If you want to inspire people to do great work, try the “Yes, and . . .” approach.
“Yes, and . . .” is a popular expression in theater, especially in improvisational comedy. You might have encountered the idea in Tina Fey’s book, Bossypants. The concept refers to accepting someone else’s idea (“yes”) and building on it (“and . . . “). Improv theater absolutely depends on “Yes, and . . . ” because the actors create scenes by building off each other’s improvised ideas and running with them. One actor might start a scene by, say, spontaneously portraying William Shakespeare getting time warped to a modern-day Beyoncé concert. The “Yes, and . . .” occurs when their acting partner onstage builds upon the idea — perhaps improvising as Beyoncé and inviting Shakespeare for a duet of “Drunk in Love.”
By contrast, replying to Shakespeare with an unhelpful “But, Shakespeare, how did you get here?” or improvising with a scene that ignores the presence of Shakespeare shuts down the actor who came up with the idea of the time-warped Shakespeare and kills the improvised moment — the equivalent of a “No, but . . .” that alienates everyone, including the audience.
At the Bristol Renaissance Faire, an outdoor theater where I act on summer weekends, “Yes, and . . .” shapes how the cast collaborates, whether we’re developing new bits of improvisational comedy or ideas for enriching the characters we portray. The principle behind “Yes, and . . . ” is that people become more effective when you affirm them with positive reinforcement and when you apply the power of collaboration to make their ideas better.
The power of “Yes, and . . .” is an important theme in my recent appearance on Allison Pettengill’s Helping History Happen podcast, which focuses on how history inspires people. I hope you will give it a listen. The first part of my conversation with Allison focuses on how I fell in love with history and how historical figures such as T.E. Lawrence and Queen Elizabeth I have inspired me. The second half focuses on how I overcame my self-doubts to successfully audition for the Bristol Renaissance Faire and then built a popular character named Nicolas Wright even though I had zero acting experience when I joined the cast in 2014.
The Bristol Renaissance Faire is a recreation of Bristol, England, on a day in 1574 when Queen Elizabeth came to town (which did in fact happen in history to celebrate the Queen’s signing of the Treaty of Bristol). Each summer, patrons pay to walk through the gates and immerse themselves in a Read more »
“Are there any paranoids in the audience tonight?”
With those caustic words, Roger Waters introduced “Run Like Hell” in concert in 1980. Waters continues to taunt and provoke his audience 37 years later when he performs music from his Pink Floyd catalog and solo career, often by injecting venomous statements against President Elect Donald Trump from the stage.
When he taunts an audience and redefines his music in a political context, he leads them into a different relationship between performer and audience, one characterized by confrontation, stimulation, and discussion. I live in a family of artists. We often have conversations about the role of the artist to make an audience uncomfortable — to confront, to reveal, and to invoke anger even. It’s sometimes necessary to create discomfort if you’re going to lead an audience.
There is a time and place for leading an audience by challenging them, and consequences to be paid for doing so (as Jim Morrison demonstrated in 1969 at the infamous Miami concert that led to his arrest for public indecency). And, there is a time and place to make an audience feel warm, uplifted, and comfortable. I want to uplift people and make them feel comfortable when I act each year in the Bristol Renaissance Faire. But I don’t want to uplift necessarily when I write fiction, and neither does my wife, Janice Deal, in her short stories. We both want to lead an audience in our writing, as does our daughter, Marion Deal, in her writing and public speaking. Leading an audience means looking deep inside yourself and taking a risk. You know you’re succeeding when you evoke a reaction. It just might not be a happy reaction.
Case in point: back in the 1970s, Alice Cooper made popular shock rock by putting on concerts that featured imagery and theater that some might consider grotesque, such as a decapitated baby dolls and guillotines. Critics hated Alice Cooper and thought his concerts to be stupid and gimmicky. And even their audience sometimes recoiled in horror. But Vincent Furnier, who headed the band and adopted the name Alice Cooper for himself as a solo act, knew what they were doing.
The band’s onstage behavior was intended to create an audience reaction by synthesizing forms of horror and fantasy, burlesque and rock and roll, shaped by Furnier’s own passion for movies and visual storytelling. He satirized the then-noble notion of rock star as poet and social change agent by creating a villain who sang hit songs only to be executed onstage. He made an artistic statement and was leading the audience in another direction toward a glam rock movement would propel artists such as David Bowie to fame.
In the book What You Want Is in the Limo, an excellent narrative about rock and roll in 1973, Michael Walker discusses Alice Cooper’s rise to fame. Alice Cooper tells Walker, “We never went onstage with the attitude of, ‘Gosh, I hope you like us tonight.’ We’d take them by the throat and shake them and never, ever give them a chance to breathe.”
