Finger Pickin’ Good: The Hardee’s Jam

The Wall Street Journal: “How many banjo players fit in a Hardee’s? More than fit in a McDonald’s, it turns out. On regular Sunday evenings, bluegrass picker Rick Cleavenger joins fiddlers, guitarists and others to jam at the red-roofed burger joint. The musicians have been playing, eating and making corny jokes here since 2012, after a McDonald’s, their previous venue, rearranged its tables and chairs, making it impossible to clear enough space.”

“Mr. Cleavenger landed the Hardee’s venue because the manager, Lori Westfall, had been a high-school math student of his … Sometimes customers walk in after hearing the music from their cars. The musicians aren’t the best customers, given that they stay for more than four hours and generally only eat one or two sandwiches each, ‘but they are fine people,’ says Ms. Westfall.”

“Brad Haley, chief marketing officer for Hardee’s and sister restaurant chain Carl’s Jr., says even though ‘a certain level of consistency is important,’ the chain welcomes local culture … ‘It has to be organic, with people inviting people they know,’ says Mr. Haley. “We’re not going to put up a sign that says ‘Bluegrass Jam Welcome’.”

As to the McDonald’s snub: “Terri Hickey, a spokeswoman for McDonald’s Corp., says ‘franchisees are independent business owners who determine how they delight their customers in relevant ways.’ In New York City, there is a “McDonald’s where customers can dine to music played by a local DJ,’ she says.”

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Vegan Seats: What’s Next In Luxury Cars?

The Wall Street Journal: “Interior styling, of which seating is the cornerstone, is the second most cited reason why a shopper won’t buy a car—beating out a vehicle’s dependability rating … with rising consumer expectations and auto-maker competition, the once lowly seat is now getting some much needed attention … Some seats offer “lane-departure warning systems that shake a corner of the seat, heating and cooling options, and, in some cases, a massage feature.”

“Cars 20 years ago were all about horsepower, tire width or how fast you could go from zero to 60,” says Ray Scott, of Lear Corp., a seat designer. “Now it’s all about the driving experience, and seats are where the person is spending most of the time.”

“Lear has developed technology that turns the seat into a biometrics scanner with the ability to monitor the occupant’s heart rate and display it on the center entertainment screen.” Tesla “is offering vegan-style seating in its Model X and the new Model 3 SUV due out next year. The option involves seats covered with synthetic leather.”

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Small Bore: Is Apple Thinking ‘Different’ Enough?

“Apple’s view increasingly feels like an outdated way of thinking about tech. Many of its competitors have been moving beyond devices toward experiences that transcend them,” writes Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times. These new technologies exist not on distinct pieces of hardware, but above and within them … it’s hard to tell if Apple is thinking big enough.”

“Apple still seems to view online services as add-ons to its devices — not as products or platforms that rise above them.” For example: “Siri, as Apple is positioning it, is becoming a better app launcher for your phone … But it’s not clear that it’s becoming a truly intelligent assistant.”

“One problem is that the new Siri will not integrate with all kinds of apps … It’s hard to shake the suspicion that Apple is using Siri to give its own apps a leg up … Another problem is that Siri is still hopelessly tied to each Apple device … If Siri is an intelligent assistant, why … can’t she call Uber from the cloud, regardless of which device you happen to be using?”

“Google, Amazon and several start-ups seem to be rushing headlong to build such a system. But … I’m not sure Apple is,” Manjoo writes. “It’s taking a more moderate app-based, device-centric path. Many of its voice features will be fine — useful, even. But it sure isn’t pushing for a revolution.”

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Post Pink: Game-Developer Barbie

Slate: “Game Developer Barbie is wearing jeans, sensible shoes (!), and a T-shirt that is both nerdy and kind of cute … She has a laptop that is laptop-colored, because women can actually use tech products that aren’t pink. There are no pictures of Ken or fashion magazines around her workspace, just coffee, headphones, flowcharts—not to mention actual programming books (C++ and C#) and action figures (He-Man!). She still likes some pink, of course; this is Barbie, and there’s nothing wrong with pink.”

“Perhaps most striking, Barbie can actually code … The interface appears to be Alice, an educational programming environment, and the code it’s outputting is ActionScript (or maybe Haxe). Basically, she seems to be making a Bejeweled clone in Flash … The back of her box tells us: Game development involves storytelling, art & graphic design, audio design, & computer programming. Because there are so many aspects to creating a game, teamwork is important.”

“Mattel might consider partnerships to create its own programming tools tied to the Barbie universe. Wouldn’t it be cool if kids could make and share interactive Barbie stories—learning some programming while also having the agency to create their own empowered Barbie characters?”

