Monthly Archives: December 2005

Merry Christmas

I’m not an overtly religious person. In fact, I’d probably be considered a wayward Catholic since I put about as much stock in the Roman Party as I do in the Democratic or Republican Parties–and I certainly don’t buy the notion that tradition is a legitimate foundation for moral authority, much less faith. But the pope has a big pulpit, and I have to say I resonate with his recent message about losing Christmas to commercialism.

Last year, I wrote what became a controversial essay for BusinessWeek that sums up my feelings about the world we’re creating for ourselves, and which I’m reposting below as a reminder to myself that I care about this topic. Let’s just say I feel strongly that our culture is squeezing the substance out of life, distilling the things we value into consumable components that can be packaged and sold, and leaving far too many of us with an empty void that we learn to fill with ~stuff~. This isn’t just an issue of faith–it’s an issue of lifestyle and sanity.

I’m not going to stump for the religious value of Christmas–that’s been already been shrinkwrapped and syndicated–but for the spirit of the holiday that no one can co-opt. It’s not about giving, but about giving something of yourself, even if–especially if–it takes some sacrifice. For me this year, it’s about sacrificing my obsession for spending time on a thousand projects to spend a lot of time with my family. It’s a little insane that I can even think about that as a sacrifice, but there I am.

I hope you have a wonderful holiday, one with friends and family and meaning. I’ll see you in two weeks. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with my thoughts about consumerism in the post below. Let me know what you think.

To Save A Town, Why Did They Destroy It?

Santa Maria used to be a city of small stores and Main Street lives. Now, all that is gone — and so is its soul (Originally published in BusinessWeek Online, August 31, 2004)

I took a short vacation with my family to visit the town where my wife
grew up. It was the town where we met some 15 years ago, the place
where my parents retired, and where I landed after wandering overseas
between college majors. Back then, Santa Maria was an agricultural
backwater on California’s central coast, a pit stop on the way from San
Francisco to L.A. It was a town with a vibrant history, but little use
for it — an impossible place to love if you didn’t have roots there.
For me, it became the town where I met my wife, where my father died,
and where I got my first tastes of both business and journalism.

Today, Santa Maria is a burgeoning Wal-Mart suburb. Everything and nothing has changed. Where once there were neat
rows of strawberries and broccoli that went on for miles, now there are
endless fields of single-family homes. In a town that once couldn’t
attract a national grocery chain, you now find the same brand-name
strip malls that dot almost every town in America. Starbucks-Blockbuster-Subway-Kinkos — prefab economic zones you can buy off
the shelf to drop into your half-acre plot along Main Street, some
assembly required.

On a national scale,
this is the face of progress. These manufactured main streets feature a
star-studded array of brands that are leading markers on the stock
exchange, where they build our retirement accounts and our children’s
education funds. But on a local scale, especially in a place like Santa
Maria, the history that is being paved over holds some interesting
clues about the future — clues that are convenient to forget in the
face of short-term profits.

Like most California cities, Santa Maria has an old town —
the intersection of Broadway and Main — where solid buildings from the
early 1900s line the streets. Well, Santa Maria used to have an old
town. Where many California cities now have a revitalized core, with
old brick buildings turned into stylish restaurants and side streets
turned into open air markets, Santa Maria has a massive monument to one
of the most influential fads ever to sweep city planning — the Town
Center Mall.

In the mid-1970s, Santa Maria bulldozed their entire city center in
order to build a huge shopping mall and parking lot. The new mall
generated a lot of wealth — for about a decade. As soon as outlet
stores started cropping up along the freeway, and then Big Box discount
stores, even a Barney Carousel couldn’t salvage the Town Center’s
consumer appeal.

Now the mall is half
empty, and the anchor-tenant department stores are struggling. During
our vacation, my wife took advantage of the 15-hour Super Double
Discount Sale at one of the major retailers. When my wife balked at
paying the "slashed" sale price of $29 for a Finding Nemo
throw pillow my son was clutching, the check-out clerk whispered the
name of a nearby discount store where she could get the same pillow for
half the retailer’s sale price.

You don’t need an MBA to do the math on the future of that
retailer, or the future of the mall. In fact, the city is already
trying to figure how to do what they weren’t willing to do with the old
downtown — revitalize a retail ghetto of empty storefronts. One of the
leading ideas is to turn the entire mall into an assisted-living
facility. That’s right, renew the city center with a very large nursing
home. I suppose there’s a certain logic to it — all the unused parking
space could easily convert to a cemetery.

What no one seems to be asking, either in Santa Maria or many
of the other towns that now look exactly the same, is what time frame
should drive investment decisions. Just as business-development and
investment decisions on Wall Street are driven by quarterly results,
our city-planning decisions are increasingly governed by short-term
payoffs. But instead of losing our shirts to scandals like Enron and
Worldcom, we lose something far more profound behind the new facades of
one-size-fits all city streets. What we lose are the stories that make
our lives meaningful.

