Sometimes “Irrational” is just “Emotional”

April 23, 2008

“Predictably Irrational,” a book by M.I.T. Economist and Federal Reserve researcher Dan Ariely, has been the talk of the geekerati in recent weeks. The book, in its seventh week on The New York Times best seller list, has been the subject of commentary in professional media from the Financial Times to NPR, and is now a hot topic among the online elite.

From the book’s Web site:

Do you know why we so often promise ourselves to diet and exercise, only to have the thought vanish when the dessert cart rolls by?

Do you know why we sometimes find ourselves excitedly buying things we don’t really need?

Do you know why we still have a headache after taking a five-cent aspirin, but why that same headache vanishes when the aspirin costs 50 cents?…

By the end of this book, you’ll know the answers to these and many other questions that have implications for your personal life, for your business life, and for the way you look at the world.”

The book is well written and insightful, but reading it I couldn’t help but think over and over again that it was really a book about branding written by a mathematician who – working deep below the earth in an undisclosed location insulated from brands of any kind – had somehow uncovered the existence of brands through an elaborate mathematical proof.

If you replaced every instance of the word “irrational” in this book with the word “emotional,” it would loses 80% of the revelatory irony that forms its spine, to the point of making observation after observation which would seem plainly obvious to your average small agency Account Coordinator.

“People love free, even when they’re not getting much!” Thanks, Bernbach. Duh.

The question worth pondering here, at least from a marketing perspective, is why even really smart people still don’t get the brand thing. Why is it so hard to grok the concept of assigning emotional value to something, beyond whatever rational utility one derives from it? And is doing so really “irrational,” or is it just a function of the fact that, for better or worse, we are all emotional beings?


Getting Social Media

February 22, 2008

I was on a panel at the Cornell Entrepreneur Network event yesterday, asked to speak on the marketing potential of social media to a (smart) group of “Web 2.0″ neophytes. The assignment led to some Cornellreflection on my part, and the following (hopefully) insights:

  1. People under 30 – the typical target for marketers interested in social media – don’t want online dialog for it’s own sake. Dialog is a means to multiple ends which they care about a great deal: Authenticity, Understanding, and Validation.
  2. Because of this, you have to understand social networking as a user before you have a prayer of using it effectively as a marketer. Rather than spending your lunchtime listening to paper gurus, go create a blog yourself and see what happens.
  3. After you’ve done that, don’t expect the world to beat a path to your door. Check where the people interested in what your interested in hang out today. Lurk quietly for a while, like you would wandering into a conversation at a cocktail party. Then try and make a worthwhile contribution.
  4. If you really have something great to add, post it on your own blog with references to appropriate posts in more established blogs. This will create traffic, and begin to build your social networking equity.
  5. Whenever possible, move the conversation to the real world. Blog away, but throw on some lipgloss once in a while and go shake some hands, will ya?

Did you attend the forum? Feel free to comment and post a link to your blog.

Target Marketing Changed Politics

January 18, 2008

My monthly column in Adotas is up, teaser:

No matter what your politics, these are interesting times in the realm of political marketing. After a decade-long footrace between the parties to out-execute each other in the realm of “microtargeting,” the technique is being painted as the root of all evil by progressives bent on putting the “United” back into the good ‘ol USA.

Tabling for a moment whether this shift is motivated by aspiration or resignation on the part of the Democrats, the strategy itself merits some reflection by commercial marketers.

Pretty pleased with it, actually, your comments welcome here or there.

Our Higher Moral Purpose

January 17, 2008

Between my first and second year of business school I was a strategic consultant at The Monitor Company in Cambridge. During that time Mark Fuller, one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, was obsessed with an exercise to help the company define what he called its “higher moral purpose.”

“All truly great businesses serve a higher moral purpose than the need to create value for the shareholders,” he said, “and we need to find ours.”

This seemed a little pretentious to me at the time, but it stuck in my head for some reason, and as I’ve been a part of building subsequent businesses I’ve always taken the time to reflect on what thier higher moral purpose might be.

There’s an Italian saying that the only thing more true than truth is a story. The story in this video, Malcolm Gladwell’s TED speech, captures what I believe to be matchmine’s higher moral purpose:

Link to Malcolm Gladwell TED speech

matchmine headlines GigaOm!

December 6, 2007

To be honest, I never imagined I’d be so excited for us to appear in somebody’s blog. If you’re going to be in one, though, this is the one.

