Listen To: The Power of Tradition, Part Two

In the second part of our conversation on the power of tradition, I joined Dave Donars, Cardwell Beach’s chief of research, to dive deeper into what tradition means for businesses. Take a listen as we talk about how businesses are turning to the “x of y” formula to develop familiarity with consumers by connecting to existing business models and how that formula might be losing its effectiveness.

Podcast Transcription

Dave Donars: Welcome to the Cardwell Beach podcast. My name is Dave Donars and I’m Chief of Research.
Brian Erickson: I’m Brian Erickson and I’m the Chief Marketing Officer.
Matt Hansen: Welcome back. This is the second of a two part series looking at how a sense of tradition motivates everything from consumer culture to voting. If you haven’t already listened to the first part in this series, take a listen and then join us back here. As always, you can find all our podcasts available on the Cardwell Beach blog at
Dave Donars: I think that this is probably a good segue to the second part of our podcast. It’s to go back to the original idea that people have new presidential campaigns, relatively infrequently. We’re looking at the modern society having, since 1980, Bush or Clinton running in every election except for 2012. Bush or Clinton has been on the ticket in all those years since 1980 except for 2012. That’s a major thing and it speaks to people not necessarily having a great deal of comfort with other things. Maybe it speaks to people not having a lot of options because it’s a two-party system and all those other things but with tradition, there’s familiarity. There’s an element of I-know-what-this-is. So I don’t have to necessarily understand all the underlying thing but I kind of know what this is.
That is what a brand is. It’s that instant familiarity. Advertising, when it’s working well, does one thing really well: it misplaces nostalgia. It makes us think of products or services or an impersonal business relationship in a very personal term. It places an element of nostalgia that we try to comport into our lives, into our psyche.
I think that that’s true. Misplaced nostalgia is an incredibly good [game] for advertising. But where we go with this is that as a brand, that’s where the instant familiarity comes. We know than an Apple product does XYZ and that’s changed over the last 20 years. iPhones didn’t exist 20 years ago. But iPhones have existed in very different forms since 2007. When a new iPhone comes out, we don’t necessarily know all the new things that are going to be in it or we don’t understand how that’s going to be a benefit to our lives, but a lot of people assume that the Apple name means that this is the next logical step forward. So there’s comfort in it, it’s not going to be glitchy and all those other things.
But a lot of other companies don’t have that. Very few companies have that. What they have to do, especially if they’re new, is explain themselves as the X of Y, the Uber of Snapple, the Snapple of Uber.
Brian Erickson: The Amazon of small craftsman/craftswoman products. Oh wait, yeah, oops. What’s that? Oops, we killed Etsy.
Dave Donars: Handmade, is that what they went with?
Brian Erickson: Etsy didn’t do anything wrong. I like Amazon or I liked Amazon. I don’t know where I stand right now with that, but Etsy didn’t do anything wrong. They didn’t deserve that. They could have gone after so many other companies that just sucked and Etsy wasn’t hurting anybody.
Dave Donars: I was talking to some people who have got some good background on tech that there were some things that Amazon did with its purchase where they had purchased an inventory system which was in part based on some code base from Microsoft code. Why on earth was Amazon investing in this? It was because they wanted to go to like a non-parametric way to do skews, to do the bar codes, because that’s what Etsy doesn’t have. It doesn’t have an inventory system and Amazon has a very good inventory but their whole inventory, everything that they’ve ever sold, everything has a bar code or has a bar code placed on it and a lot of these new products couldn’t necessarily go to that because they are –
Brian Erickson: They’ve run out of –
Dave Donars: Yeah. Oh no, they’re just Handmade. Where would you put it?
Brian Erickson: Oh yeah, right.
Dave Donars: That’s a big issue. How Amazon is tackling that is, from a business perspective, more adept than what Etsy was trying to get to from an infrastructure standpoint. Barring that, it does seem like why the hell did Amazon have to do this to Etsy? It does seem like beating up on Etsy.
Brian Erickson: There are so many other areas that they could have gone and they’re going a tremendous number of different areas. But even still, I don’t know, I never really bought that much on Etsy but they seem nice.
Dave Donars: To dive into this, the kind of –
Brian Erickson: The Amazon of Handmade goods.
