The Town of Pulga
California Gold Country's Magical Mountain Miracle
This project called for creating an end-to-end mobile app for Pulga, California, a miracle of a town tucked deep into Northern California’s Feather River Canyon. Much more than a town, Pulga needed an stand-alone app that was both useful to visitors (the town has no cell service), and also serve as a conduit for a greater brand and lifestyle.
Protected on all sides by canyon walls and fed by the river, Pulga naturally cultivates an ecosystem that is both visually beautiful and teeming with life. Pulga’s sustenance made it an ideal settlement for indigenous tribes for centuries. Then came American settlers during the Gold Rush. Soon a railroad was added and the town became a bustling stop that thrived Into the 1960’s.
As the town’s mainstream traffic slowed, it became known as a retreat town, hippie exile, and Pagan commune. Janis, Hendrix and the Dead were all known to pass through. The property changed hands a few times, aged, and fell into disrepair. By 2014 Pulga had become the quintessential ghost town, was famously placed for sale on Craigslist, and in March of 2015 the 62-acre town was purchased for $499k.
The new owners have since put exhaustive work into restoring the place, and in the spring of 2017 formally reopened as a town that can be rented in its entirety. But it’s more than just an unplugging getaway. Pulga is tapping into an emerging culture of “glamping” experiences (glamorous camping), and becoming a year-round extension of the Burning Man / Coachella / #vanlife community.
Though only a few months into operation, the town has bookings extending over 2 years, some entering six-figure billings.
The vision of Pulga transcends simple weekend destination into that of an overall lifestyle brand defined by art and music, clean bodies filled with clean food produced from a clean Earth, an almost neurological path of self-discovery, and strong community values. While it may be a physical town fixed in one location, it’s “residents” live throughout the world, and are bound more by a shared philosophy than geography.
Look, I don't identify as any kind of "Hipster." Or as a "Burner." Or as one of those "Techie Kids" or "EDM Kids" or any kind of grown-up "kid." In fact, I kinda get the howling fantods at any kind of categorical stereotype.
I know those people. I live among those people. I am ensconced throughout the San Francisco Bay Area with those people. And I willingly adopt many of the aspects that inform such stereotypes (...while hopefully diluting what might otherwise have been a "redneck" or "frat boy" stereotype?).
I prefer well-built and lasting "throwback" products over disposable planned obsolescence. I like unprocessed real food (though the term "farm to table" now makes me gag). I'm completely behind The 10 Principles (though I think something is wrong with you if you have to be told to live them). I love music made by computers and art that is sometimes on fire and any excuse to dress in costume.
I am the Pulga persona.
My research for this project includes over a generation of watching a lifestyle emerge, composed of a distinct set of customs, mentalities, activities, icons and symbols, attire, artifacts and even unique language elements. Modern business practices, products and designs, and even the UX craft itself owes itself to many of the philosophies that have spawned from this culture: Is it useful? Does it have value? Is it delightful? Does it inspire joy?
While Pulga is indeed a spot on a map, it is also a role-player in this community. Much like Caesar's Palace is not simply a hotel, Pulga is a brand that represents a mindset and is a destination for like-minded groups. Recently such groups -- from Burning Man theme camps to forward-thinking corporate team-building outings -- have sought getaway locations conducive to inspirational experiences. A would-be competitor -- nearby Belden, CA -- has hosted similar town-takeover events for a few seasons. Pulga is the first effort to specifically create this environment from the ground up.
In designing the app, I had two goals.
I approached the project through the eyes of a variety of prospective users, all of whom share this common culture, but who have different motivations for passing through Pulga. Here below I've imagined four personas:
While each may arrive at a Pulga stay for different reasons, they all choose such a destination over many other options due to a shared appreciation for the lifestyle brand Pulga is cultivating. My app needed to fulfill that culture in real time as each guest was on site, but then further establish an ongoing conduit to these values and to a community.
Designing for iOS, I envisioned a gallery of cards that intermingled the useful -- like the details of who in your party was staying where, with the delightful -- such as recipes using ingredients currently in season. Blending the two might be the summation of an art piece that a current guest may be standing in front of while a past guest is learning about from a distance or recalling how she saw the piece previously at a public plaza in San Jose. Together they create more than a place, but a state of mind, one that the user never really has to leave.
I ran an InVision prototype past several people. Though all were likely users, they were also all friends who know Pulga, so I realized some bias would be present. Most of the errors seemed related to the Invision presentation. Users needed to be trained on the limitations, swipe gestures and the use of blue zones. But overall the Pulga app was well received. Design, layout, photos & color were all positive. Any errors were in navigation -- where to find the map, and identifying "My Events" page after login -- which led to some V2 design tweaks, but overall is seemed many errors would solve themselves upon a live app being built, with live navigation, photos and headers.
One question heading into this project was about the need for it at all. Users rarely bother with "temporary" apps that are only relevant for brief moments. But when those moments become something bigger -- say three days at Coachella or a Vegas weekend -- users will embrace the app and continue to interact with it as a means of elongating the experience after the event is over. Some events -- like Burning Man, the Tour de France, the World Series of Poker or a UFC Fight -- evolve well past the event occurrence and into an ongoing lifestyle and culture. That's the essence of Pulga, California, and what is achieved in their iOS app.
