Dan Sweet

Chuck D of Public Enemy on branding…a book review

Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are

Rob Walker’s book, Buying In, attempts to understand the interplay between our personal identity and our consumer culture. Walker’s background as a columnist for the New York Times Magazine and Slate has allowed him to get close to the consumer and many of the most popular brands of our times. He leverages his experiences as a journalist to take the reader to places as far ranging as behind the scenes at Apple HQ for a chat with an annoyed Steve Jobs, a bicycle messenger polo match sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon in a field outside of Portland, and to a Miami beach for a Red Bull-fueled kite-boarding trip to Cuba. Walker effectively debunks many of the popular stories that are used to explain consumer behavior and dives deeper. He challenges the reader to understand their own behavior and the forces that create our attitudes and actions. Walker concludes his book by contrasting mainstream “terminal materialism” with his vision for a consumption that flows from an individual’s true identity. I didn’t expect that a book about marketing could delve so deep into the individual’s psyche and still be so fascinating—but Walker pulls it off.

The first third of Buying In addresses what Walker calls the Desire Code. This code is the “complex of factors, rational and otherwise, that spark us to make particular purchase decisions.” Walker describes what he calls the “Pretty Good Problem” that exists when consumers face a plethora of pretty good solutions to any given problem. Referencing Seth Godin’s Purple Cow concept, he touches on the challenge of being remarkable. Walker says that the goal of branding is to create a “different kind of value” that transcends the material. Interesting back-stories of the founders of Ecko and Ralph Lauren debunk the idea that authenticity is all important to consumers. Hello Kitty is then used to counter the suggestion that a brand must “stand for something.” Walker argues that Hello Kitty has become so successful precisely because she lacks any meaning. Consumers can instead project whatever they want onto Hello Kitty and make her stand for anything.

Once the author’s street cred has been established by talking hip hop and Hello Kitty has been trotted out as the ultimate blank canvas, Walker gets down to what he calls “the fundamental tension of modern life.” Essentially, people want to feel unique, but also want to feel a part of something bigger. Our attempts to resolve the tension between these two diametrically opposed states play out visibly in our purchase behavior and hold the key to understanding the Desire Code. Walker uses the archetype of the skater as outlaw to illustrate how the desire to be unique plays itself out for some. In an ironic twist, the skater is also the example that disproves the argument that young people are opposed to “joining.” Walker uses the explosion of the skateboarding category as evidenced by skyrocketing revenues for skateboarding apparel and shoes, relative to the more modest growth of actual skateboarding equipment, to demonstrate that people who don’t skate still want to associate themselves with skateboarding and that by extension, youth have nothing at all against joining. In fact, in many cases, people are longing to join and belong.

Walker takes his examination of the individual’s psyche one step further when he introduces the concept of “the interpreter.” Citing Keech’s seminal work on cognitive dissonance, he argues that consumers are actually attempting to tell themselves a consistent story of who they are. Consumers don’t buy to keep up with the Joneses as has previously been thought. Instead we buy things in an attempt to construct ourselves a consistent story about who we are. The “interpreter” is an important concept to keep in mind and adds a new layer to our thinking about basic branding concepts like salience and relevance. The interpreter is a mechanism that consumers use to create a rationale as to why a particular brand or product has relevance for their personal identity. Previously it was considered the responsibility of brander to communicate the relevance of a product or service offering to consumers. Walker uses the examples of the yellow Livestrong bracelets and the iPod as illustrations of the power of a diverse group of consumers’ “interpreters” to determine personal relevance without regard for an officially sanctioned value proposition. Walker doesn’t buy “badge theory” and argues that Method, a household cleaner our neighbors will never know we own, demonstrates that we are consuming as we are in an attempt to tell a story to ourselves—not to others.

The majority of the book explores the emerging world of “murketing.” Walker invented this term as a joke to attempt to explain an emerging form of marketing that oversteps our traditional construct of marketing. He argues against the idea that the “click culture” created by Tivo has hurt the industry and provides numerous fascinating examples of ways that companies are transcending traditional advertising and are becoming a part of pop culture itself. He uses the stories of Timberland boots and Chuck Taylor sneakers to poke fun at brand managers who offer consumers the opportunity to co-create meaning for a brand. Walker argues that, in many cases, consumers have owned brand meaning for decades.

