Foot by Foot

8 Aug

On Thursday, I took my first car ride in five months.

My first ride of any kind, really. For five whole months, I’d only traveled by foot. No cars, no buses, no bikes. Just me, myself and my own two feet.

When we started shelter in place, the city said to stay in our own neighborhoods. Suddenly, my beloved 7×7 SF was more like a 1×1. In Normal Times, I’m all over the place, always. But when we started staying home, and closer to home, my radius shrank dramatically. I went from spending weekends all over town, to walking distance only.

At first, I found it fascinating. I realized that it was the most geographically constrained I’d ever been, and it felt strangely exciting—like going back in time. It made me think about how lucky I’ve always been to have transit at my disposal. And it made me cherish every inch of my own neighborhood, too. I stumbled upon views and parks I’d never seen before. Losing the option to wander far away helped me find more beauty close to home.

But it felt a bit stifling, too. I’m not good at sitting still, and it turns out I’m not great at staying content close to home, either. I felt strange pangs of nostalgia for other parts of the city. I was grateful that I’d done a staycation right before lockdown. I’d spent a whole week traipsing around, trying new cafes and sipping many a daytime cocktail. Sounds like a real luxury now, doesn’t it?

I think my neighborhood’s hills helped save my sanity somewhat. As my world shrank smaller, the hills provided much-needed perspective. I’d stand at the top, stare off into the distance and remember that the rest of the world was still out there. Perhaps out of my reach for the time being—but still there, waiting for me, someday.

And then social distancing dragged on, and the novelty wore off. The city stopped telling us to stay close to home but I didn’t want to take shared transit yet. So I stuck to walking. I started venturing further out, crossing into neighborhoods I hadn’t seen in months. Every time I made it further away, it felt like crossing some kind of threshold. My first time back to Alamo Square, to Fisherman’s Wharf, to the Embarcadero. Simultaneously like finding a whole new world, and rediscovering my old one.

But even now, my world is relatively small. I can do a lot on foot around here, but can’t do it all. I still haven’t been to many neighborhoods that I used to visit on a weekly basis. A coworker went to our office this week, and it felt like a lifetime away that I commuted there every day.

I expected Thursday’s car ride to feel whimsical. After months of using just my feet, I expected to feel whisked away, like on a magic carpet. It did feel somewhat strange—we covered a 20 minute walk in a 5 minute drive. We took a route I don’t usually do on foot. The scenery passed by much quicker than I’m used to these days.

But the ride didn’t feel as strange as I expected. And I kind of hope that’s how all of our reentry goes, over time. Whenever we finally get back to some semblance of normal, I hope it feels just that: Normal. In some ways, it’s appealing to feel the wonder of things we once took for granted. In others, it’s reassuring that the world still exists, and will be there for us again, whenever this is all over.

 

 

Nine for Nine

14 Jun

Culture Cookies turned nine at the end of May. Nine years is a long time to do anything. When I first started writing here, I didn’t have a longterm vision. I just missed writing, and wanted a place to do it.

My relationship with Culture Cookies changes over time. In my 2019 annual report, I wrote about shifting more time to being out in the world, rather than typing alone at home. Of course, the world has changed a lot since I hit “publish” on that post. The irony isn’t lost on me. I declared my intent to get out even more in 2020… and then the world forced us all inside.

Who’s to say what 2020 will bring for my personal writing. I write when I feel like it, and my feelings are kind of all over the place these days.

But nine years of writing—even if it’s sporadic—means a lot to me. So I read old posts and picked nine that felt especially exciting to me today. There’s no rhyme or reason here. Just nine older posts that I especially enjoyed today. I hope you enjoy them, too!