Local writers reading original works live!
(how is that supposed to compete when Hamilton is down the street?!?)
Quiet Lightning is a San Francisco Bay Area non-profit organization that produces a traveling monthly literary series with a no-frills twist. Authors submit their works anonymously, at no more than 1500 words (or 8 minutes, if you read allegro). Those selected commit to presenting their work live, also anonymously.
Since 2009, Quiet Lightning has produced more than 100 shows across 70 venues, from dive bars and art galleries to state parks and national landmarks. It has presented 1,100 readings by 700 authors, and published 80 books. It also maintains the most comprehensive literary event calendar in the SF Bay Area.
Quiet Lightning is primarily funded by a grant from the SF Arts Commission.
You Get What You Pay For
Quiet Lightning is an entirely volunteer-run organization, and the bootstrapping shows in the website. It's virtually unnavigable. It isn't built for social or mobile. Visually, it's...unfortunate-looking.
Literature in San Francisco defines cool. This is Kerouac and Ginsberg, Twain, Steinbeck, Jack London. COOL. Passionate deliveries in dark dive bars. COOL. Quiet Lightning is cool!
But their website delivered zero cool. It wasn't pretty, and it actually diverted users away from prime content. In a town that averages 40+ significant events competing per night, Quiet Lightning needed help producing an experience that built Anticipation, maximized the Happening, and elongated the Reliving of their can't-miss events.
I live in Quiet Lightning's community. I've worked for years in both the nightlife industry and in non-profit community organizing. I'm an avid reader and volunteer for an annual literary festival. So the challenge here wasn't learning the client, but holding biases and assumptions in check. I've had experiences with overthinking a project...now I had to make sure I thought enough.
However, as I moved through user research, I found that many of the my initial assumptions were reinforced. People had trouble navigating the site's information, they didn't receive the most important key messages, and they disliked the visual design.
But maybe more importantly, I learned user perceptions toward literary events as a whole.
User insights showed that people wanted to do magical things with their time, and among the factors that made an event magical, the most critical was having your favorite people with you. Users crave connection and community:
My solution was to reorganize the new Quiet Lightning site with the purpose of perpetuating an Endless Event life cycle.
Users reach the site to find a total focus on what is about to happen. This is going to be a BIG DEAL. You should get REALLY EXCITED. You should TELL YOUR FRIENDS.
This Anticipation feeds into the Happening of the event itself. This is the part that Quiet Lightning does well. The feedback from the past attendees describes the overall experience as magical, "not an event, a moment."
And it doesn't end when the night's over. It becomes The Reliving. The site presents archived media in easily skimmable and interactable formats. Users comment on the night. They share audio and video. They continue the experience as a community.
The map below shows how I aimed to magnify enthusiasm around the Quiet Lightning shows. Here's what's happening:
Maybe there was something literary and deco about the current logo, but it wasn't well received, and didn't translate to the web, mobile or social well. The logo needed a strong refresh that promised to take the whole visual design with it. The letter Q and lightning imagery design themselves, and it evolved from there.
Big photos and big words. Here's what's happening and here's where it's happening. I framed the site out dead simple. I screamed it. I said it again softer with more detail. Then I kept saying it. Even when delivering secondary information, it was in terms of how it makes the next show matter. STAY ON MESSAGE.
InVision prototype testing went as expected. Users were not specifically asked to walk through the mapped user flow. Yet without prompts, all found their way through the RSVP path, to the About homepage, and to the archives. Feedback was mostly positive (many had seen the "before" site). Users were all active San Francisco residents, who expressed a real interest in attending the next Quiet Lightning show.
I've written earlier about a hypothetical project that led to waaayyyy too much overthinking. Here I had a real project that I needed to force-think about, as my gut really wanted to just design around "obvious" assumptions. And yet, most of those assumptions proved valid, and the design went forward as imagined.
The ultimate takeaway here is that almost any endeavor -- particularly a non-profit organization -- is driven by the labor of love and passions of those supporting it. As a UX designer, learning those people is exponentially more important that learning the project mechanically. If you can bottle their energy and enthusiasm into an experience, the design will win.
This project called for a new feature within Spotify's existing platform that would advance music sharing and social connection among users. Spotify is well-loved, but it always falls short of building the kind of connectedness among users that is found in so many other modern platforms.
What does music sharing make YOU think of?
Mixtapes. Right. So my answer was Spotify Mixtape, a feature that offers the benefits of modern music technology while injecting elements of the classic, physically-shared cassette mixtapes -- unmatched as an artifact of intimate, personal relationships between users.
Despite the virtual death of the cassette tape in 2003 with the rise of streaming, there remains a lore around mixtapes. To wit:
The most validating evidence of the continuing marketability of mixtapes? Apple has a digital mixtape patent in queue.
The question here is: What keeps the mixtape alive, while at the same time killing attempts to recreate it?
Look at the evolution: mixapes --> CDs --> Napster --> Spotify.
You can make some assumptions:
And to another point, limitless Spotify song options are not always a benefit:
And we all know social media is anti-social:
Surveys and live interviews showed the same intimate connection to music, and identified an emotional effect in the modern change in music delivery.
