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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.”


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!

Who Knows?

27 Dec

I’ve got a challenge for you. The next time you want to take out your phone to look something up, and it’s not urgent… don’t do it.

You can look up logistics, of course. Check your train, map your route, verify a store’s hours. But for anything else: don’t do it. Not even if you’re in the middle of a debate about when a celebrity won an award, or you can’t remember the lyrics to a favorite song, or you just really want to know the answer to a trivia question you heard.

 Don’t do it.

We’ve been trained to get answers on demand. Thanks to our friend The Internet, we no longer have to sit with that feeling of not knowing something we want to know. We’ve become so impatient for information that we feel like we have to look everything up on the spot, right away. Even if we’re at dinner with friends, or on a scenic walk, or at a show. And usually, the answer isn’t that important. It’s just that we can look it up, so we do.

 I’m trying to get cozier with the discomfort of not knowing something, even when I could know it. I’m all about curiosity and research, but fast phone checks don’t lead to much longterm satisfaction. They basically scratch an itch, in the moment–and then you probably forget most of what you look up, anyway. I’m trying to get better at letting the curiosity linger, and the not-knowing settle. If it’s important to me, I’ll remember to look it up later. And if I never look it up–that’s ok, too. We don’t actually have to know everything, now or later.

From Another Perspective

8 Oct

I’ve never been the biggest fan of still life paintings. But every now and then, one catches my eye. Or in this case…two.


A couple months ago, I attended an exhibit about Monet’s early paintings. As I made my way around the gallery, this plaque caught my eye. Turns out, Monet and Renoir were painting buddies. And sometimes they’d paint together, creating different takes on the same scene. This picture show too renditions of the same set of objects: Monet’s in the frame on the left, and Renoir’s on the plaque to the right.

If you happened to see these two paintings in the same gallery without any signs, you wouldn’t realize they were painted from the same scene, at the same time. The two artists made markedly different decisions, from which objects to show to technical choices like composition and lighting. You can see common threads if you look closely: similar types of flowers, the blue and white vases, a hint of sunflower. But ultimately, the artists created two renditions, based on how they interpreted the scene.

still life

And isn’t that sort of a metaphor for life?

You can look at the same thing as someone else, but see it completely differently. Even if you’re standing side-by-side, in the same moment, with the same “tools”—your interpretation could be totally different.

At times, it’s utterly frustrating. How could they see things differently? Don’t they see that the sunflowers should be bigger than the other flowers, and that the grapes don’t even belong in the scene at all?

And sometimes, it’s just intriguing. You wonder how two people could have such distinct reactions to the same thing. Maybe you even start to question your own perspective, and question why you find certain things so interesting or important.

These paintings are a nice reminder that there’s never one view for anything. Even when you’re considering the same story or looking at the same view—the person next to you might have a very different perspective.

Now, I can’t speak for Monet and Renoir. Maybe they each believed the other guy’s painting was bonkers. But I like to think that when they saw each other’s paintings, they each took a second to reconsider their personal choices. Maybe Monet loved what Renoir did with the sunflowers. And maybe Renoir wished he’d included those grapes, after all.

There’s a lot happening in our world these days. When I hear an opinion that’s unexpected or unfamiliar to me, I’m trying to remember these paintings. I’m trying to take a step back, and look at the scene from another point of view. In the end, I still might not agree…but it’s always good to consider another perspective.

Where’s It From?

3 Sep

Imagine you’re at a specialty chocolate store, looking for something new. As you scan the shelves, how do you decide what to buy? Do you get the first thing that catches your eye, or analyze every little detail on every single package? Do you pick based on something straightforward like flavor, or dig for quality cues like origin?

Gut decisions aside, most purchases are framed by clues that help us predict whether we’re making the “right” choice. We scan packaging for indicators that this is just the right thing for our tastes and needs. We look at reviews for validation that other people liked this product. We create our own little systems of qualifiers that we think define a “good” purchase.

I’ve long been intrigued by the role that origin plays in purchase decisions. We fundamentally believe that certain products are better when they come from certain places. Usually that’s because of some sort of legacy—think Belgian chocolate, Italian pasta, Argentinian leather. But origin isn’t enough to ensure quality. Just because Belgium has awesome chocolate doesn’t mean all of its chocolate is superior. Same goes for other types of origin stories, like local businesses or products based on family recipes. These traits don’t guarantee quality—but from a marketing perspective, they do imply it.

