Deeetroit vs. Everybody

The Detroit Pistons are among the top 10 most winningest NBA championship teams in basketball history. Though discounted by the league and the national media for “playing too dirty,” being characterized as ‘thugs’, or not being “flashy enough,” the Pistons played to sold out crowds night after night in their beloved hometown. Years later, however, with more losses than wins in recent years, team fandom had begun to wane and the Pistons were all but forgotten within the basketball zeitgeist. With ticket sales down and team performance marginally improved, we had to find a way to activate the Piston’s fanbase and reinvigorate excitement in the team beyond what happens on the court.

To do so, we didn’t have to look much further than the city itself.

Like the Pistons, the city of Detroit has also been discounted, despite its invaluable contributions to the American narrative through industry, music, and art. During its tough years, Detroit had become the butt of jokes, an easy target for pundits and media voices. This allowed us to position the Pistons as more than just a team but an embodiment of the city’s spirit, a symbol which represents the ethos of Detroit - it’s us versus everybody.

With this in mind, we set out to establish a brand campaign aimed to activate the city’s inhabitants based on their identity and Detroit-pride, because our validation doesn’t depend on outsiders, it starts with us. Detroit for Detroit.

So we started with an anthem video, which levered the team’s rally cry to promote solidarity among Detroiters (“Deeetroit Basketball”) and featured music and narration by Detroit’s up and coming, homegrown artist, B-Free.

We dropped the anthem online and on-air on draft day and partnered with the creator of the ‘Detroit vs Everybody’ brand, local entrepreneur, Tommey Walker, to establish a secondary logo mark for the team which explicitly communicates the new brand positioning and contributes to the city’s culture.


The fan reaction was immediate.

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And ticket sales increased, setting the Pistons up for a new season with new vigor and a renewed excitement by transcending sport fandom and becoming an icon of identity.

The Network of Stranger Things Fandom

Netflix’s runaway hit show, Stranger Things, has become nothing short of a global phenomenon. Set in the fictitious town of Hawkins, Indiana, the 80s inspired sci-fi horror conjures all the nostalgia from the decade. From Goonies to Standby Me, Dungeons and Dragons to Eggo Waffles, the 80s is practically another cast member of Stranger Things. With this in mind, Eggo set out to create an experience that would get Stranger Things fans excited about the launch of Season 3 and the Eggo brand. But how do you do this with no official Netflix partnership, a restriction on the use of Stranger Things IP, and a crowded market place of brands cashing in on the show’s success?

You leverage your OG status, that’s how! Eggo has been a part of Stranger Things from the very start.

Beloved by Eleven, a main characters in the show who possess telekinetic powers and is prone to nose bleeds, Eggo has become an artifact among the ravenous fandom of Stranger Things devotees. But since we couldn’t tell fans we’ll be there for Season 3 – due to legal restrictions – we could certainly show them. We decided to start in Hawkins. Not the fake Hawkins of the show, because it doesn’t exist, but the 11 real Hawkins that exist throughout North America. Channeling Eleven’s nose bleeds, we strategically placed 11 faux Eggo billboards across the social web to stoke intrigue among the network of Stranger Things fans, with a cryptic message…“Strange things are coming.”

Fans started putting the pieces together and constructing meaning out of the organically posted images. The billboards even made their way on to Reddit, where Stranger Things fans are the most ravenous and discerning. The organically posted billboards were well received within the fan network on Reddit and up-voted 35 times more than any fan-posted content from Coke, Nike, Baskin Robins’, or Burger King’s Stranger Things campaign.


With a captive audience, we stepped up the strange by leveraging the time-honored tradition of fandom, the Easter Egg. We placed Easter Eggos inside what appeared to be lost 80s ads from Eggo. Inviting hardcore Stranger Things fan into the Eggoverse to satisfy their inner-sleuth. Once fans found one Easter Eggo, it led you to another, which led to another, and another which gave fans a badge of honor to make it to the end. This unique Instagram experience was innate to the audience and found an interesting way for Eggo to participate while spending only a fraction of what the other brands did.

To further this initiative, fans who made it to the end got a surprise and delight gift from the brand. Some lucky consumers were able to get their hands on a limited release of 80s Eggo retro packs were available through Amazon Fresh and fans across the country got to enjoy their Triple-decker Eggo Extravaganza during the Eggo Truck Summer Tour. The campaign generated a 6,000% increase in followers on Instagram, 11% engagement rate, and over 500,000 fan interactions. But most importantly, it helped solidify Eggo’s rightful place among the show’s fandom and drive product consumption in preparation for the launch of Season 3 with a 30% spike in consumption at Kroger and Walmart.

The Abstract for My Doctoral Dissertation

Exploring Social Contagion Within A Tribe Called Hip Hop:
Social contagion of branded products within a defined and accessible culture of consumption is a marketer’s dream. Members who subscribe to these cultures of consumption collectively decide on consumption norms — which brands and products are ‘in’ and which are ‘out’ — based on the cultural characteristics of the cohort. The brands which are adopted by the culture of consumption become enriched with cultural meaning, which represent the styles and ideologies of its members (Hebdige, 1979; Kinsey, 1982; Schwendinger and Schwendinger, 1985), and elevates branded products from their utilitarian function to totem status (McCracken, 1986). The adoption of such branded products are shared and imitated within the members of the culture of consumption, which translates into collective, and often loyal, consumption behaviors. Furthermore, these consumption activities are known to diffuse beyond the members of the culture of consumption and, at times, become imitated by larger audiences (Fox, 1987; Klein, 1985) and marketed for mass consumption (Blair and Hatala, 1991; Schwendinger and Schwendinger, 1985). Yet, the occurrence of this phenomenon is thought to be serendipitous, and the process by which social contagion happens throughout these cultures of consumption are largely unknown.

Though defined by consumption activity, the ties that bind the members of a culture of consumption extend beyond their shared commitment to branded products. The tribal nature of these cultures of consumption are governed by “identifiable, hierarchical social structure; a unique ethos, or set of shared beliefs and values; and unique jargons, rituals, and modes of symbolic expression” (Schouten and McAlexander, 1995, pg 43), which are constructed by its members. In some cases, the influence of certain cultures of consumption have been known to extend beyond demographic segments (Pearson, 1987), racial and ethnic demarcations (Klein, 1985), social class rankings (Harris, 1985), and even national boarders (Stratton, 1985). No greater example of this can be seen than that of the hip hop culture of consumption, which has become a multi-billion dollar industry and has influenced consumption activities across such areas as music, automotive, fashion, sport, marketing, and tech (Taylor and Taylor, 2004). Hip hop is a large, well-defined, valuable, and growing culture of consumption with a set of beliefs, norms, artifacts, and language which govern the behaviors of this tribal collective and the social structure thereof. The construction of these governing cultural characteristics are highly visible and accessible by social media and other marketing channels of communication. What makes this potential even more staggering is that social contagion takes place among this culture of consumption not rarely but routinely, as seen in the adoption of Beat By Dre headphones, Adidas’ Yezzy sneakers, and Tommy Hilfiger clothing.

Social contagion within the hip hop culture of consumption is an extremely important marketplace phenomenon. However, there has been little systematic research done to examine how social contagion happens within the hip hop culture of consumption. This research, therefore, aims to generate a grounded understanding of the mechanisms of social contagion within the hip hop culture of consumption. In particular, what are the processes by which social contagion happens among its members and how does social contagion effect the expression of behavior intent and purchase behavior? How does the exchange and propagation of content between members of the hip hop culture of consumption translate into culture characteristics among the collective? A netnographic analysis will enable this research to observe the interactions and exchanges within the hip hop culture of consumption to develop a rich understanding of how branded products diffuse throughout the tribe. The ever-expanding influence of hip hop on consumption behavior creates an urgency for marketers to better understand how branded products, across a spectrum of industries, are adopted and socialized among this consumption-positive collective.

Zoological Stress Reduction

The Detroit Zoo is typically considered a destination for family fun, animal curiosity, and entertainment. It’s an experience that provides both entertainment and education. However, the positive effects of zoo visitation is far reaching—particularly its impact on stress reduction. According to the American Psychological Association, nearly all of us has at least one thing that’s stressing us out. To put this to the test, we partnered with the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) to conducted a psychophysiological experiment to empirically assess the effects of zoo visitation. Research participants were hooked up with electrodes in a laboratory setting that measured stress indicators such as heart rate, skin conductance, and facial reactions. When they were introduced to Detroit Zoo otters, giraffes and butterflies. Pulses slowed. Heart rates decreased. Moods lifted. The goal of this campaign was to reposition the Detroit Zoo as a destination for more than just family fun, but a means for stress reduction. In doing so, DZS is empowered to help solve a different job than it was previously known to do in an effort to drive visitation.

The study gave us permission to say a “visit to the Detroit Zoo is scientifically proven to reduce stress,” repositioning the zoo as more than a place for family fun, but also an additional outlet for wellness. This campaign was designed to reach people who are actively seeking a little R&R. Ergo, our target audience isn’t defined by demographics, but a shared mindset. As daily life becomes evermore chaotic and demanding, more people are using their time and money in the pursuit of wellness. From slow flow and meditation, to gravity blankets and bullet journaling, working adults are resorting to all kinds of methods for managing their stress. Poke fun at goat yoga all you want, but don’t underestimate the booming wellness industry. It’s valued at a whopping $4.2 trillion, having grow 13% in the last two years according to a 2019 report by The Global Wellness Institute. Considering the stress reducing effect of viewing animals, the wellness craze is the perfect cultural touchstone for the Detroit Zoo to leverage.

We contextually launched the campaign on April 15, Tax Day, when we knew people across metro-Detroit were sure to be stressing out. On the day of the launch we conquested twitter, responding to Metro-Detroiters who were tweeting about feeling stressed, with custom Detroit Zoo animal memes and a gentle nudge to visit the zoo for some stress relief. The results of the campaign drove zoo attendance which outperformed visitation protections (elevated from the previous year) by 4%.

“We’re On A World Tour”

Exploring the globalization of the hip hop diaspora and its implications for international marketers

The rapid growth of globalization has increased the need for international marketers to consider the cultural differences within disparate countries to inform the company’s marketing activities. Indeed, the reoccurring question in regards to international marketing is whether or not consumers across countries will behave similarly or differently (de Mooji, 2001). Even with countries in close geographic proximity and with a shared spoken language like Canada and the US, there are differences in values, beliefs, and norms which are likely to produce different consumer behaviors among the inhabitants of each country. Ghemawat (2001) refers to this as cultural distance, where a county’s cultural attributes, however nuanced, determine the way in which people interact with each other, companies, and institutions — regardless of the country’s geographical relation. Ignoring these differences can be potentially detrimental for marketers. As a result, companies which are engaged in international marketing create and execute unique marketing strategies to account for the cultural differences between countries. Doing so, however, can be taxing on company resources, can create fragmentation for the brand, and can establish a significant burden on its marketing managers across local markets.

A counter logic, however, is that if consumer behaviors are converging, despite cultural distance, companies’ international marketing efforts would benefit. This would allow marketers to tap into a global collective with a uniformed brand and a consistent message. This notion is captured in the localization versus standardization debate. Perhaps, instead, there are forces at play which have not been properly investigated. These forces might very well address the nuances of international idiosyncrasies, which make global consumption different, and capture the gravitational pull that potentially makes global consumer behavior similar.

To explore this puzzle, we must be cognizant that the question at hand is primarily one of consumer segmentation and a company's ability to identify a segment which is not bound by the geographical lines of nationstate — balancing the standardization versus localization continuum. The notion of cultural distance assumes that a country’s culture is insular and remains unaffected by the cultures of other countries. However, the globalization of media export from one country to another has set the stage for people to be introduced to ideas, beliefs, and norms which are foreign to their native land. In the US, for instance, we design homes that are feng shui, a Chinese philosophy for channeling the invisible energy of a space. In most countries, sport coats are worn as the uniform of civility, a symbol of status, signified by British-wear. For more formal wear, men across the globe widely don neckties, a cultural export from Croatia. Ideas, beliefs, and norms like these are imported from one country to another and adopted by a population within a country’s inhabitants. The result of this adoption informs the resident culture and thereby alters the consumption behavior of these consumers — what they buy, where they buy, what they wear, etc.. This spread of culture establishes a segment of people which stretches across country boundaries, enabling international marketers to appeal to an international population who not only subscribe to a global identity but also rework the manifestation thereof to meet local customs. There is arguably no greater evidence of this phenomena than in the case of hip hop culture’s mass adoption, which has left hardly any continent on this planet untouched by its influence. The US’ export of hip hop has enabled the culture to reach foreign shores and become acculturated by the locals who both identify with the hip hop culture identity (HHCI), coined by Ferguson and Burkhalter (2015), but translate its norms and values to the local customs of the market. Therefore, the examination of the global effects of the hip hop diaspora could prove beneficial for international marketers who would benefit from a single segment which transcends national boundaries.


