In The New York Times Magazine: Sponsored classes

SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKOFFS
Is a corporate-sponsored marketing course a real academic service, or a fake one?

A couple of years ago, the International Anticounterfeiting Coalition — a trade group whose members include fashion, software, pharmaceutical and other businesses concerned with knockoff versions of their products — decided to take its message to college campuses. Specifically, the I.A.C.C. College Outreach Campaign aimed to enlist students in spreading its message to other students. While intended as a sort of win-win situation that gives students real-life experiences and spreads the I.A.C.C.’s “fight the fakes” message, the campaign has also ended up sparking an entirely different ethical question about the sponsorship of college courses.

Read the column in today’s issue of The New York Times Magazine, or here.

Technology, lies, and your brain

Some time back PSFK linked to this essay, The Participatory Decepticon, which I’ve only now gotten around to reading. Basically, Jamais Cascio muses on the possibilities that arise from not just ubiquitous video technology — but also increasingly ubiquitous video-manipulation technology: “The crafting of political videos documenting candidate insults and errors that never happened.”

There are more than enough audio recordings out there of most major political candidates to allow political pranksters/”dirty tricksters” to make that candidate say just about anything; the cameraphone and flash video media offer insufficient clarity to be able to see if a candidate’s mouth is truly saying the words he or she seems to be saying.

Imagine a faked “Macaca Moment,” for instance.

“Such a deception wouldn’t stand for very long,” Cascio writes, “but would almost certainly last long enough set off a wave of furious blog posts and mainstream media attention.”

This reminded me of an NYT op-ed piece not so long ago titled “Your Brain Lies to You,” on the subject of “source amnesia,” and why it is that 10 percent of Americans somehow still believe that Barack Obama is Muslim. “Even when a lie is presented with a disclaimer,” the authors write, “people often later remember it as true.”

A false statement from a noncredible source that is at first not believed can gain credibility during the months it takes to reprocess memories from short-term hippocampal storage to longer-term cortical storage. As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications gain strength. This could explain why, during the 2004 presidential campaign, it took some weeks for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against Senator John Kerry to have an effect on his standing in the polls.

Even if they do not understand the neuroscience behind source amnesia, campaign strategists can exploit it to spread misinformation. They know that if their message is initially memorable, its impression will persist long after it is debunked. In repeating a falsehood, someone may back it up with an opening line like “I think I read somewhere” or even with a reference to a specific source.

In other words, if it does turn out that someone manages to get a phony video “out there,” debunking it might be more problematic that we’d assume.

And while I generally take a dim view of predictions, when I think about this one, it’s hard to imagine that it won’t happen before too long.

Milkvertising: Good? Bad? Both?

I’m on a deadline today and both too busy and too cranky to come up with something current and original. So meanwhile, this: Some months ago I bookmarked this item (via Commercial Alert):

Build-A Bear Workshop is teaming up with Milk Rocks to feature its virtual world, BuildaBearville.com, on 120 million milk cartons in 95,000 elementary schools.

Each milk carton will include facts about the site and a code for a free virtual milk carton….

The campaign is designed to be a fun way to promote health and nutrition and to encourage kids to drink milk, Build-A-Bear Workshop said….

Etc.

It caught my eye because I once wrote about Build-A-Bear, and have written about virtual worlds several times. But I bookmarked it because I was curious about Milk Rocks. This seems to be an offshoot of Milk Media, which bills itself as “a pioneer in communicating with elementary, middle, and high school students.”

According to its about page, it started 10 years ago. Back then, dairies were using “self-created characters” on their packaging for the school market to promote their “pro-milk messages.” Milk Media “introduced the concept of branded cartons to forge relationships between sponsors who had characters that kids really cared about as a more effective tactic to make milk ‘Cool for Kids’.” The company says milk consumption in schools using its carts with characters such as Batman and Disney’s Doug is up 34%.

Next up came Milk Rocks, which involves a lot of pop celebrity tie-ins, and this video-loaded website, but which I frankly don’t understand.

I gather the overriding goal is to get kids to drink more milk by associating it with “cool” stuff.

I also assume that the motive for Build A Bear, or an participating brand owner or pop star is, on some level, self promotion. I mean, come on, getting our name/brand onto millions of milk cartons in schools, that’s a big deal, right? (Milk Media itself says it is “the ideal way to reach millions of students K-12 with a core target demographic of tweens and teens (ages 10-18).”

Clearly, this is not new. But what do you think of it? Noble? Creepy? Both?

The ethics of sponges

One of the inevitable side-effects of the apparent interest in eco-friendly products is the emergence of greener, or less harmful, or whatever, alternatives for even mundane items that you probably don’t think about too much. Or at least, I don’t remember ever thinking about sponges too much — let alonethinking about whether or not my sponge decisions were good or bad for the environment.