And naturally, marketers lean in. But at this point, origin stories are so commonplace, they’re getting cliche. When you poke around the grocery store, you’ll find all kinds of products with an origin story right on the package, from handcrafted tequila to mass-produced beer. Maybe that’s something else to blame on millennials: research tends to conclude that millennials crave “authenticity.” That means a lot of brands targeted to millennials are positioning themselves on authenticity. Which often gets us to a very ironic, non-authentic place.

It’s particularly interesting when it comes to food. People tend to say taste is their top criteria for food and drinks—but you can’t always try before you buy. So really, we’re making assumptions about taste based on other cues. And when we’re stumped in the aisle or fighting choice overload, stories about origin or production method can sound pretty darn good.

A few years ago, I did brand strategy work for a wine company that wanted to evaluate expansion opportunities. It was a peculiar situation, because growth depended on finding more grapes—and that meant sourcing beyond their traditional region. That sounds like a classic manufacturing issue, but it had broader implications for this specific brand: they’d have to stop using their current “appellation.” Appellations declare a wine’s place of origin, and they’re protected by law. You can invent a place of origin for popcorn all you want but….you can’t market your way into a wine appellation.

So we had to help this company figure out how consumer perceptions would change if they ditched their current appellation. The results were pretty fascinating. When we showed people hypothetical wine labels in focus groups, they always ranked “sourced” wine as more appealing, no matter its place of origin. It didn’t matter if the label said the wine came from France, Italy, California, Napa…the mere act of putting a location on the label made it sound more appealing. It didn’t matter that wine from any of those places could actually be quite terrible. We’ve been trained to interpret specificity as a quality indicator, for better or for worse.

Personally, I’m getting tired of origin stories. As a marketer, I know they can work. But as a consumer, it’s all getting rather cliche. Many brands are essentially inventing a backstory, hoping it will sell—inauthentic authenticity, basically. Which is risky territory for a brand to tread, and annoying territory for consumers to navigate.

I’m curious to see if there will be an eventual backlash against all of this coined “authenticity.” Maybe Generation Z will decide they’re sick of stories, and only want mass-produced merchandise. Maybe they’ll get so sick of interpreting every little detail on a package, they’ll start a trend of minimalist packaging with no brand information whatsoever. Maybe they’ll decide that it’s actually better to buy from countries that don’t have legacies for specific products, because their methods are more innovative.

Then again: the first protected vineyard zone was introduced in the 18th century. So maybe it’s not millennials’ fault, after all.

Follow the Orange Blob Road

12 Jul

When we were in D.C. a couple of months ago, my boyfriend and I spent a lovely afternoon wandering aimlessly. But then we wanted dinner. And so we pulled out our phones, opened Google Maps and looked for the orange blobs.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Take a peek at this map. The orange blobs are how Google designates commercial corridors with restaurants and stores. I don’t know exactly how their algorithm works, but seems like the blobs call out the most densely commercial parts of a specific neighborhood. In this screenshot of northern San Francisco, the the big orange block around stretching east from Fillmore Street marks the commercial heart of a neighborhood called Cow Hollow. That’s where you’ll find the most restaurants and shops (and an absurd number of salons, too). Meanwhile, the blob over on Columbus marks the commercial heart of North Beach.

Orange blobs

In Google Mapland, orange blobs seem to be shorthand for “there’s something worth investigating over here.” As a tourist, the blobs are pretty helpful: they steer you to areas where you’re likely to find what somewhere to eat, shop, relax, etc. The blobs are practical.

But could those blobs also lead us astray? See that stretch of orange that’s south of the “Union Street” marker, toward the middle of my screenshot? That’s Polk Street, the main commercial corridor of San Francisco’s Russian Hill neighborhood. But there are also a lot of restaurants on Hyde, just a couple blocks over. Hyde has beautiful scenery, great local restaurants and oodles of SF charm. So why isn’t that block orange? Are people missing out on Hyde Street’s wonders, just because their map doesn’t call it out?

