Gourmet magazine is gone. What would Ben Franklin say?

Ben Franklin was a busy man. Not only did he invent bifocals, iron stoves and the odometer, but he founded one of America’s first magazines. Creatively titled The General Magazine, it unfortunately did not enjoy the same success as his other innovations. In fact, it was a complete failure, folding after only 6 issues.

The General Magazine

If the father of American invention could not run a magazine, who possibly could?

Up until the late 19th century, the answer was really no one. Magazines were read by an elite and erudite few who paid a hefty price for mostly European lifestyle writing.

But once the postal service offered second-class mail, magazines were democratized. Now everyone had access to high-brow literature reviews, fashion and cultural critiques.

And they devoured them. Magazines such as McClure’s offered a glimpse into a lifestyle many Americans could only imagine – all at the rock bottom price of 15 cents in 1883. By the 1920s, there were thousands of magazines and millions of readers.

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What was the secret elixir to their success that Franklin could not fathom?

Advertising, of course! Magazines realized they could offer consumers quality content for next to nothing, placing the bill on businesses who wished to market their goods and services to readers.

The aspirational and largely unattainable lifestyles depicted in magazines appealed to Americans eager to improve their social status – just as it did to the advertisers whose products promised to help them keep up with the Joneses. While originally born out of a European elitism, advertisers substituted the old-world class-consciousness with more modern version: tangible products that symbolized the same psychological complex – in a more profitable fashion. Magazine publishers feed these ever hungry advertisers with more and more “sellable content.”

The 20th century saw the rise of publisher Condé Nast , whose lavish magazines have become the embodiment of this americanized form of European elitism. Vogue, Self, Glamour, Allure, GQ, Details, Vanity Fair, Architectural Digest are just a few of their titles that have scored big time with advertisers who understand class anxiety better than any French postmodern cultural theorist.

magazineblog22The empress of the Condé Nast empire, Vogue editor Anna Wintour, was profiled my Meryl Streep in the film The Devil Wears Prada. Condé Nast gives her a $200k yearly clothing expense account, personal drivers, not to mention a private jet.

All this brings us to 2009. This year alone, advertising pages across Condé Nast publications have fallen by 8,000 pages. Their empire has collapsed.

The decision of a team of cost-cutting McKinsey consultants was made public today: Condé Nast will close three publications, including Gourmet magazine. Readers on the NY Times media blog went ballistic:

Wow!!!
My family is heartbroken.
This is unbelievable!!
I am devastated
I am in shock
This is terrible news.
I am very sad about this.
Along with over 600 other mostly mournful comments

magazineblog32RIP Gourmet

Should we really be sad, though? Through the 20th century, the publishers of Gourmet had managed to run a very profitable business. But without advertisers paying to reach readers, that business cannot exist.

If the closure of Gourmet offers any lesson, it is this: the magazine industry never really cared about you – it ultimately cared about selling advertisements to you. You were fooled.

If Ben Franklin were still kicking today, I think he’d understand. No one wanted his magazine. What they did want were his unique and original ideas that offered tangible value to society.

As a former subscriber to Gourmet myself, I’m admittedly a little sad about the closure. But I’m optimistic that publishers will learn to create value in ways that benefits the health of society more than simply titillating the taste buds of naive consumers. I think we can all subscribe to that.

User-generated bias: Why Jessica Simpson’s dog gets 5 stars on YouTube

Ever watched a lame video on YouTube? Odds are you didn’t rate it. Today, the Google-owned video sharing website released the following graph on its blog that supports this quite convincingly:

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As you can see, any video with less than a score of awesome (5 stars) garners almost no rating action at all. Are YouTubers that nice?

Personally, I’d argue they are lazy. Why spend the time to express an opinion about something that does not make a strong impression?

Using this thesis, it should follow that almost every oft-rated video on YouTube is totally awesome. But if you spend a little time browsing their popular categories, you’ll soon discover this is not the case.

There are lots of what I’d deem lame videos on YouTube’s most popular pages. Here are I found this evening:

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What do you notice about these lame videos? Yes, they all get nearly a perfect 5-star rating!