Dave Donars: Right. Yesterday, I was reading in either Re/code or Digiday. One of the headlines was a company introducing themselves for programmatic buying and they call themselves the Tinder of programmatic. It felt like okay, we’re done with this meme of X of Y. I think Silicon Valley, the Mike Judge HBO show, did a great job of bashing this concept down, especially in the first episode but you’ll see it during various pitches. But in the first episode in particular, there’s the shrouding of we’re the X of Y and we’re here to do this amazing social good and change the world in these very specific ways. I think that that’s just so – sorry to say – bullshitty. It doesn’t read as true and I think we’ve reached a limitation of that. Just bring it back to marketing.
I feel that I know what they’re trying to do because this is something that is not traditional. So you’re trying to put it into a concept that people can very quickly understand. But I just think it’s lazy marketing at its core.
Brian Erickson: I have some thoughts on that coming from the tech startup world and being a transplant into the advertising and branding world. I have to really commend tech, now that I’m seeing it from the other side, for what they do. It is and it isn’t lazy marketing. There are a number of things that they do in tech that are “branded” to be unique to tech; the X of Y is definitely one of them. The lean startup is essentially do customer research and multivariate testings, not new concepts but they just reframe them for tech.
Silicon Valley doesn’t have or traditionally hasn’t had great branding and marketing minds. They’ve been very product-focused. I think that the more competition gets into this space, the more accessible coding and programming becomes as it is every day increasingly and as younger generations are exposed to it earlier and earlier ages. It becomes curriculum in grade school and high school. There’s going to be a shift from again technical ability the limiting factor to differentiation and branding ability being the limiting factor, and I think we’re at the precipice of that where you can only be the X of Y for so much longer until you actually have to think of a way to describe yourself.
Dave Donars: I thought that was great. That was really good.
Brian Erickson: I’ve been bottling that up for a long time.
Dave Donars: That was really good, Brian. Thank you.
There’s clearly an argument that would be so compelling to make that if you have a superior product, you don’t need to have a large marketing budget. A large marketing budget basically describes a failing product or something that they would see as legacy or as old school or somehow failing. I don’t necessarily know if that’s correct.
Brian Erickson: It was at one point correct when the technical talent pool was tremendously smaller. It’s not that nobody else had ever thought of your idea. It’s that nobody who ever was able to implement had thought of your idea and you could create a great product that was unique. Now, you could think of an amazing idea and 50 other people around the world have thought of that idea within 24 hours of each other because the conditions became relevant for that to exist. Now you’re all racing to execute it as quickly as possible. Whoever executes first wins or whoever creates the best brand wins.
A lot of where we are right now with tech is that a lot of the new stuff that gains an incredible amount of popularity with a huge user base or something like that, like Instagram, that’s relatively dumb tech. There’s nothing amazing about that tech. When it came out, it was riding a lot of other systems or a lot of other thoughts. But Instagram basically would have also had zero impetus to market and do other things.
On the B2B side, on other elements, when you look at large things like ERP systems, enterprise resource planning, or DMP, data management platforms, the ability to differentiate, explain and brand in a way that people feel okay, I’m being taken care of. Line item by line item, I don’t necessarily need to know all the underlying code base but I feel like I’m being served by this. I don’t think in B2B, especially in tech, that’s important at all. I think who used to hold that were probably three companies – Xerox, IBM and GE – and I don’t think that they’ve held that banner very well. So it’s just a very muddled marketplace for people to go through.
I also don’t believe that the model of getting college kids excited about app or tech A and then just having them age up into becoming viable consumers is necessarily the most successful business model in the long term.
When you think about Instagram, it was explained to me differently. I certainly was not an early user of it or Snapchat or whatever. It was explained in some way to tackle what the issue was. It’s a way that you can share pictures with other people and there’s nothing else that happens. That was the Instagram pitch. There’s no other bullshit. Share pictures and comment, that’s it. To me, you can understand that without having to be the X of Y. I don’t remember people saying it’s the Myspace of photos or something like that, do you?
Brian Erickson: Not really.
Dave Donars: The Friendster of photos? The Geocities of photos?
Brian Erickson: Vine was the Twitter of video where you’re sharing a micro-video clip.
Dave Donars: Yeah, it was, you’re right. I want to go back to this element that essentially right now, tech companies are being lazy in this but they’ve won excuses that they are radically new. When I think about other companies where they already have an existing product line, an existing consumer base, I have a big problem when they start to use the X of Y or when you try to use two things or create a hybrid word or meld two things together like art and science, X plus Y. So it’s not necessarily the X of Y but it’s the combination A plus B. A good way to think about it is there was a campaign, which I thought was good, in the ‘90s and I can’t remember who did it so I’ll seem foolish right now. But it was the human element, the idea of elements being elemental, being fundamentally just properties that obey certain laws, that they don’t do other things and then the human portion of that being that humans are dynamic and that they can change. I think that that worked. I believe it was ADM or something like that that did that.