And check out where Polk Street meets Pacific. There are businesses on those blocks, so I wonder why they’re not “important” enough to warrant the orange treatment. Does that mean those businesses are less valuable for some reason? Will those businesses get less traffic over time since they’re not marked on the map? And why did that one taco joint get a label? This is literally just a map of the area…I hadn’t searched for tacos!


These kinds of tools are incredibly helpful as we navigate the world around us. But they also give us a curated view of what “matters” in a neighborhood—and sometimes I wonder about the longterm cultural impact. In the longterm, will we limit our experiences to things called out on “top 10 lists,” marked on maps, etc.?

Think about it this way: if you only go to top-rated restaurants and only hit up the parts of town labeled on a map, you’re not actually optimizing for personal taste. You’re optimizing for convenience, easy decisions and probably some element of social cache. You could claim that technology is helping you find the best of the best…but how do you know? Maybe just a couple blocks from that orange blob, there’s a business you’d love if only you strolled by and gave it a chance.

But I Don’t Like That

11 Jun

Do you ever look at the personalized recommendations you get online and wonder where the algorithm went wrong? Maybe Netflix suggested movies you think you’d never watch, or Pandora suggested a playlist that feels totally off the rails. And you think to yourself: but I don’t like that kind of thing. Why would they suggest this?

Well…there’s usually a reason. But sometimes you can’t spot it. Websites and apps suggest content based on previous actions. Sometimes they mess up and use the wrong signals to assume interest. Maybe you watched Bring It On to wax nostalgic with a junior high friend, but don’t actually want to see other movies from that time period or genre.

But what if sometimes you’re the one who’s wrong?

I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Tom Vanderbilt called You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice. Vanderbilt sets out to explain how we develop our tastes, how psychology affects preference and how the modern age of never-ending-content and recommendation engines could change all of that. He cites an impressively broad mix of experts, from developers to academic researchers to philosophers.

One of the core claims is that we know less about our tastes than we think we do. We want to believe there’s logic to what we like, but can’t truly explain all of our preferences. That’s because too many factors play into our choices, from social norms to preconceived biases to generalizations. For example: maybe you love Justin Bieber, but you’d never say so in public because you think people might judge you. Or maybe you hate opera but pretend to like it, because you think that makes you sound cultured.

Turns out, we sort of stink at describing why we like what we like. But data is the great revealer. Companies like Spotify and Netflix know what you actually like based on your consumption patterns. You may say you love foreign films, but you’ve only watched one in the last five years. Meanwhile, you swear you hate chick flicks, but watch five a week. You can say whatever you want to your friends…but Netflix knows what’s up.

Sometimes, you’re explicitly trying to save face or establish expertise. But sometimes you don’t even realize the gap between what you say you like, and what you actually like. Sophisticated data programs can spot patterns we can’t discern on our own. Netflix has a classifications system that’s way more granular than typical genres, finding detailed connections between the types of things you tend to watch, and what you might want to see next. So even if you don’t always spot a connection between what you think you like, and what they recommend—it’s probably there. Try listening to one of Spotify’s curated playlists without looking at the screen. You’ll find you like songs that fall into genres you think you hate, and you hate songs that fall into genres you think you like. You’re actually more likely to find content that suits your tastes when you ignore the labels.

Vanderbilt’s book was on my mind as I read this article about Pippa Middleton’s wedding. I almost didn’t click, because the headline talked about her wedding dress—and I didn’t think I cared. But then I figured, why not? Dresses are pretty and it’s fun to learn about them. Clicccck.

I’m glad I took the bait, because the article was more commentary than couture. It talked about how the NYT decided on its coverage for Pippa’s wedding. This paragraph made me laugh pretty hard:

NYTimes coverage

People dissed the NYT for their wedding coverage, those wedding articles actually performed really well. Of course, it’s possible there were different audiences clicking the wedding content and complaining about it. But that’s not very likely, given how media works these days. It’s just that people didn’t want to believe they were interested in wedding content. They wanted to believe they had higher class tastes than wedding fodder…even as they secretly clicked to learn more.

Creepy? Yes, of course. But also pretty helpful, in my opinion. Wouldn’t you rather have data help you find things you’ll like, rather than wading through things you hate?

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