Just Like Mom Used to Make

20 Jul

I was wandering a local craft fair this weekend when a candy maker’s sign caught my eye. As I read about her products she offered me a sample, along with this sound bite: “these are all family recipes –  I got them from my aunt.”

Her comment made me pause. I turned to my boyfriend and commented that she was lucky to have an aunt with such good recipes – because her candies were indeed delicious. Still, her “origin story” made me think about how much we gravitate toward products with a homestyle or family-born slant. Just because a recipe comes from a family member doesn’t mean it’s any good. Your aunt could be the worst cook in the world. Yet, marketing plays off this angle time and time again.

20150718_162359I actually started writing this post a while ago, after I saw a magazine ad about pasta sauce. It’s a slightly different brand story, but a similar angle. The ad plays off this idea that their sauce is “like you’d make it.” The implication is that if you made the sauce yourself, you’d do it the “right way.” This particular product is rooted in simplicity: a short ingredient list and simple methods. But the story they’re telling is rooted in the conception that homemade means high-quality. We all know that isn’t necessarily true. Your homemade meals probably aren’t full of preservatives, but they may very well be disgusting if you’re a bad cook. Or maybe you use a lot of shortcuts and packaged ingredients, so the end result isn’t very “authentic” after all. Saying something is homemade doesn’t make it better, any more so than claiming a product was made in a country known for its craftsmanship.

20150719_142615And yet, these marketing tactics work.We associate these sorts of terms with quality and integrity, regardless of whether our personal experiences suggest the associations, or not. In a society where craftsmanship and small batch are premium descriptors, we can expect to see many more brands playing this homestyle or “authentic” angle. These words are comfortable to consumers, even if they’re not logical associations to make. Even if our family never baked together, seeing yeast that advertises “for family baking” sounds comforting and authentic. And even if you’ve never made pasta sauce, you like the idea that if you ever were to start make sauce – you’d definitely do it the right way.

All Packaged Up (Picture Prattle)

7 Jul
Grocery shelves in Pisac, Peru

Grocery shelves in Pisac, Peru

When you travel, you usually expect to find difference. You expect to hear new languages, see alternative clothing styles, and learn about the ways another culture perceives the world. You’ll find these things, for sure. But you’ll also find a lot of nuances in the products people use, even for something as unassuming as a bar of soap.

Our worlds are built on little blocks of accepted behaviors and patterns. Whether you like it or not, much of your daily routine is rooted in the products you use. The shampoo you wash your hair with, the cereal you enjoy for breakfast, the cookies you eat as a snack. When you travel abroad, you realize that many of the products you perceive as “givens” are only givens to you. You may think Oreos are the reigning sandwich cookie, everywhere. But then you go to Peru and see Casino cookies and realize you might not be so right, after all. And then you go to China and try to replace your shampoo, the one you can buy at any drugstore or grocery store in the USA- and you realize that perhaps the things you perceive as “ordinary” products aren’t necessarily ordinary for everyone, everywhere. I like to think about how it’d be to live in a world that’s defined by a whole other ecosystem of brands and products. What would be my go-to soap? My favorite brand of beer? My go-to indulgent packaged snack?

The consumer packaged goods industry fascinates me. Modern innovations mean that giant corporations can mass produce, mass ship, and get a worldwide reach that’s bigger than the world has ever seen before. And yet, local preferences persist, sometimes at the brand level, and sometimes at the product level. I always check out grocery stores when I’m abroad, and I specifically look to see how many products I recognize. Given my love of cookies, it’s no wonder I tend to do this exercise in the cookie aisle before any other part of the store.

The next time you’re traveling, no matter where it is, take a look at the assortment in the local grocery store. Do you see all the products you’re used to? Or are your perceived “staples” perhaps not universally staples, after all? If you lived in this place, how would your behaviors and preferences change? What products would blend into your life?

Everywhere is Awesome

21 Jun

What makes a place “worth” visiting? There are obvious reasons, of course: beautiful scenery, cultural treasures, historic heritage. But I’m a strong believer that anywhere can be interesting, if you just take a little time to explore. There’s always something to learn, something to discover, anywhere you go.

I could have sit back in my hotel room watching TV when I was alone in Alabama for work - but instead I discovered this beautiful pier.

I could have stayed back in my hotel room watching TV when I was in Alabama for work – but instead I discovered this beautiful pier.

