What an Experience

30 Dec

In 2012, The New York Times ran an article about G.M.’s struggles with younger consumers. G.M. couldn’t figure out how to reach millennials, so they hired MTV’s consulting service to help. Their brief: Tell us how to make millennials want cars.

The NYT article inspired dozens more about how millennials shop and whether they’d ever buy high ticket items. I’m not sure if that was the beginning of the millennial think piece explosion, or if that trend started even before 2012. But the “why won’t millennials buy cars” debate helped spur one of the most enduring perceptions about my generation: That we favor experiences over material goods.

Here we are, six years after that NYT article came out, and the insight has become marketing cannon. “Millennials like experiences more than things” pops up everywhere, from research reports to marketing recaps.

Is it true? Honestly, I don’t know. My gut is that it’s sorta, kinda true. We probably aren’t buying as many luxury goods, and we definitely aren’t buying as many houses (ahem, because we’re priced out). We probably do spend a higher proportion of our money on things like concert tickets and trips. But research show that’s true across age groups when you get into a certain band of affluence, and a growing trend for people of all ages. So is it really fair to say this is a super millennial thing to do?

Let’s be real: Millennials are certainly buying tons and tons of stuff. Beautifully-branded, sleek stuff. And we believe that our buying decisions say something big about us. Just like our parents did, and their parents did, as far back as conspicuous consumption goes.

When people have the experiences vs. stuff debate, they often make experiences sound more virtuous. Like you’re rejecting consumerism if you choose to buy a plane ticket instead of a Prada purse, or you’re above materialism. And sure, lots of people have trended toward minimalism lately. Very costly minimalism…but minimalism, nonetheless.

I’d argue that experiences have sort of become our next cycle of consumerism. Look at your social media feeds, and you’ll see that talking about experiences has become its own kind of social currency. We chase experiences to such an extreme that they can feel like commodities. I’ll trade you a sprinkle pool selfie for an Iceland hot spring photo, please. Oh, you’re more into theater? Ok, then how about a Hamilton pic? (Note that I have two of these myself…I’ll let you guess which ones).

It makes sense that experiences can make us happy—and research backs it up. When experiences go well, we feel better about spending the money than if we had spent it on material goods. We can look at the photos, relive the memories, get inspired to take more adventures. But it only really works if you’re in the moment, enjoying the experience. If things don’t go great, you regret the money more. And if you’re just doing something “for the gram,” is that really a better use of your money than buying a fancy purse? At least you could use the purse for years to come… your gram fades away in just a few days.

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We definitely haven’t heard the end of the “experiences over things” line. I see tons of ads hinting at that insight, framing all kinds of things as “experiences” to make them sound more appealing. I think this Audi ad is my favorite—it literally stopped me in my tracks one day! It’s like someone gave the marketing team a brief that said “Remember, millennials like experiences more than things.” And they just decided to go with that literal sentiment. I don’t hate it, actually…it’s kind of genius.

Maybe millennials will never spend as much money on luxury goods as previous generations. But I’d argue we’re actually more dependent on our purchases to define who we are. We put a lot of weight in the brands we choose, the clothes we wear, how we decorate our house. And unlike previous generations, we’re also taking pictures of that stuff, and putting it all over the internet to broadcast who we are. Maybe we’re not spending as much money as past generations—but we’re broadcasting our choices in a way that no other generation has, or has been able to.

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A Special Snowflake

18 Nov

Somewhere out there, there’s a marketing team talking about you.

Maybe they’re figuring out their new product strategy, or working on their next campaign. Or they’re just trying to understand how to better reach their target customer.

And that target, my friend…It’s you.

No matter who you are, there are marketers trying to reach you. And they’re probably spending a lot of time and money to do it.

In fact: Companies used to pay me to do it. When I used to work in brand strategy, part of my job was helping companies figure out their target market. We’d do tons of research about their category, their brand, and what people want. And then we’d make pretty PowerPoint slides to explain what we found.

Our recommendations blended demographics and psychographics. Think something like this: Your ideal customer is a woman aged 25-32, who loves to try new things and shops for condiments twice a month. She’s a little price sensitive, but willing to spend more if there’s special ingredients or a fun new twist she’s never seen before. She’s the primary shopper for her household and does most her grocery shopping at big box stores. She’s strapped for time, and doesn’t spend long browsing the aisles—so you’ll need to tell her about your brand before she even gets to the store.

