Bienvinedo. Willkommen. Welcome.

Thanks for stopping by. This blog features a collection of posts related to my work in, and thoughts about, strategic communication and academe as well as a handful of stories about my personal life. Any views expressed on this site are mine and likely do not reflect those of Indiana University. But honestly, there’s nothing all that controversial here, so don’t get your hopes up.

I believe that there are two tenets shaping the contemporary strategic communication industry: The first is a recognition that the human psyche—and its associated drives, desires, and biases—continues to operate through an ancient architecture that directs information processing, attitude formation, and behavior. The second is that the means by which strategic messages are best delivered are rapidly evolving. Consequently, the most influential strategic messages tend to be those which are informed by behavioral insights and disseminated through audience-appropriate channels and sources. 

The proliferation of books, articles, blogs, and social media commentary related to insights and strategic communication can make connecting principles of behavioral research to strategic communication practice seem like an impossible task, but I’ve found the following frameworks to be highly useful throughout my academic and applied work:

  1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
    Originally developed to understand what drives people to act in particular ways, Maslow has become foundational to both psychologists and rhetoricians alike. Ernest Dichter, widely credited as the first practitioner to apply principles of psychoanalysis to advertising, noted that humans are driven by the desires of personal growthand self-actualization, which is really just a way of thinking about moving from the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy toward the top. 
  2. Cialdini’s Principles of Persuasion
    Psychologist Robert Cialdini’s influential work on persuasion identifies six ways in which people can be influenced (i.e., consistency, reciprocity, authority, scarcity, social proof, and liking). Appropriately applying some combination of these principles to strategic communication is one of the best ways of increasing the probability of a communicator’s success. 
  3. Kenrick and Griskevicius’s Seven Sub-Selves
    Douglas Kenrick and Vladas Griskevicius’s application of evolutionary psychology to behavioral economics is particularly useful to understanding some common cognitive biases as well as the importance of priming. As these authors point out, seemingly irrational behavior (e.g., loss aversion, risk taking, et al.) can oftentimes be explained by considering the evolutionary goals of our species (i.e., self-protection, disease avoidance, alliance building, status building, mate acquisition, mate retention and care of kin). Those evolutionary goals can also be used to inform the development of both strategic plans and tactical messages for certain products and services. 

Discussing and learning about strategic communication is near the top of my list of favorite things to do, so please don’t hesitate to connect with me if you’d like to chat or have a book to recommend. If you’re looking for someone to help you move, answer questions about yoga, or invest in your pyramid scheme, I’m not your guy.

Fixing the problem of ‘too black’ will require far more than cancelling a few old white millionaires and including minority actors and models in ads

The implosion of the Richards Group–at one point the U.S.’s largest independent ad agency–as a result of its octogenarian founder’s critique that a proposed campaign for Motel 6 was “too black” will live in infamy alongside the Grey/Color Wheel and Campbell Ewald scandals that most people have long forgotten at this point.

The broad repudiation of Stan Richards’ racist words and the mass exodus of client accounts from his eponymous agency were warranted, but absent from the subsequent rush to cancel Richards and broadcast corporate platitudes about diversity and inclusion was any serious discussion about the systemic racism that forms the basis for executive attitudes about the business economics of black communities and black consumers in the U.S.

Data from the Federal Reserve starkly illustrates the vast disparity between the net worth (graphed below in 000s of dollars) that White families have compared to Black, Hispanic, and other ethnicity families in the U.S. It’s probably fair to assume that most wealthy white business executives know and understand this reality–most simply don’t have the audacity to verbalize its influence on their decision-making processes.

Until systemic racism and historical injustices have been fundamentally addressed in the U.S., no amount of cancel culture or heartfelt statements from corporate communication departments will have any impact on the harsh economic realities that average black families endure in this country. Featuring more diverse actors and models in positive representations in advertisements isn’t a bad thing–doing so can undoubtedly cultivate better attitudes and perceptions of minority individuals and communities, but without real policies that successfully address fairness in educational and employment opportunities and–ultimately–economic disparities, all the feel-good, diversity-inclusive ads in the world will make little difference to the financial conditions of Black families.

