The Hub Cool News

Truth & Consequences

true-falseEvery brand has a story of some kind, and the brand is essentially the telling of that story. This can be trickier than it sounds because a story, by definition, has a beginning, a middle and an end. This is not necessarily a good construct for branding. Most people either can’t remember or have only the vaguest recollection of the beginning — the brand ‘origin’ story, as it’s often called. Perhaps this is because so many brand stories start out the same way: one or two, or maybe three or four guys (usually) had an idea and hatched it on a kitchen table or workbench. The beginning also tends to be forgotten because it is often a relatively short passage in the story, set long ago and far away — although it typically sets forth an ultimate truth against which the brand’s worth is tested over the rest of its life.

Further complicating matters, the story has no end! Or, if it does, it is an unhappy ending because it’s over for the brand. Kaput. The upshot is that brands are endlessly suspended in the middle of the story, trying to remember the beginning and hoping it’s not the end. It is not a comfortable place, and just about every brand at some point loses its way. This, of course, is another essential element of any story: conflict. Inevitably the brand, as hero, digs itself into a hole and then digs itself out … or not. Whether it survives, and lives on in the middle of its story, ultimately is a question of how well it connects with its essential truth, the thing that made the brand a success in the first place. That is, its purpose.

Then there’s the paradox: Every great story is some mixture of fact and fiction. This is invariably true, but especially so in the brand experience. Features and benefits are the stuff of products and services. The magic of brands is in the myths they create — the stories that are not literally true, but that resonate as true. Myths are metaphors for the truth. With this in mind, we fielded a simple survey of Hub readers in which we asked respondents to evaluate two-dozen highly successful brands. Does their brand story ring true or false? It’s another way of asking whether the brand is keeping its promise, or not. Continue Reading.


kanjoyaIntel and Twitter are using sentiment-analysis software to get a better read on their organizational health, reports Rachael King in The Wall Street Journal (10/14/15). The software, called Kanjoya, “uses language-processing and machine-learning algorithms to decipher emotions from text. The program analyzes the language workers use in open-ended survey questions and in blog posts to determine their underlying emotions, including frustration, disappointment or anger.” Richard Taylor, svp of human resources for Intel, says the company turned to this approach after getting “to a point where we have a hell of a lot of data and not necessarily that much knowledge.”

Kanjoya has been used to analyze “a set of internal blogs where employees could comment on diversity-related topics, including a $300 million, five-year diversity plan for the US workforce … While the blog comments were positive overall, the software identified agitation among employees who responded to a post by the company in June announcing it would pay double the employee-bonus if an employee referred a minority job candidate or a veteran and that person was hired. Some who posted comments wondered if this was reverse discrimination or if Intel was breaking the law.” While the messages were clear, the software helped “drill deeper into what other motivations might lie behind their comments.”

The software uncovered “that ultimately people were expressing frustration and fear based on a misunderstanding — a wrong impression that their own jobs were at risk,” which Richard says “couldn’t be further from the truth.” At Twitter, Kanjoya is used to analyze the results of open-ended questions in an employee survey that yield a richer response. In the past, says Twitter’s Subhadra Dutta, people got bored with multiple choices and just hit all 3s, yielding a neutral, unreadable response. Privacy is a concern with Kanjoya, but Richard says Intel takes care that only statements made “in a known public forum where they know their stuff is being looked at.”

Rushmore Retailers

rushmore-retailersOur latest Hub reader survey was inspired by a The New York Times article about Mickey Drexler, famous for his success with both the Gap and then J. Crew, where he is currently the CEO. Both retailers are now struggling, and the article pegged J. Crew’s issues on Mr. Drexler himself, terming it a ‘great man’ problem. At issue was the belief that only Mr. Drexler — and Mr. Drexler alone — could run the company. This is not unlike what many used to say about Steve Jobs and Apple, until Tim Cook proved otherwise.

The Times reference is to the classic ‘great man theory of history,’ which holds that ‘great men’ shape events, rather than the other way around. Examples range from George Washington to Nelson Mandela to … Mother Theresa. While it is too much to compare retailers to such lofty historical figures, we thought it would be interesting to look into which retailers might rise to meet even a relatively modest pedestal.

