The Mighty Pen

15 Nov

Packing to move earlier this year gave me an insightful trip down memory lane. Digging through belongings, deciding what to keep- it makes you think a lot about your past and your priorities. I loved seeing old photos, souvenirs, and the like. But even the smallest, most ordinary-seeming things can inspire reflection. This time, it was a bag of pens.

20150902_092440As I cleaned out the drawers of a dresser I wasn’t keeping, I found myself overwhelmed by stacks of paper and bags of pens. When I say “bag of pens,” I mean a giant Ziploc bag stuffed with them. Probably 50 pens of the ordinary sort, plus a selection of Sharpies and some pencils in there for good measure. Some of the pens brought back specific memories, like the ones from hotels, or the one shaped like a baton, or the one I remember buying as a Disneyland souvenir back in the day.Most the pens were rather generic, though: significant for what they represented, but not that significant in themselves.

I’ve always been a writer- ever since I could write, I was scribbling short stories and poems on every piece of paper I could find. My childhood desk is still filled with the remnants of this hobby- little bits and pieces of poems, song lyrics, and reflections on life at a tender age. My current room has some of these scraps, too, but it’s a mix of travel journals and college publications rather than the fiction and poems of my youth. Over time, I’ve shifted more toward non-fiction writing in general. And I’ve also shifted toward more writing on my computer. Though I still use a pen to write the first draft of many blog posts and work presentations, ultimately everything ends up captured on this little machine, in a digital font, preserved for what we believe to be eternity- or at least until the next technology breaks through.

The bag of pens made me smile, though, for a number of reasons. I vividly remember how proud I felt when my elementary school teachers let us use pens instead of pencils. Pencils felt so juvenile: a pen felt more confident, wiser, more mature. Pencils, with their built-in erasers, suggested that you didn’t fully know what you were doing. I loved the way it felt to write with a pen, gliding over the surface of a piece of paper. It felt more real to me, more hearty, if that makes sense.

But, without its built-in eraser, it sure was messy.  A pen means messy paper, ideas crossed out with lines rather than cleanly erased. It means starting over on a new sheet of paper if your pen-scribed thoughts need to be shared with anyone else. It means trying to write as neatly as possible, so the ink doesn’t run and blur out what you’re trying to say. My personal writings from childhood are a mess of lines and crossed out words, especially the poems. I might have whipped out the White-Out or used a new sheet of paper for schoolwork, but personal writings gave me freedom to be messy.

A shift to computers meant even more editing and even more drafts. It just isn’t the same feeling, though. I switch between handwritten drafts and computer drafts these days, depending on my mood. I’m still that person who whips out a notebook and a pen on the bus, scribbling down whatever came over my mind. And I’m that person who carries a notebook in her bag when she travels to capture in-the-moment insights and ideas. But did I really need that entire bag of ~50 pens?

I ditched most of the pens when I moved. The baton pen made it, as did the Disneyland Minnie ears. A few of the “boring” pens made it, too, but only a few. The bulk of those pens never saw the light of my new apartment.

Let’s not pretend, though- in a few years’ time, I’ll likely have a whole new bag of pens, “meaningful” and “boring” alike. I think it’s just part of being a writer, and the feeling of inspiration I grab a pen in my hand, ready to tackle another blank page.

Let Me Google That For You

18 Oct

The other day I decided to search for the word “cookie” on Google. Literally: “cookie.” No context, because I just wanted to see what would come up on top. And indeed, the results surprised me a bit. There was a nutritional table off to the right side and a picture of some pretty mediocre-looking chocolate chip cookies. Down in the actual search results, though, the first two results were about browser cookies- the kind that store info on your computer. The rest of the top 10 was a mix of browser cookies, and edible cookies. That surprised me, because I just naturally think of edible cookies. But is it fair to assume that’s “natural?”

CookieWhenever we type something into that search bar, Google has to predict what we’re asking about. Sometimes the results are spot-on. Other times, there’s a disambiguation problem, a spelling problem, or just not enough information for Google to do its job correctly. Searching a generic term like “cookie” didn’t really give Google enough information to help me out. Imagine you were a non-native speaker researching for a project and all you knew is you were supposed to do a report on “cookies.” But you didn’t know what kind. How would you handle these mixed results? Would you decide to write about food, or web lingo? Have you ever seen those lists of Google auto-completes? It’s funny to see what Google expects us to say, and it’s also funny to see what people actually are searching for.

