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Don’t Walk and Eat

27 Nov

When I was in Japan a couple months ago, most mornings started at a local bakery. Every morning we’d stop by a different place to pick up pastries and coffee to fuel our day’s adventures. Naturally, we got more than 1 pastry a day: after all, we wanted to try as many local specialties as we could. From melon buns to red bean rolls to taro danishes, we nibbled our way through a whole new realm of baked goods.

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That green pastry is a melon roll, and it was divine.

Japanese neighborhood bakeries are “self-service,” with pastries laid out buffet-style. You walk around with tongs and a tray to pick your bounty, then an employee rings you up. You can opt to dine-in, or take away. We always opted for takeaway since we had a jam-packed itinerary and wanted to jump right into sightseeing.

But, our desire to hustle created a bit of a cultural conundrum. See, on Day 2, our chosen bakery laid down some rules for us. They had this sign posted right by the tongs and trays, specifically to school hurried tourists like us.

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We giggled at first. After all, it felt a bit silly that the bakery was trying to monitor how we’d consume their baked goods. So they didn’t want us to stand directly in front of their door? Well, ok, I guess that could look tacky to passerby. But why did they care if we ate while walking? How would that impact the bakery at all?

We assumed the sign was trying to steer us away from cultural gaffes. While eating and walking is a popular combo in the grand ‘ol USA, that’s not the case worldwide. When I studied abroad in France, my professor gave us a long list of tips to “blend in.” One tip was exactly what this sign forbade: don’t eat and walk. She was so right! I rarely saw locals eating and walking when I was in France, or when I studied in Spain later on.

So that does that make Americans heathens? Or are we simply different? Who’s to say which way is “right” and which way is “wrong?” When we’re abroad, is it automatically disrespectful to do what we do at home? And on top of all that: is it this bakery’s business to tell us how to act?

I like to think that the bakery was simply looking out for us, like my French professor, and counseling us on how to blend in (or, really, how to stand out less). It’s not like we were about to get ticketed for eating pastries in the streets. But, they were guiding us to act like locals do, perhaps to save us embarrassment, perhaps to save the locals disdain. We did notice that the streets were impeccable in Kyoto, and could imagine the bakery wanting to inspire respect for their beautiful public space.

It’s so hard to respect local customs when you travel, because you can’t know all the rules off the top of your head. Without context, this sign just sounds a tad judgmental. But there are so many little things about cultures that vary around the world. It’s so easy to offend someone simply because you don’t have the right context. And in that sense, I think this bakery was just trying to help us get by.

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Another morning find. This store didn’t lecture us about how to eat, but maybe they just never thought to do it 🙂

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Inside a high-end grocery store.

Producing Meaning (Picture Prattle)

26 Jun

I walked into Trader Joe’s yesterday on a mission to buy watermelon. I walked out with a camera full of pictures, and a blog post on my mind.

It all started with some peaches.

File_009.jpegRight when we walked in, we saw a display of “Peach Pie Peaches.” We wondered what that meant. Did it mean they’re perfect for pie? That they taste like pie? Or was it simply a catchy alliterative name for a new variety? We concluded it was probably the latter, and started to walk away. Until my boyfriend noticed that the package said “heirloom flavor.”

IMG_0169.JPGAnd that’s when this post started to come together. The phrase “heirloom flavor” is a perfect example of product copy that confuses more than it clarifies. “Heirloom” technically refers to produce that comes from heritage seeds. Heirloom produce is usually considered more flavorful than other varieties, and also more “pure” since it isn’t cross-bred. But what on earth does “heirloom flavor” mean? Does it mean that the peaches taste like they could be heirloom, since they’re so flavorful? Does it mean the peaches are heirloom? Or is it simply a copywriter’s attempt to infer quality?

I tried to resolve this mystery via my good pal Google, but never sorted it out. It looks like Family Tree Farms did sell heirloom peaches at one point, but it’s unclear if the peaches at Trader Joe’s are that variety. It’s possible these specific peaches aren’t heirloom, so “heirloom flavor” was the best they could say from a legal perspective. It’s possible they used to call it heirloom but had to stop due to regulatory reasons, and now can only say the suggestive phrase “heirloom flavor.” It’s also possible that someone added “flavor” in an attempt to amplify taste appeal. In the world of food marketing, “flavor” can add or detract from perceived appeal depending on how it’s used. Think “vanilla-flavored” vs. “full-flavored” or “flavorful peaches.” Language is nuanced, my friends.

I’ve done a fair number of packaging projects, and it’s always really fascinating what ends up on a package. Package copy is largely made up of “claims,” phrases that explain a product’s key attributes and benefits. Typical claims are things like “gluten-free,” “no artificial flavors” or “provides 6g of protein.” In this case, “heirloom flavor” is a claim that effectively means nothing, since its intended meaning is so unclear.

Claims work alongside the product name and branding to tell the product’s story at shelf. So, many companies choose to plaster their packages with as many claims as they can, hoping to touch on every topic their target consumer might care about. I’ve written claims before, and I’ve also tested them in focus groups. I will tell you for a fact that consumers don’t read most of what’s on a package. And yet, companies continue to use as many claims as they can.

