The Hub Cool News

Going Solo

Growing numbers of people are deciding "that living alone is their best option," reports Daniel Akst in a Wall Street Journal review of Going Solo by Eric Klinenberg (1/28/12). In the United States alone, "31 million people — one in seven adults — live alone, accounting for a remarkable 28 percent of households. That’s up from just 9 percent in 1950." This is happening, says Eric, partly because more people are deciding that family life is not all it’s cracked up to be and having roommates isn’t all that appealing.

But the decision to live alone is also "a luxury good that, like the purchase of a car or the increased consumption of meat, flourishes in societies that have become affluent." Eric also says that women, especially, "have come to see what a heavy burden they bear in families … Other forces include the communications revolution, which allows a kind of virtual connectedness" and "mass urbanization, which enables solo birds of a feather to flock together in neighborhoods."

Then there’s the growing size of the average home, with kids often having their own rooms, which may contribute to "the increased value we place on autonomy." Eric believes these trends are "only going to become more prevalent as … the developing world grows more affluent." However, he also notes that "heavy debts and low birth rates … could lead to a decline in the affluence that makes living alone possible." It’s also possible that because "humans are social animals … more of us may yet discover that living with kin or even close friends has advantages beyond mere affordability."

Tiny Homes

Lloyd Kahn’s Tiny Homes: Simple Shelters is "a quirky, photo-rich book that preaches the benefits" of scaling back, reports Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg in the Wall Street Journal (1/30/12). "It’s about fantasy," says Jonas Kyle, co-owner of Spoonbill & Sugartown Booksellers. "The appeal is that secretly most people would like to be in the country building their own little house … there’s a builder in everyone."

Tiny Homes is actually one of several books "capturing the joys of shoebox living." Others include Humble Homes, Simple Shacks, Cozy Cottages, Ramshackle Retreats, Funky Forts, by Derek Diedricksen. Then there’s Living in a Nutshell by Janet Lee as well as the forthcoming Handmade Houses, by Richard Olsen, which champions homes made of "driftwood, boulders and even old wine vats."

Patricia Bostelman of Barnes & Noble says the titles "reflect that people are interested in living more simply … The economy declined and people are finding ways to downsize." Or, as Lloyd Kahn explains: "What I’m saying with this new book is don’t get a mortgage, don’t pay high rent and don’t go into debt … If you’re young enough or you’re just starting out and don’t want to work 12 hours a day, here’s an alternative."

On The Line

Below-the-line agencies are rising to the top. By Paul Kramer. In the past, when asked what their biggest asset was, marketers would invariably reply, “our brand.” In today’s environment, you are just as likely to get the answer, “our customers,” defined as both retailers and their shoppers.

Yet surprisingly, in today’s highly visible world of brand building and mass advertising, the reality is that traditional, above-the-line agencies often lose focus on the most important part of the equation — the customer. The better agencies tend to be adept at growing brands while also building customer relationships. Below-the-line agencies, where the focus is on targeted, direct and measurable customer interactions, are well-positioned to meet today’s challenges, and tomorrow’s … read >>

Creative Cannibalism

The most enduring companies aren’t afraid to eat their young, reports Spencer E. Ante in the Wall Street Journal (1/7/12). IBM, for instance, survived by "selling off the company’s vaunted personal computer business in 2004, before PCS has been largely commoditized." As then CEO Samuel J. Palmisano put it: "We’ve lasted 100 years because we never limited ourselves to a view of a particular product." HP, by comparison, doubled down in the PC business by acquiring Compaq, and "was slow to catch on to the growing importance of business software."

Apple, of course, bought a new lease on life with the iPod, but later cannibalized it with the introduction of the iPhone. More recently, it "risked cannibalizing its PC and notebook business by launching its new iPad tablet computer." In both cases, it paid off: "In the quarter that ended in September, iPhones and related products and services accounted for 39 percent of Apple’s revenue and have positioned it as a leader in the fast-growing mobile space." Its iPad business "now accounts for 24 percent of company revenue."

