On The Other Side of Town

21 Apr 20160413_102725

Last week, I took a vacation to the other side of San Francisco. I rented an Airbnb in the Outer Sunset neighborhood, a little under 7 miles from my own apartment.

I realize you may find this odd- and I do understand. With so many compelling places to travel, staying close to home may sound like a missed opportunity. But I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of different “versions” of a city. Even if you and I live in the same city, our experience will be markedly different depending on our neighborhoods. Living in a different part of the city shifts your daily “center of gravity.” It’s what you see, where you go, who you meet. It’s the lens that defines how you experience the city, and how you interpret the city’s culture. Living on the western edge of San Francisco vs. the eastern edge literally means seeing everything from a different point of view. Your relation to the city’s landmarks shifts, and your conception of the city’s heartbeat shifts, too.

When I travel I love to wander, trying to uncover the threads of that city’s life. I do a pretty good job wandering San Francisco, too, but I’ve always wondered what it’d be like to live across the city. I’ve wondered what it’d be like to have an distinct center of San Francisco gravity.

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Looking toward Sutro Tower

And so, I embarked on vacation to the other side of town. I picked the Outer Sunset because its character and composition are very distinct from where I live. The area has always intrigued me, for some reason, and I’ve always wondered what it’d be like to live there. It’s close to the ocean, and has a bit of a surfer-like, laid-back feel. I live in the midst of city congestion, near a street full of bars, and narrow streets. I love my neighborhood, but I certainly wouldn’t call it relaxing.

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Headed to the ocean

My boyfriend and I spent a few days wandering the area’s nooks and crannies, letting ourselves unwind. It turned out to be the perfect getaway for what I needed, in that moment. The right dose of change, and the right level of inspiration. We crossed off several things on my San Francisco “to do list” that I’d just never made it to before. We spent time at coffee shops, my boyfriend working and me writing. We went to neighborhoods I’d never seen before. We walked along the ocean, looking toward the same San Francisco landmarks we usually see, but from a new perspective. We got a taste of what it’d be like to have a different San Francisco life.

I’d love to do this over and over, trying out the myriad areas of San Francisco that interest me. In reality, I know my next vacation will take me further away, because there are just so many places I want to explore. Still, I hope this can become an annual tradition- stepping out just far enough beyond my own slice of the city, to shift my center just a little, to change my point of view just enough to reflect on the many shades of San Francisco.

When Suggestion Engines Get It Wrong

3 Apr

What do Cheez-It crackers and eyeliner have in common?

adjacencies

From a friend’s Amazon shopping page

Very little, you’d think. And yet, a friend recently posted this picture to Facebook. As she tried to buy eyeliner on Amazon, the “frequently bought together” algorithm suggested she add Cheez-Its to her cart. All for the excellent price of $6.77!

Made you laugh, right? Because these two products are so unrelated, this “suggestion” seems totally off-base. But if you think about your in-store shopping habits and translate that to the internet- it starts to make more sense.

Physical retailers often merchandise associated items near each other. A classic case of this “adjacency” strategy is putting peanut butter and jelly on the same shelf. Next-level adjacency strategy is used to “suggest” items you might want to add into your cart more spontaneously. For example, Trader Joe’s sells packaged olives next to its wine display, because they want you to trigger your interest in buying olives to go with your drinks. Another adjacency strategy comes via promotional displays: for example, a s’mores bundle promotion I wrote about a few years ago.

When you’re shopping online, physical merchandising and browsing are replaced by dropdown menus, filters and algorithms. These algorithms try to connect your current behaviors, past behaviors, and what other people “like you” are doing. Algorithms are supposed to be helpful, but they can’t always distinguish between patterns, and purpose. When the algorithm notices a trend, it takes advantage of that information. And so, while the Amazon algorithm “knows” that a lot of people apparently buy eyeliner and crackers at the same time, it doesn’t know why. The connection it’s making isn’t completely logical, and the product it suggested to my friend  didn’t make sense within the context of her shopping purpose. She was shopping for makeup- not food. So seeing food pop up on the side felt nonsensical and out of place.

But wait: there’s one more physical shopping “truth” we need to consider. You may think about makeup as a discrete category, but you’re also very likely to buy it while shopping for other things. Think back to your last physical trip to a big box retailer like Target- what ended up in your cart? I always marvel at the seeming “randomness” of what goes into my cart at places like that, everything from flour to soap to greeting cards. But unless you’re on a very mission-driven shopping trip, or at a specialty store, you’re likely shopping for more than 1 thing at a time. And once you walk out of Target, your cart may very well contain the seemingly unlikely duo of makeup and food.

