Monday, January 14, 2013

Bittman, Beyoncé and Cool Memes

"Brands have moved to the top of the Maslow Hierarchy and must now fulfill our self-expressive needs as well as our emotional and spiritual needs. This idea of reframing the climate debate goes to the core of our tribal psychology. We want giraffes and zebras to be here for our great-great-great grandchildren. We all want that. We just haven’t figured out how to get it. "

Mark Bittman, Food columnist for the New York Times and bon vivant travel franchise for public television, has made more than a few enemies for criticizing the choices celebrities make in their food and beverage endorsements. Said Bittman, “[Beyoncé] Knowles is renting her image to a product that may one day be ranked with cigarettes as a killer we were too slow to rein in.”

Others Bittman labels “soda shills” include LeBron James, Madonna, Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, Elton John, Christina Aguilera, David Beckham, Cindy Crawford, Michael Jordan, Bill Cosby and Elvis.

He is right, and when you take a few steps back, he gets even righter.

Beyoncé, her Pepsi commercials annually luring another generation of impressionable youth to the sodium benzoate scaring of their arterial walls and caloric expansion of tender waistlines, recently inked a $50 million deal to rep Pepsi as an official spokesmodel.

Shame on her, said Bittman. Shame on all the snake oil carnies hawking sugar water to tiny tots.

The irony with Beyoncé, whose net worth is somewhere north of $750 million for the miraculous athletic ability to perform vigorous dance moves in impossibly high heels while belting diaphragm distorting vocals, is that she also founded the Let’s Move! charity, endorsed by Michelle Obama, to promote healthy diet and activity to reverse childhood obesity.

Be sure to watch for the new Pepsi logo soon to be appearing on the First Lady’s Let’s Move! t-shirt. The big picture is all about branding.

Says Carolyn Kelley, marketing strategist at Brand Amplitude, LLC, a customer insights and strategy firm and author of the blog,, “What do Deloitte, Mercedes, ABC Family, MTV, Miracle Whip, Ford Fiesta, Herbal Essences, State Farm and the U.S. Army all have in common? Each has recognized the importance of generation-specific marketing targeting Millennials.

“Candy and snack marketers might also want to adapt their strategies to reach this latest generation. These marketing savvy, technologically adept and socially empowered consumers demand more from brands — more value, more personalization and more giving back — than consumers ever have before. The investment might be worth it, because once you earn their loyalty, they can serve as your greatest brand advocates.”
Millennials are the 72 million USAnians under the age of 34 in 2012. Millennials are also, judging by where Coke and Pepsi are spending their advertising rupees and yuan, 793 million Indians and 110 million Chinese (including 5 million Taiwanese).

Because of their wired, multitasked social lives, Millennials tend to snack far more than older generations and the line between meals and snacks is blurring, Kelley says. It is very common for Millennials to regularly snack in the mid-morning, mid-afternoon and late at night. It's the hobbit diet: breakfast, second breakfast, elevensies, luncheon, afternoon tea, dinner and supper. This is an opportunity McDonald’s has seized with menu items such as Snack Wraps and Chicken McBites. Taco Bell leveraged it with its “FourthMeal” campaign.

Millennials, raised on “just-in-time” delivery from Amazon and eBay, tend to be impulse buyers who want what they want, when they want it. Smartphone applications such as GrubHub, OpenTable and Yelp make it easy to quickly find fast food and places to eat any time of day.

Beyoncé’s appeal to Pepsi goes back to Madison Avenue agencies using credibility and attractiveness to persuade. An advertising theory called the Halo Effect suggests that one trait influences the perception of another. The product is a neutral stimulus, the celebrity endorser an unconditioned stimulus. It is Pavlovian. Potential consumers associate feelings about the celebrity as a function of repeated exposure. Nicole Kidman boosted Chanel No. 5 sales by 16 percent. Air Jordan sneakers viralized the notion that you can be “like Mike” and soar through the air to take your impossible shot, if you wear those $200 shoes.

