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Aaron Shields

Holographic Advertising

Have everything the customer interacts with become a reflection of some aspect of your brand’s archetype.

Frederico Fellini was a critically acclaimed Italian film director who earned three foreign-film Oscars and a lifetime achievement Oscar. Many of Fellini’s films are counted among the best films ever made. His early films were part of the neorealist movement, which centered on the lower class, depicting their troubles and the moral environment of Italy. These early films had an easy-to-follow narrative plot. Starting with La Dolce Vita, Fellini’s work took a different turn. La Dolce Vita consists of a series of episodes in a reporter’s week that collectively add up to the plot.

In 1961, Fellini became fascinated with Jung’s idea of archetypes. In subsequent films, Fellini combined the style he used in La Dolce Vita—where the film consists of a series of episodes, rather than a traditional, linear plot—with the ideas of Carl Jung. This resulted in outrageous dream sequences heavy with archetypal influences interspersed with non-dream sequences throughout his films, like his most famous work, 8½. Collectively this odd mix creates a singular meaning from a series of events.

So, what does this have to do with advertising?

First, all strong brands tap into an archetype and consistently sell it over and over again. The content of the messaging changes, but the archetype remains the same. Without a consistent archetypal focus, the brand lacks continuity.

The second reason is contained in the first. During his Jungian period, Fellini’s films are a series of scenes that collectively add up to the greater meaning of the film. These films are like a hologram: each piece reflects the meaning of the whole film, but since each piece is small, on its own it may be too hard to see. Taken together, the image is bigger and clearer. And, meaning can be extracted from the whole.

This is the same way great campaigns work. Every commercial reflects the central idea of the brand. Collectively, the group of commercials makes it undeniably clear what the brand represents.

Fellini actually directed a few commercials: Campari, Barilla pasta, and a series of three for the Bank of Rome. The three from the Bank of Rome comprise the last footage Fellini filmed before dying. In all three, a man has a nightmare and then goes to see an analyst. The analyst tells him his fears will be relieved if he uses the Bank of Rome.

All three use the same premise and collectively indicate that fears customers may have about their money can manifest in different ways. Granted, the Bank of Rome commercials are a bit “out there” but they confront a real idea that a person may have in choosing a bank and do it consistently. I for one would be interested to see where Fellini could have gone given more time in the advertising medium.

Never stray from the archetype of your brand. Have everything the customer interacts with become a reflection of some aspect of your brand’s archetype. Then, your brand will be delivered to your customers like one of Fellini’s greatest films.

The Paradox of Creativity

Creativity doesn’t blossom when it’s a free for all. Creativity needs constraints.

Educational systems tend to place an emphasis on a way of doing things, rather than giving the tools necessary to complete the task. I remember several arguments with my high school English teachers. They would insist on a particular interpretation of a passage—usually heavily influenced by Freudian interpretations that reduced everything to a narrow range of possible meanings.

In retrospect, it’s probably not surprising. My English teachers were educated in an age where deriving meaning from text and subtext was heavily influenced by Freud. Their teachers probably gave them the standard readings and expected them to repeat them on the tests. They weren’t encouraged to find their own interpretations, so how could we expect them to act any different towards us?

In biology, at a conceptually opposite end of the education spectrum, the experience is generally no different. Most people get a job in a lab, then pursue PhD research along the same lines and end up carrying the mantle of whatever researcher they apprenticed under. It’s not surprising that the majority of biologists are researching some protein eight steps down a cascade chain, waiting for the next new thing to open up in their field so they can jump on discovering protein four of that cascade. Generally, there is a lack of big ideas.

The Apple Tree Problem

Imagine a tree on a hill accompanied by a group of people who have no knowledge of botany or horticulture; they can only describe what they see. A person observing the tree from a distance will be able to say it looks like a tree of such and such a height, the leaves are green, and the trunk is brown. A person a bit farther up the hill will say well a certain section of the leaves are brown, and the trunk has ridges. As people get closer and closer to the tree they will only be able to better describe things they already know about. But no matter how close they get, they can’t get any truly new information about the tree. They’re stuck in a single way of looking at the tree: get closer and closer until you can describe it better. This is pretty good analogy of the way science generally operates.

Now imagine a new person looks at the tree, but instead of getting closer, they step around the other side. What do they see? A red, spherical object. This is something new that no one could describe before and never would if they never bothered to look at the other side of the tree. The person is still solving the same problem (the same box)—describing the tree—but they’re taking on a differerent perspective, leading to new solutions.