So what we’re seeing here is a clash between our physical shopping behaviors, and our online shopping behaviors. When we shop online, we’re often in “research mode,” looking for helpful information. We expect websites to know our frame of mind, and cultivate a relevant experience for us. We expect to see helpful reviews and product information about the category we’re focused on, not a different category we may start shopping for later.

Annies SaltinesWhen I tried to replicate my friend’s experience on my own account, I saw a lot of makeup suggestions- and then a suggestion for Annie’s Saltines. Which likely means that people do use online shopping to “stock up” on their essentials across category. And yet, from a merchandising perspective, we expect more from our online retailers. If they have our data, we want them to use it well. For these websites to properly influence our behavior, they need to take into account differences in our mindset as we go through the ecommerce journey- and not just suggest that “eyeliner + Cheez-Its = the perfect assortment”.

Whatever Happened to Predictability?

19 Mar

If you want a giggle, go Yelp the “Full House” house. It currently sits at 3.5 Yelp stars- not so good for a “local flavor” entry.

fulllllI don’t remember how I ended up on this Yelp page. Like all good internet rabbit holes, I must have searched something, then just kept clicking away. I tend to get sucked into things like forums, because they provide such interesting insight into human behavior. I see Yelp as a sort of a social experiment where we can learn about people’s biases, preferences, and perceptions.

fullhouse_house_01The “Full House” house, or FHH as I am going to call it, is featured in the opening credits to the original “Full House” show. It’s where we’re told the main characters of the show “lived” throughout the show’s run. It’s not actually where the show was shot, of course, because that’s just how TV works. But it’s become closely tied to our memories of the show, and many a San Francisco tourist sets out to find it. The show’s opening also includes shots of Alamo Square, a park nearby that host beautiful Victorian homes known as the “Painted Ladies.” So a lot of people think the FHH is IN Alamo Square, which it isn’t- it’s a 20 minute walk away. Many Yelp reviews point this out so that future inspired tourists don’t make the same mistake of going to Alamo Square to see the FHH.

As I scanned through the FHH Yelp reviews, I saw 2 key perspectives:

  1. You owe your childhood self a trip to see the FHH. It is a must-do if you’re in SF.
  2. It’s too disappointing to visit the FHH because it doesn’t look like it did on the show. Plus, its location away from the Painted Ladies is a disappointment in itself.

Now, let’s unpack that a bit. First off: you “owe” yourself a trip to see this house, because nostalgia is a powerful thing. We all know the Full House characters aren’t real people, and that nobody we’d recognize has ever lived in this home. Yet, nostalgia for seeing this house within a specific media context is enough to make it relevant. This is why pop culture-themed tours thrive: Sex and the City themed tours in NYC, Lord of the Rings tours in New Zealand. Even though we know movies and shows aren’t “real,” they feel real to us. So we seek out experiences that remind us of the emotion and joy we feel. Visiting the FHH is supposed to give us pleasure, let us reminisce, and make us feel happy about a childhood icon.

But- it can also be disappointing to chase this nostalgia. As many reviewers have noted, the house doesn’t look like it did in those opening credits many years ago. The current owners have repainted it. Plus, they’ve put up trees that sort of block the view. So when you’re trying to peep on the house, it’s harder than you’d expect- and it doesn’t look “right” anyway.

The Yelp reviews span a range of tones. Some reviewers are totally self-aware that they’re dissing someone’s private home for not matching their own hopes. Others seem genuinely upset that the owners have changed the house. And some are just annoyed at the house’s location on a “boring” street rather than in the iconic Alamo Square.

What is this, exactly? Is it entitlement? Or just sadness that memories don’t sync with reality? This happens a lot with nostalgia. You have these built-up memories of how something used to be/taste/feel, and you treasure those memories with passion. So when you re-encounter those memories years later, if it doesn’t match what you thought you’d feel- you feel let down. We’re seeing lots of reboots and sequels these days- but many of them flop, when they don’t match expectations for what they should look like, based on pop culture memories.

In reality, the current FHH owners don’t owe our nostalgia anything. They must have realized what they were getting themselves into when they bought this house- and hey, maybe they painted it gray to deter people from wanting to bother. I’m sure they were the least happy campers when the “Fuller House” series was announced! But at the end of the day, we don’t have a right to be mad at them. The people writing these negative Yelp reviews are simply encountering what happens when reality doesn’t match memory.

