The Blog

“Alexa, Read This Blog”


“I’m sorry, I’m not sure I understand.” “Here’s what I found on that.” “…”

We’ve come a long way technologically that we, as humans, are comfortable speaking to inanimate objects and expecting a response. However, there’s still work to be done in the breadth of smart speaker’s programmed understanding. We may very well be headed toward a future outlined in the 2013 sci-fi drama “Her”, with smart speakers advanced enough to become our friends and romantic partners, but for now we’ll deal with occasional canned responses when Alexa, Siri, et al., don’t have what we’re looking for.

Even with the associated privacy issues, the use of smart speakers is rapidly growing. The number of them in United States households grew by 78 percent from 2017 to 2018, so now one in five adults in the U.S. own a smart speaker.1 Simply, it’s easier to speak than it is to type, so it’s estimated that in 2020, 50 percent of all searches will be conducted by voice.2 The most common requests to smart speakers, according to an NPR study, are to play music, get the weather or answer a general question. As technology and AI become more advanced, so will our requests for information.

Google is already testing AI that is heading in that direction. Google Duplex, is a portion of Google’s AI that can call a restaurant or hair salon and make a reservation or appointment by having an actual conversation with the person on the other end of the call. According to the NPR study, more than half the people who own smart speakers own more than one. When you consider smart devices like TVs, refrigerators and security systems, living with a “maid”, “butler” and “personal assistant” via technology isn’t too far off.

The privacy concerns and current limitations on elements of AI are valid considerations, but that’s not stopping consumers from embracing the technology. Where consumers go, brands follow—and the world of voice AI is no different. Starbucks utilized voice to make ordering quicker and easier for its customers. Kayak is using Alexa to make travel search a simpler process for its users. Johnnie Walker implemented an Alexa skill, as well, to help users learn more about its whiskies.

Hollywood, from “Westworld” to “Ex Machina” to “Her”, where these advanced machines become sentient with complicated repercussions, has made AI and deeper learning a frightening proposition. That’s probably not the future we’re in for (hopefully), but emerging technologies driven by the advancement of artificial intelligence are all around us. The lesson for brands is that consumers continually find value in time-savers and convenience. Be knowledgeable, because technology is a good thing when handled with care.



The Great Streaming Race


For nearly 100 years, televisions have provided generations with news, sports and the wonderment of whole new worlds. But with each era, there have been headaches that have come with enjoying the small screen. After sending dad up to the roof to fix the antenna and dealing with cable companies inevitably hiking the bill, today’s “headache” is a different question: Is there too much TV? With more players entering the market, how does one choose what to watch and where? For better or for worse, the growth of streaming services and endless amounts of content is leading us into the future.

And, it’s a future that is staring Netflix right in the face. For years, the streaming-giant has been the pioneer in reimagining how television is consumed. Even when it began its DVD delivery service in the late 90s, the idea was completely novel. Then, Netflix launched its streaming platform in 2007 and is expected to spend $15 billion on content in 2019.1 While Netflix got a jump on the competition (more than 60 million subscriptions in the U.S.), other players have been racing to catch up and the pack is starting to thicken.

Hulu has long been a rival of Netflix with 28 million U.S. subscribers.2 Amazon Prime Video is buoyed by the other perks a Prime membership includes, but has 40 million Video subscribers. Even Apple is getting into the streaming video race as well. But the biggest entrant to race is expected to come later this year with the launch of Disney+.

The question becomes whether a company like Netflix, which has done something so well for so long, keeps up. Disney, known for being a money-making juggernaut (something Netflix is grappling with), figures to make a giant splash with its licensing and creative power. The other players, like Amazon and Apple, have additional revenue streams to subsidize the creative process—Netflix doesn’t have the same luxury.

Netflix is investing in its future by creating massive amounts of original content, which is a key driver of new subscriptions and keeping users watching. For example, among the nominees in six key Emmy categories (drama and comedy series and best actress and actor in both), 55 percent are from shows produced by streaming or subscription-based services.