But I don’t think that that works anymore. It feels cheesy. It feels like having the newscaster smoking Marlboros and then giving you a testimonial of how great Marlboro cigarettes are or something like that. It just feels outmoded. It feels like McGillicuddy’s snake oil or something like that.
Brian Erickson: So what is next? What replaces that?
Dave Donars: I think it’s just going back to the original difficult concept of getting out there and doing the first rule of branding, which is alienating as many people as possible because the people whom you’re not alienating are your customers and getting through that very difficult process of differentiation about cost comparisons, about all those things we were talking about light bulbs, and really cutting through it by establishing an actual brand. That’s not easy; it’s difficult work. It takes a certain amount of money but it takes a lot of effort, it takes a lot of smart people.
Brian Erickson: It’s a lot of honesty.
Dave Donars: Yeah. This is where we are and it really starts to parse out from something like PR. Public relations I don’t believe necessarily focuses a tremendous amount on being fully transparent about what their products, lifecycle and what’s happening within a company culture are. To actually survive as a brand though, you need those three things. You’ve got to be honest about what your company culture is, you’ve got be honest about what your products are, you’ve got to be honest about what your service is and what your price lines are. Those elements all need to come together. You need to describe that very quickly and succinctly, get it out to the right people and make sure that other people feel a bit of a nudge.
It’s not just about this idea of getting noticed because whatever. You could just have a person screeching or you could make obscene ads or you could do a bunch of other stuff to try to cut through the noise, but it still doesn’t have people who have any idea what your brand is. I think that that’s the point of differentiation; truly it’s to come through with honesty, really smart and creative, very good placement and a good holistic experience for people to come in and experience what you’re talking about in a few seconds. We have seconds in many cases, so that’s what I feel.
Brian Erickson: I hate to keep talking about Apple and I want to make it a habit to talk about Apple less in the future. But I want to talk about Apple for a second and their decision allow ad blocking software onto their devices in their most recent push. What does that do for them? What does that do for publishers? What does that do for users? How do you feel about all of that?
Dave Donars: In the short order, I think that there are two elements of it. One is a more minor point which we need to, as consumers, be aware that stuff isn’t free, that there are some underlying costs for people creating content and there is some type of incentive for people to be producing things that we care about and consume a lot of. That tradeoff is often annoying.
Brian Erickson: We can’t keep trading off quality of life for things. I guess we can but let’s get real about that.
Dave Donars: I think the other more important element is that if we think about it as that we no longer have the Medicis or whatever commissioning art throughout the renaissance and stuff like that. We now have corporations and they commission art in some way which is just these things that we want. When we fail that level of it’s not a good experience, it’s not something that changes my life in any meaningful way, it’s not something that I’m searching out and something that I desire, then it falls flat, then it’s just a piece of crap that I want out of my life.
This is the second point: if the outcome of what Apple is doing is to force marketers to be less lazy, to create better stuff that people want to see, then that would be great. We’ve seen it for years with YouTube. Google did a very good job with this about you see an ad at the beginning and you can usually skip it. If you skip the ad, then the advertiser doesn’t have to pay for you to have seen that initial portion. The whole point is to make something that’s evocative enough and cool enough that people don’t want to skip it. If you don’t want to skip it, then it means that it resonated with you in some way. Maybe it annoyed 99 other people but as the 100th person in that system, you liked it and that’s the bar we should have.
We shouldn’t just be able to carpet bomb people. It doesn’t make sense. This is so much of marketing. We get so excited and happy when we use terms that are violent or really things we don’t want. I hated the term, I never agreed with the term but I was so sick of sitting in client meetings when they would say things like, we want this to go viral. It’s like it’s a virus or carpet bombing, like it’s a bomb, or spray and pray. Spray and pray is just like a machine gun. These are not good analogies. These are very inept analogies of what you want to accomplish except the fact that what they were trying to accomplish was crap, like we were just trying to push their product out. They didn’t care about people’s lives, they didn’t care about the end consumer, they didn’t care about making people’s lives better. If the bar is not set that we have to make people’s lives better or they’re going to ignore us and your company will die, then this is all the better.