During one concert in 1969, the band’s in-your-face style so offended an auditorium full of 3,000 people that they all fled the show within about 15 minutes. But one man in the crowd, Shep Gordon, stuck around, mesmerized by Alice Cooper’s ability to move an audience. He went on to manage the band. As Alice Cooper told Michael Walker in What You Want Is in the Limo, Gordon was “clapping like a seal. ‘You cleared the auditorium in fifteen minutes!” he marveled. “Three thousand people in fifteen minutes . . . I don’t care if they fucking hated you. It’s mass movement. There’s power and money in that.'”
Gordon also recalled, “I had never seen such a strong negative reaction. People hated Alice, and I knew that anyone who could generate such a strong negative energy had the potential to be a star, if the handling of the situation was right.”
The phrase “music distribution” sounds boring. And yet music distribution is where brands inside and outside music can learn about innovation, as Ed Sheeran and Snapchat have demonstrated.
A new Snapchat lens makes you appear as though you’re wearing a pair of blue sunglasses while listening to a clip of one of Sheeran’s new singles, “Shape of You.” Lenses are one of Snapchat’s addicting features. They allow you to transform your face into, say, a zombie, or adorn your appearance with cute little stickers. The latest lens, while simple in appearance, adds the sonic touch of Sheeran’s song. This is a brilliant piece of marketing that gave Sheeran exposure for the single before it was released January 6 — and an example of how artists need to hustle their content.
Anyone can publish music now, thanks to platforms such as Bandcamp, Reverbnation, or Soundcloud, or social media platforms such as Global 14. The proliferation of music discovery platforms is good for creators and listeners. But publishing your music on Soundcloud isn’t the same as reaching an audience. Few artists succeed by simply being found. Here is where distribution comes into play.
The days of relying on record labels and radio to expose your music to the record listening public are long gone. Nowadays, an indie artist such as AM getting his music played in a Victoria’s Secret ad is a major distribution coup, and OK Go collaborates with brands on content creation and distribution. A brand can act as a content amplifier as well or better as radio can. And an AM, who appeals to a more narrowly defined audience of aficionados, needs a brand to break through to a larger audience. AM also licenses his songs for television and movies, which act as media platforms for his music.
But distribution has become even more sophisticated than getting your music played in an ad or piped into a hotel lobby. These days artists are collaborating with apps, games, and devices to find a lane for their songs. In 2013, Jay Z and launched an innovative deal with Samsung to distribute one million copies of his Magna Carta Holy Grail album through a special app exclusively on Samsung phones before the album went on sale publicly. In 2016, Rihanna and Samsung repeated the model for her album Anti.
Jay Z, Rihanna, and Ed Sheeran are all big-time artists, but they also understand the reality that the music industry has a short-term memory. You can’t rest off the laurels of your last hit. You have to hustle your music widely, then keep it in the public eye through heavy touring, merchandising, and relationships with brands. Ed Sheeran has not released a single since 2015, which is an eternity. Even Ed Sheeran can’t drop new songs and expect anyone to listen. He has to work at finding his audience, and Snapchat is an excellent music distribution channel for millennials. The app has reinvented itself from a messaging app into content storytelling platform for users and brands, ranging from the NFL to musicians — and not just Ed Sheeran. In 2015, musician Goldroom shared an EP of four songs on Snapchat, with each song clip forming a larger story.
The Ed Sheeran example is instructive to anyone who creates content, whether you’re a musician, podcaster, or blogger:
Find the right platform for your audience. Snapchat is perfect for Sheeran’s millennial-friendly music. It’s like Snapchat is the radio station with the right format. An app like Musical.ly, on the other hand, is ideal for younger digital natives.
Be ubiquitous. Snapchat has 60 million total installs. It’s on every millennial mobile phone across the United States. In effect, his song transforms each mobile device into an Ed Sheeran streaming device. Covering his bases, Sheeran also released a snippet of his song on Instagram, but not to the level he did through Snapchat.
Be natural. Embedding the song into a Snapchat lens works because playing with lenses is a natural Snapchat behavior. So the song does not feel intrusive.
Apps are where music distribution will explode. As I blogged recently, I believe that soon artists will debut new songs on Uber — another ubiquitous platform with the data tracking capability to deliver a well defined audience to a musician. I believe the same will happen with wearables. Wearables, especially used for exercise, are perfect especially because music is a natural companion to exercise. Wearables are already headed in this direction. The lesson is clear: if you want to find an audience, hustle your content to places where your audience lives. Snapchat and Ed Sheeran get it.
U2 has something in common with its corporate partner Apple: they both make a lot of money. And they both struggle to be cool.
U2 earns gigantic paydays with high-profile concert tours that appeal to its Baby Boomer fan base. According to Forbes, U2 was one of the highest paid musical acts of 2016 based on the success of its latest tour, Innocence + Experience, which earned $55 million.
But the band’s songs have barely put a dent in the Billboard charts throughout the 2000s (how many U2 songs from the 2000s do you listen to regularly?) and U2 has become joined at the hip with Apple, a brand that has been about as exciting as vanilla ice cream since Steve Jobs passed away.