We put forth a total of 24 names of retailers who had achieved some measure of success — and in some cases failure, as well. All but one (Angela Ahrendts) were men. Respondents were asked to rate each as either ‘great,’ ‘good,’ ‘fair,’ or ‘poor.’ We also invited participants to provide an explanation for their choices, as well as pick the one retailer they thought was the greatest of all time. Seeking a metaphor to help bring the concept to life, we went with a certain sculpture in the Black Hills of South Dakota: Mount Rushmore. The essential question was: If there were a Mount Rushmore of retailers, who should be on it? Continue Reading


horsefeathers“I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.” It’s a classic Groucho Marx line that’s still pretty funny after all these years. In its own twisted way, it also kind of captures how many of us feel about the elusive idea that brands can be ‘communities.’ Brands seem more heavily invested in the idea of ‘community’ than ever before, likely because social networks afford them new ways to connect with current and potential devotees. But do these networks truly create communities? With this question in mind, we surveyed Hub readers. We simply paired well-respected brands and asked respondents to pick the one that provided the stronger sense of community.

For most brands, the notion that they offer anything remotely like a sense of community is a nonstarter. Based on responses, most people still basically identify with brands because of ad campaigns, price/value, convenience and quality. For the most part, they exhibit little to no interest in their fellow customers — it’s really all about how well the brand serves their needs as individuals. It’s all about me, not us. One of the most interesting matchups was Lego and Nike. The dividing line was demographics. If you played with Legos as a kid, or have kids today, Lego was the choice. If Lego is no longer relevant to your lifestage, however, chances are you picked Nike.

Granted, some brands — but very few — are indeed like communities. Harley-Davidson springs immediately to mind. But even here, some dismissed the community as just a bunch of old white guys. That hurts. Remember Saturn? The only thing crazier than the bond between owners of that car was that General Motors killed their joy. For all its fanboys, it’s not clear that Apple is exactly a community, either. It’s more like the world’s largest cult. But its stores certainly have made a point of becoming a gathering place for true believers. To a lesser degree, Starbucks, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s engender a sense of community. Starbucks, in particular, often doubles as a neighborhood gathering place. Continue Reading.

Tough Lovin’

tough-lovinScarcely a day goes by without news-media coverage about what’s gone wrong at McDonald’s and what to do about it. With a new CEO coming on board, we thought this would be a good time to ask Cool News readers to weigh in: Can McDonald’s recover? What should it do? Clearly, all that glitters is not Golden Arches at the moment. Our survey found that 73 percent are “not lovin’ it” and give Mickey D’s just two gold stars out of a possible five. The overwhelming majority of respondents (96%) said they eat fast food, with 64 percent of those doing so at least once a month.

However, 50 percent said they ate at McDonald’s less frequently than two years ago, and just eight percent said they were eating at McDonalds more often today. This pattern didn’t exactly parallel overall opinions of the chain, which 55 percent said was unchanged relative to two years ago, and 34 percent said had worsened. Only 11 percent said their opinion of McDonald’s had improved.To some extent, these changes in dining habits had to do with life stage: “I haven’t eaten at McDonald’s since my kids were little,” wrote one respondent. For others, it was just the reverse: “I have kids now and don’t want them to get used to it.”

Still others said their kids no longer liked the food, with one reporting that “kids are taught at school not to eat at McDonald’s.” The primary reason, however, simply seems to be the quality of the food, which only one percent deemed ‘excellent’ and just eight percent said was ‘very good.’ A respectable 34 percent said the food is ‘good,’ however slightly more (38%) said it was just ‘fair,’ and 18 percent judged it ‘poor.’ Several commented that the food gives them a stomachache. In terms of what McDonald’s needs to do to fix this, ‘fat content’ was the number-one issue, cited by 58 percent of respondents. Continue Reading.

Flash or Future?

survey-64-165Which of today’s most talked-about innovations are here to stay? The results of a Hub reader survey (Jan/Feb 2015). What’s that old saying: The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed? True, to a point — but based on results of our latest reader survey, it is more widely distributed than maybe we realize. Sometimes it isn’t clear that a breakthrough is with us until it is old news. When the Internet first burst on the scene, some dismissed it as "the biggest thing since citizen band radio." Anyone old enough to remember CB radio? When Apple announced it was opening its own stores, many predicted that competing against its existing distribution channels would be fatal. It was, but not for Apple. It took a very long time for microwave ovens to catch on, too.

The question is, which of today’s most talked-about ‘disruptors’ have staying power and which are just passing through? The answer was largely good news for the disruptors. Of the 12 enterprises we tested, eight were deemed ‘a flash of the future,’ and most by a fairly wide margin. Leading the pack was Uber, the $18.2 billion app-driven, ride-sharing service launched in 2009 that is now available in 45 countries and 200 cities worldwide. Despite the objections of conventional taxi services, regulatory challenges and its own management controversies, it is hard to imagine Uber isn’t here to stay. Seventy-three percent of our respondents think it’s a keeper, compared to just 13 percent who think it’s a ‘flash in the pan.’