Though commonly thought of as a style of music, hip hop is far more. The roots of hip hop reside in four creative building blocks: ‘deejaying’ (the sampling and scratching of records or musical recordings), ‘emceeing’ (rapping or rhythmic and melodious spoken word over music), ‘breaking’ (break-dancing), and tagging (graffiti art) (Ferguson, Burkhalter, 2015). Since its birth in the early 1970s, however, hip hop has evolved into something greater. It now includes fashion and style (artifacts), colloquialisms (lexicon), a code of ethics and attitude (beliefs), and expectations of acceptable behavior (norms) (Kitwana, 2003). Consequently, this evolution constitutes hip hop as a cultural identity. As described by Emil Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of sociology, culture is a system of symbols, beliefs, and values from which groups of people are established, and their corresponding roles and norms are constructed. That is to say, when a set of beliefs, artifacts, behaviors, and language are adopted among a populace, the alchemy of these elements is said to represent a people’s culture. While the production of music, art, and dance in hip hop are often used to express individuality, these artifacts are used to establish homogeneity within the community by expressing the norms and beliefs of the culture (Chang, Chen, 1998). Much like folklore and religion, hip hop uses the vehicle of storytelling — in the form of song — to communicate the shared values of the individuals who make up the culture. As a result, the members who subscribe to the HHCI act in concert to promote social solidarity among themselves, adhering to the cultural norms which have been negotiated and constructed among the collective.

What makes hip hop uniquely interesting for marketers in general is the culture’s connection to consumption. A driving ethos within hip hop can be colloquially described as “I came from nothing to something, now watch me shine.” Considering its roots, it is no surprise that the ethos of the HHCI would be driven by aspirational consumption. The mythology of the HHCI, as expressed in its music, has reverberated across state lines and found a home in cities which mirrored the social tensions of hip hop’s birthday place, the South Bronx. Likewise, disenfranchised youths across America clung to hip hop as a way to escape, rebel, and elevate their social status. It would not be long before the ethos of the HHCI would be adopted by the masses itself, impregnating the popular culture and influencing the consumption behavior of the broad populous.

Though it has become widely adopted, hip hop’s ascension was not without its detractors. After hip hop made its way out of impoverished neighborhoods and into suburban cul-de-sacs, the art form — and its subsequent culture — faced ridicule because of its ‘glorification of violence’ and seemingly obsessive use of vulgar language. Many within the music industry held the belief that hip hip did not even constitute a form of music, considering that much of hip hop’s instrumentation is borrowed from other artists’ composition (referred to as sampling), looped, and spoken over. Today, however, hip hop music is the most consumed music genre in the US (Forbes, 2017), and hip hop fashion, vernacular, attitudes, and body language has been adopted throughout the country. Unlike any other music genre with associated cultural elements — punk, electronic dance music, heavy metal, or country — the pervasiveness of hip hop continues to drive ravenous cultural consumption due to its relatability and accessibility.


From France (Mitchell, 2001) to Tanzania (Fenn and Perullo), Germany (Cheeseman, 1998) to Japan (Condry, 2001), Singapore (Mattar, 2003) to Australia (Maxwell, 1997), hip hop has become a global phenomenon. Indeed, the spread of hip hop music has led to the adoption of hip hop culture the world over — spanning ethnic, linguistic, and geographic boundaries (Motley and Henderson, 2008). Anthropologists and hip hop scholars have chronicled the globalization of hip hop as both an art form and a culture, which has influenced the styles of behavior and styles dress among consumers internationally. This mass adoption of hip hop culture has led to a wide convergence of culture across the globe. It is quite reasonable to argue that the United States’ greatest export is its media and the international expansion of MTV likely laid the early foundation for hip hop’s global pandemic.

MTV, the cable music video cable channel, premiered in the early 80s and experienced a meteoric rise as a source of influence on popular culture in the US. Its programming primarily consisted of rock and pop genre music videos, but later evolved into lifestyle shows and even political commentary. With the success of MTV in the US, the network began to expand into different countries, creating MTV Europe, MTV Australia, MTV Asia, and MTV Internacional — the network’s Latin American offering. Despite the international suffix of its operation, the vast majority of music which was shown on MTV worldwide was American (Banks, 1997). MTV executive, Sara Levinson, argued that, “music is the global language, and we [MTV] want to be the global rock n’ roll village where we can talk to the youth worldwide.” (Knoedelseder, 1988). Hip hop held a very small slice of MTV’s programming real estate at this time...but not for long.

MTV’s impact was not just its music offering but also the influence it had on consumption. International viewers who ingested the network’s programming were also concurrently exposed to the music artists’ style and behavior, which led to international cultural consumption. Tom Freston, former CEO of Viacom — MTV’s parent company, refers to this as the first international generation.

“They wear Levi’s, shop at Benetton, wear Swatch watches, and drink Coca- Cola. This is not to say there aren’t cultural differences, that the French aren’t different from the German. But a French teenager and German teenager are much more similar to each other than they are to their parents.” (Knoedelseder, 1988)

The international expansion of MTV catalyzed the global popular culture and situated music as the entrée to global consumption. After hip hop began to dominate the airwaves in the US, it made up the lion’s share of MTV’s programming — both its music video offerings and lifestyle shows, like MTV Cribs and Pimp My Ride. And with it, came the global exposure to hip hop culture. At one time, a criticism of hip hop in the US — the 'glorification of violence’ and use of music samples — would ultimately become hip hop’s greatest assets.

Hip hop’s “glorification of violence” was simply mistaken social commentary. The storytellers of hip hop (the emcees) used the art form to communicate the realities of their environments, which were often times violent. These stories were relatable to audiences because many of them also came from similar environments — both domestically and internationally. Although they may have manifest differently, the same disenfranchisement which was felt in the streets of the South Bronx was felt in the streets of South Africa — poverty, racial injustice, and crime. These experiences, that which Osumare (2001) refers to as connective marginalities, are universal, which makes hip hop so adoptable because the sense of of marginalization, frustration, and rebellion against oppression is shared around the world (Motley and Henderson, 2008). The gravitational pull of hip hop culture in the US has had a similar effect across the world because the anecdotes which are narrated in the music tell a global story. The proliferation of the internet went a step further than MTV could by not only exposing international communities to hip hop culture but also facilitating interactions among hip hop consumers, promoting the exchange of commonalities and the adaptation of norms among the HHCI.

Hip hop’s use of music samples were the perfect complement to its global relatability. While most forms of music require instruments, which is a luxury that is not often afforded to the marginalized (particularly those who are also impoverished), hip hop is completely democratized. A contribution to the hip hop culture can require nothing more than the human voice in some cases, which lowers the barrier to entry for adopters of the culture. With no instruments or equipment necessary to participate in the art form, literally, anyone could contribute to the culture. Such an easy onramp creates a wide door of membership into the community. It is no wonder that sports like soccer and basketball are as big as they are globally. To play soccer, one only needs a ball and a field. To play basketball, one only needs a ball and spherical ring. To make hip hop music, one only needs the voice and rhythm, the result of which simultaneously drives creation and consumption. All of which enables practically anyone who subscribes to the HHCI with the ability to contribute to the storytelling of the community as well as its cultural styles.


The relatability and accessibility of hip hop connects a global audience to a shared ethos and provides a vehicle which allows members to contribute to the collective narrative. Better said, hip hop gives a democratized voice to the marginalized, connecting them to a global community, and arming them with a means to rebel. Although members of this community subscribe to the same overarching HHCI, the way in which it is exercised is customized to their local market. Motley and Henderson (2008) observed evidence of this in their work on the global hip hop diaspora in Korea, India, and Taiwan. They refer to this dynamic as “a global commonality of connective marginality combined with local elements that create unique sounds and statements.” That is, hip hop culture is adopted on a global level and then adapted to meet the idiosyncrasies of the local community. This dynamic is commonly referred to as ‘glocalization’, which comes from the word glocal — a mashup of global and local. Here, the segment adopts a global cultural identity and customizes it to the local market. Consumption behavior, as a result, follows suits because consumption itself is a cultural act — particularly within the hip hop.

Consumer culture theory explores this phenomenon of how consumers rework and transform the symbolic meaning of products, brands, and advertising as a manifestation of their identity and lifestyle goals (Grayson, Martinec, 2004; Holt 2002; Kozinets 2002, 2001; Mick, Buhl, 1992; Penaloza, 2000, 2001; Arnould, Thompson, 2005). Here, members of particular communities use brands to communicate their cultural affiliation like a badge of identity. This affiliation, however, supersedes geographical boundaries and national norms. These elective communities which share emotional solidarity, where the feelings of members associated with the group — identified by a range of values to styles of dress to common enthusiasms and hobbies — form stronger bonds than civic associations (Maffesoli, 1996, 1988). All of this determines how people interact with each other, brands, and institutions — regardless of the countries’ geographical relation (Ghemawat, 2001). The global adoption and adaptation of hip hop culture allows members to subscribe to the HHCI, to which they relate, and tailor to a national context. The same can be said about hip hop in the US, where members in Los Angeles’ hip hop community adopted the HHCI and adapted it to reflect the experience, the language, and style of the local market. From this came that which is known as west-coast hip hop. So is the same with Korean hip hop, Japanese hip hop, and so on. A useful — and contextually appropriate — metaphor to consider which describes the glocalization of hip hop would be the melody of a song. Imagine a song played in one key and then again in another key. The melody of a song played in a different key is still the same song, despite the key change. So too is the globalization of hip hop culture — it is the same melody (hip hop culture) played in a different key (hip hop culture adapted to local market customs). This demonstrates how the spread of the HHCI is locally internalized and, therefore, establishes a segment of people which stretches across country boundaries.


People are different. Indeed, the population is heterogeneous, having a wide diversity of wants, needs, tastes, and preferences. Wendell Smith (1956) suggested that marketers would benefit from segmenting the population into homogenous-like clusters (segments) in order to identify the most desirable group(s) of people to target. Smith argued that success in marketing activities require both product differentiation and market segmentation as components of marketing strategy (Smith, 1956). Therefore, one might conclude that the more discriminating the segmentation, the more likely the population will respond to marketing activities which are aimed specifically for them. Considering the homogeneity within culture, and the solidarity of its collective behavior, targeting a global consumer culture — like the HHCI — provides a compelling approach for marketers to segment the market. These collectives act in concert, despite their geographic boundaries, and create an opportunity for international marketers to activate at a global level while paying mind to the nuances of the local market. The result of which excites what Durkheim refers to as collective effervescence, where a community of people come together and participate collectively in the same action (Durkheim, 1893). In the case of MNEs, that action constitutes global consumption. Culture represents psychological and emotional programming that effects both attitude and behavior (Chau et al. 2002), resulting in an influence on consumer choices (Aaker and Williams, 1998). This suggests that targeting a consumer culture can be significantly benefit for international marketing activities, particularly for marketers who seek to balance local responsiveness and the benefits which result from globalization.

Bartlett and Ghoshal (1998) outlines this strategic balance between local responsiveness and global integration for international marketers who want to pursue international opportunities. Local responsiveness, according to the Bartlett and Ghoshal’s model, refers to consumer’s expectation that the product will be customized to the local norms and cultural nuances held by the market of interest. The higher the need for localization, the more that international marketers must to customize products and services to be competitive within the market. Global integration, conversely, addresses the potential need for standardization to achieve efficiency of marketing resources. The greater the possibilities for standardization, the greater the opportunity for international marketers to benefit from the economies of scale. The relationship between these two forces — local responsiveness and global integration— are negotiated to inform strategic decisions which firms ought to make when deciding to enter the global market. For international marketers considering a translational or multi- domestic strategy, targeting consumer cultures enable firms to address the nuances of the local market while capturing the gravitational pull that makes global consumer behavior similar.


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The Road to Dr. Collins

There I was in the dead of night, in the fall of 2011, staring at the ceiling of my New York City apartment experiencing what I now refer to as my ‘Jerry Maguire’ moment. Although I never worked as a sports agent, the metaphor still holds up. I was a newly hired executive at an advertising agency where I was tasked to build and lead its social media marketing practice. At that moment, however, I realized I knew nothing about ‘social,’ despite my past experience working in social media at Apple’s iTunes, running digital strategy for Beyoncé, and leading accounts for a pure-play social media agency. Perhaps knowing nothing is a bit hyperbolic, but at the time it certainly felt that way. A more accurate statement would probably be that my understanding of ‘social’ was grossly incomplete. Until that fateful night, I thought about social media as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Foursquare, and all the other fast-growing platforms of the time. I held a technology-centric perspective on this phenomenon, and evangelized its benefits to clients and teammates alike. But something became irreversibly clear to me. ‘Social,’ by definition, is all about people. Much like social work, social welfare, and social justice are focused on people, social media is all about people.