Both examples are well worth noting, given that "only a tiny fraction" of corporations "reach the age of 40, according to a study of more than six million firms cited in a research paper by management professors Charles I. Stubbart and Michael B. Knight." James W. Breyer, a partner at Facebook and board member at Walmart, meanwhile says he has noticed "far more similarities than differences between the top visionary executives," while also noting another important factor: luck. "We tend to overestimate how much we know," he says. "Luck plays an enormous role in every investment or corporate story of success."

Femto Photography

MIT Media Lab scientists have developed a camera that can capture the speed of light, reports John Markoff in the New York Times (12/13/11). This technology "scans and captures light," and enables the scientists to "record about 500 frames in just under a nanosecond, or a billionth of a second." The image itself, of light passing through liquids and objects, is captured "in less than two trillionths of a second." That’s super-fast, obviously, but what it does, in effect, is create a slow-motion movie (video).

"It is so much slow motion you can see the light itself move," says Andreas Velten, a member of the MIT Media Lab team. "This is the speed of light: there is nothing in the universe that moves faster." That sounds impossible, but not nearly as nuts as the project’s original objective, which was to create a camera that could see around corners. The idea was that "by capturing reflected light and then computing the paths of the returning light" it would be possible to build "images coming from rooms that would otherwise not be directly visible."

Ramesh Raskar, who leads the project, suggests some intriguing applications. "Imagine if you have this in your phone 10 years from now," he says. "You will be able to go to your supermarket and tell if your fruit is ripe." The breakthrough is the ability to create pictures of "information that until now had been rendered only as data and charts." Dr. Raskar calls the project "femto photography," using the "term for quadrillionths of a second," and admits that the potential is a mind-bender. "We’re still trying to get our heads around what this means," he says, "because no one has been able to see the world in this way before."

Citicoline

An "organic molecule found naturally in the body, particularly in the brain," is "popping up in beverages and dietary supplements," reports Laura Johannes in the Wall Street Journal (1/24/12). While not approved by the FDA as a prescription drug, Citicoline is prescribed by some doctors in other countries "to help regenerate the brain after a stroke." Some scientists also think "citicoline speeds up formation of brain cell membranes and may boost production of neurotransmitters essential to brain function."

However, "clinical trials found citicoline was no more effective than a placebo." That is plenty good enough for makers of Nawgan, a new drink that contains 250 milligrams of Cognizin, a brand name for citicoline, as marketed by Kyowa Hakko USA. Nawgan’s slogan is, "What you drink is what you think," and its "website invites consumers to track their mental performance with an online memory and focus test." Cognizin is also part of the mix in the 5-Hour Energy Drink from Living Essentials, and is sold in capsule form by Healthy Origins.

Citicoline is believed to be safe, although some report "occasional mild gastrointestinal upset." A study sponsored by Kyowa "of 60 healthy women found a monthlong regime of daily doses of citcoline resulted in improved attention and fewer errors on a cognitive test compared with a placebo." Another test, on 2,000 people, sponsored by another citicoline maker, is due out in May. Meanwhile, Dr. Gary Small of the Longevity Center (who has no vested interest) says citicoline "might be worth a try" but recommends "exercise and a diet rich in antioxidants" to boost brain power.

Guitar Zero

Cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus "investigates the intersection between neuroscience and music" in his latest book, Guitar Zero, reports Bruce Headlam in the New York Times (1/26/12). Gary’s interest was both personal and professional. At age 38, he decided he wanted to learn to play the guitar; as a scientist he wanted to explore the "long-held tenet" that the older we grow the harder it gets to acquire new skills. This may be especially true of guitar skills, given the instrument’s quirky, non-linear bent (e.g., "the guitar has the same notes at different frets along different strings").

The challenge was especially acute for Gary, who claims to have no musical talent. But he did have a year-long sabbatical from New York University, during which he dedicated himself to learning to play guitar, using a $74 Yamaha acoustic and various instruction books. Scientifically, he was interested in "how the brain can essentially rewire itself to make up for deficits caused by stroke, trauma or even a non-existent sense of rhythm." Musically, he was mainly interested in learning how to improvise, as opposed to learning specific songs or riffs.