And yet, here (via Coudal) is Twist, which informs us:

Making a sponge is a very challenging process, and one that only a handful of producers undertake. … This process can lead to a lot of waste. Billions of sponges are produced every year. An industry that big has an impact on the world around it.

Thus Twist’s Naked Sponge #55 boasts “no dyes and 100% cellulose.” Its Euro Sponge #10 is “durable, biodegradable, and (dare we say it) stylish.”

Perhaps I’ll look into this more later, but in the short term, I will start feeling guilty about my reckless sponge consumption, right away.

Saying something nice about Nike (part two)

Okay, so I promised to say something else nice about Nike — and not just about its marketing. Now that I’ve started today by actually picking on Nike (and its marketing) yet again, I’m going to end it by finally making good on that earlier promise. Actually what I have to say is about the Air Jordan 23, and I guess technically the Jordan brand is a joint venture of some kind between Nike and Michael Jordan. Close enough, yes?

A few years ago Nike did a project with a design firm in New York called Staple. (Jeff Ng, the owner, is a former Murketing Q&A subject, and a very smart guy.) The project was called Considered, and it was a special sub-brand of Nike shoes with certain criteria: recyclable materials, no chemical adheviseves, and so on. (See Staple’s post about this here, for more details about Considered.) Read more

On habits, products, marketing, and the public good

On occasion I’ve wondered why it is that “public service”-style marketing campaigns often seem so much less effective, less potent, than marketing campaigns on behalf of a product or service.

With that in mind I was interested in this article in the Times business section yesterday by Charle Duhigg. It’s about a public-interest organization focused on disease prevention in developing nations, teaming up with multinational consumer-products corporations with track records of “creating habits” via marketing.

(This is actually somewhat related to a June 10, 2007 Consumed on Unilever’s sales of Lifebuoy soap in parts of India.)

To make the point that such firms have a habit-creation record, Duhigg recounts the rise of Febreze, and its evolution into something that people basically spray in perfectly clean rooms, because they’ve acquired the (previously non-existent habit). A Procter & Gamble psychologist comments:

“For most of our history, we’ve sold newer and better products for habits that already existed. … But about a decade ago, we realized we needed to create new products. So we began thinking about how to create habits for products that had never existed before.”

Wow! You won’t hear a blunt description of demand-creation than that anytime soon!

Anyway, I digress, but the Febreze anecdote alone makes the article worth reading.

Back to the point. The piece explains how the role of advertising/marketing has in effect created good habits (hand washing, which greatly cuts down on the spread of certain ailments) via marketing that happens to yoke those habits to a product (soap).

So this brings me back to my curiosity expressed above. Are these companies just that much better at the persuasion process? Or, given that agencies/etc. who execute their campaigns also do plenty of traditional public service stuff, is it that there’s something about introducing the profit motive that affects the approach and increases the effectiveness? Is there some intrinsically more compelling about a “good habit” when it’s tied to a consumer good? Is it simply a matter of scale — ie, these consumer-goods firms have the budget to blow out a message in a far bigger way?

Change the image, or change the business?

The other day, Time writer Justin Fox (a colleague of mine at Fortune, once upon a time) had a piece titled “How To Succeed? Make Employees Happy.” It focuses on Whole Foods and The Container Store, which “pay better than most retailers, offer good benefits and entrust workers at all levels with sensitive financial data. The idea is that happy, empowered employees beget happy customers.” (Somewhat related note: July 30, 2006 Consumed on Wawa, the convenience store chain whose success is partly attributed to treating employees well.)

Maybe these companies are exceptions, but I think there’s some value in at least considering the idea that Fox is writing about. And also about the broader idea underneath it, which is one I’ve thought about a lot lately as I’ve been out and about talking to some manager-and-executive-type people about Buying In. That broader issue is that I think a lot of companies that sense the need for a change are way more focused on changing their image (via marketing) than in changing their business practices.

Recently I answered questions from readers of The Alpha Consumer, a blog associated with U.S. News & World Report, in connection with Buying In (which was picked as the first selection of the Alpha Consumer Book Club). Part one is here, and part two is here.

In relation to the above, I wanted to bring up one of the questions (and answers) here. The answer is a little long so I’ll leave it up to you if you want to follow on after the jump.

From Meg Marco of the Consumerist.com: As you point out in your book, consumers often join their identities and even sense of self with brands (such as with Apple). When consumers reach out with complaints to companies whose brands they’ve incorporated into their sense of self, they’re operating in a state of emotional pain. When a brand fails them, they seem to feel as if they’ve failed, too. What effect do you think this level of emotional participation has on a company’s customer service responsibilities? If companies are adept at selling “ideas about products,” do they need to work hard to maintain that special feeling once the honeymoon is over? Or has all the hard work been done?

