Is There Still Room In Today’s Marketing World For Rick Steves?

U.S. travel writer and TV personality Rick Steves is — well, there’s no really kind way to put this — a weenie.

His on-air persona (on “Rick Steves’ Europe”) is a mix of high school social studies teacher, khaki-clad accountant cracking Dad jokes — and the guy you get stuck next to at a museum lecture on 16th century Venetian architecture that your wife made you go to.

According to a recent profile in The New York Times, he’s “one of the legendary PBS superdorks — right there in the pantheon with Mr. Rogers, Bob Ross and Big Bird.”

Rick Steves is undoubtedly a nice guy — Ned Flanders (of “The Simpsons” fame) nice. He’s not the guy you’re going to invite to your stag party in Las Vegas — not unless you were planning a prank involving prostitutes, illicit drugs and an involuntary neck tattoo. But Ed Helms already had that role.

Despite all this — or perhaps because of it — Steves is one of the most trusted travel brands in the U.S. and Canada. His name appears prominently on countless guide books, podcasts, seminars, a weekly syndicated column and the perennially running PBS series.

It was the last of these that brought him top of mind for me recently. He was hosting a fund-raising marathon this past weekend on my nearest PBS affiliate, KCTS in Seattle. And as Steves good-naturedly bumbled his way through Tuscany, I asked myself this question: “Could Rick Steves be a start-up brand today?”

Yes, he is a successful brand, but could he become a successful brand from a standing start? In other words, can a weenie still win in today’s world?

Today, everything needs to be instantly shareable. Branding is all about virality. Things that live at the extremes are the ones that spread through social networks. We are more Kanye West and Kim Kardashian than we are Danny Kaye and Doris Day. That was then. This is now.

You can’t ignore the fact that Steves’ target market is well north of their 50thbirthday. They are the ones who still remember who Danny Kaye and Doris Day were. So I ask again: Is being passionate and earnest (two things Rick Steves undoubtedly is) enough to break our collective ennui in today’s hyperbolic world?

I ask this question somewhat selfishly, for I, too, am a weenie. I have long lived on the dorkish end of the spectrum. I like me a good dad joke (e.g., People in Athens hate getting up early. Because Dawn is tough on Greece). And I have to wonder. Can nice, decidedly un-cool people still finish first? Or  at least not last?

It’s an important question. Because if there is no longer room in our jaded awareness for a Rick Steves, we’re missing out on something very important.

Steves has won his trust the hard way. He has steadfastly remained objective and unsponsored. He provides advice targeted at the everyday traveler. He is practical and pragmatic.

And he is consistently idealistic, believing that travel pries open our perspective and makes us better, more tolerant people. This mission is proudly stated on his corporate website: “We value travel as a powerful way to better understand and contribute to the world in which we live. We strive to keep our own travel style, our world outlook, and our business practices consistent with these values.”

This is no “flash-in-the pan” brand bite crafted for a social share. This is a mission statement backed by over 40 years of consistent delivery to its ideals. It’s like Steves himself: earnest, sincere, thoughtful and just a little bit dorky.

If you ask me, the world could use a little less Kanye West and a little more Rick Steves.

Data does NOT Equal People

We marketers love data. We treat it like a holy grail: a thing to be worshipped. But we’re praying at the wrong altar. Or, at the very least, we’re praying at a misleading altar.

Data is the digital residue of behavior. It is the contrails of customer intent — a thin, wispy proxy for the rich bandwidth of the real world. It does have a purpose, but it should be just one tool in a marketer’s toolbox. Unfortunately, we tend to use it as a Swiss army knife, thinking it’s the only tool we need.

The problem is that data is seductive. It’s pliable and reliable, luring us into manipulation because it’s so easy to do. It can be twisted and molded with algorithms and spreadsheets.

But it’s also sterile. There is a reason people don’t fit nicely into spreadsheets. There are simply not enough dimensions and nuances to accommodate real human behavior.

Data is great for answering the questions “what,” “who,” “when” and “where.” But they are all glimpses of what has happened. Stopping here is like navigating through the rear-view mirror.

