Go Pokemon Go!

There is nothing like the tempting allure of a cultural phenomena. Whether a major sporting event, celebrity gossip or the latest fad, you can’t help but pay attention. Over the past two weeks, Pokemon Go has swept the country – and many other international locations where it’s being released on a staggered basis. Initially, the references were infrequent but within days, every news outlet was filled with stories and videos of Go gangs chasing rare Pokemons.

I downloaded the app last weekend, but poor timing, as it coincided with a visit to a remote area of Maine. Without PokeStops you can’t access free Pokeballs, so it was impossible to catch Pokemon. I had better luck when I got back to the city and multitasked playing Go while running errands. PokeStops were everywhere, and I caught a few Pokemon while waiting in line to pay at CVS. And it wasn’t just me. Summer brings tourists to town and as I continued on my errands, I passed a visiting family chatting in German. The only word I understood was their continual reference to “Pokemon.”

Apparently, there have been over 15 million downloads so far, with users spending more time playing the game than browsing Facebook or Snapchat. So why Pokemon Go?

1. Augmented reality is the critical hook. This is the first opportunity to readily engage with the technology we’ve been hearing about — and it’s pretty cool.
2. Downloads are free so no cost to participate.
3. Unlike most games, you can play alone or with friends.
4. No real skill is involved so anyone with a smartphone can play.
5. Succeeding is easy. With limited effort or playing time, you quickly advance levels and earn “rights” to join a team and set your Pokemon to spar at the Gym.
6. Nostalgia is powerful. Many remember the Pokemon trading cards or cartoon series.
7. And importantly, you can join the water cooler or social media chatter because you’re an insider.

Whether Pokemon Go will be more than a summer fad is hard to know. My guess is that hard-core gamers will remain loyal, while most samplers will find another distraction come fall. Regardless, these events are a great reminder of the power of mass appeal. Hats off to Nintendo for continually figuring out how to stay relevant. And I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty excited to see what else comes along that uses augmented reality.

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Smile for the Camera

I’ve been spring cleaning lately; not because it’s the season, but we’ve decided to sell our home and move closer to the city. Purging drawers of kids-meal toys and soccer tournament patches is straightforward, along with packing long-forgotten clothing for the donation bins. What has taken far longer is wading through my daughters’ stacks of photos (and which were somehow always printed in double quantities!). Thanks to these treasures, I’ve revisited their early years, ranging from school trips to family holidays. It’s been a happy trip down memory lane.

However, this look-back also clarified what we memorialize. We amateur photographers only chronicle happy moments — whether capturing ourselves as tourists, playoff champions or birthday celebrants — we like to smile for the camera. There may be no better proof that we are optimists than our tendency to happily pose for group photos.

I’m not disappointed by the absence of more unfortunate images, as events that were hard will never be forgotten. It just made me think a little about our inclination to filter our camera lens a bit.

Today, most photo images are digital, which means we’re viewing them online or if you’re highly organized, perhaps in a digital frame slide show. Yet as I cleaned drawers and closets, I couldn’t help but feel a bit more engaged as I had to physically touch and sort through those printed images. Was it simply nostalgia or something more? I don’t have a ready answer but I will admit to having saved 80% of those pictures. Yes, they will move with us and maybe someday get sorted and even organized into an album or digitized for eternity. And on those occasional moments that we’re inclined to look at them, I’ll be happy to focus on the good times.

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You’ve Got that Familiar Feeling…

Is there a more elegant welcome to spring than blossoming trees and shrubbery? Whether it’s the cherry blossoms or dogwoods, those canopies are just begging us to step outdoors to enjoy the warming weather. In our yard, we have a lone – but substantial – lilac bush that climbs over our deck and peeks through the window overlooking the kitchen sink. We can’t take any credit for the perfect positioning, as it was here when we bought this house. The best part about it, however, is what it rekindles. My early childhood home in Oregon (yes, we lived there before it became trendy) had a wall of lilac bushes that may have been the extent of our landscaping. And just one look at our blossoms each spring takes me back to my early self, marching around our backyard and pulling on those lilac branches to smell the flowers up close.

Nostalgia is an interesting emotion. It doesn’t necessarily suggest reliving a moment; it just lets you step into a memory. For me, it’s typically something simple that triggers that feeling. It comes unexpectedly or in anticipatory moments, such as vacationing at the same destination or attending a school or family reunion. It’s an affirmation of what we experienced and a reminder of how far we’ve come.

