Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Winter to Remember

If you turned on the local Atlanta news over the past 5 days, you would have seen one of two stories: the investigation into the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the weather. Both stories have their own ongoing developments, and have captivated a national and regional audience, respectively.

For those who don’t know, the metro Atlanta area has been paralyzed nearly a week by an unusually severe winter storm. Sunday’s heavy snowfall quickly turned into perilous ice, leaving many roads impassable to most vehicles. Mail delivery and trash collection were suspended, while schools and businesses around the city shut their doors for days.

Yet despite the inconveniences the storm has caused, despite the traffic jams and so called “cabin fever” (which I personally find anachronistic, given the modern age’s infinite digital distractions) I find myself treasuring the silver lining of this white blanket.

First and foremost is its ability to bring people together. People these days rarely know many, if any, of their neighbors, but the lure of youthful fun in the snow brought us out of our houses and into the streets. Whether it meant joining together to help push cars on the highway or collaborating on sled ramps, igloos, and snowmen, people around the city bonded over their common circumstances.

The inability to drive drove people to walk, allowing them to observe their neighborhood from a more human perspective, with the lack of cars reducing noise (and air) pollution. Perhaps some will even maintain the habit of making trips to the grocery by foot, rather than climbing in their car.

Winter weather forces people to seek warmth and company, to light fires, play board games, have long conversations. And yes, despite the abundant posting of pictures and videos on Facebook and Twitter, it brings us back to simpler times. It’s not hard to imagine Atlantans 50 years ago trudging through the same streets we do, on their way to buy bread or beer.

As natural disasters go, snow and ice are certainly among the most preferable. Floods, fires and earthquakes all cause dreadful damage, and cities take years to recover. Snow and ice, on the other hand, provide plentiful opportunities for fun, and their effect is mostly gone in a matter of days. Most of the damage comes from cars that fishtail and struggle to make it up slick hills--and there’s even humor in watching that. Even if they crash, their speed is so slow that serious personal injury is unlikely.

There were, however, some opportunistic rascals who took advantage of the situation for material gain. But such activity was quite limited.

As a long-time Southerner, I appreciate the rarity of events like this, which, in the end, makes their arrival that much sweeter. Snowpocalypse 2011, I will miss you!
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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Orbital Awesomeness

BzzAgent (a word-of-mouth marketing company) recently sent me a few samples of Orbit gum to test out and share with my friends, on occasion of the brand’s recent packaging redesign. The first goal was unnecessary, as I am an Orbit addict, probably to the tune of half a pack a day (eaten a half-piece at a time…does anyone else do that?) The second goal I attempted to meet by leaving three packs and a note (Want a piece of gum?) in my office breakroom. Unfortunately, my failure to emphasize the word piece resulted in the packs being snatched up whole, leaving me feeling like a poor product ambassador. So I’m writing a blog post to assuage my guilt, and show my BzzAgent handlers that I didn’t fail the mission entirely.

According to Orbit’s website, the company currently offers 12 flavors of its flagship brand (not including the more recent Orbit White and Orbit Mist extensions). Wikipedia, however, lists 27 flavors, which is more in-line with my observations at the store. Orbit has come to dominate the gum aisle, with new flavors coming out at surprisingly rapid pace (Watermelon Spring and Pina Colada being new of the newer ones). I used to experiment with these interesting new flavors, but quickly realized that I am a gum purist. I like three flavors: Spearmint, Sweetmint, and Peppermint. That’s it. Not even Wintermint, whose flavor always tastes strangely clinical to me (from any brand, not just Orbit). I buy those three flavors in 3-packs from Target, where the cost is as cheap as 50 cents per individual pack (when on sale).

As someone who fancies himself a bit of a design geek, I do like the new packaging. The plastic wrapper is no longer clear, but is printed with all the nutrition facts and miscellaneous information that used to be on the box. The cardboard wrapper itself is now printed with a spiffy spot varnish in 36 different simple, graphic designs. Branding is minimal, with only the full logo on the front and the “O” on the reverse.
The only drawback to this redesign is that it’s only evident to someone who has purchased and opened the package, not a customer browsing at the store.

