Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Navigating the Consumer "Pleasure Revenge"​ – advice from Mark Twain, a Surfer and a Futurist Named Popcorn.

The post-pandemic "Pleasure Revenge" is accelerating consumer spending and a return to pre-Covid behaviors.

As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, Americans are returning to gyms in big numbers; booking vacations and plane trips; rocking out at concerts; and going to popcorn-scented movie theaters to see Hollywood blockbusters such as Spider-Man.

What the WSJ missed is that we see this same human behavior after every major shock to the national psyche, as well as the inevitable post-exuberance counter-trend...which brings us to Mark Twain, Faith Popcorn and Laird Hamilton.

"History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes."

Mark Twain told us this would happen.

The national and personal sacrifice endured during WWI was followed by the Roaring Twenties. After WWII, the U.S. economy boomed as Americans bought homes, moved to the suburbs, drove the latest tail-finned beauty from Detroit, and had many, many kids. The economic malaise of the '70s ushered in the 1980s and "Beemer"-driving Yuppies with a voracious appetite for wine, martinis and cigars. And following the severe emotional and economic pain inflicted on 9/11, per capita consumer spending began to steadily climb.

"For every trend, there is a counter-trend."

This "Pleasure Revenge" – popularized by trend expert, Faith Popcorn – taps into a deep human need to soothe pain and maybe even re-exert control over our lives after having had our "normalcy" abruptly taken from us.

But as important as it for businesses to have strategies to profit during the post-crisis Pleasure Revenge, Ms. Popcorn cautions us to think beyond that exuberant period and prepare for the counter-trend, a theme she frequently cites.

What might a counter-trend look like a few years from now? Well, consider that each of those boom periods mentioned above eventually led to an equally large counter-force.

The Roaring Twenties was followed by the Great Depression. The insatiable consumerism of the 1950s and early 60s preceded the economic stagnation of the 1970s. In 1989, Yuppies woke up to Black Monday – their first global economic crisis. The post 9/11 economic growth abruptly crashed in 2008 because of the subprime lending meltdown.

Which brings us to surfing.

"Surfing's one of the few sports that you look ahead to see what's behind."

So what should businesses do? Well, perhaps take inspiration from surfing legend Laird Hamilton. Like a riding a heavy wave, get too far ahead of it and it will crush you; drop in too late and end up nowhere. Timing is everything.

Businesses must invest in products and experiences that satisfy the current unbridled demand and consumer spending.

But as Laird Hamilton advises, be aware of what's following from behind – a big counter trend that may lead to an eventual economic downturn. Best to not invest and expand with a mindset that this frothy consumer spending will never end. It will.

Just ask Mark Twain.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Fear and loathing in Las Vegas - CES 2020

We live in a world in which culture moves at the speed of technology. Each big advancement – the internet, search, mobile, wifi – has liberated us from what had been holding us back.

CES offers marketers a time to sift through the noise and find the signals pointing to how people are feeling and how behavior may change in the near future.

So how are we feeling? Well, it appears we’re more than a tad mistrustful.

The optimism of tech is being overshadowed by its darker side – an increasingly complex algorithm that divides and perpetuates bias; social platforms that allow falsehoods to pose as truth; screens that foster an aversion to making actual human contact.

We don't need to attend CES to know this. What I did take away from CES is that our mistrust extends beyond tech to the world around us. Ironically, we're turning to tech to protect us from the ills we sense in society.

The home and health categories, in particular, conveyed interesting signals about how people are feeling as seen through the lens of a range of consumer segments and brands.

If I were to write the movie trailer for CES, it might read like this: “In a world that feels dangerous, dirty and difficult, a world in which people no longer trust institutions to solve problems, heroes are taking charge to make their world better.”

Here are three signals I observed:

The world feels dangerous, but my home is my personal fortress.

We've all heard the old saying that "my home is my castle." Tech brands are helping us create crocodile-filled moats around our castles. There are more and more “smart locks”, all following the path paved by Ring, featuring key codes, security cameras that can be accessed on our phone, even fingerprint readers.

