Reports of the brand’s death are greatly exaggerated

Reports of the brand’s death are greatly exaggerated

When the lawyer for a new online trading company first heard the founder’s suggested name, he was a bit surprised to say the least. He didn’t think “Cadaver” was the most appropriate choice. Later when a number of financial analysts weren’t convinced of the business model, instead of saying “.com” they started saying “.bomb”.

That founder would have the last laugh and would soon be able to paraphrase a famous quote saying “The reports of our death are greatly exaggerated”*.

The founder was of course Jeff Bezos, and the brand would go on to become Amazon

The original name Bezos chose for the brand was “Cadabra”, not “Cadaver”, that was just what the lawyer misheard. “Cadabra” was intended as a reference to the word “abracadabra” and to show how magical online shopping was.  However, the lawyer’s response caused Bezos to re-think his plans.

He and his then-wife, MacKenzie Tuttle, began searching for alternatives. They registered the domain names Awake.com, Browse.com, and Bookmall.com. They also registered the domain name Relentless.com which according to reports in Business Insider was a favourite. However, testing on friends suggested it was often felt to be unfriendly.  It was dropped as front runner, but the pair kept the registration and if you type “Relentless.com” into your browser today, you’ll be redirected to Amazon.com homepage. (Go on, try it)

Like some previous brand founders, Bezos’ final choice was led by a letter. George Eastman is said to have come up with Kodak as he liked the letter ‘K’ and thought it was incisive**, but Bezos’ choice of ‘A’ was pragmatic. At the time, website listings were alphabetized, so a word that started with ‘A’ would be a sensible choice.

Bezos started leafing through the ‘A’ section of a dictionary. When he landed on the word “Amazon,” the name of the largest river on the planet, he decided that was the perfect name for what he planned would become earth’s largest bookstore… and more.

Bezos had a vision of explosive growth and ecommerce domination which was summed up in his motto “Get Big Fast”. He contended that the brand would not merely be a retailer of consumer products rather Amazon.com was a technology company whose business would be simplifying online transactions for consumers. He 1996 he handed out T-shirts with the motto printed on it at a company picnic.

It was this thinking that was often met with scepticism and led to financial journalists and analysts disparaging the company and referring to it as Amazon.bomb. Doubters claimed Amazon.com ultimately would lose in the marketplace to established bookselling chains, such as Borders and Barnes & Noble once they had launched competing e-commerce sites. The lack of immediate company profits seemed to justify its critics.

However, the brand was getting Big, Fast. It reached 180,000 customer accounts by December 1996, after its first full year in operation, and less than a year later, in October 1997, it had 1,000,000 customer accounts. Its revenues jumped from $15.7 million in 1996 to $148 million in 1997, followed by $610 million in 1998. In 1999 Bezos was Time magazine’s Person of the Year.

The company quickly began to diversify, selling more than books. Music and video sales started in 1998. That same year it began international operations with the acquisition of online booksellers in the United Kingdom and Germany. By 1999 the company was also selling consumer electronics, video games, software, home-improvement items, toys and games, and much more.

Bezos and his team worked tirelessly to claim the high ground of Internet retailing before anyone else got there.

Looking back in 2015 as he announced Amazon’s results Bezos said “Twenty years ago, I was driving the packages to the post office myself and hoping we might one day afford a forklift, this year, we pass $100 billion in annual sales and serve 300 million customers.”

Looking at the evolution of the logo raises a question for me, did he also choose Amazon as the name because it included the ‘Z’ and the potential to highlight the Amazon was the everything brand? The arrow (smile) linking the A and the Z only became part of the identity in 2000.

And finally, despite its size and success, Bezos can actually foresee the brand’s demise. In a recording of a 2018 all-hands meeting Bezos is heard to say…

“Amazon is not too big to fail … In fact, I predict one day Amazon will fail. Amazon will go bankrupt. If you look at large companies, their lifespans tend to be 30-plus years, not a hundred-plus years”.

