Brands & Bonds: Making Nice Makes Money

The Wall Street Journal: “In 2012, Tom Gardner, chief executive of the financial-services company Motley Fool, issued a challenge to his 250 employees: To get the 20% annual bonus the company normally gave, each employee would have to know the name of every other employee by year’s end. If one person got it wrong, no one would get the bonus. Employees met the challenge. Mr. Gardner’s goal was to build stronger bonds and enhance the organization’s broader culture. He might be onto something: The company says that its employee-turnover rate is lower than 2%.”

“When Google studied more than 180 of its active teams, the company found that who was on a team mattered less than how team members interacted, structured their work and viewed their contributions. Employees on teams with more psychological safety were more likely to make use of their teammates’ ideas and less likely to leave Google. They generated more revenue for the company and were rated “effective” twice as often by executives.”

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Anger Room: Rampage as White-Collar Therapy

The New York Times: “The Anger Room charges $25 for five minutes of crushing printers, alarm clocks, glass cups, vases and the like. Prices rise to about $500 for custom room setups. The most expensive setup so far has been a faux retail store, replete with racks of clothing … Sessions in an anger room are meant to be therapeutic. But mental health professionals question the efficacy of rampaging in a faux cubicle or whacking airborne glasses.”

“Nevertheless, customers of the Anger Room have paid to re-enact a scene from the movie Office Space, in which the main characters, a trio of disgruntled computer programmers, beat a printer with a baseball bat. The company can also customize the workplace experience, recreating a customer’s own office … Customers are provided with protective equipment that includes a helmet, goggles, boots and gloves. And they can pick out a music soundtrack — including classical, R&B, grunge and heavy metal — and an array of objects to swing.”

“The Anger Room accepts donations for its rooms from residents and businesses in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Its four employees also go out on bulk trash pickup days looking for crushable items. The employees build the rooms, filling them with the breakables, and do the postwreckage cleanup … Customers have included executives at large corporations, including Hilton and Microsoft.”

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Predictive Analytics: The ‘Weatherization’ of Fashion

The Wall Street Journal: “FIT, one of the largest and best-known fashion schools … this semester launched a new, 15-week course called ‘Predictive Analytics for Planning and Forecasting: Case Studies with Weatherization.’ The course, geared toward students interested in retail and merchandising careers, is part of a broad overhaul of FIT’s curriculum to include more topical business issues, and weather is a prime one.”

“Weather fluctuations have increasingly been putting fashion designers and clothing retailers on the defensive. Merchandise is often ordered months in advance based on what the weather typically is at that time of year. But when temperatures are different from what was predicted—milder-than-usual winters, cold springs or otherwise inconsistent weather—clothes that are all wrong for the climate stay on racks and get discounted, hurting sales.”

“At FIT, the predictive class is advanced, with terms like ‘linear regression’ … freely tossed out. Charts, graphs, equations and formulas are scribbled on white boards as students follow the lesson and plug numbers into Excel spreadsheets … In one exercise, students worked to forecast which weeks a retailer in Chicago would have to stock more fleece by incorporating weather data into their calculations.”

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Zara Success: A Databased Culture

Bloomberg Businessweek: “Unlike rivals such as Gap, H&M, and Primark, Zara has no chief designer, and there’s little discernible hierarchy. Its 350 designers are given unparalleled independence in approving products and campaigns, shipping fresh styles to stores twice a week. Guided by daily data feeds showing what’s selling and what’s stalling, the teams develop fashions for the coming weeks. Every morning, staff in Arteixo divine what’s popular by monitoring sales figures and thousands of comments from customers, store managers, and country directors in cities as far-flung as Taipei, Moscow, and New York.”

“Zara’s culture isn’t as easily copied as the latest fashion trends, and that partly explains why Inditex, its parent company, is a breakaway success while most global clothing retailers are struggling … ‘There isn’t a magic formula,’ says Pablo Isla, Inditex’s chairman and chief executive officer. ‘There are no stars. We are able to react to data during the season, but in the end, what we offer our customers is fashion, and there’s a human element to that’.”

“Isla rejects the fast-fashion label for Zara, saying it doesn’t reflect the time and detail that goes into designing each garment. And he says analysts place too much emphasis on Inditex’s much-vaunted supply chain … Just as important is the way Inditex ‘pulls’ ideas from consumers, Isla says, rather than designing collections months in advance and ‘pushing’ goods on shoppers with ads … Since 2010, the data on what customers want has been augmented with information from online sales. Those are fueled by twice-weekly releases of new designs on Zara’s website, highlighted with photos from rapid-fire shoots in Arteixo.”

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Black Ops Advertising: Hiding in Plain Sight

The New York Times: “The realization that something you thought to be ‘real’ is actually an advertisement is an increasingly common, if unsettling, sensation. Mara Einstein calls it ‘content confusion,’ and if her book, Black Ops Advertising, is right, we’re in for even more such trickery, indeed a possible future where nearly everything becomes hidden commercial propaganda of one form or another. She forecasts the potential of a ‘world where there is no real content: Everything we experience is some form of sales pitch’.”