I laid awake that night feeling like a fraud. I was hired to be a thought leader in social media marketing, tasked with the responsibility of building a social media practice to serve clients like State Farm, McDonald’s, and Anheuser-Busch. Yet, I realized in that moment that I knew nothing about ‘social,’ because I knew nothing about people. I had no understanding about human behavior — why people do what they do. My knowledge of human cognitions did not extend much further than the term ‘freudian slip.’ I felt equal parts illuminated by this new epiphany, and terrified by the fear of being found out. I decided to lean into this revelation. In the days and weeks following, I began investing myself in the social sciences to learn about people. I started with Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, and I could not stop reading. I found its exploration to be nothing short of fascinating. In it, Ariely proves that the cognitive biases which sway human behavior are so strong that they are partially predictable, despite how illogical they might be. I read the book twice and, in my second pass, I highlighted the research which I thought was most interesting. More importantly, I noted the researchers who were referenced, and whose work I began to read shortly thereafter. Ariely led me to Kahneman, and Kahneman led me to Loewenstein. I detoured to McLuhan and then turned to Berger, who led me to Watts and Thaler, and soon after to Asch and Milgram. My curiosity was insatiable and, as a result, I read broadly and deeply. After about a year of discovery, the research started to became self-referential. And then something amazing happen. This research grounding began to manifest in my own work.

With my new grounding in ‘social,’ I found myself challenging the long standing conventions of traditional advertising and marketing. If a colleague suggested an influencer program based on the number of followers a person of interest had, I relied on network theory, whose dynamics inform the propagation of influence, to guide my approach. When another colleague recommended a tactic to help increase the likelihood of a behavioral adoption, I recalled the importance of creating defaults in the design to act as a nudge. And so on, and so on. The more I applied theories from the social sciences to my work, the better the outcomes were. This was evidenced in my work launching the Cliff Paul campaign for State Farm and the Brooklyn Nets’ “Hello Brooklyn” campaign when the team moved from New Jersey to Brooklyn, for example.

Since that late night in 2011, I have embraced the world of academia. The more I learn about people, the better my practice becomes. The better my practice becomes, the more curious I am about people. Maintaining this balance across academia and practice has become my career’s North Star. I am so passionate about this intersection that I now teach it in classrooms around the world, to undergraduate and graduate students and executives alike. And this is why I’ve set my sights on a pursuing a doctoral degree, to bring the worlds of academia and practice even closer together. This is the road to Dr. Collins. Let’s get it!

Contributing To The Culture: FarmlandxSupreme

What do a pork manufacturer and a cult streetwear brand have in common? Before August 24, 2018, the answer was absolutely nothing, until the iconic clothing company, Supreme, decided to jack our client, Farmland’s, logo for a new apparel drop. But unlike most tales of copyright infringement, this one has a very happy ending.

For over 24 years, Supreme has been a leader in not only its skate culture roots, but in a global community whose brand identity is built on quality, style, and authenticity. According to a spokesperson from the brand, traffic on their site can increase by as much as 16,800% on the day of a product drop — a limited release retail strategy. According to LSN, “Brands such as Supreme have mastered drops where limited product releases cause people to make impulse purchases that they normally might not have made if there was not this constant now-or-never in the back of their heads.”

Unbeknownst to Farmland, its logo was patched onto five paneled hats in an August 2018 drop, with the name ‘Supreme’ replacing ‘Farmland’ across the logo. While this was indeed new territory for Farmland, it wasn’t the first offense for Supreme. The brand has had a long history of illegally coopting others IP. In these cases, you basically have three choices. You can: (1) take action by way of cease and desist, (2) do nothing and move on, or (3) choose to play along — which is exactly what we did.

First we responded with a tweet:



Within 24 hours of going live, the tweet garnered over 13,000 likes, more than 200 replies and 4,000 retweets – a notable uptick for a brand that rarely sees more than 10 interactions on a post. Influencers in the streetwear community weighed in: “Classy move, Farmland.” While Farmland earned more than 10 million impressions across accounts, even engaging actor Seth Rogen and streetwear influencer Casey Neistat. The impact could even be seen on the stock market of things, StockX, with a notable increase in post-market sales - At $44 retail, the demand for this piece started bringing in asking prices up to $149, according to the site’s reported sales data.

We took another step forward and created a lookbook unlike any other, timed with this week’s Supreme drop, featuring the perfect model -- our farmers:

This is a shining example of how a brands participate in culture by identifying opportunity and paying mind to the nuances. Bravo, team!

Bringing Meaning to "Social"

The ubiquity of technology and its ability to accelerate the adoption of behaviors have created enormous opportunity for marketers to reach target consumers. On the other hand, however, it has also made it simultaneously more difficult to “break through.” This paradox challenges the conventional approaches to marketing communications and puts more emphasis on leveraging social media technologies as a means to engage target consumers and propagate messages, ideas, products and behaviors. Perhaps then we need an updated perspective as to how we view "social" to better inform how we apply its power. Let's give it a shot, shall we?

The scripture says, "write the vision; make it plain." And I'm a huge fan of radical simplicity, so this particular verse ranks highly as one of my favorites. In industry, far too often we find ourselves swirling in abstractions, jargon, and buzzwords, so much so that we tend to lose sight of concreteness. It's hardly ever simple and rarely ever plain. Ask 10 people to define "social media," and you'll get 20 different answers, most of which tend to describe its characteristic or run a laundry list of its benefits. Hardly do we get to a plain definition, so maybe this is a good place to start. "Social," by definition, is all about people. "Social" work. "Social" action. "Social" welfare. They are all 100% centered on people. That's because "social" denotes people. So is the same when we think about "social media." If "social" is all about people then "social media" must be the media of people. That is, people are the vehicle by which information, communications, products, behaviors, and messages are transmitted. The Facebooks and Twitters of the world are the environments in which these exchanges take place, facilitating the media of people.

This ties nicely to "social media marketing." The core function of marketing is meant to influence behavior; therefore, all marketing efforts should be in the service of exciting a population of people to take action. Considering people rely on people more than any form of marketing communication, it is incumbent upon marketers to ensure that our ideas are socially designed – with people at the center – and built to share. That is, of course, if we are to successfully “move people.” Whether it be campaigns (messaging and communications), content (film, GIFs, flat images, audio, code) or experiences (both online or offline), the aim is to excite a desired behavior – from conversations to pass-along, purchase to search, and everything in between. 

Simple, right?

If we calibrate the way we think about and talk about "social" within our industry, then our efforts to operationalize its power would prove far more consistent than today's status quo.

A Thought on Reach & Measurement

The same intelligence that is invested in the creation of creative ideas must be put into the delivery of said ideas so that brands are able to connect with people. The mass adoption of social networking technologies provides a great opportunity for brands to deliver content, experiences, and messages to a tightly targeted group of people and still achieve a high-volume reach. The value this creates for brands is unprecedented in comparison to preexisting marketing tools. However, the most compelling factor of social media is that content, experiences, and messages that resonate with people are shared from person to person and can easily spread across a wide populous. The “share” is accompanied with a degree of credence that a brand could not command on its own because people trust people more than any form of marketing. Here, engagement produces reach, with a twist. The technology accelerates this dynamic so that the propagation happens far more rapidly than it would in the “offline world” and amounts to a high-level reach as well. Therefore, engagement and reach are far more intertwined than they are binary. When people engage on social networking platforms, it produces stories, and these stories are presented to other people within their network. From this perspective, reach is a by-product of engagement. Concurrently, the high-level reach that social networking platforms provide creates opportunities for potential engagement, and thus the cycle continues. Engagement and reach are not mutually exclusive and should be seen as complements to a practice of social connections.

Delivery is not only a matter of to whom but also a product of where. The contexts of the environment inform the content, experiences, and message a brand would transport in an effort to connect. How the brand shows up would then be nuanced by the subtleties thereof. Of course, the retail environment is highly coveted, because of its proximity to purchase, and entrenched with its own set of nuances. With this in mind, brands can develop creative stimuli – informed by the contexts of the retail environment – that resonate with people and move them to take action, whether it be a share or a purchase. Or both.

If marketers are meant to “move people,” our approach to measuring success is quite simple. Did people move? Did they adopt the behavior we designed for? If the answer is “Yes,” then it was a success. If not, then it was not. The benefit of social networking technology is that marketers are able to track behaviors with low latency (thanks to social listening, Google Analytics, and other tools), analyze the deficiencies and optimize the design to course correct. Appropriately, we assign metrics that are most representative of the behavior we want people to adopt. The key performance indicators become those metrics that are closer in proximity to the identified business objective (sales, traffic, shares, etc.). Did people move? Did they adopt the behavior we designed for? If the answer is “Yes,” then it was a success. If not, then it was not. Simple, right?

Simple vs. Easy

Most thesauruses refer to 'simple' and 'easy' as interchangeable synonyms. However, life teaches us that these two terms, while closely related, couldn't be any more different from each other. There are plenty of things that are 'simple' but not 'easy.' Losing weight is a 'simple' concept. If you take in fewer calories and increase physical activity, you'll likely lose weight. It's 'simple' but it ain't 'easy.' Save more. Read more. All simple concepts that aren't entirely easily achieved because they require effort. So is the same with marketing.

Focus on your consumer. Invest in the long term (brand, customer relationships, etc.). These, too, are 'simple' concepts but they require effort and commitment, and that isn't so 'easy.' It is here where marketers fall down, much like dieters and retirement savers. Sticking to something is difficult, so we tend to quit before the results come. The short-term is more compelling than the long-term, so we cave. Imagine going to the gym, your first day back in years, and you look at yourself in the mirror after the workout and think, "I don't see any difference. I quit." It sounds ridiculous, but this is the exact behavior that marketers exhibit. A consumer-first approach didn't work the first time out of the gate, so we abandon it and go back to our value proposition-led tactics, which ironically don't work too well either. How do we ever expect to get results if we don't stick to it? 

The idea is simple. If you want a six pack, you have to do crunches. But crunches aren't easy. If you're going to establish rich, brand relationships with your consumers, you have to put in the work. Simple, right? 


Data: the oil which lubricates the network

In Hardt and Negri's seminal writing, Postmodernization, the authors described the digital area as a paradigm in which "providing services and manipulating information are at the heart of economic production." We can see this play out when thinking of the most successful and dominant players in today's market - Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, etc. Each of these firms provides services (and sometimes product goods) which connect nods (that would normally be disparate) to create more customized experiences. Things connected to other things. Things connected to people. People connected people. Digital facilitates the network which connects nods that otherwise would be disconnected and data is the oil which lubricates these networks. Today's dominating technology extracts the data we passively shed in our day-to-day actions -- research, communications, movement, consumption, commerce -- to optimize our day-to-day lives, helping us make better decisions through the benefit of collective intelligence. Make no mistake, this is not without its tradeoffs, of course. Just like anything else, there are both positive and negative consequences to these technologies and their ability to "provide services and manipulate information." That said, here is one of the coolest examples I've seen lately where data was used to lubricate the network and provide utility to the people.

Ever visited a city and wondered "where should we eat?" In most cases, you try to avoid the chain restaurants because the Olive Garden in NYC is likely the same as the Olive Garden back home. Instead, we venture to fully experience the culture of that city through the tapestry of its cuisine. You know, eat like the locals. We consult Yelp and curated lists from blogs to find the best places to dine in the city. But what if we could use the data people shed as a proxy to find the best spots based on where the people actually go? Apparently, the folks at Crimson Hexagon -- an AI-powered, social listening technology company -- wondered the same thing. To illuminate this curiosity, Crimson used its platform to identify the most popular foods and drinks in New York City on Instagram according to the use of associated hashtags. They gathered the posts containing those tags in the five boroughs over a period of time and visually represented where the true 'hot spots' are in the city. 

Full transparency, Crimson Hexagon is both a close colleague and friend of mine. That said, it does not bias how cool this active truly is. Check it:

Created by Crimson Hexagon

Confidence, or the lack thereof

Confidence is an ever-evolving spectrum, on which we oscillate from one end to another. Often times, we take aspirational steps forward to improve ourselves (or our situation) only to be met with self-doubt and an erosion of confidence. We all face it. Every single one of us. The question then becomes, "how do we persevere despite feeling like we're not good enough, smart enough, or [fill in the blank] enough?"

I wish I had the universal answer. Suffice it to say, I don't. At its core, however, I think you just have to muscle through. You have to push through the fear and the doubt. Push through the voices in your head that say "you don't belong here, you shouldn't try this, you're way out of your league." The challenge with this approach is that how one person 'pushes through' might manifest differently than how it would for someone else. So what do you do, right?

In my heart of hearts, I believe that whatever is meant for you is already yours. You just have to prepare for it and be patient. Patience is a product of prayer, an act of faith. Preparation is a product of work. Faith without works is dead, as the scripture says. Put in the work and it will come. That is, of course, if it is indeed meant for you. I have confidence in this perspective, and it guides my approach to most things in life. As long as I do my part, God will do His. 

It ain't for everybody, but it works for me.

It's finally here!

What started as a conversation between me and my colleague/collaborator, John Branch, about the ever-evolving media landscape and its impact on marketing, turned into a provocation that stretched across the worlds of academia and practice. What is ‘digital marketing’ and how do today’s marketers address the contemporary issues associated within the space? There were lots of questions and interesting debates that extended over a period of time, so we ventured to capture this thinking in prose in book form. And that book is finally here - Contemporary Issues In Digital Marketing. My hope is that you find it as thought provoking as the dialogue which sparked its genesis. 