This is a great question—and one I wish I would get more often from, say, marketers and business owners. Read more

Local kids do good — thanks to brand!

Recently our local paper had an article about kids selling lemonade in the park, for a good cause (local literacy program). Typical small-town “feature” kind of thing.

I really only read it, rather belatedly as I was gathering up the recycling, because of the picture of one adorable youngster’s lemonade stand — which was sporting a prominent logo.

Turns out this four-year-old “was one of about 1,000 young entrepreneurs from around the nation selling the Crayons fruit-juice drink to collect money to support a charity of their choice.”

The article was a little vague on this, but after light clicking around I’m surmising that the kid was part of the Pink Lemonade Brigade, a “kid-empowering charity event” that involved giving a branded lemonade stands and a 100 cans of Crayons fruit drinks for up to 1,000 youngsters to set up in their communities (“anywhere there is a lot of foot traffic”), and raise money for whatever cause they want. Under the banner of Crayons fruit drinks.

What to say?

Obviously a good cause is a good cause.

On the other hand, murketing is murketing. And might I politely suggest that perhaps it would be better to be teaching our nation’s four-year-olds that they can do good deeds without being “empowered” by some brand?

Previous Murketing mention of Crayons drinks here.

In The New York Times Magazine: Pirate’s Booty

SNACK MENTALITY
Puffed treats that make your noshing feel a little more virtuous.

This week in Consumed, a look at a snack that seems to have drawn a crowd by way of its virtues, its quirkiness, its honest — and kept it despite some pretty serious road bumps.

Pirate’s Booty hasn’t simply leveraged unusual consumer loyalty into a business with a reported $50 million in annual revenue. It has held onto that loyalty despite incidents that would seem to cut against its image. A few years ago, the Good Housekeeping Research Institute slammed the brand after its own tests found that a one-ounce serving of Booty contained 8.5 grams of fat, not 2.5 as the label indicated. And in 2007, the company issued a recall of its Veggie Booty and Super Veggie Tings varieties after they were linked to cases of salmonella.

Included: Founder explains that “Good For You” is not so much a claim as a congratulation: “You bought this bag — well, good for you!” The product contains no MSG and no preservatives, and therefore the buyer deserves a pat on the back for choosing a snack that’s not so bad: “Wow, you chose something that is going to change your life,” he says.

Read the whole column in the June 29, 2008 issue of The New York Times Magazine, or right here.

Consumed archive is here, and FAQ is here. Consumed Facebook page is here.

In The New York Times Magazine: Fiji Green

WATER PROOF:
A bottled water criticized by environmentalists tries to detox is image

This week in Consumed, a look at the efforts of the luxury/status water brand repositioning itself as eco-friendly. Is this in response to the much-reported backlash against bottled water? Sort of.

[A spokesman's] most surprising assertion is that Fiji was already an environmentally conscious company — and that’s part of what has been “frustrating” about the media coverage. He points to various conservation efforts in Fiji, and to the fact that the brand’s entire business model depends on the aquifer there remaining pristine.

Others, of course, point to another unchangeable aspect of Fiji’s model: getting that water to far-flung markets where people will pay a lot of money for it. Fiji’s luxury-chic status has always been directly tied to the idea that this is a rare substance from an exotic place. Which, in turn, is the issue that enrages its critics….

Read the rest in the June 1, 2008, issue of The New York Times Magazine, or here.

Consumed archive is here, and FAQ is here. Consumed Facebook page is here.

Unconsumption as marketing tool

Missed this earlier, but Brandweek had an interesting quick overview of how e-waste “has gone from being a headache to a marketing tool.” Example:

Sony, which [recently] announced the availability of its lower cost Bravia M line of LCD TVs, has paired with Waste Management, Houston, for a series of events around the country. The “Take Back Recycling Program” invites consumers to leave behind their unwanted devices for no charge.

The mention of the new LCD TVs is relevant, because it sounds like most of these efforts are being positioned as add-ons to campaigns that are, inevitably, focused on getting you to trade up to something new (which is of course a big part of the e-waste problem to begin with). As Brandweek notes, there’s a good chance that concern about e-waste is only going to get more intense in the near future, as the switch to digital broadcasting consigns a huge number of cathode-ray TV sets to the dump.

So in a way this trend, if it’s real, seems more defensive than enlightened. And it all falls far short of manufacturers flat-out taking responsibility for their products in an end-to-end way that, say, Greenpeace encourages. But whatever. Maybe it’s a good start, maybe it gets the issue into more consumer minds, and it’s certainly better than nothing.

Nau? Later!

