Author Archive for Mark Laporta


Flat Design & The Way Forward

Over time, in an attempt to keep up with shifting Web design trends, advances in programming have often been adopted under the aegis of a more-is-better philosophy. That is, without regard to the most important issue: How these changes in design parameters affect the site’s ability to communicate effectively with consumers.

As a result, we have seen the proliferation of visual clutter compounded by a desperate, aimless engagement strategy, based on the premise that “something” on the home page ought to grab the attention of any given user.

By contrast, I see in the recent trend toward so-called “flat design” protocols, the potential to make Web design less mechanical and, by corollary, more effective. Furthermore, flat design delivers an effective way to communicate across the multiple access points—just as an increasing number of users take for granted as they glide unselfconsciously between desk- and laptop, tablet, and the device we still quaintly refer to as a “phone.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of flat design, the overview available at Awwwards and Webdesigner Depot will give you all the orientation you need for the moment.

Examples of flat design on view at Design Razzi offer an unscientific sample that nevertheless illustrate its potential to improve digital communication across the board. To be clear, underlying this purely visual point of departure is an equally important shift in communication strategy. That is, toward an effortless rolling out of content that allows the brand’s deep message to speak for itself at a measured pace.

A few examples are enough to illustrate the positive principles at work here.

 Uncluttered, elegant, succeeds due to careful attention to proportion, spacing and line lengths. Additionally, it translates effortlessly to mobile display, enabling the on-the-fly decision making that, as I see it, has emerged as the centerpiece of 21st century popular culture.

 Just as important, the design calls attention to the offerings, not to itself. You get the feeling you’ve arrived at the right place for intriguing dining without any intermediary artifice required to “welcome” you there.

Considering this is also an e-tail site, I see it as a definitive step in the right direction. Here, online shopping continues the brand narrative, driving the deep message all the way home—again without needing an extra layer of promotional metacommunication.

Overriding these accomplishments, see how flat design, by doing away with conventional grid structures, allows language to flow according to its own principles, instead of being treated as merely another design element—and a pesky one at that—whose irregular contours threaten to make a hash of the most carefully planned pixel-width metrics.

The elegant branded experience created by bicycle manufacturer Archie Wilkenson stands out for way it focuses its attention on the product—as opposed to promotional clutter. With text an image set out in a spacious array, features and benefits speak for themselves.

Naturally, in such a niche market context, you might assume simplicity is easier to achieve, because the impetus to include “no money down” sales talk is largely absent. In fact, however, there’s no reason to assume that limited promotional incentives could not be easily integrated into this site. It would simply be done without star bursts, flickering arrows, or jiggly banners.

Finally, a site like shows how flat design integrates video (scroll down) into a coherent visual flow. Video is available as an option you can access at your own pace—absent coercive promotional lingo, or moronically redundant instructional copy.

Here again, the site makes an easy transition to mobile, even on a 5” screen. especially important in this context, as the services offered target people too busy to deal with everyday life in real time.

And in clear refutation of the claim “people don’t read online,” this site’s response is unmistakable: “they will if the text is actually allowed to flow naturally as language, rather than confined to design-regulated copy blocks.”

Sure, you can adapt the length, style, the tone, the vocabulary the pacing, the rhythm of the text to match any audience model. But if you want consumers to read your content, you must display it in a legible format. As I see it, this aspect of flat design in the broadest sense offers a way forward to a far more effective and memorable Web experience.

From the most practical book-your-hotel functionality to the most elegant niche marketing scenarios, the improvement these protocols make in clarity and speed of communication have arrived just in time to meet the current rapid shift toward mobile computing. More to the point, they succeed by creating the first truly digital visual vocabulary in a way that humanizes digital communication for the first time.


Morphing Brands with the Magic of Action

Today, it’s just understood that Web site viability is directly related to how well you regulate the flow of traffic to your content. Now, let’s assume you’ve already implemented a formidable array of strategies and tactics to achieve that goal. The success of your efforts still boils down to the same issues it did when the Web first began to spin in earnest:

Can you deliver content your audience cares about?

That’s why one of the most perplexing phenomenon in digital space is the persistence of static, descriptive sites devoted to everyday commodities like snack foods and drinks.

Case in point is Keebler, the venerable American brand, apparently believes its products are best sold by description only. Branded messaging? Consumer engagement? Talk to the elves.

That’s right, here before us is a multipage Web site relying only on standard-issue marketing copy and a pale remnant of a general advertising campaign from the late 1960s. Worse, all it has to offer are lists— of products, ingredients and generic product attributes like “freshness.”