U2 wants to change that perception. In 2017, U2 will hit the road for a tour that will celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree, thus introducing one of the group’s coolest works to the digital generation. Reportedly the tour will include an appearance at Bonnaroo, one of the key music festivals for establishing credibility and coolness with digital natives and millennials. And for entertainers, especially musicians, being relevant to the present-day generation of tastemakers (digital natives and millennials today) is important to being cool. Led Zeppelin is cool. Chance the Rapper is cool. Coldplay is not cool.
Artists can lose and regain their coolness for many reasons. In the late 1960s, Frank Sinatra lost his coolness when he tried too hard to connect with a younger audience by recording horrible cover versions of songs like Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” He regained his coolness when he stopped trying to be cool and focused on being Frank Sinatra. In the 1980s, Johnny Cash lost his coolness when he rejected his inner rebel and slipped into a comfort zone of touring as a feel-good gospel act. He regained his coolness when he partnered with producer Rick Rubin to make the American Recordings series of albums, which re-established his contemporary relevance through covers of rock songs such as “Hurt.”
U2 defined cool in the 1980s and 1990s by making music with bite, emotional depth, and boldness. Throughout the 1980s, U2 was the defiantly soulful and socially conscious alternative to the synth-heavy sound of the second British invasion, and The Joshua Tree demonstrated that you could be spiritual and cool at the same time. In the late 1980s, U2 suffered a temporary lapse of coolness during the Rattle and Hum tour, when the group’s pious tendencies turned into messianic self-indulgence. But U2 regained its equilibrium by recording experimental, edgy works such as Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop. Even if those albums were not always critically successful, U2 was challenging and pushing its audience in new directions.
But in the 2000s, starting with the release of All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2000, U2 committed the Johnny Cash mistake of settling into a comfort zone — in U2’s case, by churning out straightforward pop songs, all of which have pretty much sounded the same. According to U2: The Definitive Biography, by John Jobling, the commercial success of All That You Can’t Leave Behind helped U2 emerge from a financially troubled time — which might help explain why U2 has tried to repeat that album’s formula ever since, resulting in music that no longer resonates.
U2 also hurt its own coolness by falling out of touch with the listening habits of digital-era consumers. In the post-Napster era, U2 relied on the record album to tell its story and in doing so clung stubbornly to a dying format. When U2 realized that people no longer buy record albums, the band infamously tried to force an album on unsuspecting listeners by collaborating with Apple in 2014 to distribute U2’s Songs of Innocence as a “gift” download through iTunes. The unwanted distribution of Songs of Innocence caused U2’s social media sentiment to plunge by 41 percent in one week and exposed how irrelevant the band had become to the digital age, with Twitter users asking questions such as, “Who is U2? And why do their songs keep popping up in my iPhone?”
Since The Songs of Innocence debacle, U2 has continued to struggle with a perception of no longer mattering. In 2016, U2 offered to play a private concert as part of a promotion for (RED), which Bono cofounded to eradicate AIDS in Africa. The private concert promotion on Facebook has inspired plenty of laudatory comments from fans, but you don’t have to search very hard to notice the snarky pronouncements proliferating among the fan reactions, such as “I wouldn’t open the curtains if you were playing in my back yard. And don’t foist your mawkish MOR noise on my iPod ever again either while we’re at it!” (via Facebooker Cathy Smith).
So how can U2 reestablish its relevance and coolness? Here is what I’d do if I were managing the U2 brand:
Maximize the value of The Joshua Tree. Digging into the past is a wise move, as Guns N’ Roses proved through its successful Not in This Lifetime tour, which reestablished GNR’s relevance in the digital age. Playing at Bonnaroo would be a start. U2 should also hit the millennial music circuit with stops at venues such as Coachella and Lollapalooza. Surprise shows at smaller millennial-friendly gigs would help U2 connect on a more personal level with younger generations of fans.
Unleash The Edge. As a standalone figure, The Edge is way cool. (Check him out as he slays the guitar in It Might Get Loud.) I’d create a stronger narrative about his status as one of the great guitar gods, through advertising, social media posts, and music trailers promoting the upcoming shows. Putting a bigger spotlight on The Edge as the great guitar innovator that he is would demonstrate that even if U2 has not always progressed musically, he’s always been on the vanguard of guitar, similar to the way Slash has symbolized all that is good and cool about GNR.
Be visible in the right places. The band’s takeover of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2015 reminded the world of how funny and cool U2 could be. Jimmy Fallon is the kind of personality whom Baby Boomer musicians cozy up to in order to be relevant. U2 has plenty more opportunities to shine in the right shows, especially via digital — how about Bono appearing on Carpool Karaoke, for example?