And perhaps most importantly, of a mixtape's defining factors, only sound quality was seen as wholly negative. Most of the "limitations" of the format are actually recalled as positives.
People continue longing for something essential within the mixtape, and it isn't the plastic casing or hissing sound. It's something else. And there have been many failed efforts to find that missing piece. They've failed for three reasons:
Failing 1: Retro for Retro’s Sake
A Kickstarter campaign created an MP3 playlist in a cassette tape form factor. It was all nostalgia, with no encapsulation of the passion of music sharing.
Retro rises in several forms.
Failing 2: Content
Copyright laws continue to make online streaming and sharing a quagmire. Many attempts to reinitiate playlist sharing hit a roadblock on the copyright front, and/or required a plug-in to a service like Spotify anyway.
As one blogger reviewed: “Mixtaping.fm is let down by its need to plug in to Spotify and Rdio, which means you may as well just go directly to one of those two services and cut out the middleman.”
Failing 3: Solving the Wrong Pain Points
The fact is, pain begets pleasure.
The effort that goes into a task often gives it value. The limitations put on a user lead to inspiration in other aspects. Consider games, sports, hackathons, or Iron Chef cookoffs. Obstructions are intentionally placed to prompt performance.
Further, there are pain points a user is aware of, and those not yet known. In the 80’s, users were aware of cassettes hissing sound quality, the snagging of tape in players, or the warping of the cases in hot cars. They could not at that time conceive of skipping songs, or of infinite playlists.
Streaming music solved all those problems, but the latter were the charm of the mixtape.
A new digital feature for Spotify that reincorporates the positive features of mixtapes, while minimizing the kitschy retro retread of an old idea, including:
Music casts a wide net. It is "a cross-cultural universal, a ubiquitous activity found in every known human culture," as described in converging studies identifying a five-factor structure behind musical personas. In this case, there was another layer...not just music, but how one acquires his/her music. Given these nuances, I sought to define a spectrum of personas.
This range allowed me to design around the duality of:
These personas also account for Spotify's existing complexity. The platform has to negotiate a ton of information into very limited space. There are dozens of features on the full laptop/PC version that are omitted from the mobile app. There are dozens of features that are more-or-less "Easter Eggs" in that you have to be experienced to know where to find them.
By considering multiple personas, I designed with the Spotify power user in mind as the Mixtape maker. This advocate-evangelist will go the extra mile to figure out tasks that might not be immediately intuitive. He/she is trained in Spotify patterns, and will find that Spotify's mixtape feature performs identically to many of its other elements.
I could simultaneously imagine the novice Spotify user as the mixtape receiver. This person gets a simple, familiar interface guiding them into their gift, while acting as a gateway task that will expand their comfort with Spotify's deeper offerings and lead them to become makers themselves.
And because so much of Spotify is already complicated, adding a mixtape feature into the existing structure is relatively "easy." I didn't feel a need to overdo usability in the design, given that I could assume a power user who was already trained to figure things out on his/her own.
Staying within the confines of Spotify's platform, it was relatively seamless blending a mixtape option into the existing design and architecture and still creating the sense of a "Mixtape" as something distinctive and special rather than an alternative packaging of a playlist. However, that didn't preclude me from considering what we could do if allowed to venture a little outside of Spotify's standard protocol, like, say, going to landscape mode.
The prototype presented well on InVision's mobile app. Testers did not immediately realize they were not on Spotify.
I began with an open-ended ask -- "How would you make a mixtape?" This immediately established my power-user vs. novice theory. The respondent who primarily listens to Pandora radio had no idea where to begin. To the Spotify addict, it made sense.
There was a consensus that Spotify is a complicated platform in general. The users I tested expressed that they rarely knew how to perform more than the most basic actions on Spotify -- until they put in the effort to figure it out -- then it becomes habit and works for them well.
Note: Another challenge my tests revealed was the disconnect between Spotify Premium users and the Spotify free service. Premium users mentioned times they've sent Spotify content to a friend, but who didn't receive the full experience. Confused conversations ensue:
Premium: "You click the three dots and it's in that menu..."
Free: "I did that but it's not there!"
My ad model attempts to rectify that issue.
But overall, the challenges of mastering Spotify (and the mixtape feature) were countered by joy for the mixtape concept. Users loved the idea of it, and were almost giddy at imagining being able to make a tape with these aspects incorporated. They also loved the visual tape playback UI.
The Mixtape continues to live on, and for a reason that transcends mere nostalgia. It was a form of meaningful, personal communication, recalled now in a world of trivial communication. Resurrecting the mixtape in the way shown here fits Spotify's platform well. People love it. It brings something back while creating something new. It helps people "share" in a meaningful, not ephemeral way, It could even be a unique revenue stream.
Where would you go, if you could go anywhere? Ahem. Excuse me. Where would you go, if you could go anywhen?
This was the question posed by Zeit Time Travel, a mythical client presented by DESIGNLAB's UX Academy.
After decades of research and international debate, time travel tourism is a reality. Brought to us by none other than Richard Branson and the Virgin Group, Zeit Time Travel will soon offer 289 destinations throughout the most compelling moments in history.
My job: "to create their new brand, and set up an ecommerce responsive website in which they can sell travel packages to different times."