Sometimes, we even gave this “target customer” fake names and locations. Like “Kelly, 31, a frequent traveler from Libertyville, Illinois.” Or “Jeremy, a 56 year-old man from Nashville who’s looking for a new credit card.” Ironically, adding fake info makes everything feel more real.

These projects always made me wonder: Who was trying to reach me? I knew that somewhere, there was a team of marketers talking about a target audience who looked a lot like me. Maybe my name wasn’t on their slides…but I fit the bill for what they wanted. They were spending lots of time and money trying to appeal to me. But who were they?

If you think enough about your habits and preferences, you can kind of figure it out. I’m the perfect audience for a food brand that’s selling new kinds of baking ingredients. I’m also very likely to buy your brightly colored, patterned dresses. And I’m into organic stuff, but price-sensitive—so you bet I want to hear about your organic drug store beauty line.

Does this all just sound creepy to you? I totally get that. It’s weird to think about people explicitly trying to reach you, or people “like you.” And the word “targeting” itself is pretty questionable (my team had a whole conversation about this, just last week!).

When you get past the creep-factor, I think people are also resistant to the idea of being classified. There’s something off-putting about it, to think that we can be grouped into categories, or explained in simple terms.  That’s why this Onion article made me laugh so hard. We all want to be special snowflakes. We don’t want to think that we fall neatly into any particular group, or pattern or predictability. We don’t want to believe that our personalities and quirks can be neatly summarized, or abstracted.

But the reality is, most of us DO fall into patterns and predictable sub-groups. It’s not mutually exclusive to be interesting or unique, but also follow some predictable patterns. I like to think I have a quirky personality and I’m all about trying new things…but I’m also a creature of habit in many, many ways. Is it so bad to acknowledge that?

The other day, my boss had us write down a few words to describe our personalities. We only got to choose a few—and yet, everyone’s self-descriptions felt shockingly accurate. Are we easier to summarize than we think?

Here’s an exercise for you: Write down 8 traits that describe you. Maybe a mix of adjectives, behaviors and demographics. Then read it to a friend, and ask if it sounds right. Anything they’d add to get at your essence? Anything they’d subtract? And if they saw that description floating around in a PowerPoint deck…would you come to mind?

The Forks of Life

16 Sep

There’s a McDonald’s at the corner of Varick and Downing where I sat one morning, contemplating my future. I had a job interview down the street, and a little time to kill. I didn’t take that job, and I moved to San Francisco instead of New York. I ended up working for a company based just a couple blocks south. I’d pass that McDonald’s a few times a year, and wonder what if.

There’s a Starbucks near Washington Square Park where I studied for the GMAT. My test was just a couple weeks out so while I was in town to visit friends, I took lots of study breaks. I bought a cup of coffee to justify sitting at Starbucks for hours, even though I didn’t like coffee back then. As I studied, I drank the whole cup, sip by sip. I never actually applied to business school, but I did get really into coffee.

I have tons of memories in New York, even though I’ve never lived there. I’ve been there so many times over the years for work, for weddings, for fun. There’s places that trigger smiles for me: The CVS I ran to for emergency replacement pantyhose before a client meeting. The bakery I dashed to for a late night cookie after focus groups. The scene-y hotel bar that made me feel so cool when I was 23 and meeting up with friends.

But most places, they’re just memory markers. They remind me of something, I smile, I move on. That Starbucks and that McDonald’s—they’re something else. They’re like physical markers of my roads not traveled. When I see them, I remember big choices that could have changed my whole life. The job that could have been. The city I could have lived in. The grad school I could have pursued.

When I see those places, my first reaction is to wonder what if. What if I took that job, and moved to New York? What if I’d actually applied to business school?

Our brains want to dramatize, and imagine other outcomes. But I know it’s just fantasy. You can never fully envision what would have happened on another path. You can construct the skeleton—but you can’t fill in the bends, or forks, or detours. So instead of wondering what if, I try to remember the emotions I felt when I was back at that fork in the road. What was important to me? Was I nervous? What did I think the future held?

I’ll probably never go inside that McDonald’s again—it doesn’t have any intrinsic value. It’s the flash of walking by that’s so powerful. In that moment of recognition I see a younger me, waiting for an interview, hopeful for what’s to come.