In an unexpected twist, Walker next brings up the topic of religion. Walker cites Rick Warren’s popular book The Purpose-Driven Life and argues that its thesis, “its not about you,” is a direct and compelling attack on our commercial culture. While academics, university professors, European philosophers, simple-living fanatics and fringe culture jammers have essentially been saying that our commercial culture can’t satisfy the soul for years, they have traditionally been dismissed as “out-of-touch elites.” Warren believes that life is about “serving God and serving others” and not “about having more and getting more.” In Christianity, Walker sees the “fundamental tension of modern life” resolved for believers. This was not a conclusion I was expecting to see drawn in a book about marketing and consumption.

Walker concludes by discussing the psychological study of “adaptation” and proposing a new way to view our role as consumers. He sees that the choices that “spark that anticipation of pleasure” are constantly unfolding in front of us. However, “we’re not good at judging the ‘intensity and duration’ of our feelings of events that haven’t happened yet.” “’Thus when we find the pleasure derived from a thing diminishing, we move onto the next thing or event, almost certainly making another error of prediction, and then another, ad infinitum.’” This is the definition of “terminal materialism” and something I expect many of us can relate to.

Walker closes with a quote by Chuck D of Public Enemy and his vision for meaningful consumption:

Chuck D: “It wasn’t like a brand defined you, you defined the brand.”

Rob Walker: “Maybe then, the secret dialogue between what we buy and who we are should go like this. You are only what you surround yourself with? No. You surround yourself only with who you are.” Imagine that.

All in all, a fascinating read that I would highly recommend to all.


How to get HTML email, Youtube, and internet radio on your Blackberry…

I have a BlackBerry.  I do not have an iPhone.  I’ve always been jealous of the iPhone’s beautiful html emails and legitimate web browser.  I’ve attempted to comfort myself by saying things like “what would I want wi-fi for?” and “well at least I can cut and paste!”

The one thing I have always hated though, is the really bad non-html email that transforms the simple task of reading an important email into a word find. However, since I’m a finance guy, I am somewhat frugal by nature and am not about to break my 2-year contract with AT&T or drop $3-400 on a new device.  So–I just live with it.

Anyways, those problems are behind me now.  My BB 8310 (Curve) is now running OS

Beautiful HTML email, choppy Youtube videos (prob due to weak network), and decent free streaming internet radio are all now live on my Blackberry.  And, if you have a couple of hours to waste and aren’t totally afraid of your computer, you can have all this too.  All with one caveat:
You can’t blame me if you screw up your phone.
That said, its not that hard.

Possible reasons why not to do this:
-your carrier will tell you this voids you warranty (no customer service)
-it takes an hour or two
-you are on BES (a work BB) vs BIS (a personal BB) and the IT guy at work doesn’t like you (BES users will need a password from the IT guy)
-you’d be upset if the phone’s OS still wasn’t perfect and had a memory leak that meant you might have to reboot the phone every week or two

The instructions below are straight from these three threads on the Crackberry forums:
8310 thread -and the- link to OS download
8330 thread -see thread for OS download links
8300/8320 thread -see thread for OS download links

First, determine what model BB you have, what version OS you are running and get the latest version of Desktop Manager you have installed.

The “O” key will bring up your options menu and the “About” choice at the top of the menu will tell you which BB you have and the “v4.2.0.XX” tells you what version of the OS you are running.  The Help>About menu in the Desktop Manager software will tell you which version of that you are running.  Download Desktop Manager 4.6 here by choosing Desktop Software 4.6 from the drop down menu.

Now follow these steps: (these install instructions will install the OS from any carrier on your BB)

1. Back up data on Desktop Manager under Back up/restore option
2. Back up your 3rd party apps. Instructions here***
3. Disconnect your BB from Desktop Manager
4. Download the desired OS to your PC – see device appropriate link above
5. Install/run OS to PC
6. Delete vendor.xml file. C:Program FilesCommon FilesResearch In MotionAppLoader or search for “vendor.xml”
7. Connect BB to Desktop Manager and it should prompt the upgrade. If not click app loader and that should initialize it.
8. Do not unplug BB during the process. It will take around 30-60 minutes to complete upgrade. It’ll also probably look like it is frozen for 20 minutes or so at some point but just be patient
9. Options > Advanced > Host Routing Table > Menu > Register Now  (re-registers your BB with your carrier)