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The Swiffer Effect: Walmart & Procter Butt Heads

“Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, and P&G, the world’s biggest consumer-goods company, are increasingly butting heads as both try to wring more revenue out of their slow-growing businesses, The Wall Street Journal reports … A battle last year over the popular Swiffer mop suggests the tensions aren’t likely to abate soon. P&G’s consumer research revealed that existing packages weren’t large enough to prompt repeat purchases, and so it upped the number of wipes in a pack, improved the handle and increased the price … Around the same time, Wal-Mart introduced a less expensive store brand, irking P&G.”

“To settle the matter, P&G had to offer a temporary discount on the company’s Swiffer products. Not only did P&G employees worry about lost sales, they believed the store-brand refills were of a lower quality and would stop first-time Swiffer users from sticking with the habit. ‘They sell crappy private label, so you buy Swiffer with a crappy refill,’ said one of the people familiar with the product changes. ‘And then you don’t buy again’.” A Walmart spokesman said: “Our Great Value products provide a quality alternative for customers looking to save money.”

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The Future of Grocery: Yoga & Bike Repair

The Wall Street Journal: Shoppers looking to pick up milk and eggs may have other reasons to spend time at their local supermarket: yoga classes or a spa treatment, perhaps. Under growing pressure from discounters and online rivals, supermarkets are trying to transform themselves into places where customers might want to hang out rather than just grabbing groceries and heading home.”

“In Phoenix, a Fry’s Food Stores, part of a chain owned by Kroger Co., features a culinary school and a lounge with leather couches perched next to a wine bar. A Kroger store in Hilton Head Island, S.C., offers a cigar section to complement its wine cellar that stocks $600 bottles. Whole Foods Market Inc. has a putting green outside its Augusta, Ga., location and a spa offering peppermint foot scrubs and facial waxing in a Boston store. Elsewhere, it has bike-repair stations. A ShopRite store here in Hanover Township, near New York, runs a fitness studio with yoga, barre and Zumba classes and has a cosmetologist on weekends.”

“Most of these enhanced stores appear to be located in affluent suburbs and city neighborhoods—places where shoppers are more inclined to order groceries from e-commerce sites or meals from services such as Blue Apron … Some concepts have fizzled. The Fry’s in Phoenix made its debut in 2010 with a car wash but discontinued that after it didn’t catch on, a Kroger’s spokesman said. The cooking classes, by contrast, have doubled in size since the school opened, and the store offers at least a dozen sessions a week, he said.”

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Big ‘G’ Archive: Brand Past as Prologue

The New York Times: “By 1980, General Mills had accumulated so much brand memorabilia that the company established an archive … The archive, which is closed to the public, houses thousands of artifacts in about 3,000 square feet of temperature- and humidity-controlled space.”

“Among the photos, packaging and promotional items are an early rendering of the character Betty Crocker, who was created in 1921 to answer consumers’ baking questions… some of the first clay animation models of Poppin’ Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy; and a box of Cheerioats, the original name of Cheerios … Many artifacts illustrate how marketing and advertising have evolved. Wheaties made its debut as Washburn’s Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes in 1922, only to be renamed two years later in a companywide contest.”

“Through its sponsorship of radio programs like the ‘Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air’ … General Mills introduced its products from coast to coast … General Mills later sponsored cartoons, notably ‘Rocky and His Friends’ and ‘The Bullwinkle Show’ from 1959 to 1964.” Mary Zalla of Landor comments: “You and I watch TV, and every 15 minutes we’re assaulted with commercials … Do you ever associate those brands with the show you’re watching? You don’t … Before, those brands were so closely tied with the TV shows and the talent surrounding them that it gave those brands an incredible start.”

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De-Branding: A Shift From Products to Places

Fast Company: “It’s misleading to use a totally different set of qualities—good stories—to sell a product that has intrinsically nothing to do with these qualities. Hiring a top filmmaker won’t improve the quality of your energy drink … You could even say that the better the stories, the more dishonest the companies are being.”

“Here’s where debranding comes into play … the focus will shift … from branded products to branded places: stores and their owners who select and sell the products they like … Back to the traditional shopkeeper responsible for measuring bulk food and acting as an advocate for his products. Back to the real Dr. Browns, Uncle Bens, and Aunt Jemimas. Instead of brands, real people and real tones of voice will become the interface between consumers and products again.”

“And it is totally in line with today’s networked society … increasingly in the Internet age, consumers are comfortable with the idea that everything is interconnected. So what distinguishes brands is less important than what brings things and people together—whether your iPhone can talk to your Prius, for instance, or whether you can read articles from disparate sources in one place, like on Facebook. The brand that screams the loudest no longer commands the most attention; the one that offers something genuinely useful does.”

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