Release great music. The most important step U2 can take is to create music that is relevant and interesting, which Songs of Innocence was not. In 2017, U2 will release its follow-up, Songs of Experience. Certainly the time is right for U2 to recapture its fire and grit if U2 wants to do so. We live in very uncertain and troubled times, which could make that socially conscious side of U2 more relevant again, as has been the case with Roger Waters and The Wall
For rock and roll acts, growing older does not mean losing your coolness quotient, as AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, and Neil Young have demonstrated. But you do have to state a case for your relevance when you continue to play music for decades, as I’ve discussed on my blog. By announcing a series of shows celebrating The Joshua Tree in 2017, U2 has taken a step in the right direction, as The Joshua Tree will never grow uncool. But will U2 create new music that resonates in 2017?
Even though album sales continue to decline, album cover art is more important than it was during the days when vinyl ruled the world.
As I have discussed on my blog, today album cover art acts as a visual imprint repeated across a number of touch points: the artist’s website, social spaces, merchandise, outdoor advertising, and many other places where artists tell visual stories. By contrast, back in the glory days of the album, the primary role of cover art (from a marketing standpoint) was to make the work stand apart in record store bins. An excellent demonstration of the new role of the album artwork is DJ Khaled’s Major Key, one of the most memorable album covers 2016.
DJ Khaled released Major Key in July 2016. The album received generally positive reviews for delivering his distinctive blend of dance and hip-hop with guest artists such as Drake and Jay Z. Major Key also featured the most imaginative album cover of his career. It takes a special kind of self-assurance and badassery to have yourself photographed on a throne next to a lion, and DJ Khaled pulled it off. The cover is not only visually striking, but it also makes a statement about the artist: the lion suggest power, and the flowers, elegance. Like a Pharaoh, DJ Khaled is unsmiling. He doesn’t need to. The successful musician and producer rules his universe his way.
But the album and the music inside it are linked to a bigger story. DJ Khaled fans instantly recognized the name Major Key — stylized as a golden key emoji — as an extension of the DJ Khaled brand on Snapchat. He is easily one of the biggest names on Snapchat, where he dispenses life lessons that he calls “major keys to success.” He typically uses the key emoji to accompany his little snippets of wisdom, which focus on living positively.
The album cover was a code for his fans as well as an attention getter for more casual listeners of his music. If you liked what he was selling on Snapchat, Major Key was a clarion call to get even more immersed in his own brand of wisdom through song. And it turns out that the cover was a harbinger: in November, Khaled published the book The Keys, which collects his wisdom into lengthier essays on successful living, categorized under themes such as “Stay Away from They” and “Don’t Deny the Heat.” Released just in time for the holidays, The Keys also features a familiar image: a majestic lion, resting on the same purple bed of flowers scattered about the album cover.
In context of DJ Khaled’s brand as a pop culture sage, the Major Key album cover acts as a brilliant touchstone. Khaled and that lion are everywhere, ranging from his Instagram feature photo to his Facebook banners.
On his home base of Snapchat, he continues to rely on the key emoji to express his personal brand.
It remains to be seen how successful The Keys will be, but Major Key is DJ Khaled’s first Billboard Number One album. Meanwhile, the book is receiving positive notice from the likes of The New Yorker, which is the kind of attention that will make his brand as digital self-help guru more mainstream. His ability to brand himself through visual storytelling is the key.
The success of Adele’s 25 triggered speculation that maybe, just maybe, record albums were coming back as an art form following years of declining sales. But by July, album sales figures released by Nielsen Music brought those hopes crashing down to an ugly reality. Consumers had purchased 100.3 million album units, down 13.6 percent compared to the same period in 2015, putting 2016 on pace to be the worst selling year for albums since Nielsen began tracking the data in 1991.
But fortunately, musicians didn’t give up on albums. Beyoncé and David Bowie were among the artists who created albums meant to be experienced as complete song cycles, not as chopped up morsels of content. Beyonce’s Lemonade challenged our notions of what an album could be, released as a “visual album” aired via an HBO special along with the songs themselves. And the music inside Lemonade was a brilliant statement about race and femininity.
Lemonade was also notable for its simple yet powerful cover depicting a spent-looking Beyoncé in fur and golden cornrows, hinting at the statement inside the album. Lemonade was one of many examples of albums that intrigued not only because of their music but also because of their cover art. As I’ve written before, album cover art is alive and well even as album sales decline. In the 21st Century, album cover art acts as a visual imprint repeated across a number of touch points: the artist’s website, social spaces, merchandise, outdoor advertising, and many other places where artists tell visual stories.
Ironically, album covers have even more reach than they did back in the days of album-oriented art for the very reason that the artwork can reach music fans through so many digital and offline channels and devices. The best of the covers do what album cover art has always done:
Capture your attention through striking design.
Express the essence of the artist.
Say something about the musical content of the album itself.
The examples I’ve chosen from 2016 consistently live up to those three functions of a cover, ranging from Beyoncé’s Lemonade to Loretta Lynn’s Full Circle. Check out the best examples from my new SlideShare to restore your faith in the power of album cover art to tell visual stories.