This is the way most creativity works: making associations to create ideas that weren’t there before. In this case it’s applying “walk around the object” to a domain where people are only using “walk toward the object.”

In Search of Big Ideas

At the other end of the spectrum is “out-of-the-box” thinking. This was championed in many circles, especially business ones, as a way to unleash creative impulses and come up with the next big thing. When you think out of the box, anything goes.

But, the truth is that it’s as ineffective in generating great solutions as is giving people a single set of tools to solve problems. When anything goes, it tends to block people from generating any ideas as they don’t know in which way they should start thinking about a problem.

Creativity doesn’t blossom when it’s a free for all. Creativity needs constraints.

The Creative Paradox

Creativity is a paradox: it requires an odd blend of open idea generation but with the restriction to a specific problem with specific constraints. It requires new ways of seeing the same problem.

Great Cult Brands are exemplars of creativity, giving us new ways to think about old businesses: Harley-Davidson gave us new ways to think about motorcycles, Apple about computers, and Oprah about talk shows. They moved beyond business as usual and industry status quo, and in doing so, they entered into their customers’ hearts.

What sort of boxes are you using in your organization? Are they turn-by-turn roadmaps or do they allow people to map their own course to the destination, with room for detours on the way?

How to Ask the Right Questions

Answering big questions can also help you reveal unspoken customer desires: desires customers can’t even articulate themselves.

I’m continually struck by how often companies conduct research without asking any big questions. 

Companies conducting research tend to ask a lot of questions with the belief that, from the mountain of data, they’ll be able to find a big answer.

But,, what they usually end up with is just a bunch of data that gets read in a report and then tucked away in a drawer that houses piles of past research efforts. If they’re lucky—and it usually is more luck than intent—they’ll glean one or two pieces of information that they can see themselves possibly applying, someday.

Data doesn’t reveal answers, questions do. To conduct effective research, you have to start by asking the big questions and then using research questions to attack those big questions from multiple angles. And, those big questions have to target something that can create action.

Knowledge is only power if it can be transformed into action.

Asking The Big Questions

Research that can’t be turned into action wastes time and money. Company time is wasted conducting the research and then spending countless hours digging through the data to try and find the secrets within. Customer time is wasted because customers spend time answering surveys in the hopes that their answers will create change in the company, which it rarely does. And, finally, company money is wasted because the research rarely results in actionable results.

Even if you get some useful answers from a survey just by asking a lot of questions, you’re likely to wish that you asked a few other questions that clarified what you found in the data. 

This is why you need to start with the big questions before you create survey questions. 

Determining the big questions to ask isn’t easy. It takes time. But, it makes the end result more effective and saves time and money in the long run.

The difficulty of asking the big questions is one of the reasons why demographic research is popular: demographics are easy to accumulate without asking any big questions as they’re based on numerical, census-style, generic questions, and they generate obvious answers: what groups are we serving and what groups aren’t we serving. The inevitable result is that we need more of some age and economic group. These are poor questions, not big ones.

As Einstein said, if he had an hour to save the planet, he’d spend 59 minutes coming up with the question that needs to be answered, and 1 minute solving it. Marketers I’d guess would spend 1 minute coming up with the question and then 59 minutes solving it, only to determine that it requires annihilating all males in the 30-40 age group as they’re polluting the planet the most.

The Danger of Easy Questions

Many years ago I was sitting on a bench at Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia when a man approached me and asked if he could ask me a few questions. He showed me the trailer to National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets and asked me questions concerning my age, what I thought of the actors and director involved, would I see it in the theater, and what age group I thought would be most likely to see the movie. I told him I had no intention of seeing it in the theater but that I thought the most likely group to see the film was my age group. He looked puzzled: how could I not want to see the movie but think it’s most appropriate for my age group?

Think about it for a second: If a friend asks you whether or not you think he would like a comedy that just came out, would you say to yourself: “Well, he’s between the ages of 30 and 40, male, earns $50,000 a year, Hispanic, single, heterosexual, and lives in the Midwest, so I don’t think he’d like it.” Or, would you think about the type of humor he likes, what other movies you know he likes and make your recommendation based on the way you see him as a person, instead of numbers?

If you didn’t bother to collect the proper information to solve the real problem, you’ll inevitably end up with a bad answer, unless by chance you happen to capture what you need. 

The only way to be sure to collect the proper information is to start with big questions.

