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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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:

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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?

Into the Memory Box

16 Apr

When I walked into my childhood bedroom a couple of months ago, I found a plastic box sitting on my desk. The box held a scattered assortment of things my mom had found around the house: souvenirs from family trips, commemorative pins, jewelry I used to wear as a kid.

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Many of the things in that box felt pleasantly relevant today. A bracelet from my first trip to Paris, when I fell in love with the city and the language. The baton necklace isn’t something I’d actually wear today, but I still proudly call myself a baton twirler—and even taught a baton class at work last week. The cable car necklace, a souvenir from a family trip to San Francisco, is even more special now that I’ve lived in SF for 5 years.

But then we get to the gold necklace on the left, the one that looks like half a heart. That’s part of a classic friendship necklace, the kind that’s broken in two to symbolize everlasting friendship. Except…I have no idea who had the other half.

There’s something funny about that. At some point in time, I considered someone important enough to split a friendship necklace with them, declaring our everlasting friendship. And yet here we are, probably 20 years later, and I haven’t a clue who had the other half.

To be fair, those things weren’t exclusive relationships. I split friendship necklaces and bracelets with many people over the years…often at the same time. This necklace wasn’t like a written decree to ONLY be best friends with that one person, despite what “best” technically implies. I had several “best” friends, some “bester than others.” Even as a (word obsessed) kid, I found the fact that you could have more than 1 “best” friend a tad confusing. But I called lots of people my best friend back then.

So back to our mystery: who had the other half? My life swirled around over the years from school to school, hobby to hobby. I can think of many candidates for the other half, but nothing’s confirmed. Odds are that I’m not close to that person anymore, since my world changed so much over the years, and mostly shifted away from people I knew as a kid.

When I was really young, I accepted that friendships broke, and you moved on. You switched classes or changed levels at ballet or moved, and that’s just how things went. But as I got older, I resisted the idea of friendships that end. These days, I’m terrible at letting go of friendships. I hate the fact that someone who mattered so incredibly much to you at one point in life, could matter very little later on. It hurts to think about people who defined certain years of my memories, but no longer pop up in my world today. It pains me when someone drifts away, and I feel so incredibly bad when I’m the one who drifts away, too.  I want to keep all the people I like close, in my life, as much as I can.

But that’s just not how life works. I’ve gotten a little better over the years at accepting this truth about friendship: not all friendships last forever. The right people will stay in your life, and both sides have to put in effort and energy and care for that to happen. You have to invest in the relationships that mean the most and work the best. And you have to accept that sometimes, you’re just not someone else’s “friend priority” when they do their own round of investing and working and prioritizing.

I still treasure memories of people who meant something in the past, even if they’re not around now. I’m grateful for whoever had the other half of this necklace, because even if I can’t place who it is, I know they must have been important to me at a particular time in my life. I’m grateful that back then, they meant enough to me for us to declare ourselves BFFs, believing we’d be there for each other through thick and thin. Even if that didn’t last, maybe the true purpose of the necklace was the support it gave us at the time. Sometimes you just don’t end up BFFs, despite buying jewelry about it. Still, it’s nice to know that at some point, I felt so strongly about someone being meaningful that we should wear symbols of that friendship. And it’s nice to know that when I was young and needed that friendship, someone was there for me to wear the matching half.

Much Ado About Toast

20 Nov

Midway through a recent flight, my seatmate turned and asked where I live. When I answered that I live in San Francisco, she started on a rant about SF’s fixation with high-end toast. Turns out: my seatmate makes her own bread, her own preserves, etc. So my usual “pricey toast is ok because you wouldn’t really make this kind of toast at home” argument didn’t work. Instead, she proposed that everyone should produce their own food. But that perspective doesn’t take into account the realities of how most people eat. Most people aren’t milling their own grains or making their own jams. They’re buying what’s easy to find, affordable to purchase and simple to use.

This is such an interesting time in American food culture. Still, we’ve seen some big shifts in mainstream food over the past few years. You can see which trends are going mainstream by looking at grocery store shelves. What you see at places like Target or Safeway reflects what most Americans have access to. Even the largest food companies are putting out products that emphasize “fewer negatives” or “more benefits.” That shift toward “better for you” products is a pretty significant change to the way people eat every single day.

Remember when Marilyn Hagerty made internet waves with her review of Olive Garden? Lots of people laughed at her review of such an “everyday place.” But couldn’t one argue that everyday meals are the most important? They may not provide our most treasured memories, but they do make up the bulk of what we eat. I love to follow food trends and read about new restaurants, but I think it’s equally important to understand what’s happening in mainstream food culture. America’s food culture is largely defined by what goes onto people’s dining room tables, and not just what happens on chef challenge shows.

The next time you’re at the grocery store, try planning a week of meals with products you wouldn’t typically buy. More expensive, less expensive, healthier, less healthy–makes no matter. Sometimes it’s just good to shake up your frame of reference and try to imagine a different day-to-day life. Try to imagine the everyday meals of someone not like you. What would they eat? What would their priorities be? What could you learn from them?

At A Crossroads

9 Oct
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Gion, Kyoto, Japan

Do you ever have those moments where something just clicks and you walk away with a renewed perspective on your world?

I had one a few weeks ago, standing at the very corner you see here. During an early morning stroll around Kyoto, Japan, I found myself at this beautiful intersection. At a literal crossroads, early enough in the morning that no one else was around. I stood there for a few minutes, just taking it all in. The architecture and the history, of course, but also what got me to that corner in the first place.

What brought me there? Change, friendship and a bit of serendipity.

I switched jobs recently, which always causes a shift in perspective. My whole routine changed–every little bit of it. I’m on different routes everyday, since my new office is across town from the old one. I see different people, talk about different things, think about different topics. My role itself is incredibly different from what I was doing before. Everything is new, exciting, intriguing and of course–sometimes intimidating, too.

I didn’t get much time off between jobs so I planned to take vacation pretty soon after starting the new position. I’d originally intended to stay home and take it easy–after all, I’m a huge proponent of staycations. But at the last minute, a friend tempted me to join her in Japan, instead. And I figured: why not? I had the miles, I had the time and most importantly, I had a dear friend inviting me to join her adventure. So off I went to Kyoto and Osaka for a whirlwind, delightful trip.

We crammed a lot into our few days together, exploring as much as we could. On our final morning in Kyoto I took a solo walk around the Gion district, famed for its high-end restaurants and traditional geisha culture. We’d already wandered thru this way at dusk, which is when the guidebooks tell you to go. I’m so glad I made it back there during the daytime, too. Something just clicked as I walked around, taking in the incredible wooden buildings and charming side streets. Soon I found myself at this crossroads, standing  utterly still, contemplating all the change and newness in my life.

I found a lot of peace in that moment. I probably looked crazy, standing there so deep in thought. But it was the perfect burst of serenity and reflection, self-love and self-care. I needed that moment. I needed to stand there and think about where I’d been and what was ahead.

As I stood there, I felt my brain and heart and soul click into better alignment. And I don’t want to forget how that morning felt. So I made this photo the wallpaper on my work laptop. And anytime I need a quick dose of inspiration or a quick brain refresh, I’ll take a peek at the photo and try to remember how it felt to be on that corner, in the crisp fall air, contemplating my world.

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