Data seldom yields the answer to “why.” But it’s why that makes the magic happen, that gives us an empathetic understanding that helps us reliably predict future behaviors.

Uncovering the what, who, when and where makes us good marketers. But it’s “why” that makes us great. It’s knowing why that allows us to connect the distal dots, hacking out the hypotheses that can take us forward in the leaps required by truly great marketing. As Tom Goodwin, the author of “Digital Darwinism,” said in a recent post, “What digital has done well is have enough of a data trail to claim, not create, success.”

We as marketers have to resist stopping at the data. We have to keep pursuing why.

Here’s one example from my own experience. Some years ago, my agency did an eye-tracking study that looked at gender differences in how we navigate websites.

For me, the most interesting finding to fall out of the data was that females spent a lot more time than males looking at a website’s “hero” shot, especially if it was a picture that had faces in it. Males quickly scanned the picture, but then immediately moved their eyes up to the navigation menu and started scanning the options there. Females lingered on the graphic and then moved on to scan text immediately adjacent to it.

Now, I could have stopped at “who” and “what,” which in itself would have been a pretty interesting finding. But I wanted to know “why.” And that’s where things started to get messy.

To start to understand why, you have to rely on feelings and intuition. You also have to accept that you probably won’t arrive at a definitive answer. “Why” lives in the realm of “wicked” problems, which I defined in a previous column as “questions that can’t be answered by yes or no — the answer always seems to be maybe.  There is no linear path to solve them. You just keep going in loops, hopefully getting closer to an answer but never quite arriving at one. Usually, the optimal solution to a wicked problem is ‘good enough – for now.’”

The answer to why males scan a website differently than females is buried in a maze of evolutionary biology, social norms and cognitive heuristics. It probably has something to do with wayfinding strategies and hardwired biases. It won’t just “fall out” of data because it’s not in the data to begin with.

Even half-right “why” answers often take months or even years of diligent pursuit to reveal themselves. Given that, I understand why it’s easier to just focus on the data. It will get you to “good,” and maybe that’s enough.

Unless, of course, you’re aiming to “put a ding in the universe,” as Steve Jobs said in an inspirational commencement speech at Stanford University. Then you have to shoot for great.

Influencer Marketing’s Downward Ethical Spiral

One of the impacts of our increasing rejection of advertising is that advertisers are becoming sneakier in presenting advertising that doesn’t look like advertising. One example is Native advertising. Another is influencer marketing. I’m not a big fan of either. I find native advertising mildly irritating. But I have bigger issues with influencer marketing.

Case in point: Taytum and Oakley Fisher. They’re identical twins, two years old and have 2.4 million followers on Instagram. They are adorable. They’re also expensive. A single branded photo on their feed goes for sums in the five-figure range. Of course, “they” are only two and have no idea what’s going on. This is all being stage managed behind the scenes by their parents, Madison and Kyler.

The Fishers are not an isolated example. According to an article on Fast Company, adorable kids – especially twins –  are a hot segment in the predicted 5 to 10 billion dollar Influencer market. Influencer management companies like God and Beauty are popping up. In a multi-billion dollar market, there are a lot of opportunities for everyone to make a quick buck. And the bucks get bigger when the “stars” can actually remember their lines. Here’s a quote from the Fast Company article:

“The Fishers say they still don’t get many brand deals yet, because the girls can’t really follow directions. Once they’re old enough to repeat what their parents (and the brands paying them) want, they could be making even more.”

Am I the only one that finds this carrying the whiff of moral repugnance?

If so, you might say, “what’s the harm?” The audience is obviously there. It works. Taytum and Oakley appear to be having fun, according to their identical grins. It’s just Gord being in a pissy mood again.

Perhaps. But I think there’s more going on here than we see on the typical Instagram feed.

One problem is transparency – or lack of it. Whether you agree with traditional advertising or not, at least it happens in a well-defined and well-lit marketplace. There is transparency into the fundamental exchange: consumer attention for dollars. It is an efficient and time-tested market.  There are metrics in place to measure the effectiveness of this exchange.

