Time for a Rant

Downy AdConsider the premise.  A more concentrated formula of fabric softener requires one to use less per load of laundry.  So they can give you the same number of loads’ worth in a smaller bottle.  So there is less packaging, and Al Gore is happy!

OK, but why not keep the same old bottles which require only slightly more material than the new, smaller ones, but would only have to be purchased one third as frequently?  Wouldn’t that be way greener?  Yes it would, but Procter & Gamble don’t want you to only buy their brand one out of every three shopping trips.  They want you in the habit of picking up your fix of Downy as frequently as possible.  Never mind that “fabric softener” is perhaps the most useless mass-consumable made by humans.

While I’m on the subject, why is it that consumer products manufacturers are even allowed  to package stuff in non-recyclable containers?  If beer and apple juice containers can be re-used, why can’t other liquids’ bottles?  For crying out loud, if I’m willing to DRINK something from a re-used vessel, why would I care if my dish-soap came from one?

Am I on track for a Nobel prize here, or is this a concept that has already been aired?

[I just realized that this is my second trash/recycling post in a row.  Despair not, dear reader, I am not turning into an eco-freak…]


Disposable Computers

Centennial PlaceLast Sunday was garbage amnesty day in my part of Moncton.  Once a year, the municipal waste management company allows everybody to put anything they want by the curb, and it will be picked up.  Seriously, anything – the only rule is that it can’t be toxic.  So you get a curious phenomenon: great piles of stuff that are a fantastic example of the phrase, “one person’s trash is another one’s treasure.”  On this one day every year, we get dozens of scavengers coming through our neighbourhood picking over these piles and taking at least half of the stuff away with them. 

Anyway, as I was taking my daily constitutional Sunday, I noticed that there were a lot of PCs in people’s trash heaps.  And not ancient ones from the 90s, but relatively modern looking computers.  And they were mostly complete sets – keyboards, monitors, mice, and boxes.  There must have been around a dozen of them in our subdivision of 185 homes (count ’em yourself in the Google Earth photo to the right).  And I imagine that they mostly are still functional.  Computers don’t simply stop working very often.

Think about it: there was more computing power sitting by the side of the road in one little subdivision last weekend than existed on the entire planet 35 years ago.  Computing power that would have been worth millions of dollars even 20 years ago.  And it was being thrown away.  It got me to think about other things that we commonly dispose of today that would have been considered invaluable in the past.  How about plastic drink containers?  A light, watertight container would have been a real asset 100 years ago, and priceless 1000 years ago.

So what is valuable now  that will be worthless in the future?

Web Marketing – It’s Cost-Effectivalicious!

I attended an online presentation today by MarketingSherpa where one of the slides contained this chart.  It shows where people who are making technology buying decisions go to get information.  It only deals with “interactive” sources, so static Web sites, brochures, advertisements and the like aren’t counted.

Stephen Brooks Flickr Chart

I find it interesting that about 3 times as many people get their vendor information from Web 2.0 sources as do by attending trade shows.  Yet most technology marketers (I used to be one of them) spend WAAAAAAY more money on trade shows than on interactive Web activity.

At one of my old companies, we spent close to half a million dollars on our presence at COMDEX one year (I think it was fall 2000).  And that was only one of 10 or so shows we exhibited at that year.  For what we spent on that one show, we could have hired 5 excellent people to do nothing all day but build our online presence by hanging out in chat forums, answering questions in industry newsgroups, seeing the coming of blogs and participating in that phenomenon early on, creating Facebook groups for our user community, and a tonne of other stuff.  Taking that strategy, and sticking with it, would have made that company the dominant online thought-leaders in their field by now.

It’s not too late to get on the bandwagon, because even now the vast majortiy of marketers have yet to embrace the idea of 1 to 1, permission based marketing using the Web 2.0 tools that are now available.  Start your blog today!  ¡Viva la revoluçione!

Double-lever Waiter’s Corkscrew

Bar knifeThere’s a headline I bet you never expected to read.  I am a bit of a fanatic when it comes to “bar knives,” as I learned to call them in the Montréal bar scene.  A Google search tells me that they’re more popularly known as “waiter’s corkscrews.”  Whatever, they’re what a real  waiter will use to open your wine at your table, as opposed to one of those butterfly rigs – or even worse, a large pumphandle contraption mounted on the bar.  My wife and friends will tell you that I am enough of a nerd on the subject that I will actually give people who are using the “wrong” implement to open wine in their homes a “real” bar knife so they can join the enlightened.

For years, every bar knife I met had basically the same design, and basically the same drawback: if you put the corkscrew too far into the cork, you couldn’t get the fulcrum notch onto the bottle’s rim; and if you didn’t put it far enough in, you could break the cork.