So as the Full House theme song alludes- predictability isn’t always a given. And when we latch on too hard to “how things were,” we get a bit flustered by how things are today. And while the FHH has a measly 3.5 stars, the Mrs. Doubtfire House has 5- because it still looks “as it did in the movie.”

Food Is Not Content (and neither is your life)

13 Mar
milkshake-600x450

From People.com

Remember those crazy complicated, towering milkshakes that made the Internet rounds earlier this year? Available in flavors like Cotton Candy, they included so many add-ins and add-ons that they literally rose above their glasses, in a seeming feat of structural engineering. They blew up on sites like Buzzfeed and were shared all over social media as people ogled the wonder that is a super tall, super crazy milkshake. Lines formed outside their source, NYC’s Black Tap, as people clamored for their chance to try one of these milkshakes themselves.

And, of course, to get a picture doing so.

This same story has played out dozens of times. Whether it’s croissant/muffin hybrids dubbed “cruffins” or croissant/donut hybrids dubbed “cronuts”- we keep seeing food-focused media frenzies. The word gets out, lines form, people get their hands on the treasured treat- and then the onslaught of social media posts begins.

city bakery

An example of a time I chased down a certain bakery and it lived up to the hype. And yes, this picture got lots of likes. (City Bakery, NYC)

Of course, my post title isn’t entirely true. Food CAN be content. I personally have a baking blog, so clearly I think food is worthy of clicks and discussion. And I am totally one to chase the latest food trends, even if it means going out of my way to find a renowned bakery or restaurant. But, when foods become trendy, you tend to see photos glorifying the creations for their structure, their combination of flavors, their sheer creativity. You don’t see many posts talking about the food itself, though. That isn’t super hard for me to believe: I’ve been to the home of the aforementioned Cruffin and seen people spend more time photographing their food than eating it. But after the milkshake frenzy, I got curious what people had to say about the milkshakes themselves. So I Yelped the restaurant. Some rave reviews, but many posters conceded that the milkshakes looked better than they tasted. Once you got past how cool it looked, you realized it was actually pretty hard to eat and perhaps too complicated to taste great. It was more about the “WOW” picture than the “WOW!” flavor. But while their Yelp reviews told the truth, I’d bet you their Facebook shots simply said the “WOW!” part without the fine print on taste.

Now, I’m not trying to diss Black Tap: I haven’t been and can’t speak for its shakes myself. I’m simply using this as an example of a broader trend: accepting an experience as valuable because of what it shows others, rather than what it gives YOU. I’m noticing a trend toward thinking of our lives as “content.” When you start doing things to get the perfect photo for Facebook, and not because you really want to- that starts to cross a murky line. When you get excited to try a food trend so you can show everyone you had it- even though the food tasted terrible- you start to put real life enjoyment behind social media envy. When you tell your kid to smile, even though they’re crying, so you can get the right shot for Facebook- what does that mean about us as humankind?

It’s one thing to capture great moments or great meals or great friends. All things I love to do. It’s another thing entirely to put how your life looks, above how it feels. To plan your moments or meals around what you want others to see. I think we’re still learning how these mindsets shift our behaviors, and I certainly haven’t figured it all out. Whether we seek the perfect beach shot or the perfect milkshake, it’s easy to get caught up thinking our lives are content. And the more we think about how our life looks to others, we’re probably forgetting how our lives feel to ourselves.

Sometimes I catch myself thinking “oh this would look great on Facebook.” And I take a step back, put my camera away, and refuse to let myself post it. Extreme? Maybe. But it’s effective to knock myself back into the moment, and into judging whether I’m actually enjoying the experience- or caught up wanting to show others how awesome it “looks.”

Craving a City

14 Feb Chicago

Sometimes I wake up craving a city. I get out of bed, and imagine that when I walk out the door, I’ll find myself someplace other than San Francisco. Sometimes I’m in a Chicago mood. Other times it’s Madrid. Just last week, it was Arkansas.

I’m not entirely sure what drives these “cravings.” I’ve lived a good number of places by now, and each one does remind me of a particular stage of my life. I’ve also been a business traveler for so many years- and the first few years, I was on the road every week, headed to the same place for months at a time. So those places factor into my city cravings, too. They make it messier, in fact, since I never really lived there, but went there so often. I have no roots in those places, but I do have a bond. Sometimes I find it hard to grasp that my story ties to so many places, and that my life has been such a web of locations, projects, people. I suppose it’s common in today’s world, but at times I wonder what it’d be like to live in 1 place your entire life, and leave only for vacation.