Learning scales and improvising versus learning songs and copying actually represent the two "modes of mental processing at the heart" of Gary’s book. The former requires "a tool kit of rules that can be applied in new situations" while the latter is more about data mining, or "dredging up material from a vast store of knowledge." Gary’s interest is "in how the human mind toggles between the two approaches." Gary’s goal now is "to move beyond both and play from emotion, or as he said, ‘from the brain stem.’" He confesses to being mostly analytical as a guitarist but adds that he’s "not sure if that’s a limitation of me as a musician or as a human being."

The Glock

The "cultural context" of the Glock, one of the best-selling handguns in America, is captured in a new book by Paul M. Barrett, reports Carol Memmott in USA Today (1/5/12). Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun, offers a “succinct and fascinating study of a weapon created by an Austrian businessman who, before he sold guns, made curtain rods and door hinges.” Gaston Glock created the pistol that “would become the weapon of choice for the Austrian Army” in 1982. It featured a “large-capacity spring-action magazine,” and “its quick reload, its reliability and its accuracy” soon attracted the interest of “law enforcement agencies around the world.”

As the Glock became a favorite of US police departments, “the gun-buying public followed suit. And like countless other consumer fads … the Glock, with its black matte finish and boxy shape, found its way into the popular culture.” Bruce Willis lauded its firepower” in 1990’s Die Hard 2 and in 1998’s US Marshals, Tommy Lee Jones told Robert Downey Jr. to get rid of his Taurus PT945 and ‘get yourself a Glock and lose that nickel-plated sissy pistol’.”

The Glock went on to be featured in rap lyrics and videos, while “authors like Elmore Leonard dropped Glocks into their novels. Prime-time TV cops began carrying them.” And then there’s real life: Saddam Hussein had Glock on him “when he was pulled out of his hidey-hole in 2003,” and when six people where killed and Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was injured last year, the gunman used a Glock. The book also includes a biography of Gaston Glock as well as “how the business missteps of Smith & Wesson, Colt, Beretta and other gunmakers helped Glock roll over all of them.”

The Beetle

A new book posits that a Jewish journalist should get credit for inventing the Volkswagen Beetle, reports Phil Patton in the New York Times (1/20/12). “The Extraordinary Life of Josef Ganz” by Paul Schilperoord “provides a picture of the automotive culture in Germany between the wars, with many, small, struggling companies.” It also challenges the “standard history — that Hitler hired Ferdinand Porsche … to design and build his Strength Through Joy car.” Instead it tells the story of a “people’s car” thought leader who “was arrested, chased from Germany and nearly airbrushed out of history.”

Paul says that the concept of a "people’s car" in Germany in the 1930s was almost a cliche, not unlike "personal computer" in 1980s America. So, there were lots of people pursuing the idea, including Josef Ganz, who wrote for a magazine called Motor-Kritik and "advocated a people’s car with an air-cooled engine placed at the rear, based on a backbone-type frame and using independent suspension at both ends." He favored a design advanced by a friend, Paul Jaray, “whose shape resembled what is now known as the Beetle.”

According to the book, "Ganz was the only one arguing for a combination of tubular chassis, rear engine, streamlined body and independent suspension — a formula that would produce a light, affordable, family car." Instead of thanking him, the Gestapo arrested him and threw him out of Germany. In 1965, Ganz gave an interview in which he claimed credit for inventing the Volkswagen, however lots of people were working on similar ideas in the ’30s. "The Beetle was an accumulation from many ideas and from so many people," says Paul Shilperoord, "that it is impossible to say one person was the originator of it."

RLTV

"The fastest-growing and wealthiest segment of the population has been ignored or forgotten by Hollywood’s broadcast and cable networks," reports Joe Flint in the Los Angeles Times (1/22/12). That segment would be "senior citizens," and John Erickson hopes to change their world with "a cable channel designed for the AARP-adjacent." John "made his fortune building large retirement communities," and got the idea for a seniors-specific television after building TV studios for residents and noticing how engaged they became in programming their own television station.

"What amazed me was the interest level of the residents in their own lives and how much attention they paid to this little television channel," he says. And so he developed RLTV (originally Retirement Living TV but now known as Re-define Life TV) and "bought a block of afternoon time on a few Comcast systems in the Northeast," as well as time on DirecTV along with some other distributors. He’s also recruited some familiar former network-television stars such as Joan Lunden (61) and Sam Donaldson (77) as well as Florence Hendersen (also 77!) to host shows.