Tech is also protecting us from “porch pirates.” The Danby Parcel Guard is package locker for our front door, enabling FedEx to place the package in a box that can only be accessed by the homeowner with a personal security code.

Our anxiety around personal safety extends beyond home intrusion and theft. Climate change is is hitting closer and closer to home, with near constant news footage of flooding, hurricane force winds, and fires. Woodside Homes showcased new houses that can better withstand natural disasters through new building techniques and materials. 

A very real anxiety is increasingly felt by an aging population that is confronting the perils of getting old while living alone at home. AddisonCare is a virtual caregiver that monitors activity in the home, medication intake, reads biometrics to create a “safe-health” home. Welt introduced a smart-belt that can anticipate and help prevent falls among older adults.

The world is polluted and dirty, but my home is my personal clean-room.

Clean-tech was everywhere. In-home air purification was a major theme, ranging from wearable air purifiers to a lamp that purifies air in the home.

BreezoMeter provides personalized, hyper-local air quality assessments to give people information to make better decisions about going outside and reducing exposure to polluted air.

Technology is also rescuing us from the bacteria lurking on the many things we touch throughout the day. HomeSoap is a very stylish box that uses UV-C light to disinfect kids toys, TV remotes, etc. Another of their products, PhoneSoap, is a 10-minute phone charging box that also uses UV-C to disinfect the item we touch most during the day. 

Life feels difficult and time-starved, but the world inside my home is easy.

Most of us have experienced how voice assistants make the complex feel effortless. This same effortless living is being enabled by a wide range of technologies. For example, ViaRoom uses AI to learn behaviors and automate the home environment, including appliances, climate, shades and lights.  

Looking well beyond web-connected kitchen appliances, Samsung is designing kitchen counters with robotic arms to help chop and prep, and also applying AI to help plan meals and monitor nutrition.

Activities that require us to spend time driving somewhere else, e.g., visiting a doctor, can be done on our schedule from home. EyeQue provides vision exams through your smartphone. MedWand enables your doctor to provide physical examinations over the internet.

And in the battle against a stressful world, restorative sleep seems to be our new weapon of choice. Sleep-tech had a huge presence at CES. Philips showed a deep-sleep headband. Sleepace can measure our heart rate, breathing, movement, and ratios of light vs deep sleep to optimize sleep through lighting, smart beds, etc. All of this follows in the footsteps of Sleep Number.

So what should a marketer do?

It has never been more timely for marketers to earn trust from the customers they serve. 

Research has been showing a growing mistrust of many institutions, including government, tech companies, social media and some forms of organized religion. This was on full display at CES. 

But we also saw a way forward. Companies can earn trust through genuine empathy backed by real solutions – human-centered products and services that empower people to take matters into their own hands to create a safer, cleaner and easier world for themselves and the people they care about.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Future of Marketing is Human.


A few months back I visited the Museum of Failure in Los Angeles. Seriously, this is a real thing–– a pop-up museum showcasing decades of really bad marketing ideas. My personal favorite? Gerber Singles––meals in a jar targeted at young adults who didn’t have time to cook. And as we know, nothing says your life sucks more than eating dinner in a jar…from a baby food brand.

This experience jolted me into thinking about how marketers, no matter how well-intentioned, can become better equipped to embrace change and avoid being showcased in the Museum of Failure.

Fast forward to this past weekend. I was invited to speak at an American Marketing Association conference to share my perspective on the future of marketing. It goes without saying that if I could predict the future, there’s a good chance I might have been Skyping the audience from my newly purchased private island.

We’re living in a period of unprecedented change. Massive demographic shifts. Shifting cultural norms. Media fragmentation. New technologies. The power of data. Low barriers to entry. New business models disrupting the status quo. 

