Insights from Nebo

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February 3, 2010

When Being Difficult Has Its Benefits

In a recent Boston Globe article Easy=True, Drake Bennett examines the psychological effects of cognitive fluency and disfluency -- how people react to things based on how easy or difficult they are to process. Bennett concludes that humans "are suspicious of difficulty, but perhaps we can learn to use that."

Marketers have much to learn from the findings that Bennet explores. While usability experts have long practiced the art of making things easy, there's also much to learn from making things difficult or less familiar (familiarity plays a vital role in the ease of processing).

When answering questions posed in less legible font, people answer more honestly. When products are less familiar, they are perceived as more innovative. Crisp, light writing may be easier to read, but the content of dense writing appears more complex, even if it isn't -- a clear benefit for anyone trying to leverage a position of thought leadership.

"Fluent things are familiar, but also boring and comfortable" says Piotr Winkielman. "Disfluency is intriguing and novel. Sometimes you like comfort food, like when you’re sick. And usually you want to try something new when you’re more comfortable."

These findings reveal to marketers the importance of the customer's psychological state. Will the product be ignored if it's too unique, or will it be the recipient of adoration for breaking outside the box? Will users enjoy this cunning feature on the website, or will they reject it as unfamiliar?

The answers to these questions largely depend on how bored and comfortable people are with their current options. In a boring and comfortable space, a bit of disfluency can go a long ways towards appearing as a fresh alternative. On the other hand, in rapidly changing spaces, people are less receptive to radical design approaches.

Rather than focusing solely on making things easy to use, marketers and designers need to be collaborating to gauge the market. Are they ready for innovation or are they hungry for consistency? How much of the unfamiliar and difficult will they embrace, and when is too easy too boring?

February 2, 2010

We're all in grad school now.

I was reading Brains on Fire's company blog yesterday, and they were taking about the process of interviewing a new employee and setting expectations. The discussion struck me. It's something that I try to communicate to our employees.

So, yesterday I had an interview. (Yes, we are considering a new hire and that feels good.) And when I asked this smart, bright lady if she had anything she wanted to ask me she replied, “What do you expect of me? What are your expectations?”


I told her we are all in grad school now. Exploring new ideas. And the learning you choose to do every single day of your life is completely self directed. You’re driving the ship and collecting ideas and inspiration every single day. Read. A lot. Write. A lot. Think out loud and share with others. Even when you aren’t sure you’re right.


We live in a world that's changing faster than ever before. Culture comes and goes. It's not just the news cycle that's sped up, the amount of information that's available has grown exponentially. Everything you need to learn is at your fingertips. All it requires is commitment and practice. The ability to process, learn and digest information is natural. It just requires the re-awakening of your own curiosity.

It's no longer enough to "Know Your Strengths", and build on them. You have to work on your weaknesses. You have to round out your rough edges, and sharpen the dull blades. If you don't work on your weaknesses, they become even more pronounced. Atrophy sets in.

The challenge to someone looking to succeed in today's world is to push your limits. To learn, and to grow. Each day and every day. As Robin so eloquently stated, all I ask is that you treat every day like grad school.

February 1, 2010

How Three Brands Took Stale Ideas and Created Something Awesome

No brand is completely unique when you abstract their message or offer; it's sexy, efficient, cost-saving, fun, reliable...and the list goes on, but we've seen them all before. It's not surprising then that most people are bored by advertising: it's all unoriginal. So, how do you stand out?

Below are just three of our favorite recreations of otherwise boring, unoriginal ideas. They each take something that at first appears completely uninteresting (a story about brand history, a coupon, and a pitch on product quality) and make it unforgettable through the power of creativity.

It's Not What You Say, But How You Say It

When it comes to brand messaging, heritage and history are old-time favorites; at one point or another any brand that's been around long enough to have a history will try to take advantage of it. The downside is it's been done before, and if you go down that road, you'll be admitting that you don't have anything unique to say.

Or do you?

This short film for Johnnie Walker whiskey is an excellent example of a unique, well-executed piece of creative that's based on the same old story of brand history.

Many brands try to be too many things, often leaving brand history as a sidenote tacked on at the end -- founded in 1869. Ten strong messages might be better than one, but most of the time the strength of ideas the brand can build around are diluted in strength as they increase in number. Johnnie Walker picked one message, allowing them to focus everything -- setting, script, casting, and camera style -- towards that message. The result was a home run.

The lesson? It doesn't matter if the best message for your brand starts out sounding like someone else, as long as you say it in your own way.

How To Make A Coupon That Isn't Boring

About a year ago, Crispin Porter and Bogusky launched the most remarkable social media campaign to date. With the campaign's goal in mind -- driving whopper sales -- a coupon made sense, but Whopper Sacrifice was more than a coupon, it was an experience.

In reward for the small task of removing 10 Facebook friends using the Whopper Sacrifice Facebook application, users were able to appease the whopper god enough to earn a free burger.


In the end, Facebook banned the application, but not before 234,000 friends were sacrificed for the sake of a free whopper. While Whopper Sacrifice is an important campaign to remember for several reasons (it exhibits a keen understanding of the customer, a more advanced use of social media, and a great sense of humor,) for this discussion it's enough to point out that at it's core Whopper Sacrifice was a simple coupon -- a short activity in exchange for a free burger. It's refreshing to think that next time you want to drive sales you can still rely on the good old coupon strategy and not come off as boring or stale.

