What Black Friday says about us

My November 25 eyewitness Black Friday post suggested that the most famous shopping day of the year is bigger than ever. The official numbers confirm my hunch. According to ShopperTrak, Black Friday 2011 set a new retail sales record. Consumers spent $11.4 billion — the largest Black Friday haul ever and a 6.6 percent increase over 2010 spending levels. So what does Black Friday 2011 say about us? We’re getting increasingly sophisticated with our shopping experience, and we’re bonding socially over Black Friday. Unfortunately, we’re acting ugly, too, with Black Friday shoppers resorting to violence to secure their discounted door buster deals. The Walmarts of the world need to shoulder part of the blame for Black Friday shopper mayhem — and can help put an end to the behavior, too.

Here are four observations about Black Friday based on my four years of reporting:

1. Shopping is part of the American DNA

Black Friday continues to confound many people who don’t understand why Americans are so eager to stand in freezing cold lines and tolerate unpleasant shopping conditions in search of a Continue reading

How Fair Game creates a social experience for gamers

The challenge is compelling: turn off your TV. Turn on your brain. Those words appear in the front window of Fair Game, a retailer that wants to re-define “interactive gaming” to mean friends and family interacting with each other over table top board games, as opposed to staring at digital screens and killing soldiers in grisly black ops scenarios. And Fair Game is succeeding — not only by selling games that empower people to socialize but also by acting as a social destination for gaming enthusiasts.

Advertised as a place “Where Fun and Family Meet,” Fair Game sells the kind of immersive board games that you can spend hours playing over a long winter’s night: like the popular Settlers of Catan, in which participants compete to build roads, homes, and settlements by trading goods with each other; or Lost Cities, which challenges players to mount expeditions into long-forgotten worlds in places like the Brazilian rain forest. With a game like Conflict of Heroes, you can create the frigid world of the World War II Eastern Front, aided by the power of your own imagination — instead of having a piece of software do all the work for you.

The games jump out at you from brightly colored boxes that form lopsided towers on the shelves of this comfortable, friendly space adorned with comfortable chairs, long tables, and many genres of music ranging from Hawaiian to rock, as programmed from the Pandora channel of owner Josh Stein — whose own childhood experiences are the reason the store exists.

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Customer service in the trenches

The holiday shopping season shines a spotlight on lowest-paid, undervalued assets of the customer experience: your front-line brand ambassadors. I’m talking about the clerks, baggage handlers, and waitstaff operating in the trenches of customer service to pour your coffee at Waffle House, process your Blu-ray order at Best Buy, wrap your gift at Nordstrom, or check in your luggage at the airport as you head out to a family holiday soiree. The front-line staff can make or break your brand. They create critical first impressions. Their judgment calls can create either a ho-hum dinner or a memorable night out. And their personal styles can make your brand more human and approachable. Two recent examples:

  • One of the pleasures of shopping at the Oakbrook, Illinois, Barnes & Noble is chatting with Dave, who works in the media department. Dave does not simply process customer purchases or point you to the Sci/Fi Blu-ray section. If you spend more than 30 seconds talking with him, you’ll learn that Dave is a passionate film buff with an encyclopedic knowledge of seemingly every movie ever made. Just last night he and I explored Barnes & Noble’s Criterion Collection film collection. Dave critiqued some of the more unexpected choices in the Criterion catalog. Why, for instance, did Criterion choose to feature Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy over Clerks? The question sparked a discussion about Kevin Smith’s career and one of our usual enjoyable exchanges about movies. Dave makes Barnes & Noble a more personal experience.
  • Recently my family and I toted four pieces of luggage to the United Airlines baggage roadside check-in at O’Hare Airlines en route to a weeklong vacation at Disney World. The baggage handler who processed our luggage reminded us that United charges $25 per checked bag. He pointed to one of our bags, which was lightly packed. “You sure you don’t want to carry that bag onboard?” he asked. “It’s pretty lightly packed. You can save yourself $25 if you take it with you.” He was right: in our haste to prepare for our vacation, we had not packed as efficiently as we could have. His taking the initiative saved us money (and got him a bigger tip, by the way).