***Steps 2 is optional but recommended

Steps you may need to take to resolve random issues:
-browser Icon is missing – just wait 15-20 minutes and it’ll show up
-calendar entries are missing – just wait 15-20 minutes and they’ll show up
-HTML Email isn’t working – you may need to “resend the service books”, Google that phrase and your carrier’s name. Older emails won’t be in HTML, only new ones.
-my favorite app…X…doesn’t work properly anymore – delete the app and reinstall it.  This fixed YahooGo 3.0 for me.
-my battery life is terrible now – leave it charging over a weekend and it should be as good as before.

Anyways, hopefully this will be useful to some of you. Enjoy, your new and improved BB.

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“One of us is off base, but its definitely not me!”

This video on Youtube is amazing.  Could also be titled-“why you should never make predictions on TV.”  Ten minutes of pure talking head awesomeness!

Memorable moments occur at these points:

2:15 “I’ll bet you a penny!”classic! nothing like the I’ll bet you a penny line to show you are serious!

2:40 “in a normal market home prices will rise about 10%”

3:32 “what artificial lending standard are you talking about!?!” (voice dripping with scorn)

4:10 Ben Stein “financials are being given away…its as if nuclear war has struck the financials” Dow @ 13k

5:19 Ben Stein “sub-prime is a tiny tiny blip”

6:10 Peter Schiff “the fundamentals are NOT sound”

6:28 Ben Stein “Merrill is astonishing well run, might as well be putting it in cereal boxes and giving it away aat these prices” Merrill @ $75

7:25 Ben Stein “their earnings are HUGE, what are you talking about?!?”

8:50 “I like Washington Mutual, I know we are catching a falling knife”

9:20 ” Dow will go to 16k easily”

Free internet radio streaming on my BlackBerry

I just found this on the Crackberry.com forums the other day and I must say it is the absolutely best way to drain your BlackBerry battery in 2 hours!

m.moodio.fm (from your phone)

-works great*
-can add any radio stream you want
-decent existing database of stations
-107.7 The End out of Seattle
-supposedly also works with many other more recent Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Samsung, Motorola, and HTC phones.

-drains your battery pretty quickly
-only works with OS 4.3 or higher*

*people are reporting mixed success with OS 4.3 but OS 4.5 works great.  (I am running OS 4.5 on a 8310 Curve from AT&T.)  Options>About will let you check what OS you are running.

I’ll cover how to upgrade your Blackberry to OS 4.5 in an upcoming post.  Choppy Youtube videos, full html emails, and streaming radio can all be yours!  Subscribe to the RSS feed so you don’t miss it.

Slickdeals as a proxy for retailer desperation?

I am a finance guy.  I love a bargain.  Hence I use Slickdeals.net.  For those not familiar, the site is basically a forum of bargain shoppers who share “slick” deals that they find.  The deals are all user generated and the very best bargains are promoted to the front page of the site.  In recent months I have noticed an increase in the number of details that are being promoted to “front page” status.  Below is the data from June to November comparing 2008 vs. 2007:

Increasing retailer markdowns?

Have the number of extreme retailer markdowns dramatically increased?

My first thought is that maybe the traffic at Slickdeals has grown significantly in the last year and this has led to a larger user base that is contributing more deals.  More deals means more “front page worthy” deals.  However, a quick look at Alexa.com for the traffic stats over the last 15 months, reveals that except for a spike for holiday shopping, traffic actually appears to be falling.

The only remaining explanation would be that the standards for promoting a deal to the front page may have been reduced.  This is a possibility and not something I have any insight into.  Based on my limited experience with the site, I know that getting a deal promoted to the front page is considered very desirable.  Users seems to keep a close eye on the mods and will often complain if a deal doesn’t seem “front page-worthy.”

ASSUMPTION: Standards for front page deals haven’t fallen.
CONCLUSION: Retailers are getting desperate.

n=1  Perry Ellis announced this morning that they were cutting their forecast from $0.50 per share to $0.30 per share based on the level of retailer markdowns they were seeing.

I expect they aren’t the only company seeing retailers take these markdowns.  I’ll be keeping an eye on Slickdeals as a leading indicator of retailer markdowns.

I’d love to hear any thoughts on this analysis.  Comment below!