Then, about 3 years ago, I bought something at the liquor store that had a free bar knife attached.  It closely resembles the ones in the picture, and features that little knobby thing sticking out of the metal lever.  When you push that knob, a second fulcrum notch comes out of the lever, about half way down its length.  That makes the cork extraction a two stage affair, which eliminates the challenges of the old design.  Here’s a video of a very serious, grey-haired, left-handed man showing how it works.

Is this innovation as important as electricity or radio?  Perhaps not, but it makes me happy.

Beautiful Images

Sally Gall Photo

I can’t remember where or when I first came across this site, but it’s awesome.  Some incredible photographs from some incredible photographers.  The picture shown here is part of Sally Gall’s section.

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It’s the Story, Not the Product

Stephen Brooks at Orlando InternationalOne of Seth Godin’s prevalent themes is that people don’t really buy a product, they buy the story that they have associated with that product.  For example, his theory states that I don’t drive a 2001 Audi S4 because I inherently like fast, sporty European-built vehicles, but rather because I enjoy the self-image it gives me – the story it tells me about myself.

I have to confess that even though I am a big fan of Seth’s, this concept seemed a little esoteric up until now.  I thought that surely people were sufficiently self-aware that they could separate their subconscious personal brand-building from their cognitive purchase decisions. But, looking at a photo from our Disney trip just now, I realize he’s right.

The thing is, in the last 9 months or so, I have lost about 30 pounds.  And I really notice it.  I feel thinner and less “flabby.”  I feel like I appear  thinner, too.  I even look at this photo to the right and think I look noticeably leaner than a year ago.  But then I glanced at this old photo down below, taken last May at an awards gala.  (That’s Shawn Graham, the premier of New Brunswick with me.  Because I take most of the pictures in our family, I’m not in many of them.  This is the only electronic one I could find that was about a year old.)

Stephen Brooks and Shawn Graham

And I realized that I look exactly the same as I did a year ago.  But to Seth’s point, it doesn’t matter!  I still feel like I look thinner and better, despite the evidence to the contrary.  I like the story I’m telling myself more than the raw fact that I weigh less than I used to.

So what does this tell us as marketers?  That the product is important, but ultimately the interaction of the customer and the product is what makes a successful relationship. And defining that interaction is what marketing can and should be doing.

OMG! My First Trackback!

Searls Banner

Cool!  I know that I’ve been bitten by the blogging bug when I get a physical rush of excitement when someone quotes me, and links to my blog, from their own.  I feel like a giddy teenager.  Doc Searls, one of the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto and an all-round respected pundit, posted this on the weekend!  Seriously, this feels awesome.  I’ve been writing this damn thing for 3 weeks now, and hardly anyone has acknowledged it – other than my very supportive wife, an old colleague and fellow blogger, and one old friend who is actually pictured in the Press Release post.  So, one plugs along, having kind of a blind faith that all the Web 2.0 magic will just happen as long as you diligently post everyday and stay (mostly) true to your theme.  And then, BAM!  Doc Searls!  He’s almost famous!  He’s got a Wikipedia entry!  He thought enough of my words to make them his Quote du jour!  I’m quoted on the freakin’ Harvard Law School domain!  Champagne and caviar tonight!  And, Mr. Searls, just watch your blog traffic soar once I add your URL to the blogroll on the right –>

Theatre and Airports and Training Your Customers

Last month, the students of the Capitol School of Performing Arts performed not one, but two full-length plays at the end of their semester.  (I sit on the School’s Advisory Board, and on its Marketing Committee.)  One of them was Departures and Arrivals, a play by noted Canadian author/playwright Carol Shields.  In a remarkably innovative move, the cast actually staged one of their performances at the Moncton International Airport.  Not long after, the School received this email:

“I am the husband of the late Carol Shields, the playwright and author.  My family and I were pleased and impressed that a group such as yours would take this initiative when performing Carol Shields’ work.  What a great idea to actually put on a play about people in an airport – in an airport.
And we understand that you also translated the play into French.  Bravo. 
Good luck to you all.  Don Shields”

All my marketing instincts kicked in, and I asked Mr. Shields if he would be kind enough to let us use his praise in our marketing materials.  He replied:

“Hello Stephen:  I have reviewed what I said, and find no reason not to say “yes” to your request.  So, yes, please go ahead and use anything that you might find helpful.
I was on the board of the Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg at one time.  We too had a theatre school (in fact that is how the Prairie Theatre Exchange got started).  A theatre school is a wonderful endeavour for children and young adults.
Keep up the good work.  Don”

I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Shields that theatre schools are wonderful for young adults, but they’re also wonderful for the theatres.  By teaching a love and interest in performing arts to young people, you are building your future audience.  I tried to think how I could apply that logic to training future bar customers.  Teach kids to do shooters?  Not really practical (or legal).  But a bar owner could sponsor boys and girls clubs, and start teaching them the pleasure of gathering in a location away from home to have fun with friends…

Interruption vs. Permission

Today it’s another one of my marketing seminars adapted into a Blog post.  This one explains the concepts behind Seth Godin’s idea of Permission Marketing.  We start with the acknowledgement that almost all marketing done up until now has been interruption marketing.  The marketer interrupts whatever it is you’re doing (reading a newspaper, watching a TV show, visiting a Web site or even idly glancing at the back of the car in front of you at the red light) and shows you their message (print ad, TV commercial, pop-up or banner ad, the car company’s logo).