“Content that doubles as brand advertising is not exactly new. In the 1980s, The Transformers and G.I. Joe were popular children’s cartoons but also advertisements, and so of course was the much beloved Mickey Mouse Club back in the 1960s … The difference, Einstein argues, lies in how much effort is going toward the dark arts. It is, she suggests, for one simple reason: that we, the public, are so good at avoiding or ignoring traditional advertising. We are fickle fish, cynical creatures who have already been hooked so many times that the simpler lures no longer work.”

“Einstein too quickly discards the most important remedy for advertising’s abuses: paying for content. A broader historical view can remind us that ad-supported media competes with paid media (like HBO, film, books). Those who don’t want to live in a world constantly trying to trick us into watching ads may have the most impact by voting with their dollars and starving the beast of the attention it needs to survive. Paying for things … strikes at the heart of the business model, and indeed a partial revolt is already underway, as suggested by the popularity of advertising-free subscription services like Netflix.”

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Brand Stories: Bloomindale’s on Broadway

The Wall Street Journal: “Retailers looking to convey their brand identities are increasingly embedding themselves with master storytellers: Broadway shows.During this fall’s theater season, retail marketers have found new ways to weave a show’s cast or creative team into brand-related content … And when the stars of the cast or creative team share with their own followers, they reach beyond the 600 to 1,500 or so people in an audience.”

“At the Music Box Theatre, a once-dingy dressing room has been redecorated as a private lounge for the cast and backstage visitors at the new musical ‘Dear Evan Hansen.’ Courtesy of Bloomingdale’s, the room is outfitted with cowhide ottomans and a chaise longue, as well as a ‘Twitter mirror,’ allowing guests to take selfies that post to the show’s Twitter feed—along with the automatic text ‘Backstage at #DearEvanHansen’.”

“For opening night of ‘Falsettos,’ the revival’s leading men—three adults and one child actor—were dressed by the retailer Brooks Brothers … If story matters for a brand, then the musical ‘Waitress’ and Ann Taylor appear to be a fit … Starting in October, Ann Taylor highlighted the musical’s story and creation by featuring director Diane Paulus and star Jessie Mueller in photos and video interviews. An in-store panel discussion and songs followed in Manhattan.”

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Gathering Wool: Fear Hijacks Daydreams

Alison Gopnik: “When neuroscientists first began to use imaging technology, they noticed something odd: A distinctive brain network lighted up while the subjects waited for the experiment to begin. The scientists called it ‘the default network.’ It activated when people were daydreaming, woolgathering, recollecting and imagining the future. Some studies suggest that we spend up to nearly 50% of our waking lives in this kind of ‘task-unrelated thought’—almost as much time as we spend on tasks.”

“Other brain areas constrain and modify mind-wandering—such as parts of our prefrontal cortex, the control center of the brain … creative thought involves a special interaction between these control systems and mind-wandering. In this activity, the control system holds a particular problem in mind but permits the brain to wander enough to put together old ideas in new ways and find creative solutions.”

“At other times … fear can capture and control our wandering mind. For example, subcortical emotional parts of the brain, like the amygdala, are designed to quickly detect threats. They alert the rest of the brain, including the default network. Then, instead of turning to the task at hand or roaming freely, our mind travels only to the most terrible, frightening futures. Fear hijacks our daydreams.”

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The Brain Train: It’s All In What We See

Fast Company: Our brains are anything but static. When we have new experiences and encounter unfamiliar ideas, clusters of neurons are formed and existing clusters connected with previously learned behaviors are strengthened. Through the right kind of training, our brains can adapt to perform at higher levels than many of us tend to think—pushing us past what we believe our ‘natural abilities’ to be.”

“The renowned art teacher Betty Edwards made her name by taking people with ordinary artistic abilities and teaching them to draw impressive self-portraits. She accomplishes this feat not in years, months, or even weeks—she does it within a mere five days. In an updated 2009 edition of her landmark 1979 book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Edwards writes that once a person understands the technical components of drawing, he or she will progress rapidly—as long as they commit to focused practice.”

“Edwards emphasizes that most people don’t lack drawing skills as many believe they do, but rather seeing skills. She maintains that once she shows her students how to perceive things like edges, spaces, lighting, shadows, and relationships among objects, their ability to draw quickly improves … With diligence, focus, and time (and sometimes less of that than we’d imagine), our brains are wired to help us accomplish things we hadn’t previously thought possible. In fact, that’s one natural ability we all possess.”

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Slow Lanes: Better Pace for Older Shoppers

Quartz: “The researchers in food and public policy from the University of Hertfordshire suggested that supermarkets should introduce ‘slow lanes’ for the elderly, for whom shopping for food is part of a social experience that new technology is eroding … Automated check-outs and efficient service ignore a vital community aspect of food shopping, and not just in the UK but across developed economies, the researcher (Wendy Wills) said.”

“Older people want to remain active but can feel intimidated because they ‘know they’re really slow,’ she said. ‘And they want staff that are going to spend time talking to them…spending some time rather than rushing them.’ Similarly, said Wills, the idea that online food-shopping is a way to help older, less mobile people ignores the need for people to come together.”

“And it seems the ‘slow lanes’ idea could actually catch on, as supermarkets begin to take responsibility for their place in the architecture of local communities. Wills said several local trials had already taken place, and more than one large British supermarket chain had expressed interest in working with the university as it continues with the research.”

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