will allow us to better use the counsel of experts. I remember my parents spent hours with the realtor understanding the terms of the contract. What they should’ve been doing is strategizing the best way to tackle that huge mortgage. Good design has the ability to make the grunt work easier so you can spend more time on bigger things.

And lastly, good design is good customer service. Nothing is a bigger “fuck you” than 42 pages of legalese in 10-point font. When we think about how everything is a touch point for a brand experience, something that looks like a page from the dictionary is starting the relationship off on the wrong foot. It sets up a relationship that is not about the brand in service to the customer. It’s a relationship about the brand doing what it wants and the customer working around that to align with the brand.

That may be nuanced. But I think it adds to why we think governments, HMOs and mortgage companies are inaccessible bureaucratic monsters that we have to do battle with to get the things that they are supposed to be offering us. Readability means access. And these are the organizations that shouldn’t be holding things from us.

Positive Reinforcement to Dissuade Bad Behaviors

A persistent problem of working for a client whose business is hijacked by pirates is how to convince people to pay more for the authentic product. There is no quick and easy answer, but the one we lean on the most is to admonish the possibility of using a counterfeit. So we end up with big campaigns slamming competitors or focusing on the dangers of not going for the real thing – which is a terribly predictable strategy and doesn’t give the creatives enough meat to work with.

I’m thinking of taking the opposite route and focusing the campaign on the positive reinforcement of the desired behavior. Of course there are marketing programs such as loyalty programs, frequent buyer discounts and promotions, but those fall outside of the scope of the ad agency.

Ideally, there would be little brand experiences that reward the consumer here and there for their decision. Maybe there can be subtle reminders of how much more they’re getting or the higher quality of the experience. Some brands have turned the authentication piece into status symbols like labels you get for designer jeans. Or maybe something like the Mini Cooper decoder that worked for a billboard.

The idea is that there are some loyal customers regardless and it might be worth it to pay more attention to them first and then use the ad campaign as a broader cover for the concept. Your best customers will be your biggest advocates. And since piracy is so rampant we’re tempted to win back our share through big gains, but it’s a harder culture/habit to break than we think.

Executions of Symbolism

I just found this little computer animated short created by a guy in China hoping to land a job as an animator. I can’t really say when or if I was ever impressed with animation from China, but this is one pretty good. It’s not as smooth as what we’ve expect from Pixar, but it’s only one guy doing it so we’ll have to cut him some slack.

One thing that was interesting was the way he used symbolism to get his anti-war point across. Depending on whether you come from a Western or Eastern sensibility, I’ll bet that you received the imagery quite differently. I caught myself doing that.

At first I thought it was too literal and insulted my intelligence. Then I realized that the execution of the symbolism was, in fact, very entertaining and the value of the piece was in the technique. The symbolism was just a platform to direct our attention to what the director really wants to showcase: his animation prowess.

I wonder if Michael Bay thinks this way?

Consider an Inside/Out Approach for Brand Repositioning

I’ve had the privilege to work on some pitches last year and it dawned on me that every big idea we come to the table with was consumer facing. In fact, in school we were trained to do that too, perhaps borrowing from the geometry rule that the short distance between point A and B is a straight line. However, I would beg to differ and say that while a straight line is the shortest distance, it may not be the more efficient or effective route.

I think it’s old hat to say that there are a gazillion touchpoints for a brand to influence in their favor, but it’s true. And the one we forget the most are the employees.

I believe that a brand’s most powerful advocates are the employees. I live with a roommate who works at Youtube and he’s probably the biggest Google fanboy you’ll meet, which means that I get personal recommendations and detailed arguments for why Google is so great every night I come home. Sure, this argument only has a very casual example as proof. But I know for sure that the employees are the easiest people to turn into brand advocates because there is a genuine shared interest and relationship that makes it easier to do so. After you get them, it becomes a word of mouth exercise to trickle into the public at large. I think this applies for larger companies who seem to have lost their way.

I don’t think this is a substitute for a communication campaign of some sort. But I think it’s a crucial first step that can be a more valuable and more effective investment of the money spent on repositioning a brand than a huge media buy upfront. With a solid evangelism within the company, we can give the ad campaign a tighter focus instead of trying to make it do more than it actually is designed to do (the result of which are those horrible anthem-ish commercial from the likes of giant tech and energy companies that read like an unfocused poem written by a space cadet).

TL:DR: Instead of asking: “what can get people excited about my brand?” it should be “what can I do to get my employees excited about sharing the company with their friends?”

I Think I Get it Now

When I saw this off of a co-worker’s blog, it connected a lot of things in my mind for me. I loved the original when it came out because like all good songs that we relate to, it says what we can’t say ourselves. In the original music video, there was this really intense feeling of getting screwed over that left a negative reaction in me about how relationships end. It’s quite possibly one of the worst feelings in the world because it compounds our insecurities when we’re the most vulnerable. The thing with Kanye’s music video is that it’s really good in telling this story. So good that it traps you because you’re so bewildered by the possibility of it happening, which unfortunately leads your anger to howl at the straw man.

The cover that the Fray did still leaves me with the same general impression (although in an emo/rockerish sort of way). But the video made a point that those feelings are juvenile and fleeting and the best way to deal with it is to live well. Something people hear a lot, but have to work really hard to do. I love the ending frame with the drawings (negative feelings/energy) off the paper (out of mind, not a distraction) and displayed beautifully (negative energy spent on productive activities) on the chalkboard (getting out there).

Ironically, I think this music video is the “pop art” that Kayne was trying to make with the 808s and Heartbreak album and probably with his videos. Maybe Kayne’s “Kayne-ness” got in the way, because it didn’t need a cover to reveal the true moral of the story.

Saving the World from the Bottom Up

After slugging it out on a cause marketing project at work, I’ve been taken away by how much change a non-profit can make on the world. I’ve also noticed that it always seems like saving the world is a grassroots effort instead of an initiative taken on by large powerful institutions such as governments and businesses that have the resources to make large-scale impact. Sure, a business could sponsor or donate to a cause, but it’s a relatively small amount.

There’s probably a conclusion in here about the inertia of government and the inherently evil nature of capitalism, but that not very interesting. What interesting is that it feels like it has become the responsibility of the individual to clean up the messes that large institutions make or issues that they are incapable of solving. What I think was wrapped up as our civic duty has now been exposed as the large institution’s incompetence, eroding the trust and confidence that we used to have in our government and businesses’ to get things done.

Perhaps that’s why open source and crowdsourcing have become such a force. But what seem to be different now is that these individuals don’t work underneath or in service of the institutions. If you want to draw a chart that illustrates power dynamics, the individual would be on par with the institutions. It’s a wonderfully empowering thought tinged with a bit of cynicism only because of what I think inspired this situation.