If you don’t think the experience and the context are the most important thing when it comes to your product or business, you’re a fool.  Increasingly, it’s less about screaming about your low, low prices and more about how you are in relation to a person’s life. Make them love you, make them relish every moment they’re with you, make them remember you and pass along the story of their love affair with your brand.  What this segment NPR did with chef and entrepreneur Bryon Brown:


5 Steps in Brand Development

To develop custom brand and marketing solutions for clients, you need a process.  Often times, we jump in without thinking through the necessary stages:

Explore: Through a combination of primary and secondary research, the you need to survey the client’s current situation, including strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities in the marketplace as perceived by customers, employees and partners. This stage will also include a review of the client’s core values, brand positioning and competitive advantages.

Envision: Building on the findings from the Explore stage, you will need to make clear strategic recommendations that support the client’s vision and goals, while incorporating the experience and perceptions of the people interacting with the brand. The recommendations will align with each stage in the client’s experience cycle—from customer acquisition to retention. During this phase, you will develop rough concepts to establish a direction for messaging and creative.

Execute: This is where the rubber meets the road. Working with client, you produce the final tactics and creative direction. Depending on client needs, these tactics may include a mix of online, print, broadcast, direct, environmental, experiential and guerrilla initiatives.

Enlist: Involving the folks inside the organization is a necessary, but often overlooked part of a successful brand development process. To engage employees in the new brand and empower them to make good brand decisions, you need to develop and implement a communication and training program for your most valuable brand assets, your people.

Evaluate: Now that you’ve build the platform, you need to test it. For the final stage of our process, you have to watch, measure and evaluate the results of the branding campaign. Based on the results, you can then make recommendations for the next steps to improve program performance or maximize new opportunities.

Data Just Ain’t Enough, Folks

As me emerge slowly from the last recession, retailers are fixating on the “data.” They ask, “How can retailers leverage their in-store customer data for online purchase and preference sharing?” They want t know how in-store data can translate into a greater share of wallet and a greater share of preference? Completely understandable.  The problem is that it oversimplifies the shopping process, reducing how, where and why people shop to a series or series of numbers and gross assumptions about what those numbers mean. IN OTHER WORDS, THEY DON’T CONECT THE DOTS.  Or more accurately, they don’t connect the dots correctly.

If a retailer wants to get past reifying numbers and making assumptions that lead to wasted money, space and time they need to rethink the figures they have and start to contextualize the shopping process. They can recognize that a single purchase in store is part of a complex system of behavior that can translate into unique partnerships, product offerings and promotions that can be adapted to contexts that they may have never considered. Perhaps it makes sense to provide QR codes at a concert.  Perhaps it makes sense for location-based specials and promotions. The point is that the data gleaned from the in-store purchase and the online purchase signal things about each other.

Again, the line between the in-store and out-of-store experience is blurred for consumers and shoppers.  The statistics we gather are useful, to be sure, but they reflect only a single element of why people shop. And if you understand the “what” but not the “why” then you have lost THE opportunity. If you understand the motivations for being in the store and in the greater shopping milieu, that information can be used to tailor digital messages, retail design promotional offerings, etc. that fit the context of the people you want to engage.

Cognitive Biases and Shopping

Watching shoppers navigate a retail environment is often analogous to watching mice scurry about a maze. Each individual shopper¹s needs, response to environmental stimuli, procurement methods and decision-making abilities play out as a continuous large-scale experiment in cognitive function. Instead of wafting the smell of cheese down corridors or administering shocks, however, retailers instead often prey upon the consumer in a (usually) more subtle way: exploiting cognitive biases.

Cognitive biases are patterns of deviation in judgment occurring in specific contexts or situations. They’re near universal quirks of the human rational thought-process triggered by memory, perception and emotion. Now, a retailer might find emotionally salient influence difficult to consistently achieve. Similarly, hitting the right notes of nostalgia without becoming kitsch is very hit-or-miss in such a context sensitive environment. Luckily (for them), however, the retailer can usually hang their hat on the consistent failure of consumers to process numbers or have a cogent dialogue between their hunter-gatherer instincts and their wallet.

An arrow both manufacturers and retailers frequently pull from their quiver is the focusing effect, or Anchoring. This is the human tendency to rely too heavily, or “focus,” on one trait, symbol/word or piece of information when making purchasing decisions.