But when advertising attempts to present itself as something other than advertising, it slips from a black and white transaction to something lurking in the darkness colored in shades of grey. The whole point of influencer marketing is to make it appear that these people are genuine fans of these products, so much so that they can’t help evangelizing them through their social media feeds. This – of course – is bullshit. Money is paid for each one of these “genuine” tweets or posts. Big money. In some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars. But that all happens out of sight and out of mind. It’s hidden, and that makes it an easy target for abuse.

But there is more than just a transactional transparency problem here. There is also a moral one. By becoming an influencer, you are actually becoming the influenced – allowing a brand to influence who you are, how you act, what you say and what you believe in. The influencer goes in believing that they are in control and the brand is just coming along for the ride. This is – again – bullshit. The minute you go on the payroll, you begin auctioning off your soul to the highest bidder. Amena Khan and Munroe Bergdorf both discovered this. The two influencers were cut for L’Oreal’s influencer roster by actually tweeting what they believed in.

The façade of influencer marketing is the biggest problem I have with it. It claims to be authentic and it’s about as authentic as pro wrestling – or Mickey Rourke’s face. Influencer marketing depends on creating an impossibly shiny bubble of your life filled with adorable families, exciting getaways, expensive shoes and the perfect soymilk latte. No real life can be lived under this kind of pressure. Influencer marketing claims to be inspirational, but it’s actually aspirational at the basest level. It relies on millions of us lusting after a life that is not real – a life where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

Or – at least – all the children are named Taytum or Oakley.

 

The Strange Polarity of Facebook’s Moral Compass

For Facebook, 2018 came in like a lion, and went out like a really pissed off  Godzilla with a savagely bad hangover after the Mother of all New Year’s Eve parties.  In other words, it was not a good year.

As Zuckerberg’s 2018 shuddered to its close, it was disclosed that Facebook and Friends had opened our personal data kimonos for any of their “premier” partners. This was in direct violation of their own data privacy policy, which makes it even more reprehensible than usual. This wasn’t a bone-headed fumbling of our personal information. This was a fully intentional plan to financially benefit from that data in a way we didn’t agree to, hide that fact from us and then deliberately lie about it on more than one occasion.

I was listening to a radio interview of this latest revelation and one of the analysts  – social media expert and author Alexandria Samuel – mused about when it was that Facebook lost its moral compass. She has been familiar with the company since its earliest days, having the opportunity to talk to Mark Zuckerberg personally. In her telling, Zuckerberg is an evangelist that had lost his way, drawn to the dark side by the corporate curse of profit and greed.

But Siva Vaidhyanathan – the Robertson Professor of Modern Media Studies at the University of Virgina –  tells a different story. And it’s one that seems much more plausible to me. Zuckerberg may indeed be an evangelist, although I suspect he’s more of a megalomaniac. Either way, he does have a mission. And that mission is not opposed to corporate skullduggery. It fully embraces it. Zuckerberg believes he’s out to change the world, while making a shitload of money along the way. And he’s fine with that.

That came as a revelation to me. I spent a good part of 2018 wondering how Facebook could have been so horrendously cavalier with our personal data. I put it down to corporate malfeasance. Public companies are not usually paragons of ethical efficacy. This is especially true when ethics and profitability are diametrically opposed to each other. This is the case with Facebook. In order for Facebook to maintain profitability with its current revenue model, it has to do things with our private data we’d rather not know about.

But even given the moral vacuum that can be found in most corporate boardrooms, Facebook’s brand of hubris in the face of increasingly disturbing revelations seems off-note – out of kilter with the normal damage control playbook. Vaidhyanathan’s analysis brings that cognitive dissonance into focus. And it’s a picture that is disturbing on many levels.

siva v photo

Siva Vaidhyanathan

According to Vaidhyanathan, “Zuckerberg has two core principles from which he has never wavered. They are the founding tenets of Facebook. First, the more people use Facebook for more reasons for more time of the day the better those people will be. …  Zuckerberg truly believes that Facebook benefits humanity and we should use it more, not less. What’s good for Facebook is good for the world and vice-versa.

Second, Zuckerberg deeply believes that the records of our interests, opinions, desires, and interactions with others should be shared as widely as possible so that companies like Facebook can make our lives better for us – even without our knowledge or permission.”