A Tale of Two Cities: Rebranding the LA Clippers

John Smith grew up a hardcore Detroit Pistons fan in the days of the ‘Bad Boys’ era when the team made consecutive Eastern conference championship runs and won back-to-back world championships. His fandom would wane in the following years when the team was rebuilding and the losses outnumbered the wins. That was until the Pistons began winning again and Marcus’ excitement in the team would be restored a decade later.

This narrative is not unique by any stretch. Fandom within the world of the National Basketball Association (NBA) can be magnetic, exhilarating, and often times, fickle. When the team is winning, fandom is high, and people shell out dollars for tickets and apparel. But when the team is losing, no one seems to care. There was a time, not so long ago, when the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors were unmentioned in NBA chatter. Today, they dominate sports headlines and sell out arenas. Why? Because they win. Teams like the Orlando Magic, Dallas Mavericks, and Miami Heat used to hold this coveted position, but they no longer do, because they no longer win. In the NBA, if you aren’t winning, no one seems to pay attention. That is except for a select few teams — the Chicago Bulls, the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, and Boston Celtics. Even when these teams aren’t winning, they still matter in culture.

Three of these four teams didn’t even make it to the playoffs this past season, no doubt an empirical testament to a losing side. Yet they each held a position on the list of the top 10 highest merchandise sales and the top 11 highest game attendance in the NBA during their losing season. This happens year after year after year. Why? Because these four teams are more than just NBA franchises. They have transcended the sport and have meaning beyond the game. They matter in culture and, therefore, their significance extends beyond the wins & losses. This is particularly important because every year the team changes. In fact, the only consistent element of a team is the jersey itself. Players come and go, and often when players leave a team due to trades and free agency, the fans follow them (*cough* LeBron James *cough*). And the teams with meaning win, regardless of their record.

For our client, the Los Angeles Clippers, this truth is paramount. The team is anemic when it comes to ‘wins,’ and they lack the draw of a superstar player. But more importantly, the team doesn’t stand for much beyond its record and its geographic association. As a result, Clippers fandom, and subsequent revenues suffer with game attendance sitting at #22 of the 30 NBA teams.

Even the team’s geographic association is challenged, considering it shares the city of Los Angeles with the one of ‘the four,’ the Los Angeles Lakers. Much like the NY Mets are to the NY Yankees, and the Chicago Cubs are to the Chicago White Sox, without a doubt, the Clippers are the Jan Brady to the Lakers’ Marsha Brady. To make matters worse, the Clippers and the Lakers not only share the same city but they also play in the same arena. They share the same ‘home.’ This ‘hallway’ rivalry among the two teams has created a tale of two cities.

This is where things get interesting. To the outside world, LA conjures images of Hollywood and celebrities, sunny weather, glitz and glamour. This is embodied in everything the Lakers represent. They are, after all, the ‘Showtime’ Lakers. To the locals, the Los Angelenos, however, there is more to the city sparkle. As LA native, Kendrick Lamar, puts it this way, “There’s a part of town where you

can find the grit. The fortitude. The truth.” This is the real LA, not the veneer that outsiders see on TV and movies and, therefore, associate with the city. This is the tale of two cities.

To investigate this notion further, we partnered with the AI-powered, consumer insight tech company, Crimson Hexagon, to analyze Instagram photo metadata as a means to observe the behavior of LA tourists versus that of LA locals. We categorized photos in two fashions: (1) tourists - Instagram photos taken in LA by users with accounts associated with zip codes outside of LA and (2) locals — Instagram photos taken by users with accounts associated with zip codes within LA. After which, we mapped their photo behavior (as seen below) and color-coded the locations where these users’ photos were taken. The tourist locations are denoted in pink, and locals in green.  

Screen Shot 2018-07-26 at 9.09.22 AM.png

On the surface, the findings were unsurprising. The tourists took pictures in and around expected landmark locations - Disney Land, Santa Monica Pier, the Hollywood sign. The locals, not so much.

Screen Shot 2018-07-26 at 9.09.49 AM.png

But then something fascinating appeared. Among the tourist photos, we saw a disproportionate amount of photos taken at the Staples Center on the days that the Lakers played, which sparked an ‘aha’ moment for us. The glitzy symbolization of the Lakers doesn’t accurately represent the collective spirit of the city. The ‘Showtime’ Lakers are a veneer of Los Angeles, much like the tourist attractions we outsiders attribute to the city. But there is a ‘real’ Los Angeles that has gone unrepresented and uncelebrated in the NBA. And this will become the banner that the Clippers will wave. The Lakers will represent the glitz of the city and we, the Clippers, will represent the grit - the ‘real’ Los Angeles. We will be the receipt of identity for the ‘real’ Los Angelenos. We are the real home team.

This strategic approach set the stage for the closeout of the team’s 2017 - 2018 season and the start of a new chapter for the upcoming season. The Real Home Team provided the Clippers with a North Star by which the team could align its messaging, anchor its activations, and, most importantly, rally Los Angelenos who identify with the team’s POV. With only two weeks left in the season for the Clippers, we began a 10-day rollout which would put this flag in the sand for the team.

We started by promoting the team’s efforts to make the basketball court a sanctuary in every LA community, backed by a recent $10 million donation from the LA Clippers Foundation and owner Steve Ballmer to renovate 350 public basketball courts across the city. A proof point that the Clippers are not just a basketball team which plays in Los Angeles; we are the home team, and we take care of home. We supported the donation announcement with an anthemic film which captured an accurate and diverse view of the city, and its public basketball courts, to tell a story about their meaningfulness and the crucial role they play in the lives of locals – from families who play together on these courts every morning, to mid day leagues, and mommy boot camps. The film, and additional animated video complements, were distributed via the Clippers’ social channels and debuted during live fan events in Los Angeles.

Screen Shot 2018-07-26 at 9.55.45 AM.png

The roll out led up to the LA Clippers’ season-finale game on April 11, where they hosted their “hallway” rivals, the Lakers, on their home court at the Staples Center. To drum up excitement and attendance for the game, we took to the streets and literally rallied Clippers fans, far and wide, to capture their team allegiance in preparation for the big rivalry game. From salons who adorned nails with Clippers logos to cake makers and sign spinners, we helped the home team promote the home team. The film was then exclusively distributed by the most prolific, diehard Clippers fans who have supported the team through its ups and downs. We identified these people via Twitter and hand-delivered the asset to them so they could do what they do best, support their team. 

The results were quite impressive. Throughout our rollout we saw attendance intent, as demonstrated by Google Search, spiked by 2%, indicating purchase consideration throughout the campaign. The campaign received 3x the team’s average brand engagements that year, and 64% more video views — all without any paid media allocated to the campaign and only $10,000 spent on production.

Screen Shot 2018-07-26 at 9.35.39 AM.png

To conclude the season, we created a finale cinematic interpretation of “Grit and Determination,” an ode to the city and the team. “This city, our city, moves with a fighters’ pride,” the video says. “In the face of every naysayer.” It featured real fans – aka “The Home Team” — and debuted in-stadium, across LA Clippers social channels, as well as through Clippers influencers and local media celebrities.

While most people know LA for the glitz and glamour of Hollywood (as associated with the ‘Showtime’ Lakers), there’s a different side of Los Angeles — the grit, the resilience — which most accurately represents its people and this team. This is the real LA, and we are the real home team.

The Power of Perspective

I don't know much but I tell you what I do know, the greatest things I've accomplished in my career were primarily a result of calibrating my perspective -- the way I saw the world. I remember it being the dead of night, fall of 2011, and I was staring at the ceiling of my NYC apartment experiencing what I now refer to as my ‘Jerry Maguire’ moment. I was a newly hired executive at Translation advertising, where I ran the social media marketing practice. At that moment, however, I realized I knew nothing about ‘social,’ despite my past experiences working in digital and social with huge brands like Apple, Beyoncé, Microsoft, and the alike. Perhaps knowing nothing is a bit hyperbolic, but at the time it certainly felt that way. A more accurate statement would probably be that my understanding of ‘social’ was grossly incomplete. Until that fateful night, I thought about social media as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Foursquare, and all the other fast-growing platforms of the time. I held a technology-centric perspective on this phenomenon, and evangelized its benefits to clients and teammates alike. But something became irreversibly clear to me. ‘Social,’ by definition, is all about people. Much like social work, social welfare, and social justice are focused on people, social media is all about people.

I laid awake that night feeling like a fraud. I was hired to be a thought leader in social media marketing, tasked with the responsibility of building a social media practice to serve clients like State Farm, McDonald’s, and Anheuser-Busch. Yet, I realized in that moment that I knew nothing about ‘social,’ because I knew nothing about people. I had no understanding about human behavior — why people do what they do. My knowledge of human cognitions did not extend much further than the term ‘freudian slip.’ I felt equal parts illuminated by this new epiphany, and terrified by the fear of being found out. I decided to lean into this revelation. In the days and weeks following, I began investing myself in the social sciences to learn about people. I started with Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, and I could not stop reading. I found its exploration to be nothing short of fascinating. In it, Ariely proves that the cognitive biases which sway human behavior are so strong that they are partially predictable, despite how illogical they might be. I read the book twice and, in my second pass, I highlighted the research which I thought was most interesting. More importantly, I noted the researchers who were referenced, and whose work I began to read shortly thereafter. Ariely led me to Kahneman, and Kahneman led me to Loewenstein. I detoured to McLuhan and then turned to Berger, who led me to Watts and Thaler, and soon after to Asch and Milgram. My curiosity was insatiable and, as a result, I read broadly and deeply. After about a year of discovery, the research started to became self-referential. And then something amazing happen. This research grounding began to manifest in my own work. As I applied theories from the social sciences to my work, the better the outcomes were. This was evidenced in my work launching the Cliff Paul campaign for State Farm and the Brooklyn Nets’ “Hello Brooklyn” campaign when the team moved from New Jersey to Brooklyn, for example. This was all a result of a perspective shift.

As you develop new skills and learn new tools, I urge you to develop a new set of lens, a new perspective. Widening our aperture, if only just a little, will not only make us all better marketers, better business people, but -- most importantly -- better human beings.  

Digital Musings

I am a child of the 80s. Michael Jackson, MTV, Beverly Hills Cop, Atari, Bart Simpson, Saturday morning cartoons, and just about every other 80s artifact which you can name brings back fond memories of my formative years. While this decade laid the foundation of my love affair with contemporary culture, it was the 90s which introduced me to the digital revolution. I bypassed typewriters and wrote school papers on the RadioShack-issued Tandy 1000 which my moth- er gave my brother Eugene and me in the winter of 1990. I bought my first compact disc in the spring of 1991: Boyz II Men’s Cooleyhighharmony. I surfed the internet for the first time, via Internet Explorer, as a high school sophomore in 1994 at the University of Michigan’s Summer Engineering Academy. I got my first email address as a college freshman, which drastically decreased my handwritten letter-writ- ing output, despite having a long-distance girlfriend at the time. And that was just the beginning. GeoCities-built websites became my source of new music discovery. Google aided my research studies and often times distracted me from it. AOL Instant Messenger helped me to stay connected to my friends, while Black Planet helped me find new ones. By that time, I was completely immersed in the ‘digital world’. But before it ended, the decade had one last discovery for me: MIDI.

MIDI, short for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, is the technology—the digital language—which enables individual electronic musical instruments, computers, and other related devices to connect and communicate with one another. With MIDI, an electronic key- board can sync with a drum machine, for example, and relay their shared performance to a computer for recording purposes. Music, therefore, can be endlessly edited, thereby empowering songwriters to produce full compositions in ‘digital space’...and without the need for a band. With MIDI, I found myself exploring a new world of musical possibilities.

This exploration completely changed the trajectory of my career. Although I studied material science engineering in college, I spent most of my undergraduate hours writing and producing music with MIDI-enabled digital/electronic instruments. Indeed, after graduation I went straight into the music business, co-founding a record label and artist development startup. I was making music for a living...albeit modestly. I produced all the tracks for the company’s debut album re- lease entirely in my bedroom studio, which kept overhead extremely low. The company was one of the early independent record labels to get music on iTunes, and thanks to music commerce aggregates like CD Baby, the sale of products advanced without the need to press ad- ditional CD inventory. I used the company’s website to generate leads, and leveraged an e-mail CRM system to distribute communications to fans and supporters. No doubt, the digital revolution afforded me great opportunity both as an artist and an entrepreneur.

The ubiquity of digital technology also removed barriers for amateur music-makers to create. Programs like Fruity Loops and Cake- walk reduced the financial barrier which expensive recording studios once erected. Creativity was ‘democratized’. Meanwhile, as the inter- net continued to proliferate, the growth of communities of people on- line ballooned. Out of this came the benefit of collective intelligence where people began to share their learnings of these new music creation tools with others in the community through vehicles like You- tube. As a result, amateur music-makers learned from each other, thereby reducing the perception that a lengthy apprenticeship was necessary for success.

Before the advent of digital technology, music-makers also required access to radio in order to distribute their art. And radio airplay, unfortunately, was strictly reserved for, and to a large degree con- trolled by, major record labels. Likewise, very few music-makers could afford to produce music videos. And even if they could, the production quality was low, and access to MTV was limited. The growing internet removed the intermediaries and the gatekeepers, thereby al- lowing these new, non-major-record-label-affiliated music-makers, like me, to reach music fans directly.