I recently received an invitation to check out some behind-the-scenes Rogue One: A Star Wars Story videos and watch cartoon images of Star Wars X-Wings fly through the streets of Chicago. There was only one catch: the experience was available exclusively on my Uber app and viewable only after I had requested an Uber ride. I believe the Rogue One content points to a new future for Uber: one in which the app serves as a content-sharing platform for brands, like a Snapchat on wheels. Soon, musicians will launch new song videos on Uber before anyone else can see them. When Wes Anderson creates another slick short-form holiday film, Uber riders will see it first. Get ready for Uber to become a hot media brand.
Uber has been blurring the lines between ride sharing and entertainment for some time. In July, Uber hosted a secret concert with musician Wale, and the only way to attend was to unlock the location through Uber. In September, Uber introduced Rider Music, through which riders can tap into their own Pandora and Spotify playlists through Uber — in essence, taking their favorite curated music with them while they’re getting an Uber ride. Rogue One marks a first: branded entertainment content embedded in the app.
And there’s no reason why Uber needs to limit itself with entertainment experiences. In fact, Uber already offers branded content through relationships with other businesses, just not in the slick, in-app way that Disney does with Rogue One. In January, Uber launched “Trip Experiences,” which relies on integrations with third-party apps to make it possible for brands to serve up content ranging from restaurant reviews to news. It’s taken some time, but businesses are figuring out how to take advantage of the functionality. The Washington Post recently launched an integrated viewing experience through which readers can browse content on The Washington Post app while checking the status of their Uber ride. Moreover, Uber recently announced that users could order Uber rides off the websites of nearby businesses and receive branded content from those businesses en route. Cole Haan and Guitar Center have already beta tested the functionality.
Becoming a more full-blown media app for content sharing makes perfect sense for these reasons:
Uber is sitting on a treasure trove of data about the 50 million people who have taken 2 billion Uber rides, including who they are, where they are going, and what they’re doing. (Uber has received criticism over its use of customer data, too.) The company can offer advertisers very targeted opportunities to reach segments such as millennials. And Uber regularly puts its customer insight data to use, forming partnerships with brands such as Starwood that want access to Uber’s customers to provide offers such loyalty program points for customers that use Uber.
Uber could use from the revenue the app could gain by forming relationships with brands. The company lost a reported $1.2 billion in the first half of 2016, with a failed expansion into China proving to be especially costly. The company is eager to show that it can monetize effectively in advance of an expected IPO.
By its nature, Uber is a utility that people have to open in order to use. The downtime that users experience during Uber rides is a natural moment for brands to share content to keep users engaged with Uber so long as the content is engaging. Picture those annoying screens that play in the back of taxicabs (if you still take taxicabs anymore) only with content that is more interesting and useful — because Uber is consistently an interesting and useful brand. Rogue One, for instance, is not a randomly curated piece of content. Uber has timed the sharing of the behind-the-scenes video plus the playful in-app Star Wars space craft experience during the run-up to the official opening of Rogue One to capitalize on a time when users are going to be more naturally interested in viewing the content. The Rogue One/Uber experience is all about relevance.
Uber also consistently demonstrates a willingness to adapt its business. As I’ve contended on my blog, Uber’s core business is disruption, not ride sharing. Uber has entered markets ranging from food delivery to healthcare by wedding technology with a keen understanding of consumer behavior, by the creation of partnerships with other brands, and by consistently trying new models. Uber tests, learns, and corrects its model quickly. Right now making a content push is Uber’s latest test-and-learn initiative.
Businesses can play in a number of fascinating ways. In addition to serving up exclusive content, brands could provide broader experiences that span the online and offline worlds. The next musician who offers a secret concert via an Uber relationship could also provide exclusive music through Uber while fans ride to the concert. Imagine a hotel offering rides to its guests via Uber and providing exclusive in-app games for riders en route to their destination.
Uber is a palette for content. Businesses just need to figure out the right kind of branded content that engages riders. Rogue One offers a glimpse of how that content will look.
The Internet is buzzing about Amazon Go, Amazon’s new self-service grocery store. At the flagship Amazon Go in Seattle, opening in January 2017, anyone with an Amazon account, a supported smartphone, and the Amazon Go app will simply take what they want from the store and leave with no check-out required. Customers will then receive a bill from Amazon, which uses a technology called Just Walk Out to detect when products are taken or returned to a shelf. The excitement over the disruptive potential of Amazon Go is justified. But a small grocery store in Sweden named Naraffar beat Amazon to the punch nearly a year ago. Naraffar’s story illustrates how small businesses can innovate quickly — but how big brands like Amazon can refine an innovation and make it mainstream.
Since January 2016, Naraffar, located in the small town of Viken, near the southern tip of Sweden, has been providing unstaffed 24-hour self-service. Customers use a smartphone app to unlock the store’s entrance, take groceries, and leave. Customers receive a bill later. Customers can also influence how Naraffar stocks its inventory by requesting items not in stock.