Down The Garden Path

When you ask big questions, you’re forced to translate it into multiple questions that tackle the problem from several angles. Big questions potentially have multi-dimensional answers; they are unlikely to be answered by a single data point.

In fact, single data points can lead you down a garden path.

Imagine a hypothetical, underperforming lawnmower manufacturer is trying to decide what percentages of red and green lawnmowers they should ship to Lowe’s. They analyze last year’s data and see that nine green lawnmowers sold for every red one. The company changes it’s production to make 90% of their lawnmowers for Lowe’s green and 10% red. When it came time to look at sales, hardly any of their lawnmowers sold.

Repeated statistical analyses show no cause for the increase in sales of red lawnmowers. The company hires a consumer insight firm to discover what went wrong. The firm looks at the Lowe’s stores and the purchasing decisions of Lowe’s customers. Looking at the stores, the firm finds that the previous year Lowe’s displayed green lawnmowers at the front of the store. But, this year there wasn’t a display at the front of the store. When asking the customers what color they wanted their lawnmower to be most customers answered red. But when the insight firm showed customers different colors and asked them to select their favorite lawnmower color from the group, 80% said orange—a color no lawnmower company was making. The next year the company released a slew of orange lawnmowers and outsold all other lawnmower makers in the Lowe’s stores.

Analyzing the manufacturer’s data would never have revealed anything. Sense was created from nonsense by coming up with questions to ask that answered a bigger question about customer behavior.

Before you start gathering data, ask yourself what you really want from the data and plan accordingly. If you don’t, your conclusions, if you have them, are in danger of providing inaccurate results.

Existing Data ≠ Hidden Desires

Answering big questions can also help you reveal unspoken customer desires: desires customers couldn’t even articulate themselves.

In a 2004 talk for the TED conference, Malcolm Gladwell spoke about his friend Howard Moskowitz, an experimental psychologist and president of Moskowitz Jacobs, Inc., a consumer insights research firm. Moskowitz conducted research for Prego to discover the best type of tomato sauce. His research was influenced heavily by a study he conducted years before for Diet Pepsi: how much aspartame should be added to the mix to create the ideal Diet Pepsi. The Diet Pepsi experiment was inconclusive; the data was all over the place. Years later Moskowitz made sense of the data. There isn’t an ideal Pepsi; there are only ideal Pepsis. In other words, there should be multiple categories. It’s this thinking that he took to Prego and resulted in the creation of the much-beloved category of chunky tomato sauce.

Just because a lot of data is out there doesn’t mean anyone has ever collected the relevant data. This is exactly what Howard Moskowitz discovered with tomato sauce: no focus group from Ragu or Prego ever came up with the idea of chunky tomato sauce as a type of sauce they would like until they were given the option. And no amount of data would reveal the observation that green lawnmowers were displayed at the front of the store the year before.

 Only by understanding the customers can we give them what they want. On their own, they don’t know. This has been a guiding force for Steve Jobs at Apple: “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new. … If we’d given customers what they said they wanted, we’d have built a computer they have been happy with a year after we spoke to them—not something they want now.”1

Observation and questioning gives us insight into what customers want. Statistical analysis only shows what they’re doing and is best used as a check and balance system to make sure the observations you made and the questions you asked were the right ones. Don’t let anyone try to fool you into believing it’s the other way around.

Big Questions, Big Answers

Too often research is conducted just because companies believe it should be done. In our consulting work, I’ve watched companies spend immense sums of money on research that didn’t tell them anything they didn’t know before. And, I’ve watched companies spend immense sums of money creating reports that didn’t translate into any action. Both could be corrected by starting with big questions before thinking about the questions that get asked in the survey.

When designing customer insights research, you need to start by brainstorming one or a few big questions you want to answer. And, then spend time brainstorming multiple questions you can use to attack those big questions from multiple angles. Just using the questions that are currently popular in market research is unlikely to answer the questions that are unique to your company.


Can Your Advertising Pass The Acid Test?

What makes a theatre production great is what makes a brand great. This shouldn’t be surprising: strong brands are expressions of a core idea that their customers love; and, great shows make us fall in love with language, a character, a relationship, an idea, or pure visual beauty—something that cuts to the core of what the show is really about.

Continue Reading

How Operant Marketing May Be Hindering Your Growth

If we want to know what a business is, we have to start with its purpose. And the purpose must lie outside the business itself. In fact, it must lie in society, since a business enterprise is an organ of society. There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer.
Peter Drucker, The Practice of Management

At some point in the past, you developed a marketing strategy to create customers and your marketing tactics worked well and they became a standard practice. The purpose of business hasn’t changed since then, but the environment has. Continue Reading

Android: Google’s Next Big Move

In an April 18, 2007 post on our virtual office, I predicted that Google would unveil an operating system (OS) accessible from anywhere. Although not exactly what I had envisioned, I was excited when, in November 2007, Google announced the Android OS.