These changes also had a massive impact on the music business. The digital medium shift from compact discs to compressed files (MP3s) made the internet the most effective vehicle for distributing and discovering music. Consumers (perhaps surprisingly) accepted varying quality of MP3s; indeed, sonic quality ceased being a discrim- inating factor for music fans, which levelled the playing field for ama- teur musicians and producers. Consequently, there was an influx of content in the market—from amateur creators to superstars with re- duced latency between album releases. And so music fans found themselves, for the first time ever, with more supply of music than time to consume it. This in turn reduced the half-life of cre- ated a kind of ‘dopamine cycle’ in which listeners spent less time ex- periencing specific content. Ironically, the same technology which opened my eyes to a potential career in music—which helped me re- alise my dreams—was the same technology which brought those same dreams to a screeching halt.

The digital revolution forever changed the business of how music is created, discovered, and sold. There were winners and losers, much like in almost every other industry in which technologies have infused themselves. With all these changes, and their subsequent implications, the need for the business community to understand these technologies better is more important than ever.


Since its introduction in 2006, two years after the social networking platform’s founding, Facebook has long placed great focus on the optimization of its “Newsfeed.” The Newsfeed is the default welcome screen which dynamically aggregates the posts and updates from the various accounts which Facebook users follow and are connected — people, brands, artists, publishers, small businesses, etc. To optimize the experience of the Newsfeed, Facebook began using an algorithm in 2009 to prioritize what content gets seen by a given user. This form of content sorting depended heavily on the perceived relevance of the content, informed by user engagement. Previously, Facebook delivered content in the Newsfeed via reverse chronological order, a far departure from the 2009 methodology. Over the years, this approach to sorting content via popularity has experienced many changes — from design alterations to algorithmic shifts. The latter ushered in efforts to: prioritize content shared by users’ close friends and family, reduce “clickbait” posts, and give preference to video media which were growing in favor among users. Brands, of course, benefited greatly from the captive audience Facebook amassed and the unprecedented sophistication of Facebook’s ad-targeting capabilities. While Facebook happily opened its doors to the ad revenue, which grew year over year thanks to eager marketers who spent aggressively on the platform (as well as the laggards who were slow to adopt the technology as a marketing communications vehicle), its focus has been centered, by and large, on its users — people.

It should come to no surprise that Facebook would embrace new changes to the Newsfeed algorithm, as it has previously done so frequently. The company hires an army of social scientists and data analysts to do this very thing, observe human behavior on the platform and augment its features accordingly. Whether it be a response to the criticism of the widespread “fake news” articles, which circulated across the platform during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, or business as usual, change is a constant practice for Facebook, as it is for tech broadly. The most recent changes, once again, put an added emphasis on the user by prioritizing the content people see in their Newsfeed based on the posts most popular among people’s friends and family. Sound familiar? Facebook’s focus is centered on its users — people.

This is a hard pill to swallow for many marketers because brands have grown accustomed to buying their way into users’ Newsfeeds. Once Facebook began reducing organic reach for brands (yet another sweeping Newsfeed change some five years ago), companies delivered their communications to the Newsfeeds of brand “fans” — and anyone else on the platform who matched a targeted profile — by simply writing a check. With a population of over 2 billion people, Facebook became (and still is) a super compelling media investment for marketing communications, rivaling that of traditional television and radio outlets. The most recent Newsfeed changes, however, signal that those days are likely waning.

According to Facebook, the new changes to the Newsfeed will reduce the amount of content users see from media publishers and companies alike. That is to say that people will see more content from their people — the way Facebook was intended to function from the very beginning. Just recently the company stated that the shifts will affect publishers most, particularly those which have been able to reach users for free through the Newsfeed’s automated placement of these publishers’ posts. While Facebook may be focused on people, it’s not a philanthropy either. Therefore, publishers like Attn:, Buzzfeed and Upworthy, who have benefited from organic reach, will now meet a similar fate as brands once did — if they want to reach people, they will now have to pay up. The result of this move will be devastating for these publishers and likely undermine the value proposition they once offered as an alternative to ad agency-made creative. While Facebook has assured the advertising community that sponsored posts (that is, media-supported content) will not be affected by the recent Newsfeed changes, it certainly hints at a few things:

Facebook has long invested in video as a priority undertaking for the platform. In the last year, the company doubled down on this commitment by building a dedicated home for original video content. The new tab, called Facebook Watch, was designed to host content produced exclusively for Facebook by such partners as MLB, the NBA, National Geographic and others. Facebook plans to allow advertisers to buy against this content, not unlike television, based on contextual relevance. This is no doubt aimed to be a YouTube competitor. It also forces publishers to shift their content efforts toward Facebook Watch, as opposed to the Newsfeed, to keep the coveted real estate of the Newsfeed focused on people and their networks.

This strategic investment in highly produced content through Facebook Watch will likely nudge marketers toward this inventory as well. The move certainly resolves some of the brand-safety anxieties which marketers have been feeling as of late in regards to YouTube media placement issues. Not to mention, buying interstitials against video content feels far more familiar to traditional marketers than navigating the ambiguity of programming “social” content.

This is not checkers, it’s chess. As mentioned above, Facebook is a firm believer in putting things in the world and optimizing along the way. If this rollout proves successful for the company, it would not be much of a surprise if similar changes were soon knocking at marketers’ doors also. Whether it be a premium on sponsored posts — due to the reduction of Newsfeed inventory, in favor of more people-generated posts — or a fullout shift to Facebook Watch — adopting a YouTube-like model for on-platform advertising (or perhaps a combination of both), a detour from the advertising status quo on Facebook is inevitable.

The takeaway is this, Facebook is a social networking platform that became a marketing platform over time. While the company has made a fortune in ad revenue, its focus is on people first. Facebook’s Newsfeed changes are actually prioritizing the “social” in “social media,” and that’s a good thing. If marketers are to fully leverage social, then we must do the same also. We must put people first.

This cannot be overstated. Marketers have long viewed the inhabitants of Facebook as a population of potential consumers dubbed an “audience.” But an “audience” is an assembly of passive spectators, and people just aren’t passive. People are dynamic and their behaviors are largely influenced by the dynamism of the networks of people to which they subscribe. Now, more than ever, brands must earn their way into the conversations of would-be consumers and their networks of people. We can’t simply buy our way into the party, we have to be invited. The notion of disruption with no intrinsic value to the network will continue to erode marketing opportunities for brands in today’s hyper-connected world. Thus, it is more important than ever that marketers create “things” (content, stories, experiences, etc.) that are built to share, which will require of us a more nuanced understanding of human behavior.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, describes the new updates to the Newsfeed as a move to prioritize “trustworthy content” in an effort to make people’s time spent on the site more meaningful. The underlying implication of this statement speaks directly to the prioritization of people, which should also be the top priority of brands also.


Location, Location, Location — The Influence of the Digital Marketing Context

Toilet Humor

I have a confession to make. I love toilet-humour. From Richard Prior to South Park, Sarah Silverman to Sacha Baron Cohen, and anything in between, I am a big fan. The raunchier the better, as far as I am concerned. I suppose that growing up listening to standup comedy recordings of Eddie Murphy—at far too young an age, admittedly—had a large effect on my current comedic palette. And from time to time, I feel licensed to infuse friendly dialogue with some off- color jokes...I know that my friends are also fond of the same kind of humor, and that they will appreciate the reference (N.B. I am no Eddie Murphy, but I can practically recite his show, Raw, line by line. Just sayin’.). These ‘vulgarities’ take place in the everyday—at a foot- ball game, walking down the street to Subway, or at the photocopier. But I would never stoop to the profane—even with the same people— during a conversation at church, with my child’s paediatrician, or in the classroom. Why is that?

I certainly do not believe that I am pretending to be someone else at church, that my child’s physician is humor-less, or that the classroom is some sort of sacred space. But the answer is obvious—there are social expectations which dictate which behaviors are acceptable in which contexts, and consciously (and perhaps even subconsciously), people adhere to these expectations by behaving accordingly. That is to say, my proclivity to behave in a certain manner is influenced not only by my personal disposition, but also by the hid- den sways of the situation. In short, context matters!

This idea that context matters is not new to marketers. Research in the social sciences has for decades illuminated the influence which other people have on the things which we think, feel, and ultimately, do. Consequently, marketers invested huge resources to exploit this influence, in service of achieving their marketing objectives.

For example, the internet has democratized creativity, and in turn birthed a cadre of amateur content creators (Youtube and Instagram stars, for example) who have amassed large populations of followers. In many instances, these creators have attracted and, perhaps more importantly, influenced millions of people. Marketers court these creators with big pay-cheques, hoping to benefit from the influence which they have over their followers. The outcome is the new sub- genre of ‘influencer marketing’, replete with its own conferences, agencies, and business models. For marketers, influence is hot.

With all this enthusiasm for and investment in influence, there- fore, it is surprising to us that marketers have paid such little heed to the influence of the context. Indeed, channelling our inner Marshall McLuhan who coined the phrase “The medium is the message.”, we wonder why more marketers have not considered the influence which the marketing context has on people. The marketing context, like that of a church, physician’s office, or classroom, undoubtedly has its own communicative powers and hidden forces which guide our cognitions, affects, and behaviors. Psychologist and author of Situations Matter, Sam Sommers, summed it up well: “Just like the museum visitor pays little heed to the painting’s frame, we fail to notice the impact of outside influences on our innermost thoughts and instincts.” In turns out that the frame means a lot.

This a-ha creates a great opportunity for marketers to not only engage influencers who deliver messages on behalf of the brand mark, but also engineer the marketing context in ways which influence customer cognitions, affects, and behaviors. Consider the inherent wisdom in the old real-estate chestnut of fresh-baked cookies in show houses. And what about the effect which clean toilets have on customers’ evaluation of restaurant quality.

Life is not constrained to the physical world, however; people also live in a ‘digital world’. Indeed, more and more time is spent searching the internet, pouring over blogs, and updating social media sites. Here we will explore the digital marketing context. It begins by discussing defaults—the pre-established factors in a digital space. It then investigates the semiotics (the meanings) of digital ‘signs and symbols’. This continues by examining the placement, or spacial arrangement, in a digital space. Finally, it underlines the importance of cultural nuances in the digital marketing context.

Defaults: The Condition Set by Pre-Established Factors

You have waited and waited, with Monk-like patience, and now it is finally here...the new iPhone with all the latest bells and whistles! After wading through the seemingly endless queue at the Apple Store, you finish the transaction with the sales representative, and the phone is now yours. Oh, happy day! You arrive home, unwrap the meticulously designed packaging, walk through the user-friendly activation, and turn your new iPhone on for the first time. The device illuminates, and you find yourself on the home screen with 22 mobile apps, beautifully laid out, just waiting to be explored. Which apps do you see? Or, better put, whose apps do you see?

Of course, the 22 apps which you see first are all products of Apple, the maker of the iPhone. It is no wonder that Apple would de- sign your first home screen experience to be made up of Apple apps exclusively. Because the apps to which you are introduced first are the apps which you are more likely to use first, and also most often. Sure, iPhone users can go to the App Store (another Apple product) to obtain other (non-Apple) apps, but that takes effort. Like most things, people tend to take the path of least resistance. Thus, the pre-established factors which we experience in a digital space—the defaults— can have a tremendous impact on our behavior.

Designers have been leveraging the influence of defaults for ages, and marketers can stand to benefit from similar thinking. This influence can be seen in both offline and online experiences. Consider the differences between a traditional, paper-filled diary and Facebook. On the surface there are plenty of similarities between the two con- texts. People commit their feelings, experiences, and happenings in a form of syntax which documents their life and the people around them. Obvious medium differences aside, the defaults play a large role in how users behave when engaging with these outlets. In its default condition, the diary is literally kept under lock and key, signaling that its contents are meant to be kept private and only shared with discriminating bias. Surely, a diary is not meant for everyone, and if its owner decides to disclose its secrets, unquestionably this is a special occasion, and consequently ought to be treated as such.

Facebook’s default, on the other contrary, has a public setting which signals that its contents are meant for everybody. Of course, this is desirable to Facebook. The more people share, the more compelling the platform becomes. Inactivity makes a ‘social’ environment less attractive. Who likes a party when no one is dancing? Same thing here. The more active the platform—that is to say, the more people share—the more attractive Facebook becomes. Facebook’s defaults, therefore, are set to encourage this behavior. While users do have the ability to set their profile to private, or to restrict access to their con- tent for selected individuals, the majority of users do not go through the hassle. Defaults prevail.

The inconvenient steps which are necessary to keep Facebook content private create the perfect barrier to doing so, and consequently influence behavior toward Facebook’s desired outcome to share publicly. This is especially critical for marketers, because the core function of the discipline is to influence behavior. Drink this, not that. Buy these shoes, not those shoes. Vote for this candidate, not that candidate. Marketers, therefore, ought to pay more attention to designing defaults, especially because the more complex it is for people to alter the defaults, the more influential the defaults become. Indeed, the more hoops though which people must jump, the more they rely on the status quo...on the defaults.

