Dog Whistle Marketing

“Calling all racists!”… is a phrase that you would likely never find on a 2017 meeting notice for a white supremacist rally.  So, how are people who espouse racist beliefs able to find one another?  Through underground online-only channels? No: by using the right language.

This is a simple, yet fancy tool referred to as ‘Dog Whistling’ or ‘Dog Whistle Politics’.

Dog whistles are inaudible to humans, but they can be heard by dogs. Same for coded language used to attract its desired target while, in some cases, unknowingly offending others.  (Re: the example above, if you identify as or resemble a person of color, you may want to stay away from anything claiming to be an ‘Alt-Right’ or ‘Nationalist’ organization.  They don’t like you very much.)

Coded language is not only used in politics, but in marketing, too.  The instances aren’t always as extreme as the example given.  Sometimes it’s used to subtly communicate to a particular demographic, like the use of terms like ‘edge control’ in the Black hair care space (it refers to taming the typically shorter, harder to manage hair found along the hairline).

And, it can also be used by consumers of something that may be seen as less ‘mainstream’, or a vice.  Skin bleaching, for instance, is a practice that has a conflicted place in the beauty aisles of a number of countries with melaninated populations and European colonial history.  Their packages may not outright say for skin bleaching, but people who know what to search for know to look for key phrases like “for skin brightening” or to “achieve even tone”.

Consider the illicit drug trade. Nobody stands on a corner with a sign that says ‘heroin for sale’, but from the grittiest city block to the toniest suburb, the raging opiate epidemic shows that drug users clearly know how to find their fix.  If, for some reason, a stranger furtively approaches you on a corner asking if you ‘party’, you may be confused, but they’re probably not asking you if you enjoy doing the Electric Slide.

While these are, in some cases, extreme examples, at the end of the day, they speak to the power of targeted language to cut through clutter.  Understanding your consumer to the point where you can literally speak their language, can help you strike the right frequency and connect with people who ‘get it’ unbeknownst to the people who don’t.

What whistles have you responded to?  …do you even know? 😉

Common Sense is Free.

A gallon of research is worthless
without a teaspoon of common sense.

Recently, Bodega, a start-up founded by two ex-Googlers, received more than a bit of negative attention on social media.  But why?

It looked sleek.
It had big name funders.
It had a ‘relatable’ name with a cheeky, familiar mascot (the omnipresent Bodega cat).
It had done beta tests and was ready to launch.

But its (later backpedaled) mission was to, essentially, obliterate mom-and-pop owned urban corner stores by creating modern, demand-responsive vending machines filled with non-perishables.  And the brand identity it chose happened to appropriate their targeted victim’s identity.

Technology has undoubtedly changed every business sector.  But no one thought it was even a little bit obnoxious to put a target on the back of small business owners and be brazen enough to name the arrow after their stores?  Even Amazon didn’t try to call itself ‘’.

Research was supposedly done.  In a recent Fast Company article, co-founder Paul McDonald stated, “We did surveys in the Latin American community to understand if they felt the name was a misappropriation of that term or had negative connotations, and 97% said ‘no’. It’s a simple name and I think it works.”

The context and the wording of the questions and the sample, however, is unclear.  Had these polled Latin Americans even patronized a bodega? Was the original mission, to eliminate the existing and already threatened corner store, also made clear when the survey was conducted? Mmmmm… highly unlikely.

Consumer research is important, and is tremendously helpful for setting brand strategy.  But it has got to be checked by a little bit of common sense… and, unlike most research, sense doesn’t cost a dime.

If you think that you need to do a survey to verify that you aren’t appropriating a cultural term, perhaps that’s your first sign that you probably are.


When it pays to take a stand.

In our current climate, it has been interesting to observe companies’ reactions to the underlying concerns and fears shared by many Americans via their choice of advertising creative, their business decisions, and press statements.  But of equal importance, its been informative to see the impact on business results.

Granted, while advertisers are headquartered all over America, most of the advertising agencies responsible for influencing and executing their creative are seated in the urban, liberal capitals of the US- New York in particular.  Many messages have become laced with messages of encouragement, perseverance, the preservation of equality and justice, and in some cases, outright protest.  Is this because it’s the right thing to do?  Possibly.  But they’re proving that not only is it a little easier on the conscience – albeit somewhat risky, this can drive advocacy and loyalty.