Mark Zuckerberg is not the first tech company founder to have a seemingly ruthless god complex and a “bigger than any one of us” mission. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Page, Larry Ellison; I could go on. What is different this time is that Zuckerberg’s chosen revenue model runs completely counter to the idea of personal privacy. Yes, Google makes money from advertising, but the vast majority of that is delivered in response to a very intentional and conscious request on the part of the user. Facebook’s gaping vulnerability is that it can only be profitable by doing things of which we’re unaware. As Vaidhyanathan says, “violating our privacy is in Facebook’s DNA.”

Which all leads to the question, “Are we okay with that?” I’ve been thinking about that myself. Obviously, I’m not okay with it. I just spent 720 words telling you so. But will I strip my profile from the platform?

I’m not sure. Give me a week to think about it.

Is Google Politically Biased?

As a company, the answer is almost assuredly yes.

But are the search results biased? That’s a much more nuanced question.

Sundar Pinchai testifying before congress

In trying to answer that question last week, Google CEO Sundar Pinchai tried to explain how Google’s algorithm works to Congress’s House Judiciary Committee (which kind of like God explaining how the universe works to my sock, but I digress). One of the catalysts for this latest appearance of a tech was another one of President Trump’s ranting tweets that intimated something was rotten in the Valley of the Silicon:

Google search results for ‘Trump News’ shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake New Media. In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD. Fake CNN is prominent. Republican/Conservative & Fair Media is shut out. Illegal? 96% of … results on ‘Trump News’ are from National Left-Wing Media, very dangerous. Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good. They are controlling what we can & cannot see. This is a very serious situation-will be addressed!”

Granted, this tweet is non-factual, devoid of any type of evidence and verging on frothing at the mouth. As just one example, let’s take the 96% number that Trump quotes in the above tweet. That came from a very unscientific straw poll that was done by one reporter on a far right-leaning site called PJ Media. In effect, Trump did exactly what he accuses of Google doing – he cherry-picked his source and called it a fact.

But what Trump has inadvertently put his finger on is the uneasy balance that Google tries to maintain as both a search engine and a publisher. And that’s where the question becomes cloudy. It’s a moral precipice that may be clear in the minds of Google engineers and executives, but it’s far from that in ours.

Google has gone on the record as ensuring their algorithm is apolitical. But based on a recent interview with Google News head Richard Gingras, there is some wiggle room in that assertion. Gingras stated,

“With Google Search, Google News, our platform is the open web itself. We’re not arbiters of truth. We’re not trying to determine what’s good information and what’s not. When I look at Google Search, for instance, our objective – people come to us for answers, and we’re very good at giving them answers. But with many questions, particularly in the area of news and public policy, there is not one single answer. So we see our role as [to] give our users, citizens, the tools and information they need – in an assiduously apolitical fashion – to develop their own critical thinking and hopefully form a more informed opinion.”

But –  in the same interview – he says,

“What we will always do is bias the efforts as best we can toward authoritative content – particularly in the context of breaking news events, because major crises do tend to attract the bad actors.”

So Google does boost news sites that it feels are reputable and it’s these sites – like CNN –  that typically dominate in the results. Do reputable news sources tend to lean left? Probably. But that isn’t Google’s fault. That’s the nature of Open Web. If you use that as your platform, you build in any inherent biases. And the minute you further filter on top of that platform, you leave yourself open to accusations of editorializing.

There is another piece to this puzzle. The fact is that searches on Google are biased, but that bias is entirely intentional. The bias in this case is yours. Search results have been personalized so that they’re more relevant to you. Things like your location, your past search history, the way you structure your query and a number of other signals will be used by Google to filter the results you’re shown. There is no liberal conspiracy. It’s just the way that the search algorithm works. In this way, Google is prone to the same type of filter-bubble problem that Facebook has.  In another interview with Tim Hwang, director of the Harvard-MIT Ethics and Governance of AI Initiative, he touches on this:

“I was struck by the idea that whereas those arguments seem to work as late as only just a few years ago, they’re increasingly ringing hollow, not just on the side of the conservatives, but also on the liberal side of things as well. And so what I think we’re seeing here is really this view becoming mainstream that these platforms are in fact not neutral, and that they are not providing some objective truth.”