The Problem With That
Time Travel doesn't actually exist. All the answers one unveils in a typical UX process morphed into a web of hypotheticals, assumptions and let's-pretends that proved to be one bottomless rabbit hole. Users can't wrap their brain around the reality of time travel, can't have truly informed opinions. No market research adequately forecasts it. From the beginning, the project was at constant risk of becoming a Frankenstein's monster of mismatched parts. Thus, this is a case study of a project gone sideways, and how a project can become unmoored if you don't find the real, right answer each step of the way.
I began overthinking this project at the beginning. With a Method-actor approach to research, I delved into the historical, cultural and literary fascination with time travel. I dug into the "reality" of it, into quantum physics. I did "market research," only to confirm there was no market, and finding space travel as the closest analog. I realized that this doesn't compare to travel at all -- not in cost or experience. You don't even need vacation time from work -- the traveler isn't gone from real-time for even a second.
I concluded that the target user could only be Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (UHNWIs), while at the same time, all the world would be fascinated and aspiring lurker-non-customers. The closest thing to that UX? Museums and auction houses. SFMOMA and Sotheby's will engage 20% of their audience in $1M transactions, while entertaining 80% of its audience with free cultural history lessons. This is the approach I took.
Everyone else, it seems, built a travel site. "Priceline Past"...
Everyone should have a rich uncle. Fortunately I do, and had one person who fit my actual user demographic and could provide insights. My persona is an amalgam of his responses and various online high profile figures. In my storyboard then, I aim to merge our actual user -- the high net worth individual -- and our highly engaged but priced-out general public, who also happen to be these average people I was realistically able to survey. My empathy map then reflects their thoughts and feelings.
I'm moving deeper into the rabbit hole here, where the easy fix would have been to ask my regular-people respondents their opinions about a regular travel website. Quantum Entanglement suggest that in another location in time and space, I did just that.
When it came to building the information flow for the Zeit hypothetical, the complication of two audiences expanded. To make matters more convoluted, my research showed that a vast subset of UHNWIs wouldn't even use the Internet for a such a high-dollar decisions, and/or would never engage personally, but rather have an assistant or other third party execute the transaction. So I invented an offline Concierge to be at users' beck and call 24/7. (When customers are paying $500,000 for a ticket, you can assume a VIP budget.) So now we've got an offering without competitors, desired by every single human, divided between bourgeoisie and proletariat, part museum and part Star Trek, online and offline.
All that mapped out like this...
As the project moved toward the design phase, I could see how early small errors expand over every iteration. The frustrating part is these weren't so much errors in process, but rather in the hypothetical itself. Making Zeit a clean, modern travel site for everyday customers would have been easy. Making it a high end ultra-exclusive take-time-travel-seriously venture grew complicated.
Another overthought, too-realistic consideration was how hard choosing a destination would be. A real travel site offers thousands of destinations, but your choice is easily reasoned and rather effortless. Spending $500k on a once-in-a-lifetime, mind-altering experience showed in research to be a huge, heavy, impossible decision. So it became critical to my design to have a dynamic search function that acted almost like a Briggs-Myers test in its effort to guide users to an soul-matching destination.
And the logo...I like it. I don't love it. I would have liked to spend two weeks iterating 100 ideas. This logo is the product of maybe a 6 hour window allowed for it. The Z represents a path, entering on one end, swirling around, and emerging on the other side.
The final steps were to finalize a prototype and test it. The perfectionist in me was unsatisfied. I want a budget! And time! I want to design unique fonts and iconography! I want to choreograph photo shoots! I want to go back in time and experience the product!
I think this might have worked in real life. But again, with Sketch as my primary tool, simpler was the better solution (isn't it always?).
The prototype did test well. Users liked the layout, were drawn into the photos, and understood how to navigate with few errors. My users, like myself, were hung up mostly just on accepting the concept of time travel at the onset, and making those unrealistic assumptions prior to making real-time decisions.
All told, this was an educational and valuable exercise. I learned that I am going to be excessively thorough and think about everything. I'm going to want to take 5X more time than I have. I'm going to want to meticulously deliberate every option. I need to reign it in some, though at times, I don't mind wanting more than a short window of time allows. They say that "perfect is the enemy of the good." But in the end, when "good" leaves you cringing and aching for perfect, maybe it's better to be OCD.
A stream-of-consciousness UX reflection “on the assumptions behind a failure”
Captain’s Log, Startdate 12/29/2009: I win the interview and am hired by the San Francisco office of the global digital agency Isobar, on a contract basis, My role will be as a “Community Manager” for a newly launching campaign for a mobile device that promises to be groundbreaking on all levels.
I had passed through a few SF tech roles since the Dot-Com Boom, but for most of the ‘00’s I’d been working in local politics. This tech/community-organizing role was perfect for me. And after the Dot-Com Bust, followed by years as a highly-job-insecure political hack, busting a foot through the door of a major agency was huge.
I am so stoked right now.
January ‘10: The ink is formally dried on a $650,000 contract with Palm, the genius pioneer of smartphones. The Palm Pilot is like the Orson Welles of tech gadgets. The First. The Greatest. A Legend.
The Palm Treo? Amazing. Game changer.
