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Studies show studies don’t show

Posted on  22 September 14  by 


By Hans Eisenbeis

Studies show that studies are becoming less accurate. That’s not a headline in the satirical newspaper the Onion. It’s a fact of life, as consumers are bombarded on a daily basis with requests for their views on everything from taste preferences to political affiliation. In fact, there’s increasing evidence that surveys are biased toward people who don’t mind taking surveys, while the number of those who are disinclined to participate increases (, 26 August 2014). For example, the Pew Center, one of the juggernauts of objective third-party survey research, recently reported that in 1997 the response rate to its survey work was around 37%. By 2012, that rate had fallen to just 9%.

Phone for survey pieceWhy would resistance to survey taking be increasing? We know that a couple of important facts are in play. For example, phone-based surveys are in decline because most people have caller ID, and most people — at least those who aren’t salesmen — don’t answer calls from an unknown number. And landlines are also in decline, while mobile phone numbers are less accessible to pollsters.

But we think the most important factor concerns changing consumer sentiment, increasing sophistication and ubiquitous media exposure. First, consumers are probably feeling some survey fatigue because they’re almost constantly barraged with offers for free stuff and premium access in exchange for their opinions. Then too, our social media networks are driven almost entirely by an economy of likes and retweets — pure acts of thumbs-up and thumbs-down that engage consumers in constant normative evaluation with their environment among friends. Finally, we know that consumers are suspicious of Big Everything, from government to social institutions to major brands. They approach surveys with a jaundiced eye, often assuming the worst about why anyone would care about their opinion, and what it will cost them in terms of time and privacy.

Kitchens are the new hackers’ paradise for Millennials

Posted on  12 September 14  by 


by Emily Weiss

We generally associate the word “hacker” with the programmer subculture from whence it came, but these days Millennial consumers are more likely to apply their break-and-make skills to gadgets in the kitchen than to gigabytes in a computer. Brands have gone after Millennials’ desire for convenience and cool by trying to sell them single-use appliances like quesadilla makers (essentially a double-sided electric griddle or hotplate, for those who remember those dorm room fixtures before they were declared major fire hazards), implements designed just for baking cake pops and doughnut holes, and the truly wacky example of the Rollie — whose sole purpose is to make cylindrical omelets. Say what you will about the gizmo’s superfluousness, but as viewing material, the infomercial for the Rollie is genuinely and strangely addictive. In most cases, these products outlive their usefulness and get pushed to the back of the storage shelves in favor of items with true snap-on and cap-off capabilities.

im_Millennialsmixmatchandmodifyap_392672_2We’ve observed space-challenged and time-crunched single Millennials ingeniously using drip coffeemakers to cook whole meals. Healthy eaters are screwing mason jars onto their standard blender bases to whip up morning smoothies that can go from home to car commute to storage all in the same vessel. Others are making everything from oatmeal to heat-and-eat soup right at their office desks by rejigging Keurig K-Cup machines.

Do young consumers still harbor an affinity for all things tech-enabled? Yes. But there’s a considerable amount of cachet and creative credibility in being able to repurpose an old Crock-Pot as a home sous vide machine. These kitchen hackers aren’t necessarily always adept as cooks, but they see possibilities for the tools and gadgets they own that go far beyond their intended use.

To understand more about what implications this mix, match and modify behavior might have for your brand, read our full analysis of the Modifi-kitchen trend here.

Consumers’ best-laid summer travel plans often go astray

Posted on  29 August 14  by 


by Rachel Steinhardt

Summer is nearly over, leaving consumers to reflect on whether they managed to make the most of it. Vacations come saddled with high prices, major time invested in planning, conflicting family pursuits and a very high chance of unrealistic expectations. What’s ideal to one traveler is anathema to the next, and what sounds like rollicking family fun can quickly turn into eye-rolling drudgery. But next year’s trip will be the best, right? In that spirit, we’ve collected varying bits of research into the complex calculus of what consumers think they want out of a summer vacation.