Kickstarter, the crowdfunding website founded in 2009, got a thumbs-up from 61 percent of respondents. According to Wikipedia, it has generated $1 billion in funding from 5.7 million donors backing 135,000 projects. Tesla, which dates back to 2003, and at this point needs no introduction, followed with 60 percent; this despite intense pressure from competitors over its disruption of the traditional automotive dealership model. Airbnb, which faces similar hostilities, also registered relatively strong approval, at 54 percent. The home-sharing service arrived in 2008, and is now in 192 countries and 33,000 cities. If there was a surprise in this survey, it was how poorly two bastions of innovation — Apple and Google — did. Read The Rest of the Survey Results.

Nobody’s Perfect

nobodys-perfectWhich brands do consumers love best, despite their flaws? ‘Responsibility’ is the weakest of the weak links in the brand experience across a plurality the 12 top brands offered for assessment in the latest reader survey from the Hub Magazine (Nov/Dec 2014). For some, this was defined as ‘social responsibility’ while for others it meant the brand’s responsibility to its consumers on measures like price/value and reliability. The survey presented a set of six attributes that shape the brand experience (quality, availability, personality, responsibility, usability and remarkability) and asked respondents to pick the weakest point of each of the brands. It also provided ‘perfect’ as an option for those who couldn’t find fault of any kind, as well as a comment box to provide the reasons behind their choices.

Of the 12 brands, ‘responsibility’ was the number-one flaw among five (Apple, Google, Disney, Coca-Cola, and Facebook). The word ‘responsibility’ certainly can mean different things. For example, while some cited Apple’s manufacturing practices, most of the criticism centered on the brand’s price/value proposition. Coke, not surprisingly, was knocked for the potentially adverse health consequences of its flagship product. With Google, ‘responsibility’ was tied to matters of privacy. The same issue surfaced with Amazon to a relatively lesser degree. Facebook, meanwhile, was in a league of its own, with 50 percent of readers citing ‘responsibility’ as its greatest weakness. No other brand scored higher than 33 percent on this measure (Coca-Cola).

Samsung was found lacking in the ‘personality’ department by 37 percent. Interestingly, both Amazon and Google scored poorly on personality, too — perhaps surprising for enterprises that tend to be widely admired. On the flip side, Mini Cooper oozes personality but ‘usability’ is its soft spot. ‘Quality’ is Ikea’s greatest handicap, mitigated for some by a strong sense of style. Starbucks and American Express were notable in that the criticisms were fairly evenly distributed across the various attributes. Neither led the pack as ‘perfect,’ however. That honor went to Nike, which was deemed flawless by 22 percent, compared to 19 percent for Starbucks and 15 percent for Amex. Ironically, the overall report on Nike was something less than perfect. Its lowest-scoring attribute is ‘remarkability’ — surprising for a brand associated with innovation. It also scored relatively low on ‘quality’ and ‘responsibility.’ Read The Complete Survey Results.

Global Warning

chris-hoytThe rest of the world lags behind American shopper marketing. A Hub research report by Chris Hoyt and Nancy Swift of Hoyt & Company. This is part two of the 2014 HUB Shopper Marketing Update survey analysis. Where part one looked at global best-practices, part two examines the geographic differences in shopper-marketing practices around the world with emphasis on US versus non-US.

While there are legitimate reasons to think of non-US shopper marketing as simply a less mature version of US shopper marketing, a deeper analysis indicates one particular practice, in fact, puts the two on very different trajectories. To ground this, let us reprise key findings from part one of the global results of the survey. Read the Rest of The Research Report.

Panorama Surveys

A pair of young Yale graduates is taking an Uber-esque approach to the educational experience, reports Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times (9/3/14). Like Uber, Panorama is "using unconventional methods of tech start-ups to reinvent industries that have long been seen as tech backwaters." In this case, they are collecting and analyzing "large troves of data" to help "address problems in American education" — specifically teacher performance. Basically, Panorama has come up with a new way to capture student evaluations.

"Education is just starting to figure out what measurement actually means," says Panorama co-founder Aaron Feuer. "Five years ago we thought test scores were the answer to everything. We’re offering a way to focus on the right metrics." While conducting student surveys is not a new idea, Panorama has made "its surveys more widely accessible than older educational surveys" via "its own scanning system" and "says its surveys and analytics services are about half the price of older survey methods."