The topic of reparations tends to be a controversial subject for my students, which is why I often use it to initiate classroom discussions about economic equity. I tend to start with a question that asks students to agree or disagree that the descendants of wealthy families such as the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Carnegies benefit from the vast wealth that their relatives built. Nearly all agree that they do. My next question–and the jumping off point for the discussion–is, “If those descendants still benefit from the conditions of their ancestors, how can we possibly think that the descendants of enslaved people don’t still suffer from the injustices inflicted upon theirs?” It’s a question we would all do well to reckon with if we hope to actually fix the problem of things in the U.S. being too black instead of just papering over it with kinder, more politically correct words.

This week in ‘he’s decided to leave the company to pursue other passions’

The crack marketing team over at Kraft Macaroni & Cheese made the brilliant decision to celebrate National Noodle Day on October 6 by creating a little promotion with the tagline “send noods” that was undoubtedly entertaining to at least three dozen half-drunken frat boys across the Midwest. I knew it was a bad idea that would require a corporate apology the second I saw it.

Niche brands targeted primarily at a young adult male market segment can often execute campaigns like this that capture attention and drive sales (e.g., Birddogs, Axe). But sophomoric, sex-related humor has no place promoting a brand that is targeted at a massive, diverse set of consumers and that many associate with childhood.

At minimum, two factors–the Me Too movement’s discussions around the tendency of some men to send unsolicited sexual images to women and parental worries about teenage boys’ proclivity for pressuring female classmates into sexting or to send explicit pictures of themselves (which are often shown to other classmates)–should have made someone at Kraft pull the plug early on this very bad idea. I’m amazed a responsible adult couldn’t be located anywhere in the Kraft Heinz marketing department on October 5 since I’m guessing there are some top notch people working there.

This dustup likely won’t have significant long-term consequences for KM&C. It’s an iconic brand that most people buy out of habit at the grocer. It doesn’t mean the company hasn’t at least temporarily alienated some of its customers though. All this, of course, could have been avoided by the simple exercise of considering what the brand’s core values are and determining whether or not a promotion that equates a bowl of macaroni with a dick pic is consistent with those values (it’s not).

There’s a part of me that wonders if this promotion got approved because of some kind of half-baked one-upmanship arms race between CPG marketing departments to prove they can be as unconventional and willing to take risks as their peers. Perhaps someone at Kraft read this Adweek report about Folgers Coffee from last month and decided “we’ll show them.” Good luck in your job search, Marketing Department guy.

Opportunities for courting single-person household consumers

I strongly dislike the negative feelings that I experience when throwing away food that’s gotten moldy, stale, or some other form of gross. My experience (and perhaps yours too) comports with Bolton and Alba‘s (2012) work on waste aversion, which explored this very common phenomenon that can affect the way purchase decisions are considered and made.

This problem is particularly pronounced in single-person households, which have been on the rise throughout the world, including in the U.S., where more than one-quarter of households are composed of one person. The trend toward living alone (which is interestingly counterintuitive to our evolutionary programming) has been somewhat well documented, including Eric Klinenberg’s book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone and Steven Kurutz’s 2012 New York Times article “One is the Quirkiest Number,” among other works.

Savvy marketers, including Procter & Gamble, are paying attention to this trend and developing products and packaging to meet the needs of these often-affluent and often-urban consumers (see Ellen Byron’s story in the WSJ for examples and interviews). One of my favorite companies, Blue Bottle Coffee, has offered whole beans in a 6 oz “half bag” size for some time and it seems safe to assume that option was developed for single-person households, which likely make up a disproportionate amount of Blue Bottle’s customer base. Other companies have not been so wise about identifying and capitalizing on this trend, which may eventually be to their own detriment.

So what kinds of products should be created and/or packaged with the single-person household in mind? I don’t have enough motivation to try to come up with an exhaustive list, but it seems safe to assume that anything sold with a relatively-close expiration date should have a packaging option that aims to eliminate or drastically reduce waste. Similarly, premium products that rely on freshness–Blue Bottle’s high-end coffee, for example–should have some logic behind a quantity-to-time use ratio. To go back to the Blue Bottle example, six ounces of beans makes about seven cups of coffee at home–the perfect amount for a week’s supply. This package ensures that the customer always has fresh beans, which is vital for people who are willing to pay a premium for the roaster’s coffee varieties. It also has the happy side effect of bringing in the brick-and-mortar customers to a location, which creates opportunities to sell additional products.

