Unmarketing is marketing posing as anything but marketing. "Posing" is perhaps the wrong word; that suggests duplicity, and that's not really the case. To be effective, unmarketing should be completely straightforward and honest. It's not trying to pitch you or convince you of anything. It just says, "Hey, this is some smart, cool, funny, interesting shit. And we made it. Maybe you should check us out."
SteelerBaby is unmarketing at its finest, courtesy of Wall-to-Wall Studios in Pittsburgh. God, I love that creepy little thing. (It's obviously crucial to be remarkable, too, as Seth Godin would rightly remind us.)
Black, black, black, black-and-gooooooold!
Hat tip to The Mighty MJD.
PS: In no way should this post be construed as an endorsement of the Pittsburgh Steelers or anything AFC-related. Go Niners.
Slate's Seth Stevenson is dismayed that The Gap went to the trouble and expense of hiring Spike Jonze to shoot a way kewl spot touting their remodeled stores only to bury it in a short run in a handful of markets. (Slate's showing the spot that actually aired in low- and high-bandwidth options [Windows Media], but Stevenson also links to a far superior, alternate version [Quicktime] apparently salvaged from the cutting-room floor by Jeffrey Wells.)
The spot depicts the destruction of an ordinary Gap outlet at the hands of shoppers, staff and random passers-by, culminating in a dog wandering through the dusty, clothing-strewn, depopulated scene. It's both thrilling and shocking, particularly the alternate version with the Edvard Grieg soundtrack. In light of The Gap's recent poor performance, Stevenson thinks they're twiddling their thumbs:
This is rearranging the track lighting on the Titanic. It's the entire Gap brand that needs a scrubbing, not just the stores. The Ad Age story quotes an analyst who says, "The Gap is now a category placeholder. It's the name everyone knows, but aren't real sure what it stands for anymore."
So: You've got a brand that everyone's familiar with, which is half the battle. The next step, it seems, would be to reinvent the meaning of that brand. It sounds like what the company needs is a piece of marketing that suggests radical changes are afoot—that the Gap brand is about to tear itself down to its foundations and be reborn. Where could they possibly find something like that?
Instead of running the "Dust" spot in just a couple of markets, and tying it exclusively to the remodeling effort, Gap should have used this ad as the centerpiece of a national campaign.
That would be a breathtakingly big swing for the fences, and I'd guess that a sleeper cell in The Gap's marketing department agrees with Stevenson--the Jonze spot is too ambitious to really be about store remodeling--but cooler heads prevailed and nipped the idea in the bud.
At 38, I'm old enough to remember The Gap's two-stage transformation, first from off-brand denim outlet to cooler-than-Levi's, and then on to world domination via sort-of-preppy, sort-of-hip GeneriClothes. But a fundamental problem they face now is that the market's fragmented out from under them, and fewer people want to wear GeneriClothes these days--we're all pursuing our individual style muses. (Except me--I'm hip enough to know that The Gap isn't, but not hip enough to care--demonstrated by my use of 1920s slang like "hip"--and I still love those worker jeans.)
The Gap has become the transparent background music of fashion--the aesthetic you never see because it's everywhere (and thus effortless to imitate, undercut or adapt.) I like expansive, dramatic gestures--even when they fail, you have a lot more fun making the attempt--and I'd love to see The Gap destroy its increasingly-meaningless brand in order to save it--but I'm hard-pressed trying to think of a big retailer that's pulled off a similar trick. The New Coke conspiracy theories are the closest I can get, and that's thin ice for a corporate strategy (but I'd love to see the PowerPoint.)
Hummer is taking out full-page ads for the Alpha, which features the "Duramax 6600 Turbo Diesel" engine and the "Allison 1000" transmission, making it "the new benchmark in off-road exotic vehicles." It's a new benchmark, alright--the very latest in phony utility. It's fauxtilitarian!
I love solidly-built, well-designed objects that are intended to be used hard and last a lifetime. And I'm as susceptible as the next consumer to the lure of an aspirational purchase. But when Hummer's touting the "Duramax 6600" on the back of the Wine Spectator (see the Dec. 15 issue), well, fauxtility has officially exhausted itself as an aesthetic. I'm expecting a return to flashy superficiality any day now.
Jakob Nielsen's latest Alertbox explores the two sides of usability: empiricism (i.e. "conclusions and recommendations grounded in what is empirically observed in the real world) and ideology (i.e. "the belief in a certain specialized type of human rights"). He stresses that both sides play an important role:
As a user advocate, you need both perspectives: usability as empiricism and usability as ideology. Each perspective requires a particular approach.
When taking the empirical approach, you must be unyielding and always report the truth, no matter how unpopular. If something works easily, say so. If something will cause users to leave, say so. The only way to improve quality is to base decisions on the facts, and others on your team should know these facts.
In contrast, when viewing usability as an ideology, you must be willing to compromise. Sometimes decisions must be made that will lower the design's usability quality, either because of limited time and budget or because of trade-offs with other desirable qualities.
I agree wholeheartedly, but I'm particularly fascinated by the idea of the Human Rights of Users, which Nielsen enumerates:
When I was a kid, "Do It Yourself" referred to 1) punk and indie rock bands that pressed their own records (yes, actual vinyl) and toured the country in second-hand vans, sacrificing the advantages of being on a major label for the satisfaction of having total control over their music, and 2) homeowners who took hammer in hand and wreaked havoc, er, tackled home-improvement projects without the benefit of professional guidance, sacrificing a perfect finish for the satisfaction of doing it their way. People everywhere have caught the DIY bug, and in the spirit of the 21st century, you don't have to make sacrifices to have it your way these days--in some cases you don't actually have to do it yourself at all. Going by some recent posts I've seen, it's a veritable epidemic:
This is the third and final post in a series on what Malcolm Gladwell's Blink can tell us about how people behave online and, by extension, how websites could be better designed to reflect and take advantage of that behavior. Having explained the process of "thin-slicing" and demonstrated the efficacy of snap judgments, Gladwell goes on to discuss their limitations, particularly when applied to marketing efforts that incorporate customer feedback. I'm hardly an expert in user testing, but I think Gladwell's cautionary message is highly relevant to how such feedback is obtained and applied in the web design process.