An enterprising Viken resident named Robert Illijason opened Naraffar after he noticed an unmet customer need: his own. After dropping his last bottle of baby food by accident, he needed to replenish his supply pronto. But the accident occurred when all stores were closed in the 4,200-town of Viken. Only after driving miles to another town did he find a store open.
In the aftermath of the experience, he wondered: why not open a 24-hour store in Viken? But the cost of hiring people to operate the store around the clock turned out to be prohibitive. So he designed a store that requires no people — not even to open or close the front door.
So far, Naraffar has succeeded as a small-scale, 7-11 type convenience store that offers staple items on demand, such as diapers and milk. Ilijason reports no issues with shoplifting. Customers need to identify themselves through Sweden’s BankID system. Security cameras monitor the store, and if for some reason the front door remains open for longer than 8 seconds, Ilijason receives an alert.
As noted by Tarunika Tolani of the Harvard Business School, Naraffar is a natural progression from click-and-collect buying, in which customers order what they want online and pick up goods in brick-and-mortar stores. The number of click-and-collect points in Europe grew by 20 percent in 2015, especially in the United Kingdom, where London alone can accommodate several collection points. Whether he realized it, Ilijason was tapping into a larger trend in consumer behavior by opening a store that removes a layer of friction from an increasingly popular click-and-collect approach.
But Naraffar lacks scale. Amazon possesses the scale, brand strength, and resources to make the Amazon Go model a mainstream experience. As is so often the case, start-ups can experiment and innovate. But the big brands such as Amazon can take innovation to another level. Amazon can test, learn, and refine an idea, whether its own or someone else’s. For instance, Naraffar requires shoppers to scan items with their smartphones and then confirm purchases — a two-step process. Amazon Go customers literally pick up their inventory and leave without any scanning their devices.
Naraffar offers limited inventory in a small location. Amazon Go’s flagship facility resembles a convenience store (with 1,800 feet), but already Amazon is exploring multiple grocery store formats, including much larger facilities, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Even Naraffar required the cooperation of a big brand to launch: Apple needed to approve its app for the smartphone technology to work.
In the United States, retailers are experimenting with several models that might exist alongside each other, including self-service stores of various sizes; variations of click-and-collect (see Walmart’s Pickup and Fuel concept stores, where customers order online and then drive to Walmart to have their groceries loaded into their cars by employees); and delivery on demand (which Walmart has been famously piloting with Lyft and Uber). An independent self-service store relying completely on an app might be a better fit for a remote small town that requires fewer goods and exists. But I could see Amazon building larger Amazon Go stores (certainly larger than 1,800 square feet) in cities where a critical mass of shoppers and infrastructure exists to support a bigger store.
Retailers such as Walmart and Amazon will continue to experiment with different store formats. 2017 is already shaping up to be an exciting year.
As the leaves of autumn give way to the bare branches of winter, the Morton Arboretum is a place of both refuge and inspiration. The preserve west of Chicago has a well-deserved reputation as a destination for hiking and bicycling amid the trees, ponds, and fields that comprise the 1,700-acre grounds. But the arboretum doesn’t assume that its reputation alone will attract visitors. To ensure that the natural playground remains top of mind amid the many digital and offline distractions vying for its patrons’ attention, the Morton Arboretum also happens to be a powerful content machine.
The arboretum’s content strategy is twofold: use digital to attract visitors, and offline content to support the organization’s mission of protecting and appreciating the natural world.
Visual Storytelling the Digital Way
The Morton Arboretum creates awareness and engagement by sharing content across the digital world where its patrons share their own content, on social spaces ranging from Facebook to Instagram, thus demonstrating that if you want to attract an audience, you need to be present where they live and search for things to do.
And the arboretum speaks the language of its audience: imagery. For instance, in October and November, the arboretum’s Instagram account offered an explosion of fall colors enticing the Instagram community to experience the bright red leaves of a sour gum or a golden yellow cork tree. The arboretum’s growing Pinterest community takes advantage of Pinterest’s organizational tools, with images organized under boards ranging from Gardening Ideas to Winter Trees. On YouTube, the arboretum offers more immersive tours that give potential visitors a taste of what they’ll find if they stop by. For instance, the arboretum recently posted a video tour of Illuminations, during which the grounds come alive with a festive light show at night. But YouTube is also a learning destination, offering how-to videos on topics such as tree pruning and watering plants and trees.
On Facebook, the arboretum also includes user-generated images, thus drawing from a broader palette of images and creating more engagement from its Facebook followers. Facebook and Twitter also act as sources of updates on the events that the arboretum offers around the year. In fact, its Facebook page is a textbook example of a how an organization can use a local page to generate awareness where people conduct searches for things to do nearby. The arboretum makes it easy for visitors to learn about events such as its Boo Breakfast for children, and the arboretum cross-promotes content on other social spaces, including TripAdvisor reviews. By being transparent and informative, the arboretum makes Facebook an important digital touch point that complements its website, which serves as its hub for learning more about things to do there. Patrons can also sign up for an email newsletter that curates content as frequently as needed.