The fact that I expected to see relevant results actually points out a perspective bias. I think about edible cookies a lot more than any other sort, so I expect Google to do the same. Plus, Google has a ton of data on my search habits and browser history, so I thought maybe that’d play a factor in how the results index. But, web cookies are likely more relevant to Google’s own bread and butter. Perhaps its indexing engines take that into account when they stack the results? I’m not really sure how their system works, of course, but I’m so intrigued by how the different factors must get weighed.

I do a lot of consumer research and whenever we ask people how they look up information on a given topic, they tell us that they go Google it. Google is a wonderful and powerful tool. I use it constantly for my own market research at work. But we have to remember that even the Great Google has bias in its results. No source can ever be completely un-biased; it’s just not possible. There is always some system classifying the information, and that classification order imparts bias. Whether it’s Google telling us which kind of cookies are most important, or a news source choosing what facts to share, we always have to dig deeper. You can’t just settle for the first few answers you find- you have to try to determine if they’re really the best answers. Imagine you were researching a controversial topic and the top 5 results all claimed the same point of view. Perhaps results 6-10 rebutted this point of view entirely. But if you never clicked past #5, you might assume there was only one possible answer and walk away mis-informed.

Just for kicks, here is a fun video mocking our Google searches:

And one last thing. Wondering about this post’s title? Check out Let Me Google That For You. This is snarky, so use it wisely. But when someone asks you a silly question they could just Google in 5 seconds… this lets you tell them that. lmgtfy

All Hail The Kale

1 Oct

I have something controversial to say: I am not a fan of kale. In juices or cooked, I guess it’s fine. And I’ve wanted to bake with it since I saw this intriguing recipe for Kale and Apple Cake. But raw? No thanks- I’ll stick to spinach.

The aforementioned Kale Cake from a blog called Veggie Desserts. Looks great, right?

Still, it seems I’m outnumbered on this one. I recently got a promotional newsletter announcing that kale has shifted to a “mainstream” food. But Felicia, you say- kale has been “in” for a long time- even my grandma makes kale chips!

That may be so. But there’s an important distinction between what’s “in” and what’s mainstream. Kale at McDonald’s is very different from kale at your neighborhood $15-a-salad cafe. Most “trendy” foods never make it to the full mainstream market, even if they manage to crack every hip cafe across America. The fact that kale is making it more mainstream is actually rather impressive. For every kale or quinoa there’s a garlic scape just waiting to burst onto the scene.

I’ve written before about food trend cycles, based partly on a wonderful book from David Saxe about food trends in America. Saxe’s book traces why certain foods hit it big and others fade into oblivion. The Kale Email reminded me of a specific passage in his book- and actually, it almost seemed like they ripped his book off in a way. In this passage, Saxe talks with food expert Barb Stuckey about what constitutes a food trend in the U.S. Stuckey uses kale as her example to demonstrate the difference between foods that crack the hip food scene vs. the mainstream. She points out that kale will truly have “made it” when it’s a Doritos flavor.

Some of you may find this appalling- you may think kale is better served in craft foods, at fine restaurants, in your homemade smoothies. But really, “mainstream” foods span a range of uses, from Chez Panisse to TGIF. Kale may lose some hip value as it reaches to more menus, but it’s not like its nutritional values change in any way- so why ditch it just because it’s less “niche?”

kaleThe Kale Email I got was actually a paid message via a food newsletter I subscribe to. Funnily enough, I got the exact same message a week later, but this time directly from the manufacturer that sponsored the message rather than as a paid 3rd party email. The links directed me to the supplier’s website, but didn’t really share much info of interest. The one fun fact I gleaned is that kale originated in Asia, and was brought to Europe around 600 BCE. Kind of crazy it took so long for modern folks to care about it, eh?

Kale snacks were up 17% globally in the last year, and I think it’s safe to say the momentum will keep growing. At some point, maybe we’ll see those Kale Doritos Stuckey predicted. And then the food intelligentsia will likely move on to the Next Big SuperGreen. In the meantime, you can celebrate National Kale Day next week on the 7th- because yes, that’s a thing. That sounds like the perfect day to make a kale cake, don’t you think?