Android is the product of the Open Handset Alliance (OHA), which consists of thirty-four technology companies. Android is built on Linux and is the first open-source mobile OS. It is highly customizable, allowing mobile phone companies and developers to customize the software to provide the best experience for the user. It’s like having a suit—the OS—tailored to the person—the mobile phone—rather than expecting one suit to fit the body of ever person—the traditional approach of mobile operating systems, like Windows Mobile.

The HTC Dream, the first Android-equipped phone, is set to be released through T-Mobile in October, with presales for existing customers beginning on September 17. Like every major release, Android-equipped phones were initially dubbed possible iPhone killers. But, some recent industry reports have started to look less favorably on Android’s potential.

Android is going to be anything but a surefire hit. The leaked pictures of the HTC Dream make it clear that at least the first phone is going to live or die by the functionality of the Android OS.

Android’s greatest asset is also going to be its greatest liability: companies will have to customize Android for each phone. In effect, the viability of the product is going to depend on how well the phone integrates with the OS, and vice versa. And this is ultimately out of Google’s hands in the hands of the carriers and mobile developers that are part of the OHA.

It will probably take awhile before a company releases a phone incorporating the Android software that will stack up well against the functionality of the iPhone. This says more about the mobile companies’ abilities to create an integrated user-friendly design than the viability of Android.

And, turning Android and the phone into a match made in heaven is going to be a problem amplified by many of the OHA members also being members of the Symbian Foundation—another open-source mobile platform in the works. This could lead to the same companies attempting to design phones using competing open source mobile platforms that require their operating systems to be tailored to the needs of each phone. It sounds like a huge potential headache that could compete for resources.

The best use of Android won’t be an attempt to make an iPhone killer; the best use won’t even compete for the same market—the all-in-one, portable, multimedia device. It’s best use will be to embrace the power of customization and allow mobile devices to be fully tailored to an individual’s needs. If Android is successful, this will probably result in mobile phone devices aimed at specific functional requirements, which will then be able to be customized further according to a certain business’s or individual’s needs. Phones will be able to be tailored to the individual on a mass scale at an affordable price. Perhaps Android will take on the Long Tail of the mobile industry, enabling niche phones.

Beyond the mobile-handset market, Android may, if Google has anything to say about it, play a major role in bringing mobile marketing to life. How mobile marketing will pan out is anyone’s guess, with the $1 billion question being how to not annoy the user. If open source is leading the way, I wouldn’t be surprised if we eventually see phones and possibly even monthly contracts subsidized by advertisers. And that may go a long way to lowering the annoyance factor.

The future of Android is uncertain. I don’t plan on trading my iPhone in for a GPhone anytime soon, but I can’t wait to see what Android holds for the future of the mobile market.

Where to go from here

The Dark Knight: Why So Successful?


It’s only the second movie to ever pass the $500 million mark, with Dan Fellman, Warner Brothers’ head of distribution, predicting that it will end up taking in somewhere between $530 and $550 million.

Critics trying to figure out why The Dark Knight has been so successful have come up with a series of rational, and seemingly plausible reasons why the movie is so popular. But, frankly, I don’t buy any rationalization I’ve seen.

Some claim it has to with the fact that it was Heath Ledger’s last movie. But, Ledger was never a box office superstar. The Dark Knight has made more money than all of Ledger’s other movies combined. And, it’s not even his last film. He has a role in next year’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, and I’ll bet that film won’t be a box office smash.

Some claim it has to do with Heath Ledger’s performance. But when have great performances translated into big box office money?

Some claim it has to do with director Chris Nolan reinvigorating the Batman franchise. But, Batman Begins grossed less than Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman.

Some claim a combination of these factors is responsible. That’s reasonable, but I think something much more interesting lurks below the blockbuster surface: The Dark Knight taps into the power of archetypes in a very accessible way—a combination I’ve yet to see as clearly demonstrated in any other film. It was even evident in the trailers.

And, I have no doubt that the heavy archetypal atmosphere was intended by Nolan: in Batman Begins Jonathan Crane, a Jungian analyst and the alter ego of the villain Scarecrow, explains that people often externalize their inner demons, in his case in the form of the scarecrow.