This notion was illuminated vividly in research by Eric Johnson and Daniel Goldstein (2003) who explored variation in organ donation decisions. The researchers collected data from driver’s license renewal offices in a number of European countries, in order to quantify the participation rate of citizens in their national organ donation pro- grammes. The results were startling.

The group of countries on the left had very low donation participation. In the case of Denmark, for example, less than 5% of citizens were willing to donate their organs in the event of a deadly accident. Contrast that with the group of countries on the right, which saw organ donation consent rates approaching 100%. What explains the sharp contrast?

One might hypothesis that this contrast was due to cultural differences. Perhaps the countries on the right are more altruistic than the countries on the left. This hypothesis, however, was immediately challenged when considering the cultural similarities between Germany and Austria, for example, or between Sweden and Denmark.

The explanation for the contrast, however, was such simpler. Johnson and Goldstein found that the reason for country differences in proclivity to donate organs had nothing to do with altruism, and every- thing to do with the form at the driver’s license renewal office. In- deed, those countries which had low organ donation consent rates had renewal forms which required residents to ‘opt-in’. Citizens did not check the box, and, by default, consent was not given. Those countries which had high organ consent rates, on the contrary, had ‘opt-out’ renewal forms. Citizens did not check the box and, by default, consent was given. The defaults, it appears, are highly influential!

With an understanding of the influence of defaults, therefore, marketers can design marketing contexts whose defaults influence behavior toward a desired outcome. One of our favorite examples of this in practice was seen in Panama City, whose city officials needed some ‘persuasion’ to repair the pervasive and pesky potholes through- out the city. We live in Michigan which, despite its self-proclaimed title of automotive capital of the world, is notorious for its potholes. And like many Michiganders, the residents of Panama City had fallen victim to the ramifications of driving over these structural flaws in the streets: shredded tires, broken wheels, and a host of other vehicular and corporal damage. But rather than report the potholes to their city officials in an effort to get the streets repaired, the residents of Panama City took no action...other than complain incessantly to their friends and families.

In stepped a Panamanian advertising agency and a local news show, Telemetro Reporta, which together decided to change the de- fault of driving in Panama City by creating El Hueco Twitero (The Tweeting Pothole). Targeting the busiest streets of Panama City, the agency and Telemetro installed devices inside a number of potholes which tweeted a complaint automatically to the Twitter account of the Department of Public Works, when a driver traversed the pothole. This new contextual default allowed drivers to continue with their current behavior, but with a secondary outcome. Not surprisingly, after more and more tweets began to accumulate—and the news show covered the on-going frustration of Panama City drivers—potholes started dis- appearing. It demonstrates the power which marketers wield to effectuate behavioral change by manipulating the marketing context—in this case, by resetting the defaults, which in turn re-set human agency.

Semiotics: The Condition Set by Implicit Meaning

Signs are everywhere: that “Do not disturb” announcement on an office door, cloudy skies in the late Spring, or police tape surrounding a grassy knoll. According to Ferdinand de Saussure, Charles Sanders Peirce, and other semioticians, social meaning is conveyed through signs...linguistic or otherwise. That is to say, the human condition is largely symbolic.

Formally, semiotics is the study of semiosis, or the production of meaning through signs. In his seminal 1966 work Course on General Linguistics, Swiss linguist de Saussure suggested that any sign is comprised of three inter-linked elements: 1. the ‘referent’ (the object to which the signifier refers), 2. the ‘signifier’ (the word, symbol, or other communicative device which refers to the object), and 3. the ‘signified’ (the conceptual meaning or sense made of the signifier). Consider a red rose, for example. The referent is the rose itself. The signifier is the image of a red rose or the words ‘red rose’. The signified is love or passion.

Signs are ubiquitous, and people often fail to realize that social meaning is symbolic nature. Moreover, they rarely — if ever — consider the effortlessness with which these meanings are interpreted. For example, imagine that you passed a person in uniform whose left jacket breast was adorned with a plethora of colored ribbons and metals. Without thinking, you would presume that the person is from the military, is a decorated hero, and is probably someone of high stature who deserves your respect. And as such, you would act accordingly, despite any affiliation with the armed services. It is this mean- ing-making which is the core of semiotics.

Signs, however, also have a cognative effect. Indeed, humans interpret meaning from signs, but they are also triggered to act in response to the signs. Imagine that you are in the swankiest part of the city, treating yourself to a night on the town with a visit to the newest dance club which is all the rage. As you approach the club, you can hear the bass of the dance music thumping. There are two bouncers standing at the entrance of the club, granting and denying access, thereby providing the perfect tension of popularity and exclusivity. Two queues have formed, one to the left of the bouncers and another to the right of the bouncers. The two queues look identical, except one queue is corralled by red, velvet ropes which are suspended by shiny, metallic stanchions. Which queue would you join? Our bet is that you would not join the roped-off queue, because the red, velvet ropes communicate exclusivity (unless, of course, you think that those two bouncers will vouch for you as VIP). Signs have meaning; but they also induce behavior.

We also see semiotics at play in marketing. Consider the quick service restaurant (QSR) Subway, for example. Before Subway entered the sandwich business, the status quo for most QSR restaurants was for customers to place their orders at the register, and then wait for pick-up while cooks prepared the food in the hidden-away ‘back- stage’. That the food preparation happened out of sight raised doubt and speculation around the order accuracy, the cleanliness of the prep area, and the integrity of the food.

Juxtapose this to Subway, however, in which customers’ orders are both placed and prepared in front of their eyes, behind a glass counter. And that glass counter conveys transparency, leaving no doubt about the veracity of the sandwich or its production value— what you see is what you get! The glass counter also gives Subway a ‘license’ to boast a healthy alternative to fast food. And thanks to the help of a spokesman’s radical weight loss story, the people came in droves. The semiotics of the Subway environment changed people’s expectation of QSR restaurants, and have since ignited the rise of other competitors which have emulated a similar physical (and semiotic) design.

Semiotics are not limited to the physical world, of course. Au contraire, signs also materialize in digital space. On Facebook, for example, brand marks are constantly serving up (commercial) messages which disrupt the stories and photos from our friends and families. I once received a message which claimed “Someone you know and possibly others like this brand.” The semiotics of this message connote that my friends like this, so I also ought to like it. But it is not just any friend, but Damon Williams who likes it, and who, in my mind, is a snazzy dresser. Consequently, I check it out. This sign serves as a stamp of approval. Indeed, when friends like something, it lowers resistance it, and, consequently, we are more inclined to adopt it. The signs sway behavior!

Marketing-engineered signs like this can also have power, even if the signs are communicated by strangers. Recall a recent search for a video on Youtube, the top two results of which had identical descriptors and thumbnails. The only difference is that one video has 700 views and the other has 8,000,000 views. Which do you click? Of course, you choose to watch the video with 8,000,000 views. Why? Because 8,000,000 people cannot be incorrect. The view count on Youtube acts as a public progress bar, conveying the message that this video is the one which everyone is watching. Again, this is the potential of semiotics in marketing.

Armed with this understanding of semiotics, therefore, marketers can design marketing contexts in order to influence people to take action. One of our favorite examples of semiotics in practice took place at the Oldenplan subway station in Stockholm, Sweden. Like most subway stops, the escalator to exit the station is over-used, because for most passengers an escalator is more compelling than the stairs. Re- member, people tend to take the path of least resistance. How might a marketer shift the environment using semiotics to encourage people to take the stairs instead? At the time, Volkswagen was in the midst of its Fun Theory campaign which hinges on the notion that if something is fun, people will be inclined to do it. Unbeknownst to Stockholm commuters, Volkswagen outfitted the stairs of the Oldenplan subway station with piano keys which emitted sound when stepped on (Think Tom Hanks in the movie Big.); each stair tread activated a piano key. Come the next morning, commuters faced a choice — take the boring escalator, as they normally did, or take the newly-minted piano stairs. It ought not to be surprising that most people took the stairs...66% more than usual, in fact. The semiotics of the piano stairs signaled to subway passengers that the stairs were fun, despite— even because of —the effort it took to climb them.

Placement: The Condition Set by Spacial Arrangement

There are no certainties in life, except death and taxes. So goes the old saying. But here in the United States, there is seemingly one other bankable fact — that in a grocery store, the milk will always be at the back of the grocery store. Nope, not in the middle, and certainly not in the front...always in the back. And grocers have made this design choice for one simple reason—that milk is among the most frequently-purchased items in grocery stores. Grocers, therefore, place milk in the back of the grocery store so that shoppers must wander through aisles of other (often higher profit margin) products in order to collect their dairy staple. And consequently, instead of only buying milk, shoppers often leave with a basket brimming with unplanned purchases. The placement of things in the marketing context has the ability to shape human behavior...many times with them being un- aware.

Consider this other more extreme example. It is 1952, and Carnegie Hall is jam-packed. Everyone is waiting with bated breath to see and hear the famed experimental composer John Cage debut his newest piece. People are dressed to the nines and expectations are high. Cage walks on stage, sits at the piano, and begins to play 4’33”. It is his most daring work yet. But as you read this, if you listen very carefully, you can also hear Cage’s composition. How so? Because 4’33” is actually 4 minutes and 33 seconds of, absolute silence. If you were reading the sheet music to the piece, you would see measure after measure of notational rests.

Perhaps the shocking thing about 4’33” is that people not only dressed up and paid top dollar to hear silence for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, they loved it! Indeed, it became John Cage’s most significant work. It has since been performed by a variety of musicians, from gui- tarist Frank Zappa to the BBC Symphony Orchestra. And 4’33” is now for sale on iTunes as a digital download...with a 4 out of 5 stars rating. 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence!

The key to understanding the example is in its placement. That 4’33” was performed at Carnegie Hall means that it must be art. That it was catalogued and archived on musical notation paper means that it must be real. That it is available on iTunes means that it must be mu- sic. The placement of this ‘musical’ piece influences how people per- ceive it, and, ultimately, how they behave with respect to it.

And as before, placement applies to both the physical and digital worlds—in both offline and online marketing contexts. Consider email, for example. If your name is in the ‘To’ line, it most definitely means “This is for you.”. And as such, you behave responding to the email, for example. If your name is in the ‘Cc’ line, however, it means “Heads up, or FYI.”. After you read the email, you might chime in with a response, or not at all. Either option is accept- able. But if your name is in the ‘Bcc’ line, then the message is clear — “Ooh, watch this! It is gonna be good.” This email is not really for you, but I the sender letting you know that something is going on. You definitely will not respond to the email, because you would be disclosing a secret. The placement changes everything.

Marketers can exploit this notion of placement, therefore, with purposeful design of the placement of marketing vehicles within the marketing context. Think billboard advertisements, those ubiquitous marketing communications which appear in high traffic areas of many major cities which, and which for many people are irksome and, more often, completely ignored...and consequently ineffective in terms of marketing spend. IBM’s recent campaign to make ‘smarter cities’, however, leveraged the placement of its billboards in order to catch the attention of passersby, to reduce their negative sentiment, and ultimately to reinforce the core marketing message that IBM technology can help make smarter cities. So, that which was once a flat billboard on the side of a building can become a shelter from the rain or a seat for the weary. Placement matters.

Nuances: The Condition Set by the Cultural Backdrop

In January 1964, Bobby Vinton’s rendition of There! I’ve Said It Again reached #1 on the Billboard 100, remaining at the top spot for four weeks. Vinton’s velvety voice captured the sonic silhouette of contemporary American society at the least until four lads from Liverpool disrupted it with their raw energy, cheekiness, and, well, hair. Indeed, that February, The Beatles’ I Want To Hold Your Hand rocketed to #1, usurping Vinton, and changing society forever.

The shock which was The Beatles’, however, was for many, er, shocking. The Chicago Tribune quipped that “The Beatles must be a huge joke, a wacky gag, a gigantic put-on.” Ditto The Boston Globe: “The Beatles are not merely awful; I would consider it sacrilegious to say anything less than that they are god awful.“ Even Elvis chimed in, lamenting that “The Beatles laid the groundwork for many of the problems we are having with you people today by their filthy unkempt appearances and suggestive music.” How could they have missed something which would become so salient in society at that time—and in decades to come? The answer is obvious to us—that predicting societal change requires an intimate understanding of culture. Indeed, the marketing context also serves as a cultural backdrop whose nuances influence behavior.

Culture is one of those words which is bandied about, but which is seldom understood. This is not surprising, considering both the in- tangible nature of culture and its relatively loose quotidian use in colloquial language. Indeed, people talk about culture all the time, drop- ping the term alongside media, pop, and celebrity. Or consider the way in which recruiters tout their fun or familial office culture...which usually means very simply having a foosball table in the kitchen, or offering summer Friday gatherings. Despite the prevalence of culture, and the conversations thereof, there is a broad deficiency in our ability to talk about culture in a sophisticated manner.