Bezos went on to say (then) that it was his job to delay that date by as long as possible, and ensure that reports of its death continue to be an exaggeration.

And the moral of this story is Think BIG. Amazon didn’t set out just to sell book, Disney is more than films… what is your Big Hairy Audacious Goal?

* The quoteThe reports of my death are greatly exaggerated” is often attributed to Mark Twain but it is not quite accurate. The real quote comes from Twain’s response to a journalist from the New York Journal who contacted him to inquire whether the rumours that he was gravely ill or already dead were indeed true.  He replied “I can understand perfectly how the report of my illness got about, I have even heard on good authority that I was dead. James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness. The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

** I tell a longer version of The George Eastman – Kodak story in my book “The Prisoner and the Penguin” which is still available on Amazon (and other retailers too!) https://www.amazon.co.uk/Prisoner-Penguin-Giles-Lury/dp/1907794514

Celebrity endorsement made it better

Celebrity endorsement made it better

The wedding of “Bennifer” and the “Wagatha” trial shows our on-going fascination with celebrities.

As I have written about before, celebrity is a well-used tactic in marketing.

In my first book of brand stories – The Prisoner & The Penguin –  I told the tale of how the highly esteemed Eleanor Roosevelt finally agreed to do a celebrity endorsement. She did a commercial for Good Luck Margarine in which she said, “The new Good Luck Margarine really tastes delicious.”

Unfortunately, the brand was a failure. Asked about her experience she said she had received a sack full of letters in which “one half was sad because I had damaged my reputation and the other were happy that I had damaged my reputation.”   

I recently heard about another celebrity endorsement which centres on Roosevelt and thought I should add it to my collection of brand fables.

The celebrities in this story are the 1930s ‘it’ couple – The Bennifers of that era.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr was Eleanor and FDR’s fifth child and at the time of this tale a Harvard student. Ethel du Pont was the heir to the du Pont family fortune and so one of the richest socialites of her day.

The paparazzi loved them and followed them to every event they attended, and their pictures filled the society pages.

So, attending the Hock Popo Ski Club party at the Agawam Hunt Club, Rhode Island, in November 1936 was nothing out of the ordinary. Nor, at first, was the sore throat and slight cough that FDR Jr complained of the next day. It hadn’t even been bad enough for him and Ethel to leave the party early.

However, things soon changed. The throat got worse and a few days later FDR Jr had a fever and was put to bed. Just before Thanksgiving, and now diagnosed with an acute sinus infection he was admitted to the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Tiresome, but still nothing too much out of the ordinary or so everyone thought. He was a strong young man, and with some rest and something to take the fever down all would be well again soon.

Only it wasn’t.

The infection didn’t clear up and in fact got worse. He remained in hospital. His mother was getting more and more worried and insisted on a new doctor, a top doctor specializing in ear, nose and throat.

Checking over his new patient the doctor was very concerned, there was a tender spot under his cheek which looked like it was infected and the beginnings of an abscess. He immediately took a sample and discovered a highly dangerous strain of strep, one that could release poisons and other infections into the blood stream. If that happened it could ultimately lead to the death of the President’s son.

While the White House medical staff considered the option of a risky surgical procedure, the new doctor remembered reading some reports about a new drug, Prontosil, developed by Bayer in Germany. The reports spoke of near miraculous results and initial tests at John Hopkins were also very positive.

He recommended it to Mrs. Roosevelt.

At first, she wasn’t sure but having read more about it and in the face of the still worsening condition of her son, she agreed.

Some carefully wrapped glass phials were duly shipped from Germany to the USA. The doctor gave him an initial dose and followed it with further doses every hour.

Ethel sat in the room with FDR Jr, his mother sat outside working on correspondence. At first nothing seemed to be happening and the hours seemed to drag on and on but in the morning, things started to change.

The swelling around the abscess looked like it was shrinking. FDR Jr was sleeping better and seemed to have more energy when he was awake. Later that day his fever broke.