February is the month of two major advertising opportunities – the Superbowl and the Oscars. The Superbowl has come and gone, but with it came fresh energy about what commercials might make the strongest statements.  The most-hyped (though it ultimately fell flat… and was apparently largely fictionalized…) commercial was about the origins of Budweiser and its immigrant founder.  (Oooh immigration – hot, sexy current topic!) But before its airing, I recollect even my non-beer drinking facebook friends’ enthusiasm as they posted “I’ll buy a Bud!”.

After the Superbowl, people began anticipating a surge in politically charged spots. Yesterday’s Oscars (a most memorable broadcast to say the least) was, indeed, peppered with some thoughtful commercials from some brands I wouldn’t ordinarily classify as politically active… or don’t really think of as having much of a strong ideological perspective.  From Cadillac’s spot encouraging American unity, to Hyatt’s spot promoting the importance of cross-cultural understanding, it’s clear that there’s now a trend for even not-so-controversial brands to take the ‘calculated risks’ of ideologically driven advertising.

But at some point this starts to feel somewhat cookie-cutter, or even disingenuous.  Especially when considering brands that A: aren’t one of the first to make such a stand and/or B: haven’t really built up the equity to make such a statement.

  • Nordstrom has a fairly straight-laced, conservative reputation.  But its first-mover advantage as one of the first retailers to remove the vast majority of Ivanka Trump’s line from its selling floor (for performance reasons) was not done without fanfare from fans and foes alike.  While tweets from the president’s personal account admonished Nordstrom, several celebrities and ‘regular Americans’ proudly tweeted unsolicited support for the retailer.  Despite an initial drop, its stock price jumped 7%. Nordstrom ultimately won by taking a risk, being a leader, and rationalizing its decision in a most-‘Nordstromy’, business-focused way: the line was simply underperforming.
  • Starbucks, an American (well, global) staple, has long been the target of several boycotts (note the prevalence of #boycottstarbucks) for its liberal stance on a variety of issues, from its recent commitment to hire 10,000 immigrants, to its founder’s support of same-sex marriage.  Newsweek recently ran an article tracking the effect of #boycottstarbucks on its stock price – something that happened at least 5x in just as many years.  In nearly every case, (the exception being CEO Howard Schultz’s support of Hillary Clinton) the stock price went up.
  • On the other side of the coin, there are noteworthy conservative examples… before Chick-fil-a opened its long-awaited New York restaurants with their ensuing block-long lines, remember its same-sex marriage controversy regarding its financial support of several anti-LGBT groups?  Despite protests, it experienced a post-controversy net boost in sales.  But Chick-fil-A is known for its conservative values just as much as its nuggets – its restaurants are even closed on Sundays in observation of the Christian sabbath.  Whether or not you agree with their stance, the fact of the matter is they leaned into what their brand stood for – and won.

At the end of the day, while many of us hope that every company will have the gumption to stand up for our ideals, these companies are beholden to their shareholders.  And those with especially strong brands are beholden to their own DNA – which is not unrelated to their business performance.

When they can successfully lean into what they stand for, authentically, it can pay in both brand and shareholder equity.  But it is naive to believe that it’ll work for every brand. Consumers appreciate relevant messaging, but also authenticity; There are risks and rewards associated with being a leader and having a genuinely strong point of view.

What brands do you think have the equity to take a moral stand?