We predict that the consumer pie will continue to grow because people love to watch television; the slices of the pie will just get smaller as more options become available. With live TV options like Hulu + Live TV and YouTube TV along with all the streaming options, consumers are faced with a television food court with only one meal available.

The lesson to be learned from Netflix’s position is that no matter how much demand there is for a product or service, companies always need to look to the future and work on evolving and innovating. It will be interesting to see as television evolves if Netflix will continue to be at the forefront, or if it will get passed by as the competition grows.







Your Ad Here: Out-of-Home Marketing


If you’ve ever traveled on I-90 on your way to Mount Rushmore, the Badlands or the Black Hills, you may have seen billboards for miles to the east and west for Wall Drug. If you’ve ever been to Times Square, this phenomenon is far more noticeable with print or digital displays covering nearly every surface in sight. Out-of-home advertising has been around for hundreds of years, but in the digital age, like all things, the medium is evolving.

Some of the advancements being made in out-of-home advertising are changing the way we think about the space. Digital displays can become dynamic based on the speed of traffic on the interstate or peak search trends within a specific area. Like its online counterpart, consumer data is being leveraged to make the out-of-home experience even more personalized. Delta and Equinox partnered last year to promote a “Sweatlag” workout, designed to ease jet lag, using dynamic billboards and incoming flight data to target specific consumers.

But it’s important to consider both the positives and negatives when thinking about out-of-home advertising as part of your media plan. Consumers are spending massive amounts of time in front of screens on a daily basis.1 They are also getting increasingly adept at ignoring and avoiding marketing attached to the content they are consuming. This is why outdoor displays are becoming an advantageous alternative. They aren’t skippable and are a part of the environment in which consumers live.

Additionally, a creative outdoor display can become viral and “Instagrammable,” helping to extend the reach of the brand. Spotify’s #DavidBowieIsHere campaign visually took over a New York City subway station, using a hashtag and app integration for multiple consumer touchpoints. However, public art has become largely saturated by branded displays like murals, so outside the box thinking that has legs to become viral and spurs consumer engagement must be considered to succeed in the out-of-home market.

Another consideration is that ROI can be more difficult to track than online media investment. There are ways to track specific engagements such as search trends based on location, specific codes associated with a CTA or geographic surveys, but they aren’t fool proof. Unless the out-of-home display is the only advertising in market, it can be difficult to pinpoint the direct effect on ROI.

Digital and television still dominate media spend, but brands and marketers are always looking for new ways to reach consumers.2 According to a study that surveyed 1,200 consumers, 69 percent said they trust outdoor ads and public displays when making a purchase decision, a higher clip than social, video and banner ads.3 With the ability to target high-priority areas, viral capabilities and technological advancements, marketers would be smart to consider out-of-home in media plans and be willing to be creative and extend their boundaries in order to make consumers stop and say, “Wow!”




Purpose Driven Purchases


When presented with the Nike swoosh, do you think about shoes or the “Just Do It” mantra? When a Coke advertisement plays, do you relate it to soda or happiness and friendship? Nike, Coke and brands as a whole are banking that it’s the latter that enter people’s mind. The why behind a company is increasingly more important than the what, as consumers are becoming far more than just individuals who buy things.

According to a recent study of more than 2,000 Americans, 64 percent of consumers said their purchasing consideration is driven by a company’s ethical values and authenticity. Additionally, 42 percent of consumers reported that they stopped doing business with a company because of its words or actions around a social issue.1 A brand’s purpose is moving the needle more than its product’s benefits, and that is reflected in messaging, too.

Earlier this year, Budweiser released a four-minute commercial to honor Dwayne Wade’s retirement from the NBA. It had nothing to do with beer and everything to do with the impact the all-star basketball player has made off the court during his career. Budweiser branding can be seen subtly throughout, but the ad is largely evocative and emotional—focused on purpose over product—with a “bigger than basketball” message.