I’ve thought about this a lot over time, largely because I travel so much for work. Some work trips have taken me to bustling cities like New York or Toronto, but often I end up in smaller towns and far-flung suburbs. Many of my favorite “on the road” memories come from these places: the pecan farm I stumbled upon in Alabama, the gas station/gourmet deli combo my colleagues and I used to love in Arkansas, the small town in Michigan where I spent my first month on my first job out of college. The benefit of going to places like these is you expand your sense of what’s “worth” exploring. You realize that just sitting in the local coffee shop people-watching helps you understand something profound about the way other people live. You start to wonder what it’d be like to live and grow in this other environment. You learn a lot about yourself by pushing beyond the tourist to-dos, and looking to learn from everything you see, even if it isn’t listed on anyone’s “best of” anything itinerary. It doesn’t curb my interest in exotic locales or tourist meccas like Paris. But I think it’s important to get a good balance of the tourist sights, and the rest the world. I think it’s critical to approach every new place with a sense of wonder and the expectation that this place is absolutely, 100% worth your time and effort.

The next time you’re on a road trip, I challenge you to stop somewhere “random.” Spend a couple hours just exploring this place, visiting its businesses, talking to its people. You’re guaranteed to find something that interests you, as long as you open your mind to it. I’m always excited when I go somewhere new no matter where it is – because I know I’ll leave with a broadened perspective, and a slightly better understanding of the great big world out there. “Non touristy” places matter just as much as their more famous counterparts, maybe even more. They’re what holds our world together.

Digging In

30 May

Recently a Facebook friend posted a query to his virtual pals, asking if anyone knew why truck drivers leave their lights on when they’re parked at truck stops overnight. None of his friends knew the answer – but I couldn’t resist Googling it. I learned that sometimes it has to do with the engine, sometimes it has to do with safety, and sometimes it’s simply that the driver isn’t asleep at that particular moment (duh!). As I kept clicking, the minutes kept ticking. And soon, I’d spent a lot of time reading through various threads on a truck drivers’ forum- just because.

I get sucked into this sort of thing easily, probably more easily than most people. I just can’t resist trying to crack the answer. That insatiable curiosity explains how I’ve ended up in so many research-based positions over time, from my college days to my current job. I’m consistently fascinated by learning about new types of people. There’s just so much to know! Every subset of the human population has specific beliefs, behaviors and perceptions of reality. And it never gets old to learn about the intricacies.

I used to think about this a lot when I competed in baton twirling competitions. To the outsider’s perspective, baton twirling may seem like just another sport. But if you spend some time at a baton contest, you’ll notice all the rules, the expected behaviors, the cultural dynamics. It’s the same for any other subculture. Every subset of humans has its own cultural foundation.

Most people, though, never read through truck driver forums or visit baton contests just to try to understand. We travel to learn about other places and peoples, but we never can make it to everywhere. And even for someone like me, who spends a lot of time investigating particular subsets of the population, it’s pretty much impossible to learn about everyone, everywhere.

But shouldn’t we at least try? Maybe there’s some merit to spending a lot of time digging through “random” forums trying to understand another group of people. Maybe we should spend more time just Googling various types of people and seeing what we find. Maybe it’s worth our time to just type something into Google and click away for a couple of hours, trying to learn about the way another person constructs their world. We’ll still never be able to learn everything about every type of person – but we’ll build our own point of view, at least, by digging into someone else’s world.

What’s New?

19 May

We’re lucky to live in a time where there’s constant innovation and creation. There’s always something new to discover: new music, new products, new ideas. But can that newness cross the threshold from exciting, to tiring? Is there such a thing as too much newness?

I thought of this the other day as I listened to a mash-up playlist on SoundCloud. I heard a track called “Top of the Pops 2014,” which is a mix of the top pop songs that came out in 2014. Then the playlist segued to another artist’s “top of 2014″ list. Then another “top of 2014″ track came on. And then a “top of 2013″ track, followed by 3 other artists’ versions. Etc, etc, etc.

As the playlist took me back through years of “top” music, I started to feel a bit overwhelmed. So many forgotten songs came back to my consciousness, some loved and some hated. And I started thinking about the cycle that turns some new things into long-treasured favorites, and pushes other new things into the withered darkness of “forgotten-ness.”

This always makes me laugh. In Canada, they mark their new street signs. Actually quite logical, but still funny somehow.

I took this picture in Toronto years ago. It’s actually pretty smart to mark new street signs – but it still made me laugh!

We certainly have more new, more often than in any other generation. Partly due to human productivity, and partly because we have media to spread the news far and wide, in a matter of seconds. Sometimes I wonder if there is a limit to the amount of “newness” we can handle. You know how too many choices causes mental overload? Perhaps for newness, it’s a sort of fatigue that comes with having to process so many inputs on a regular basis.