What this means for Best Buy is that they can slap HD on anything and the consumer will assume it’s a superior product, making the Blue Shirts quest to upsell that much easier. This bias is also the reason that your friend dropped $100 on Monster Cables HDMI cables instead of the $10 regular brand HDMI cables, even though they are the exact same product. Sure, logic would dictate that, because it is a digital cable acting as a conduit for 1’s and 0’s, conductivity and bandwidth don’t really mean anything, either it works or it doesn’t – but because your friend’s brain registers the “HD” designation on the packaging and the plus is shinier, it must be better.

You can also see this at work in the grocery store. Sales of organic food have skyrocketed. Never mind that the USDA and FDA’s classification for “natural” and “organic” are tenuous at best, the word “organic” symbolizes pure, healthy and better. A simple sticker can immediately trigger this response in the consumer’s mind: “No wormy, pesticide-ridden peasant produce for my family, by God, as a loving parent I’m committed to providing the healthiest safest food I can.” One word will illicit all of that, whether it’s grounded and rational or not.

[At this point I will just type the word “3D.” You know what I’m talking about and you know exactly what just popped into your head when you read that particularly nasty little word. I’m not going to go into it. The millions of dollars we as a nation have pumped into the studio and electronic company coffers for a gimmick and a shitty visual product is just astounding. We just keep chasing that first Avatar high, don’t we? Moving on...]

Another brain-glitch that retailers frequently profit from is Irrational Escalation, essentially the phenomenon where people justify increased investment in a decision, based on a prior investment or cumulative prior investment, even if that decision was a mistake. This is the logical fallacy that leads shoppers to spend an extra $80+ in warrantees on that treadmill they might use, because, hey, they spent that $300 for this nice hamster wheel why not insure it against damage for six months. This fallacy is also responsible for service plans, my father spending $300 to fix the A/C on a car worth $750, it’s why Mila Kunis stayed with Macauly Culkin so long, and explains my purchase of a ticket to Star Wars: Episode III (damn it). This also leads to post-purchase rationalization, where we convince ourselves that we made the financially smart decision, even though we know deep-down that we’re an idiot.

Finally, the third most-exploited (and most-evil) cognitive bias by retailers has to be Hyperbolic Discounting, the tendency for people to prefer more immediate payoffs relative to later payoffs, where the tendency increases the closer to the present both payoffs are. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint; that dead deer probably wouldn’t be very tasty in 100 days and “compound interest” is mutually exclusive to a society whose technological hallmark is flint knapping.

Where do we find this in the retail environment? I’ll tell you after you finish signing up for that J.Crew credit card with the first-time use 20% discount. Moral hazards and Lemons be damned, you would literally just die without that pashmina pink scarf for your chihuaha, Snickers. We want what we want, and we want it right now. It’s like our wallets are quietly chanting suffrage slogans from our back pockets whenever that new version of the iPhone catches our eye. Bugs? What bugs? Luckily the Apple Store also sells Apple service plans and warrantees, right?

There are at least 30 decision-making cognitive biases that play right into retailers’ hands. It’s just that easy to manipulate consumers, or to set consumers up to manipulate themselves.

By Matt Cloud

Conducting a Better Participant Interview

For better or worse, the interview is where we receive a large percentage of your information on subjects or groups. The ability to conduct a successful and insightful interview will determine the depth of information you will be able to collect and the and the validity of that information. KEEP IN MIND:

  • Reading off a line of questions will create a barrier between the researcher and the subject as well as produce a stale wooden rapport.
  • Ask open-ended questions rather than simple yes/no queries. Don’t lead the subject.
  • Questions should be clear and phrased in contextually intelligible and appropriate language.
  • It’s an interview, not an interrogation. Relax, forget about getting “the” answer an establish rapport.
  • Get to know the subject(s). Ask them questions about the house, family, life, etc. It’s important for them to trust the relationship and to be open.
  • Add depth with follow-up questions.
  • Have the subject actively demonstrate their points if possible.  “My truck makes a sound.” = Get in the truck and check it out .


What you do and how you interact with your subject(s) is just as  important as what you say. Body-language and signage by your  subject(s) is also important. Make sure to pay attention to the details even if you’re making notes. Remember:

  • Remove coat (coats and objects are interpreted as barriers).
  • Mind that your notes or camera are not directly between you and the subject.
  • Maneuver subject(s) into a seated position not facing an immediate point of egress.
  • The subject should feel secure, but not enclosed.
  • Be aware of your body language and inflection.
  • Be observant of the body language, gesture-calls, posture, eye  movement etc. of the subject(s).
  • Silence is your friend.
  • Nodding but not saying anything will produce silence, which the subject will often try to fill by continuing deeper into a line of  explanation or discovery.  However, don’t spend your whole time nodding – let’s face it, it gets creapy.