My favorite bit:GigaOm

What I like about matchmine is that it lines up my multidimensional taste profile (my MatchKey) with the multidimensional profile of a piece of content. For example, I like “The Princess Bride” because it combines comedy with romance and a bit of fantasy; matchmine can find other movies that have similarly specific profiles.

matchmine reminds me a bit of Pandora, which doesn’t use collaborative filtering but rather searches for music based on the characteristics of music you say you like. Pandora, however, doesn’t construct a personal profile of you to match to the music; it starts with music you specify.

matchmine can also match you to other people, by computing the similarity of your respective MatchKeys. That would be another path to find content you might like.

matchmine works across content types and services, effectively bypassing the compartmentalization of personalized recommendations. But it does so in a way that doesn’t compromise privacy, because you retain control of your MatchKey. Plus, when used to make recommendations, it’s not associated with any identifying data.

Wow. Totally get’s it. Get the whole post here:
matchmine: Made for the Multidimensional You – GigaOM

It’s a movement, baby. Resistance is futile…

More thoughts on facebook…

November 29, 2007

Published an article in ADOTAS today, looks like this will be a recurring column.adotas logo

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks in the mediasphere. On the one hand, we’ve had Facebook asking advertisers to belly up to the buffet of targeting data made available through their new ad initiative. On the other, we’ve seen the behavioral targeting crowd launch a “Do Not Track List,” which would clearly take some of the tastier goodies off the online ad targeting table. So what’s it all mean? Should responsible advertisers start salivating over the pictures on the menu? Or should they re-commit to their diets just as the all-you-can-eat cruise ship leaves port?

Comments welcome.

Facebook Ad Scheme: Back to the Future?

November 21, 2007

Facebook’s new ad targeting scheme is so interesting because it begins to enable advertisers to target individuals again, instead of behavior. In a way it brings advertising full circle…
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This is how the world used to work – If you were Acme Floor Wax you ran a full page bleed in Ladies Home Journal because you knew that educated suburban Moms tended to be disproportionally interested in your product. Banner ads digitized that system, but the targeting was weak early on because A.) The online community was so homogeneous, and B.) It was hard to get good demographic segment data from anonymous web site traffic.

Google changed the game, creating an ad medium designed and built for an interactive medium. Now Acme Floor Wax could target its link at people looking for “floor wax,” regardless of their demographic composition. “Search Ads” crushed “Display Ads” online, and never looked back. “Behavioral Targeting” kind of takes this to the next level, looking at behavior across web sites and trying to infer purchase intent.

Facebook’s ad approach is something totally different, in some ways bringing online advertising full circle. Now you can target the person instead of the behavior, and as advertisers come to understand this, the likelihood it will catch fire is quite high. The problem, from the perspective of the user, is that the system is too targeted. Since my private, personally identifiable information is muddled with my interests, tastes and demographic segment data on facebook, I feel kind of exposed and intruded upon by the medium.

The solution to this problem: De-couple who I am from what I like. Keep the former private and empower me to control who gets access to the latter. That’s matchmine.

It’s a movement baby.

Great Advertising

June 13, 2007

Advertising Age’s Bob Garfield has predictions out today for the Cannes festival (reg req) including links to what many professionals will agree is the best work of the year. Included is this spot from Dove, called Evolution:

At it’s worst, advertising is a nuisance with psychological collateral damage. “Do I smell bad?” “Am I fat?” “Do I have CHRONIC HALITOSIS?” Work like that gives the industry a bad name, and since it’s in the majority, maybe rightly so.

But at it’s best, advertising elevates and connects us to something fundamentally human. As discussed in my (too long) post on Brands, this kind of advertising adds emotional value to products that already have practical value. It validates us and the things we feel. It shows us a path to feeling like the people we want to be. It is relevant, and it is useful.

It is also necessary, at least for people who like free or less expensive media. This is just the reality, and it actually irritates me when start-ups like ours hide from it. Was YouTube nobler for avoiding advertising through it’s initial user acquisition stage, or was it just ingenuine?

matchmine is going to embrace an advertising model at some point, and being honest with ourselves and our users about that is just a grown up thing to do. It also enables us to think about how to integrate good advertising in a way that adds value for our users (read my lips: No :15 sec. pre-rolls.)

I think that’s possible, and welcome thoughts anytime on what we should / should not do to get it right.


May 4, 2007

Quick… define “Brand.”