So.

Earlier I floated a post here about Nau, which was getting an amazing amount of “buzz,” from cool blogs, random people emailing me, and even the “mainstream” press (although less in category three than than in one and two).

I floated the post here because what I wasn’t getting direct evidence of was actual Nau consumers. I totally got the concept, as this article says: “the ultimate over-the-top, high-concept business. It makes striking, enviro-friendly clothing.”

Okay. But my job is to write about why people buy things, so I was trying to figure out: Who is buying this, and why?

On a recent visit to Portland, OR, I went to a Nau retail space, and it was basically me and the employees and the very aggressive marketing concept, and some stuff on clearance. So it was interesting to see, but I didn’t learn anything of use for what I write about. Meanwhile, my post did not get me any replies or comments from Nau fans.

Anyhoo, I bring all this up because it’s just been brought to my attention that Nau is ceasing operations.

Obviously, I’m glad I didn’t decide to write about the brand in Consumed. But that’s not why I bring this up. I bring it up because as far as I could tell, Nau got nonstop love from every “influential,” “tastemaker,” “thoughtleader,” blah blah blah blog you can name.

I thought that was the secret sauce? I thought if you win over the blognescnenti, then you flat-out win? Because the MSM is irrelevant? And stuff? So, what’s up? Could it possibly be that the whole bloggy-buzz thing is, oh, I don’t know … bullshit?

Just asking.

[Thanks Steve!]

Design & ethics — and regulation?

I’ve recently been perusing a site called TheDieLine.com, which bills itself as “The Leading Packaging Design Blog.” Enjoyable. Aside from nice images of packaging (an acquired taste, I guess), I thought this essay, “Packaging Goodness” was pretty interesting. It starts with a link-filled overview of prior thoughts by others on design and ethics, before coming around to questioning just how much power package designers really have in what is after all a client-driven business.

Here’s an excerpt:

If a company is just scraping by, and their competitors are not investing in sustainable packaging, then I can’t see some lone package designer digging in his or her heels and insisting that their client must go green or go bankrupt. To really do good, the sustainable packaging mandate must be fairly applied to all. A Walmart or a federal government (same thing?) are in a much better position (than graphic designers) to insist upon this. And if all manufacturers had to follow the same sustainable packaging rules, than theoretically those rules shouldn’t put any company at a competitive disadvantage.

Water fight

Pretty interesting piece in Business Week about  the battle in a Northern California town over whether or not to let Nestlé (“the largest bottled water company in America and purveyor of the Perrier, Poland Spring, and S. Pellegrino brands”) build a huge spring-water-bottling plant there.

A few interesting bits:

Nestlé employs 11 water hunters around the U.S. Besides monitoring water supplies, they search for new sources, typically in remote, pristine places like McCloud. A big part of their job is building relationships with locals, few of whom have dealt with a multinational.

And:

A pall of aggrievement hangs over Nestlé Waters’ headquarters. There’s an attitude that essentially asks: Why us? CEO Jeffery has been in bottled water since the late 1970s. He worked at Perrier until Nestlé bought it in 1992 and put him in charge of Nestlé’s North American water business. And he has long seen his product as a healthy alternative to soda in a nation that is increasingly obese.

For several years now, Jeffery says, he has watched other companies win green cred for what he deems smoke-and-mirrors publicity stunts. A couple of years ago he recalls not being able to sleep, getting up and heading to his Greenwich study to write down the 10 things Nestlé was doing to reduce its carbon footprint. One of those things was designing the lightest-weight water bottle currently on the market. Jeffery also notes, correctly, that water bottlers use less H2O than makers of soda or beer. …
But soda and beer makers typically don’t mine pristine springs; they use tap water. So, for that matter, do Nestlé Waters’ main rivals, Coca-Cola’s Dasani and PepsiCo’s Aquafina. It’s instructive that Nestlé Waters was the only company asked to attend Congress’s first-ever hearings on the bottled water industry in December.

Beyond the tree-huggers

Interesting interview with the founders of Method at Grist (via PSFK), makes a point I agree with about getting beyond the “eco” sell:

We’re not the first company to think cleaners should be green, but we are doing them in a way that makes them accessible both from a price-point standpoint and from a design/aesthetic standpoint to everyone else who isn’t this sort of tree-hugging granola — forgive the expression …

One of the big goals with Method, and why design and sustainability are inextricably linked in our brand, is that if you don’t have the design element, you’re only going to appeal to people who are already green, so you’re not actually going to create any real environmental change …

This actually comes up in Buying In, and Method is an example. I would venture to say that most Method buyers are more motivated by the style factor than by the eco factor. And that that’s just fine.

Also I wrote about Method in Consumed,  February 29, 2004.