  1. How do you flaner? (2011)
  2. Should I stay or should I go? (2012. This made me wistful for the days of casual air travel!)
  3. Be nice to tourists (2013)
  4. Potato, potahto (2014)
  5. When suggestion engines get it wrong (2016)
  6. At a crossroads (2016)
  7. From another perspective (2017)
  8. A special snowflake (2018)
  9. Chasing memories (2019)

 

 

 

The Today List

17 May

There’s a point in my Amazon wish list where you see reality shift. First, there’s a long string of flapper dresses, decadently shiny, candidates for a 20’s-inspired party that I attended in February. Then suddenly, the sequins segue into sanitizer. And laptop stands. And, sadly: Disinfecting wipes.

There’s many ways to mark the turn from the Before Times to now. My company ID has been hibernating since March 6th. I haven’t taken public transit in 75 days. And in a truly San Franciscan observation, I haven’t used a backpack for ten whole weeks.

It’s hard to make sense of this fork in the road, from Reality 1 to Reality 2. It’s like the world hit a decision tree in a choose your own adventure story, and went down this curvy, confusing path. Except none of us chose this adventure. And we can’t just turn back the page, and try again.

I feel like I’m suspended in time, living in an alternative universe from the one I knew. But I’m choosing to see this universe as a detour, rather than a permanent shift. I’m not an expert and I certainly can’t control the future (although I can do my part to limit the spread… and so can you! Wink Wink). I don’t know when we’ll get back “on track” to where we were. All I can do is hope it happens, and try to keep myself as sane as possible in the meantime.

Part of staying sane, for me, means managing my time well. I always keep a to-do list, a never-ending assortment of tasks and ideas. Some are closer in, like depositing a check. Some are much further out, like trying a new hobby or visiting a friend. I’m a pretty intense planner, and I get a lot of energy thinking ahead to the exciting things on the horizon.

Except right now… we just don’t know. We don’t know when we’ll get to pick back up our to-do list, for the smaller stuff or the big things. My usual trick of thinking ahead still kind of works, it’s just not rooted in any real dates or plans. It’s thinking ahead to a hypothetical someday, instead of a scheduled trip or concert tickets you already have.

I did some spring cleaning on my to-do list a couple days ago. You see the shift between realities in there, too. There’s an entire list of tasks I’d planned to do back in March: Buy new blush, use up a clothing gift card, go try the newest bar in my neighborhood. There’s ideas for a trip to Paris, which I was scheming about but hadn’t actually booked. There’s my personal goals for 2020, which ironically, mostly had to do with getting out more

At first, I considered deleting that kind of stuff. After all, I’m certainly not going to do those errands or travel to France anytime soon. But I changed my mind. Instead of deleting all those Before Times ideas, I moved them to a new section at the bottom of the doc. I titled the section “eventually.” Because when the day comes that we can get back to some kind of routine, I’m still going to want rosy cheeks.

In the meantime, I’m focused on what I’m calling my “today list.” I can’t control the bigger picture of where we’re headed as a society. I can, to some degree, control what I do with my time today. So for now, I’m trying to stay focused on that. It’s hard to steer away from thinking about what could have been this year, or what we had planned to do. All I can come up with to cope is focusing very, very much on the present reality. Even if it’s a lot less sequined and a lot more isolated than I’d ever imagined.

Keep hanging in there, friends. And if you ever need to talk to someone, drop me a note. I’m here for you.

Cable Ready

26 Apr

A couple days ago I caught a whiff of a classic San Francisco scent.

No, it wasn’t sourdough wafting my way. Or one of the rather unsavory smells you can catch downtown, either.

It was that aroma you only get on the cable car. That unmistakable blend of fuel and pine wood that’s pumped by the brakes as you ride up and down San Francisco’s hills.

When the cars stopped running last month, I noticed the change right away.  They’re impossible to miss, in Normal Times. They have literal bells and whistles, and they clank as they grip their tracks. Tourists squeal as they round the corner near one of my favorite cafes. You see giant lines of people waiting for a ride downtown or at the Wharf

I usually see the cars more than I ride them. So when they first left their tracks, called out of duty, I missed the sights and sounds first. Hyde Street feels too empty. Nob Hill is too quiet. The Cable Car Museum is dark and silent, mail piling up in its entry. 