The biggest challenge here lies not in the reality of what Google is or how it works, but in what our perception of Google is. We will never know the inner workings of the Google algorithm, but we do trust in what Google shows us. A lot. In our own research some years ago, we saw a significant lift in consumer trust when brands showed up on top of search results. And this effect was replicated in a recent study that looked at Google’s impact on political beliefs. This study found that voter preferences can shift by as much as 20% due to biased search rankings – and that effect can be even higher in some demographic groups.

If you are the number one channel for information, if you manipulate the ranking of the information in any way and if you wield the power to change a significant percentage of minds based on that ranking – guess what? You are the arbitrator of truth. Like it or not.

Why Marketing is Increasingly Polarizing Everything

 

Trump. Kanye. Kaepernick. Miracle Whip.

What do these things all have in common? They’re polarizing. Just the mention of them probably stirs up strong feelings in you, one way or the other.

Wait. Miracle Whip?

Yep. Whether you love or hate Miracle Whip is perhaps the defining debate of our decade.

Okay, maybe not. But it turns out that Miracle Whip – which I always thought of as the condiment counterpart to vanilla – is a polarized brand, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review.  And far from being aghast at the thought, Kraft Foods, the maker of Miracle Whip, embraced the polarization with gusto. They embedded it in their marketing.

I have to ask – when did it become a bad thing to be vanilla? I happen to like vanilla. But I always order something else. And there’s the rub. Vanilla is almost never our first choice, because we don’t like to be perceived as boring.

Boring is the kiss of death for marketing. So even Miracle Whip, which is literally “boring” in a jar, is trying to “whip” up some controversy. Our country is being split down the middle and driven to either side – shoved to margins of outlier territory. Outrageous is not only acceptable. It’s become desirable. And marketing is partly to blame.

We marketers are enamored with this idea of “viralness.” We want advertising to be amplified through our target customer’s social networks. Boring never gets retweeted or shared. We need to be jolted out of those information filters we have set on high alert. That’s why polarization works. By moving to extremes, brands catch our attention. And as they move to extremes, they drag us along with them. Increasingly, the brands we chose as our own identifying badges are moving away from any type of common middle ground. Advertising is creating a nation of ideological tribes that have an ever-increasing divide separating them.

The problem is that polarization works. Look at Nike. As Sarah Mahoney recently documented in a Mediapost article, the Colin Kaepernick campaign turned some impressive numbers for Nike. Research from Kantar Millward Brown found these ads were particularly effective in piercing our ennui. The surprising part is that it did it on both sides of the divide. Based on Kantar’s Link evaluation, the ad scored in the top 15% of ads on something called “Power Contribution.” According to Kantar, that’s the ad’s “potential to impact long-term equity.” If we strip away the “market-speak” from this, that basically means the Kaepernick ads make them an excellent tribal badge to rally around.

If you’re a marketer, it’s hard to argue with those numbers. And Is it really important if half the world loves a brand, and the other half hates it? I suspect it is. The problem comes when we look at exactly the same thing Kantar’s Link Evaluation measures – what is the intensity of feeling you have towards a brand? The more intense the feeling, the less rational you are. And if the object of your affection lies in outlier territory – those emotions can become highly confrontational towards those on the other side of the divide. Suddenly, opinions become morals, and there is no faster path to hate than embracing a polarized perspective on morality. The more that emotionally charged marketing pushes us towards the edges, the harder it is to respect opinions that are opposed to our own. This embracing of polarization in non-important areas – like which running shoes you choose to wear – increases polarization in other areas where it’s much more dangerous. Like politics.

As if we haven’t seen enough evidence of this lately, polarized politics can cripple a country. In a recent interview on NPR, Georgia State political science professor Jennifer McCoy listed three possible outcomes from polarization. First, the country can enter polarization gridlock, where nothing can get done because there is a complete lack of trust between opposing parties. Secondly, a polarization pendulum can occur, where power swings back and forth between the two sides and most of the political energy is expended undoing the initiatives of the previous government. Often there is little logic to this, other than the fact that the initiatives were started by “them” and not “us.” Finally, one side can find a way to stay in power and then actively work to diminish and vanquish the other side by dismantling democratic platforms.