The doctors were amazed; never before had they seen a strep case that was resolved so well and so quickly.

FDR Jr was released a few days after Christmas.

He would later marry Ethel (the first of his five wives), be decorated for his service in WWII and go onto serve three terms in Congress.

However, what he also did was prove that celebrity could sell (if even his mother couldn’t).

The headlines in The New York Times and other prominent newspapers, the story of his recovery, and the role of the new wonder, heralded the start of the era of antibacterial chemotherapy in the United States and the success for Prontosil

And the moral of this story is …Celebrity sells (well sometimes)

Bremont: Chapter 2 Building the story into the product

Bremont: Chapter 2 Building the story into the product


I wrote a story about the origins of the Bremont brand back in July 2020 (http://www.theprisonerandthepenguin.com/?p=1411 ) but on a recent visit to the Williams F1 pop up store In Westfield I saw the Bremont concession stand and went to take a look. (They are Williams sponsors)

In main original blog I talked about how Bremont’s differentiator was its storytelling, and the delightful man on the stand backed this up as he told the story of Stephen Hawking and the limited edition watch

Not only did he tell the story but he described how little details are built into the watch designs.

He showed me an astronomical map on the back of the watch incorporating actual little circular parts of the scientist desk to represent the planets and even tiny paper snippets from the academic papers he wrote

Later looking on the website I found this description

The classically styled Bremont Hawking Rose Gold Hawking features a retrograde seconds hand and grand date, contains 4 wooden discs inlaid into the back of the watch taken from the desk at which Hawking contemplated the mysteries of the universe. This exquisite chronometer also contains some meteorite to symbolise the cosmos displayed at the centre of the striking hand-finished case back, as well as an etching of stars from the night sky in Oxford on date that Hawking was born. The serial number is printed on paper from original copies of a 1979 seminal research paper commonly referred to as “The ‘nuts’ and ‘bolts’ of gravity”.

(Having a go on the Williams esports simulators was pretty cool too)

The first truly space aged drink?

The first truly space aged drink?

The second of my new space related brand stories, starts with a scientist but not a rocket scientist.

William Mitchell was General Foods’ top food scientist and the man behind a variety of American icons of the 1950s and 60s. Brands like Pop Rocks, quick-set JELL-O and Cool Whip. His obituary in 2004 in The Atlantic said of him that he “never became a household name, but most households you can name have something of his in it.”

In 1957, he developed what he called “Tang Flavor Crystals.” They went on sale in the United States initially; Venezuela and West Germany followed in 1959. It was marketed as a breakfast drink packed with vitamin C that “you don’t squeeze, unfreeze, or refrigerate” but wasn’t a high flyer in terms of sales until it was chosen by NASA to be part of its space programme.

Technicians at NASA had been faced with a problem the onboard life support system water didn’t taste very good (due to a nontoxic chemical reaction) but with General Foods as an already approved supplier to the US military they reviewed the company’s portfolio of brands and found what they thought was the answer – Tang.

A deal was struck to buy the powder in bulk but while the product was identical, a provision was put into the deal specifying that it would not say “Tang” on the NASA packaging, but simply what the flavour was – “orange drink.”

Another issue that had to be solved was zero-gravity. The normal means of dilution – pouring crystallized powder into a cup of water – wasn’t going to work.  NASA engineers came up with a system that involved squirting water with a needle into a vacuum-sealed pack that contained the powder, shaking it and then sticking a straw into the pouch.

So on February 20th when John H. Glenn, Jr. took off in Friendship 7 and went on to become the first American to orbit Earth, Tang went with him. The mission was only about five hours long and records are not entirely clear if Glenn actually ever used the Tang during that first flight.

That didn’t bother General Foods who began marketing Tang as a space-age drink.