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Looking back as you climb up Hyde Street

But the minute I smelled that unmistakable Eau de Cable Car, I wanted nothing more than to jump onboard and ride around the city. Even after living here for eight whole years, I take a special delight in riding the cable cars. I don’t do it much—after all, who wants to wait in line just to get around? But right before the shutdown, I happened to catch a ride from the Wharf back to my hood. I stared out the window as we climbed up Russian Hill, appreciating the beauty of the bay. And as that familiar burning scent crept in, I was so absurdly happy about this city and its landmarks.

The empty cable car tracks are just another eerie reminder that thing aren’t normal right now. Nothing feels quite right out there, and I’m finding I miss things I never knew I cared about. Like taking the bus to work. Or watching a local dry cleaning shop open up for the day. Or cable car braking scents.

Like us, the cable cars are sitting at home, waiting to be called back into action. And like us, just because they’re out of their normal routine, doesn’t mean their essence is gone. We’ll all get back on track someday. And when we do, I’m hoping on the first cable car I see and taking it as far as it will go.

cable car barn

The Annual Report (vol. 7)

12 Jan

2019 wasn’t a prolific year on Culture Cookies. I only wrote 3 posts… and one was last year’s annual report. Compare that to 23 posts in 2016, and it sure sounds like I’ve been slacking.

But I can explain. 

Back in 2016, I scheduled my weekends around my blog. I’d literally say no to plans so I could get up early and write. When my alarm went off I’d head straight to my favorite cafe, plunk myself down and chug caffeine until the post was done.

I don’t want to do that anymore.

I still feel super satisfied whenever I hit “publish” over here. But as the cliche goes, there are only so many hours in a day. And these days, blogging just isn’t my priority.

Time for the real talk: I started 2019 in a bit of a personal rut. I felt out of touch with myself, like I was rusty on my own life. Something was missing—and I knew I wouldn’t find it online. 

Writing can be a great way to learn about yourself. It just wasn’t what I needed most in 2019. What I needed was to get away from my laptop and out into the real world. I needed to spend time wandering the city, crossing things off my San Francisco to-do list. I needed to focus on friendships and say yes to all the plans. I needed to reboot other hobbies, like dancing and museum-hopping.

So sure, I didn’t publish very much last year. But I had amazing adventures and strengthened my friendships and got back in touch with what makes me, me.  

It isn’t really slacking when you slow down on something you do for yourself. It just means you’re redistributing that energy to something that matters more.  

And with that—let’s take a closer look at my 2019.

Baking
I baked 38 times in 2019, and 84% of that was trying new recipes. As always, my baking skewed to cookies. My favorite recipes were these salted toffee chocolate cookies, apple pie cookies and cinnamon chocolate chip bread.

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This was the first year in ages that I didn’t host a single party or potluck. Still, I managed to take 32% of the things I baked to other people’s events. 50% went to work with me. You’re welcome, coworkers!

Travel
I took 9 trips in 2019. Some had multiple stops, so I’ve bucketed my data by stop rather than “trip.”

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I ended up in the Pacific Northwest more than usual, thanks to work travel and a newly relocated friend. I was also lucky to take a 2.5 week jaunt through Europe last summer—mostly solo. It was a wonderful trip and I did NOT want to leave.

Missing from 2019’s list: NYC. I think this was my first year without a NYC trip in my entire post-college life. I gotta fix that for 2020…

Work
I rarely talk about work over here, but there’s two things I’m really proud of from 2019. First off: I wrote the Pinterest 100, our annual report showing emerging trends. It was a ton of fun… and my final draft was about 30 pages long. So lest you think my low blog metrics mean I didn’t write much this year—think again!