Brian Erickson: That’s a tremendous example with obviously what Apple is doing. But with what YouTube is doing, I haven’t really thought of it in that fashion but it’s absolutely true. It reminds me of something I saw recently about LinkedIn is doing, which is equally great if not better, with their InMail system. LinkedIn gives you somewhere in the order of 15 InMail credits per month and the way that they evaluate whether those have been used – in InMail, you can reach out to somebody else you don’t know and send them a message – they only mark an InMail as used if the other person does not reply or mark it as not interested within 90 days. So basically, if you send a message that’s such crap that they choose completely to not acknowledge it whatsoever, your InMail credit is used. If you used it appropriately and they either decided that they were not interested or they did write back to you, you get that InMail credit back for free. Now that really raises the bar
Dave Donars: A lot of us thought in experienced ways – sorry to throw this in that but I think it’s great because it ties into things like Metcalfe’s law, like the strength of a network is defined by the connections that it has and we have to obey civil rules on something like LinkedIn. We also have to obey civil rules on, probably to a lesser extent, Twitter. Instagram is a great place where we do have to obey some civil rules. To use the analogy, if your carpet bombing, if you’re putting out 25 pictures a day on Instagram, you’re going to have so many people unfollow you. It’s the improper use of the medium.
Those societal rules, that reinforcement of doing something good for not only you but the other person is very important. I think it is the key to how we move forward with marketing and moving out of the X of Y or the A plus B, that is where the future of marketing is going. It’s about creating some good for both you and the customers you’re trying to talk to. If you don’t have that kind of mutual value exchange, I think it’s totally useless. I know these are kind of buzzy terms or dumb terms but I really truly believe that.
Brian Erickson: So I do want to bring it back to the New York City Marathon.
Dave Donars: Yes.
Brian Erickson: My wife saw a really great meme the other day that said how will you know if somebody’s running the New York City Marathon? It said, don’t worry, they’ll tell you.
Dave Donars: That’s good.
Brian Erickson: So I’m running the marathon and I’m telling you.
Dave Donars: It’s seasonal. Let’s talk about that.
Brian Erickson: It’s seasonal.
Dave Donars: What is it, 26.6 miles?
Brian Erickson: 26.2.
Dave Donars: 26.2. Lazy. Where is that four-tenths of a mile? Okay, so it’s 26.2 miles. If you just randomly ran that tomorrow, everyone would think you’re kind of stupid. But if you do it in this mass societal element, it makes total sense. The city will move a hell of a lot of things to make sure that the city comes to a stop on marathon day. To be clear, marathon day is my favorite day in New York City. It’s the best day in New York. It’s just amazing because it’s great to go out, cheer people on, really get out and high five people and stuff like that. The police cannot cover this route entirely. It’s a very interactive thing in a certain way but not the people running through very quickly, not the professionals that we see on TV but people clocking in at hour five, hour six but they’re going to finish this thing.
Brian Erickson: That’ll be me.
Dave Donars: To see New Yorkers really cheering people on. People do this one stupendous thing that they’re going to do this physical thing once in their life. We use this as an analogy all the time, like it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, or whatever other thing. It’s like the peak of grueling activity.
Brian Erickson: That’s marathon.
Dave Donars: Yeah.
Brian Erickson: The most grueling use of Netflix.
Dave Donars: There are so many analogies to this one thing and it’s amazing to see people come out and accomplish it. But I think that if it wasn’t part of seasonality – in New York City, it happens –
Brian Erickson: The first Sunday of November.
Dave Donars: Right, which is right around Halloween. This upcoming weekend because [unclear] it’s literally after Halloween. Sometimes it’s not always that but it is always the first Sunday of November. It is right after Halloween. It’s around that time of year. It’s a very seasonal thing. It’s definitely colder than it was in July and we’re now going to be heading away from September-October stuff into thinking about Thanksgiving and the holidays. It’s a very seasonal thing.
I think without that attribute, it will be a strange thing. In Boston, the marathon is very important and it happens in late spring. Other cities that have the marathon, even Chicago which has a huge, important, great marathon, it’s at an awkward time of year. It’s in early October.
Dave Donars: It doesn’t have the connection, the connective tissue, that New York or Boston does. Maybe I’m being totally prejudiced about the city marathon, so I apologize if I’m getting this totally wrong.