Ironically, what the Keebler site doesn’t offer is a motivating list of brand values. Considering how much consumers have heard about the negative impact of snack foods, this lack of counterbalance is a glaring omission. Besides, the fix is simple: We all know cookies do deliver demonstrable benefits in moderation, like encouraging convivial conversation—or making a 3-year-old smile.

Just as important, there’s nothing here to distinguish Keebler, on the face of it, from any other cookie cutter—unless you believe in the power of elves.

Lo-res legacy branding.
Trouble is, in 2014, elf iconography has evolved past the old cherubic stereotype, after passing through a series of post-modern interpretive filters. The elves depicted in the Harry Potter series are benevolent, but downtrodden, even pathetic. By contrast, elves in Lord of the Rings—as seen by millions in Peter Jackson’s film versionare dignified, powerful aesthetes with a high moral purpose. Neither embody Keebler’s folksy wholesomeness.

So what used to pass as more nuanced brand avatars than their predecessors Charlie the Tuna and Tony the Tiger, now contribute no recognizable attributes to the brand. Today, “Keebler” reads only as “cookies.”

On the other hand, maybe this is all the marketing Keebler actually needs, as the second largest US cookie manufacturer with a 24% market share. And that begs the question of why, if you’re a top cookie maker, you’d bother to have a Web presence at all.

Unless, of course, you have the slightest desire to be Number 1. In that case, your site must motivate consumers at a time when Web validation is rapidly becoming the only kind that counts. In practical terms, that means giving users something to do when they arrive at your home page, exactly the tack taken by Yoplait. Remember, involvement in brand means participation—and participation means taking action.

Built for action.
For starters, Yoplait evokes familiar sharing spaces like Pinterest or Tumblr, with a user interface also evocative of the tap-and-swipe environment of the mobile web. Here’s a mobile-friendly home page, whose low-bandwidth flattened buttons fit reasonably well, unchanged, into the context of a 5″ screen.

It just makes sense. Given the lightning-fast adoption of the smart phone by millions of Americans, you might hazard the assumption that one key factor—the phone’s ability to facilitate favorite or addictive behaviors—continues to fuel the trend toward continuous smart phone engagement beyond the limits of safety.

In fact, Yoplait’s content map addresses that action-oriented mindset directly. Whether you’re in it for health benefits, taste or the convenience of a product that purports to provide both, Yoplait has made action and involvement its primary messaging platform.

Not to say is devoid of user engagement. Like, the Keebler site features recipes. But a straight comparison of their approach says a mouthful:

I’ll leave it to you to decide which is more inviting, inclusive and inciting.

A brand image in sharper definition.
Ultimately, the distinctions I’ve made between two messaging strategies ladder up to conclusions about how you define your brand for your audience.

“What is Yoplait?” the yogurtenuer appears to ask. Refreshingly, the answer is not “the finest ingredients and our dedication to quality” It is, instead:

“Yoplait is the yogurt you need it to be and we’re right there with you.
Because nobody’s crazier about yogurt than we are.”

As such, this site is the very exemplar of a brand morphing its image: From a plant that makes products for sale, Yoplait has become a community of like-minded people with a shared passion. And for my money, that’s a kind of magic no elf can hope to muster.


The Message Your Message Sends

The funny thing about communication is how important it is, relative to how little we understand it. And certainly, ever since communication went digital, the Babel of communication theories has grown to a deafening roar.

Consensus? You must be joking. Yet, in relative terms, we can successfully divide what separates us in that arena into two general categories: Those who favor on-the-nose communication that “speaks for itself” and those who believe your best shot at reaching consumers, is to let your audience draw its own conclusions from the memorable cues you provide.

That’s right, it’s the explicit/implicit divide in communication theory, which two recent TV spots for similar products demonstrate in vivid detail. The first, for ADT home security systems, begins with a typical TV “man and wife,” trying to enjoy a night on the town, but beset by anxiety about whether they forgot to lock the back door.

OK, that’s a plausible premise and, predictably, resolving the protagonists’ anxiety involves nothing more than the flick of a finger on a smartphone app. But along the way, a deeper Marketing Anxiety spoils the impact. Watch the spot and you’ll see Boyfriend’s emotion reflected in an explicit montage of leering burglars zeroing in on his home.

By contrast, the spot produced for AT&T Digital Life grows seamlessly out of direct observation of the human condition. Here, wiser heads know a 20-something’s assurance of responsible behavior is as ephemeral as the will-o’-the-wisp. While the resolution is the same—again, a flick of a thumb across a touch screen—the AT&T spot gets its message across implicitly and more memorably, by integrating the product’s value into our everyday experience of American society.