This all follows the trend that brands are racing to demonstrate they are not only a means-to-a-profit end, but a living entity with beliefs and values. It is this dynamic to which consumers are responding to, using the online community as a telling and vital space for brand commentary. Sixty-three percent of American consumers believe their words and actions—from posting comments on social media to participating in boycotts—can influence a brand’s reaction to an event or its stance on an issue of public concern.2 Consumers are purchasing with their values, making it all the more important for a brand to own theirs.

There is no question that defining a purpose can be a difficult proposition for a brand. And turning that into relatable, topical and effective messaging can pose an even greater challenge. That purpose, though, can help create a consumer connection that is greater than a pair of shoes, beverage or computer—it’s helping to grow a crop of brand advocates who believe in why a company exists. Consider this: Brands with a high sense of purpose have experienced a brand valuation increase of 175 percent over the past 12 years, which is more than double the median growth rate of 86 percent and the 70 percent growth rate for brands with a low sense of purpose.3

We believe that as the brand-consumer relationship continues to become a fundamental aspect of marketing, telling the story of a brand’s why will eclipse the what. The lesson here is to commit to something, anything, as no marketing or social buzz can overcome ambiguity.



The Art of Listening


The media landscape, and how we consume it, is evolving to the point that almost every half-decade it’s like we’re living in a whole new technological world. But nearly a century after families raptly congregated in their dens listening to the first radio stories, we’re revisiting that specific story-telling technique: the simplicity of voice and sound.

Podcasts, coined by combining “iPod” and “broadcast,” are having their turn and there is no indication of that trend slowing. The numbers of Americans who are familiar with, have listened and listen regularly to the episodic story-telling form has been increasing steadily for the last decade: an estimated 90 million Americans have listened to a podcast in the last month.1

The history and evolution of podcasts is well detailed. Multiple podcasts began as, and still are, a hobby; people following certain interests and passions while using the boundless format that the medium provides. From interviews and true crime series to movie reviews and fantasy sports, podcasters haven’t held back in their ability to tell countless types of stories.

Podcasts have continued to grow, joining the likes of online audio and social media as a consumer habit in which marketers monitor. Among Americans who listen to podcasts, 28 percent of the time listening to audio is spent on podcasts, which is more than traditional radio (24 percent), streaming audio (15) and owned music (13). On smartphones, that number increases to 42 percent, with streaming audio at 18 percent.1 Consumers are listening and brands have taken notice.

There is no question that authentic brand engagement is becoming harder and harder to garner with waning attention spans and advertising overload—almost like Waldo at a party filled with Waldos. Brands are turning to podcasts as a way to engage, and in some cases, creating their own content to tell their own brand stories.

ZipRecruiter worked with Shark Tank investor Daymond John on a branded podcast called Rise and Grind. Trader Joe’s gives listeners a look into how it fills its aisles with Inside Trader Joe’s. General Electric created a science-fiction series called The Message. There’s a strategy behind all of it. GE’s chief creative officer Andy Goldberg explains why brands are getting involved.

“I don’t consider it advertising. It’s a podcast show that just happens to be produced by a brand instead of a network. I’m not saying, ‘Hey, go out and buy a jet engine.’ It’s a science fiction story to connect listeners with what the GE brand is about, without selling the GE brand.”

Podcasts, both branded and non-branded, are going to continue to be incorporated into our daily lives. Streaming audio giant Spotify joined in with its podcast acquisitions earlier this year, hinting at growth and evolution of the medium. There are indications that Spotify’s curated playlists will soon include more than just music, with select podcasts integrated into daily lists as well.

Research has shown that consumer concentration is more than 1.5 times higher when consuming a podcast than social media, providing a great opportunity for brands to reach their audiences in an authentic and engaging way.2 Consumers want to listen. Now it’s up to brands to tell them a compelling story.


Dragons and Hashtags: A Cultural Phenomenon


When A Game of Thrones—the first book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series—was published in 1996, names like Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow, the Red Keep and The Wall were confined to those first 694 pages. More than 20 years later, those stories have erupted beyond any number of pages, through eight seasons of appointment-viewing television into a cultural phenomenon which may not ever be matched.