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Center of their Universe

29 Jul

For a week every summer, Indiana becomes the center of the baton twirling universe. Majorettes swarm Notre Dame, booking every hotel room in sight. As you walk around campus, you’ll see batons flying left and right, people practicing anywhere they can. The athletic facilities are littered in sequins and smell like hairspray, as people prep to compete. The halls are intense: full of energy, nerves, and hope.

This is AYOP, one of the top baton twirling events in the US. It’s been held at Notre Dame for 48 years, and gets bigger every time. I probably attended a dozen AYOPs when I was a kid, hoping for a chance at baton twirling glory. The annual trip came with family rituals: malts at the Bonnie Doon, a couple days in Chicago, maybe a jaunt to Amish Country.

But those traditions were only one part of the equation. Every time we got to Notre Dame, we entered a whole new world. The baton community is full of traditions and politics. People have firm beliefs about the proper etiquette, the right hairstyles, the right way to act at competitions. There are revered champions, big personalities, rivalries, inside jokes, legends, lore.

When you walk around AYOP, it feels like you’ve entered a whole other world. The more you know about it, the more it means. But if you’re on the fringe, you may not completely understand what you’re seeing. You see the sequins, you smell the hairspray, you appreciate the twirlers’ skills—but you’re missing a lot of the meaning.

And every hobby or interest group is like that. Whether you’re into dog competitions or swim meets, art shows or advertising conferences—it’s always its own little world. Every community has a system, and to the people on the inside, that system is everything. If I had suddenly decided to start swimming instead of twirling, I would have had to start over with a new system of rules and rituals. Different things would matter.

I took a few years off from competing when I was in high school, and skipped AYOP for a while. When I went back in 2004, I didn’t feel like an insider anymore. I still knew the rules and rituals but it felt like I was observing them, not living them. I saw people I’d grown up with, familiar faces, the same events. But it just didn’t feel like my world anymore.

I remember wandering the halls of Notre Dame, wondering what AYOP looks like to someone without any context. And then I started wondering about all the other little worlds happening across the country, at that same moment in time. How many microcosms of society exist, with their own rules and politics and dynamics? How many other worlds could I have entered, if I just hopped over to Chicago or Philly or Des Moines?

These days, I watch AYOP from afar. I look at Facebook friends’ photos, and all the memories come racing back. I wonder about the rituals, and whether they’re the same. Whether our favorite restaurants are still there, and the same vendors on site. I’d love to go back someday, and actually priced it out a couple times. But if I did, I think I’d feel more like a researcher than a participant. Almost like I was on some kind of ethnography, taking notes for the folks back home.

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Grainy pictures from my first year at AYOP. People bought foam for their kids to nap on!

Take A Walk

20 May

When you walk around, what do you notice? Is it the sights, the smells, the sounds? Is it a particular kind of store, or a certain type of architecture?

I’ve long seen walks as a meditative practice. And lately, I’ve challenged myself to make the most of every walk I take, even if it’s a 5 minute excursion. I try to pay super close attention to what’s around me and how I feel. I stop and stare at things so I can soak up the details and find something interesting. There’s always something interesting, if you look hard enough.

It’s also a matter of perspective–what you’re conditioned to notice based on your interests and background and tastes. In On Looking, Alexandra Horowitz talks about human observation patterns. She takes walks with different kinds of experts–in animals, in architecture, in human gait–to see what they see. She wanted to understand how different kinds of experts observe things differently on the same walk.

I thought about my own experiences walking around the city, and realized words shape my walks. I am very likely to chuckle at a sign, or comment on copy I find interesting, or stop to make sense of a confusing ad. I notice words more than many other people, and words stop me in my tracks more than any other thing.

My secondary pattern seems to be streetscapes. I’ve always been really into alleys and street scenes, and I pause when I think an intersection looks particularly picturesque. But I wouldn’t say I’m an expert in streetscapes–I just find them poetic.

When you’re racing around, it’s easy to lose track of what’s around you. Sometimes I create a running commentary of observations in my head to make sure I’m paying attention. “Look at that man crossing the street, I wonder what he’s holding, I wonder where he’s going.” “That building didn’t use to have a tree there, I wonder who planted it, I wonder if they’ll add more.” Nothing fancy–but it helps you notice more about your surroundings. The very act of paying explicit attention guarantees you’ll notice something interesting.