Tang continued to accompany astronauts and for the next decade (through the Gemini and Apollo programs), General Foods proudly produced print and tv ads talking about the link and promoting Tang as packed with vitamins, easy to make and tasting great. In 1968, Tang sponsored ABC’s coverage of Apollo 8, America’s first manned flight around the moon.

Tang became one of the best-selling drinks of its day. John Glenn’s famous flight and Tang retained a place in many Americans’ memories and when the former astronaut ran for President in 1983 he was repeatedly asked if he really liked Tang.

He ignored the question.

In 2013, another astronaut, Buzz Aldrin – the second man to walk on the moon – did answer the question.

The never-subtle Aldrin, replied that while he did drink it, “Tang sucks.”

Can you just nip down to Sears and buy a future icon?

Can you just nip down to Sears and buy a future icon?

Apollo 11

I have previously told the story of how Coca-Cola used the Apollo 11 homecoming to run a PR campaign and claim earth as “home of Coca Cola”. In fact, I named one of my ‘story’ books after it – “How Coca-Cola took over the world” – so, you can imagine how pleased I was to hear two new space related stories.

One features ‘Tang’, which I will tell in a future blog, and the other which may be apocryphal features Sears.

It appears that with the focus on the ‘rocket’, the landing craft and the astronauts, the flag was almost an afterthought.

So, it was only a few months before the launch date that a plan was hatched. A team, led by NASA engineer Jack Kinzler, were asked to create a ‘flagpole’. The challenge was the ‘pole’ had to be set up by two men wearing space suits and who would have limited mobility.

The limited time frame meant that the flag was not specially made or ordered.

One ‘story’ is that flag was bought out of a government catalogue for $5.50.

The other which I favour, is that a number of flags were bought from Sears in Houston by secretaries from NASA who were sent out to get some during their lunch breaks.  This would mean that the flags were made by Annin, the USA’s oldest and largest flag maker and the official supplier to Sears. It seems that an executive from Annin following up on this story called NASA and had the story despite the lack of any real evidence.

What is definitely known is the selected flag was made of nylon and that engineers cut the labels off to make the flag fit onto their specially made poles.

If the story is right this mean that the flag; the first one to be planted in the lunar dust, the one that Buzz Aldrin saluted, the one that was seen by a wide-eyed worldwide TV audience was bought for a few dollars at an everyday mainstream retailer.

However a slightly sad end is that the flag is no longer standing.

Buzz Aldrin has that said that Neil Armstrong told him that he saw the pole blow over during liftoff from the lunar surface.

On a slightly happier note, despite an assumption that the rest of the Apollo flags have blown away or crumbled into dust, in 2012, a lunar orbiter took pictures over the landing sites of  Apollo 12, 16, and 17 and the photos showed shadows confirming that the American flags there were still standing, upright and intact, more than four decades later.

They are however all likely to have turned beige from relentless cosmic radiation.

Dropping the Icon: Tom Burrell

Dropping the Icon: Tom Burrell

The story of the other Marlboro Man

Tom Burrell is rightly a truly famous advertising executive. His story is that of someone who went from the mailroom to chairman of his own very successful agency. He was “the first Black person to work in a Chicago advertising agency.”

He started working in the mailroom of Wade Advertising in 1961 and when the situation presented itself, he pitched some ideas to the creative director and got a position as a junior copywriter.

Burrell’s first accounts were Robin Hood All-Purpose Flour and Alka-Seltzer, and he recalls, “I had no contact with the client. It was radical enough for a Black person to be working in an agency. Presenting that person to a client was another three or four steps ahead.”

He does not hold that against the agency; “I was extremely fortunate to be working in a milieu of really positive people. I never had any racial issues with a hundred and some-odd people who were working at that agency, which I think was very unusual.”

Over the next ten years, he worked at Leo Burnett Company, Foote Cone and Belding and Needham Harper & Steers.

Then in 1971, he and his friend Emmett McBain founded their own agency, Burrell McBain. In 1974 he bought McBain out and renamed the agency, Burrell Communications Group.