And now they’re launching the Palm Pre Plus, to great fanfare, mostly due to the much ballyhooed webOS guts (and a fanatical fanboy cult of support).
February ‘10: At Isobar we’re a pretty lean 6-ish person team. Account Director, Account Supervisor, Account Coordinator. Myself in this community specialist role. One Art Director (with art dept help), one Lead Developer (with team help), one project manager (working across several accounts)...hence the “ish.”
Together we conceptualize, craft, and begin bringing to life the “Palm Connections” campaign. The idea is this:
We give away 500 Palm Pre Plus devices to good causes.
Coupled with $300 in Verizon credit to make the phones go.
We build an interactive Facebook app that showcases the efforts of these causes.
They use the phones to both create and tell their stories. These cash-strapped, limited- budget charitable orgs now have this powerful tool. They do better work. They take and post photos and status updates of this work upload it for all the world to see.
We coach and mentor their efforts and promote their cause to a massive audience.
What could possibly go wrong?!?!
Being the “specialist” here, and since this was my only job (the rest of the team were FTE’s with other accounts), I became sort of a central, logistical hub. My primary role was to recruit the “good causes,” do the necessary relationship building, acquire all the assets (photos, stories, etc.), and onboard them.
Work with client re: participants, their stories -- (Is Palm progressive enough for a LGBT rights org?) -- determine markets. Client wants to do LIVE launches, so we can’t recruit groups from just anywhere. I have to find participants ONLY in SPECIFIC markets, and determine what those markets are.
Portland, Denver, Raleigh-Durham, Austin, San Francisco.
Work with art re: content and layout. “We need higher resolution photos!” But those are the photos OUR PRODUCT took!?!
Work with development re: app build, functionality, performance. But...but...we’re building this in a Facebook app that you can’t access via the Palm interface!?!?
March ‘10: We have a $650,000 campaign, 500 phones in inventory committed to it, and a $150,000 contract with Verizon to provide the service. And the phones won’t work on Verizon.
I’m thrust into the insane complications of device vs. service tech and marketing that most people only know when they try to “unlock” their iPhone so they can switch carriers.
Technologically, the phones work on Verizon’s service. But Verizon would require 2-year contracts on all of them. YES. EVEN IN THIS SITUATION.
You didn’t know the whole phone contract thing went deep into ancient Illuminatic secret societies and coded alien transmissions, did you?
April ‘10: Hewlett Packard buys Palm for $1.2 Billion. With a B. Here we go.
April - August ‘10: Mostly havoc.
I’m going round and round with Verizon trying navigate a way through the contract glitch, moving farther and farther up the chain of command, as a major national campaign involving two huge Fortune 50 companies might warrant.
But one thing I’ve always known, is it isn’t the generals who make things happen. It’s the foot soldiers. Don’t talk to the CEO, talk to the assistant. Don’t complain to the manager, ask nicely of the server.
So I walked into my local Verizon store, off the street, bought $150,000 worth of Verizon gift cards, made “Vince” a HUGE commission, launched his career in the company, and solved the problem. Solved A problem.
. . .
When HP bought Palm, our contact people on the client side began to disappear. New staff at HP had no idea what to make of our campaign, didn’t want to have anything to do with it, didn’t care it was already paid for.
HP bought Palm for webOS. They didn’t care about the Palm Pre Plus or its fate.
I cared. I cared about these organizations I’d been recruiting. I cared about what they were doing and how some of them had even changed their strategies to incorporate us. They were counting on us. I kept pushing on.
Meanwhile HP was all like, “whatevah.”
August ‘10: HP’s CEO resigns. Are you kidding me?!?
September ‘10: HP now, literally, doesn’t even know we exist. Most of their staff left with the CEO, and there isn’t even a person filling the marketing role (or that person’s boss, or that person’s boss) -- there aren’t people filling the marketing department that would liaise with our agency on this campaign. We are flying solo, doing this only because we’re this far committed and bound to the work of our contract.
(not me...I’m doing this because I love it, because I’m emotionally invested in the community I’ve built, because I’m about to get to travel on a road show to awesome cities, and because I’m a contractor still trying to earn a real job.)
Needless to say we had ZERO marketing or PR support on HP’s end. And yet, this campaign needed some publicity. I, personally, was going to look like an idiot failure if we didn’t get some buzz. This was tricky. Because though HP didn’t want to help us, they also wanted total control over their PR message.
A lot of times in political work, “Things fall off a truck.” Some benefit surfaces, and you don’t know where it came from, because its origins are probably not kosher.
In layman’s terms: “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”
So maybe I have a past life as a PR guy, and maybe I have access to media lists and maybe I know the tricks of pitching the press and maybe I accidentally led an underground PR campaign that got 2700 media mentions. OOPS. Sorry I’m not sorry.
That part get’s more interesting. Let’s go back to that “bound to the work of our contract” part…
I get called into a meeting with important Isobar executives I’ve never met. Turns out Nokia is an Isobar client, our Palm campaign is a conflict of interest, and it never should have happened. We’re now in corporate limbo. If we do too well on the Palm campaign and word gets out, Nokia will sue us. If we bail on the Palm campaign, HP could sue us for breach of contract -- even if they aren’t supporting the campaign and don’t care about it.
