I don’t mean to get all Andy Rooney on anyone, but when did we stop being able to recognize thirst? That innate human need/desire to supply our bodies with water? A fundamental life-giving element, so important that it is placed right up there with ‘air’ on “things as essential as...”? Apparently, just this year!
This year saw the introduction of the HidrateMe “smart” water bottle, a “connected” plastic drinking vessel that “tracks your water intake and makes sure that you're hydrated all day long.” Where once we only had a system developed over millions of years of evolution to make sure we continued to take in one of the very few things we actually need to survive, now we have iPhone notifications!
But there is clearly a desire for this thing. The creators blew past their Kickstarter goal of $35,000 to take in a whopping $627,644, and they continue to take pre-orders for the $45 sensor-laden, modern-day lamb’s bladder. One of those things that every bank, gym, and real estate agent are begging to give away to anybody that might hover into their field of view on opening day. In fact, the desire is so great that there exists more than one smart water bottle! Trago made $75,277 to bring “the world’s first smart water bottle” to fruition. A dubious honor indeed.
Maybe Kickstarter is the problem. They seem to be complicit in feeding this newfound desire to supplement what nature has wrought with Bluetooth, wifi, sensors and free apps. They have a financial incentive, of course, but part of it seems to stem from that pervasive, treacly Silicon Valley notion that we can all be better, but only through technology. And technology has a solution for everything, even things we didn’t know were problems. A current search for the terms “smart” and “intelligent” return nearly 2,000 results on the crowdfunding site, including the following hyper-aware devices: smart beer mug, smart snoring solution, smart picture frame, smart menstrual cup, smart dish washing (surprisingly not a dishwasher), smart laser cat toy, smart fry pan, smart bikini, smart jump rope, smart butt cushion, etcetera for ever into the future.
Perhaps the Kickstarter badge is destined to become the equivalent of the “As Seen On TV” badge, given to those pre-internet-age devices that promised “a better way.”
This insidious trend has been noticed by a lot of smart people, and has spawned all kinds of responses much smarter than mine. But as a trend, it will either die off (the bubble bursts), or become the new norm. More likely is that it continues to create cultural and economic factions in which people either can’t afford to participate in the utopia that is the IoT, make a conscientious choice not to, or embrace it wholeheartedly.
We seem to currently be in, what I like to call, a Malcolm Moment. I am referring, obviously, to that irascible, rockstar scientist, the fictional Dr. Ian Malcolm, played by Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park. From his mighty sermon to the creator of the titular and doomed amusement park:
“...Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn't stop to think if they should.”
Yes, we currently have the ability to put proximity sensors, Bluetooth, gyroscopes, moisture monitors, wifi, Android, speakers and a microphone into a potato, but should we?
We say we’re creating all this smart stuff to make ourselves better, more focused, more capable—but maybe we’re so poorly, distracted, and incapable because of all of our smart stuff.
In trading in our singular central processing unit for thousands of distinct, individually processed objects, with their own apps, APIs, settings, new accounts, passwords, batteries, chargers, firmwares, and companions we’re introducing new levels of complication into a “simplified” life. Because smart is needy. Smart has to be tended to and coddled in ways that dumb never did. Dumb does its job and gets on with it.
What are we doing with all the extra time a smart frying pan gives us? We’re upgrading our smart bed sheets, and changing the login on our smart slippers, and recalibrating our smart Q-Tips, and troubleshooting our smart sofa cushions!
You all see where this is going, don’t you?
In the near future, we all become subservient repair drones to a world of hyper-connected, dominant smart objects, all chip-enabled and in cahoots with one another, free of their intended purpose of serving mankind and able to pursue new ventures we’ve never even dreamed of with our limited, non-LTE-enabled minds. They will keep us around to provide maintenance and minor tasks they’ve become uninterested in putting energy into. Making loads more time for the robot things they love.
But their downfall is assured, just as ours was. Because a day will come when they actually notice how dumb we are, and try to make us smarter to better serve them...
The Come Hither of Quiet
Shhh. There's really no need to say what you're thinking.
At least not everything…it's so much more intriguing when you don't.
Culturally, we seem to have forgotten that fact. Silence, as they say, is golden. (Actually, we’ve also forgotten the full saying: Speech is silver, silence is golden.) The point is, what we don’t say can be more powerful then what we do.
Consider Muji. The Japanese retailer’s name means “without brand.” Yes, Muji is now a coveted brand in its own right, but it got there by offering good design at good prices. The company hires designers whose names alone sell products, but it doesn’t disclose them. Naoto Fukasawa, Konstantin Grcic, James Irvine, Jasper Morrison (they’ve all been commissioned and told)—you can pay hundreds elsewhere for a piece conspicuously designed by any one of them, or spend your pennies at Muji, which you know has the goods. Who cares if they’re anonymous? With Muji there’s no advertising, no look-at-me styling. Just a steady stream of clever, quiet design—and appreciative customers.