A couple of take-aways:

  • The baggage handler’s actions cost United $25 in the short term. But he was obviously not thinking in terms of a one-time transaction — he just wanted to make our lives easier. In doing so, that baggage handler created a longer-term favorable impression that is good for United’s business.
  • I don’t think you can train people like Dave or that baggage handler to be the kind of people they are. Dave and my United baggage handler are the kinds of employees who make the customer experience better simply by injecting their own passion (Dave’s for film and the baggage handler’s for helping others) into their jobs.

Do you hire for passion?

From Eminem to Warhol: creating art out of vinyl

Daniel Edlen makes art out of vinyl LPs. Yup, I’m talking about the shiny black LPs that defined how we experienced music in the pre-digital era, which have become in vogue again more than 60 years after vinyl was introduced. Daniel’s business, Vinyl Art, offers stunning images of iconic musicians via portraits hand painted with white acrylic on vinyl.

His website offers a compelling challenge: “Gone digital? Get back to what you lost” by exploring the tactile world of vinyl as experienced through Daniel’s portraits of musicians ranging from Eminem to Elvis. For $350, you can bring Johnny Cash’s brooding face or Aretha Franklin’s soulful gaze to your home — or have a piece of your own commissioned.

By celebrating the joy of the physical musical experience in a digital world, Vinyl Art is succeeding. His work has been exhibited in locations such as the VH1 Corporate Gallery, commissioned by the David Lynch Foundation, and owned by the likes of Lou Reed.

According to Electric Moustache, “Vinyl Art is badass,” and I agree. I recently interviewed Daniel to find out more about Vinyl Art — what inspires him to do what he does and how he uses digital to build his business. He also discusses a brand new Andy Warhol triptych he created to celebrate Warhol’s iconic album designs for The Velvet Underground & Nico, Sticky Fingers, and John Lennon’s Menlove Ave. In the interview, Daniel shares not only a passion for music and art but for giving, as well. To view more Vinyl Art, check out a free eBook of his work here.

Why vinyl art? What inspires you to do what you do?

Giving inspires me. Not giving to get but giving to contribute. I like the question “Are you a miner or a farmer?” Miners take and don’t give back. Farmers take but then replenish, remix, restore. Throughout my earlier years I took from culture, incorporating sights and sounds into who I am today. The opportunity to create my Vinyl Art is an opportunity to give back to our culture in my way. Continue reading

A slice of hip hop: “Imma Beast” by Prince Mick

“Imma Beast” by 22-year-old Prince Mick is raw and powerful, as is the video featured here. The gritty groove, built on top of a driving drumbeat, captures the feel of the stark, bleak Chicago cityscape captured in the video. Prince Mick raps with conviction and hell-bent fury. And no wonder: that’s his neck you see with a bullet hole in it during the opening scenes of the video.

The song is a compelling statement of purpose from someone whose life has changed. “Music is my new hustle,” he raps — and nothing will stop him, not even bullets.

Prince Mick cites inspiration both profane and spiritual for this song and video.

“My change in life inspired me to do that video,” he wrote to me. “I shot that video in my hometown Chicago. I just went to all of my old neighborhoods because it brings back so many memories. I have a story for each location I shot my scenes at. I’m inspired by God and His worship, I’m inspired by 2Pac, Da Brat, and pretty much Music and its legends.”

Prince Mick

Prince Mick, who is based in Chicago, shared “Imma Best” on Global 14 — a social community run by Jermaine Dupri and a hotbed of hip hop. Check out Global 14 and follow Prince Mick on Twitter @princemick1.

Music I like: “Get 2 You” by ILL Son

“Get 2 You” by ILL Son is sweet. The song evokes hip hop and urban contemporary (for some reason I thought of “Knockin’ Da Boots by H-Town when I first heard this song).

When you listen to “Get 2 You,” you feel a sense of urgency for ILL Son to get the girl (”life is like sports with many short careers”), which suggests “Just Wanna Love You Tonight” by the Average White Band. You don’t know if ILL Son will succeed, and I like that.

Here is what ILL Son told me about the song: “The inspiration for writing the song came from my real life experience — a life altering relationship that has brought forth not only the song but the basis of my entire project, ILLSONOMICS= THE STUDY OF WOMAN THRU A MUSICAL PERSPECTIVE.