I think I finally get what Yogi Berra meant when he famously quipped “It’s deja vu all over again.” Nostalgia isn’t a once and done experience. For me, as I enjoy those lilacs over the next few weeks and remember my Oregon youth, it recycles what I’ve thought about each May we’ve lived in this home. Maybe this year I’ll even cut a few branches and bring those memories indoors. Lilacs

Purple Rain, Yellow Brick Road

Thoughtfulness about color is typically associated with creative types. Yet we all think about color when we decide how to present ourselves to the world each day. Whether it’s the color of our clothes, the car we drive or the walls in our homes, our palette choices provide some clues as to who we are – or aspire to be. (I assume this has been on your mind, too, given Prince’s passing and his love of all things purple.)

Mark Twain is credited with observing that “clothes make the man.” I was reminded of this recently by a young man’s wardrobe choice, although not a celebrity and we never saw his face. We were walking to a restaurant around 8:00 p.m. on a Friday evening, just as most stores were closing, while visiting Portland, Maine. As we were rounding a corner, a beauty salon caught our attention, as its lights were still on. I glanced inside, which was challenging as half he windows were obscured by frosted film. The salon’s décor was a simple black and white. There was just one customer and his stylist. The man wore nondescript jeans. But what caught my attention were his shoes – a wonderfully optimistic pair of marigold colored Converse sneakers.

It’s not often that you see yellow shoes. Okay, so this was the Maine College of Art’s backyard, so creative souls inhabit the neighborhood. But it was a chilly, early spring evening so this lovely splash of color couldn’t help but bring a smile to my face with all the possibility it communicated. We associate yellow with optimism and cheerfulness.  Yes, warmer days are on the horizon; tomorrow is another day; be brave and live boldly. All those positive sentiments came to mind prompted by a two-second glance at a pair of jaunty sneakers.

Moral of this story is to remember to occasionally try and observe what’s around us as we hurry from place to place. With every visual impression there is a possibility of an idea. Most won’t be inspirational, but some will cause us to think broadly. And some will be worth snapping that quick picture to rekindle – or share – the moment.

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Vacation Branding (or Why RI’s “Cooler + Warmer” Failed to Ignite)

Last week, I scratched my head when I heard about Rhode Island ‘s new tourism slogan “Cooler & Warmer.” Were they comparing New England’s famously ever-changing weather, which can be cooler and then suddenly warmer? Or was it another example of Massachusetts’ envy, e.g., “we’re cooler and warmer than Boston and Cape Cod?” I didn’t quite get it, and apparently, neither did most everyone else in the state.

As my day job is in marketing, I’ve learned a thing or two about branding, and it seemed that Rhode Island overlooked some of the basic principles. A successful brand strategy must be authentic, articulate compelling benefits that differentiates it from the competition and must resonate with those who represent the brand—typically employees but in this case, the local residents. As branding expert David Akers says, “A brand is more than a three-word phrase.

Rhode Island is our smallest state, and that presents much of its charm. Amazingly, there is a substantial range of opportunities within a 45-minute radius—a vibrant art and food scene, city-life and rural villages, beaches and woodlands, top-ranking colleges and second-tier professional sports are all accessible. But probably what makes Rhode Island special, is the people. It’s a proud and scrappy population that doesn’t care that Boston is only an hour away. Plus due to its small size, it’s nearly impossible to go somewhere without seeing someone you know. That sense of familiarity and simplicity is very comforting and in my view, differentiates the Rhode Island experience from its New England neighbors.

“Cooler & Warmer” didn’t capture this personality. Fortunately, the campaign was pulled within days, leaving only the sting of the $500,000 price tag associated with the doomed tagline—and yet another “only in Rhode Island” story for the locals to enjoy.

So as the governor and her team go back to the drawing board, here’s my advice.

  • Spend a little time vacationing around the state and consider what makes each place uniquely Rhode Island.
  • Find that authentic voice to define Rhode Island’s true essence—and then the locals will embrace your message.
  • Rely on earned media (PR) to offer an objective view of the state’s benefits vs. spending millions on advertising. Honestly, when’s the last time you decided where to vacation based on a slogan?
  • Consider a well-executed social media campaign with a #whyrhodeisland hashtag. People trust peer-to-peer views much more than marketing campaigns.
  • Watch what’s being said on the travel sites (Trip Advisor and Yelp); promote the success stories.
  • Last, introduce such campaigns to your community before going live, and let the locals be your ambassadors. Rhode Islanders are a proud group and not beyond bragging about this special little place.

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Defining Political Sentiment: Mainstream or My Stream?

The 2016 presidential primary season has shattered every expectation about the established process. From the retiree-aged front-runners to no political experience required, SNL skits have been unnecessary as the real events are so entertaining.

I am a party-unaffiliated independent, with limited interest in politics. Yes, I vote in most elections and worry about the macro issues. But I’m simply not passionate enough about the process or those who bravely dedicate themselves to public office to connect with either party.