Brian Erickson: Actually, I just came from the marathon expo and I was walking around. It was interesting. They had many of the other marathons around the world who were exhibiting there. The Reggae Marathon in Jamaica looked like a ton of fun but it doesn’t usher in a season for me like the New York Marathon. The Dublin Marathon, I don’t know how anybody survives because people were drinking up the booth there. Each one has their own personality, I guess.
But on a personal unrelated note, Bill Rogers – a New York City marathoner, great Olympian, multiple New York Marathon winner – I actually talked to him for a little while and he said, have you considered walking? Then he signed my bib. I was like, was that insulting?
Dave Donars: So what’s your time going to be?
Brian Erickson: No, I can’t commit to a time.
Dave Donars: Yes, you can.
Brian Erickson: Between 6 and 12 hours, I think. I’m going to be somewhere between the 4 and 4½ hour range.
Dave Donars: That’s good.
Brian Erickson: Hopefully right in the middle.
Dave Donars: 4:15. So you’re committing to 4:15?
Brian Erickson: I’m committing to 4:15 right now.
Dave Donars: Or we’re going to cut off your pinky toe.
Brian Erickson: Okay. It’s not a great –
Dave Donars: Live.
Brian Erickson: Live on air. We don’t do this show live, Dave.
Dave Donars: We’ll get live. For that, we’ll get live and no one will know it is. It’s one of those few things, to go back to the earlier conversation we were having about tradition. You’ve got to do a lot of qualifier races for this. There’s no element of instant gratification with a marathon. Nothing about the word, nothing about how we think about it, nothing about the actual event is instant gratification. Have you done it before?
Brian Erickson: This is my first.
Dave Donars: Really?
Brian Erickson: This is my first.
Dave Donars: So I think you’re going to be able to get that time.
Wait, let’s talk about podcasts for a second. Do you want to kick it off?
Brian Erickson: Yeah. I listened to TBTL the other day as per your recommendation and those guys are hilarious. They just are entertaining people. I have no idea what that hour-and-a-hour or two hours was even about but it was funny.
Dave Donars: And it’s breezy, it’s conversational. What I really like about it is that I’ve learned – and none of this coming through in this podcast so I apologize to anyone who’s ever listened to this – but really trying to move a conversation. They’re very good at that art of conversation.
Brian Erickson: Yes, they really are.
Dave Donars: Being able to tie little strands together and think of good little stories. To go back to our consult of comforting, that’s a very comforting thing. Those guys are very good.
Brian Erickson: It’s really like you can almost – when you can hear somebody talking on the other side of the wall–
Dave Donars: Can we just riff on that?
Brian Erickson: Yes, we can. You can just hear the musicality or not in their voices and you can get sense for the conversation, whether it’s positive or negative and whether they love each other or hate each other. That’s what you get from TBTL even if you’re not actually listening to it, just if it’s on in the background. It’s mostly usually positive and entertaining. So I got to hand it to them just for the tonality of their voices there.
Dave Donars: I think that’s that good one to end on. Andrew Walsh, Luke Burbank, congrats. They’ll be coming up on their 2,000th episode soon around Thanksgiving. It’s such a herculean task.
Brian Erickson: Talk about marathons.
Dave Donars: They’re number three and that feels like a lot of coronation and effort. What I like about them, maybe most of all above any other podcast, is it’s produced well, their voices are clear, it’s not annoying, they can do their music drops or whatever and it sounds like a cohesive piece. But by the same extent, they’re two guys who are living in different cities. They’re probably 800 miles apart. I don’t know how far Los Angeles and Seattle are but it’s got to be 600 to 800 miles. In addition to being far apart, they do podcasts every day or at least five days a week. This is what they do.
That kind of commitment and that level that it’s always going to be produced – they don’t drop an episode, they don’t miss an episode. If one of them is sick, traveling or something like that, they’ll fill in with a guest host. It is just a staggering accomplishment to get to 2,000 episodes. The lack of [unclear], the lack of preciousness they have about their own product and they’re just like get it done, get it out there. To pull this back in, I know it feels like it’s an undisciplined approach but to me, it’s one of the disciplined approaches because they’re both professionals, they both know what they’re doing, but at the core, they’re just like, we’re going to go out there, we’re going to do this and this is our commitment. That is such an incredible thing.
Brian Erickson: They’re coming at it from a little bit different of an angle but you talk about content marketing and that’s what I think is what most content marketing programs lack, that discipline to do it no matter what and to put it all together no matter what. So, give them a listen. Thanks for listening. We’ll talk to you later.

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