Butlins, a British family resort brand, worked with a psychologist to reduce the perfect family vacation to a formula: (FT+TP) x (TA+NA) – W2 / (TE) (hint: E = emotional expression, W = weather, and T = technology use). A survey conducted by the company revealed that the perfect family vacation day involves 11 laughs, 6 cuddles and 5 kisses, and takes place on a beach, at a fairground on a sunny day. Unfortunately, the same survey found that 1 in 14 families defaults to democratically choosing a daily activity that nobody is interested in. Ouch. Better luck next time.


But Monarch Airlines’ poll of UK travelers aimed to pinpoint exactly what it is that consumers do want to experience during the perfect trip (and ends up with results that expose just how strange consumers can appear when they’re reduced to averages). The perfect traveling partner? Significant other — nothing odd there. But the survey indicated that the perfect flight should be 4.5 hours long (if we’re fantasizing, why not opt for teleportation?). Similarly, respondents said that the perfect hotel would be a 7-minute walk from the beach (why not ON the beach?). Meanwhile, the ideal trip length would be 11 days long and take place during the month of July. Surprisingly, women hanker for a cup of tea upon arrival at their hotel, while men prefer a frosty brew.

These common answers and averages don’t paint a holistic picture of the feelings consumers have about vacation travel, so we surveyed our IconoCommunities members in July 2014 about how they view trip-planning decisions. While we weren’t surprised by gripes about cost, scarcity of vacation days, or the challenge of coordinating family schedules (nor were we perplexed by the nearly unanimous praise of online booking sites for securing travel and lodging reservations), we were interested in the apparent split between would-be efficient over-planners and zen-like go-with-the-flow vacationers.

Check out these laid-back ’tudes:

“The best part is we never make reservations ahead of time so we [n]ever have to hurry or be late to anything. Vacations are for taking it easy.” —Bonnie, a Caucasian Boomer from Iowa

“I just get in my car and drive. I have total control [over] when I want to go and when I want to return. I also have more room to bring back a ton of things.” —Judy, a Caucasian Gen Xer from Florida

“I do not do too much planning because you never know what will happen.” —Barbra, a Caucasian Mature from Colorado

Perhaps planning is simpler when you’re treading a familiar path. Many of our respondents said they choose to return to the same vacation spot year after year with their families, resulting in a balance of planned and unplanned vacation time. Decision fatigue resulting from choosing a destination is eliminated, but individual days’ events are left to be filled in one at a time based on mood, family vote, or, in some extreme cases, a mathematical formula.


Shopping smart for the school year

Posted on  21 August 14  by 


by Nissa Hanna

Pop quiz: What’s the second-highest-grossing annual shopping event? Nope, not Mother’s Day, or Halloween, or the Super Bowl. The number-two spot goes to back-to-school shopping, which totaled $72.5 billion in 2013, according to National Retail Federation data. (The leader, of course, is the winter holiday frenzy, which garnered $602 billion.)

And household spending is expected to rise this year, with the average family with kids in grades K-12 spending $669.28 on supplies, apparel, shoes and electronics — a figure that’s up 5% from 2013. But that’s not all coming out of parents’ pockets; students are spending more, too. The NRF’s 2014 Back-to-School Survey found that the average 13- to 17-year-old expects to spend an average of $34.40 (up from $30.13 last year), and preteens are looking at $22.27 (versus $18.45).


The spending and shopping are stressing parents out. Over half of parents (and 56%) cited “shopping for clothes and school items” as their number-one pressure point in an survey, topping hectic school and activity schedules (50%) and helping with homework (38%). The average individual student’s supply list comes in at 18 items, and parents are spending $101.18 on those provisions (up from $90.49 in 2013). But they aren’t just feeling the strain from meeting their own child’s needs — they’re pitching in when underfunded schools ask parents to shop for the classroom, too.