Hurry! While your attention span lasts!
The same principles apply to digital marketing. In fact, the contrast between explicit and implicit messaging is nowhere more stark. Take for example, the differing approaches taken by two furniture retailers, Raymour & Flanigan, on one hand, and ABC Carpet on the other.

Now, I can already hear someone in the back of the room complaining that I’ve stacked the deck—by comparing a  mainstream site to a niche site. I don’t buy that, not least because it suggests that “mainstream” audiences need to be hit over the head with price in order to be motivated.

Sure, as evidenced by the 2:00-am-TV tactics that continue to sell knifes, polishing cloths and hair removal systems, price can be a powerful motivator. Especially, that is, when linked to an impending sense of loss (“Hurry, while supplies last!”). The question is, whether that’s any way to build a lasting, loyal customer base.

As I see it, the answer is no. Establish a relationship with consumers based on “deals” and your brand is only as good as your latest Limited Time Offer. Worse, you’re effectively training consumers to jump from brand to brand as necessary to get the best discount. It’s the very behavior that has bedeviled credit card companies since the Dawn of Plastic.

 “Transfer your balance now and get 0% APR for the first X months.”

…goes the refrain of desperate competitors who never stop to think that the most enduring customer relationships begin and end with fair, transparent dealings. I mean, if all you have to offer is an APR shell game leading to 19% finance charges in less than a year, I fail to see the enduring value you deliver.

Connection vs contempt.
So, along with this particularly explicit approach goes an entire mindset about your relationship with your consumers. It extends far beyond the competence of your messaging strategy—then snaps back to sap its effectiveness. For at a global messaging level, if you go that route, you’ve seriously eroded your brand. Doesn’t matter whether you’re a credit card company, furniture wholesaler or a cellphone service, your only message to me will be:

“I want your money right now….What do you mean what do I sell? Give me a minute…Phones, that’s it, phones. Can I have your credit card number?”

That’s very explicit, to be sure, but so is this: The first American cellphone service to offer a coherent, comprehensible and consistent fee-for-service structure that delivers real value—as opposed to deceptive promotions—will have the largest and most loyal customer base the industry has ever seen.

That’s because, even in “the mainstream,” what consumers want more than anything from American business is respect for their status as fellow human beings. No one denies a business the need to earn an honest living. But know this: That same implicit honesty is the one and only voice capable of motivating your audience to come back for more.


Spin it to Win it

Whether your product is as serious as an appeal for humanitarian aid, or as frivolous as a Superman-themed iPod cover, if you’re going to sell it, you need an angle. In the abstract, that’s five cents’ worth of wisdom you might think was the essence of advertising.

And yet in today’s world, where the distinction between an honest sales person and a sneaky “spin doctor” has been blurred by everything from real political scandals to cable-TV dramas, that cheap wisdom is often obscured. In recent years, the battle cries of the authenticity movement have discouraged even sensible people from acknowledging the basic truth behind any sale:

You have to spin it to win it.

Hence, even if you craft your appeal to audiences under the aegis of strict, authenticity-driven ideology, you’re still crafting an appeal. You’ve simply added a step to the process. First, you win someone over with your earnestness, and then you hit them with your sales pitch. And, as any fund raising hack knows, that approach appeals directly to a certain sector of your customer base.

“Won’t you please help ensure that [cause target] has the [cause-specific panacea] [gender-appropriate pronoun] needs to achieve [cause-specific happy ending]?”

…runs the tired formula of many a fund raising campaign. While many foundations do great work, if you’re going to give, it’s not because you’ve carefully weighed the data the campaign presented.

You’ll give because you’ve been sold—or rather, been given the tools to sell yourself.

Case in point is a clever video that puts the last 10 years of Technology advertising in stark perspective. Go ahead, watch it now. I’ll wait.

Goose bumps, right? For my part, I could barely stop myself from making my own printing press so I could cranck out these technological marvels.

Here’s an everyday object repositioned as a magnificent innovation. The mundane becomes the grand, and the future arrives by special delivery to your benighted hovel of a life.

Peek inside the envelope.
The first step in the process is to create a conceptual framework for your pitch, one level removed from words on a page. As in the “Book” video mentioned above, you need to envelop your product in a coherent and emotionally compelling story about its value.

In rudimentary form, you can see this at work in catalog copy, as in narrative snippets like this from Hemmacher Schlemmer:

Worn like a backpack, this is the lightweight vacuum that turns a
physically demanding chore into an activity that’s as effortless as walking.

…or this from Sharper Image:

The Emergency Handcrank Power Radio keeps you connected to the world
while you’re camping—or whenever severe weather strikes.