So my job now is to basically, adequately, unremarkably go through the motions of the campaign through its completion.
Things get weird at Isobar. The GM leaves (was fired?). Interim GM.
Aaaaaand now my Account Director is leaving to go to Yahoo. That’s how bad this is...You’d rather be at YAHOO!
October ‘10: THE SHOW MUST GO ON. Contractually.
My Account Supervisor and I go on the road show. I have a great time. I love to travel. These are cool cities. I like expense account-paid dinners. I like cool hotels.
The campaign? Meh. Hardly anyone showed up anywhere. Of the 500 phones, I managed to get about half into the hands of worthy causes. Most of the users couldn’t figure the things out. They were before their time (the phones, not the users).
The real highlight of the trip? Finding myself in Austin, Texas, at the same time the mighty San Francisco Giants were winning the world series against the Texas Rangers, and seeing the victory with my own eyes. Fact.
November ‘10: My Account Supervisor gets laid off. I am, literally, the only person on this campaign. HP is gone. Isobar is gone. The “good causes” involved got their phones and now it’s the holidays and they could really care less. I am coming into the office daily, half-daily, quarter-daily, to no one’s awareness, like George Costanza with a Penske file, because we are contractually obligated to service this account.
February ‘11: It’s finally over. Contract expired. I ship about 200 phones back for HP to destroy. They would kill Palm completely by August. I got to keep a box of Verizon gift cards and didn’t pay for service for 5 years.
Meanwhile Isobar’s office continued to ghost, and by the next year its SF location had completely shut down.
I was not the captain. But I was the last man standing on deck. I was the one who’d go down with the ship. Or maybe the better metaphor is...I was Jack, the vagabond tramp who never should have been there in the first place, clinging to the floating debris. The Palm Pre was Rose, drifting.
What does one learn from such a colossal failure? What can one learn?!? You learn about people, that’s what. You learn that among the “brands,” the “companies,” the “corporations,” or whatever constructed entity you want to call it, these monoliths are made of people, and no matter how well they frame their own personal “brand,” their professional image, their acumen...those people are going to do some dysfunctional things.
The “assumptions” here? We assumed functionality. There was none. The product was fine. The hardware sucked, but that was an iteration away from fixing. The software -- webOS -- was cutting edge, and now exists all over Android and iPhone after bits and pieces were scavenged. The product coulda been a contender. It was the people behind it. It always is.
Redesigning the website for a startup payments company offering RFID, offline payment technology for use at major festivals and events where cell/wi-fi may be clogged, spotty or inexistent.
Social media and live events go hand in hand. They need each other. The event needs anticipation building it up, then reflection after. The social discussion needs the *thing* to talk about, otherwise it's just blather.
And now we enter a new billion-dollar age in this intersection of event and discussion: the ICO. The future of your idea, your company and your token will depend almost entirely on public perception. But careful now...too much self-promotion will brand you as a pump-and-dump scam.
Here's your ICO social media plan.
Son of Hop’s journey through SFMOMA, TIME Magazine and the California State Fair
The beer style was so obscure, we couldn’t even definitively determine if it was spelled with one “s” or two. Grisette? Or Grissette? Google was no help at all.
Nonetheless, we had one on the way. A grissette (there, decided…) is a cousin of the Belgian saison. Saison, of course, translates to “season,” and was traditionally made for fieldworkers kicking back after a day’s harvest — hence the term being synonymous with “farmhouse ale.”
As parts of Belgium became more industrial, the grissette evolved. The lore tells that the heavy work of stone quarries necessitated a lighter, more refreshing, lower ABV drink, which was brewed with malted grain and more hops for added weight and texture, seeing as it would otherwise be watery (add your own Dilly Dilly thought here…). Some say the name — gris = grey — derives from the grey frocks of the servers, others credit the grey stone dust on the workers.
So we’ve got this obscure Belgian experiment coming about 6 weeks down the production calendar, when I get an email from an event producer at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “We’re installing our new Magritte exhibit, and are looking for a local brewery to serve at our opening event…PS it would be great if you had something Belgian.”
That’s one of the greatest things about the Bay Area…not only is there usually a great local version of anything you could want, but there’s also hella peer pressure to find it before defaulting to something mass produced. See…just now I considered several words for “a large amount” before realizing I’m obliged to use the local “hella.” SFMOMA could have easily Dilly-Dilly’d, but they came to us.
“Why…what a coincidence…we happen to have a unique Belgian beer releasing that same week!”
Success is rarely created from scratch. Rather, it comes from maximizing opportunities that present themselves serendipitously. This was one of those opportunities.
I immediately dove into Google to learn everything I could about Magritte. I wanted to get really clever. But then I recalled the Seven Stills way…blatant rip-offs and ridiculous parodies of the most obvious icons. I came up with the same idea that’s been done a thousand times: a satirical “Son of Man" with hops thrown in. The can and the brand designed themselves.
The beer turned out to be fantastic. That’s not always a certainty when working with live yeast cultures that make their own decisions. So we were launching a great product in a fun package that was further validated by our affiliation with the actual artwork. This was marketing synergy at its best, and the public, um…drank it up enthusiastically.