It was at Burrell McBain he created what is, perhaps, his most famous campaign, the Black Marlboro Man.

In 1970 Philip Morris wanted to spread the reach of Marlboro cigarettes to the African American community. The face of the brand was The Marlboro Man, and the prevailing understanding of the time was that to appeal to a Black audience all you needed to do was to take the white people in an ad and replace them with Black people.

And that was what Philip Morris tried. Morris’ ads featured cowboys, complete with horses, lassos, and Stetsons just instead of being white, they were Black.

The ads were a failure.

Philip Morris decided to turn to Burrell who had a revolutionary philosophy for the time. He summed it up quite simply: “Black people are not dark-skinned white people.”

What he did was to look past the cowboy and identified the essence that the white Marlboro epitomised: he was independent, assured and utterly cool.

So, Burrell dropped the cowboy and replaced him with a young cosmopolitan Black man, woven into the fabric of the Black community and its culture. He was an authentic and far more relatable figure for the Black audience to whom Marlboro wanted to appeal.

Looking back on the original approach Morris took, Burrell was characteristically succinct in his view of the original approach. In 2015 he said to NPR, “The last thing I want to do is go back a hundred years with a bunch of rural, cowboy white guys—doesn’t sound too safe”.

Burrell went on and developed campaigns for other iconic brands, including McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. He retired in 2004 but remains chairman emeritus of Burrell Communications. In a 2018 interview, he recalled that “We got rid of the cowboy and we had the coolest guys that we could come up with going through their daily activities, smoking. That was huge.”

His impact on advertising was immense and continues to this day. NPR reporter Sonali Gibson, who interviewed Tom Burrell in 2015, says, “I feel like what Burrell did open the door for the kind of ethnic micro-targeting that we see today. […] When you see an ad that seems like it was made especially for you, you’re probably right. And we have Tom Burrell to thank for it.”

The effects of his work and words can still be felt today. he showed how diverse talent can brings real value companies. Creative thinking and innovative strategies can only go so far when everyone in the room looks the same, thinks the same or comes from the same background. Through his boldness, the world learnt how we create better campaigns and brand strategies to truly connect with the diverse world we’re all trying to reach

What’s in a name? Stay calm and build a brand.

What’s in a name? Stay calm and build a brand.

What’s in a name? Well, if it’s the right name it could be the basis for a brand valued at over $2billion.

For Michael Acton Smith and Alex Tew, both of whom have previous when it comes to start-ups, it was a name that was to prove the inspiration for their next big thing – Calm.

And big it is. More than 100 million people now have Calm, after a huge surge in downloads during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

It is a brand that seems to have been built on a mass of contractions; it delivers an ancient practice via that essential tool of modern life your smartphone, it is a tension busting app on a piece of technology that causes huge amounts of anxiety, it is a highly active and rapidly growing start-up that sells doing nothing.

Prior to co-founding Calm, Michael Acton Smith was perhaps most famous for an online game called Moshi Monsters which caught on caught with a mere 80 million kids. However just as he was dreaming of becoming the next Disney, user-growth stopped almost overnight. As Acton Smith later told Inc; “It was a really humbling, painful lesson.”

Alex Tew was famous for a site called the Million Dollar Homepage which he built to help finance his business-management degree while a student at Nottingham University.

The idea was to sell blocks of a home page that consisted of a million pixels. The cost was $1 per pixel and they were sold in 10 × 10 blocks. Purchasers then provided tiny images to be displayed on these blocks and a slogan that would be displayed when anyone hovered over their block with their cursor. The final 1,000 pixels were put up for auction on eBay and went for $38,100, which meant the final total was $1,037,100.

Tew however dropped out of the course after just one term.

The two were introduced at a party on a houseboat on the Thames. Acton Smith recalls “I remember reading about the Million Dollar Homepage and thinking, Wow, this chap is either incredibly obnoxious or a genius.”