It’s hard to imagine a supervillain that is a closer manifestation of evil chaos than the Joker. The Joker, in Jungian terms, is Batman’s shadow. The shadow is irrational, and is the repressed side of a persona, containing things that, if they became conscious, contradict the way an individual believes himself to be.

The Joker is chaotic, acting without rationality, he embodies the forces that Batman tries to repress. If Batman were to let them manifest, he could easily become as evil as any villain. In trying to take down the Joker, Batman is afraid of becoming too much like the Joker, not willing to let the shadow through as conquering the shadow impulses and falling prey to them are equally likely.

This struggle between Batman and the Joker, two sides of one personality, is at the heart of the movie, and at the heart of all the trailers.

In the end, Harvey Dent’s transformation into Two-Face shows what happens when one gives in and becomes the victim of the shadow’s impulses. He has two faces, one is his normal persona and the other is the shadow. He is the synthesis of Batman and the Joker, were Batman not able to confront the irrational evil inside. After Two-Face dies, Batman must allow himself to embody some of the evil aspects without giving into them, to lift the burden from Harvey Dent, who couldn’t contain his shadow impulses, and save Gotham’s soul.

And what does this have to do with marketing? If you’ve read my article on Archetypal Branding, you know I’m a big proponent of discovering the archetype inside your brand. The Dark Knight embraced the idea of the shadow archetype, and in doing so depicted the internal struggle all humans experience with their darker side. It spoke to a deep, undeniable aspect of the human condition. This is what all great archetypes do.

Archetypes energize your brand and tap deep into your customers’ relationship with your brand. They pass beyond a rational, surface level, and get to the heart of the emotional relationship with your brand. They speak subconsciously to your customers about what it means to be human—about what it means to be them.

And yes, as The Dark Knight shows, embracing archetypes and delivering them in a way that can be easily understood by your customers can be profitable.

Eternal Student

Dr. Michael DeBakey was a god-like figure in the world of surgery, he performed in the neighborhood of 60,000 surgeries, invented over 50 medical instruments, had a pioneering role in developing the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) units, the artificial heart, as well as a slew of other surgical techniques.

As a 23-year-old medical student he invented the roller pump, a critical component to the heart and lung machine that makes open-heart surgery possible. In developing this pump, DeBakey couldn’t find any useful device in the medical literature, so he went to the library and started studying pumps of various formats created over the past 2000 years. He found his solution in the 19th century.

He also developed a type of ventricular assist device (VAD)—a device that replaces partial function of a failing heart—which isn’t particularly surprising taken in the context of his other achievements, except he invented it in his 90s.

Dr. DeBakey’s achievements are astounding, but the thing I find most fascinating about him is a comment by Dr. Sanjay Gupta in a blog post about DeBakey’s passing: when DeBakey was asked what accounted for his inventiveness he attributed it to reading one new book a week, even reading the Encyclopedia Britannica when he was younger.

This was striking in light of how many people claim that they don’t have time to read. A 2005 Gallup poll reported that only half of all Americans read more than five books a year; yet, according to a 2006 Nielsen Media Research study, the average American watches four hours and thirty-five minutes of television each day. There isn’t a lack of time to read, the time is just diverted elsewhere. And, surely if the greatest living surgeon had time to read, anyone does.

The majority of people who claim they don’t have time to read tend to be bogged down in the daily grind of their work, from entry-level positions to the executive level. They get stuck in the execution; they confuse busyness with effectiveness. It’s not surprising that these types feel they don’t have time to read: they are caught in a web of constant doing—it seems like hard work.

The Nobel-prize-winning structural biologist Max Perutz once said of James Watson, one of the co-discovers of the structure of DNA, “Jim never made the mistake of confusing hard work with hard thinking.”

And look where hard, effective thinking got Watson and DeBakey. And, they both read, a lot.

This quest to learn isn’t just characteristic of great scientific minds, it’s also characteristic of great business leaders. Howard Schultz went searching for the future of the Starbucks business, and found it in the cafes of Italy; Sam Walton made frequent trips to all of his stores to see what was working and what wasn’t and how he could use it to improve the business of WalMart; and, Oprah has transformed her love for knowledge into empowerment for her devoted fans through Oprah’s Book Club.

Reading books are not only a great way to learn but also a great way to extract yourself from the web of busyness and can provide valuable insight for many dimensions of your life.

So, next time you feel busy, sit down, read a book and reflect. How can the ideas change your business? How can they change your life?