Reverse-engineering brand placement: H-D in Ewan McGregor’s Long Way Up

Now that the social media feed and marketing algorithms have firmly identified me as an H-D fanboy, I see lots and lots of Harley content, including this trailer for Long Way Up, a Ewan McGregor motorcycle adventure series that will soon be available on Apple TV+. After a quick search, I learned that Long Way Up is a follow-up to two similar releases–2004’s Long Way Round and 2007’s Long Way Down–both of which featured BMW motorcycles.

Although I’ve not read any official reports that H-D paid for placement and/or donated motorcycles to the project, it seems safe enough to assume there’s some kind of contractual deal with interested parties since the film currently takes up prominent space on the Motor Company’s homepage (as of 9/20).

An exercise I frequently employ in advertising classes is deconstructing messages to analyze why a company has made certain decisions when creating a strategic message. If I was writing an academic paper (like I should be doing) instead of a blog to discuss this brand placement, I’d need at least a dozen pages to parse aspects such as the use of electric motorcycles, the depictions of various cultural practices, the use of celebrity endorsement, etc., etc. However, I don’t want to bore you to tears, so I’m only going to analyze what I think is the most interesting aspect of this particular narrative: experiencing friendship through motorcycle ownership.

John Cacioppo has extensively studied loneliness in the U.S. (see this excellent piece in The Atlantic), and has noted that about half of us lament not feeling enough actual connectedness with friends, despite perceptions that social media and smartphones have made us all more connected than ever. My guess is that H-D recognized an opportunity to show how people can cultivate human connections and real-life experiences on two wheels and did what it had to do in order to put McGregor and co-star Charley Boorman on Harleys instead of BMWs for this series.

Human beings are social animals that have evolved to solve problems through cooperative action. So our brains are wired to desire deep ties with other individuals because there’s a survival advantage to having friends, especially ones who can help us meet the challenges we face in life. I suspect that’s why much of the trailer for this series focuses on McGregor’s “doubts” about being able to undertake and complete the planned journey. It creates dramatic tension because it taps deeply into the human psyche. My guess is that those challenges will be met through friendship and connection throughout the series.

H-D is fighting battles on a number of fronts at this point, not least of which is trying to develop a consumer base for the future that is vastly different from its current core customers (I’m going to write more on this in the near future). Brand placement in a series that is essentially about a couple of nice, responsible guys doing a motorcycle adventure trip represents a pretty significant shift away from the narratives of the lone wolf, partying outlaw, or total asshole that has been used to represent H-D riders since the 1960s. Changing that image and attracting new customers will be a long, uneven task, but current social and economic forces dictate a need to continue looking for insights–like the need for real connection in a culture of lonely people–to ensure the company’s relevance.

Success (could have been) in the details

I recently parted ways (graciously, of course) with a client that I had been working with for several months to develop and launch a subscription-based, non-prescription anti-anxiety supplement.

Although I was reticent to lose the income, there was really no point in my moving forward as an advisor since the company’s founders weren’t all that interested in following any of the advice I was giving them. I was particularly disappointed because I do think there’s a significant opportunity to create a strong brand targeted at working Millennial moms. As I tried to repeatedly explain, the success of such a product, and ultimately the business, was not about minimizing cost. Rather, success would be entirely dependent on getting a raft of small details right.

At the outset of the project, I had conducted a number of focus groups with Millennial-aged working mothers to ascertain what kind of interest there might be for a daily anxiety supplement and what kinds of concerns potential buyers might have. Not surprisingly, nearly every one of the participants reported that they–and most of their friends/peers–regularly experie anxiety. That wasn’t entirely surprising considering recent studies (e.g., here and here) that have consistently found high levels of anxiety-related mental health issues among Millennials.