The more people talked about us, the more they talked about us. The buzz around the Son of Hop release peaked when I got us on the radar of TIME Magazine, who featured us in their special edition on craft beer in a spread specifically focusing on the emerging role of packaging design. I keep telling people…Beer cans are the new album art.
There are a lot of beer festivals, a few that award the best submissions, and fewer yet that matter. The California State Fair Beer Competition is one of those that matters.
We submitted Son of Hop for consideration there, and while it’s a blind test that brands can’t particularly lobby for, it occurred to me that there might not be many “grissettes” in the field. So I upped the advertising and influencer outreach in the days prior to the competition — and specifically in the Sacramento area — to get any Oscar-worthy “For Your Consideration” help that we could get. Whether it paid off or not…we did win an award. Of the three beers we submitted, Son of Hop placed.
As a case study, the Son of Hop experience underscored what can happen when all elements of a product work together. At the core must be great substance — the actual beer had to be quality. But a lot of great products wallow in obscurity. Here we put it in the right design, with the right brand, marketed it well, connected it to the public creatively, got our public to market it for us, supported it with press, and then landed the affirmation. The campaign ultimately boosted the overarching Seven Stills brand, enhancing the product releases that came after it.
Product Release + Crowdfunding Campaign + Capital Expansion + Crisis Management + Bitcoin???
A Good Problem to Have
Seven Stills had all the trappings of early start-up success. The young company had a great product it couldn’t make enough of, growing demand that it couldn’t fulfill, and consumer buzz that it couldn’t capitalize on.
It had to expand quickly, and would do so via an ambitious 18,000 sq ft facility within an innovative public-private partnership aimed at bringing affordable manufacturing space to an otherwise unaffordable city.
To make this expansion a reality, we were going to need a lot of money. The idea was to raise $3.5 million via a combination of accredited investors and a public crowdfunding campaign.
It was going to take some clever recruitment to attract those investors.
Seven Stills only had one “core” beer that it produced on a consistent schedule. Everything else — as many as 6 products per month — were one-off releases. We were constantly repeating a process of new product development, an entire ecosystem of new recipes, new branding, new packaging, new promotion, new sales cycle. The concept of major CPG companies spending years on R&D for a single new product release was just bizarre to us.
The advantage of these rapid-fire product releases was that each can or bottle could become a messenger. Branding could convey a seasonal essence or a timely news/pop culture satire. We could boost performance of a release by tying packaging into live experiences.
Now here was the chance to create a kind of reflective synergy — the can would promote the fundraising, which would promote the can, which would promote the new location, which would promote the can.
Though Seven Stills was in an analog industry, it was also a start-up in 21st century San Francisco. We would never avoid the trends and culture of the tech community. In the 2017-18 timeframe, there was no greater chatter than that around cryptocurrency.
Good ideas often start as something utterly ridiculous, and then are whittled down to something realistic. Here the fantasy was “let’s make our own crypto coin!” Maybe it was only slightly ridiculous, given that everyone from a bankrupt Kodak to Long Island ice tea companies were trying to suckle on the crypto teat. But no…no…c’mon…let’s do something manageable.
So after whittling away, I thought, “Yeah, ICO, ‘Initial Can Offering!’” It’s an interactive can, that launches the initial offering of a crowdfunding sale. We play on the crypto buzz and brand it like a bitcoin, Each can label includes a peel-off token that would grant purchasers bonus shares if they invest in the company. Most cans awarded 2 free shares upon a minimum investment of $503, but one jackpot token delivered 100 shares. In practice, it executed more like a McDonald’s Monopoly game, but with all the crypto promise of an appreciating asset. (No one ever claimed the big winner.)
The promo was an enormous success. We sold 75% of our inventory within the first week. The community buzz was deafening, with Instagram blowing up and press hits coming from places far beyond our typical brewing coverage.
But slowly a crisis emerged. The beer was terrible. An errant Belgian yeast strain had infiltrated the brew and over time was taking what should have been a dank, floral IPA and transforming it into a bubblegummy saison. More specifically, it was a well-made beer with high-quality ingredients, and was actually loved and lauded by many casual beer drinkers. But it wasn’t what it was supposed to be, and was painfully flamed by the loudest community out there: craft beer geeks.
I was faced with that odd conundrum that many marketers experience at some point. While there’s a silent majority of bandwagon fans who love your product, a vocal minority of outraged affinity group extremists are coming at your throat. And if you don’t placate them, eventually their message will permeate the mainstream and convince your bandwagon as well. So we delicately balanced that tightrope — letting those who loved us continue to do so, while addressing the complaints of others, swapping out beer where necessary, and pulling any remaining cans from retail shelves. (An upside of also being a distillery…we can turn any bad product into spirits.)
Despite the trouble, the release worked wonders. We raised $100,000 in the first day of our crowdfunding campaign, and for several weeks were the leading campaign on the WeFunder platform. And as they say in sports, “winning solves everything.” With new releases coming every two weeks, it wasn’t long before we had chased a bad beer with several good ones, and won back the love of our core beer geeks.
When we were brainstorming the ICO can, a competing idea was to mimic a lottery scratcher rather than a crypto token. After we had squeezed all the juice we could out of early investors, our fundraising campaign had hit its lull and needed a boost. So we resurrected that earlier idea into the form of “Beer Money,” a follow up sweepstakes can designed with an actual scratch-off film that revealed winnings. And this time the beer inside was excellent.