Hard, no? Yet unlike other words they have trouble defining, people seem to use the word “brand” constantly in the course of the business day. I hear it all the time from people who obviously don’t know what it means, which frankly drives me pazzo.

An understanding of brands starts with a description of what they’re not, well said by the good folks at Presentation Zen:

“Brand” is one of the most overused and misunderstood terms in use today. “Branding” is perhaps even more misunderstood. Many people confuse the myriad elements of brand identity with brand or branding. PowerPoint critic Edward Tufte, for example, has referred to the simple (and admittedly annoying) act of placing logos on every PowerPoint slide as “branding,” implying that branding doesn’t go much deeper than catchphrases and identity symbols. A logo, though, is but one visual symbol of a brand.


Having spent a lot of time thinking about this, both on behalf of some of the world’s better known consumer brands and in branding several of the companies of which I’ve been a part, here’s my definition:

A brand is a collective emotional response to anything people can benefit through their active participation.

Let’s break it down.

Right off the bat, if you take nothing else away from this post, remember that a brand is a response. It is not something you dictate, not something that becomes real by virtue of your 12 gig slide deck. It is something inside them, out there, to whatever it is you spend your time on. This seems like a subtle distinction, but it is in fact profound.

In my experience the best communicators maintain what is sometimes called a “listener based model of success.” That is, they focus neither on communicating in such a way as to confer the most praise upon themselves (tragically common,) nor on the intrinsic quality of their particular method of communication (the clear speaking voice, the iron-clad logic, the eloquent prose…) Instead, they try to understand what the listener thinks/feels/does before, and what they want the listener to think/feel/do after. They focus on saying whatever needs to be said however it needs to be said in order to effect exactly that change in knowledge, perception or action. This is a very good discipline, and I strongly encourage it for people at every level of an organization.

In the context of branding, marketers are often guilty of subscribing to one of the first two success models. In the first case a brand becomes an avatar of its brand manager. Like children burdened with their parent’s disappointments in life, these brands are most often much “cooler” than they need to be to deliver the business result.

In the second case, just the reverse is true. Marketers obsessed with intrinsic quality create communication that reflects great skill and no talent, brilliant advertising that nobody really sees, artful design for its own self-indulgent sake.

So what kind of response are we talking about here? A collective, emotional response.

Building a brand is the process of adding emotional value to your product. A lot of people think this is ad guy hooey, but it’s as real as Coca-Cola’s market cap. Is sugar water in a red and white can really worth more than 99.9% similar sugar water in a black and white can? Whatever you think, the market decides. And every day the market says, “yes.”

If people are rational, you have to ask why. It’s either the brainwashing of repetition (nonsense), or people are actually getting something more from that red and white can.

I worked on the Taco Bell brand back in the day, and we used to say 69 cents was a good deal for a taco, but it was a great deal for a taco and the feeling that you’re not like everybody else. That’s what a brand is, and that’s why people invest billions to create them.

Collective just means that a brand requires n people to deliver this emotional response, where n > 1. It’s also meant to imply that brands are built one person at a time, something which has become more true as media has become more fragmented.

So is anything that elicits a collective emotional response a brand? No. Brands are defined by intent; they create emotional value as a means to an end, rather than as an end unto itself (we call something whose primary intention is to elicit an emotional response for its own sake “art.”)

That said… Are products the only things that can benefit from such a collective emotional response? Of course not. “Brand” connotes a commercial purpose, but just about anything creating emotional value to increase the odds of you doing something can rightly be called a brand. The Boston Pops are a brand, as is Atheism, as is Mel Gibson (or Barack Obama.)

For some practical advice on what to do if you embrace this definition, you can’t beat Guy Kawasaki’s seminal post on the topic. Quoting from a recent internal matchmine doc on the subject:

  • “Our brand is not a deliverable from the marketing department. It is not our logo, which is just a trigger for our brand.
  • Our brand is a set of perceptions, feelings, people out there have about us. It must influence every interaction with every external constituency. It must be who we are.
  • We expect our brand to resonate through everything we do for our employees, our customers, our shareholders and our community
  • We expect our employees and partners to believe in and exemplify the values of our brand.”

The message here is that if you want to create the perception, in the long run, you have to deliver the reality. People – individually, anyway – are smart. They are particularly smart these days in assessing which things will overcome the cynicism necessary to navigate the modern world, and establish a genuine emotional connection.

That’s what it takes to elicit a collective emotional response, dear reader. Everything else is just an ad.


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