Clearly it was the latter, as they ended up becoming roommates in London’s Soho. There they would play video games and swap on business ideas.

It was during this period that the pair heard that the domain name calm.com was coming up for auction and as Acton Smith puts it “We saw it and thought, Wow, what a domain!” and immediately they started wondering “Should we try and buy it? We can build the world’s most incredible brand.”

Tew was already a dedicated meditator. It is something that he says helped him manage the stresses and strains of founding and running a business.

 Acton Smith was a more sceptical. “I didn’t really understand it,” he said. “It just felt a bit weird and strange, and I thought it had religious connotations.” For him it was a bit “woo-woo.”

However, under ‘pressure’ from Tew, he started reading around the subject, and became a convert “Wow, this is actually neuroscience. This is a way of rewiring the human brain. It’s one of the most valuable skills for Western society.”

Studies show that as little as 10 minutes of daily meditation lowers blood pressure and cortisol levels, while improving mood and reducing the incidence of anxiety and depression. It makes people more focused, more self-aware, more resilient, and happier too.

Not surprisingly the pair translated this  as a brand whose aim is to help people “Find their Calm” and they adopted a mission “to make the world happier and healthier.”

The two bought the domain name for less than the $1 million its owner wanted, though they decline to say just how much they did pay for it.

Tew built a few early versions and moved to California in 2011 to try and take advantage of its large pool of investors and engineering talent, not to mention an audience they felt would be open to its claims and willing to pay for. Acton Smith joined Tew in California a few years later.

Calm was launched as a website in 2012 and the app in early 2013.

Its success is in part down to an approach that makes meditation simple, accessible, friendly and not overly spiritual. It avoids using any Buddhist terminology.

Now it’s looking to build on its success. It is producing products including books, films, puzzles, meditation cushions, and weighted blankets. It is expanding into corporate partnerships, offering meditations on American Airlines and in UK Uber rides. Corporate partners include GE and 3M.

It even has ambitions to move into hospitality. There is a plan for an island retreat “We were inspired by Richard Branson buying Necker Island all those years ago,” Acton Smith says. A second inspiration is a more accessible one and one Acton Smith has previously aspired to emulate – Disney with its theme parks.

And the moral is names don’t always come after the idea for a new brand, they can be a source of inspiration. Pick a name you would love to own and think what brand you would create under it.

Celebrity sells medicines – then and now

Celebrity sells medicines – then and now

Seeing the steady stream of celebrities being used to encourage us to have our COVID vaccinations reminded me of a story I wrote about an early use of celebrity endorsement which helped successfully launch a new treatment.

FROM GERMANY WITH LOVE

If Beyoncé and Jay Z may be America’s “it” couple now, if you went back to the mid 1930’s it would have been FDR Jr and Ethel Du Pont.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr was a Harvard student and the eldest son of the President of the United States. Ethel du Pont was the heir to the du Pont family fortune and so one of the richest socialites of her day. The paparazzi loved them and followed them to every event they attended, and their pictures filled the society pages.

Attending the Hock Popo Ski Club party at the Agawam Hunt Club, Rhode Island, in November 1936 was nothing out of the ordinary. Nor, at first, was the sore throat and slight cough that FDR Jr complained of the next day. It hadn’t even been bad enough for him and Ethel to leave the party early.

However, things soon changed. The throat got worse and a few days later FDR Jr had a fever and was put to bed. Just before Thanksgiving, and now diagnosed with an acute sinus infection he was admitted to the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Still nothing too much out of the ordinary or so everyone thought. He was a strong young man, and with some rest and something to take the fever down all would be well again.

Only it wasn’t. The infection didn’t clear up and in fact got worse. He remained in hospital. His mother, Eleanor Roosevelt was getting more and more worried and insisted on a new doctor, a top doctor specializing in ear, nose and throat.