Primary season has pushed forward and most of us have been surprised at Donald Trump’s persistent lead, given his freewheeling talking points. However, his tell-it-like-it-is, unfiltered approach seems to be resonating. And the Bern, in spite of his costly plans, has modest momentum. What is it about these upstart candidates that the public has found so appealing?

That’s exactly what establishment politicians are wondering. And these days, they’re getting nervous about potential outcomes. How can an outsider represent the conservative Republicans? How dare millennials, including young women, challenge Hillary’s chances in favor of a Democratic socialist?

Political pundits describe these rogue candidates as going against the “mainstream” particularly on the Republican side. But are they really challenging the mainstream, or just the traditional politicians themselves, who may be concerned about their own futures?

To test this theory, I reviewed mainstream’s definition against current events. A quick Google search listed the following terms as “mainstream.”

  1. Normal: I can’t dispute this one. What we’ve come to expect as normal or “business as usual” is certainly being challenged. But then again, isn’t it the voters – or the politicians’ constituents – who are raising their voices to challenge?
  2. Conventional: Neither Trump or Sanders is particularly conventional but they have amassed a substantial following, so perhaps they’re simply redefining the term.
  3. Majority: Here, I’m not so sure, as the fact that both Trump and Sanders are winning means some majorities favors their ideas and calls for change.
  4. Middle-of-the-road: I don’t believe that either party can claim to represent the middle-of-the-road. The natural tension between the blue and red is what enables achieving decisions and governing policies that work for most of us.

So I’m not convinced that either Trump or Sanders is really challenging the mainstream. Perhaps the mainstream is challenging itself and these candidates are helping chart that new course. Regardless, Trump and Sanders have engaged more interest during the presidential elections early stages than ever before, which is certainly positive – and not a particularly mainstream expectation! Remember to vote in your primary – and in November – and until then, enjoy the show.

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SXSW 30: Older than many attendees, but still going strong

In my role as a marketing and communications strategist, I find it both inspiring and informative to immerse myself in opportunities to see what’s trending in my field. Like you, that often takes the form of reading blogs, tweets and articles, or catching up with industry friends. But there is nothing quite like attending a relevant conference to really capture that immersive experience.

Five years ago I began attending SXSW’s Interactive Conference – the geekier first phase of the famous music and film festival hosted in “Keep Austin Weird” Texas.  During those years, I’ve seen the conference evolve from a content and attendee perspective. My first year, the alternatives to the marketing and branding track were primarily technical sessions and participant demographics skewed young. Five years later, there are content tracks for gaming and VR/AR, sports, nonprofits, health and medtech, work & career management and more. Most of the panelists are older (mid-30s through 60s) and there are plenty of gray-haired participants. As well, corporate sponsorships have become substantial, featuring “recharge” lounges around the Austin Convention Center. However, that helps keep the registration fees affordable for the thousands who attend.

Each year,  some buzzworthy items surface during the conference (last year was Meerkat, this year was virtual reality, with VR experiences available at some sponsored lounges). However, I always have fun noting the smaller things that set the tone for the event. So here’s my list of #SXSW2016  trends:

  1. Tom’s flats and black sneakers were women’s shoes of choice (and comfort!).
  2. Man buns are here to stay.
  3. The hipster fedora is officially retired.
  4. Less live tweeting, however, it was cumbersome to figure out the session hashtags, as opposed to prior years when it was printed in the program.
  5. Highly engaged attendees, with those taking notes often using old-fashioned pens and paper.
  6. Fewer lines to get into sessions. Very long lines to get into parties and some of the corporate lounges.
  7. Lots of hotels downtown Austin, which is a huge improvement and convenience.
  8. Very fast runners along the riverside pathways.
  9. The bats were still on winter vacation (or avoiding the evening show on the Congress Street bridge).
  10. Lyft ruled. As the official ride-sharing partner supplemented by $5 and $10 on-site credits, they were the ride of choice (and did a great job, by the way!).

If you’ve ever considered attending, I highly recommend it. Great content, top-notch speakers, a vibrant setting – and the chance to spot trends as they happen!

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Which is More Super: the Ads or the Bowl?

On Sunday, February 7, nearly 200 million people are expected to watch the Super Bowl, staggering numbers by any measure. This year’s 50th anniversary game features a retiring Hall of Famer vs. a dabbing MVP; what more could fans ask for? Well, $5 million ads, of course!

This year, advertisers will spend $166,666 per second to promote their brand to an audience that will immediately tweet, post or chat about their reaction. For well-established and sizable brands, getting this air time can be a no-brainer. But what’s amazing are the smaller brands that spend the bulk of their annual ad budget on such a fleeting opportunity. What if your time slot is right before Coldplay? Won’t most viewers be grabbing snacks so they can watch the halftime show? But advertise, they will.