So, it comes as no surprise that in today’s digital world where conversations are happening online, brands have not been shy about entering into the #GameofThrones conversation during the final six-episode race to the Iron Throne.

Bud Light got the ball rolling with its crossover Super Bowl ad in which Bud Light’s Bud Knight was unhorsed by Game of Thrones’ the Mountain and subsequently killed in an extremely “Game of Thrones” fashion. Shake Shack for the past month has offered special menu items, the Dracarys Burger and Dragonglass Shake, paying homage to #FortheThrone. Johnnie Walker released a special White Walker Scotch. And in the lead up to the premiere, the Minnesota Timberwolves became the Direwolves on social media, creating cross-branding content and merchandise.

But what happens when the cultural phenomenon surrounding a work of art becomes bigger than the art itself? On the same weekend that Avengers: Endgame broke domestic and international box office records, nearly 18 million viewers tuned into the climactic third episode of Thrones’ final season and show-related hashtags trended up and down Twitter and round and round again. When so many brands enter the fold, trying to grab a slice of the pie, is the overall effect diminished? Or does it allow creatives the opportunity to use the cultural event to produce something unique for their brand?

We may never see another television show like Game of Thrones again, but our culture craves transcendent events—an opportunity to be a part of something that extends far beyond our couches, online communities or hashtag. As millions sit down to watch on Sunday night, brands will be looking for a way to say goodbye and take one last bite of pie. They’ll also be looking for the next one—and that’s a good thing. Brands would be wise to let creatives be creative. Game of Thrones has shown us that culture drives the conversation and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a small part of it.

Beyond the Binary: Trending Toward Genderless

A Young Business Girl Uses Megaphone

He/him. She/her. They/them. Singular pronouns. The way we talk about gender is fundamentally changing, with the concept of fluidity and non-binary gender identifiers becoming commonplace. It should come as no surprise that as public conversations surrounding matters affecting the transgender community are growing, so too is the conversation around the idea of a gender spectrum.

It reflects a larger change in how gender is depicted and discussed. A commitment to inclusivity, driven by Millennials and Gen-Z, has deeply impacted the political and cultural landscapes. Activists have helped bring attention to the discrimination they face, as with access to bathrooms that align with their gender. Television programs and films are more frequently including transgender characters, in turn opening up roles for transgender actors.

Similarly, visibility of non-cisgender identities is impacting how brands are communicating with audiences. Last year, Coca-Cola made headlines with its “Wonder of Us” Super Bowl commercial, in which it included the gender-neutral “them” pronoun along with “him” and “her.” It was a small moment, but represents how brands are addressing changing gender norms.

This shift is not exclusively because of changing attitudes toward gender politics, either. According to a recent study, 74 percent of women said they prefer gender-neutral messages, rather than those geared specifically toward women.[1] It’s happening across age groups, too—especially in the toy aisle. Barbie, long known for outdated and unrealistic gender norms, has started showing boys playing with Barbies in its commercials. Stores have heeded the call as well, with Target re-labeling the toy aisle simply “Kids” rather than “Boys” and “Girls.” While toy packaging still seems intended to overtly appeal to one gender over the other through color, it’s a step toward granting children the space to explore what they like, rather than telling them what they should like, based on gender.

Beyond inclusive messaging, product categories that once existed in gender-specific buckets have been embraced by people for whom they were not initially intended, prompting savvy brands to create actively ungendered versions of said products. Consider Fluide, a company that offers “makeup for everyone.” Its social media feeds are filled with people across the gender spectrum wearing bold lipsticks, nail polishes and eye shadows. Similarly, Zara created a clothing line called “Ungendered” with unisex items like jeans, sweatshirts and shorts. While communicating an inclusive image is a start for brands, actively creating gender-neutral products is a snapshot of the potential for a gender-fluid future.

