Tag Archives: Society

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.

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!

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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.

The Annual Report (vol. 4)

16 Jan

I say this every January, but last year feels like a total whirlwind. Suddenly here we are, at another new year. January 2016 feels so close and so far at the same time. It seems like just yesterday that I was wandering Nashville’s streets with my mom–my first trip of 2016. And yet, so much has changed that the feeling I had back in Nashville isn’t even a feeling I can access anymore.

I always take time to reflect on my year and try to remember where the time went. It’s easy to remember the big things: my trip to Japan, my new job, the beautiful weddings I attended. But I like to look back on smaller things, too. My diary isn’t very typical. I don’t use it to express myself or track my emotions. Instead, it’s simply a log of all the things I did in a year that seemed notable when they happened. I started the log in 2012 when I was new to San Francisco and created a “San Francisco to-do list,” organized by neighborhood. I started writing down what I did every week, too. Looking back at my log makes me smile, because it reminds me of all the little things that made a year great. Things like brunch with friends, trying that new restaurant, finally making it to some part of town I’d wanted to see, trekking to some far-off bakery. It always makes me happy to see what I did, and who I did it with.

So, as I’ve done for a few years now, I used my personal log to write a sort of “annual report” for 2016. Here we go!

teavel-betterNo wonder it felt like I missed a lot of 2016 in San Francisco: I took 22 trips last year! That’s a lot of time away from home. Trips encompassed everything from Ohio to Portland to Maryland. Work and leisure travel were actually pretty balanced, with a slight tip toward business trips. 2017 will definitely look different, since my new job doesn’t require much travel.

baking-chart

I baked WAY more in 2016 than 2015, but the breakdown didn’t change much. Cookies continued to rule, making up 56% of the 68 recipes I baked in 2016. You can find more details about my year in baking over on my other blog.

Some 2016 Fun Facts: 

  • Meals at my favorite local Moroccan restaurant: 8
  • Bamboo forests explored: 1
  • Trips to wine country: 4 (including 2 birthday bus day trips) 
  • Museums visited: 7
  • Cat birthday parties attended: 1 
  • Magnitude to which I felt grateful for friends and family: as always, non-quantifiable

I wrote 23 posts for Culture Cookies this year, just 1 shy of last year’s total. I would have loved to post more, so I’m a little bummed by that number. But I also wrote 47 posts for my baking blog last year, so of course I couldn’t do it all. As cheesy as it sounds, I give myself permission to write less frequently for Culture Cookies. This blog digs deeper into analysis and commentary, while Sugarsmith is more about personal stories and recipes. That blog is simpler to write and since I bake so often, I constantly have new material. I used to get more annoyed about the lack of posts here, and I still wish I posted more often… but I also know that things get busy, and I can’t do it all. And that’s ok!

Top New Posts of 2016

  1. Talkin’ Bout My Generation
  2. Off the Road
  3. When Suggestion Engines Get It Wrong
  4. Much Ado About Toast
  5. At a Crossroads

1 Older Post that Technically Cracked the Top 5:

  1. How do YOU Flâner?

My Favorite 2016 Posts Not in the Top 5: 

Thanks to everyone who reads, comments, debates, and shares!

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.

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?

The Annual Report (vol. 3)

2 Jan

I am someone who loves lists. I have a “to-bake” list that classifies every recipe I want to make, sorted by baked good type. I have a “San Francisco to-do” list that groups activities and restaurants by neighborhood. I have a list of chores that, let’s be honest, never gets as short as I’d like.

But my love for lists extends beyond what I should do. I also keep track of the things I already did. Not the chores- the fun stuff. I have a list of where I traveled each year, a list of what I baked, and a list of the happenings I want to remember. While it’s easy to get sucked into worrying that my to-do list is still far too long, it’s a lot nicer and healthier to reflect on the happy things I already did.

It’s become a yearly tradition for me to write an “annual report” that sums up some of my favorite memories for the year. I was inspired by a guy named Nicholas Felton who collects data on his daily life, then publishes an “annual report” for family and friends. Felton inspired me to take all these lists I was already writing, and share them with you. Felton’s own report also tracks more “mundane” activities, like minutes spent commuting or in meetings. I love the point he’s making- but I don’t track my life quite like he does, and my lists focus on the fun. Let’s take a peek at this year’s “data,” shall we?

travel chart

My travel balance tipped further to the work side this year. I got to see some friends and family during a couple of those trips, which makes being on the road a lot nicer. LA was my most frequent destination and if you combine all the Southern California destinations I visited in 2015, that’s 11 trips down to SoCal.

Baking chart

I have nothing against repeating recipes in theory… but in practice, I can only bake so often and I love trying new things. Most of the repeats are fall-ish recipes I make every year: Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Bars, for example. Others are family traditions, like this Apple Crisp.

Some 2015 Fun Facts: 

  • Bakery visits mentioned in my journal: 22 
  • Times I saw my favorite local band perform: 5 (they’re called Heartwatch and you should have a listen)
  • Baton performances completed in front of thousands of people: 1
  • Friends I saw in NYC who don’t live there either: 2
  • ZZ Top Cover bands I saw in concert: 1
  • Magnitude to which I felt grateful for friends and family: as always, non-quantifiable

Now, some data about this blog. I was bummed to see I’d only written 24 posts this year. However, I started my baking blog back in May and have been splitting my attention between the two. I have so many drafts half-written for Culture Cookies- you can expect a lot of new content in 2016!

Here’s a quick look at the year’s most popular posts on Culture Cookies:

Top 5 New Posts of 2015

  1. Let Me Google That For You
  2. Digging In
  3. Off the Charts
  4. Change is in the Air
  5. Best in Class

And 1 Older Post that Technically Cracked the Top 5:

  1. Potato, Potahto (2014)

Thanks to everyone who reads, comments, debates, and shares. I love hearing from you! And now- on to 2016!

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