Most of RLTV’s programming focused on healthcare, finance, politics and travel, although programming chief Elliot Jacobson hopes to launch a boomer version of American Idol soon, too. "It’s important for us to be advocates for the demographic we serve," he says. Senior power "can’t be ignored. According to the 2010 census, there are more than 99 million Americans older than 50. The over-50s are also one of the fastest growing groups on Facebook … And they have money. The AARP, citing information from the US Consumer Expenditure Survey, says adults over 50 spent $2.7 trillion on consumer goods in 2010."

Senior Moment

Offering senior discounts is "absurd, illogical, and helping fuel the economic divide," opines Don Campbell in USA Today (1/18/12). "No doubt, there are seniors living in poverty and stories to be found of elderly couples eating dog food," he writes. "But the data are indisputable that seniors have continued to fare better financially than younger generations. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that from 1984 to 2009, the median net worth for people 65 and older had increased 42 percent, while the median net worth for those younger than 35 had dropped an astounding 68 percent."

A Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances, meanwhile, "found that net worth had dropped across the board" between 2009 and 2007, "but had dropped least for those heads of households ages 65 to 74. The same study showed that the median net worth of the 55-64 age bracket in 2009 was $222,000, while the median net worth for families in the 35-44 bracket was only $69,000." Seniors, says Don, are also "more likely to have a mortgage-free home, a retirement nest egg, Social Security income and perhaps a job-related pension."

What’s more, says Don, the "top income-earning years for most professional and skilled workers are from about age 50 to age 62. Which means that people who are making the most money and have the highest net worth are in effect being subsidized in the marketplace by a generation 20 and 30 years younger that often is struggling to pay off student loans, establish a career, start a family and buy a first home." He concludes: "What I wonder about is why thirty- and forty-somethings aren’t livid that senior citizens — the most pampered, patronized and pandered-to group in America — get to save money simply by maintaining a pulse."

Esquire’s Revival

Left for dead in 2009, Esquire magazine in 2012 is "killing it," reports David Carr in the New York Times (1/23/12). Just three years ago, Esquire’s editor-in-chief, David Granger, was firing staff and cutting editorial pages, having been "beaten up by a crop of lad magazines … then hammered by the flight of advertisers and readers to the web." Advertising pages were down 24.3 percent and the magazine made a list of "twelve major brands" that would be gone in a year.

Instead, in 2011 "Esquire was up 13.5 percent in ad pages from the previous year," and Hearst, its publisher, says it "was No. 1 in year-over-year performance." Esquire’s journey back from the brink "is complicated," but started with keeping its "seasoned writers and editors" versus dumping them in favor of "shiny faces with reduced price tags." David Granger also "departed from standard design templates and modernized the front of the magazine to reflect the growing interest in marginalia and small laughs, with goofy asides and in-jokes."

The net effect is that of a magazine that "looks and feels like something a bunch of guys put together for a bunch of other guys, not a glossy widget produced by a big corporation." Esquire also experimented with QR codes on its cover, calling up a video with Robert Downey Jr., for instance. Its iPad app similarly adopted a multimedia approach, and its website attracted more than "two million visitors in December," up from just 300,000 in 2009. David says he thinks "well-turned print products" are too often given short-shrift these days. "There’s nothing wrong with the magazine form that constant diligence won’t fix," he says.

Showrooming

Bricks-and-mortar retailers are still scrambling to respond to Amazon’s business model, reports Ann Zimmerman in the Wall Street Journal (1/23/12). "The traditional retailers are still doing business the old way while Amazon has reinvented the model," says Sucharita Mulpuru, a Forrester Research retail analyst. "Walmart and Target are willing to sell a few things at a loss," says Sucharita. "Amazon’s whole business is a loss leader." This is because Amazon uses its other businesses — like cloud data storage — "to subsidize" its lower prices.

Following a weak holiday season, "with sales at stores open at least a year rising just 1.7 percent, about half of what analysts expected," Target issued a letter to its vendors seeking "special products that would set it apart from competitors and shield it for the price comparisons that have become so easy for shoppers to perform on their computers and smartphones." It also "asked the suppliers to help it match rivals’ prices" and "said it might create a subscription service that would give shoppers a discount on regularly purchased merchandise."