Similar examples are legion, but to achieve a storied Spin you must get beyond messages that cling tight to product features. You must demonstrate your value in a broader context and make the sum total of your products’ attributes into an object of desire.

This is Apple’s greatest achievement—to the dismay of anyone rooting for the further evolution of the human species. People are willing to pay more for a parity product because it feels sexier than the alternative.

Read the letter of the lager.
But lest you think only brands with deep pockets can take this tack, witness the positioning power of Brooklyn Lager, the product of an artisanal brewery:

The result is a wonderfully flavorful beer, smooth, refreshing and very versatile
with food. Dry-hopping is largely a British technique, which we’ve used in a
Viennese-style beer to create an American original.

…not your drunk uncle’s beer, to be sure. Let’s see how the brewery puts its product in context:

Brooklyn Lager is at home with pizza, burgers, Mexican food, roast chicken,
barbecue, fried fish, pork and Chinese dishes. For cheese, go with manchego,
Stilton, farmhouse cheddar and mild Gruyere.

Now, many a marketing guru would balk at using “so much copy” to sell a product online. Yet I defy anyone who doesn’t actively dislike beer not to undergo a  change in perception. That’s because the copy creates a singular narrative identifying the product’s specific value: as a beer for people for whom food and drink is an essential part of their culture.

 Try doing that with a semi-literate list of bullets or a stingy discount coupon. Without an honest, compelling spin, you’d do better to sell your wares on a street corner with a megaphone. At least then, after serving 90 days for disturbing the peace, you might have the start of a ripping yarn to wow your customers.



In the American holiday season just past, I received reams of ritualized holiday e-mails from brands large and small. The tone of each, a sanitized smiley face of generalities, was as noxious as it was ineffective.

That’s because, of all the reasons I might think to buy something else from Brand X, Y or Z, receiving a generic holiday wish doesn’t even make it into the top 100,000. After all, if I purchase a set of speakers from Best Buy, it’s because I need a pair of speakers, not a pair of Best Buys.

The same applies to similarly personality-devoid greetings from dozens of other brands. Sure, when viewed from 30,000 feet, the idea of sending customers a holiday greeting makes sense. But the moment you zoom in closer, a warning bell ought to go off.

In a misguided attempt to offer a personalized greeting—with my name on it, and everything—brands I interacted with throughout 2013 sent me something analogous to a Hallmark card instead. Now, even if the CEOs of major retailers might think to send such greetings to family and friends, keep in mind, they’re not asking Uncle Charlie for repeat business.

Unwelcome thanks.
Holiday greetings, as such, aren’t motivating in the least. That’s because they’re so transparently shallow that they breakdown the relationship a brand has fought hard to establish. It’s a relationship based on a mutually beneficial transaction. The only reason customers like Brand X is that Brand X delivers a useful product—regardless of whether the problem it solves is as real as donuts or as imaginary as my “weight loss plan.”

An emotionally void and flagrantly insincere holiday card, on the other hand, is useless. If a brand wants to show its appreciation, it would be better off if it gave me across-the-board discounts from here on out. The way I see it, after I’ve paid for my 15,000th bottle of Snapple, the company has already made good on its investment—and can afford to lower its margins for me and everyone else in the 15K community.

What price retention?
Of course, the bean counters in the room will consider my proposal “costly.” But it’s not as if hiring an ad agency to create a holiday greeting platform year after year is “cheap.” That is, unless you embarrass yourself by contracting out to a cut-rate e-mail vendor whose only real expertise involves chewing your ear off about “best practices” and up-selling you to Mars.

Rewarding people with something tied directly to the transactional relationship that made them your high-value customers makes a lot more sense. It also avoids the whole sticky business of tracking what holiday each customer celebrates. Because therein lies the most counterproductive aspect of the holiday greeting playbook.

Nobody celebrates “the holidays.”

Stick to the script, by saying something real.
The phrase “Happy Holidays” is phony, meaningless, and gets more offensive every year. In fact, the longer we inhabit this planet, the clearer it becomes that the path to world unity has nothing to do with cultural homogenization.

Not that there’s any need to get so lofty about it. The point is, the moment you say “the holidays,” I know you’re not talking to me. That’s the moment I tune you out—because you’ve broken our implied contract: I give you attention when you give me value.

The same goes, ultimately, for all ritualized statements of appreciation. Especially, that is, when delivered in the intimate environs of social space. Remember that talking to someone on Facebook or Instagram is talking to them in the same space they share their “personal selves” with people they actually care about, transactions aside.

In that context “Thank You For Your Business” no longer sounds like idiomatic English, while the more elaborate phrase:

 “We Appreciate Your Patronage and Look Forward to Serving You in 2014”

…sounds like greetings transmitted by an alien starship on its way in from the Cat’s Eye Nebula.