The Ghosts of Shopping Past

10 Sep

As much as we sometimes long to deny it, what we buy helps explain who we are. Whether you’re a minimalist or a shopaholic, your purchases tell part of your story. I’m convinced that the way you shop and what you buy leaves a sort of trail, like bread crumbs, that help others reconstruct who you are. Purchases, belongings and behaviors can provide surprising levels of insight. Peek into someone’s home and you’ll learn about who they are, what they care about, what they prioritize.

I’ve thought about buyer behavior a lot over the years, from many different angles. In college I wrote my thesis on the emergence of department stores and how they reshaped the way people consumed material goods. Using French literature as context, I delved into the sociocultural changes as Parisians shifted towards more conspicuous consumption. Now that I work in brand strategy, I look at consumer patterns from a mix of cultural, demographic and business perspectives.

But how often do you really look back at your own belongings and consider your own “purchase trail?” I’m in the middle of moving- so I’m doing this a lot right now. Every drawer that I empty, every box I pack, surfaces memories of bygone times and past beliefs. I recently read a great self-reflective Gawker article about using our consumption to explore our personal histories. Writer Lacey Donohue chronicled her 20s via her Amazon purchases, studying her purchase choices to reflect on different stages of her life. I loved the way Lacey reflected on the personal context of each purchase. She situated each purchase in her past, looking at where she was physically, mentally and emotionally. Her evolution over time shines through in what she was buying, and how she thought about those purchases.

I took inspiration from Lacey and took a gander through my own Amazon history to see what I could learn about myself. I actually think my life is better explained through my offline purchases: the impulse pastries, the cheap jewelry, the trip souvenirs. Still, I like that using an online purchase history neatly chronicles phases and needs. Looking back on 8 years of purchase histories, I learned that I mostly turn to Amazon for media- a rather old-school use of the book-retailer turned everything-retailer. A few of my favorite purchases are listed below- I got a good chuckle out of some of these!

Take a peek at your own buying history too- see what you can learn about yourself by looking at the ghosts of purchases past.

In 2007  I was still in college. First I ordered a bunch of books for a college course that analyzed literature across several world cultures. We did a lot of reading in that class- pretty much a book a week, with lots of quizzes and papers. I loved it. Then, that summer, I ordered.... Harry Potter. I specifically remember picking that HP book up from the post office after getting out of my ad agency internship, and devouring it over the next couple days. I never pre-order things, it's so funny I bothered ordering this book! 

The college-era books: In 2007 I was still in college and taking a ton of literature-focused courses. In January I ordered books for a course where we read about a book a week. It was a global studies class that examined books from around the globe on a variety of heavy-hitting topics. Then, that summer, I pre-ordered the newest Harry Potter novel. I’m actually surprised college-Felicia did that because I never pre-order anything these days. Does that mean I’ve gotten more patient, or just less into hype?

I won an iPad at my company talent show and then I bought things to go with said iPad. I also bought a therapy ball because, as you can see, I like to buy things to stretch out at home, I guess? I have no idea where that ball is, I've now realized. Hmm.

The tech accessories: I noticed I turn to Amazon for tech-related accessories and it’s definitely because of the reviews, which you just don’t get in-store. In 2013 I won an iPad Mini through a company talent show, and turned to Amazon for accessories. I rarely use that iPad though- in fact, I mostly used it last year when I needed an iOS-based device for dating apps that weren’t Android-friendly. In that same purchase I also bought therapy balls which is a funny combination, and also made me realize I have no idea where that ball is.

 in 2013 I made this super exciting purchase: a laundry rack, and a foam roller! Both were top notch choices, actually. And I was silly, and got the laundry rack shipped to my office, then carried it across town on the bus. The woman next to me on the very crowded bus kept eyeing the package. Not sure if she was admiring my purchase, or judging it, but I like to think she appreciated the fine beauty of a good drying rack.