Based on data from those focus groups and an investigation of existing supplement brands/products, I developed a fairly extensive report. Here a re a handful of my favorite recommendations:

  1. I recommended that the supplement should be formulated into one or two gummies if possible. If the ingredient quantities necessitated the use of a pill or capsule, I noted that small size should take priority over low quantity; That is, it would be preferential to have two relatively small capsules instead one larger one since focus group participants indicated a very strong dislike of large pills. Further, if a capsule was used, it should be vegetable-based and that aspect of production should be mentioned as a product benefit in marketing communication. (As an aside, I’m convinced that the proliferation of THC-based gummies has substantially contributed to very broad preference for gummies versus tablets or caplets.)
  2. Based on the human tendency to fear the unfamiliar, I recommended that the supplement be formulated with two or three common ingredients (e.g., vitamin C, garlic, calcium, etc.) that would appear at the beginning of the ingredients list to signal familiarity, and, ultimately, safety. Further–and based on the larger consumer trend toward organic, all natural, and plant-based diets–I recommended that product marketing communicate the sources of the non-familiar active ingredients whenever advantageous (e.g., active ingredient L-theanine extracted from green tea).
  3. I conveyed it was imperative that the user be greeted with a pleasant smell when opening the supplement bottle. I recommended blending and testing three variations: mint, fruit, and lavender in order to establish a preference among the target.
  4. I recommended that packaging be created with an eye toward establishing legitimacy through ostensible luxury by enclosing the supplement bottle in a branded box with a folded product card. Both the box and the card would have been printed on coated matte stock, which is especially effective at providing a visual and tactile sense of calm, softness, elegance, and exclusivity. After the initial order was fulfilled, subscribers would have been encouraged to opt out of the fancier packaging for environmental reasons, which would have also saved packaging costs for the company.
  5. I recommended naming the supplement Pacific, a word that means peaceful, calm, and tranquil. More importantly, it’s a word that has a strong neural connection to the concepts of water, the ocean, and relaxation. My designer would have made easy work of brand colors and a logo if we’d moved ahead. I recommended a clear blue pill bottle with a white top–analogous to an ocean wave with a whitecap.

Despite my ultimate decision to walk away from this one, it was still a lot of fun to research and think through. It made me recall this article that I read years ago about the ways that engineers create product sounds (e.g., the soft, but solid sound of a BMW door closing) to elicit positive emotional responses from consumers. Well-executed holistic design that considers the smallest details of product interaction–from the feel of a package, to the smell and pliability of a gummy, to the pop and snap of a bottle cap opening and closing–is, ultimately, one of the most reliable ways to create brand loyalists from first-time customers. And at some point, I’m going to convince a client to spend the money so I can prove I’m right.

On mid-pandemic, mid-life crises

It was a routine phone call until he informed me that he had recently “traded in the motorcycle on a new golf cart.” My dad seemed uncharacteristically proud that he’d masterminded this deal, which I’m guessing was probably about as straightforward as laundering ancient Roman currency by purchasing and reselling pirated cigarettes through my blind Greek father-in-law.

And at 67, living primarily on a daily ration of bacon and Bud Light (despite having already experienced one major heart attack), I suppose it was probably in the best interest of everyone who uses streets and sidewalks that the old man was no longer soaring down the road on his Two-wheel Freedom Machine with the American flag and eagle “artwork” that he commissioned on the gas tank at the outset of Operation Desert Storm.

When that call ended, I immediately understood the marketing power of the mid-life crisis. 

By the following Thursday—social distancing be damned—I was sitting in a backroom of a Harley-Davidson dealership in Southwest Ohio waiting for the H-D New Rider Course to begin. The promotional materials promised that anyone, no matter how inexperienced or sinful, could learn to safely operate a motorcycle in just four days. In my view, this seemed a reasonable investment of time for acquiring such a vital life skill. 

The students were a motley crew that no algorithm, no matter how sophisticated, could have possibly predicted as sharing a common interest. From what I can remember, these were their stories (names have been changed to protect the innocent):

  • Cindy, an attractive bank teller, was going through a protracted divorce from a wealthy, older husband and was learning to ride at the behest of a new lady friend.
  • Brandi, a thin blonde woman with a tanning bed complexion, had tried riding a motorcycle once before but had given up after experiencing some ambiguous-sounding setback. She wound up being the best rider in the class. Her very muscular boyfriend showed up during the lunch break of Saturday’s class to bring her some churros and, I suspect, to make sure that none of her classmates were getting any ideas.
  • Rick, a furloughed airline pilot, was planning on renting a motorcycle in Vegas and taking a trip through the southwest with his friends in the fall. He didn’t mention liking karaoke, but something about Rick made me think that he never misses karaoke night at some local hellhole bar, threat of COVID or not.
  • Joe, a 19 year old painter, was—unsurprisingly perhaps—the least-cautious member of the cohort during the riding skills portion of the course. He seemed to be interested in doing just enough to pass the final evaluation so that he could get a motorcycle license and start tear-assing down Main Street of some Trump-crazed small town. He didn’t appear to be nearly as interested in the safety-related information contained in the classroom portion of the course.