Again, the basic impulse is sound: People running a business want to grow their relationships with people subsumed under the label “valued customers.” But just as you can’t get your garden to flourish in AstroTurf, your messaging platform—at all times of the year—needs to grow naturally out of real communication: one-to-one, value-driven and directly related to why your customers keep coming back.


Button Pushing on the Road to Shangri-La

The practice of making everyday people the focal point of an advertisement is based on a simple premise: Consumers are more likely to buy a product if it seems to be valued by people “like them.”

Trouble is, with the broad-spectrum approach used by general advertising, the images that stand in for average Americans evoke an idealized world too generic to have meaningful emotional impact. They’re the visual equivalent of “munchkin” donuts; they’re sweet to ingest but, let’s face it, they leave you feeling nauseated.

After a lifetime to watching a happy family with 2.3 children pile into some incarnation of what used to be called a “station wagon,” I’m here to attest to the deadening effect this has had on my psyche. Whether you go for humor or play it straight, I’m  completely indifferent to any sales pitch based on heartwarming schlock.

All the same, my response to such footage isn’t only about burnout or boredom. It’s about the complete disconnect between the imaginary life of a TV family and the reality I live, and into which you’re asking me to introduce your product.

Tokens of a separate reality.
And then there’s the element of the pure manipulation that seeps into such ads, accidentally on purpose.

Now, I’m the last person to say brands shouldn’t help consumers grasp how a product can improve their lives. But I do believe we’d make a more lasting impression if we stopped Disneyfying our depiction of everyday people. 

Of course, it’s a matter of striking the right balance but, as I see it, brands routinely opt for bland, emotionally-neutral imagery. Seen the one with the toddler perched on Daddy’s neck, the one with Mom baking a cake with Sis, or the one with the cute Senior couple out on their bikes?

Sure you have—applied to many different, unrelated brands. And considering the wide-spread use of these air-brushed visuals, I doubt the people who approved them have any idea what life is like for their customers.

I mean, it’s almost as if  highly compensated American CEOs lived in a world of effortless personal fulfillment—in which their every need is anticipated and no dark clouds ever loom on their horizons.

Oh, yeah, that’s right, they do.

No wonder  they think nothing of marketing their products with icons reflective of a separate reality.

Taking the car out for a phony spin.
In a different category of manipulation is the phony anthemic voiceover, in which an actor, welling up with faux-folksy wisdom, sermonizes about “the road to greatness” in the hope we’ll make the leap to believing “a great car is no accident.” The blatant association of a mass-produced machine with the greatest achievements of human history would be insulting if it weren’t so abjectly ludicrous.

“I’m Leonardo Da Vinci,” proclaims the top dog at Chrysler, “not to mention Gandhi, Charlie Parker and Joe DiMaggio. But really, I’m just like you…”

Trouble is, by resorting to manipulation, brands both dilute and pollute the communication stream with consumers. Not only are such ads offensive but, even if proffered ironically, they instill a festering cynicism in people’s minds.

That’s because, when trafficking in absurdly unrealistic expectations, all you’re selling is disappointment, once the car apparently designed to make you Super Mom rings with the latest argument about homework, cello lessons and how-come-you-never-call-when-you’re-working-late.

What you need to show instead is a product that weathers the full range of experience: a car that gets you to the church on time, but also gets you a moment of peace when life’s contradictions make living in your own skin kind of itchy.

Naturally a :60 spot featuring screaming kids or a stormy breakup isn’t anybody’s idea of a motivating narrative. In this sense, a tiny drop of reality goes a long way. But just acknowledging that a branded product exists in a world consumers can truly identify with helps keep expectations realistic. Better yet, it can help your customers retain your product’s real benefits.

Unless, of course, that’s the reason you’re depicting your brand as the gateway to Shangri-la—that it offers no discernible benefit. In that case, you’re guilty of pollution on a much grander scale, by selling us products that might actually undermine our faith in American business.


Bullets Under Branding

“Just the facts, ma’am…”

If you’re a fan of classic American TV, you recognize this quotation as one of a handful of signature catch phrases from Dragnet. Sgt. Friday’s no-nonsense attitude to crime investigation left no room for emotion, inference or induction. He was objective, y’all.

But if you’re not a fan of classic TV, you probably still recognize the quotation as something else: The subtext for a vast quantity of marketing/advertising speak. Surely, the fact that, in either scenario, a lot of your attention would be taken up with “bullets,” is just kismet. At least I hope so.