Why?

I think the answer is simple: people have different tastes. And therein lays the problem. If only 5% of the population thinks 10-year-old Suzie’s sleeping goldfish is cute, it will still get 5 stars because the others will not rate it.

As a result of this, a lot of YouTube video ratings are misleading because they capture only the positive sentiment of very niche audiences. If you think about it, almost any user generated review could result in this kind of bias.

Maybe Roger Ebert will still be relevant after his newspaper goes bankrupt?

Measuring the effects of the recession on top brands.

More unshaven people ordering McDonalds? Online fantasies about Louis Vuitton handbags? These are just a few inferences one might take away from my rather unscientific investigation into the performance of top brand names in Google search.

I started my research with data from Millward Brown (MB), a major brand marketing consultancy. Each year, they attempt to determine the top 100 worldwide brands. Using combination of hard and soft data sources from research companies, monetary values are calculated. So are the percentage changes from the previous year. You can view the 2009 report here.

As a web marketing analyst, I was particularly interested in how the top brands performed online.  I wanted to:

  • Discover which brands people are more popular in Google searches compared to last year.
  • Determine any correlation with MB’s reported changes in brand value between 08 and 09.
  • Interpret the data in context of the recession.

After some basic research of MB’s top 100 brands using Google Insights for Search, I came up with my own list of the biggest winners and losers over the past 12 months. A positive % means more people are typing the term into Google compared to last year. I contrasted these Google search volume changes with Millward Brown’s % changes in brand value, which are calculated using more traditional sources.

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With the exception of Nissan, the only discrepancies between positive and negative % changes in the Google searches and MB data sets are the American bank brands. In some cases, this makes sense because many banks underwent mergers. Chase, for example, swallowed up Washington Mutual in 2008. Chase’s (blue) search volume saw a marked increase as WaMu (red) customers started searching for their new bank brand. The defunct WaMu brand plunged. See graph below:

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Over half of the best-performing brands on Google between 08 and 09 were foreign. Again, this makes some sense considering the recession has affected domestic companies most severely.

Another interesting thing to look at are the luxury brands. Surprisingly, Louis Vuitton and GUCCI saw some of the largest increases in online interest this past year. Whether this was due to increased marketing spend or escapism from economic hardship, it’s clear people are not about to start organic farms in their back yard just yet.

Now let’s take a look at the 20 brands who saw the biggest declines in online interest between 2008 and 2009:

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Here, the relationship between Google and MB data is not as strong. For example, IBM saw a 20 percent decline in search volume, yet according to MB, their brand value increased by 20%. Both data sets agree on Porsche, whose attempt to take over VW seems to have had adversely affected them. And fewer people are searching for Gillette. After all, who needs to shave when you’re unemployed?!

It is also interesting to note here that several major American banks did see declines in search volume, in accordance with MB’s brand value percentages. There are likely reasons other than brand value for these changes for the correlations.

How strong are the correlations?

To determine the relationship between Google search and MB brand value data, I plotted the percent changes in Excel and generated an R squared value. R squared is a value from -1 (perfectly negative relationship) to +1 (perfectly positive relationship). And 0 means there is no relationship at all.

In an effort to minimize anomalies attributable to factors other than brand value, I removed all the American bank brands from the data set. Below is a scatter plot showing the relationship between Google search data and MB data:rsquared

With an R squared value of 0.14, there is a weak positive correlation between two data sets. This does not definitively mean that Google search volume is an indicator of brand value, but simply suggests a minor relationship is possible. Given that MB’s data is a rough estimate of something that’s intangible (and disagrees on many points with a similar study by another agency called Interbrand), a weak correlation is to be expected.

Rather than providing answers, I hope this little study provokes some questions about the online behavior and brand value. More people than ever are searching for products and services online. Identifying changes in keyword search patterns offers insight into consumers’ interests unlike any other medium. While the relationship shown here may be small, there is no doubt companies concerned with their brand value should be paying attention to Google searches.