More concretely, therefore, anthropologists define culture as the amalgam of four elements of a society: beliefs (values and principles), artifacts (tools, clothing, music, poetry, etc.), behaviors (norms and rituals), and language (lexicon, dialect, vernacular). This makes sense intuitively, when you think of culture as it pertains to a nation. But perhaps less intuitively, culture also applies to societal sub-groups— micro-cultures. Consider yoga enthusiasts, for example, who share a common set of beliefs about yoga, yogis, and other derivative terms; who have similar artifacts like yoga mats and yoga pants; whose behaviors (dietary routines) overlap; and who use the same language (namaste and the downward dog).

These four elements have a normative effect on people; they serve as unspoken rules which keep members of a society in lockstep. That is to say, in order to remain as members in good standing in society, people adopt the societal beliefs, don the artifacts, adhere to the behaviors, and use the language, the ultimate purpose (and outcome) of which is to be ‘normal’.

And of course, these cultural elements and their normalizing effects manifest themselves in both the physical and digital worlds — in both offline and online marketing contexts. In Facebook, for example, it is perfectly acceptable for people to post anything and everything under the sun: yesterday’s evening snack, the movie which they are currently watching, or the horrible rash which suddenly appeared. Any of these posts, however, would be unacceptable in LinkedIn, whose beliefs, artifacts, behaviors, and language are ‘controlled’ by different societal norms. Notably, although in many cases the same people who post on Facebook also ‘reside’ on LinkedIn, they are able to code switch in order to abide by the cultural norms of the different online societies.

It ought to be obvious, therefore, that understanding a society, and subsequently predicting changes in it, requires a sensitivity to the nuances of these four elements. This sensitivity, however, implies intimacy...something which is natural if you are a member of the society, but which is limited or altogether lacking when you are an out- sider, a stranger, an alien. Herein lays the challenge but also the opportunity for marketers — with an understanding of the cultural nuances of a society, marketers can design marketing vehicles in subtle ways which align and resonate with societal norms.

A good example of this in practice centers on the notion of ‘First- World Problems’, the term which is given to things about which people in wealthier countries complain, but which only people of privilege would see as an annoyance or inconvenience. You know, when your phone charger will not reach your bed, for example, or when you ask for no pickles but your hamburger still comes with pickles. Twitter, which is to some degree a measure or mirror of the cultural zeit- geist, is replete with these absurdities, many of which are punctuated with the hashtag #FirstWorldProblems.

As benign as these grumblings might be on the surface, they be- come increasingly uncomfortable for the privileged people when they are juxtaposed with the disparity of wealth across the globe. The WATERisLIFE organization, a non-profit entity whose mission is to pro- vide clean drinking water to under-privileged communities, leveraged this cultural nuance in a campaign which enlisted victims of the horrific 2010 Haitian earthquake to recite some of the most ridiculous #FirstWorldProblem tweets. Imagine a young man, for example, standing in front of a dilapidated, tin-roofed shack saying, “I hate it when my house is so big I need two wireless routers”. The contrast between the cultural lexicon which is used in the advertisement, and the young man’s living conditions, is so striking that viewers cannot help but question the degree to which they take things for granted. The WATERisLife advertisement was viewed more than 8 million times.

Jerome McCarthy

In his now 1960 classic Basic Marketing: A Managerial Approach, Jerome McCarthy introduced the now famous 4 Ps frame- work: product, price, place, and promotion. The idea was simple—that marketers, when going to market, must mange these four elements. Over time, the 4 Ps became known as the marketing mix, intimating that marketers, like cooks, have four ingredients to mix together in their commercial (culinary) concoction. Some marketers also use the term ‘controllables’, referring to the 4 Ps as the levers which marketers can pull when going to market. We have come to think of the 4 Ps as a company’s performance on the (front) stage, which demarcates marketing very clearly from the other functions of the company (ac- counting, finance, and human resources, for example) which occur in the company’s backstage, away from the customer’s eyes.

The secondary benefit of treating the 4 Ps as the performance on the (front) stage, is that it also points to the stage itself as a controllable feature of marketing. That is to say, this theatrical metaphor emphasis that marketers can control both the 4 Ps and the marketing context. In this chapter we have argued that this marketing context is comprised of four conditions: 1. defaults—the pre-established factors in a digital space; 2. semiotics (the meanings) of digital ‘signs and symbols’; 3. placement, or spacial arrangement, in a digital space; and 4. cultural nuances in the digital marketing context. Understanding these conditions enables marketers to design marketing contexts in order to influence people toward desired cognitive, affective, and behavioral outcomes.



  • de Saussure, F. Course in General Linguistics. Translated by: Baskin, W. New York, USA: McGraw Hill Book, 1966.
  • Johnson, E., & D. Goldstein. “Defaults and Donation Decisions.” Transplantation, Vol. 78, 2004, pp. 1713-1716.

Potbelly: Feed Your Smile

Growing up, there was no part of the school day more coveted than lunch hour. It was the moment between 8am and 3:15pm where socialization among peers was uninhibited by classroom rules. We would use this time to recount the latest episode from previous nights’ most popular show, catch up on the latest grade school gossip, and simply enjoy the recess from scholastic pressure. We experienced this slice of utopia from elementary school all the way through college. Who knew it would come to a screeching halt with the onset of contemporary adulthood?

Let’s face it, lunch hour just ain’t what it used to be. Those happy days, my friend, are gone. The cultural changes in lunch time behavior have seen fewer and fewer Americans leaving their desks for their midday meal and a slice of happiness. This created both a challenge and opportunity for our client, Potbelly, a 40-year-old sandwich shop whose food and quirks garnered a deep love for the brand. For QSRs like Potbelly, lunch is the busiest time for their restaurants, and a softening of traffic during this day-part has a tremendous impact on their business. To curb this, Potbelly would have to create new catalysts to drive store traffic.

This, however, would be no easy feat. Potbelly does not spend a lot of dollars on media and communications. With only 450 shops around the country, Potbelly was being outspent by their competitors in the market — in most cases by two orders of magnitude when compared to the Subway’s of the world. Combined with the rapid growth of the QSR category, due to more and more sandwich shop competitors seeking out would-be lunch goers, Potbelly was finding it increasingly difficult to stand out from the crowd. Of the 1.4M sandwich brand conversations in a 12-month period on social, only 2% of those conversations were about the Potbelly brand. This meant that if Potbelly was going to break through and establish meaningful connections with lunch goers, the brand has to give people something to talk about. Easier said than done. To help Potbelly overcome these hurdles, we figured we’d start with its soul, and use the brand’s conviction to play a role in people’s lives beyond the products it sells. The conviction was pretty simple — Potbelly exists to make people really happy. However, no one outside the company knew what the brand stood for because it hardly communicates it, and certainly didn’t demonstrate it overtly. We saw this as a great opportunity for the brand to not only “zag to the zig” of the crowded QSR category but also connect with humanity. And if the brand is committed to ‘making people really happy’ then it ought to do just that — make people really happy. So we sought out moments of “unhappy” and made it our mission to remove them in ways that were uniquely Potbelly.

We started by associating the email addresses and corresponding Twitter handles of Potbelly’s most ravenous customers. The thought was that if we could find what these people had in common beyond their love for Potbelly sandwiches, then we could possibly identify a cultural driver for the brand to connect with them beyond “the bread.” Of the 360K email addresses, we were able to match 60K Twitter handles. We then used Crimson Hexagon, an AI-powered consumer insight platform, to analyze these individuals’ social conversations to uncover similarities. Of the 60K Twitter handles analyzed, we found that these people disproportionately shared Soundcloud files, and at an unusually high rate. On the surface, that doesn’t sound so discriminating. Who doesn’t love music, right? Considering the size of Soundcloud, relative to the Spotify's and YouTube's of the world, we felt this was quite selective. Not to mention, this proved to be fertile territory for the brand, if for no other reason then the fact that Potbelly enlists live musicians to play in their shops during lunch hour. This gave the brand permission to use music as a means to connect with their customers in a way in which their competitors could not.

At this point, marketers would typically generate creative ideas around this territory, present them to the client, and then test the creative in focus groups to see how it made people feel. However, the behavioral sciences have proven time and time again that self-reported data can be biased, if not simply flawed. Potbelly is not a big spender on marketing and media, so we didn’t have the luxury of potentially be wrong. We had to reduce risk wherever possible. Since we couldn’t outspend the competition, we’d have to outsmart them. To do this, we partnered with Michigan State University’s Media and Advertising Psychology Lab to see if we could really make people happy. Instead of asking respondents how they feel about the content recommendations we prepared for Potbelly, we asked their bodies, observing their psychophysiological responses to the content stimuli. With our academic partners, we exposed respondents to the proposed Potbelly content in a simulated Facebook environment and tracked their cardio, respiratory, sweat gland, facial expression, and eye-tracking responses. This allowed us to not only better understand how people might truly respond to the proposed content but also how they may feel when we consider the associated psychological drivers that led to their physiological responses.

With the psychophysiological study to inform our creative efforts, we were all set to “make people really happy” and feed some smiles. To start, we set our sights on arguably the most unhappy place ever — Twitter. Whether it be complaints, laments, rants, or outright anger, Twitter can be full of bad vibes. Using social listening tools like Crimson Hexagon, we identified 100 unhappy tweets and responded to them with100 original songs performed by improve musicians, in real-time, on one day. The results were tremendous. We generated 10x more brand engagement than the brand had ever experienced on one-day, produced 20x more Twitter followers than the brand normally acquires on a given day, and reached 12 million people during the one-day activation.

But most importantly, we made people really, really happy.

To scale the happiness, we then developed an algorithm that synthesized weather and traffic data, results from major sporting events, and social media happenings across key DMAs to find the most unhappy cities that could use some good vibes. Subsequently, we delivered a little happiness in the form of smile-inducing content every morning throughout the month of June to the people who needed it most. Massive traffic jam on the Dan Ryan in Chicago, torrential downpour in DC, or a big loss for the Rangers would trigger the algorithm — what we called the “Smile Scale” — and we’d identify the right kind of happy to deliver to the right people in those regions programmatically using Facebook and Instagram’s sophisticated targeting tools. As a result, we generated a huge lift in store traffic leading to a 1.4% sales increase in the first sixty days of launch. After the entirety of the campaign, we reached 16 million people and stimulated 800K relevant social engagements. That’s a whole lot of happy for roughly 45K in media spend.

For a competitor brand with challenges at every turn, we helped Potbelly leverage the possibilities of today’s hyper-connected world and the insights of behavioral science to understand people better and create more powerful consumer connections. All of which enabled Potbelly to increase brand engagements by demonstrating its commitment to making people really happy — by actually making people really happy.

Check it!


Finding Meaning In A 'Digital World'

A Global Village...or a Digital World?

“Well, there they are. Our new electronic media. Or, our new gadget. You push a button and the world is yours. You know how they say the world is getting smaller, well, it’s thanks to these that it is. Every- where is now our own neighborhood. We know what it’s like to go on safari in Kenya, or to have an audience with the Pope, to order a co- gnac in a Paris cafe. But not only is the world getting smaller, it’s be- coming more available and more familiar to our minds and to our emotions. The world is now a global village. A global village.” Alan Millar, 1960

You could be forgiven for thinking that these words allude to the global village which has resulted from today’s digital transformation. Indeed, the ubiquity of digital technologies has expanded without lim- its every facet of our contemporary lives: the way in which we socialize, the timing and nature of the work which we undertake, the provenance of the entertainment which we digest. Everything is more international as a result of 0s and 1s. The global village is seemingly also a digital world.

These words, however, were spoken by television host Alan Mil- lar in the introduction to an interview with Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan in the year 1960. In grainy black and white, stand- ing before rotary telephones and cathode ray tube-driven furniture- sized televisions, Millar calmly and convincingly foreshadowed the claims which McLuhan would make later in the interview...that new technology—new media—have erased temporal and spatial bound- aries, thereby giving rise to a ‘global village’.

Today’s digital world and McLuhan’s global village, however, are not the only revolutions in human history. On the contrary, human history is dotted with technological inventions which have given rise to new forms of social organisation. Consider agriculture, for exam- ple, which, along with the domestication of animals and aided by new planting and harvesting tools, transportation means, and irrigation techniques, disrupted the previous ‘hunter-gatherer’ mode of exis- tence.

Centuries later in the late 1700s, the so-called Industrial Revolu- tion unleashed sweeping changes in society. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, for example, then the weaving machine, attracted workers from the countryside to settle in cities, transforming the complexion of cities such as Manchester, England, and also the nature of the workday, housing, and family structure. And in the next 100-odd years, humans invented the telegraph and the printing press, which re-shaped com- munication. They harnessed steam power, which amplified manufac- turing, and altered their spatial boundaries. And eventually they pio- neered petroleum distillate (and the combustion engine), which changed city-scapes, vacations, and, er, almost everything else.

Digital technologies, however, appear to have the power to eclipse any changes which we have witnessed in the past. Indeed, the internet already generates more information in a few years than all the information which was accumulated in previous millennia. And imag- ine a future of autonomous vehicles, drone-delivered groceries, and shared devices. Thrill at the thought of enhanced and augmented mu- seum visits or tourism site excursions. Drool over a closet full of clothes which have been custom-made from measurements which were calculated from photographs on your mobile-telephone. Bob Dy- lan might have captured it best with his 1964 hit The Times They Are A-Changing.