Muji is something of anomaly. We live in a culture of static and hype, of brands talking over one another in an attempt to be heard. (Guilty as charged.) By conservative estimate, we’re hit with 200 ads a day. On television and in newspapers and magazines, sure. But also on buses and benches and coffee cups, in elevators and taxis, on your Kindle, in your search results, in your inbox. It would probably be easier to calculate where you don’t see an ad. Of those 200 (some say 2,000) ads, how many do you remember?
And marketing channels are only growing: There’s Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and the next big thing, all ravenous for content. Brands, like people (and hey, we’re all brands now), have grown leery of the interstitial moment. With so much virtual space to fill, the worry is, if you’re not talking, then no one’s listening. But here’s the real challenge: are they truly listening when you do?
Is the girl at the party who you’re going to remember the one who tells story after story starting with “I” to anyone within earshot? Or the one who lands a choice observation or two? You may not, at first, even notice the second girl is in the room, but you’re not likely to forget her once you do.
Is brand strategy (personal or otherwise) really any different than the social landscape of a party? You can opt to keep talking, as much and in as many venues as possible, just so there’s no gap in the news feed. It’s not always a win simply to be present and accounted for. Sometimes holding back is your best move.
Consider this a plea from someone who’s been on both the giving and receiving end of the din. Time for another post? Have another product to promote? Wait…let’s just take a moment to collect ourselves.
A little mystery goes a long way. Consider the American Express “black card,” merely a gleam in the public’s eye before 1999. But people were so seduced by the idea of this exclusive card that the company went ahead and made it official. Now that it lives, the black card is no less shadowy. You can’t apply—it’s an invitation-only affair—and the requirements for being selected are kept hush-hush. The card’s tagline serves as a reminder that scarcity has its rewards: Rarely seen, always recognized.
And don’t forget the good old-fashioned art of the tease. In a 2007 TED Talk about things best left to the imagination, screenwriter J.J. Abrams put it this way: “There are times when mystery is more important than knowledge.” He went on to prove it with an unbranded marketing campaign. If you happened to be sitting in a movie theater waiting to see Transformers that July (and in 2007, the chances of you actually being in a movie theater were much greater), you were thrust mid-act into a going away party for a guy named Rob. A friend with a handheld camera is capturing the moment when a thundering shudder and an explosion send the crowd racing into the streets of Lower Manhattan, where they’re scattered by a projectile that turns out to be the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty. Someone off-screen blurts, “I saw it. It’s alive. It’s huge!” The only information provided: “FROM PRODUCER J.J. ABRAMS,” followed by “IN THEATERS 1-18-08.” Paramount, which was credited, refused to acknowledge that any such project existed.
Those who followed the teaser’s scant trail and Googled the release date, found the website 1-18-08.com, containing time-stamped images—some depicting scenes of disaster, some quotidian. The movie poster revealed even less: a ravaged skyline, a headless Statue of Liberty and a date, 01-18-08. It would be months before a name, Cloverfield, was attached to the movie, but no matter. Curiosity had been aroused. Cloverfield, which benefitted from a subsequent viral marketing campaign that laid out the backstory in clues, earned more than $40 million its first weekend—the biggest January opening on record, until the buddy-cop film Ride Along, with bankable stars Ice Cube and Kevin Hart, surpassed it earlier this year.
Another campaign that raised more questions than it answered: Venmo’s NYC subway ads featuring “Lucas.” Only this time, the response wasn’t so enthusiastic. Lucas takes the stairs. Lucas has big dreams. Lucas makes coffee. Lucas likes magic. Lucas pays rent. Lucas loves his friends. Lucas uses Venmo. Any idea what Venmo is? Any interest?
The ads read like a character straight from the pages of Dick and Jane taking his first stab at an eHarmony profile. Lucas, as it turns out, is a software engineer who works for Venmo (a payment app, by the way). “We thought it would be cool to showcase someone that works at the company and uses Venmo, to tell the story of his life,” co-founder Iqram Magdon-Ismail told Fox News. Sadly, Lucas doesn’t seem to have a very interesting life story to tell. Personally, I’m more drawn to the version of Lucas that Buzzfeed imagined: Lucas has a cavity. Lucas ate egg salad for lunch. Lucas owns a parrot named Jeffrey. Lucas just farted. This guy seems a little unclean, and possibly unhealthy, but at least not dull.
Merely raising questions isn’t enough—they have to be questions people can’t help but pursue the answers to. It’s a strategy that was perfected by Gypsy Rose Lee: drop a hint here, a stocking there. And always leave them wanting more.