After all, I’d hate to think the real reason behind the ubiquitous use of bulleted copy in advertising is to beat the consumer into submission. I mean, it would be like saying:

“Get in line, I’ve got bullets here.”

If you think I’m over the top with this analogy, I’m willing to bet you will agree there’s something kind of controlling about a bulleted list. Such a list leaves consumers little room to do the one thing that might make them engage with your brand.  That is, come to their own conclusions about the benefits of your product or service.

Now, I get the bit about brevity. In fact,

  • I
  • understand
  • completely

It’s just that the other thing bullet points do is break up the natural flow human communication, by turning language into signage. Worse, their main purpose is to make a brand’s desperate recitation of product benefits more palatable to its customers.

As such, they’re a solution whose chief function is to mask a deeper problem. If you actually believe your value to consumers is a set of features, rather than a measurable uptick in quality of life, you’ve gone beyond selling the wrong way.

You’re selling the wrong thing.

What matters to Jill42.
At issue is not how to communicate more briefly but how to craft a global message succinct enough to be expressed in a few words. These days, especially, when consumer behavior is heavily influenced by online peer reviews, they’re more likely to see product features as a point of entry rather than a point of sale. Their inner dialogue runs:

“Hmm. 39-inch LED TV. Name brand. HDMI ports. What are my friends saying?”

Far better than chopping your prose into meaningless nuggets, is making an emotional connection—by telling your audience how your product will improve their lives, match their self-image and fit into their personal narrative. Not to mention crucial considerations like “Will my mom like it?”

Keep in mind, however: there are no shortcuts to making those emotional connections. Once you gain a useful consumer insight, it’s no good peppering your ad with bullets like:

“Great for moms!”


“Your mom will love it!”

That’s because, in 2013, when a typical American’s every nerve ending is already tingling with marketing messages, you have to communicate the old fashioned way, with believable anecdotal evidence. In this world, sticking to “the facts” won’t cut it.

Instead, you need a message so clear, so memorable and so tickly that consumers will wonder what Jack24 said to Jill42 about “what it is with your mom liking that TV or whatever on Facebook.”

Knowing the essence of essential.
How do you create such a message? Start by realizing what most people learn in middle school (or, in some cases, 40 years later). Want a response from someone whose attention you desire? Don’t be desperate, and let your innate good qualities speak for themselves. If you’ve no good qualities, you’re simply not ready for market—and should focus on “product development.”

On the other hand, the metaphor continues, maybe your problem is a failure to recognize where your true qualities lie. If anyone, at this point, thinks Apple could boost unit sales of iPad Air by listing more technical details, they’re mistaken. Visit and see for yourself: the message is “Lightness.” Even the site’s technical drilldown simply lists more reasons the product is light.

Every “bullet point” in other words, is a restatement of one bullet point, a message you can’t forget even if all you remember is the product name.

And lest anyone miss the obvious, there’s very little more essential to human life than “air.” With messaging like this—that radiates out from core product attributes—Apple’s product leaves the world of facts far behind and enters the consumer narrative whether we want it to or not.

That, amigo, is branding. Anything else is just words, pictures—and tears-on-the-pillow desperation.


Swimmers vs Divers & the Viral State of Mind

A common talking point among Web developers, whether we’re revamping an existing site or starting from scratch, are the assumed profiles of typical users. We try to predict their:

  • Background, education & culture
  • Specific interest in our branded topics
  • Motivation(s) for visiting our site
  • “Value system” for Web content

We also try to grasp how these and similar attributes will affect their response our message—right now, today, in real time.

Carried out methodically, this line of thought can help us develop sites that acquire, retain, position, compete or share. That is, provided our predictions are based on more than vague generalities couched in specific numbers.

That’s because we need to know what people do—not what numbers do—the people who visit our site. If your theory of marketing derives from a study you read, instead a study you led, you need to wonder how definitive your “findings” are.

Statistical variables vs the variability of human nature.
But even assuming a best-case scenario, there’s still one more behavioral category that, as I see it, is usually overlooked: The natural variability within one and the same person. Take a quick look in the mirror and realize that, unless you have some rare form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, your behavior operates within a range.

Though you may usually follow a certain routine when you, say, visit a Web site, there will be times when you break the mold.

So we must assume that users we identify as eager to absorb our branded message will not always care to make an in-depth exploration of our content. No matter what other targeted attributes our site visitors may have, they’ll occasionally fall into one of two categories:

  • Swimmers
  • Divers

The difference is depth of involvement on a visit-by-visit basis. And it strikes me that, considering how jam-packed a typical Web site is, paying attention to your customers’ alter egos just might have a shot at lowering the volume on the boing-boing sound associated with rising bounce rates.