And then there’s my “non-work work.” I’m very active in our women’s group, and run one of the sub-committees. In 2019, I started a new program called Women@ Circles. We matched women from all over the company into small groups that meet on a monthly basis to talk about a mix of personal and professional topics. It’s been really meaningful to hear about people building new communities, and finding more support. I absolutely LOVE being involved.

Blogging
As I mentioned, I posted 3 times on Culture Cookies in 2019. I also published 7 posts to Sugarsmith and 120 pictures on my San Francisco photo blog. I don’t share the photo blog much, because it’s more like a personal memory log. But if you want to see how I see San Francisco, it might be fun to click around a bit.

On top of that, I did some personal writing that I don’t plan to share. I tried poetry for the first time since high school. I wrote self-reflection pieces that will never go online. And I kept a super detailed trip diary as I traipsed around Portugal and Italy.

Some 2019 fun facts

I keep a super lightweight journal, and I love looking back to see how I spent my time. Here’s what caught my eye in my 2019 “data”:

  • Visitors from out of town: 10
  • Books read: 45, and most are listed here.
  • Party trolleys around SF: 1
  • Number of SF hoods mentioned in my journal: 21
  • Best meal: Tied between lamb hummus at Shalom Y’all in Portland and truffle pasta at Trattoria Gabriello in Florence
  • New neighbors met at my fave coffee shop: 6
  • Visits to the SF Museum of Modern Art: 5
  • Talks given: 1, to middle schoolers. The topic was “Creativity as Self-Care.” Middle schoolers are a tough audience but I think they liked it!
  • Times pizza is mentioned in my journal: 5… but I know I ate it WAY more than that.

And with that, let’s bid adieu to 2019. I hope this post helps you think about your own year ahead. What do you need the most, right now, for a truly satisfying year?

Finding My Bearings

4 Aug

It was the first day of my first job after college, and I made sure to get there early. In fact, I got there so early that I felt silly going in—so I killed some time by wandering nearby.

I’d just moved to Chicago a few days before and didn’t know my way around. I walked a few blocks, took a few turns… and quickly lost track of where I was. This was the pre-smartphone era, and I couldn’t quite remember where I’d turned. Panic set in for a bit. What if after all that, I ended up late to my first day of work?

I looked up and saw a beautiful building, home to the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Ah, yes—I remembered passing this before. My memory clicked into place, I found my bearings, and I made it back to the office with ten whole minutes to spare. 

When I still lived in Chicago, the opera building always took me back to that first day of work. The hope, the expectations, the sheer intimidation of joining the “real world.” Sometimes I’d sit on a bench across the water and look up, trying to remember how I felt on that first day, on the cusp of a major transition.

I left Chicago years ago and don’t get to visit much. The last time I was in town, I happened to get that same glimpse of the Opera peering over the water. All those first morning feelings came racing right back. I sat down and stared up, trying to remember how it felt back in the day. I was so nervous that morning—and getting lost certainly didn’t help. Luckily I had a great support system the minute I stepped into my office. To this day, friends from that first job are some of the closest I’ve got.

But… pretty much everything else has changed. On that sunny August morning, I thought I was starting a career in management consulting and laying down roots in Chicago. Ten years later, and I’m a marketing writer living across the country in foggy San Francisco.

For a while, I felt like that first job stalled me from getting on the right path, right out the gate. I learned a lot, met great people and did some pretty interesting work. But management consulting certainly wasn’t the best longterm fit, so it sometimes felt like I was stumbling to find my way. 

Now that I’m older, and I suppose a few ounces wiser, I see it more like that sunny August day. I wasn’t totally lost—I just wasn’t totally in the right place, either. Let’s call it a scenic detour: A couple turns away from the right path, but not so far that I couldn’t find my way eventually.

And all these years later, I’m really grateful for that detour. Sometimes you have to stray a little to figure out what’s right. You try new things, learn important lessons and figure out what truly makes you happy. And then you find your bearings, get on a better path and go your own way.