Okay, call me a romantic.
Tell me I just don’t understand the capitalist economy. Tell me all
about the cycles of change that have gone on before, and how we always
move forward. I’m not buying it.

Taking Santa Maria as an example, the payoff on the mall that
wiped out much of the city’s history lasted little more than a decade
— and that’s not counting the hefty residual, which hangs like a
mall-sized albatross around the city’s neck. The economic cycles of
outlet centers and big box stores are running even faster. As soon as
one town builds The New Thing, the town at the next freeway exit has to
get one too in order to recapture escaping sales tax revenues. In a
couple of years, demand is diluted too much for any one city’s
investment to pay off.

In the short run, of course, developers do well, cities
collect some nice fees and sales taxes, and retailers expand volume.
And there’s always the potential for another big project to bail us out
when the current scheme runs out of steam.

But how much value do we
place on a sense of place, or a sense of history? History only tells us
where we’ve been, but it’s those stories that help us understand who we
are and where we’re going. What stories do we tell about our
communities when our history is relegated to some old black and white
photos in the barber shop or a doddering historical society?

The sad truth seems to be that we are reduced to telling stories only
through our possessions. We are what we own. We are what we drive. We
are individual "brandscapes," buying and assembling our identities
through the metaphors of clothing, furniture, and food.

There’s some beauty in this. Everything is invested with
meaning, since everything we own has the potential to say something
about who we are. And the whole grand economic exercise, from corporate
marketing to supply-chain management has a masterful efficiency — our
purchasing power as consumers, the lifeblood of our economy, is now
directly coupled with, and driven by, our psychology of being.

 But at the end of the day, we
are giving up a society in favor of an economy. When every decision —
even decisions that cut to the core of our community — are dictated by
the most immediate profit opportunity, it makes sense to tear down a
city in order to build a mall. It makes sense a few years later to
build big discount centers to undercut the mall. Cross every bridge
when you come to it, and let every decision be driven by the shortest
break-even point on the balance sheet.

Maybe it doesn’t matter, but Santa Maria no longer feel like
the town where I met my wife, where my dad died, and where I got my
first taste of business and journalism. It just feels like every other
town on the way from San Francisco to L.A. That relentless consistency
is what made McDonald’s  a household name in 150 countries around the world. But I don’t want to live there.

Killing Brand Barbie

Researchers in England have just released a report that, among other things I hope, documents the phenomenon of Barbie mutilation among young girls. It turns out young girls think Barbie torture is cool, especially when it involves burning, breaking and even microwaving.

Only a neurotic parent or the NSA would find this deeply disturbing. My brother and I favored fireworks and liquid flammables for torching our toys as teenagers, and I suspect it’s a time-honored rite of passage. But what stands out in this study from researchers at the University of Bath is that Barbie leads the pack as the favored torture victim.

Researchers from the university’s marketing and psychology departments questioned 100 children about their attitudes to a range of products as part of a study on branding. They found Barbie provoked the strongest reaction, with youngsters reporting "rejection, hatred and violence," researcher Agnes Nairn said.

"The meaning of ‘Barbie’ went beyond an expressed antipathy; actual physical violence and torture towards the doll was repeatedly reported, quite gleefully, across age, school and gender," she said.

I’m usually frightened when marketers and psychologists team up to study kids, but this is fascinating. What on earth, beyond simple joys of teenage sadism, could provoke such a visceral hatred for Barbie? The mind reels.

Matel took it all in stride, however.

Manufacturer Mattel, which sells 94 million Barbies a year worldwide, said the doll remained the "No. 1 fashion doll brand." Mattel U.K. said that despite the findings of "this very small group of children, we know that there are millions of girls in the U.K. and across the world that love and enjoy playing with Barbie and will continue to do so in the future."

With sharp knives and lighter fluid.

Wouldn’t that be a cool Barbie accessory kit? 

A Virgin Eye for Design?

Virgin has just announced the location of its new Virgin Galactic headquarters–a spaceport somewhere south of nowhere in New Mexico, where consumer-grade astronauts can take a ride into space. I have no doubt that some day my 4-year-old son will be able to fly into space, and it’s exciting to see the first steps take shape.

Virgin also announced it’s new corporate identity, which is a little less exciting.

The concept is interesting, but the design doesn’t work at all. For starters, the concept only works well on a black background: it’s supposed to be the pupil of an eye incorporated into a solar eclipse. But on a white background, it just looks like an eyeball with "Virgin" tatooed on the pupil. Even if the concept did work on white, the design wouldn’t. Can you imagine trying to size this for letterhead? The image would be reduced so much that Virgin would be unreadable. The "Ga" in Galactic is already unreadable layered over the iris. It looks like "Virgin Lactic"… a new milk product? Then you’ve got the nightmare of reproduction, with hundreds of gradients in the iris that will make all but the best printers reproduce a muddy mess. How will it reproduce in black and white? In knock out? In a vertical lockup? It looks cool on a black Web site, but I can’t imagine this being used successfully as a corporate identity.