ILL Son, who is based in Atlanta, shared “Get 2 You” on Global 14 — a social community run by Jermaine Dupri and a hotbed of hip hop. Check out Global 14 and follow ILL Son on Twitter @ill_son.

The case against the Apple iPhone 4S

Should you upgrade for an iPhone 4S? It’s certainly tempting – but my family can’t afford to upgrade each time a new Apple product hits the market, especially if we’re going to make room in our budget for my purchase of Pink Floyd Immersion box sets. To guide our decision making, I sought the advice of someone whose opinions you and I should trust: John Hensler, owner of Sunken Anchor Media. I don’t purchase any consumer electronics without consulting John. He not only enjoys products by Apple (and other brands) as a consumer – he needs them to perform well as a business owner. Here’s John’s take, contributed as a guest opinion to Superhype:

I have decided to skip the 4S purchase.  The new camera is enticing, but I think I’ll wait for the “real” iPhone 5, whenever that is.  I bet it’s not a year from now.

I don’t want to be locked into another AT&T contract for another two years when my current one will be up in June of 2012.  Who knows, Apple might go back to the schedule of introducing new phones during the summer. Especially with Sprint now a carrier, there will be more competition and choice among providers

I’ve read a few articles from analysts who think the 4S is a stopgap phone to make sure that Apple has fresh product for the holiday season.  I think that’s about right.  At any rate, I’m really quite happy with the 4, and with the launch of the new Apple iOS 5 operating system, it should be great. Apple iOS 5 is impressive on the iPad; I’m sure it will be that way on the iPhone.

Besides, when the next iPad comes out — probably next March or April — it will likely have a retina display, and I’ll want to have one of those for sure. I’ll give my current iPad to my mom.  So I have to budget out my “iPurchases.”

Wise words. In my case, I need to consider two iPhone upgrades (for my wife and me) and any impact on our family phone plan with AT&T. And, it won’t be long before I need to think of our daughter owning an iPhone. I’m sitting tight. How about you?

A bold vision to “reinvent the American dream” in Detroit

Philip Lauri wants to re-imagine the city of Detroit. He is the founder and director of Detroit Lives! a social brand dedicated to launching projects and ideas that will strengthen Detroit as a community and city.

Detroit Lives! has captured the attention of media ranging from Monocle to Time. And no wonder: Detroit Lives! constantly finds bold and imaginative ways to create a positive vibe about Detroit. For example, Philip and a peer once snuck into the abandoned (and iconic) Michigan Central Depot train station, arranged scrap metal to etch the message Detroit Lives! in the snowy ground where the main hall used to be, and then sold prints of the resulting image — an iconic portrayal of the city’s past and potential future trajectory.

Detroit Lives! is a creative multimedia effort. In addition to guerilla art, Detroit Lives! sponsors community goodwill projects, sells merchandise displaying its ubiquitous Detroit Lives! branding message, creates films, and generates editorial content on its blog – just like a multi-channel brand.

Philip, a Detroit native, founded Detroit Lives! after returning to Detroit in 2008. I interviewed him recently to better understand Detroit Lives! and how he’s improving public perception of the city. This is his story.

What’s the mission of Detroit Lives! in one sentence?

The mission of Detroit Lives! is to re-imagine Detroit.

We seek to help create a new and more positive image of Detroit. We manifest ourselves just as any brand does — like Nike, for example.

Nike makes basketball shoes, hockey sticks, skate decks, short films, clothing — you name it. Detroit Lives! does something similar, just on behalf of a city. We make T-shirts, posters, and paper goods that we sell in retail outlets – products that carry positive messages about Detroit. We make films that relate the message of possibility from the mysterious underbelly of Detroit.

We paint murals to make people smile. And we have a blog to create engaging dialog about Detroit.

We aim to create collisions of culture in the city, essentially bringing together Detroit residents in ways they might not have expected in order to envision a new future for the city.

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Pink Floyd shines on for Baby Boomers

When EMI Music announced in May that the record company would re-issue the Pink Floyd musical catalog via re-mastered compact discs, vinyl editions, and Blu-rays, a friend of mine in his 20s asked me who on earth would buy such a blatantly physical product in the digital era. Answer: Baby Boomers. The Baby Boomer generation is sizeable (nearly 80 million strong) and willing to buy music in analog form.