As this cultural shift continues to grow, it’s important to be aware of the sensitive nature of the conversation. People with non-binary gender identities are fighting just to be recognized, so when handled with care, expanding a brand’s conversation to include them can be a way to show support. For brands inclined to address social changes happening in society, respect is always the best path forward.


Silver is the New Blonde

A Young Business Girl Uses Megaphone

For decades, Americans were told to preserve their youth, because to age was to become irrelevant. Once a person grew out of the coveted 18–49 demographic, they were relegated to a space to be considered only when absolutely necessary. In fact, in a 2005 survey, nearly two-thirds of companies indicated that they had no plans to target consumers over the age of 50 in their product development, marketing or advertising.[1] But a lot has changed since then. The entire process of aging is being redefined by healthier lifestyles and longer lifespans. Aging adults are active participants in culture, refusing to sit on the sidelines. More than ever, brands have no choice but to consider mature consumers not just as a niche audience, but as a core part of their strategy.

At its core, the decision to appeal to an older crowd stems from undeniable numbers. The segment is already large—nearly one billion people over the age of 60—and it’s growing. By the middle of the 21st century, this age group will outnumber those under 15.[2] Add the fact that people over 50 currently comprise 35% of the U.S. population but contribute 43% of the national gross domestic product.[3] Is it becoming clear that brands are selling themselves short by not considering this segment?

In 2019, inclusivity is the name of the game, particularly for brands that are focused on appearance, like fashion and beauty, representing a major reversal for industries that previously framed aging as a negative. To that point, more people over 50 have been featured in high-profile advertisements in recent years. Helen Mirren starred in a L’Oreal commercial. Joan Didion fronted a Céline ad campaign. Instagram-influencer/grandma Lyn Slater became the face of clothing brand Mango.

As with all messaging, connecting with the 50-plus crowd requires a carefully considered sincerity and authenticity, showing this segment that brands consider them people and understand their needs. Slater told W Magazine, “I would rather pressure MAC Cosmetics to think of me as a consumer, than help promote a separate over-50 makeup brand.” This cuts to the heart of the silver revolution: shifting away from a mindset where older age groups are excluded, to one where they aren’t just included, but celebrated. Brands would do well to reject ageism—or any other deterrent of inclusivity—and embrace this segment. We could take a cue from L’Oreal, which did it with panache when they deemed “Silver Chic” the hair color of 2019.




Keeping Up in the On-Demand Economy

Man Writing I Want It Now

Public transit running on delay? Request an Uber or Lyft for immediate transportation. A party gone dry? Tap a button and have alcohol rush-delivered. Forget a necessary ingredient at the grocery store? Order it through Postmates and get it in time for the next step of your recipe.

By catering to the needs of consumers in what feels like an instant, the on-demand economy has shortened consumer attention spans, rendering the need for patience in the marketplace nearly obsolete. Perhaps the most visible example is Amazon Prime Now, which offers 2-hour delivery on over 25,000 products spanning 25 product categories, from household essentials to electronics to pet supplies. The service eliminates the need to leave the room, without sacrificing immediacy or efficiency.

Traditional retailers can’t compete with the convenience and speed of immediate delivery, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for them to succeed. Since brands likely can’t be faster or more convenient than top performers in the space, they should compete where their on-demand counterparts can’t—by creating that which can’t be replicated digitally. This is an opportunity to give consumers a compelling reason to come to them, something that offsets the “inconvenience” of in-person shopping.

Innovative grocers have taken this to heart. With delivery services like Peapod and Instacart eating into profits, they have started to expand shoppers’ expectations of what a grocery trip can entail. Rather than just purchasing food for the week ahead, consumers can now grab a drink, test out new foods and be entertained. Providing samples for customers may not be a novel approach, but Trader Joe’s makes them an integral element of the shopping experience—checkout lines frequently snake through the maze of store aisles, and shoppers know to expect a sample station along the way. Not just the chance to try something new, it’s also a way to lessen the burden of waiting in line. Whole Foods takes it a step farther, with stores now including restaurants and bars within. The bar at a Brooklyn location hosts weekly trivia nights, reflecting an attempt to create a community for shoppers.