So why are the Super Bowl and its high-profile ad campaigns such a phenomena?

  1. History: Sports competitions have long been a primary form of entertainment dating back to ancient times. Think Greek games and amphitheaters. They play; we watch!
  2. Brand equity: The NFL is among the most successful brands today; period. The championship game is a must-see event due to the incredible loyalty and size of its fan base.
  3. You score and you win: Whether the game or the ads, getting points on the board means you’re assured replays and extended interest.
  4. Level playing field: Those who may know less about football can easily engage in conversations about the ads; after all, what’s so complicated about a 30-second video?
  5. Shared experience: And the bottom line, come Monday morning, who wants to be the only person in the universe who missed the big game and can’t vote on the best and worst ads?

Whether its touchdowns or tacos that will turn your attention to the screen, this Super event is truly the epitome of a branded experience. Let the games – and the marketing – begin!

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When Being Served “Fast” Ain’t Good Enough

Face it; convenience is the go-to attribute for our day-to-day activities. It likely influences where you work, shop or live, as convenience usually translates to more downtime. To classify a brand or product as convenient, we rely on crisp adjectives so it’s clear what we’re getting. Think, “drive-through”, “walking-distance” or “we deliver” and time is suddenly on your side. I was recently thinking about how these adjectives even project the quality of the experience, such as “takeout” versus “fast food.” Which would you rather have for dinner?

Given how busy life has become, I rarely cook during the week. Sure, tossing a salad or reheating leftovers takes a little effort, but even those simple preparations compete fiercely against the instant pleasure of dinners to go. Whether Whole Foods’ entrees or the local Thai restaurant, those meals only require making a selection by dropping in, calling – or increasingly, a few clicks on their apps – all of which are certainly quick or “fast.” But I would never describe these culinary experiences as “fast food.” That efficiency label is strictly describes burger joints and pizza parlors, and implicitly suggests less healthy/higher calorie options. How did those distinct labels evolve and why is “fast” not as well regarded in this instance, even though it truly does describe the customer experience?

Some possibilities:

  1. Fast food was coined as a term in the 1950s, an era when people didn’t worry about their health as much. And during that time, the primary option was a burger joint – think White Castle, the original fast-food restaurant. So labeling those experiences as “fast” was initiated long ago.
  2. Convenience was less important when there were fewer two-career households or 24/7 work schedules. So it was really a fun dining-out experience that just happened quickly.
  3. The “healthier” fast-casual restaurants such as Panera have emerged more recently, in response to customer demand for such menus.
  4. Additionally, the abundant availability of prepared meals at groceries and specialty markets has fueled this “takeout” trend. Admit it: we love having this permission to skip true home cooking!
  5. Consequently today, fast can suggest lower quality, which means to select that option, you expect other benefits besides getting served quickly, such as cheaper pricing.

So the next time you frown when you hear the term “fast-food” just remember of all that extra time you gained when you elected to pick up sushi to go or waited two minutes for your caramel macchiatto!

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Six Degrees of Separation = Northface Parka

I don’t consider myself superstitious but I do love a twist of fate every now and then, particularly when the story ends well. I recently had such an experience, which coincided with New Year’s so I’m convinced that 2016 is going to be a good year.

On December 30, we had dinner at a restaurant whose coat rack is a set of wall-mounted hooks. Given the chilly weather, I was wearing my black Northface parka. And being a practical New Englander, it’s a men’s small so I can layer however many sweaters are necessary to stay warm.

After dinner, our group headed to the lower-level bar for after-dinner drinks, so coats were grabbed and off we went. When we were finally leaving, I slipped on the parka and unzipped the pocket only to find an unfamiliar pair of large ragg wool gloves; I’d taken the wrong coat! I ran back upstairs but there were few diners left and my coat was nowhere to be seen.

The next morning I contacted the restaurant and fortunately they were aware of the mix-up and provided me with contact information. However, I needed to reach out quickly because the coat’s owner was visiting from California and leaving Boston shortly. A few pleasant text messages later, we developed a plan to exchange our Northface parkas by mail, as he had already left Boston to visit friends in central Massachusetts.  I texted my address and received a most unusual reply. By amazing coincidence, his wife was spending the next day with someone from my hometown. And not just from my town, but she lives around the corner, so a personal coat exchange was planned and completed.

So the moral of this tale is simple:

  1. Plain black Northface parkas are popular winter coats.
  2. Size does matter.
  3. Ragg wool gloves may be warmer than fleece.
  4. And last, six degrees of separation is a wonderful feeling.

Happy New Year!

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