To examine wherein lays the power in digital marketing, we must begin by demonstrating that digital technology, when it leads to a shift in medium, does not change the underlying human behavior, only its ubiquity and frequency. It then argues that the power of digital technology occurs when it leads to a network. Finally, it demonstrates the power of the network with two examples; Waze and Amazon.

Manners (Or is it media?) Maketh the Man

Shortly after that CBC interview in 1960, Marshall McLuhan published his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, which gave rise to the phrase ‘the medium is the message’. The philosophical idea in this phrase is that the medium through which the message is communicated becomes as important to the meaning of the message as the message itself. Indeed, the message and the medium exist in a kind of symbiosis, together conveying meaning to the receiver. It is not unlike the notion that the mode of transportation— plane, train, or automobile—contributes to any journey...perhaps even usurping the journey itself in some instances.

It could be argued, using a similar logic, that the recent changes in society which we have witnessed are due to shifts in media. Indeed, there seems to be a popular narrative which claims that the things which were previously analogue in nature are now digital, and conse- quently that the world is an entirely new place. Consider music, for example.

In the late 1800s, Thomas Edison introduced the phonograph, which in a very short period of time became the primary medium by which music was stored. This device took vibrations from sound waves and impressed them upon a rotating material...wax or tinfoil, for example. The phonograph could, in the reverse, transduce the im- pressions in the material into corresponding sound waves for human listening pleasure. A decade or so later, this technology evolved into the phonograph record, which used vinyl as the material for the recording medium, which in turn made listening to different musical recordings easier and exchangeable. The ‘record’ went on to become the dominant medium for music for almost a century, until tape took over in the 1970s.

Tape, in its various guises—8-track, cassettes, and reel-to-reel— stores sound as magnetic patterns on plastic tape, and like the record, replays the original audio event by transducing these magnetic pat- terns into electrical signals, which are subsequently converted to sound with the help of an audio amplifier and loudspeakers. 8-track tape improved the sound quality of records, but perhaps more importantly, made recorded music more portable. This portability was in- creased further with the cassette format, the adoption of which was heightened with the ubiquity of cassette players in automobiles and portable cassette players. Who can forget the ‘boom boxes’ of the 1980s?

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the cassette, however, was its abil- ity to record, thereby allowing people to curate their own music com- pilations. Indeed, people could record music from the radio, from oth- er cassettes, or from live concerts, a feat which was impossible with the record. For amateur musicians and budding rockstars, the cassette was a boon, allowing them to capture their own musical performances for playback and promotion.

Technology made a giant leap forward from tape to the compact disc (CD for short). The CD is a 12 cm plastic disc which stores music in digital form as 1s and 0s which are ‘burned’ into the disc as hills and troughs. Sound is reproduced with a combination of three things: 1. a laser which ‘reads’ the 1s and 0s from the hills and troughs; 2. a digital to analogue converter (DAC) which, as suggested by the term, converts a stream of 1s and 0s into an analogue electrical signal; and 3. an amplifier/loudspeaker set-up which transduces the analogue sig- nal into sound waves.

The CD removed many of the the pain points of tape (and the record). Tape often gets caught in a player, stretches, or even breaks. To access specific points on a tape is slow and tedious. And most tape players required the user to remove and reverse the tape in order to en- joy the second half of the recording. More importantly, however, the CD offered an immeasurable sonic improvement over tape (and the record). Indeed, the so-called signal-to-noise ratio (the aural distance between the intended sound and the background sound) was vastly improved. And with the advent of digital recording and digital signal processed, the background hiss, pops, and other annoyances of both tape and the record were eliminated entirely. By the 1990s, the CD be- came the new standard, growing hand-in-hand with automotive and portable players.

By the early 2000s, another medium shift was underway, facilitated by concomitant technological advances in both the storage capacity of digital devices and the compression capabilities of digital algorithms. First, the number of 1s and 0s which could be crammed into the memory of any single digital device shot up dramatically. Indeed, in the 15 years from 2001 to 2016, the storage capacity of a desktop computer multiplied by more than 1 000...with a correspondingly smaller footprint. Second, scientists developed the MPEG Audio Lay- er III standard (known more commonly as MP3), which can compress a digital file into about 1/12th of its original size. Together, these two advances triggered a musical metamorphosis—the music which was once ‘recorded’ on its own tangible media (the record, tape, the CD) suddenly became ethereal, with an almost other-worldly existence. Music could now be played back seemingly anywhere, at anytime, and on any device, both dedicated music players and non-traditional de- vices such as computers and mobile telephones.

The MP3 standard was also propelled forward by a host of other factors, including the penetration of personal computers in the home; the growth of residential, broadband internet access; the creation of file-sharing sites such as Napster; the inclusion of CD burners on computers; the introduction of the iPod and other portable MP3 players; and the launch of the iTunes store. The result has been a complete re-jiggering of the entire music industry, not to mention mutations of consumer electronics retailing, radio broadcasting, and the wider entertainment machine.

New technologies are unquestionably on the horizon— or probably more accurately, being developed in the computer laboratory — which will cause other dramatic and unforeseen changes in society. But a closer inspection raises doubts about the veracity of this claim... and indeed about the claim regarding the power of previous technologies. The shift from the record to tape certainly brought portability, plus the possibility of curation. The CD improved the aural experi- ence. And the MP3 standard expanded access.

At the core, however, people did not listen to music differently, following each shift in medium. Indeed, they did not change their underlying human behaviors. On the contrary, each shift in medium simply made music more ubiquitous, and allowed for more portability, more customization, and, well, more music. The cassette, for example, enabled people to listen to music anywhere and at anytime...more ubiquity and more frequency. But this shift in medium did not change the fundamentals of listening to music. The would come with Spotify.

It’s The Network, Stupid

Spotify is the online music streaming service which provides subscribers access to compressed music files which are stored ‘in the cloud’ on remote servers. The seismic shift which Spotify has engendered is not so much a result of a shift in medium. On the contrary, it is a result of Spotify’s ability to recommend new musical groups and new musical genres according to a user’s listening behaviors (music preferences) and those of their friends. In other words, Spotify’s pow- er resides in social networks.

When subscribers login to Spotify via their social networking ac- counts (Facebook and Twitter, for example), the company is able to leverage the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ by mining their subscribers’ net- works. Music recommendations are served up, based on the music to which their network members are listening. It leads not to music for the masses, but instead to a bespoke musical experience which is de- rived from people ‘just like them’. Spotify’s ability to leverage the network of people using digital technology, therefore, not the digital technology in and of itself, is that which makes for a true musical — or rather social — revolution.

In short, we suggest that many of the recent changes in society have been mis-attributed to the digital revolution. Indeed, we contend that digital technology, when applied to devices—that which might be called first order digitalization — does little to change basic human behavior. Digital telephones, for example, have simply increased the ubiquity and frequency of interpersonal conversations. Ditto digital books...people can read more books of more genres in more places.

When digital technology leads to higher-order effects, however, then behavioral change begins to occur. A digital grocery store, for example, does not change the purchasing of groceries. But when the digital grocery store allows shoppers to share recipes or comment on dinner party menu plans, then new behaviors ensue. That is more than the power of digital technology...that is the power of the net- work.

We define a network as a complex system of interconnected nodes which share resources, knowledge, information, experiences, etc. Arguably, there have always been networks of people: sororities and fraternities, for example, bridge clubs, congregations. And digital technology has facilitated, enhanced, even accelerated these networks of people. Digital technology, however, has also created a new network of things — the so-called internet of things, or IoT, which consists of devices which are connected and which can communicate with each other, with the help of digital technology. The culmination is that which we call the network of people and things.

Viewing the changes which have resulted from digital technology as simply a shift in medium, therefore, is too narrow. Yes, digital technology allows people to do more, and to do it far more conveniently. But the tectonic changes are driven by the network of people and things. Indeed, the power of digital technology is situated not in the 1s and 0s, but in the network which these 1s and 0s aid and abet.

By definition, digital technology generates, stores, and processes data as a string of 1s and 0s. It relies on the very simple notion of binary states: on or off, plus or minus, 1 or 0. A digital photograph, therefore, is stored not in its original form, but as a string of 1s and 0s. And because all digital devices ‘speak the same language’, they can communicate with each other. That which was once simply a product can now become a ‘smart product’. As more and more of these smart products connect with each other, they begin to form product systems, and systems within systems, leading to remarkable, connected experiences.

Consider Google’s Nest thermostat, for example, which gets ‘smarter’ the more time its occupants spend in a room, thereby adjust- ing the room’s temperature according to the occupants’ behaviors. pulls together disparate financial information, from check- ing/savings accounts, to credit card transactions, from mortgage payments to student loan repayments, in service of people making better financial decisions. The power of digital technology is situated not in the 1s and 0s, but in the network.

Waze and Means

Frank Moss, the former director of the MIT Media Lab, summarized the power of the the digital network: “Every time we perform a search, tweet, send an email, post a blog, comment on one, use a cell phone, shop online, update our profile on a social networking site, use a credit card, or even go to the gym, we leave behind a mountain of data, a digital footprint, that provides a treasure trove of information.” It is this information — the reams of digital data — which fuels the net- work of people and things. Indeed, the more we behave in a digital world, the more our behaviors will change. Two examples will serve as illustrations.


I remember taking long road trips with my family when I was a child. My father would stop by the automobile club before we hit the highway to retrieve that seemingly magical, multi-folded map, whose yellow highlighted route would assuredly lead us to our destination. Without fail, my father would somehow wander off-path and get us lost. This problem would be somewhat mitigated thanks to Ya- hoo’s MapQuest which allowed us to key-in our starting location and desired destination, and which subsequently created a turn-by-turn, sequential set of instructions which accompanied a highlighted map route. And my father (and everybody else in those days) would print out the MapQuest map and instructions, in the spirit of its multi-fold- ed, paper predecessor. Despite the shift in medium, little changed in terms of navigation...maybe fewer curse words.

Fast-forward some years later and the Global Positioning System, or GPS, shifted the medium again. Indeed, there was no need for any paper of any sort—we now had a device in the car which would pro- vide turn-by-turn voice directives in real time, and recalculating capabilities if we found ourselves deviating from the route. This made navigation much easier...but it did not change the basic notion of getting to the destination.

The introduction of Waze, however, triggered a fundamental shift in driving behavior. Waze is a network-based navigation application whose purpose is to help people outsmart traffic. The mobile application allows its ‘community members’ to get driving instructions which are based on the experiences of other community members who are traveling the same or similar routes. Indeed, community members in- form others if there is a police officer on the road, or if a traffic jam has developed. Waze helps people outsmart traffic (and avoid fines) by leveraging the network of people. The application also gets smarter the more community members use it, offering, for example, recommendations on the time at which someone ought to begin a journey because of road conditions, typical traffic patterns, know police hang- outs, etc. Paper maps and GPS certainly made traveling easier, but Waze ultimately changed the human behavior.


‘In the beginning’, markets were physical places in which buyers and sellers came together to exchange their products. Indeed, people brought fruits and vegetables, cattle, grains, and the like to the market, in hopes that other people who were looking for these same products would find the offerings compelling. By the mid-1800s, Sears & Roe- buck and other mail-order companies began offering products in a ‘catalogue market’. Customers no longer needed to visit the market physically to get their products...although they often took weeks to arrive due to slow postal, order processing, and delivery times. Of course, these lead times would eventually shorten to a matter of weeks, with advances in operations and logistics.

By the early-2000s, however, the internet allowed for the creation of ‘virtual markets’, and e-commerce was born. Orders were placed instantaneously, and processed in a matter of hours, thereby reducing turn-around times from weeks to days. This shift in medium obviously made shopping (market exchanges) more convenient, but it did not necessarily change the way people engaged within the market.

Amazon changed all that. The e-commerce behemoth which be- gan as an online bookstore, has leveraged the behaviors of its shoppers — their searches, their wish-lists, their shopping carts, their purchases, and so on — to provide individualized shopping experiences. Amazon gets smarter each time a shopper uses it, and recommendations, therefore, reflect his/her history, but also that of people like him/ her. Amazon has also ventured out into the ‘physical world’ by the Amazon Echo, Dash, and brick-and-mortar retail outlets, furthering its goal to leverage the network of people and things, by connecting previously disparate and isolated nodes.

Battle of the Network Stars

The world is now a global village. So predicted Marshall McLuhan in the early-1960s. But it is digital technology — the processing, generation, and storage of information in the form of 1s and 0s — which has truly brought humans closer together. Digital technology has enabled disparate nodes of both people and things to connect in networks like never before, which, in turn, have eased, enhanced, and even extended human behavior. In summary, therefore, we challenge you to re-think the notion of a digital world, focusing not on digital technology but instead on the networks which the digital technology facilitates. Therein will be the innovations of the future.



  • Millar, A. “McLuhan’s They of the Global Village.” CBC Television Interview. 18 May 1960.
  • McLuhan, M. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Mentor: New York, 1964.