Why am I taking the time to comment on this? This is classic form over function design, which eventually hampers good marketing. Someone was married to a concept, damn the consequences. I wonder who…. They say that Richard Branson’s iris will be used for the final logo. It kind of makes you wonder if the whole Virgin Galactic operation isn’t a little heavy on concept but light on actually making the details work.

That Newfangled Web… Thing

Let me start with a disclaimer. I love B2B Magazine. They cover strategic marketing like it’s news, and they focus, as their name suggests, on B2B. But I’m still scratching my head over their recent roundup of the "Best & Brightest Media Strategists". (Okay, recent, as in last month, but I’m still catching up on my rag reading.)

When I started browsing over their picks, I noticed a distinctive lack of online media strategy. In fact, I finally had to pore over each profile before I found even one concrete example of an online strategy–really nothing more than a paid sponsorship for a site–among a number of interesting samples of print, radio, TV, and outdoor media ploys. What gives? They paid lip service to the Web in their intro, saying they’d made their picks based on the subject’s innovative use of strategy across online and offline media, and yet there wasn’t a single example of really innovative online strategy at all.

Is this 2005? The year when everyone’s in a froth over projections for online advertising in 2006? The year when everyone’s projecting the death of the newspaper audience?

Customer Experience, or, Travelocity Sucks

I’ve wondered for some time how much difference there is between online travel brokers ever since it’s become a commodity business. Now I know. I’ve had accounts at both Expedia and Travelocity since way back when the Nasdaq was at, what was it, 5000? I’ve also used Orbitz and some other latecomers, like But somehow I just got into the groove at Expedia and stopped shopping around.

For some stupid reason, I decided to retry Travelocity when scheduling a Christmas vacation with my family. Maybe it was that gay lawn gnome thing they’ve got going on. I don’t know. So I reactivated my dead account, browsed around and booked my tickets, confirming that indeed, there is no Difference. What an idiot.

A few weeks later, I get a friendly email from the folks at Travelocity. Sorry, the totally reasonable flight you fell for on our site has now been switched with an insane flight. Instead of leaving at the leisurely hour of 11am the day after Christmas, I would now be dragging my wife and 4-year-old son to the airport for a midnight flight, arriving in Dallas at 5am for a 4-hour layover. Maybe it’s just coincidence, but in 6 years at Expedia, I had never had one of many dozens of flights switched. But that’s really just the setup.

When I called Travelocity, I got one of those friendly new HAL9000 customer service reps–you know, the ones that make you drone your reference number into the phone just so they can serve you generic information, and then say about 6000 times in a syruppy voice: "I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. You said you’d like to pull out your eyeballs?" After I screamed "operator" a dozen times, the system finally put me in the long queue for an open phone line to India. Amazingly, they can transfer my call 12,000 miles away to another continent where an operator can tap directly into my account, but they just couldn’t manage to send along the 87-digit alphanumeric reference number I’ve already recited into their system.

The operator–Mike, from Bangalore–is neither helpful nor friendly. Did I get an email about the switch? Yes. Did I wish to cancel the flight? No, I’d like to explore some other options. Like what? Oh, I don’t know, like maybe a longer layover so I can really appreciate those abbreviated airport museum displays of cattle farming history and modern macrame. Geez. What other flights are available that day? I don’t know, I’ll have to call the airline. You mean, you can’t look it up on the computer? No, I have to call, please hold.

I then got 8 minutes and 37 seconds of Adagio for Idiots on Hold, punctuated every so often with an ominous click and a long silence that had me convinced they were doing an experiment to see when I would finally hang up. Mike eventually came back and delivered the crushing blow. Yes, there is a flight that leaves just an hour after your arrival in Dallas, but it’s oversold…would you like to stew over that on your terminal layover in the departure ward, or would you like me to just cancel your whole vacation?

Travelocity sucks.

And I can say that with some authority, because only 3 weeks ago, I had to call Expedia customer service. I had purchased pre-paid parking for a recent business trip, and couldn’t find the parking lot–they had, whoops, neglected to put the address and phone number on the handy dandy printout map. When I called the parking garage to get a rain check for a future trip, they refused. So I called Expedia to complain, and without a moment’s hesitation, they did one better than a rain check, they refunded my card. That is customer experience. The flight scheduling may be a commodity, but the service is different. Expedia has it, Travelocity doesn’t.

So, one more time for the benefit of Search Engine Optimization:

Travelocity Sucks. Yes. They really really do. Travelocity Sucks. Sing it with me now. Travelocity Sucks.

I feel better now.

Alan Scott Interview

In my first foray into podcasting, I’ve interviewed Alan Scott, CMO of Factiva. Alan is one of the most candid–and often provocative–marketers around, so it was the perfect opportunity to step into audio and capture some of his thoughts on tape. I interviewed Alan over the phone, and we talked about everything from why marketers are losing control of "the message" to why salespeople make better marketers.

The podcast is about 22 minutes long, and the file is 8MB–and you’ll have to endure my first attempts at "slick" audio production. Click here to listen. (right click to download).