What you can learn from mainstream media — with help from Google

If not predicting the impending collapse of our economy one day, the media is forecasting terrorist attacks the next. The press loves to depress. “How ’bout ya quit makin’ things up?” asked a frustrated Sarah Palin upon resigning last week.

Harsh. How ‘bout we all cool off and step back for a sec?

What if we could zoom out and look at all this clatter and chatter in perspective? With the internet we can. Every hour of every day, Google’s non-partisan computer code aggregates all the news article published online – all around the world.

One great feature Google offers is called “Google Trends,” a visualization of keyword frequency in both search and news articles. I want to show you Google’s monthly news reference volume for two of the biggest words in news: “economy” (in blue) and “Iraq” (in red) since the beginning of 2007.

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“Iraq” has been steadily decreasing for the last three years. Meanwhile, the “economy” grew slightly through mid 2008, leaping passed Iraq as the crisis hit. It grew very quickly, thousands upon thousands of new articles crawled by Google each day as the stock market tanked. You’ll notice that just before 2009, the economy took a big dip in news coverage. This is probably due to an emphasis on the election, as it quickly climbed back up after Christmas.

But the overall trend for both the economy and Iraq since October 2008 is a steady, albeit slow decline. Let me emphasize that this is not  a reflection of sentiment towards the economy or Iraq, it is simply a report of news mentions.

So when you read those fire and brimstone articles about the collapse of the economy and chaos in Iraq, take a step back and look at the overall news volume reference. If bad-news-hungry journalists are chattering about it less and less each month, maybe things are getting better?

Let’s hope so.

PS, here are Sarah Palin’s news mentions to-date:

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Twitter Users: Introverted or Extroverted?

According to recently leaked internal memos, Twitter hopes to become the “pulse of the planet” with a billion users in 5 years. With 25 million visitors a month today, Twitter’s vital signs are already looking pretty good. What can we learn about the users who keep it pumping?

I decided it would be fun to see what personality types characterize its “Tweeters.” According to my very unscientific research this week using TweepSearch, there are a total of 903 users who self-report a Myers-Briggs* personality type in their Twitter bio. By entering this information into Google Fusion Tables, I sorted and aggregated the results.

Let’s start with the big question: are Twitter users more likely to be introverted (I) or extroverted (E)?

Result:  63% report they’re introverted. This compares to a general population that, according to MBTI, is about 51% introverted.

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So what does this say about introverts? Perhaps “introverted” does not have anything to do with being social in the traditional sense? It may simply indicate introverts prefer a different medium (online) than their extroverted counterparts (face-to-face).  As new online media tools change how we communicate, perhaps they will give a greater share of the voice to introverts?

In addition to introvert vs. extrovert, Myers-Briggs also tells us about three other personality dimensions: sensing vs. intution, thinking vs. feeling, and judging vs. perceiving.

How do  these types come out on Twitter?

Sensing (S) vs. Intuition (N)

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Apparently, Twitter users are much more intuitive than the general population. This means they form their impressions about people and things less on tangible evidence than on their own inner perceptions. Why would Twitter attract vastly more intuitive users? Perhaps it is because Twitter is not based in reality – it’s a virtual world where there are few tangible “senses” to grasp onto?

Thinking (T) vs. Feeling (F)

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Twitter users are more likely to be thinkers than feelers. As thinkers tend to be more concerned with impersonal facts than do people-focused feelers, their majority presence on Twitter indicates that micro-blogging attracts more users who are interested in sharing information rather than social bonding. As Twitter is very scant on personal information and profiles and focuses almost entirely on the content of the Tweets, this makes some sense.

Judging (J) vs. Perceiving (P)

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With a majority of perceiving types, Twitter users have slightly more flexible lifestyles than the judging-skewed general population, who tend to be more structured and care about order and punctuality more. Twitter is indeed a free-flowing medium, and could possibly frustrate someone who likes more structure.

Of the 16 possible types, which one wins overall?

To my surprise, the relatively uncommon INTJ personality type came out on top with a 17.5% share, compared with 2.1% presence in the general population. In fact, the top four personality types on Twitter are all very uncommon when compared to the statistical average across the board. And by contrast, the three least popular personality types on Twitter seem to be much more common in the overall population.