Ritual and Drinking

A ritual is a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value. We tend to think of this in terms of formalized contexts such as religious rites, rites of passage, legislative sessions, etc.  But they hold true for things like drinking, as well. A ritual may be performed on specific occasions, or at the discretion of individuals or communities. It may be performed by a single individual, by a group, or by the entire community.  Rituals signal the change from one state of being to another, giving license, defining the state of things to come in a given context and shaping our worldview for a time.  The codify who we are.

Ritual and tradition are important to drinking because traditions established by social groups provide a unique experience. A cocktail may be grandfather’s drink. Anchor Steam is the beer of San Francisco. A dinner party isn’t a “real” dinner party until the first glass of wine is raised and a toast given.  Marketing tends to focus on surface-level understandings of how and why people drink.  POP, sports, etc. all factor into the equation, but it’s uncommon to look for deeper meanings because it frankly means more work.  But this is where the real advantage lies.  Finding a way into a ritual makes your brand significantly more relevant.  It makes it part of a long-term commitment. It establishes specific memories around a brand. And that translates into a long-term strategy rather than a series of short-term tactics.


How Language Matters in Multi-Cultural Marketing

For the majority of immigrants to a new country, language runs deeply into cultural and personal identities. “Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity – “I am my language.”  But depending on the context, language  choice signals the relevance of social and political affiliation. From a marketing perspective, it requires an approach that extends beyond an either-or scenario.

For example, in the US, an English speaking environment, Spanish speakers may choose to use Spanish to signify themselves as different from the dominant group, while simultaneously creating camaraderie with other Spanish speakers. These choices are made not only within situations, but within conversations (code switching). Code switching can be at once exclusionary and inclusionary, but in areas with a high percentage of Hispanics, it is simply the norm. While outsiders may view code switching or code mixing as a deficiency, those who speak “Spanglish” do not.

Most marketing and advertising runs along the lines of an either-or approach and consequently, it sounds impersonal, detached and unrealistic – it lacks any sense of authenticity and often borders on pandering.  It is the view of an outsider looking in, or it demonstrates a native speaker imposing a sense of linguistic “purity” on the population to whom he/she is speaking.

Any marketer worth his wait in salt needs to be aware of the power of language, not just from the standpoint of formal syntax and vocabulary, but from the sociolinguistic side. It’s easy to create a marketing campaign in Spanish (or Vietnamese or French or Hindi), but that doesn’t mean it translates well.  Learn the context of a language before you take the plunge.


Understanding Space

Over the years the world of marketing and branding has come a long way in understanding how color and images combine to shape the brand experience, and the importance of considering these points when dealing with an array of cultural norms and expectations.  We know red is an auspicious color in China, but is often interpreted as being too aggressive and agitating in the US.  We know that choosing symbolically discordant images and colors can have a strong impact on the viewers psyche.

What hasn’t been touched on with the same degree of interest is Proxemics, the understanding that how the use of space, either literally or in visual representations, can have a dramatic effect on the person experiencing the brand.  It isn’t enough to understand the impact of lighting on cognitive processes of the brain, nor is it enough to understand what messages certain colors convey in different parts of the world.  To truly build a lasting brand presence, we need to understand how the consumers to whom we are marketing distinguish a “place” from a “space,” and what meanings they invest in a physical setting.

Proxemics is the understanding of space in the holistic sense, as well as the cultural association we place upon space.  It is the study of how an environment, at the interactive and interpretive level, is bestowed with meaning by people in daily life.  The term “Proxemics” was coined in the 1950s by Edward Hall to address the study of our conceptualization and use of space, as well as how various differences impact our experiences within a given area.  In other words, Proxemics is the study of place and space from the cultural vantage point.

Proxemics, in its simplest understanding, is broken into two wide areas.  The first is physical territory, such as why desks face the front of a classroom or why front yards in America rarely have a privacy fence.  The second broad area is that of personal territory, the space we carry with us.  It is the space we keep between ourselves and the person with whom we are speaking. In both cases, having a solid understanding of how these dimensions manifest in our modes of communication is pivotal to a successful branding effort. But first, what are we talking about when we say Proxemics as it relates to a brand?