This is not sustainable.  As the interruptions grow in number, we begin to tune them out.  So they get louder, sexier, funnier, viralier (that’s more viral), bigger – to try and get our attention back.  But then they’re all louder, so nothing stands out except the overwhelming cacophony.  And it fails.

So what’s the alternative?  Send personal, relevant, anticipated messages to people who want to get them and have given you permission to send them.  The most prevalent current examples are RSS feeds and opt-in newsletters.  There’s another technology-based concept that I love that never really got off the ground before the tech-stock bubble burst, but I hope it makes a comeback: WebGrocer.  The idea is that you place your grocery order and pay online, and someone packs it all up and delivers it to your door.  So far, no magic.  But what if I gave them permission to keep track of my order patterns?  After a while, a sufficiently smart database application could begin to predict what I’ll be needing and when I’ll be needing it.  They might send me an email saying, “Dear Stephen, we think you are going to need one 4L Tide with Bleach and a dozen eggs tomorrow.  Shall we add it to your next order?”  I would go check my supply, and seeing that they were right, I would agree.  After a few times, I wouldn’t even check, I’d just assume they were right.  After a sufficiently long string of accurate predictions, I’d want to give them even more permission: I’d say, “Hey, if you think I need something, just send it. Don’t bother asking.”  It would be like having a valet or personal shopper.


You might think that vast amounts of technology like Amazon’s recommendation engine or Google’s search algorithm would be required to achieve that kind of trust and permission.  I’ll give you a couple of examples from the past, then:  every autumn of my childhood, we gave Sears permission to send us 300 pages of advertising.  In fact, we welcomed it.  It was the Sears Christmas Wish Book.  A catalog that both I and my parents welcomed.  I could pick what I wanted, and my parents could see what it cost.  Sears was doing us a service

The other example was our home heating oil.  I don’t believe we ever actually ordered any; some guy would just show up periodically with his big smelly truck and hose, and dump a bunch of dead dinosaurs into a pipe on the side of our house.  And send us a bill.  We trusted him to give us oil when he knew (or guessed) we would need it.  We gave him permission.

Photon Torpedoes

NCC1701WARNING!  This not about bars or marketing.  Maybe it would be fodder for a conversation in a bar, but only between two fans of science fiction…

I’m not a hard core Trekkie (or Trekker, as they reportedly prefer).  I’ve never been to a convention or worn Spock ears or spoken Klingon.  I have seen all of the original series, and probably all of TNG.  Maybe half of DS9, and only a handful of Voyager and Enterprise.  I think I’ve seen all the movies.  Anyway, I’ve certainly seen enough to have heard about photon torpedoes, and to wonder why the hell they would build a weapon out of photons.  Well, I may have found an answer…

In this fascinating article from the December 7, 1972 Rolling Stone, they describe the early days of computing.  The article is worth reading for its compelling glance into the digital age of chivalry, where “hacker” is a term full of honour; and people are called “computer bums” in the same way as their skiing counterparts.  ARPA Net (the precursor to today’s Web) is just two years old, but the author is already predicting iTunes and the decline of newspapers.

Anyway, the piece focuses on the fascination with a computer game called “Spacewar.”  It was basically a few space ships zipping around trying to blow each other up using torpedoes.  In those days, it was rapidly evolving as many distributed programmers added features on the fly (kinda like Linux today?).  One of the additions was a giant star in the middle that exerted a gravitational field which would suck you in to your doom if you were a careless pilot.

The trouble was, there was not enough computer power yet available to have the gravity act on the torpedoes, too.  So they explained the anomaly by saying the torpedoes were made of photons, and therefore not affected by gravity.  (We’ll leave the issue that gravity does  actually bend light for now.)

I have no idea whether anyone on the original writing staff of Star Trek knew a programmer or had played that version of Spacewar.  But it’s fun to postulate on possible connections between disparate fields, especially if it’s faintly techie and trekkie in nature.  At least for me.

[UPDATE] – Something occurred to me, so I went to check it out.  Seems that Star Trek came on the air in 1966.  So the phrase “photon torpedo” was extant by the time Spacewar was created.  Oh well, so much for my brilliant cause-and-effect conclusions…