Checking over his new patient the doctor was very concerned, there was a tender spot under his cheek which looked like it was infected and the beginnings of an abscess. He immediately took a sample and discovered a highly dangerous strain of strep, one that could release poisons and other infections into the blood stream. If that happened it could ultimately lead to the death of the President’s son.

While the White House medical staff considered the option of a risky surgical procedure, the new doctor remembered reading some reports about a new drug, Prontosil, developed by Bayer in Germany. The reports spoke of near miraculous results and initial tests at John Hopkins were also very positive.

He recommended it to Mrs. Roosevelt.

At first, she wasn’t sure but having read more about it and in the face of the still worsening condition of her son, she agreed.

Some carefully wrapped glass phials were duly shipped from Germany to the USA.

The doctor gave him a dose and followed it with further doses every hour.

Ethel sat in the room with FDR Jr, his mother sat outside working on correspondence. At first nothing seemed to be happening and the hours seem to stretch on and on but in the morning, things started to change.

The swelling around the abscess looked like it was shrinking. FDR Jr was sleeping better and seemed to have more energy when he was awake. Later that day his fever broke.

The doctors were amazed; never before, had they seen a strep case that was resolved so well and so quickly.

FDR Jr was released a few days after Christmas.

He would later marry Ethel (the first of his five wives), be decorated for his service in WWII and go onto serve three terms in Congress.

However, what he also did was prove that celebrity sells. Headlines in The New York Times and other prominent newspapers, the story of his recovery, and the role of the new wonder drug, heralded the start of the era of antibacterial chemotherapy in the United States.

MORAL: Celebrity sells. Is there a role for celebrity endorsement in your marketing?

Footnote: Eleanor Roosevelt had her own brush with celebrity endorsement. She agreed to do a commercial for Good Luck Margarine in which she said, “The new Good Luck Margarine really tastes delicious.” Not only did the brand fail, it wasn’t all good news for Mrs. Roosevelt either. Asked about it some time later she recalled getting a sack full of letters in which “one half was sad because I had damaged my reputation and the other were happy that I had damaged my reputation.”   

It’s just a game – Lumosity

It’s just a game – Lumosity

‘Medicine’ and ‘fun’ don’t sound like they go together. Medicine is all about science, laboratories and research. It’s serious and professional. On the other hand, ‘fun’ is about playing games and laughter. It’s light-hearted and enjoyable.

However, it’s the clever combination of the two that has led to the development and marketing of a brand which 14 years after its launch has over 100 million members.

The brand employs everyone from neuroscientists to visual artists.

The brand is Lumosity and its parent company is Lumos Labs.

Mike Scanlon is, by training, a neuroscientist- a specialist in brain plasticity; the brain’s ability to modify its own structure and function following changes within the body or in the external environment. It’s an interest which he recognizes was in part motivated by his family history. Both his grandmothers suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

He had moved to California after college to further study neuroscience at Stanford and while there he got in touch with Kunal Sarkar an old college friend who was living in San Francisco and working at a private-equity firm.

The friends got together often and talked about the possibility to take advantage of the brain’s plasticity to improve cognitive abilities. The basis of the idea was what we now know as ‘gamification’, a concept that was already being applied in other marketing sectors. They wondered if they could take brain training to the next level.

Scanlon recognized that for years researchers has created tasks to measure cognitive abilities. These were most often used during in-person studies in a lab using pen and paper. Their idea was simple – could scientists and game designers work together to turn common cognitive and neuropsychological research tasks into exciting games which hopefully would improving the user’s brain’s ability in a way that felt like fun, not hard work?

In 2005, Sarkar quit his job, Scanlon took a leave of absence from Stanford, and they teamed up with Dave Drescher, a technology expert with the aim of creating a palette of online games said to help sharpen memory, attention, and other brain functions.

Their classic games have clear links back to well-known scientific tests.