Of Industrial Landscapes and Natural Space

Human perceptions of space, although derived from sensory tools that all humans share, are shaped and patterned by culture. This means that differing cultural frameworks for defining and organizing space are internalized by all people at an unconscious, usually shared level, and can lead to serious failures of communication in cross-cultural settings. At the macro-level, these sensibilities shape cultural expectations about how streets, neighborhoods, groceries, retail settings, and essentially every environment we interact with should be properly organized.  This also means that settings can and do take on a “personality” depending on how they relate to cultural archetypes we posses about a given spatial frame.  For example, the living room archetype has specific elements of light, furniture and furniture placement, color, and wall decoration that signal the space is a living room.  These spatial cues are very different from what we expect in a archetypal board room setting. When used in a retail or business environment, how space is used impacts how customers interpret what that space is “:supposed to” be.  In some cases these spaces can typify and inflate the cultural frame, in others they are in some way disruptive.

The Apple Store exemplifies a somewhat discordant but positive and memorable experience by stripping away elements of a tech-centric environment and replacing them with features associated with a non-technology focused world.  Open space is used liberally and allows patrons to scan the store with few obstructions.  Computers are displayed on countertops, not shelves, along the outer walls.  Tables fill the central space.  Only accessory items are stacked, which allows the eye to easily scan the interior of the store. Warm, natural colors are used rather than loud or cold materials, making the store more inviting.

When all these pieces are put together, the environment signals both a sense of inclusion and exploration  that is lacking in most computer stores. Everything comes together in the physical space to create a distinct personality that is mirrored in every other aspect of the Apple brand, from the website to TV ads. The reasons are a combination of biological and cultural principles.  The eye follows basic evolutionary principals of horizontally scanning the horizon to gather information about the environment.  Rather than focusing on vertical scanning, as in done in most computer and consumer electronics stores, horizontal scanning also promotes eye contact and person-to-person interaction instead of interaction exclusively with the products.  Stools are available at display stations and invite patrons to sit as one would at home, rather than stand. The cultural signal is that we are in a home rather than a store.  Products are de-commoditized and given a warmth that is normally lacking in the cultural understanding of technology.

Contrast this with the layout of most computer/PC stores where items are stacked on shelves, the materials used in displays are sterile and cold, and the focus of the experience is on the technology, rather than how technology fits seamlessly into a consumer’s life.

Personal Space         

Moving beyond public space, another important aspect of Proxemics, and one a business frequently has less control over, is the use of culturally constructed personal space. Briefly outlined are the four areas that Americans intuitively respect and use to define personal territory:

  1. Public Space ranges from about 12 to 25 feet and is the distance maintained between the audience and a speaker giving an address.
  2. Social Space ranges from 4 to 10 feet and is used for communication among business associates, strangers using public areas (such as in a retail setting).
  3. Personal Space ranges from 2 to 4 feet and is used among friends and family members, and to separate people waiting in lines. Not surprisingly, this is also the distance assumed in certain retail setting where a greater degree of intimacy is to be conveyed (e.g. a lingerie store).
  4. Intimate Space ranges out to one foot and involves the possibility of (and sometimes probability of) touching. This is reserved for people with whom we are very close or for secretive actions such as whispering.

Personal Space varies dramatically along cultural lines and can have an enormous impact on how a brand is received.  As an example, when visiting Dubai, you might find yourself almost nose to nose with a business associate because their social space equates to intimate space in the US.  You would probably find yourself unconsciously reacting by backing away trying to regain what you view as appropriate social space while your associate unknowingly pursues you across the floor trying to maintain what is the norm for him. The result is that you assign negative meaning to that behavior, considering it rude or odd. Now, imagine this happening in a retail setting, a car dealership, or greeting card store. The result is a negative or awkward experience for the consumer, though they may have difficulty defining what feels wrong.  By extension, the consumer then transfers the sensation of discomfort to the brand as a whole. Ultimately, whether the meaning you assign is negative or positive, you assign meaning to it, and thus to the brand as a whole.

How personal space is used in messaging and advertising is equally important.  While you are viewing an ad, rather than participating in an experience firsthand, you still register what is and is not “normal” for those pictured in an ad.  So, for example, beer ads frequently make a point of significantly reducing personal space between men and women, while increasing the distance between men.  The subconscious registry is one of increased intimacy and sexual cues.  However, when these ads are run in parts of the world where sexual norms and rules around inter-gender behavior are different, these images signal improper use of space.