And there was me: The newly-middle aged, pandemic-wary professor who decided there should be some sort of distinct phase between my present and the part of my life where I buy a golf cart and then die of heart disease. The last time I’d ridden a motorcycle was in 1999—three college degrees, two marriages, and one country club membership ago. Although I’ve since learned to let the hatred that’s encoded into the Rich Urban Biker pejorative make me stronger, the aggressive body language I continue to encounter when pulling into a Harley dealership in a German car was initially disconcerting, especially when it happened the first night of Motorcycle Class, as my wife was fond of calling it. 

The entire experience was facilitated by an energetic septuagenarian named Steve (name not changed since Steve isn’t innocent). Steve was a military man, so he preferred speaking directly and yelling a lot when communicating. Steve did a really bang-up job of teaching motorcycle safety, but I don’t think he liked me all that much. Though as best as I could tell, he didn’t really like anyone all that much with the possible exception of his wife. Steve had many cars, all with personalized license plates, and ate a bagged lunch on both Saturday and Sunday. 

The course itself consisted of two evenings of classroom instruction and two days of riding exercises on a parking lot adjacent to the dealership. Steve spent a lot of time moving orange cones around (and yelling instructions) during the riding exercise days. Because mid-life crises wait for no one, I completed the New Rider course during a heatwave in June. My full-face black helmet, leather gloves, and heavy boots were safety overkill considering the nature of the riding, but they all conspired with the heat to add an element of latent and ironic danger since it felt like I might have a heat stroke at any moment. 

On the final day, the course climaxed in a series of graded evaluations to determine whether or not each student could safely operate a motorcycle. I think I was less nervous prior to my dissertation defense, but I still passed all the assessments with a perfect score. And since I had also passed the course’s written exam earlier in the week, I was eligible to receive a motorcycle endorsement on my driver’s license. Despite never having ridden faster than about 15 miles per hour during class, I was able to visit the BMV the next week and pay $23 for the right to legally blast down the highway on a motorcycle as fast as any posted speed limit allows.

A subsequent post-graduation afternoon at the motorcycle dealership resulted in the loss of three hours of my life and several thousand of my dollars, but I’m now a fully-patched member of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle cult. Sure, some fellow riders refuse to acknowledge me because I insist on wearing a helmet and, yeah, old people in mid-90s Buick Regals routinely pass me because I drive at or below the speed limit, but I’m now a motorcyclist, dammit. And by my calculations, I have a good 20 years to enjoy the black and chrome, obnoxiously loud midlife crisis that’s sitting in my garage before I even think about starting to shop for a golf cart.

On citing introversion and uncertainty as professional weaknesses

The dreaded “Tell us about your biggest weakness” prompt continues to appear in the vast majority of job interviews that I’ve had in recent weeks. It’s actually a topic I’ve given at least some thought to over the years as both an interviewer and an interviewee, so my response these days is rarely a short one when discussing my biggest weaknesses: introversion and uncertainty.

Which aren’t actually weaknesses at all. Rather, much of the world–particularly the corporate one–perceives these traits as undesirable, especially in job candidates.

Susan Cain made a Herculean effort to dispel the myth of introversion-as-weakness in her 2012 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and Stanford professor Margaret Neale has recently published new work that describes the tendency of many hiring managers and search committees to conflate overconfidence, particularly from individuals from higher social classes, with competence and/or intelligence. Neale suggests that by psychologically uncoupling confidence from competence in recruitment practices, many organizations would be able to hire better candidates.

Until then, I guess I’ll keep providing a lengthy explanation of why my perceived weaknesses are part of the reason that I’m actually a really strong candidate for many jobs.