Unless you know something about the increasingly powerful Baby Boomer generation, the EMI re-issue certainly defies logic. Beginning September 26, EMI will shower Pink Floyd fans with a slew of analog goodies, including:

  • A re-mastered version of the band’s classic The Dark Side of the Moon via a two-disc “Experience” set, a vinyl LP, and a six-disc “Immersion” set (the latter retailing for $110 on Amazon as of September 25).
  • Fourteen remastered Pink Floyd albums, available individually and as a “Discovery” box set ($180 on Amazon @September 25).

In November, EMI will release the band’s 1975 album Wish You Were Here via five-disc and two-disc editions and then The Wall will receive similar treatment in February 2012.

The packaging promises to be extravagant. The Dark Side of the Moon Immersion box will include a booklet designed by Storm Thorgerson (who designed the original album art), an art print, and even a scarf. And the music is said to be remastered in superior Continue reading

Marketing by helping, not selling

The future of marketing is helping, not selling.

Those were the words of content strategist Jay Baer at the recent Content Marketing World conference, an event focused on helping brands become better content marketers. So what exactly does it mean to market by helping? On September 15, Internet security firm McAfee showed us by announcing the results of its annual “McAfee Most Dangerous Celebrities” study.

McAfee is a lot like its owner Intel. Both companies provide services that are essential but kind of boring to talk about. McAfee provides unsexy but important security products and services to safeguard your personal and business computers. It’s the kind of company whose website features stock photos of bland, smiling corporate types dressed in power suits out of the 1980s.

That’s why the McAfee Most Dangerous Celebrities surprises and delights. Each year, McAfee analyzes which celebrities are most dangerous to search for on the web – in other words, the names most often used by cybercriminals to lure web searchers to sites containing computer viruses and spam.

This year, McAfee revealed that searching for Heidi Klum’s name yields a nearly one-in-ten chance of landing you on a malicious site. So take a bow, Heidi Klum: you’re the most dangerous celebrity in cyberspace for 2011, unseating Cameron Diaz. The most dangerous male celebrity, by the way, is Piers Morgan. Ironically Lady Gaga ranks a relatively tame 58.

The McAfee Most Dangerous Celebrities list qualifies as helpful content marketing for two reasons:

It’s useful

McAfee raises awareness about the vulnerabilities of web surfing for celebrity names. Searching for phrases like “Heidi Klum” and “free downloads,” for instance, expose you to risks for encountering sites that will steal personal information.

In a press release, Paula Greve, director of Web security research at McAfee, comments, “Consumers should be particularly aware of malicious content hiding in ‘tiny’ places like shortened URLs that can spread virally in social networking sites, or through e-mails and text messages from friends.”

You might think you’re beyond falling for malware traps, but in our multi-tasking society, even the most savvy among us can be vulnerable. McAfee earns our attention by helping us understand an important issue.

It’s engaging

McAfee could have relied on a perfectly functional but boring video featuring a security expert to remind us of the dangers of reckless web surfing – perhaps valuable but not very helpful if the video fails to engage you.

Instead, McAfee finds a fun way to keep our attention by tapping into our national fascination with celebrity culture. McAfee gives us an amusing version of the Vanity Fair annual New Establishment list, providing little tidbits of fun trivia that manage to educate. For instance, although Charlie Sheen might post a danger to himself (and his publicist), he’s not too dangerous in cyberspace.

“Hot movies and TV shows, awards and industry accolades seem to be more of a factor than headline-grabbing activity,” explains Greve.

The McAfee Most Dangerous Celebrities List works as content marketing also for what it does not do: hit you over the head with a hard sell for McAfee. To be sure, McAfee slips in a reminder to use McAfee security software to safeguard our computers by performing a variety of tasks such as blocking risky websites. But the message feels earned in context of a larger and informative discussion about Internet security.

Since McAfee published its 2011 Most Dangerous Celebrities List on September 15, McAfee has quickly gained attention on news outlets ranging from CNN to Entertainment Weekly.  The PR returns alone, gained in a matter of hours, are priceless.

By sharing useful and engaging information instead of pushing product at us, McAfee defines helpful content marketing.