From Space to Place

What all of this means, is that cultural differences in how we interpret space and our physical environment, both public and personal, literal and symbolic, can have a enormous impact on how a brand is perceived.

Clearly, investing in the right location with the right amount of space and the right demographic mix for your target audience is incredibly important.  Equally, so is the sound, temperature, amount of “clutter,” color palette and lighting.  But first and foremost, understanding how space becomes a place and thus, a major aspect of brand, begins by defining an environment by its cultural standards.  It includes determining rules of interpersonal interaction with the staff.  It even involves determining how space will translate in ad collateral.

Ultimately, spatial studies can be a remarkably powerful tool in determining how a brand will manifest itself and be assigned meaning in a range of environments.  Or a retailer can simply continue to scream about its low, low prices. Unfortunately, that only gets you so far.


Neuromarketing, The Latest, Greatest Answer

Neuromarketing has garnered a great deal of attention over the last year, particularly in the months leading up to the most recent elections in the US. It’s the hot new thing. Indeed, there are some remarkable applications for it as a means of gathering insight into what elements of a marketing or shopping experience trigger neurological responses. However, as with all new things there are always problems.

The process employs several technologies to study consumers’ sensorimotor, affective and cognitive responses to marketing stimuli. People may lie but the body and the brain do not. The idea is that Neuromarketing gives a more honest answer to how people react to color, language, package design, etc. and to be fair, the process does just that. As Phil McGee, Director of Insights and Category Management at Campbell’s discussed when he was a Brand Show guest, Neuromarketing is great way of measuring patterns of brain activity and seeing what behavior centers of the brain light up when exposed to different stimuli. But the methodology has three limitations.

Culture and Context:
The first and most serious limitation to Neuromarketing is that the methodology overlooks the roles of context and culture. The brain responds to certain stimuli in the lab, but the measurements cannot adequately addresses the reasons behind those responses. The most valuable insights marketers and designers can use are those that answer “why.” Neuroscience doesn’t answer “why,” and when it attempts to do so the conclusions drawn are rooted in pre-existing cultural biases.

Unlike other organisms, human perception is filtered through symbolic thought. We assign meaning to things which in turn shapes how we react to colors, ideas, objects, etc. As such, the biological responses provided in a Neuromarketing project reflect a biochemical response to a single point of time and do not necessarily reflect the actual triggers behind those responses.  For example, the pleasure centers of the brain may light up when the participant sees a new package design for a brand of soup; the researcher assuming it’s due to color, shape or messaging.  However, it doesn’t address the fact that the pleasure center may not light up under actual shopping conditions.

Why? Because in the lab the person may be responding to idealized and subconscious memories of childhood or what it means to be a good mother. She may be simply responding to changes in light. But outside the lab, the shopper is part of a complex environment. Is shopping a task or a pleasure? Is the woman in this picture buying based on flavor and package design, or is she buying it because the product conveys status in a different cultural context? When Campbell’s Soup famously conducted neuroscience research in 2008, they equipped participants with special sensory vests and eye-level cameras in an attempt to register data in the actual shopping context. Unfortunately, even in the store the participants were overly aware of their role and the equipment – effectively invalidating the “reality” of the situation.

Biology of the Lab:
The second point is that people respond to laboratory settings in more than purely psychological terms. Once you have established a process that makes individuals feel like lab specimens, there are biological and psychological results. Frequently, cortisol levels rise, causing stress responses.  Once the questions begin and people begin to feel like they are providing valuable information (independent of their conscious answers), serotonin levels elevate and stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain. So, the point at which materials are presented in the research can fundamentally alter the results.

Finally, there is the simple problem of inferring too much information from the data. Assuming that the data is important, researchers and more often, the consumers of it, assume connection that may not be there.  We fall into the logic traps of both fallacy of the false cause and the deductive fallacy. In other words, we assume causality when none exists. The data produced in Neuromarketing can tell us many things, but much of the relevance we attribute to it is grounded in the fact that we want it to tell us certain things.

The list could go on and on, but the point is simple: human beings are complex creatures and products of our cultural backgrounds. If you ignore context and meaning, then you have in fact missed most of what you need to know.  It is key to remember that while Neuromarketing is a marvelous methodology, it is still just one tool in the research and marketing toolkit.