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This is the only picture I have of the Opera building. It is not a good picture. Sorry ’bout that.

Chasing Memories

23 Jun

A few months ago I went to my ten year college reunion. It was a wonderful weekend spent wandering campus with my friends, pretending like we were back in college again. Just like old times, right?

Except… what exactly are old times? And is there really any way to replicate them?

I spent the weekend wrapped in nostalgia. I’d walk through halls where I used to have class and try to remember what it felt like to be a student. I went to the gym and stared up into the stands, trying to remember what it felt like to perform at basketball games. I walked around the dorms, washing myself in memories of late night parties and 2 AM burritos and failed attempts at college romance.

I packed a lot into my Reunion weekend but didn’t make it to every spot on my Grand Tour of Nostalgia. I’d wanted to make it to a nearby town where I used to enjoy the farmer’s market to see what it looked like these days and walk around a bit. But it was pretty out of my way, and I didn’t have a car, and hanging with friends was more important than chasing memories.

And so I started thinking a lot about why I was chasing those memories at all. What did I hope to gain from standing in that same town, looking at the street where I used to buy apple butter? What could I really gain from that specific slice of nostalgia that I didn’t get from any of the other places I’d visited that weekend. Would it have changed anything about my life, or even my trip, if I had managed to chase down that one extra moment of nostalgia? 

Let’s be honest: Nope. Visiting that town wouldn’t change a thing about my life now that I’m home. But nostalgia’s a tricky thing. It’s a mix of gratitude for things you did in the past, and reminiscing on a time when things felt different, and remembering the potential you felt at different moments in your life. It’s not like every college moment was a happy one. Sometimes I ate my late night burrito sad about how the night turned out, or sat in my dorm worried about a test, or didn’t feel great about my performance that night. But all those moments blend together now, into a collective memory of a time in my life when things felt exciting and undefined and there was potential everywhere I looked. New friends, new jobs, new experiences. I think I was trying to recapture that feeling for myself, to somehow rediscover that feeling of newness and potential by digging back into my past.

It always feels like the present is more complicated than the past, or that certain doors have closed, or that we’ve lost some sort of innocence we used to have.

But today is tomorrow’s fond memory. In ten years, maybe I’ll walk by the coffee shop I’m at right now, and think about all the time I spent plopped here trying to write. And I’ll try to remember what it felt like to be this age, at this point in my life, wondering what would come next.   

During my Reunion weekend, my friends and I were wandering through a building that’s half-dorm, half-cafeteria. As we came to the end of the hall, my friend Aaron pointed to the staircase and said “That’s the staircase we used to use to… go downstairs.”

And of course we lost it laughing, because that’s a ridiculous comment. But we’d just spent an hour pointing at other things around campus, conjuring up memories from another time. So was his staircase comment really that ridiculous? After all: Nostalgia’s just a staircase to another time in your life. You can stand there and try to remember what it felt like. But no matter how hard you try, you can’t really go back to that moment or reopen the path you didn’t take. You just have to keep moving upward and trust that life will take you to the right place.

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The Annual Report (vol. 6)

27 Jan

When I first looked at my data for 2018 I felt a little sad. All the numbers I usually track in my annual reports had gone down: Less baking, fewer blog posts and way fewer trips. It was kind of disappointing at first. And then I had that “Oh….right” moment.

Sure, my normal metrics had dropped. But as always, the data didn’t give the full picture. Numbers and charts can be great for storytelling, but only if you have the right information. It’s a classic stats lesson: If you look at numbers divorced from context or parameters, you’re probably going to tell the wrong story.

And that’s exactly what happened for me in 2018. My usual metrics simply weren’t the right way to tell the story. I kept up my usual hobbies, but I also spent a good amount of time and energy trying to build healthier habits. Focusing on the metrics that went down only shows one little sliver of my 2018, because a bunch of other positive metrics went up.