A Slogan Worthy Of The Brand

Like building a brand message based on rich history, trying to sell a product on it's quality isn't exactly a fresh idea. Enduring, long-lasting, and reliable all go in one ear and out the other. People here these words as advertiser speak that translates into "just like everyone else".


A great example of both a rich brand history and a creative approach to delivering a unique selling proposition, Saddleback Leather Company doesn't just sell long-lasting bags; they sell bags that "they'll fight over when you're dead" according to their slogan.

It's a unique message for a fittingly unique selling proposition. Lots of people might make quality bags, but only Saddleback makes bags with a 100 year guarantee. In order to successfully portray their competitive advantage they need to be creative in their delivery. A slogan like "reliable leather products since 1999" would be the kiss of death to a brand like this. "They'll fight over it when you're dead" is the breath of life.

The power of creativity to take something old and unoriginal and make it fresh and fascinating is the driving force behind successful campaigns like these, but these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. If you know any ads or brands that have done something similar, feel free to share them in the comments or send us a tweet.

January 25, 2010

My Favorite Newspaper Lede, Ever.

Gabriel García Márquez is a master of fiction, but what most people don't realize is that he started as a journalist. But, he wasn't your standard run-of-the-mill writer. Below is a lede to an article he wrote for El Espectador about a remote part of Columbia. After reading an intro sentence like that, is there anyway you wouldn't continue?

Several years ago a ghostly, glassy-looking man, with a big stomach as taut as a drum, came to a doctor’s office in the city. He said, ‘Doctor, I have come to have you remove a monkey that was put in my belly.'

—Gabriel García Márquez, El Espectador

January 21, 2010

Abductive Reasoning: Why You Shouldn't Give Up On Social Media Just Yet

Inductive reasoning dominates current business thinking. This is why people look to case studies and best practices for guidance in their endeavors. It also leads to the belief that strategic management is more science than art. But, this viewpoint is provincial in nature. Inductive reasoning can reduce risk, but innovation requires a leap of faith for which there is little evidence.

The flaw in relying solely on inductive reasoning has been widely discussed in philosophy. Just because something generally happens one way doesn't mean it's guaranteed to be a repeatable outcome. Inductive reasoning isn't fool proof. You can't always learn the truth from past observation. Or, as aptly illustrated by Bertrand Russell in his story of the Chicken:

A chicken wakes every morning assuming a farmer will feed it. Day after day it's fed by the farmer. This is a reasonable expectation. After all, it happens every day. The chicken believes that seeing the farmer means he gets fed. But, one day the farmer comes and wrings the chicken's neck.

This doesn't mean inductive reasoning should be removed from your strategic toolbox, but instead it needs to be tempered with the realization that nothing is ever guaranteed. Requiring proof something will work is the surest way to guarantee that you'll always be one step behind. There isn't a case study for something that's never been done before. Innovation requires a different approach to problem solving. It requires abductive reasoning.

Abductive reasoning is a term that was originally coined by Charles Sanders Peirce. He viewed the scientific process as starting with a guess based on observation and intuition. This initial guess is an example of abductive reasoning. It's an explanation for what might be -- not an explanation of what is, or of what's been.

This is the basis for innovation. There is no blueprint for doing something new. You can observe and learn from previous research, but at the end of the day, you have to make that initial leap of faith. You have to guess and then work to prove what might be.

Next time a client or executive comes to you and asks for something innovative, Remind them that true innovation can't be supported with case studies of previous successes. Social media marketing right now is undoubtedly hyped, but just because there aren't books full of successful case studies (beyond customer service related campaigns) doesn't mean it's potential has been squandered. Instead it means that you'll have to take a leap of faith and try something new. After all, that's the first step towards innovation.

January 20, 2010

Customer Experience, The Ultimate Acquisition Model

In light of the advancing trend towards products as communication channels (see: Nike+, Helge Tenno, and Russell Davies), it's apparent that the worlds of product design and marketing are creeping steadily towards each other. But what's driving this movement is more than just technology, it's the simple realization that the ultimate acquisition model is a superb customer experience.

While there's certainly a place for efficient direct sales campaigns, marketers are now, more than anything, care takers of the brand. This is the reason Starbucks cares about the atmosphere they create, why companies invest in great websites, why the social media bandwagon is so large, and why all of the branding fluff continues to draw discussion -- because beneath the fluff there is substance.

Over the years, advertising has grown more targeted and consumers have become more accessible. Simultaneously, and not coincidentally, consumers have grown weary of advertising. For most people, the contradictions between advertisements and their real life experiences with brands are too big too ignore.

But the problem isn't just the advertisements themselves -- granted, the click the monkey ads don't help the situation -- the problem is that as advertising increases, so does brand scrutiny. The more often consumers are bombarded with ads, the more opportunities they have to notice inconsistencies between the brand's message and their personal experiences.

So, where does that leave us? It leaves us with many brands who are in desperate need of a clean slate. More and more companies are starting to realize that their biggest weakness is their product. As the CEO at Dominoes puts it, "The weakness in our value chain with the customer was really in our core product."

What's the takeaway?

For brands and agencies alike, the time ahead requires more collaboration and more interdisciplinary skills than before. Brands that want to be effective need marketers that understand the importance of customer experience (and how to shape it), and agencies that want to stay relevant need a team that can advise brands from the ground up, getting involved in products from the beginning with insights that move beyond messaging and into product experiences.

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