When I first moved to San Francisco, I thought feeling like I should be in Chicago made a lot of sense. After all, I’d just spent a few years there, and I barely had any friends here yet. So I’d regularly miss Chicago, miss my friends, and feel like I was in the wrong place. I’d expect to walk outside my building and see the bricks of Lincoln Park, the curve of Lakeshore Drive, the grandeur of downtown Chicago. Instead I’d walk outside to light gray sidewalks, the ascent of the Fillmore hill, the elaborate Queen Anne homes. I’d get on the 45-Union to go to work, rather than the 134-Stockton/Lasalle Express. I’d walk up to a 4-story office building, rather than a skyscraper kissing the Chicago sky.

Nostalgia is a simple explanation for these “cravings.” And it can be triggered by people, moods, weather. Whenever the weather hits a specific shade of crisp, it takes me back to St. Louis, and to my first true “fall” season, the first fall I spent away from Southern California where the seasons blend together.

And yet- it’s more than nostalgia, I think. I can easily wish to be back on 2012’s vacation to Hawaii, but that’s longing, not a feeling of belonging. When I wake up with city cravings, I feel like I’m in the wrong place- that I was meant to be somewhere else that day. The Arkansas example is a good one. Back in 2010, I spent several months commuting to/from Bentonville, Arkansas every week for a consulting project. I certainly didn’t lay roots there- we stayed in a hotel each Monday to Thursday, and flew back home Thursday nights. And yet, thinking about Bentonville takes me to a specific mindset and feeling. When I woke up last week and imagined I’d be stepping into the lobby of the Aloft Bentonville rather than my San Francisco home- it surprised me a great deal. For some reason, I just felt like I was supposed to be in Arkansas that day.

Every city has its own rhythm and flavor. When you walk through its streets, you feel a certain way. The building blocks of a city combine to produce something excitingly distinct: the architecture, people, tastes, smells. The way the air feels. The way the people interact. And when you spend time in one of these places, it sticks with you. Something about that experience seeps into your soul, hooks into your psyche. And once it’s there, it’s there. To be uncovered someday, perhaps by a sign, a memory, a mood.

A look at some of the places I’ve called home:

 

Talkin’ Bout My Generation

30 Jan

Every week I see a handful of articles offering up the newest “learning” on Millennials and what they want.”7 Tricks for Marketing to Millennials.” “How to Keep Millennial Employees Happy.” “What Millennials Care About with Food.”

I read most of them. Partly because I am a brand strategist, and need to know as much as I can about important targets my clients want to reach. Partly because I am inherently curious, and love pulling apart differences. And partly because I’m a Millennial myself- and, well, it’s entertaining to see the generalizations about my generation.

The takeaways on Millennials can get rather contradictory. Trophy kids, or people out to change the world? Entitled, or empowered? Lazy, or let down by older Americans who created a troubling economy? Most sources seem to agree that we like stories in our marketing, experiences over objects, and seek fulfillment from every bit of our lives.

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A handy chart from The Atlantic (http://goo.gl/NU3Nmj)

I love picking apart data to understand the why and the how. When I read many of these articles, the learnings feel off. I think some of these authors are so excited to share a click-worthy article, they forget to crouch their learnings in context. Learnings about generations are really best done longitudinally: showing shifts in behaviors and values over time, as different generations pass the same age mark. Otherwise, what you’re seeing is more of a snapshot about a particular generation at 1 point in time, about 1 thing. That works just fine for most marketing purposes: e.g. knowing that Millennials would rather buy experiences is very helpful for a wedding registry trying to cater to them. But when it comes to making conclusions about the generation as a whole, it’s misleading to look at within the context of a simple study that doesn’t control for life-stage, societal shift, etc. Many of the “trends” I read seem more about life-stage than generation. Others mark a general societal shift: people getting married later, easier access to international travel, etc.

There’s one other big difference with Millennials that really stands out to me. This is essentially the first generation that’s been subject to rapid-fire, wide-spread inspection by the Internet masses. Sure, the Internet didn’t rise up with Millennials. But over the past several years we’ve seen a marked shift in the way “news” and “content” are produced and disseminated throughout the world. We have more content than ever before- some of it amazing, some of it terrible. Everyday we see 10 more articles about Millennials… because we can. It’s possible there were just as many studies commissioned about Gen Y or Boomers, but most people never saw them. A larger proportion of information gets spread around today. There’s a lower filter on what is published, there’s a lower bar for what counts as “news” and the need for content and clicks leads to a world of hyperbolic headlines and a constant race to find something new.