Target hopes this will help reduce "showrooming," or the shopper practice of looking for an item in a store, and then buying it from an online rival. Target has suffered particularly "in electronics, movies, books and music … Those products accounted for 20 percent of Target’s annual sales of $65 billion in 2010, down from 22 percent in the prior year." The retailer has also re-launched its website and says "it will open a series of temporary boutiques" featuring items "from popular regional stores." While the boutiques may help differentiate Target, analyst Colin McGranahan says "they are completely immaterial" to its bottom line.

Do The Math

The future belongs to those who measure the total brand experience. By Al Wittemen. Each and every one of us has endured our share of pain over the last several years. In all my years in marketing, it’s safe to say I’ve never experienced anything quite like the last five. It now appears that the worst of the economic calamity is behind us, but it would be foolish to think that the pain is over.

In fact, in many ways, it is just beginning. A recent IBM survey of 1,700 chief marketing officers across 64 countries spelled out the sources of our discomfort. It identified some of the biggest challenges facing chief marketing officers, each of which is a pervasive and universal game changer … read >>

Bi-Rite Market

When Sam Mogannam re-designed websites for his market and creamery, he made it about the experience, not transactions, reports Gabriel Shaoolian in the New York Times (1/17/12). Sam’s store, Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco, is "something of an institution" there. The grocery store and nearby creamery have “overwhelmingly positive” reviews on Yelp and lines out the door are not unusual. "Bi-Rite is a neighborhood market, feeding our community with love, passion and integrity," says Sam.

So, above all else, Sam wanted his website "to be as similar to the experience of walking through the door of our market and creamery as we could," he says. "This meant showing the bounty of the produce, prepared foods, and delicious grocery products we offer, for that wow feeling of surprise our guests have each time they come to the market.” It also meant no e-commerce on the site. “The goals of our sites are to build brand, strengthen our community and convey important information about our stores that our guests are looking for, from contact info to catering services.”

The re-launch, which happened a year ago, has resulted in nearly a doubling of site traffic, to 17,000 visitors per month. Even though there is no e-commerce, Sam says he’s seen an increase in his catering business and in-store sales "are up 20 percent over last year." Beyond the imagery, Sam says he thinks the site succeeds because of a prominent, frontpage, blog, featuirng food, recipes and other information. "Useful content is ultimately going to be what brings people to the site in the long term," says Sam, who also uses Twitter and Facebook, as well as local ads and postcards, to promote the blog, which in turn helps drive store traffic.

Lucky Brand

Lucky Brand’s in-store re-vamp applies merchandising science to create a more relaxed ambiance, reports Christina Binkley in the Wall Street Journal (1/19/12). David DeMattei and Patrick Wade, who have previously created retail strategy for Coach, J. Crew, Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma Home and West Elm, are Lucky’s chief executive and creative director, respectively. Lucky Brands is owned by Liz Claiborne, Inc. (soon to be re-named Fifth & Pacific) and its goal is "to grow revenue to more than $1 billion from $386.9 million in 2010."

Previously, the stores "had the wood-paneled interiors and jumbled look of a trendy shack." David and Patrick (who are also life partners) sought a cleaner, less cluttered look for the stores. This involved "adding raffia wallpaper for a more homey feel, painting the black and galvanized-metal trim a cheery white, and pulling merchandise from ceiling-level shelves to a more accessible level." Other new touches include wrapping purchased items in tissue paper. "We hate clothes thrown in a bag," says David.

Every such detail is captured in "an inch-thick document for store employees" that specifies exactly what goes where. The merchandising plan is combined with "more feminine" merchandise, as well as greater focus on replenishment to improve profitability — the goal is to hit $600 psf within three years (the guys won’t say what the number is now, but when they arrived last year it was $380). The changes, which so far have been implemented in 50 of Lucky’s 165 stores, are backed by "bumped up ad campaigns" as well as "a catalog — a seemingly old-school move meant to inspire people to head to its website."

The Oyster Pail

The iconic Chinese take-out container was designed by an American inventor in 1894, report Hilary Greenbaum and Dana Rubinstein in the New York Times (1/15/12). The inventor was Frederick Weeks Wilcox, who patented what he called a "paper pail," commonly referred to as the "oyster pail." His design consisted of "a single piece of paper, creased into segments and folded into a (more or less) leakproof container secured with a dainty wire on top."