Panorama has also developed an analytics dashboard that makes it easy for teachers to access results. Leila Campbell, a young high-school teacher, says Panorama "has been transformational" for her. Even though her students’ test scores were good, students said she wasn’t connecting with them. So, she says she now opens up to them with stories about the vulnerabilities she felt as a college student, and explains why she’s working with them. "They start to get me as a human being," she says. "And they’re willing to follow me when I push them harder." Panorama currently runs its surveys in more than 5,000 schools.

Millennial Mysteries

moosylvania-millennials"No one truly understands millennials … not even millennials," reports Dionne Searcey in The New York Times (8/22/14). That quasi insight comes courtesy of Moosylvania, a digital marketing company, in a report on how much money millennials spend — "$1.3 trillion … out of total spending of nearly $11 trillion." That’s not as much as baby boomers spend, but projections are that this will change by 2020. The conundrum, according to Mooslyvania, is that millennials "need a lot of assurance but don’t like to be marketed to."

The apparent paradox may be personified by Leslie Coronel, who is "careful to shop for most groceries at major chains where she can buy bread at a discount. Yet she often stops at the bakery at Whole Foods for more expensive treats." She will also splurge "if she finds a really expensive dress or shoes she really likes." Exactly how such contradictions differ from previous generations — especially boomers who "embraced consumer crazes" like "Frisbees and bell-bottoms" while also engaging in "counter culture activities" — isn’t clear.

Boomers, like millennials, have also been described as "selfish, entitled and unwilling to grow up." Jason Furman of the Council of Economic Advisors is among those who think the generational gaps are overblown. "There is no strong reason to believe that millennials are dramatically different than the generations of Americans who preceded them," he says. "Rather, it is the unlucky economic times with which they were presented that explains much of their challenge."

Ethics vs. Research

Researchers are grappling with the ethical dilemma of deceiving their subjects "in the name of science," reports Shirley S. Wang in The Wall Street Journal (8/26/14). The argument goes that there are some circumstances under which failing to tell subjects they are being studied is the only way to get accurate information. Geoff Pearson of University of Liverpool applied this premise in a ten-year study of "the behavior of rowdy soccer fans in the UK" after deciding "that just talking to them wasn’t good enough."

So, instead "he joined the fans at football matches to watch how the crowd behavior went from calm to rowdy … He wrote down his observations while huddled in the restroom, talked into a recorder by pretending it was a cellphone and jotted down copious notes after matches. Most important, he didn’t tell fans he was studying them." This flies in the face of "one of the main tenets of ethical research … that participants should be informed that they’re being studied and for what purpose."

Kypros Kypri of University of Newcastle meanwhile reports that "just asking heavy drinkers about their alcohol use sometimes changes their behavior." In this case, the research doubled as a kind of intervention, but without subjects knowing it. Kypros argues that the health benefits outweighed the ethical issues. In Geoff Pearson’s case, the undercover research helped improve policing at soccer matches. A key insight was that disorderly conduct was more likely when police "dressed in riot gear." Things went more smoothly "when police engaged in friendly conversation with the crowd."

Survey Says

“According to Ikea, 11 percent of people are now having secks in their kitchens … Maybe people are having trouble putting their Ikea bedroom sets together.” Ikea says Jay Leno told that joke on the Tonight Show, but as reported by Deborah Baldwin in The New York Times, (3/2/06) the real joke was the survey itself: “Blame that journalistic chestnut known as the trend story, the one with the ‘more and more’ phrase up top,” she writes. “With journalists scrounging for statistics to shore up their latest anecdotal observations, publicists are helpfully flooding the zone with scientific-sounding findings.”

For instance, “precisely 82 percent of respondents in a recent survey said that shopping carts were ‘among the worst’ germ offenders” via a press release from BabeEase, makers of “shopping cart seat covers for germ-phobic parents of young children … A survey for Sears concluded that a woman’s best friend is her tool kit” and reports: “Three out of five women would rather receive an hour of advice from Bob Vila than Dr. Phil … A survey done for eBay and Country Home magazine found that for millions of women, collecting is ‘a way of life'” and “that eBay had made collecting ‘easier’ and ‘more fun’.”

eBay’s PR department really likes the survey thing, apparently: “Another eBay survey, also probing the secret lives of women, uncovered a shortcoming among those who remodel. Nearly half said the most difficult part of the process … is staying within budget.” eBay’s advice: “Many of today’s best bargains can be found on the internet.” Okay, we have time for just one more (and more): “A stunning 78 percent of Americans surveyed had never traveled to visit a patriotic home,” according to a press release from the Wood Promotion Network, issued on the Fourth of July. The release went on to observe that “if they were to visit a patriotic home — Mount Vernon, say — they would be interested to learn that these houses were built … of wood." ~ Tim Manners, editor