Lumosity’s Color Match is inspired by the Stroop Test, a classic task first published in 1935. It measures your ability to focus on the difference between naming a color used in the letterforms of a word, even if the text of the word conveys a different color. Color Match tests should, over time, improve your ability to suppress your response to what the word says and focus on how the word looks. It challenges your response inhibition: the ability to quash inappropriate responses that get in the way of your goal.

Lost in Migration is based on the 1974 Flanker Task, which challenges selective attention: your ability to ignore distracting details and focus only on the target. Just like the original Flanker Task, Lost in Migration challenges you to respond to the central target — in this case, a bird — and ignore distracting information from the surrounding flankers.

Lumosity.com launched in 2007 and since then has grown rapidly.

The team see links with academia as vital for the long-term future, not least because they are still seeking strong independent research that their games do actually deliver improvements. Therefore, Lumos Labs is involved in the Human Cognition Project which has partnerships with more than 100 different collaborators at University level. This partnership allows qualified research professionals to make use of the tools and tasks available through Lumosity in order to assist them in conducting studies.

One other challenge that this interesting melting pot of expertise raises is how engineers, designers, artists and researchers can work side by side to create effective products and services, despite different mindsets, goals and timelines. Research is measured in years, game development in months.

According to Scanlon, “The one key thing that has really helped to resolve a lot of those challenges is that everyone has the same mission at the end of the day. I think everyone at our company is in part there because they believe in the mission of improving people’s brain health. So, you can resolve a lot of conflict by taking a step back.” Scanlon as a non-marketer may not realize it but he is expressing a well-known marketing principle namely the need for a clear brand purpose.

MORAL: Who knew medicine can be ‘fun’. How could you use gamification in your product and service development?

The first cut is the kindest – Casa de la Amistad

The first cut is the kindest – Casa de la Amistad

Here is your lateral thinking test.

In Mexico, childhood cancer is the main cause of death from the disease amongst children aged between 5 and 14. About 5,000 new cases are diagnosed every year. Many of these children lose all their hair and with it their confidence. Making a good wig is expensive as it needs a lot of undyed human hair. One wig can cost $1500.

Traditionally, not-for-profit organizations have targeted women. Your challenge is to come up with an alternative group who could be targeted.  And for bonus points how will you get them to donate their hair freely?

So…

Well…

Er….

Not an easy one, is it?

You might want some creative thinkers to help.

That’s what “Casa de la Amistad” (Friendship House), a non-profit organization that supports children with cancer and living in poverty, decided. They approached Ogilvy and Mather (Mexico) and asked for their help.

The objective they set, was to obtain donor hair to make wigs for these children and restore their self-esteem during their treatment.

Their answer was to mix medicine and ‘metalheads’ heavy metal music lovers and at the heart of their idea was The Hair Fest. It would be the first festival in the world for which the entrance fee wasn’t money but hair.

The Hair Fest would take place in Mexico City in April 2014 and nine of the biggest Mexican Heavy Metal bands (Black Overdrive, Profanator, Raped God666, Intoxxicated, Voltax, Maligno, Los Viejos, Ágora and Luzbel) would play in a festival that would last 8 hours.

If you wanted a ticket and lots of metalheads did, they could get a ticket in exchange for 25cm of their hair.

The organizers set up podiums at the entrance to the site and provided stylists to do the actual cutting. It created a camaraderie and spectacle as those who had had their cut and those waiting could shout encouragement, support, respect or just generally make light of what was happening.

 (For those whose hair wasn’t long enough there was an option to buy a ticket)

The results were amazing, in terms of social media and awareness:

  • 9 million hits on social media – Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
  • €500,000 worth of free media.

In terms of attendance:

  • They had expected 400 but over 1000 attended.

In recognition of Ogilvy’s creativity:

  • Hair Fest campaign won 2 silver lions in Cannes 2014 (the first in the ‘Shows’ category and the second one in ‘Charities’)

But most importantly in terms of success:

  • The events collected enough hair for 107 wigs.

MORAL: Lateral thinking can lead to new solutions. Can you identify a new ‘target audience’?