Today, as you vote, you’ll see ample evidence of the polarization of America. You’ll also see that at least two of the three outcomes of polarization are already playing out. We marketers just have to remember that while we love it when a polarized brand goes viral, there may be another one of those intended consequences lurking in the background.

 

 

Our Trust Issues with Advertising Based Revenue Models

Facebook’s in the soup again. They’re getting their hands slapped for tracking our location. And I have to ask, why is anyone surprised they’re tracking our location? I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. What is good for us is not good for Facebook’s revenue model. And vice versa. Social platforms should never be driven by advertising. Period. Advertising requires targeting. And when you combine prospect targeting and the digital residue of our online activities, bad things are bound to happen. It’s inevitable, and it’s going to get worse. Facebook’s future earnings absolutely dictate that they have to try to get us to spend more time on their platform and they have to be more invasive about tracking what we do with that time. Their walled data garden and their reluctance to give us a peak at what’s happening inside should be massive red flags.

Our social activities are already starting to fragment across multiple platforms – and multiple accounts within each of those platforms. We are socially complex people and it’s naïve to think that all that complexity could be contained within any one ecosystem – even one as sprawling as Facebook’s.  In our real lives – you know – the life you lead when you’re not staring at your phone – our social activities are as varied as our moods, our activities, our environment and the people we are currently sharing that environment with. Being social is not a single aspect of our lives. It is the connecting tissue of all that we are. It binds all the things we do into a tapestry of experience. It reflects who we are and our identities are shaped by it. Even when we’re alone, as I am while writing this column, we are being social. I am communicating with each of you and the things I am communicated are shaped by my own social experiences.

My point here is that being social is not something we turn on and off. We don’t go somewhere to be social. We are social. To reduce social complexity and try to contain it within an online ecosystem is a fool’s errand. Trying to support it with advertising just makes it worse. A revenue model based on advertising is self-limiting. It has always been a path of least resistance, which is why it’s so commonly used. It places no financial hurdles on the path to adoption. We have never had to pay money to use Facebook, or Instagram, or Snapchat. But we do pay with our privacy. And eventually, after the inevitable security breaches, we also lose our trust. That lack of trust limits the effectiveness of any social medium.

Of course, it’s not just social media that suffers from the trust issues that come with advertising-based revenue. This advertising driven path has worked up to now because trust was never really an issue. We took comfort in our perceived anonymity in the eyes of the marketer. We were part of a faceless, nameless mass market that traded attention for access to information and entertainment. Advertising works well with mass. As I mentioned, there are no obstacles to adoption. It was the easiest way to assemble the biggest possible audience. But we now market one to one. And as the ones on the receiving end, we are now increasingly seeking functionality. That is a fundamentally different precept. When we seek to do things, rather than passively consume content, we can no longer remain anonymous. We make choices, we go places, we buy stuff, we do things. In doing this, we leave indelible footprints which are easy to track and aggregate.

Our online and offline lives have now melded to the point where we need – and expect – something more than a collection of platforms offering fragmented functionality. What we need is a highly personalized OS, a foundational operating system that is intimately designed just for us and connects the dots of functionality. This is already happening in bits and pieces through the data we surrender when we participate in the online world. But that data lives in thousands of different walled gardens, including the social platforms we use. Then that data is used to target advertising to us. And we hate advertising. It’s a fundamentally flawed contract that we will – given a viable alternative – opt out of. We don’t trust the social platforms we use and we’re right not to. If we had any idea of depth or degree of personal information they have about us, we would be aghast.  I have said before that we are willing to trade privacy for functionality and I still believe this. But once our trust has been broken, we are less willing to surrender that private data, which is essential to the continued profitability of an ad-supported platform.

We need to own our own data. This isn’t so much to protect our privacy as it is to build a new trust contract that will allow that data to be used more effectively for our own purposes and not that of a corporation whose only motive is to increase their own profit. We need to remove the limits imposed by a flawed functionality offering based on serving ads that we don’t want to us. If we’re looking for the true disruptor in advertising, that’s it in nutshell.