Introspection Destroys Insight
We often seek to understand users' behavior by asking them to explain what they're doing and why. The underlying assumption is that people can accurately describe their first impressions and their preferences. But Gladwell thinks this approach is entirely wrong:
...[W]hile people are very willing and very good at volunteering information explaining their actions, those explanations, particularly when it comes to the kinds of spontaneous opinions and decisions that arise out of the unconscious, aren't necessarily correct. In fact, it sometimes seems as if they are just plucked out of thin air. [p. 155]
...[W]hat happens is that we come up with a plausible-sounding reason for why we might like or dislike something, and then we adjust our true preference to be in line with that plausible-sounding reason. [p. 181]
The implications are pretty clear: Don't believe everything you hear in a user interview or from a focus group. Gladwell thinks focus groups can actually be counterproductive: In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle's Paul Wilner he said, "[Focus groups] have a conservative bias, and they are a tax on revolutionary ideas, which I think is foolish in this day and age."
But Gladwell began Blink by extolling the virtues of first impressions--what's going on? Is he contradicting himself? No, but he's being careful to explain the circumstances when first impressions can be misleading, and it's important to understand when and why that happens so that we don't rely on them inappropriately.
This Is Only A Test
Philosopher Alford Korzybski said, "A map is not the territory it represents but if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness" The same reasoning applies to any user testing scenarios: A test is not the actual experience it's intended to mimic, so be careful about drawing conclusions from user testing data. Gladwell attributes the disastrous launch of New Coke to the fact that Coke badly misinterpreted their test data. Pepsi outperformed original Coke in "sip tests," but actual consumers don't just drink a sip of soda, they drink an entire can. New Coke's test results were better, but it tanked in the real world.
The obvious lesson to be learned here is that even when a test seems identical to actual experience, it's not. There will always be underlying differences, and even if they're as subtle as the difference between taking a few sips of soda and drinking a whole can, they could be sufficient to render test data completely useless. Proceed with caution.
Gladwell writes at length about expert food tasters and their unusual ability to articulate the qualities of various foods along many different dimensions. From this he concludes that there are profound differences between what experts and non-experts can tell us about their impressions:
Our unconscious reactions come out of a locked room, and we can't look inside that room. But with experience we become expert at using our behavior and our training to interpret--and decode--what lies behind our snap judgments and first impressions. ... Whenever we have something we are good at--something we care about--that experience and passion fundamentally change the nature of our first impressions. This does not mean that when we are outside our areas of passion and expertise, our reactions are invariably wrong. It just means that they are shallow. They are hard to explain and easily disrupted. They aren't grounded in real understanding. [pp. 183-84]
This resonates with another theme of Korzybski's philosophy: In Piero Scaruffi's synopsis, "We have fewer words and concepts than experiences." Experts overcome this limitation by expanding their vocabulary and by fine-tuning their perceptive apparatus. They're better able to understand their impressions and better able to articulate them than the rest of us.
The implication for any user feedback is that it's essential to understand just who's providing the feedback. Are they an experienced online user or a newbie? Are they familiar with sites like this, or with this particular site? Are they familiar with this particular organization? And the identity of test users needs to be closely mapped to the identity of the organization's current and desired users.
The Package IS The Product
Gladwell cites marketing pioneer Louis Cheskin and his concept of "sensation transference":
Cheskin was convinced that when people give an assessment of something they might buy in a supermarket or a department store, without realizing it, they transfer sensations or impressions they have about the packaging of the product to the product itself. To put it another way, Chesking believed that most of us don't make a distinction--on an unconscious level--between the package and the product. The product is the package and the product combined. [p. 160]
Gladwell amply demonstrates the effect on this concept on physical goods. Ice cream tastes better if it comes in a cylindrical container instead of a rectangular one. Brandy tastes better if it comes in a decanter instead of a wine bottle. Margarine tastes better if it's colored yellow instead of white. Signifiers affect our senses, altering our impressions of the product itself.
But what are the effects on an experience good, like a website? To the extent that we can distinguish between the "product" (i.e. the information and content delivered by a site, and, by extension, the organization itself) and the "packaging" (i.e. the site's graphic design, look-and-feel, and navigational scheme, and the organization's branding), users' perceptions of the latter will have a tremendous impact on the former. Put more simply, design matters. That's hardly a revolutionary idea, but I'm struck by how many organizations, particularly nonprofits, ignore the importance of good design and assume that compelling content will carry the day.
The implication for user feedback is that it's important to be aware of the complicated relationship between "product" and "packaging." What's being tested, the former or the latter? How would different "packaging" affect users' perceptions of the "product"?
Gladwell closes Blink by essentially challenging us to remake our world to take better advantage of first impressions:
Too often we are resigned to what happens in the blink of an eye. It doesn't seem like we have much control over whatever bubbles to the surface from our unconscious. But we do, and if we can control the environment in which rapid cognition takes place, then we can control rapid cognition. [pp. 252-53, Emphasis mine]
Web designers can and should rise to this challenge by recognizing the fundamental importance of users' first impressions and by helping users "thin-slice" to make better, faster decisions. And given the degree to which we can control our online environment--in stark contrast to the battlefields, emergency rooms, and other real-world scenarios discussed in Blink--there are countless low-risk opportunities to put these principles into practice online.