Air Jordans were first released in 1985 and nearly 30 years later, 86.5 percent of all basketball shoes sold with a price over $100 are Nike Jordans. Mike earns $1 billion per year in residuals. That’s a lot to like.

A brand provides a vehicle by which a person can proclaim a particular self-image, but a particular brand’s identity is really its marketer’s vision. Branding is about creating sustainable competitive advantage. The identity is what the marketer aspires the brand to be. Your imagination supplies the glue.

Brand adviser Carol Phillips draws upon polls by ad world legends David Aaker and Jean-Noël Kapferer to detect six identity facets: capabilities, personality, shared values & community, aspirational self image, internal culture & values, and noble purpose. She tells her clients that differentiation ideally should occur in more than one of these. Identity associations seldom come from a product’s feature or functional benefits. They come from tribe. Your subculture determines your choices.

This is, after all, the basis of fashion. We dress and groom to blend in, to become part of our social group. We become what we aspire to be by dressing the part and by accessorizing. We are hard wired as herd animals. Uniforms are how we signal each other.

Early advertisers created fictional identities to make it easier for consumers to relate to their products. Betty Crocker was the Martha Stewart of 1921. General Mills created a kitchen, a portrait, even a signature for its all-American homemaker. The brand was a hit, so we started seeing characters like Sara Lee for coffee cakes, Little Debbie for cupcakes, Aunt Jemima — the embodiment of pancake mixes and syrups — and the Marlboro Man.

Roger Sterling (played by actor John Slattery): 

“Your whole generation, you drink for the wrong reasons. My generation we drink because it's good. Because it feels better than unbuttoning your collar. Because we deserve it. We drink because it's what men do.” 
Mad Men Episode 1.4 (2007)

For Nike, corporate identity is Just Do It!, for Kashi it’s Seven Whole Grains on a Mission, for Pepsi it’s The Choice of a New Generation, for Pampers it’s Happy Baby, for United Airlines it’s Friendly Skies. These are more than words on a page, they are compelling stories that resonate with workers within the company and sustain loyalty from customers.

In his Master’s thesis from Aarhus University in 2009 (“Creating and communicating a brand identity: The case of Somersby”) Tobias Laue Friis argued: “Saatchi and Saatchi have presented a theory on the evolution within the role of brands, which explains that brands in the past only were required to fulfill the functional benefits. As time progressed and the use of branding grew, brands had to move up the Maslow Hierarchy of needs and fulfill the emotional needs. In present time, brands have moved to the top of the hierarchy and must fulfill the self-expressive needs as well as the two prior. The evolution in branding has moved from fulfilling the functional and rational needs to the spiritual and emotional needs.”

Of course, who could be more emotionally needy than tweens and teens? As author Alissa Quart points out in her book, Branded, 150 US school districts in 29 states have Pepsi and Coke contracts. Textbooks regularly mention Oreo cookies, and math problems contain Nike logos. Companies from Disney to McDonald's promote themselves within school walls by holding focus groups about their new flavors, toys, and ad campaigns. Teens who register their objections can be punished, as in the case of the student suspended for wearing a Pepsi shirt to a Coca-Cola sponsorship day at high school.

In 2002, America's distillers spent $350 million to test market “Alcopops;” sweetened, fruity alcohol drinks ostensibly aimed at 21-year-olds but packaged like soda, with cartoonish brand names, like Bo Dean’s Twisted Tea. The distillers are trolling for adolescent adopters; selling fire water to the innocents.

In the TV series, Mad Men, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) says: 

“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you're doing is OK. You are OK.” 
(Episode 1.1, 2007)

Real life ad-man Emeritus David Aaker says:

 “The fact is — customers are not logical and functional benefits rarely provide a basis for sustainable differentiation or a deep customer relationship. Look instead toward emotional and self-expressive benefits. Thus, a customer can feel safe in a Volvo, excited in a BMW, energetic with Coca-Cola around, or warm when receiving a Hallmark card. A person can be cool by buying clothes at Zara, successful by driving a Lexus, creative by using Apple, a nurturing mother by preparing Quaker Oats hot cereal, frugal and unpretentious by shopping at Kmart, or adventurous and active by owning REI camping equipment.”
Attraction may also involve social conscience. Millennials are passionate about making a difference. Some 63 percent of Millennials polled by Aaker and Kapferer say that knowing a company is mindful of its social responsibilities makes them more likely to buy its products or services, and 58 percent are willing to pay more if part of the purchase price helps support a cause they care about. They embrace a cause and a brand if it contributes to the greater good.