So, go take a walk. See what catches your eye, your ear, your heart. What are you more conditioned to notice than anyone else? What do you wish you noticed more? What’s your take on the great big world around you?

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PS: I’m posting pictures of my daily walks around SF over here.

 

How About Now?

10 Mar

I recently went out to dinner at a Spanish restaurant near my office. It’s a pretty great spot: beautiful inside, with delicious food and a good mix of dishes. We took a while to decide what to order. Should we get appetizers, or just mains? Paella, or personal entrees? Sides, or no sides?

We finally made up our minds and put in our order. And then, five minutes later, a man rolled up to our table with a cart of food.

“Would you like to add one of these to your order?” he said.

My friends and I looked at the cart. Then at one another. And then we added 3 more dishes to our order.

The roving snack cart is truly genius. There we were, so confident in what we’d decided to order. We’d thought about budget, and sizing, and all of that. But the minute someone walked up with dishes on display for us to consider…all of our careful ordering went out the window. We ate more than planned, and spent more than expected.

I’m used to seeing dessert carts, but an appetizer cart is a special breed of genius.That restaurant knows that willpower only goes so far. Maybe we felt capable of resisting temptation on the menu, but once the dishes were right in front of us, forget about it. And maybe we felt able to protect our wallets upfront…but the cart essentially made ordering more food an impulse buy.

At another meal, the waiter offered us a supplement to our prix fixe menu. We declined–so he asked us again, twenty minutes later. I don’t think that was a mistake. I think it was a perfectly calculated move to get us to reconsider, and maybe change our minds.

This same consumer psychology comes up for other kinds of purchases too: car add-ons, cleaning service extras, even extra toppings on your frozen yogurt. The more you’re asked, the more you consider. The more you’re asked, the weaker your resolve.

Does this count as businesses taking advantage of people? In a way, yes. I’m sure they know what they’re doing, and I’m sure they keep doing it because it works. But is it evil? I don’t think so. As a consumer, you have to feel responsible for each decision you make. If you change your mind about wanting an appetizer and now you can get one, great. Win win! But if you’re considering that appetizer simply because it’s in front of you, and you feel almost bad saying no, try to hold onto your willpower. They may keep asking again and again, but that doesn’t mean you have to take their bait!

 

 

Oh So Real

18 Feb

You know those commercials that start with the disclaimer “these are real people, not actors?”

I don’t buy it.

I mean, it’s not quite the same as a scripted commercial, and it’s probably slightly more genuine. But the people in those ads signed up to be a part of something, and probably signed a waiver saying the footage could used anywhere, at anytime. Oh, and they were probably paid for their time. So is that really “real?” I don’t think so.

Here’s the thing though: people trust people. We want to hear what people think about a product or idea, not what the manufacturer thinks. And now, we’re used to things like product reviews, ratings and social media share buttons. It’s heightening our expectations for real talk, from people we relate to.

It’s actually a bit of a shift for advertising as a whole. Celebrity endorsements still loom large, but there’s a reason influencers have become so popular. Influencers are ever so slightly more relatable than celebrities. Plus, they’re talented at blending endorsements into their lifestyle, so it doesn’t feel as much like an “ad.” That makes them even more relatable–more “real people,” if you will. People don’t just want to be sold to. And we don’t necessarily see companies as authorities. We want that ever-elusive “authenticity.”

Which brings us back to real humans. We trust real humans to give it to us straight. They’re just like people like you and me, after all.

When I was in New York last spring, a giant billboard from Emerald Nuts caught my eye. One side read “Yes good.” The other side said “we liked this customer review so much, we made it our new tagline.”

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A genius ad, really. The most basic review you could find. A phrase you’d never purposely write as an ad. And it works. It’s so simple, so silly and so effective. Emerald built out the campaign with a dedicated website and made videos about other funny reviews. But the billboard is my favorite, because it literally puts customers first. There’s not a lot of convincing going on here. Just words from a real human, who liked the nuts enough to spend about 4 seconds writing a review.

And you know: it actually feels real to me. More than people pretending to care about a car’s mileage, more than a celebrity hawking toothpaste. Simplicity and imperfection are relatable. Now let’s hope these ads help Emerald sell more nuts!

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