We often use the phrase “quality over quantity.” Could this be true for human production, too? Is there a tipping point where continuous newness is a burden for society rather than a benefit? I wonder if we’d be happier with fewer things, longer, than a bigger quantity of things we like.

I’m not going to stop listening to those yearly compilations. But I think I’ll stop listening to so many in a row. There’s something about that continuous stream of little bits of songs that felt stressful, and turned a fun trip down memory lane into a mental trek.

Change is in the Air

11 May

Culture Cookies turns 4 this month. I started this blog as an outlet for long-form writing about topics I liked. It was that simple. And because of that original purpose, the blog became a sort of clearinghouse for whatever happened to pique my interest on a particular day. Over time it has morphed into a curious blend of topics, from business strategy to social commentary.

I work in brand strategy, and we talk a lot about brand positioning. Good brand strategy means knowing what your organization stands for, boiled down to its purest essence and its strongest points of differentiation. I’ve tried to apply that approach to Culture Cookies in the past to brainstorm ways to build my readership. Should it become a baking blog? A marketing blog? Any possible approach I came up with involved narrowing the blog’s scope. And over time, I’ve realized I simply don’t want to do that. I want this blog to stay my clearinghouse for whatever I find interesting, whether that’s an homage to World’s Fairs, a travel diary, or a critique of a new ad campaign.

Instead of making this blog more focused, I’m starting a new blog that’s more narrow. Baking has grown in importance for me over time and at this point it’s fair to call baking a defining hobby. I occasionally post about food on Culture Cookies, but I think it’s time to give my baking habit its own place on the Internet.

So readers: meet sugarsmithExpect a mix of recipe experiments, bakery reviews, ice cream taste-tests, and probably some longer musings from time to time. I hope you like it over there – and hope to still see you back here at Culture Cookies, too!

Here’s a peek at the sorts of things you can expect to see on sugarsmith: 

Best in Class

1 May

What would you expect to see on Yelp’s yearly “Top 100″ restaurant list? Would it be that haute cuisine restaurant in downtown San Francisco that costs $500 per person? Or maybe that trendy cafe in Brooklyn that’s so hip, you have to wait 3 hours just to get a table?

You’d probably be surprised if you saw the real list. There are indeed some cutting-edge entries, but there are also places like the corner store-meets-coffee shop tucked into a corner of San Francisco’s Inner Sunset neighborhood and a seafood truck in Maine. At the coveted #1 spot? A small BBQ restaurant in Big Pine, California. Copper Top BBQ’s Yelp page shows a 5-star average rating, which is laudable. But as a Slate article pointed out, there’s something else going on here. Being #1 on Yelp’s list does not mean that Copper Top is necessarily the top restaurant in the country. It means it is the top restaurant for satisfying a Yelp user’s needs.

Yelp reviews run on a star system, like so many other ratings systems we encounter. But ratings systems inherently bring issues: people interpret the options differently, some people consistently low-ball or high-ball, people choose ratings based on outlier experiences. The idea is that eventually those things will balance out. But as other research has shown, more than 40% of Yelp reviews are 5-star ratings. That suggests that people are using the 5-star option to mean something other than “extraordinary.” Slate’s Will Oremus broke this down, dissecting why certain restaurants thrive on Yelp and others don’t – even if they’re critically acclaimed.

Oremus’ analysis leads to a number of interesting hypotheses. For starters, restaurants do really well on Yelp when they provide good quality, for good value. Most people using Yelp are not frequenting fine dining establishments and simply want their needs met, for a good price. In fact, it seems like one of the biggest drivers for good ratings is a lack of disappointment. If you get what you want, without hassle, it’s a net good experience. In that case, a good rating on Yelp becomes a symbol of checking the right boxes, rather than a symbol of extraordinariness. Oremus also noticed that a lot of the “top-performing” restaurants are local establishments with focused menus. So there is less chance for error, in a way: people are more likely to order something they will like, and more likely to get what they expected. There are also more “top restaurants” from specific geographic areas, which Oremus attributes to the fact that quantity of reviews factors into how the list is built.

I don’t think that the way people use Yelp should stop us from “trusting” its reviews. In fact, this all makes a lot of sense. I am someone who chases innovative foods and unique flavors, so when I use Yelp, I often do want to see the most “unique” options and not just the most “satisfying” options. But “unique” isn’t necessarily the best way to judge the overall value of a restaurant. Most of the time, there’s a lot to be said for stable, reliable places to eat, and I don’t think they get nearly enough credit for what they provide. For that alone, I think it’s great that this list gives us a different perspective than the types of rankings we usually see.

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