Savvy parents are applying their recession-incited shopping skills to back-to-school shopping. The Unseasonal Gift Shopping behavior we reported on is seeping into BTS activity as consumers shop earlier — and later — for their students’ supplies. The NRF survey also found that more consumers are opting for generic and store brand items this year: 34% compared to 32.8% last year. And more shoppers are hanging on to last year’s supplies and reusing what they can (25.6% in 2014 versus 23.7% in 2013).

photo credit: meddygarnet,

When B2B = B2C: Why CEB Iconoculture cares about small business

Posted on  14 August 14  by 


by Hans Eisenbeis

In our research, CEB Iconoculture has always put the consumer front and center, but we’ve also maintained a strong interest in small business — and not just because clients often have questions about small business owners.

There are two important reasons why small business is important in the world of consumerism. First, there is a real sense in which every consumer is a small business owner. We must each run our lives, balancing the profits against the expenses of the daily routine. Each household is in essence a small business with the ultimate goal of growth — growth that allows us to move to a bigger home in a better school district, for example. Or to upgrade our cars or our wardrobes. Where a small business may want to generate financial profits for its owners and investors, individual consumers are looking for emotional, spiritual and economic fulfillment. And actual small business owners tend to merge their personal lives and professional lives, making their work life indistinguishable from their lives as average consumers.

A second and perhaps more provocative reason why small business is relevant to consumers generally is this: In recent years, we’ve seen tremendous growth in consumer support for small businesses. Partly as a response to distrust and distaste for major transnational brands and huge faceless institutions, this attitude is also driven by a positive desire to do business with mom-and-pop shops right here in our own communities. Politically speaking, small business and entrepreneurship are acknowledged as the most important engines of economic growth in the US. So supporting small businesses is yet another example of consumers mobilizing their values with their dollars.

To twist an old joke, small businesses really are people. Consumers of all kinds recognize themselves — and their values and beliefs and aspirations — in the shops along Main Street.

Super Specific: The surprisingly surefire way to win with Millennial consumers

Posted on  1 August 14  by 


by Rob van Alstyne

(This is the third and final installment of a three-part blog series distilling insights from CEB Iconoculture’s newly published Research Brief, “The Millennial Ties That Bind.” For part one, click here; part two, click here.)

Over the previous month we gave you the new nitty-gritty on Millennials, and the key cultural factors shaping their collective identity. That’s all well and good, but by now you’re probably asking, “How does a marketer translate all that generational knowledge?” The answer is probably not what most marketers think.

The smartest way to market to a Millennial generation defined by its diversity is to embrace specificity. Only by being hyper-specific in word (marketing messaging) and deed (product and service features) with an eye toward the underlying values and cultural forces common to all Millennials can your brand convey the values treasured by this demanding consumer cohort. Our research identified two equally critical aspects to the specificity marketing equation.

1.       Purpose-Built Specificity (products and experiences)

Inhabiting a world defined by constant flux and rising complexity, Millennials crave straightforward solutions and purpose-built specificity from the products they purchase to help them navigate.

2.       Relatable Specificity (marketing messaging)

Marketing to Millennials via broad archetypes is doomed to fail in its efforts at mass representation, so the smarter bet means going the other way. Advertising featuring distinctive individuals and common-culture-relevant narratives ultimately feels more relatable.

For detailed analysis and bevy of brand examples supporting the specificity tactics we see clicking in the Millennial marketplace, you’ll need access to our complete Millennials Research Brief.

Crowdfunding as Performance Art: Potato salad isn’t easy to swallow

Posted on  29 July 14  by 


by Rachel Steinhardt

What on earth could inspire 6,527 consumers to pony up a collective $52,474 for imaginary potato salad? Pundits tried to pass off the phenomenon — which centered on a Millennial man from Ohio who published a Kickstarter page with a funding goal of $10, ostensibly to whip up a batch of spuds — as an example of the fun, wit and whimsy inherent to internet culture.