These experiences can be complimentary or require purchase, so long as they demonstrate concern and appreciation for consumers. Cosmetics store Sephora allows shoppers to try on any product prior to purchase. Home goods retailer Sur La Table offers cooking classes that not only provide the chance to test out their cookware, but also impart new recipes and skills. The opportunity to take a product for a test drive is something that online retailers can’t provide as easily. It’s the “touch and feel” effect, and it’s lost when a purchase is made fully online.

At its heart, creating an experience is just a way to provide excellent customer service. Consumers are willing to slow down when it feels worth it, and by putting their interests at the forefront, savvy brands are able to connect with them in a meaningful way. Carving out their own niche will help traditional retailers succeed in the evolving on-demand culture, building loyalty and affinity in the landscape in which they operate.

Predicting Picks: Personalization 2.0

Personalization 2.0

From tampons to toilet paper, from streaming services to fast-casual restaurants, consumers are presented with a breadth of options so large that they can make purchase decisions based not only on what product fits their needs, but on what best aligns with their belief system. It’s a reflection of a culture that champions the individual—and the idea that there’s a specific product for every personality. Perhaps the most inherent offshoot of this idea is hyper-personalization, which is by no means a recent trend, but certainly a persistent one. From supplement regimens tailored to specific health goals to hair care products formulated from an individual’s response to a series of questions, brands are keen on serving the illusion of bespoke offerings.

But where personalization was initially presented as a feature to help consumers differentiate themselves from others, it has evolved to become more of a service—the curation of options that an individual is likely to value. It’s not about serving a personalized product so much as a tailored experience. Brands are now using suggestions as a way to relieve choice paralysis—the phenomenon in which a person feels overwhelmed by the number of options available to them—and consumers are receptive to it.

It’s the next phase of personalized marketing—and it goes a few steps further than addressing a person by name in promotional emails. According to a Salesforce study, more than 63% of Millennials are willing to share their data with companies in exchange for offers and discounts specific to them.1 By analyzing user data, brands aren’t just predicting behavior but shaping it. Fashion retailer Topshop offers an online style quiz in which users answer questions about their wardrobe and, in exchange for providing their contact and demographic information, are presented with items that fit their style. Nordstrom offers a similar digital function, called Your Look, in which the more information a user provides, the more specific the recommendations will be. The result of which is, ideally, less time spent wading through the sea of options.

It’s the same idea as the “Top Picks for You” section on streaming platforms like Netflix. With millions of hours of content to choose from, the section predicts what a user will enjoy based on past behavior. The idea is to empower the viewer to make a decision that will satisfy his or her wants by providing curated options. Netflix took it a step further recently with a new movie, Bandersnatch, that allows the viewer to decide what happens to the main character, like a choose-your-own-adventure for the digital age. Based on the viewer’s choices, the movie ultimately leads to one of five main endings. The concept offers the illusion of control, but in reality, Netflix is merely facilitating the decision-making process for viewers, the same way they do with their viewing recommendations.

An overload of choices isn’t just prevalent in the entertainment and consumer goods spheres: thanks to the advent of dating apps, options for romantic relationships can seem similarly endless. One new app, Juliet, aims to change that by providing users with one match at a time. At the end of a predetermined time span (generally less than one week), each user will respond to a series of questions about their experience interacting with their match, and the app’s artificial intelligence will select someone who is a closer match for the next day. By lessening the impact of choice on the user’s end, Juliet aims to make app-based dating feel more intentional and personal.

There is a fine line to tread in this sphere. While consumers crave assistance in finding the best options, there is still a prevalent fear that tech companies mine too much information—many a science fiction film is based on the fear of machines making decisions for humans. Brands must ensure that the personalized options they are providing do not invade the privacy of consumers. Otherwise, the positive associations from the relief of choice paralysis may begin to feel like an assault on free will.