A Learning Experience
The arboretum’s not-so-secret weapon for engaging its audience is educational content. Its website modestly claims that “we engage students, families, teachers, and life-long learners to dig a little deeper into the science of trees,” which is putting things mildly. The arboretum is practically a year-round school, offering lectures, classes on topics such as nature art and photography, and opportunities to get involved in conservation. The arboretum does a masterful job segmenting educational content for different audiences. Here are just a few examples:
School groups: for grades PreK-5, the arboretum hosts classroom visits in which educational leaders provide courses such as plant investigation and the basics of trees. Its half- and full-day field trips offer deeper dives into nature for ages ranging from kindergarten to high school. Kindergarteners might learn about using the five senses to explore nature, whereas high schoolers can get involved into the maintenance of the park by acting as restoration stewards during their field trips.
Adult programs: the arboretum empowers adult visitors to enrich their understanding of nature and discover their inner artists. During chilly winter Saturday mornings, visitors can take winter bird walks, in which small groups discover the habits of the birds who winter at the arboretum. The Nature Artists’ Guild encourages patrons to express their artistic sides through paintings, drawings, and other creative endeavors — really a form of user generated content.
Image source: The Morton Arboretum
One of my favorite arboretum activities is to immerse myself in learning at the Sterling Morton Library. The curved shelves full of neatly arranged books, comfortable chairs, and high ceiling create a welcoming environment to learn the old-school way: by burying your nose in books about the natural world the arboretum has vowed to protect. The library reminds me that a location need not provide blinking lights, video, and pulsating music to be immersive. The silence that invites quiet exploration of the mind is as immersive as sound.
All the content has a purpose: to support the arboretum’s self-proclaimed role as “the champion of trees.” The exhibits, the classes, and the tours all ladder up to a mission to get everyday people involved in protecting the natural world. And the arboretum supports its mission in obvious ways, such as the Vanishing Acts traveling exhibit. Vanishing Acts: Trees Under Threat was developed with the Global Trees Campaign to raise awareness for threatened and endangered trees. What makes Vanishing Acts special is that you can take the exhibition with you. The exhibition is designed to be set up in public spaces appropriate for learning about tree conservation. As such, the arboretum offers a program to help others set up the exhibition, including a how-to guide for constructing the exhibit. Consider Vanishing Acts an old-school way of creating sharable content.
Questions for Brands
Are you creating content that will engage your audience at a location level?
How well do you employ visual storytelling to share your brand?
Are you distributing that content where your customers are going to find it?
How well does your content support your mission?
How well do you involve your audience in the branded content you create?
Other Brands to Examine
Nordstrom, for its mastery of content on platforms such as Pinterest.
Starbucks, for capitalizing on social spaces to generate awareness for its stores.
For brick-and-mortar businesses, sharing meaningful content is increasingly essential to combat the ever-present threat of such as video games, Netflix, and apps that make it all too easy to remain planted on our sofas in the comfort of our homes. The Morton Arboretum can teach any brick-and-mortar business the power of immersive content.
Portions of this blog were adapted from a post I wrote for SIM Partners.
In 1973, my family lived near a network of ponds and fields on the northern fringe of Battle Creek, Michigan. You can visit the neighborhood anytime through Google Street View and even check out our old house at 242 Wanondoger Trail. The area still looks pretty much the same: simple wood or brick ranch structures, the occasional split level, big lawns, trees, and, beyond the cluster of houses, an open expanse of grass that still invites kids to play war games in the summer and ride their snowmobiles in the winter, just as my older brother, Dan, and I did. I was 10 years old in 1973. Dan was 12. I had two older sisters: Karen, who was in high school, and Cathy, who had recently graduated, worked at a Dairy Queen, and lived at home. Our family lived uncomplicated lives, or so it seemed to me. Besides playing outside a lot, Dan and I listened to record albums, including Bible stories that our Grandma Deal bought us. And somewhere along the line, I had discovered the joy of Al Green.
I don’t remember when or where I first heard Al Green’s voice — probably on the radio during a family drive in our Monte Carlo. But I loved everything I heard. I was a quiet kid. By age 10, I had already lived in Peoria, Illinois; Atlanta; and Indianapolis, and I did not make friends easily. Mine was a lonely world defined by books, the fields, the pond, and Al Green’s voice. His music was like a companion. His soothing, sweet vocals on songs like “I’m Still in Love with You” made me want to sing. The romance and longing in songs like “Call Me” made me want to experience the passions that had inspired such powerfully emotional songs even though I was too young to truly understand what he was singing about. I lacked the money to buy his albums, but I could afford the occasional 45s, which I purchased at K Mart and kept in a small stack in our parents’ big wooden console stereo, right next to my dad’s copy of Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass’ Whipped Cream and Other Delights.