The pundits are wrong. The great Potato Salad Caper of 2014 might look like a simple case of the Funster run amok, but I argue that it’s more about Beehiving and MultiMe consumers experimenting with new concepts of identity (at relatively low cost) in order to create a sense of collaboration and solidarity through social media. The most important thing to know about this incident is that, as much attention as it got, it was the work of a tiny (lonely? alienated?) minority.

While about 70% of the 6,527 funders put only a few bucks in the proverbial hat, 40% of the money contributed came from larger donations ($35 to $49) from a smaller number of donors, according to an analysis by the Atlantic. 73% of donors were men, which is typical for Kickstarter’s traffic profile. Anecdotally, I recognized the names of several individuals listed on the donor list: all men, all self-described introverts, and none of them in a financial position to be “wasting” dollars on crowdfunded performance art. Maybe they admired the moxie and entrepreneurial spirit of the campaign’s creator and wanted to tie themselves to those qualities. After all, Millennials are growing ever attached to the cult of entrepreneurship.

Whatever team spirit and participatory cool factor these consumers gleaned from piling on to the snowballing live campaign, most vocal web users did not share their subversive exuberance. A social media analysis conducted by the Atlantic revealed that 70% of Facebook comments about the potato salad campaign were negative. People who were in the process of fundraising for causes, charities and medical procedures were especially disgusted by the money pouring in for the virtual picnic staple. It’s safe to say that, except for the largely male, Millennial, likely Reddit-regular donors themselves, the internet hated the potato salad campaign.

Potato salad isn’t the first work of crowdfunded performance art, but previous examples have tried harder to make an overt statement. In 1998, the “Gimme a Buck” guy was transparent about seeing whether he could collect charity online by asking for $1 (he got $75,745). In 2013, a grad student experimented with commercializing personal data and got $2,733 by selling access to his online behavior. But none of these efforts gave online consumers quite the stomachache that the potato salad did.


Smells Like Millennial Spirit: The three key cultural factors molding Millennial consumers

Posted on  28 July 14  by 


By Rob van Alstyne

(This is the second installment of a three-part blog series distilling insights from CEB Iconoculture’s newly published Reseach Brief, “The Millennial Ties That Bind.” For part one, click here.)

Last month in The Heart of the Matter we looked within, examining how core values present a truer picture of the Millennial consumer than shallow reportage on lifestyle trends. This week we turn our gaze outward, examining the common cultural factors that have shaped this 80-million-strong consumer cohort in indelible ways. Combined with core values, these cultural factors constitute the ties that bind Millennials together.

Cultural Factor #1: Perpetual Turmoil 

Permanent crisis is the new normal for Millennials, a generation that’s grown up in the long shadow of 9/11, while fallout from the fiscal (the Great Recession), natural (Hurricane Katrina) and political (the war on terror) worlds has been constant. Tally up the random violence that’s occurred with alarming frequency, and you have the makings of a generation in need of a coping strategy. For now, Millennials prefer to make the best of it, believing in themselves instead of bemoaning the constant flux. They continue to rate themselves much more highly than past generations on leadership skills and social self-confidence. Millennials know they’re being tested, and conceding failure remains unthinkable.

Cultural Factor #2: Redefining Success

With the express pathways to the types of stable careers their parents found waiting for them on the other side of graduation day largely lying in ruin, Millennials have been left no choice but to construct a dramatically different relationship with the working world than preceding generations of young people. Keen on DIY career-pathing and personally fulfilling self-employment opportunities, they’d rather reach for the stars than settle for less, and they’re willing to make the necessary sacrifices in the present day — moving back in with their parents, taking on multiple unpaid internships — to do so.