Ben & Jerry’s policy of providing one percent of their product, time, and sales revenues to public service reflected shared values within a generation, and that in turn led to a respect-driven relationship that produced product loyalty.

Winning trust means winning market share, and losing it can be a brand disaster. The US brand of Perrier never fully recovered when benzene was detected in bottles. In 1998, Coke experienced a similar glitch with a bad batch in Belgium that made people sick. Brands survive on trust. And, live by celebrity, die by celebrity. Think Tiger Woods and TAG Heuer, OJ Simpson and Hertz, Lance Armstrong and US Postal Service, Lindsay Lohan and Mitt Romney.

According to a survey by Isabelle Schuiling and Jean-Noël Kapferer in the Journal of International Marketing (Vol. 12, No. 4, 2004, pp. 97–112), brands seek to convey particular, endearing attributes (in order of global frequency): high quality; trustworthy; good value; simple; down to earth; friendly; traditional; trendy; healthy; original; reliable; distinct; social; kind; authentic; fun; sensual; and prestigious.

Price point may have something to do with “high quality” or “good value,” but as seen in products as diverse as diamonds, Glock handguns and Red Bull, price advantages can be outweighed by combined appeal to trendiness, fun, reliability and prestige. Ad Guru Philip Kotler says, “Cost is of no importance in setting the price. It only helps you to know whether you should be making the product.”

Kotler also says, “It is no longer enough to satisfy your customers. You must delight them.”

Which brings us, thank you Mark Bittman, to the impasse in climate negotiations. Bill McKibben has lately taken the Bittman tack of calling out climate evildoers, wherever they lurk. His “Do the Math” piece for Rolling Stone shattered the false economics defense that deniers — like the US Chamber of Commerce and the US Congress — had been hiding behind. The Koch’s millions spent to stall climate treaties are comparable to Coke’s millions spent to addict children.

The way most climate advocates’ presently define the problem — using worry words like “climate chaos”, “global weirding” and “superstorms” — and strategies for addressing the problem like “emissions reduction”, “carbon-negative”, “carbon-minus”, “carbon tax”, and “cap-and-trade”, viewed from the standpoint of branding and cognitive attraction, are at best confusing and at worst counterproductive.

The brand-related conceptualization of climate is so unenlightened as to be dysfunctional. What is needed is an entirely new frame, one that clings like a pair of jeans from The Gap. If we want this thing to go viral, we need a stickier meme.

Recently Joe Brewer and Balazs Lazlo Karafiath, founders of the San Francisco based DarwinSF decided to calculate the potential of sticky memes to impact the way the world thinks about climate change. Brewer says:

“A little known fact about cultural change is that it builds up slowly and shifts quickly. This is because culture is a complex adaptive system that exhibits threshold effects and tipping points. The units of culture are a combination of human minds and social structures that shape their relationships with one another.  Human minds converge with social structures to create stable frameworks of meaning — what George Lakoff calls a frame and Richard Dawkins describes as a meme.

“The dynamics of tipping points can be summarized as ‘builds up slow, reorganizes quickly’.  This is the classic case of the small slip that cascaded into a major earthquake.  Pressure builds up in the system and then flows quickly across its entirety.”
Brewer and Karafiath are producing a meme map by gathering bite size mentions of climate change from social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and other sources and correlating those with viral potential. Using techniques from epidemiology, systems theory, and cognitive science, together with statistical analysis and coding, Brewer and Karafiath aim to build a better climate frame. Climate change memes with strong sticking potential are compared and rated. The ratings are passed along to a network of foundations and NGOs. They have put up a Facebook page inviting people to give suggestions of climate change memes. According to Joe Brewer, it is only how people think that constrains our world views. To change how people think is to change the realm of possibility. Please help their Indiegogo campaign by clicking on this sentence:
I have learned this at least by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”  — Henry David Thoreau

How about cool?