All in all, a nice refresh for a product I probably use more than any other. Check it out!
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Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Tale of Two Charities

Each year I make a contribution to several charities. Usually my donation is self-initiated, but sometimes I'm persuaded by a particularly good fundraising pitch. Recently, I received mail from two such charities: the World Wildlife Fund and OxFam America. Although both pamphlets were thin and measured 8.5x11 inches, their effect on my opinion of the charity couldn't have been more different.

The World Wildlife Fund piece was a four-color calendar, with pictures of animals for each month. It was--dare I say....junk mail. In the past, I've also received address labels, cards, and a even a nickel from the WWF. Besides the address labels--of which I have used perhaps four--and the nickel, all of these promotional items went straight into the recycling bin. I simply have no need for kitchy greeting cards or a cheap wall calendar. Perhaps some people like them, but I hazard to guess that those who use greeting cards and wall calendars prefer to pick out their own.

For me, all of this stuff was worthless, and moreover it annoyed me that my money was paying for it. I intended my donation to help preserve habitat, rescue endangered animals, and push for eco-friendly legislation. Of course charities must continue to raise money, but sending out silly gifts is not the way to win me over.

OxFam, on the other hand, impressed me very much with their mailing. It was a well-designed report (printed on handsome matte paper) on what the organization had done to help the relief effort in Haiti. With articles, diagrams, and interviews, this timely brochure was proof of their commitment to fighting poverty. OxFam sends things like this only periodically, and they are not overt requests for money like the WWF mailing. Instead, they subtly demonstrate the value of my contribution, making me feel good about my donation and likely to give again.

As a marketing person, I appreciate this soft sell. Making an emotional connection with your audience, whether it be a potential customer or philanthropist, is much more effective than surprising them with useless stationery-store items. I hope that more organizations follow the lead of OxFam, rather than wasting precious resources on questionable promotional materials that often end up in the garbage, thereby negating the very principles they stand for.

For more info on which charities are ranked highest for efficient use of resources, visit Charity Navigator. (Surprisingly, OxFam is rated only marginally higher than the WWF).
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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Hoping to Beta Test New Facebook Answers Product

Yesterday I applied to be a beta tester for Facebook's new project, which allows members to answer questions submitted by others (similar to the start-up Quora, founded by early Facebook employee Adam D'Angelo). To apply, I had to submit a "provocative" question and answer. Here was what I wrote:

Is there a place for religion in modern society?

In short, yes.

Religion has proven itself remarkably resilient, rivaling only our capacity for speech in terms of its presence and impact on human civilization. And although I myself am not a religious person, I confidently believe this deep-rooted institution will continue to evolve with society, playing whatever role is necessary to survive.

In his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" to describe certain inherited human beliefs and behaviors, such as religion. [In the contemporary vernacular, a meme is a popular (viral) concept or catchphrase that spreads via the internet.] Dawkins goes on to compare genes to "memes," saying that as the former influence biological evolution, so too does the latter influence cultural evolution.

As long as there is mystery and misery in the world, people will continue to turn to religion for answers and comfort. Bioethics, artificial intelligence, and other emerging sciences will provide new arenas for the application of moral/religious analysis, and for this reason I foresee the future of religion being long indeed.

For further information, I recommend the following Wikipedia articles:
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Friday, May 28, 2010

WTF Friday

For the first installment of a new feature, I present to you two examples of questionable marketing:

An ad for Pharm House, an Atlanta restaurant that has since shut down. Who would want to eat at a place whose name and logo make it sound like you'll be served Tylenol Tartare and Grilled Lipitor?

This ad appeared in the SF Weekly a couple months ago. At first glance nothing seems particularly odd, but then your eyes find the woman just to the left of the chef and you recoil in horror. She looks 30 years older and 90% less attractive than the other women, plus she's doing something very creepy with both of her hands. How did this creature find its way into an ad for strip clubs? Keep reading...