Change is simply the new normal. The marketers that succeed will be those that quickly adapt, developing the skills to rapidly test, learn and iterate. Being open to change isn’t a best practice, it’s a survival skill. (As has been said, if you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance even less!)

The most exciting part of where marketing is heading is what we are returning to. We’re moving past the phase of being dazzled by shiny new marketing technologies, applying them simply because we can. We’re remembering that on the other side of that screen, those VR goggles, or holding the mobile app…there is a human being. 

Human Centered Design, and by extension, Human Centered Marketing, starts with genuine empathy. Human centered marketers don’t draw inspiration from the latest technologies. They draw inspiration from people. They develop an empathetic understanding of their journey, needs, and aspirations.

This is not about going analog. Far from it! Data and marketing technologies give us more ways to be more relevant and personalized to customers. Addressable TV enables us to use Mass Media as 1:1 marketing. First party data segmentation enables us to personalize at scale. Machine Learning helps technology be more intuitive. (Just ask Alexa.) Data provide the ability to better understand people––how they’re alike, how they’re unique, how we can help them.

But we know, too, that there is a dark side to technology, to social media, to seeing humans as algorithms. We are witnessing an erosion of trust concurrent with an increase in isolation, social bubbles, and stress.

This is why I've embraced a simple truth: what’s true in life should be true in marketing. If a marketer hopes to build lasting customer relationships, it must first earn the customer’s trust. Empathy is how we build trust in our personal relationships. So, too, in marketing. 

Empathy is different than being customer driven. (Hey, simply being customer driven leads to dinners in a jar for time-starved young adults!) Empathy is the ability see the world through another person’s eyes…to truly understand their experience by standing in their shoes.

Practitioners of Human Centered Design start by putting aside preconceived ideas and instead focus on understanding the people they are designing for. It involves discovering what people are trying to accomplish; how they want to feel; their unarticulated needs; their pain points. Successful marketers increasingly understand that true customer empathy is a source of differentiation.

We see signals pointing to the future of marketing in many of the disruptive marketing frameworks that take a human centered approach to helping people accomplish goals. 

Direct-to-Customer Marketers such Casper, Warby Parker and Carvana are disrupting categories by uncovering unarticulated needs and designing new experiences that are convenient, friction-free and personalized. (DTC marketers have the added advantage of capturing 1st Party Data, enabling them to maintain ongoing relationships with their customers.) 

Subscription Marketers, similar to DTC brands, solve real customer pain points yet have the added benefit of continuously learning how to personalize the experience. Stitch Fix learns more about its customers each month based on what clothing they return or keep. Netflix uses machine learning to understand what we like to binge. And in a surprising move, John Hancock recently announced it will only underwrite “interactive insurance” policies for customers who agree to share health data from their wearable device. (Subscription models have a huge financial benefit to these marketers, generating a more predictable revenue stream and greater lifetime value per customer.)

Mobile 1st Marketers use mobile as a business strategy, not a media channel. Mobile 1st businesses apply Human Centered Design to understand the customer journey, especially the unarticulated pain points, and use mobile to help people accomplish tasks. Delta has done a brilliant job of this, even down to solving the latent anxiety felt by many travelers who worry whether their bag was successfully loaded on the plane. Domino’s is also embracing a Mobile 1st approach, not just with their Pizza Tracker, but now with the launch of Domino’s Hot Spots nationwide.

Purpose-Driven companies are human centered, but in a different way. Brands such as Tom’s, Chobani and Dove aren’t listening to customers to figure out how to be more relevant. They are guided by a clear sense of purpose about making the world a better place. They operate as a force for positive change and attract people who share that same belief. (Research increasingly shows a growing number of customers will consider a brand’s stand on social issues before making a choice.)

As I said at the start, change is simply the new normal. The most exciting change in marketing is how, in an increasingly digital age, we are returning our focus to the human experience. We’re remembering a timeless human lesson: To build lasting customer relationships, we must first earn the customer’s trust by designing experiences inspired by genuine human empathy.

Because what’s true in life, is true in marketing.