Swimmers skim for essentials.
In this context, “paying attention” means staging your message with a two-tiered approach. By all means, build your Web presence so it can accommodate whatever attention mode your audience might be in at the moment. For Swimmers, you’ll need a user path that delivers your complete, albeit “essential” message along the smallest possible trajectory.

That is, chuck out the marketing speak, the promotional manipulation, celebrity endorsement—or that flaming gibberish about JD Powers and Associates—and just tell your Swimmers what you want them to do. In other words:

Make your digital presentation action-oriented.

Whether it’s view a 15-second video, activate an animated bar graph, call a sales rep, take a survey, solve a silly puzzle, or enter a sweepstakes—give your short-attention-span visitors something very easy to do, and make it rewarding.

No, not to you, to your visitor. At least, I assume the only reason you’ve posted something online is that you have something rewarding to deliver. If not, no amount of SEO, strategic brainstorming or blog-squinting can save you.

Divers delve for reasons to care.
On the flip side of this duality are the Divers, people actually eager to “learn more” about your brand. But be warned: To make their deep dive meaningful, you must create a clear, efficient path for them to reach the specifics—and only those specifics they’re actually interested in. Otherwise, they might run out of oxygen and click away.

Keep in mind the attributes underlying a typical viral video: the razor sharp honing of a concise message by a tantalizing concept. You want people to listen? Give them a reason to care—and a feel for the emotional logic of your offering.

Now, can anybody actually do this, or am I asking for the moon?

Well, a step on the path I propose is on display at, the Anti-Tea Party if ever there was one. Click around on its navigation and see how effortlessly the site enables you to filter, fuss and fidget with the content until you strike the balance that strikes your fancy. My personal favorite is the “SURPRISE ME” button—for people with a real interrest who don’t know where to go, but want to get there fast.

Here’s an example of what a what can happen when we pick our heads up from the pixels and think about people. Sure, just adopting the nav logic at isn’t going to tip the balance in your favor. But if you can catch the viral thought process it suggests, you might come closer to developing a Web space both Swimmers and Divers can comfortably inhabit.



A Victrola in a Snowstorm: Towards a True Digital Idiom

If quantitative data were the only measure of human behavior, it would seem that the phrase “people don’t read online” (3.570,000,000 results as of 10-27-13) has the certainty of numbers.

Fortunately for our sense of pride as sentient beings, human behavior isn’t neatly quantifiable. Every supposition we make about what people will or won’t do must be assessed on its own merits. That means taking into account the environment in which we expect a particular behavior to occur.

To my continued consternation, the phrase “people don’t read online” is still in the air, despite a critical flaw in its premise: the assumption the now-traditional online environment is the only possible online environment. So to contradict one shallow generalization, I feel empowered to posit another:

People don’t read online because traditional Web design is completely inadequate.

Now, I’m not only referring to graphics, font and color choices, proportions or visual density. I’m also referring to the distribution and format of every type of content. This is, of course, a topic fit for at least one book. But maybe by zooming in on one aspect of the problem we can illuminate the bigger picture.

In the first place, whether you blithely believe the unexamined premise that “people don’t read online”— or blithely believe that most other people believe it, we’ve got trouble.

The premise that a premise is a proof.
I mean, think about it. We have a marketing culture that actually accepts that users ignore its branded content. The most conventional wisdom can offer are cosmetic strategies. Google it up and you can find dozens of articles advocating the use of:

As well-meaning and earnestly pragmatic as these suggestions are, they remind me of the strategies I used as a child to fix broken toys. All I needed were rubber bands, scotch tape and a piece of cardboard to convince myself a car or a robot or my mother’s favorite lamp was good as new.

But as applied to digital messaging strategy, such stopgap measures ignore major systemic defects.

As I see it, if people don’t read online, it’s not a word problem—it’s because standard Web design takes no account of how language works. By habit, the vast majority of Web layouts are incapable of presenting verbal content in a meaningful way—and treat video or animation only slightly better.

In fact, instead of developing methods of content presentation idiomatic to digital space, standard Web design and production continue to rely on design paradigms developed for print and, to a lesser extent, TV.

The promise of a fresh perspective.
If you’re with me so far, you’re already wondering how a more idiomatic presentation model might work. For starters, we need a coherent way to integrate different types of content on a single screen. A recent multimedia article in the online edition of The New York Times suggests we already have the means to do so:

A Game of Shark and Minnow

Here a mix of scrolling text over video, still photography and maps, combined with graceful text pages artfully stages a report about a complex social and political issue.

Instead of a few thousand words crammed into prefab boxes, text and layout form a seamless continuity that suggests an idiomatic and uniquely digital paradigm.