We’re bombarded by news about Millennials in a way that’s evolving with our media landscape. But if you’re sick of hearing about Millennials, don’t worry- Generation Z is up next, and they’re starting to steal the headlines away from my loved/hated/adored/despised generation.

 

 

Baking Inspiration from the Fancy Food Show

24 Jan

I had the joy of attending the Winter Fancy Food Show last week. This biannual trade show is produced by the Specialty Food Association, an industry org that connects manufacturers, buyers and food professionals. Officially, I was at the Show for my day job as a brand strategy consultant. I work with many packaged food clients, so I always try to stay on top of industry trends. Of course, as a food geek, I was downright giddy about getting to attend a trade show. The show featured a mix of newer and established brands, spanning everything from mayonnaise to pasta to gourmet honey. Some of the products were basically what we’re used to seeing, e.g. potato chips. And then there were products that are just now breaking into U.S. markets, like edamame pasta and cricket chips.

I only saw one teeny section of the show, but even in that small sample I noticed a marked shift in what’s on offer for American consumers. There is a good writeup of the show’s macro trends here on the Specialty Food Association’s website. I agree with their takeaways and also noticed a big shift in how people are talking about their products: lots of allusions to “better for you,” implying improved versions of something we’re already used to (e.g. chips made from alternate grains). Lots of “controlled decadence” verbiage labeling bite-sized or single-serving desserts (e.g. 100 calorie brownies). And, of course, numerous references to “small batch,” “artisanal” etc., which is the basis for a different blog post I plan to write.

Today, I want to talk about something more personal: how the Show affected my baking scheming for 2016. So without further ado, here are some notes on what I saw, and how I expect that to trickle into my baking this year.

20160120_064012.jpgBolder flavors and unusual combinations: The U.S. market has seen great growth in “innovative” flavors over the past several years, and it’s going to keep growing. I have always been a sucker for “intriguing” flavors in my desserts and am so excited that these bolder flavors are going more mainstream. I tried a delicious Bourbon Pepper Caramel Corn from The Art of Caramel and now am brainstorming ways to meld those flavors in a balanced baked good- I’m thinking cookies might be the right fit. I grabbed a sample packet of the Spice Hunter’s Coriander Lime blend, which is probably going to make its way into a quickbread of some sort. I also have been thinking up ways to use Salted Caramel Fig Spread and Guava Jam (I’d already been thinking about guava since I went to Brazil, but trying the delicious guava paste from Guayeco Foods made me think about it more!)

20160120_064105.jpgTurning up the heat: Spicy and hot flavors have been growing in popularity the last few years. I saw many products that incorporated Sriracha, chili and peppers. I actually can’t handle spicy food- you should see my face when I try to eat spicy Indian curries. But: I love a spicy kick to my baked goods and really enjoy things like chipotle as a spice in my cookies, brownies and cakes. I am determined to find a way to bake with the Smoked Chili Honey I picked up from Gran Luchito. I also grabbed a delicious spicy chocolate bar from Wild Ophelia, which inspired me to bake with actual peppers.

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Flavored oils and sugars: I saw a lot of flavored oils and sugars on offer at the show. Much more than I see at the grocery store, which makes me hope these sorts of products will be coming to mass supermarkets in the coming years. I was particularly inspired by the Blood Orange Olive Oil Brownie baking kit I saw from Sutter Buttes. Personally, I’ll pick up a bottle of their Blood Orange Olive Oil and try a from-scratch brownie recipe rather than using the kit. Still, I love and appreciate their baking kit line, because it brings unique flavor combos to home bakers of all sorts and stripes. Olive oil is great in baked goods and I am excited to see what added flavor comes from their flavored oils.

Veggie substitutes: I noticed a TON of snacks riffing off vegetables (and fruits, too). My favorite sample was actually from a line made for toddlers: simple snacks made from real fruits and vegetables with just a slight amount of oil, and some light frying to crisp it up. But I also saw “veggie versions” of adult snack foods like chips and snack bars. I keep saying I’m going to bake with more vegetables but haven’t actually fulfilled that pledge. Let 2016 be the year that I put veggies in my baked goods!

That’s it for now- even though I could write pages and pages about what I saw at the Show. Keep an eye out for recipes stemming from this inspirational trip!

Note: this post is cross-posted over on my other blog, Sugarsmith. That blog focuses on baking and dessert- so if you’re into such things, check it out! 

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