That context leads to a totally different interpretation of how I spent my time in 2018. It’s not that I slacked, or let myself down. It’s that my usual metrics weren’t the right set anymore. Here’s a peek at the ups, the downs and the in-betweens.

I posted less, but did more

I posted on Culture Cookies 8 times in 2018, down from 11 posts last year and way down from my peak of 56 posts in 2013. I wrote 13 posts for Sugarsmith, my baking blog. That’s 21 posts altogether, which is pretty good for side projects.

I also started a new blog called Scene in San Francisco, and posted 180 times. It’s just photos and captions, but those 180 posts represent tons of time away from my computer. Getting out more meant writing less for my blogs, and I’m happy with that tradeoff.

My “time spent writing” picture isn’t totally complete until we factor in the writing I do for work. In 2018, my workload spanned everything from blog posts to ad campaigns to speechwriting. Rough math says I spend about 40% of my waking hours on work. So if you add up personal writing and work writing, that means I probably spent over 45% of my time this year doing writing-related things.

I tried to move it, move it  

Since college, I’ve struggled to build consistent exercise habits. I used to blame my crazy business travel and less-than-optimized sleep routine. But of course, a big part of the problem was that I simply didn’t prioritize exercise. In 2018, I declared I was finally going to figure it out. I set a super vague, but achievable goal: Do something active, every single day.

Early in 2018 I re-read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. One of the book’s key principles is that when it comes to behavioral change, you have to start small. Shift one little thing, and it becomes easier to shift bigger things. In the end, trying to be more active actually shifted a number of my habits.

Moving more meant shaking up my schedule. I’m super productive in the morning, so I used to get to work really early. Putting fitness first meant I had to convince myself that exercise was actually a more productive way to start my day. And ultimately, that proved true. My mornings started to feel more relaxing, because I got a little time to just be part of the world before I dug into my inbox.

After some experimenting I picked a daily step goal, and hit it about 70% of the time. Some days I went way over, some days I went way under, and some days I literally paced around my laundry room when I really wanted to hit my goal but couldn’t go outside (hello, wildfire smoke!). Trying to hit a step goal meant seeing more of San Francisco, and feeling more connected to the city. I found myself staring at small architectural details, savoring views, looking up historic plaques. That’s why I started Scene in San Francisco, and it’s become a nice little chronicle of my walks around town.

2018 on Culture Cookies

My 2018 posts bounced between self-reflection, social commentary and marketing analysis. My personal favorites were Center of their Universe (about the hidden worlds of hobbies) and What an Experience (about millennial-centric marketing). The most popular 2018 posts by readership were Center of their Universe, The Forks of Life and last year’s annual report.  This 2017 post about personal taste and recommendation algorithms also racked up a lot of views.

2018 in baking

I baked 34 times in 2018, and 76% of that was trying new recipes. My favorite recipe was this pistachio cake with pomegranate buttercream. The most peculiar recipe I tried was this pea cake, which really didn’t taste like peas at all, and wasn’t that peculiar in the end. Chocolate was the most dominant flavor for my baking experiments, but I also made 7 recipes that starred some kind of fruit, including 3 types of banana bread.

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Some 2018 fun facts

  • Museum visits in SF: 10, mostly to the local art museums. 
  • Musicals seen: 3, and “Dear Evan Hansen” was definitely my favorite.
  • Times my journal mentioned going out to breakfast or brunch: 40… yikes.  
  • Puppy parades crashed: 1, at work. 10/10 would crash again.
  • Books read: 24, and most of them are listed here.
  • Friends and family members seen over 5 days in NYC: 13, which made me feel so, so loved. 
  • Most unexpected search term that led someone to this blog: “Spaghetti and bananas.” At first I was super confused, but then I remembered this post about spaghetti with banana ketchup. The post is about Filipino cuisine, but it turns out spaghetti with bananas is a Somali dish. So someone must have been searching for that, and landed on my blog instead!

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.

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?

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