Now, I can already hear my friends on the merchandizing end of the spectrum saying, “All well and good for a brainiac article about whatever, but I need to push product.”

Well, imagine your hairdryer, convection oven, button-down jeans or shoes-to-die-for displayed full screen. Don’t worry, your benny bullets will be well within swiping/tapping/mouseover range.

Then imagine changing color, style or flipping the scene to a sidewalk, a runway or a living room as a narrative scrolls along with you, across a mix of video, animation and stills. Your product, outside the box, would display itself more naturally—in locations rich with emotional resonance for your customers.

Obviously, the solution I seek can’t be improvised in a single blog post. But I do believe the Times article points in the right direction—toward a new kind of Web design more suited to the way human language is structured and how it communicates.

Because no matter how you juggle the pixel width of your layout, bulleted text will never have emotional impact. And, for a country besotted by 3-D Super Imax movie theatres, a tiny video window, stuttering away in a sea of choppy copy, has as much chance of raising our heart rate as a wind-up Victrola in a snowstorm has a shot at “going platinum.”



Context as Conduit for Branded Communication

In many ways, reaching people with a motivating message has as much to do with the context you create as with the substance or the medium of your talking points. That’s not to say that “the context is the message”— merely that context has an inseparable impact on how you’re received by your audience.

A case in point, perhaps, is the user experience Whole Foods creates for its hungry, quality-conscious shoppers. Created, I assume, with an eye toward evoking the breezy, offhand style of Pinterest or Tumblr, the focus is on  the experience of delicious, well-prepared high-quality foods, rather than on price, discount-shopping or numerical measures of value.

Rather, the market’s sales, specials etc. are integrated into the total picture, in a section called “The Whole Deal.” In general, the site is an exemplar of the difference between marketing by bullet vs. marketing by message.

Nav floats free of restraints.
A  major contributor to the site’s successful UX is a subnav that appears as a link-filled pop-up instead of a cluttered accordion drop-down. You get the overview fast. This approach also seems to free navigation design from the straight jacket of grid formations and mindless “consistency.”

And in a telling decision, the first nav item is “Healthy Eating,” which appears before either the redundant “About Our Products” or the doubly redundant “Mission and Values” section. That decision begs the question: Why, even here, on a site so clearly organized to deliver brand value, the specter of Marketing Anxiety still looms large, demanding the explicit, mechanical statement of that value in literal terms.

Anxiety’s sway.
Apparently, some worried soul feared that people informed enough to absorb the points expressed elsewhere in the site need aggressive hand-holding to get the message. As with most discussions of user experience, at issue is the native intelligence of an imaginary subset of the American population known as “The Average Person.” It’s the same subset, I’m often told, who “won’t get” the simplest of digital interfaces without a 500-page guide book.

Strangely, despite mushrooming sales in smart phones, tablets, despite the coming new generation of wearable tech, the myth of a large, technologically clueless sector of the population persists. Makes you wonder why some brands even bother to build a digital presence—considering how hard it is for Imaginary Bob Neanderthal to put down his stone tools and lumber over to the Kompoodoor.

That it’s to everyone’s benefit to bury this myth is everywhere in evidence on a site that includes not one single instance of “Click Here.” For, as it should be obvious to everyone, users who can’t identify a text link on a Web page without a sign post are users who can’t navigate the Web, period.

Any part of your audience in that category needs to be addressed through Direct Mail—assuming, you can verify they grasp the function of an envelope. Of course, considering the number of times I’ve been directed to add the phrase “See inside for details” to a #10 OE, I wonder how many marketers are willing to take the risk.

Better play it safe then, and revert to door-to-door sales-mongering, even if arriving with a truckload of organically grown produce proves a tad awkward.

A victory for honest, human emotion.
Ironically, one of the major achievements of the Whole Foods user experience is a feeling of genial intimacy—exactly the sort of thing you used to get from a well-trained sales rep, in the days when a brand’s business model involved more than a series of stratagems for raiding your wallet. It’s a welcome relief from the smarmy, self-absorbed tone adopted by so many “this changes everything” marketing campaigns.

For if anyone’s looking for a model of what “thinking different” looks like, it starts here with a communications strategy that takes as its first principle that consumers deserve to be sold on the merits, not manipulated into co-dependency by “you-can’t-be-cool-without-it” toxic branding.

In this instance, the site itself refutes the need for the anxious steps it takes to make clarity clear and communication communicate. That it does so by creating a distinct, ownable and evocative context for its message, points the way, as I see it, to a refreshed definition of what branding means in the post-iPad era.

Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY



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