When FaceTime Replaces Face Time

facetime-logo-680x321I remember when the iPhone 4 came out.  This one came with a technology that was going to blow minds… FaceTime. Even though Skype and other mobile video chat services had already been around for some time, the mere act of it being packaged as a free iPhone to iPhone communication tool made it all the more interesting, accessible and ‘sexy’.
Because I live far from the vast majority of my family, FaceTime has taken on a new level of importance, especially since I’ve become a mother.  While I may have used this technology more sparingly for calls home had it been around when I was in college or the early years of my professional life (do you really need your parents to see bags under your eyes from pulling all-nighters?), now it has become an invaluable tool for helping strengthen the bonds between my daughter and family members across the country.  I’d argue that this effort has been successful… successful to the point that my child is tremendously disappointed when she can only hear somebody on the phone instead of seeing and talking to them.
Regrettably, however, my two most memorable FaceTime conversations were the last time I spoke to two beloved family members who have since passed away: My maternal grandmother, who passed about a year and a half ago, and my paternal grandfather, who passed just a few weeks ago.  Both conversations were markedly similar.  My once-vivacious, highly-engaging grandparent in the bed where they would take their last breath, having full comprehension of what was going on around them, but at this point of their respective illnesses having taken over, they were unable to verbally respond.
I have my regrets about these last moments: about not having been able to physically be there, to hold their hand or hug or kiss them one last time.  But at the same time, I realize that had my parents (who were at each bedside) and I not both had this easy-to-use method to connect, that last conversation would have involved one less sensorial dimension, sight.  While this was a perspective that was crucial for my understanding the gravity and terminal nature of my grandparents’ conditions, it was also important for helping me feel a little less removed, a little less helpless, despite being hundreds of miles away.
Previously I’ve alluded to our universal tech addiction causing somewhat problematic disengagement from our immediate environment; And yes, I still believe that that holds true.  But at the same time I am infinitely grateful for its ability to expand the scope of our world beyond that which is physically within our reach.
Relationships are complicated, and I recognize that being the case with my personal addiction to and simultaneous criticism of technology.  But at the end of the day, especially in a climate of increasing doubt and outright fear, I am infinitely grateful for its ability to help us supersede physical boundaries to build, maintain, and grow the personal bridges that bring us comfort.

May both this phrase and 2016 go away and never come back.

New Year, New You!!!!!

Sound familiar? It should. It seems like it’s on at least half of the banner ads, direct mail pieces, and commercials that are released annually as soon as January 1st comes around.  Don’t know about you, but I toasted the New Year (after watching the train wreck that was Mariah Carey not singing in Times Square) and was the same person at 11:59pm EST on 12/31/16 as I was at 12:00am EST 1/1/17.  And the world looked exactly the same, too.

After a relatively traumatizing 2016, many people have placed a tremendous amount of pressure on 2017.  In no particular order…

  1. No more celebrities can die.
  2. The American government can’t be entirely obliterated.
  3. Terror attacks will be a thing of the past.
  4. Racial bias will be obsolete.
  5. And on top of those menial requests, as is typical every year, 2017 is the year we will finally…[fill in the blank…revamp our wardrobe/find love/lose 20 lbs/stop smoking/quit that dreaded job, etc…]

Marketers know that at least 50% of us are mulling over #5 – a self-improvement initiative of some sort.  Honestly, it seems like Oprah’s Weight Watcher’s commercial (weight loss is the objective of about 38% of resolution-setters) seems to be the only one airing on each television network I watch – either because it is heavily weighted for these first few weeks of 2017 and/or because it is extraordinarily effective.  Regardless, it’s honestly the only one that has captured my attention.  She chats with ‘Ordinary Americans’ in her engaging Oprah-esque way about how they’ve lost weight while eating what they want (BACON! CHIPS! BREAD!)… in moderation, of course.

I live in one of the most impatient markets of the world – the NYC tri-state area.  We want everything to happen yesterday – our grand goals for 2017 included. But honestly, this isn’t symptomatic of NY, alone –  it has actually become more consistent with the microwave, instant gratification generation in which we are part.

Habits don’t form overnight, so how are we to honestly believe that we will reverse the habits, vices, and less-desirable traits we have developed over decades in the course of mere months for as little money and effort as possible?  While we may say that 2017 is the year of XYZ, research has quoted that something like 50% of resolution setters stick to their resolution midway through the year, and only 8% actually fulfill their resolutions.  I’m certainly not saying that resolutions can’t be fulfilled, but most who do so do with the help of specific goal setting, a plan, patience, support, and sheer determination – not by willing it to happen and watching a change happen overnight.