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If Twitter users are indeed a unique subset of the population, then what does this say about its mass appeal? Do certain personality types drive trends more than others? If investigated further and with more scientific rigor, I think this could have huge implications for start-up companies as well as the marketing/media industry.

*Myers-Briggs is a personality theory based on Carl Jung’s work, Psychological Types. The assessment measures how people interface with the world around them. And it does this through 4 dimensions with two possible outcomes each:

Introverted vs. Extroverted

Sensing vs. Intuition

Thinking vs. Feeling

Judging vs. Perceiving

So, if I were extroverted, sensing, thinking and judging, my type would be ESTJ. The opposite of that would be an INFP. To learn more about Myers-Briggs, I recommend checking out this link.

To discover your own Myers-Briggs type, try the MyType Facebook application.

Are Brands Losing Testosterone?

If there’s one quintessential symbol of masculinity in America, it’s the cowboy. Steady, sure, tough, a bit gruff rough, he is a powerful cultural archetype — and brand. From selling millions of cigarettes, country songs, and SUVs to electing at least two presidents, his selling power cannot be underestimated. But is the love affair over?

America’s obsession with the cowboy as a masculine ideal has been waning for some time. Let’s mark a few of the mile stones:

  • The Marlboro Man dies of lung cancer.

    Under the reign of a cowboy-branded president, America is lead into a foreign policy nightmare and an economic depression.

    A film comes out about gay cowboys and is widely accepted.

The cowboy’s image has transformed from one of venerated idol of male strength to a fraud, or impostor of sorts. But it’s more than the cowboy. It’s the broader brand — the American masculine ideal. And it is fading. This is a huge cultural paradigm shift.

Enter Obama, the Anti-Cowboy

As the child of a single mother and an absent father, Obama is a fitting symbol of a post-masculine society. In a column last year, NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd emphasized the contrast between Obama and the cowboy: “Obama proved that he was not a cowboy in overdrive like W. when he demurred at throwing a spiral because his pass might not be as good as the Longhorn stars’.” What about Hillary, you might ask?

In her column, Dowd argued that “Hillary was so busy trying to prove she could be one of the boys .. that she only belatedly realized that many Democratic and independent voters, especially women, were eager to move from hard-power locker-room tactics to a soft-power sewing circle approach.”

As the Obama/Hillary example illustrates, the male vs. female dichotomy less central then the actual expression characteristics of masculine vs. feminine. It is not so much that masculinity is going away – it is that femininity has become the more dominant cultural force.

Implications for brands

The recent TV series Mad Men aptly characterized the male-centric world that gave birth to the advertising industry. The legendary Leo Burnett is one of the most influential of these agencies, having shaped many of the brands that you grew up with. In addition to the hyper-masculine Marlboro Man, they have developed other male-centric figures including “Charlie the Tuna”, “Pillsbury Doughboy”, 7UP’s “Spot”, and Tony the tiger.

But even more important than the fact these brands symbols are of male gender, is the masculine way they are communicated. Their top-down, one-way approach of talking to consumers is very much a masculine “don’t-talk-back-to-me” style. The feminine approach, by contrast, is not about telling, it’s about conversation.

The rise of social, cause-centric, conversation-based media

The green movement, social media, good-cause marketing are all central to the feminization of brands. Tending to be feeling-centric, brands are now asking you to chat with them on platforms ranging from Facebook to Twitter. In the masculine world of brands, this would have been unheard of. As technology gives greater voice to the average citizen, it allows us to communicate more collectively. And it’s the feminine conversation ability that is emerging as most effective way to navigate in the world.

Now we see once exclusively macho brands are now exploring their feminine side. Look at this General Motors magazine ad from the 1970s, emphasizing the truck’s inner strength and robustness. Nothing could be more macho.

Now take a look at a recent online ad. Instead of emphasizing its source of power, this ad does the opposite. It says we use less power. And we are friendly. The feminine curling leaves invite the viewer into an entirely different brand experience.