It really was quite ingenious: "The supportive folds on the outside, fastened with that same wire, created a flat interior surface over which food could slide smoothly onto a plate." It became known as the "oyster pail" because it was based, apparently on an existing design for "a wooden receptacle with a locked cover used in transporting raw oysters." The rendering of a red pagoda "and a stylized ‘Thank you’ on top" wasn’t added until the 1970s.

That design touch was added by a graphic designer whose identity is unknown, but who was employed by a "company now known as Fold-Pak." The irony, of course, is this: "The structure has come to represent the idea of Eastern cuisine in Western society even though the packaging is not used for food containment in Chinese cutlure," notes Scott Chapps, a package designer. The design has changed little over the years, although it is now offered in microwave-safe and environmentally friendly models.

The Anthora

The designer of the most iconic coffee cup of all time had "no formal training in art," reports Margalit Fox in a New York Times remembrance of the late Leslie Buck (4/29/10). Born Laszlo Buch, Leslie was a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald who came to America, changed his name, and designed "the Anthora, the cardboard cup of Grecian design that has held New Yorkers’ coffee securely for nearly half a century."

As every New Yorker knows, the Anthora is blue "with a white meander ringing the top and bottom." On each side is "a drawing of a Greek vase known as an amphora." Leslie’s accent was responsible for altering that to "anthora." The design is also emblazoned "with three steaming golden coffee cups" and, of course, the famous motto: "We Are Happy To Serve You." Leslie never earned royalties for his design, but did well on sales commissions on it.

He came up with the idea while working for the Sherri Cup Company, as part of its plan "to crack New York’s hot-cup market." Leslie figured that since many of the city’s diners were owned by Greeks, they should try "a Classical cup in the colors of the Greek Flag." At its peak in 1994, Sherri "sold 500 million of the cups" but by 2005 the company had been sold to Solo and was down to 200 million." Today, "Solo no longer carries the Anthora as a stock item, making it only on request."

Shop Now!

The retail experience must be wherever shoppers want it to be. By Ann Carr. Technology is exploding into the world of retail, bringing with it a stunningly different approach. In this world, a store is no longer a place but a customized experience, requiring as much or as little interaction as the shopper chooses. The store is ubiquitous — on the shopper’s desktop, in her mailbox, on her phone, in a subway platform, in a kiosk by the gas pump — every bit as much as on the street corner in the shopper’s neighborhood.

Retailers today, all around the world, recognize that winning a larger share of the shopper’s wallet will only come to those who innovate and integrate — who make it easy for shoppers to shop now! … read >>

Solitary Shoppers

As shoppers acclimate to the solitude of online shopping, many find instore clerks annoying, reports Taffy Brodesser Akner in the New York Times (1/12/12). The trend seems to be particularly pronounced among younger shoppers, but the sentiment seems to be spreading to just about everyone. "Sales associates have always been aggressive, but it is our exposure to new types of self-shop retail models that have made us more attuned to their pushiness," says Mark G. Pingol, of Envirosell. " He says his studies find shoppers referring to department store beauty associates as "sharks" or vultures."

“They’re more subtle at Nordstrom, but the message is still the same: Buy this!” complains Roxanna Booth Miller, a shopper who says she understands that the clerks are just trying to do their jobs, but still wishes they’d back off. “I really prefer a more solitary shopping experience,” she says. However, other shoppers praise Sephora, the cosmetics chain, “which asks its sales staff to hover in the background until a shopper signals for help.” As a result, Mark Pingol says shoppers refer to Sephora and the Apple store as “playgrounds.”

Ravi Dahar, a Yale marketing professor, suggests the online experience — as well as self-checkout at grocery stores — has fundamentally changed the way shoppers view the instore experience. "The element of control, by contrast to the salesperson service experience, is attractive," he says. Martin Shanker, who trains sales associates, says the key is to create some space and "get salespeople comfortable with the silence after the initial approach." Nick Costino of the Gap meanwhile says it’s essential to read each customer and know when to step forward or fall back. "We are working on being able to deliver on both ends of that service spectrum," he says.