Cultural Factor #3: Life 2.0

Growing up alongside the Web, Millennials occupy a unique position in today’s digital media landscape: Call them the “not-quite” digital natives. Far more technologically savvy and interactive-minded than the media-passive generations that preceded them, Millennials are nevertheless far less comfortable making their own digital creations than the tiny Gen We tinkerers hot on their trails. Constantly refashioning their lifestyle routines around emerging technologies that have quickly come to play major roles in their daily lives, they’re highly attuned to the costs and benefits of “always on” access to personalized entertainment and information.

NEXT: Now that we’ve given you the scoop on “The Millennial Ties That Bind,” it’s time to put it into action by applying these cultural and values insights through an innovative new framework for brands.

We’re all athletes now?

Posted on  16 July 14  by 


By Nissa Hanna

Fashion trends are known to be cyclical, with varying frequencies of reoccurrence. In one long-running pattern, at least once a year the sporty influence would roll back around and consumers got the green light to throw together gym-ready ensembles, even if their lifestyles were strictly courtside.

But over the past couple of years, sporty has been shifting from frequently benched fashion trend to style MVP. Most of today’s designs (and their price tags) muddle the line between athletic-wear-inspired and genuine activewear, giving shoppers options that are as flattering as they are functional. These outfits aren’t just accompanying consumers to the gym, field or court. Activewear is being designated as more of an all-purpose option, which is largely due to consumers’ increasingly active lifestyles. That isn’t to say that they’re considerably more active in terms of physical exercise, but rather that they’re squeezing more activities into each day. To keep from costume changing like they’re Cher on tour, they’re looking for comfortable, aesthetically flexible apparel that’s appropriate for a variety of daily situations.

Activewear is an industry all-star, too: The category was up 9% for the 12 months ended December 2013, compared to the total apparel market, which was up only 2% over the same time period (, 5 February 2014). Those numbers are causing labels without athletic-wear lines to break a sweat. A growing lineup of (sometimes unexpected) brands are launching activewear collections to outfit new and existing fans.

H&M kicked off the year with affordable sportswear lines for men and women. In May 2014, the boho label Free People introduced its Movement shop, which features an extensive assortment of yoga, dance and surf apparel that’s fit for free-spirited, active young women. Also that month, menswear company Topman unveiled its concise Sport collection. In early July 2014, high-end e-retailer Net-a-Porter debuted Net-a-Sporter, a womenswear subsite that covers a range of activities including CrossFit, golf, running and après sport. And in March 2014, Urban Outfitters launched Without Walls, a men’s and women’s brand dedicated to the needs of active and outdoor-oriented older teens and young 20somethings.

Entrenched distrust — and what to do about it

Posted on  10 July 14  by 


by Hans Eisenbeis

We’re often asked which trends in the consumer world are the biggest and most important, and for those of us working in the money and spending area, the answer to that question has been awkwardly, stubbornly the same for almost eight years. Ever since the Great Recession, the most important facet of consumerism has been the trust gap, which opened into a chasm into which almost every big institution fell — not just banks, but major multinational brands of all kinds, government agencies of every stripe, and just about any organization that you’d feel comfortable calling an institution.

From a macroeconomic perspective, one can easily point to the extreme decline in economic mobility, income disparity, lingering unemployment and depressed home values in the US. All of these factors have made consumers distrustful of Big Everything — a fact borne out by Gallup’s latest poll on American confidence, which shows that trust is bumping along at historic lows for government, banks, big business, media and organized labor.

But what conclusions can we draw about how this institutional trust gap is influencing individual consumer behavior — beyond a more mindful and selective approach to the businesses that people actively support with their dollars? We believe that Americans more than ever are putting a high value on individual largesse. Operating under the assumption that the odds are stacked against them, “middle-class” Americans are much more likely to feel that they’re on their own, and to take a much more intentional and organized approach to growing their own opportunities and lifestyles. Brands that want to bridge the trust gap, no matter how big or small they may be, should position themselves as enablers that empower this individualism, while being completely open about how their business is supported by a positive relationship with each customer.