Product claims like – ‘Reverses the signs of aging in X weeks’, or ‘Lose X lbs in weeks, guaranteed’ are built with these microwave expectations in mind.  Are marketers to blame for imposing high-impact, instant gratification expectations on consumers… or are consumers demanding these expectations from product makers?  This may be a case of chicken or the egg.

In any case, all the best to you in the new year.  Please note, regardless of what others of my ilk may say, the mere change of the calendar alone will not change the world, your habits, or your waistline – but persistence, patience, dedication… and a mere $99.99 a month will! (Couldn’t resist. 😉

Happy New Year.


True Story: Amazon Makes Me (Feel Like) a Better Mother

Amazon Prime.  Are you a member?  We are.  And frankly, it (and the Amazon app) has changed our life.  For an annual fee, Prime gives you free 2-day shipping on a number of items (and a bunch of other perks we rarely use).

Real Scenario: Our toddler runs into the kitchen, narrowly missing the corner of the counter.

Internal dialogue: “Crap, I need to get some counter bumpers.”

…Voila! Bumpers at my door. Seamlessly. And virtually FREE!

Well, they’re not really free… But shipping was! (less that annual fee but who even thinks about that anyways.) And… after all, I don’t think I could’ve gotten a better price elsewhere.  It’s Amazon. They have *everything* and they have the best prices! (I think? I see higher, x-ed out prices on their site next to the lower one I’m paying so that must mean something… right? 😉

Ok – so Amazon may or may not be a good deal for everything – neither may Prime-only items. But it doesn’t matter. It feels free.

They have mastered simplicity and convenience to the point that I DON’T CARE.  And that pesky little mental barrier of shipping fees for small purchases – virtually eliminated.

I just use the app, but between that, Amazon Dash auto-replenishment buttons, and voice-activated commands via Alexa, Amazon provides the ultimate in convenience by helping us act on our urge to buy immediately, while helping them close a sale as soon as a need arises.  The risk of losing the sale to another retailer along the path to purchase is minimized – especially for the low-lying fruit of repurchased, or hard-to-find items.

This ‘path’ isn’t something we think about consciously, but we go through it in some form or fashion.

1. Awareness (of a need): (Self-explanatory, I hope)
2. Consideration: You explore your options – online search, browsing in-store, get a recommendation from a friend…
3. Purchase: You’ve made your decision.  You’re ready to commit.
4. Use: (Take a wild guess 😉
5. Repurchase: You like it. You buy it again. You ideally tell a friend (or two or ten) about it.

Generally, I am already at step 5 once I open my Amazon app – mostly for specific household and personal care items that we churn through regularly. The product I’m buying has already done the heavy lifting of convincing me to buy and like it; Amazon provides all of the tools (apps, devices, 1-click ordering) to make themselves an appealing and easy option for purchasing.

For other Amazon purchases, I’m starting at step 1, and have already limited my search to Amazon, because there’s some urgency, I’m about 99% confident they’ll have what I need, I won’t incur a shipping expense, and I already have an account.

At the end of the day, frankly, Amazon’s convenience prevents me from feeling like an inept mother for longer than necessary. With a couple of clicks I’m able to find a solution to make sure my counters are no longer open to potentially concussive run-ins with a busy toddler.

Talk about peeling away the layers of the onion… Yes, I admit it. At times, Amazon helps me feel like a better mother.  That, dear friends, is invaluable. 

Amazon has managed to bring Big Brother into our homes to declutter our minds and make our lives easier… to the point where parting with money is trumped by the ease of mind and convenience it provides.

It’s almost kind of scary.

But I, and many people I know and have met, are actually really ok with it.  Don’t ask me how many of my holiday purchases involved the ‘Buy Now’ button.

Depending on your lifestyle, I’m sure you could substitute Uber, your on-demand beauty or takeout app of choice, or any other number of innovations for my sentiments about Amazon.

What retail or service experiences do you find indispensable? 

Happy Holidays!!


Are we becoming more rude? 

This question was inspired by a recent read, Kit Yarrow’s Decoding the New Consumer Mind.  One of the recurrent themes was the fact that we are more distracted and as a result, more rude in our interactions with others.  Ironically, however, we still seek deeper emotional connections via engagement in our virtual worlds.