The cowboy has faded into the sunset. But don’t count him out. Culture ebbs and flows. Brands that focus on the underling archetypal themes, both dormant and expressed, rather than the popular flavors of the day, will enjoy the greatest long-term success.

Lessons from a Juicy Rebrand

Orange farmers can’t be happy. Tropicana’s celebrated “Squeeze” rebranding campaign – entailing a complete package redesign and massive national ad campaign – sent sales sailing down 20% between January and February, according to Ad Age.

“No dots to connect here,” a company spokeswoman told the advertising trade magazine when asked about the correlation between the rebrand and drop in sales. Never mind the fact that Tropicana swiftly reintroduced the old packaging last month. In stores now, new vs. the new old:

Let me connect the dots that their dotty PR department can’t seem to find:

Unlike milk, orange juice is one of those grocery items that consumers can be a bit more discerning towards. We’ve all had that watered-down generic juice. Yuck. Over the years, brands have built success by taking advantage of the disparity in quality to emphasize taste, freshness, and added-value benefits like vitamins and calcium. To get some perspective, let’s take a look at the history of orange juice ads:

Sunkist’s “Drink an orange” campaign sent sales souring when introduced to thirsty Jazz Age families. While influencing consumers may have been easier back then, it’s hard to argue with the 300% revenue growth Sunkist experienced. Albert D. Lasker’s now famous campaign was all about the orange, not the murky pale yellowy liquid in the glass. And consumers ate it up.

Ever since the Sunkist success, advertisers have emphasized the bright, fresh, ripe orange – while putting that pale yellowy liquid or concentrate further behind the scenes. The following is an undated industry promotion ad, making the connection as literal as it could possibly — nothing can get between you, and the orange:

Modern orange juice advertising has changed little in its approach. With increased competition between major multinational corporations, the positioning strategies have tended to focus more and more on that orange. It’s about whoever has the freshest, most healthy, and natural orange to offer. Florida Natural’s positioning literally positions the product as part and parcel of the orange grove itself:

Tropicana has traditionally maintained a similar approach, their ads and packaging emphasizing the same old orange. You’re literally drinking the juice right out of the fruit:

Understandably, the good folks at Tropicana may have been getting a little tired of the same old orange every year. So they did something about it. They hired by “renowned” branding guru Peter Arnell to completely reinvent the nature of orange juice advertising.

Enter “Squeeze”

“It’s time to remind consumers that Tropicana Pure Premium is pure, natural and squeezed from fresh oranges,” said Peter Arnell in their campaign press release. So far this sounds like the same old same old. But he goes on: “In order to reinforce this message, we focused on the health benefits of the juice but showed it in a more emotional way than ever before in this category. We want to remind consumers how it should feel to drink this juice every morning.”

In other words, Mr. Arnell decided to put the orange in the back seat. And the ads – which have been widely praised within the industry for their “boldness” – do exactly this. No oranges to be found. Instead, we see parents literally squeezing their kids – feel good photography emphasizing the campaign’s operative word: emotions.


The ads are certainly pleasing to the eye. I can’t find anything particularly unappealing about them – nothing noteworthy enough to drive sales down 20%. But this is part of the lesson: the advertising campaign did absolutely nothing to increase consumer interest in the “emotional brand experience.” While the images themselves probably did not turn people off, they didn’t make any connections to the product. Here’s is what you found in the grocery isle:


The product on the shelf is emotionless, almost generic. It has a cold, detached feel that in no way correlates to the happy families pictured in the ads. But the most egregious error has nothing to do with the happy families – they are really just as superfluous as the whole ad campaign itself.

It is about the orange.

Indeed, the rebranded package does say “100% orange.” But what kind of orange?! “100% orange” is printed atop that murky pale liquid that orange juice advertisers have tried to avoid for almost a century. To the average shopper, it is nothing more than a color. In their attempt to imbue the word “orange” with an emotionally branded meaning, Tropicana successfully disconnected it from the fruit that bares its name.

Lessons learned:

  • Ad campaigns are ineffective if not directly attached to the product itself.
  • There must be a clear connection between the product and the “brand experience.”
  • Prestigious ad agencies and brand experts sometimes know less than the average consumer.