An author named Benjamin Hoff wrote a series of pithy little books where he reimagined Winnie the Pooh as a teacher of Taoism. In his “The Te of Piglet” he examined the “virtue of the small.” This experience reinforced my belief in staying small and simple. Be nimble and quick. Work on short schedules. Stay reaction-able. I’ve never been a fan of steadfast planning followed by missed opportunities or worse — wrong turns — solely because you’re committed to sticking with the plan. I’ve seen the overdoing-it that drive the product releases of larger companies, and I’ll take the move-now mentality of the start-up.
Like Picasso said…learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist…
Product Drives Promotion
The creative prompt behind virtually any of the Seven Stills branding tended to come from what made the beer. A peach-apricot beer begat “Twins,” satirizing the 80’s Arnold Schwarzenegger/Danny DeVito classic because like those two, apricots and peaches are identical twins. A beer brewed with cucumber and mint seemed like such a beach drink we had to call it “Drink Umbrella.”
So when we had a “Neapolitan milkshake stout” coming, brewed with chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and lactose, it prompted thoughts of the classic diner or drive-in hamburger stand. Being proper Californians, the image of a hamburger stand automatically conjures up dreams of In-N-Out Burger.
And…oh, man…doesn’t “In-N-Stout” just write itself?!?
Incapable of controlling ourselves, we mocked up a render. Then further incapable of controlling himself, our CEO impulsively posted that render to Instagram one random afternoon at a completely un-optimized time with no strategy or audience or agenda whatsoever in mind other than, “this would be rad.”
This packaging was never going to happen. Obviously a copyright infringement, we never even had the intent to release the image as a publicity stunt. It was rendered out of no other agenda other than a fantasy we wanted to visualize internally. But San Francisco is a City of kids running kompanies, and these kids happened to leave their toy in the yard for all the world to see. So within minutes of posting, we were in full publicity stunt after all.
The post broke the Internet. I was afraid to touch our Instagram account for the next 48+ hours for fear of interrupting the momentum. Notifications were coming in by the second, and for a brief moment I knew what it must feel like to be a Kardashian. When the dust cleared we’d seen over 500 comments and 3200 likes. (Egads…what does 1M likes look like?!?)
Of course a cease and desist letter was coming. Certainties in life include death, taxes, and this letter. There are times when we might have used a likeness, or were pretty sure we crossed a line in our parodies, but never got that warning and lo-and-behold the label was actually printed. Logistics were also in our favor…our releases were so small that we could put out anything and by the time the CND came we’d be sold out. But after the response we witnessed, we knew there was no doubt in this case.
What we didn’t know is what that letter was going to do. Contained within were nine puns about beer or whiskey.
“We felt obligated to hop to action in order to prevent further issues from brewing.”
“we are attempting to clearly distill our rights by crafting an amicable approach with you, rather than barrel through this.”
It’s almost as if they new exactly what they were doing.
Obviously I had to post the letter. I was actually in a sort of flattered awe that In-N-Out’s corporate counsel would have so understood me/us via our Instagram presence as to craft a letter so clearly intended to be made public.
I printed the letter and added another parody layer on top of it, mimicking one of those can-you-find-the-hidden-things-in-the-picture games from those Highlights magazines you always see in doctors’ offices. Fun Fact: peeking out behind the letter (photo above) is the actual can this stout beer would be released in.
The letter went viral all over again. And this time the press picked up on it, sending it press-viral. We saw about 3 weeks of press hits from it. First came the dumbed-down local news, but then coverage spread into case studies on best practices in the legal and advertising industries. Google presently counts 10,700 links on the subject.
The next task then was mollifying the public. There’s an old Twain quote, “Let us be thankful for the fools. But for them the rest of us could not succeed.” The unthinking lock-step masses can be a brand’s lifeblood when marching in your direction, but if you change direction and they don’t, it gets problematic. I was left to explain that the In-N-Stout can would NOT be released. No matter how I said it, what imagery I used, how many ALL CAPS BOLD PHRASES I used, another query would come: “When are you releasing the In-N-Stout can?!?!?”
This went on for three weeks until we released the beer in a different can. We publicized the release under the banner “WE ARE NOT RELEASING THE IN-N-STOUT CAN,” yet they showed up asking where it was. We released the beer and for weeks later they asked when the In-N-Stout can was coming. Then they asked if we maybe-kinda-sorta actually made one and if we have it in our office and how can they get it.
But no, we never even made a prototype. What we did make was an amazing barrel-aged beer in a purple can with Kanye West’s dumbest lyric typographically molded into the shape of his face. Because why not? Fight ridiculous with ridiculous. We put a thick brown beer inside a label that said “poop” on it, and it sold out in a week.
Never did get that CND from Kanye though….
One comment noted that “the cease and desist is the new press release.” That’s brilliant. There’s almost always a benefit to playing along, and almost never a benefit to angst and outrage. That goes double for creative thoughts and ideas. The famous line always rings true: Good artists copy, great artists steal. At 40,000ish years of human civilization, there are no original ideas, and “intellectual property” might be a contradiction in terms.