What she’s saying can’t possibly be true! I have never…

  • Carried on multiple simultaneous conversations both in person and via text…yikes, GUILTY.
  • Sat at the dinner table with my ears on our conversation and my eyes and hands on my phone… yes, GUILTY.
  • Forfeited an in-person conversation opportunity for a Facebook discussion thread…again, GUILTY.

Ok, verdict rendered. I am the rudest person on the planet…and I’m assuming none of you have ever been guilty of similar behaviors, either. 😉

We (or at least, I) have succumbed to ever-present distraction… and have possibly become a little more rude in the process.

While there are a number of questions about this trend’s impact on society, as a marketer, I’m wondering how this impacts how we should talk to more distracted people.

  • We can be ‘louder’ – Be the BIGGER distraction.  Spend a ton on media.  You can be loud, outrageous, funny.  It may be seen.  If you’re one of the lucky few, it may even go viral.  But today’s viral is often tomorrow’s old news.
  • You can be relevant – Rather than interrupting your customer, what about engaging with them?  What do you know about what your customer values – and when would they most appreciate what you have to say or offer? Part of the battle is understanding not just what to say, but when to say it.
  • You can touch the heart – I was taught to evaluate advertising creative based on a number of criteria, including how it touched the heart.  It’s a couple of years old, but I still think about this Mom’s First Birthday commercial from Pampers Japan. When communications can be honest and insightful about common human concerns, it can not only cut through the clutter, but stick.

I’m no psychologist or sociologist, but in a way, a good marketer does have to be a bit of one.  What are some of the things that are core to the human condition today… and how can we respond?

  • Many people are lonely.  We are almost always (digitally) “connected”, but are ironically oftentimes physically and emotionally lonely.  How can we lend a warm human touch to a colder, more distant world?
  • We are taunted by inadequacy.  Comparing our lives to our perception of others’ on social media is a burden.  How can we help people restore their confidence?
  • We live in self-built silos. We feel more worldly, as we seemingly have infinite access to information and one another.  But we consume selectively, and see the same world through [fill in your name here]-tinted glasses.  How can we unify a highly fragmented world?

I know these sound like tall orders for someone marketing something seemingly banal, like deodorant or cleaning products.  But when you uncover the layers of why someone uses these products – it becomes apparent that the drivers are surprisingly emotional.

Tapping into the core of human condition may be one of the keys to capturing the hearts, minds, and attention of our distracted (and, well, slightly rude) consumers.

What gets your attention?


Echo Chambers are Deafening

PrintSo… the longest presidential campaign of our lifetimes just ended.  Many were devastated.  Many feel that hope is on the way. Many were blind-sighted. Many were not.

More likely than not, if you are active on social media, your perspective on what the world is feeling is driven largely by the sentiments shared in your social media feed(s).

We’ve seen platforms for self-expression become ubiquitous over the past decade, as social media has played a more dominant role in our daily lives.  Platforms like Facebook, twitter, snapchat, and Instagram give easily accessible soapboxes for us to share our perspectives and ‘hear’ and see what our friends, family, and influencers are thinking and doing.

A feed of hundreds or even thousands of different voices can provide so many perspectives that it’s easy to feel like our social accounts are giving us a clear understanding of what the nation, or even the world is feeling.

But they’re not.  They’re not even close.

We’ve chosen a biased sample of reality.

As social channels mature and the accumulation of our social media communities has now happened over the course of, at this point, several years, it’s easy to forget that we’ve selected the voices we hear.  We’ve curated our world.

And as surprisingly dissonant voices emerge in our safe, curated communities, with a swift click of the unfollow or unfriend button, that voice is silenced and discarded.

But just because we no longer hear it, it doesn’t mean it no longer exists.  And it doesn’t make it irrelevant.

In short, we must be mindful of the samples we use to gauge perspective.  While it’s comforting to hear from people who think like you and love you (or your brand), remember you’re likely to learn just as much, if not more from those who don’t.


Why is $10 OJ So Tasty?

I had the opportunity to have breakfast at Norma’s at Le Parker Meridien during a recent stay. It really was quite tasty.