“You Ought to Be with Me” was my favorite Al Green single. I listened to it over and over. At the time, I didn’t know how songs were made. I thought singers and musicians performed them live as opposed to recording their parts separately and assembling the parts into a song. I wondered how Al Green made his voice become like an instrument in the opening few seconds, with his “Hey, yeahs” and drawn out “hey-ah” jumping an octave over a bed of horns and strings before pleading and asking someone to be with him. I always listened closely at the one-minute mark, when his teeth made a slight whistle sound as he sang the word “us” in “They don’t want to see us do.” I suppose someone else might have done a retake, but Al Green made every vocal tic sound like honey. And I thrilled at the way he made the word “night” sound like an extended “nigh-hi-ey-aye” as the song faded out. Whenever I saw the Hi Records logo on his 45s, I thought of that drawn-out “hi-ey-aey” and still do.
But Al Green was not an obvious choice for a 10-year-old growing up in Battle Creek. On the one hand, he was at the peak of his popularity as a soul singer. His sweet vocal style combined with Willie Mitchell’s slick production generated a slew of hit singles and albums that would help shape 1970s soul. But there was something about him that didn’t sit right with the masculine small-town culture that defined our neighborhood. Maybe it was the way his voice soared high and cooed. Maybe it was his occasionally florid choice of attire, such as the frilly coat and sleeves he wore on the cover of Al Green Gets Next to You. Never mind that he was a notorious womanizer in real life. He was just too sweet for the boys of Battle Creek.
I soon experienced his impact firsthand when Cathy began to bring home boyfriends. They all looked big and rough to me in their greasy jeans, dirty flannel shirts, and long hair. When they hung out at our house, they always brought their records, and they played Cathy’s records, such as the Rolling Stones’ Through the Past Darkly (Big Hits Vol. 2) and Paul McCartney’s Ram. Sometimes they would discover my Al Green singles and play one, which always evoked the same incredulous “What is this shit?” expressions before the 45 was abruptly yanked from the turntable and replaced quickly with something more suitable, such as Deep Purple or Uriah Heep.
And Cathy was not exactly in a position to explain my odd musical interest. She really didn’t know me. We lived in two completely different universes. In 1973, she was soon going to turn 19. She was the oldest child, which meant being the first among us to experience the world, and I was the youngest, which meant I had experienced nothing, in her eyes. We were not hostile to each other, but we didn’t have anything in common. She tolerated me — but she accommodated her friends.
My mom and dad expected their kids to abide by the rules of the house, which, for Cathy, meant the usual prohibitions, such as on overnight guests without our parents’ consent, no drinking, no drugs, and generally no partying. It was fairly easy for my parents to enforce these rules so long as they were around.
But they weren’t always around.
My dad traveled a lot for his job as an insurance executive. We all grew up being accustomed to him living long stretches away from home. He would later keep an apartment in Chicago after he took a different job, and for awhile, the rest of us stayed behind in Battle Creek, as we had gotten used to him not being at home much. Part of my dad’s job involved attending annual company meetings in locations like St. Maarten. In 1973, he took my mom on one of these trips, and left the kids at home under Cathy’s care. Which meant Cathy had carte blanche to break the house rules. Which she did with relish.
She had her friends over. A lot. Overnight. With drinking. And maybe drugs. Probably drugs. I didn’t like it. Our house had been overtaken by a bunch of long-haired Vikings from the wild, drinking what they wanted, eating what they wanted, and sleeping where they wanted. And who could blame them, Cathy, or any other teenager once they discovered they had the run of the house? One morning, after a few nights of their general debauchery and hedonism had passed, I discovered my collection of Al Green singles had been reduced to a pathetic pile of sharp vinyl shards. I never found out who destroyed them, but it didn’t matter. Cathy had let them in. And they had violated my prized possessions. Even worse, Cathy didn’t care. Maybe she didn’t even notice.
That week, I discovered the meaning of revenge. I could never get those singles back, but I could get back at Cathy. So for the rest of the week, I kept a journal that described every rule violation that had occurred while my parents were away that week. Down to the minute, I recorded each party, each random cigarette butt tossed in our yard, each bottle of beer consumed by the Viking hoards, and every moment I had endured listening to their loud music. When the week was over, and my parents had returned home, I dutifully handed over the journal to my mom. Our parents never trusted Cathy to babysit the kids again, and they stripped her of the right to have any friends over for a long time, with or without my parents there. Essentially, the house became a prison for her, or so she thought. And my journal was to blame.
Today Cathy and I get along just fine. She lives not too far from me, and we share a deep love of music. But the journaling incident caused a rift that took years to heal. In Cathy’s eyes, I was nothing more than the worst kind of younger brother possible: a snitch. As I saw it, she was responsible for a horrible violation of my world. But I was willing to pay the price. You just didn’t mess with Al Green. Not my Al Green.