What needs to happen to obstructionist states, corporations and powerful individuals bent on blocking climate treaties is they need to be labeled uncool. So, for instance, Canada’s policies on emissions caps, energy efficiency, renewable energy and preventing catastrophic warming are so bad that it ranks 58th out of 61 countries, ahead of only Kazakhstan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and now it wants to build the Keystone XL pipeline to drain its tar sands and doom the planet to 6-degrees of warming. That’s uncool. Say it. Uncool.

When Microsoft got into a dispute with its utility over electricity charges to its server farm — to avoid a $210,000 penalty charge from the power utility for not needing as much power as it had contracted for the utility to build in order to have on hand — the company ran air conditioners and heaters simultaneously around the clock, forcing the utility to kick in diesel generators to keep up. That’s uncool. Very uncool.

In October, 2012, Cool Planet Energy Systems announced a major breakthrough in the commercialization and affordability of biofuels from non-food, waste-product biomass that can run in any vehicle on the road today. Using a simple, portable mechanical process, Cool Planet will produce high octane gasoline at the cost of $1.50 per gallon, without any need for government subsidies. Moreover, the process generates biochar, not greenhouse gases, which will actually remove carbon from the atmosphere during the course of production and keep it in the soil for 1000 years. That’s cool.

Learning from the example of the Hozu regional coop in Japan, which branded “Cool Slaw” in 2009, Kansas permaculturist David Yarrow is launching a campaign to certify cool foods grown in the US. Yarrow proposes a trade label to identify foods in markets that reverse our carbon footprint and sequester carbon.  This requires a simple, uniform way to define and mark foods by their carbon-sequestering character, and to track them from farm-to-market to assure point-of-sale authenticity.  To use the mark, growers must adopt probiotic methods to increase soil biology, and to assess living biomass in their soils. That’s very cool.

Millennials should scarf that up. The only question is, can cool product producers scale up fast enough to meet demand?

When they do, Jan Lundberg will be ready to move cool cargo by water with his Sail Transport Network. STN plans to launch daily passenger ferry service in San Francisco Bay (Sausalito-Embarcadero, Berkeley - SF Peninsula, Oakland - Peninsula) by high-tech catamaran; to transport organic produce from the Sacramento Delta and other areas around the Bay; to import fair trade coffee, cacao, maté, cigars, and spices from abroad; to export bicycle parts, wine, olive oil, rice, art, and crafts; and to re-inaugurate long distance passenger travel by sail.

For example, the 32 meter brigantine Tres Hombres, just disembarked St. Lucia January 10th, bound for Barbados, Antiqua, Grenada, Dominican Republic, Bermuda, Azores, England, Oostende, Den Helder, and Amsterdam. She is carrying a cargo of rum, honey, massage oil, sea salt and crafts. She will pick up cacao beans from the Dominican Republic to take to Amsterdam to be made into chocolate. All cool.

This idea of reframing the climate debate goes to the core of our tribal psychology. We want to survive, and we want our planet to survive. We want giraffes and zebras to be here for our great-great-great grandchildren. We all want that. We just haven’t figured out how to get it. Maybe Bittman’s critique of Beyoncé points a way forward.

We lack leadership and role models. We lack sticky memes that help us change direction as a global culture. These things won’t come fast enough if we wait for White House task forces, Congressional legislation or international treaty negotiations, and they probably won’t come from the ad budgets of megacorporations, either. But they can happen fast. They can go viral. They can change the way we see the world, almost instantaneously. In fact, that is the way things normally happen.

We all want to be cool. We can act in our own best interests just by being cool, buying cool, doing cool.

Wrecking the climate is uncool. Saving it is cool. What about you, Michael Jordan? Are you cool? Come’on, man. Are you? And what about you, Beyoncé?

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