The prices, well… It’s Le Parker Meridien. Will put it this way – A standard omelette will run you about the price of a chicken dinner entree at a 4-star restaurant.

I had the blueberry pancakes (pictured above) – they were priced comparably, and they were amazing! And there was ‘unlimited’ orange juice – albeit freshly squeezed orange juice… for $9 bucks a pop. But the orange juice- was amazing!

Were those pancakes and juice REALLY worth $40?

Does part of our brain tell us – if I’m going to pay almost $10 for orange juice, my tongue is going to detect every slight nuance of velvety citric-sweet goodness? Most people don’t yearn to say – ‘I wasted $9 on orange juice and it sucked’.

Price can actually have a direct impact on our enjoyment of a product – despite how it may look or taste. Wine is a product whose price can range from one to six digits for a single bottle. There are certainly nuances across each varietal and vintage, but those aside, there happens to be a study that has directly linked a consumer’s enjoyment of a bottle of wine to his or her perception of how expensive the wine is.

I’ve got to give credit to Norma’s – clearly there is power in the assertion of pricing. You could probably go three doors down to a hole in the wall takeout cafe on 56th St. and get an order of blueberry pancakes and a carton of orange juice for the same price as that ‘bottomless’ glass.

But… it’s Norma’s. They have a $1,000 caviar-covered omelette called the Zillion Dollar Frittata . If you are visiting NYC from, say, Dubai, have a little bit of money and a lot more ego, maybe you’re going to say – heck yeah, I’m going to spend $1,000 on an omelette at the storied New York institution Norma’s just to tell people I can!!!

Marketers in the luxury business, whether hospitality or durable goods, are masterful in creating intangible value that makes every penny spent on $10 OJ or a $10,000 bag justifiable. It could be helping customers relish in the experience of sipping orange juice in a legendary New York institution, or giving them the comfort of knowing they’re purchasing a bag made of the butter-soft leather of baby sheep who have been smothered in La Mer moisturizer from birth (that’s hyperbole… I hope).

Simply having the gumption to throw out an astronomical price paired with an intriguing product story, is part of the secret sauce that makes some willing to pay a premium for one brand versus another.

Pricing is an art and a science… and, admittedly, a struggle for some. As I’ve spoken to more people who are in the consulting business, their biggest challenge is pricing – and making sure they’re communicating and being paid their worth.

What do you think? Do you instinctively feel that something is ‘better’ just because it’s more expensive?


Welcome to The Squeeze!


Hi there!

It’s Alliah.  Welcome to the Squeeze, presented by Lemonade Stand Limited (technically, me again).  Hope you’ll find this more than mildly enlightening.  Roughly 2x per month I’ll be popping into your inbox and on my blog with musings from yours truly.

As most of you know, I’ve recently begun peddling my brain as a marketing consultant.

Is it amazing?? Everything that I’ve dreamed it would be??? Mmm, sometimes!

The flexibility is paramount.  The pay ebbs and flows.

But at the end of the day, my brain gets a workout, and my soul is in tact. Two very good signs.

So, what do marketing consultants do?  I’ll be honest with you.  For me, it depends on the day and the client.  I’m a bit of a… specialized generalist.  I could be developing a positioning for a product or a vision for a brand one day, developing brand partnerships another, interviewing consumers, or even designing a social media graphic (I keep it pretty simple ;).  The brands I’ve been working with are small and growing and their needs change constantly.  It keeps me on my toes.

But what I’ve realized that I truly enjoy most is understanding consumer behavior. Chatting with people about why they do what they do and understanding how that translates into an actionable insight is FUN! I could do it all day! For free…

…ok, let’s not go that far.

That being said, I’ve decided to pair one of my kind-of-secret loves (writing) with my love of people and understanding what makes them tick.

So, The Squeeze will cover ‘Refreshingly Honest’ observations and insights that I’ve noticed in my life, my career, and how they affect consumer behavior.  I’ll cover a variety of topics, but frankly, my favorite part is just bringing light to the BS that goes overlooked and underreported.

Stay tuned, and thanks for reading… or better yet, passing along (wink, wink, hint, hint).