Here is an example from a more classic type of packaged good: cookies. Look at how the Goldfish brand has spread different kinds of messaging all over its package, from texture cues to health benefits. Once you start paying attention, you’ll notice that almost every packaged good you buy is telling a story with claims. Next time you’re out buying snacks, take a closer look at the package copy – and then let me know what you think!

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Putting Words in Your Mouth

15 May

side by sideThese two pictures have a lot in common: both were taken at airports, both are retail displays, both display the same type of product. And yet, there’s something critically different. The left photo describes KIND Bars as “sweet treats,” while the right describes Clif Bars as “healthy snacks.”

Fundamentally, these are similar products. They’re both essentially trail mix bars, with ingredients like nuts, fruits and chocolate. Both manufacturers market their bars as healthy snacks, touting functional ingredients that add protein, antioxidants, etc. But when they’re given such explicit descriptions, suddenly the bars seem to serve different roles. KIND bars become an indulgence, while Clif Bars maintain a healthy halo.

These displays weren’t actually side-by-side; I happened to notice them a few days apart in San Francisco and Cleveland. But, let’s pretend they were next to each other. If I was trying to find a healthy snack in the sea of airport junk food, would I grab from the left, or the right? You can imagine the scenario where someone is making an impulse buy, and sees the two products with their respective signs. Let’s assume they know very little about either brand, and the signage helps them navigate their decision. Clif Bars would seem like a healthy choice, while KIND Bars would seem like a sweet pick-me-up. People buying the Clif Bar may pat themselves on the back for a “good” choice, while the KIND Bar buyers probably still pat themselves on the back for buying the KIND Bar instead of a candy bar.

health.pngThese displays are effectively positioning the products. They’re telling us how to categorize the options in our heads. They’re overruling whatever is written on the actual packaging, by framing the bars for us before we even go to pick them up. Take a look at how KIND describes its bars on the brand’s website. A far cry from indulgence, right? I’m sure the brand wouldn’t be happy to find its bars labeled as a sweet treat at the Cleveland airport.

When we shop, the retail environment is full of visual cues intended to influence what we buy. But while most grocery stores label their aisles with straightforward category names (deli, canned goods, etc.), these airport retailers have taken it a step further, classifying products by their perceived role. It’s a tad unfair to the product manufacturers, to be sure. I don’t think it’s necessarily unfair to consumers, because we should be making our own choices before we buy, regardless of what signs or packaging tell us. But if I were the KIND account manager responsible for airport retail – I’d reach out to that Cleveland store and fix this display situation, ASAP.

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?

If These Streets Could Talk (Picture Prattle)

28 Jan

I’ve always found streetscapes alluring. There’s something about peering down a street that stirs my curiosity. I wonder about the place’s world, its people, its ways. I think about the things that happen there, both important and mundane. I stare down the road, anticipating what lays ahead.

I’m sure my love of streetscapes ties to my love of wandering, to that burst of adrenaline I get when I start to explore. Wandering feels like a choose-your-own-adventure storyline. Should I stick to this street, or turn off? If I do turn, should I go left or right? If I just keep going straight – where will I end up? How will the scenery change as I continue on?

Whenever I get back from a trip I realize that about 50% of my photos are streetscapes. I’ve framed many of them and put them up on my walls. Gazing at these photos provides a sense of serenity, but also a sense of possibility. They inspire me to let my creativity wander, to let my brain go down its own path. They remind me of the thrill of adventure, and the rush of discovery.

Here are some of my favorite shots from the last several years. Where will you wander next?

Step In Time (Picture Prattle)

12 Nov

1974177_10100420981311902_9040177066353721022_o (1)I came across this creek as I wandered around Austin earlier this year. I was walking through a residential neighborhood on my way from Point A to Point B, and decided to delay my arrival by just a few minutes so I could stop and stare. For some reason the creek captured my attention, and then my imagination. I thought about what it must have been like to wander the area before it was full of subdivisions and beer gardens. It made me imagine what it would have been like to move west to Texas from another part of the U.S., eager to explore and lay down new roots. Something about that creek felt magical to me, and transported me back to an earlier time. It’s weirdly easy to forget that all the land we see around us was empty at some point. That our city blocks were once pure nature. That our highways were once open land. Especially for someone who grew up in well-developed suburbia and now lives in a well-developed city. It’s nice to remember that our neighborhoods weren’t always so plotted and constructed and bustling. Sometimes it’s nice to step back to a time when the land was more raw, the area less developed, the nature less disturbed. Sometimes it’s nice to stop your quest from Point A to Point B and just stop, reflect, and enjoy.

So I stood there, staring at this creek, thinking about discovery and nature and the beauty of contemplation. And then I went on my merry way down the street, back to the world of vintage stores and food trucks and music halls.

The Shoes of San Francisco (Picture Prattle)

14 Aug
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Broadway and Romolo

I’ve lived in a few cities before San Francisco, but never before have I seen so many shoes on the sidewalks. I started taking pictures of these shoes a bit ago. There’s just something about them that makes me want to know more. I’m sure some of these shoes have sad stories: perhaps a homeless person accidentally left a shoe behind and forgot where he left it.  Some are probably disappointing stories: the rollerblade that fell out of someone’s bag as he threw it in the car. Some seem pretty purposeful: the pair of tennis shoes perched on top of a trashcan, poised as an offering to a new, deserving owner.

Here are some of my favorite photos of the shoes of San Francisco. I don’t know their stories, but I sure do wonder.

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