The practical things: 2013 was a year of in-home self-care, apparently, because I also bought a foam roller from Amazon. I also got an Amazon gift card and used it to buy a giant drying rack for laundry. This is typical: I usually feel guilty spending gift cards or cash on anything fun vs. practical, which is pretty much the opposite of what you’re supposed to do with gift cards. I stupidly had the rack shipped to my office and had to carry it all the way home on the bus. It was not a good plan. The woman next to me kept eyeing the box and I like to think she was admiring it, but perhaps she was simply silently judging me. This rack was a serious upgrade from the cheap wooden peg version I had before. A+ purchase.

tastemaker 2014The food studies book: I love this book from author David Sax. I’ve recommended it to tons of people, I blogged about it twice, and in 2014 I bought this copy for a friend recovering from a broken leg. I think it nicely reflects my interest in the intersection of cultural studies, consumer behavior and food. Go buy it, friends!

expecting 2014The project research: I bought 3 copies of this parenting book so colleagues and I could learn every detail about feeding toddlers for a project on Toddler nutrition. I later gave all 3 copies away to colleagues who actually have kids. But in the meantime I learned a lot of fun facts about how to transition your child from formula, to solid foods. Fascinating, really.

This has to be my best Amazon purchase so far. Rainbow fishscale leggings to wear to Pride earlier this year.

The metallic leggings: This may be the best Amazon purchase I’ve ever made. Earlier this year I wanted metallic rainbow clothing to wear to Pride, and to Amazon I turned. I spent a lot of time combing through their wares, seeking things that were free to ship AND free to return if they didn’t fit- not a simple feat. And then I found these beautiful rainbow shiny leggings, just waiting to be danced in. Mission complete.

You Are What You Eat

7 Aug

We’ve all seen it on social media: the perfectly steamed fish with a pile of greens and a side of quinoa. The homemade juices. The “zoodles.”Amplified by clever hashtags and beautiful filters, these pictures provide what I’ll call a “health halo” to the people who post them. And then, on the flip-side, are the pictures of glorified, unhealthy indulgences. Things like pancakes, mac & cheese, and ice cream are all over my feed, too – sometimes from the very same people.

I was reading through food industry research last week when a stat caught my eye: 28% of survey respondents said they’d bragged to friends about their healthy eating habits. That number jumps to 36% for respondents under 45. These stats didn’t surprise me, but they did make me reflect on the role food plays in how we construct our identity. Food may be a necessity, but its role in our lives is incredibly complex. As special diets and eating trends continue to evolve, we hear more people talk about their eating approach as a philosophy or way of life. Clearly, there are specific facts: produce is good for you, dairy has calcium, etc. But the conversation is much more charged than that, and often becomes quite personal.

The word “brag” is key to this research stat. It carries much more weight than a phrase like “I talk about healthy eating.” And that’s probably why the research company chose to use”brag” in the first place: it’s a much juicier piece of data. “Brag” implies that you think you’re doing the right thing- and that means other people must be doing the “wrong” thing. We do indeed see a lot of elitism around eating habits these days. How someone chooses to eat is a personal choice, and yet many people like to tell others what to do. The healthy eating posts on social media are often simply celebrations of cooking accomplishments or personal fulfillment – which I salute. Sometimes, though, the posts read more like a lecture. “Look at how I’m eating,” they say. “You should eat like I do – or else you’re doing it wrong.”

This post got 46 likes ... not bad for an indulgence-brag.

This got 46 likes … not bad for an indulgence-brag.

This research also made me think about my own posts, and what they say about me. My newsfeed definitely skews toward indulgence-brags rather than health-brags. In fact, my two most recent posts were both about junk food. One was about Nutella, and the other was a recipe post from my baking blog. Of course, this doesn’t mean that I only eat Nutella and cookies. To the contrary, my day-to-day diet is very healthy- and also really, really boring. Just ask my coworkers: you don’t need to see pictures of my lunches. I choose to post about dessert indulgences because baking is a passion, and I have a ridiculous sweet tooth. I’d rather talk about dessert than the salad I had for lunch. Does that mean people question my eating habits? Absolutely. But readers- we all know that social media posts only show part of the story. Anything you post on social media is a choice for how you want to be portrayed. So whether you’re bragging about being healthy or unhealthy or gluten-free or gluten-added: it all says something about what you want the world to think about you. It doesn’t mean your way is any better or worse than anyone else’s. It’s just your way.

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?


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