The Re-integration of Social Life

I’m going to depart from marketing for just a minute.

In northwestern Indiana I have to drive everywhere. The target is too far away from the Chipotle to walk, even though you go through you go to the same turn signal to get there. Walking from one end of Meijer to the other could qualify you for a triathlon. There are no schools, churches, parks, pedestrian walkways, or restaurants in sight that you wouldn’t need to drive to, and everyone has their own individual home that they spend endless hours maintaining, without having nearly enough neighbors or family members nearby to admire it. Public transportation is non-existent because the density doesn’t warrant a direct train line to Chicago. There is very little to “do” for young people except spend money at restaurants. Ultimately, there is no real sense of “place.”

This bleak picture is what is and has occurred in America and elsewhere, and is costing us more than any amount of prosperity could otherwise buy. This design of our cities has caused us to be less integrated with our neighbors and friends. We have culturally “disintegrated.” We are now more “segregated” from one another, not based on race (though that is still there), but based on our own individual bubbles. Making this worse, the few places that still hold the possibility of sponsoring this kind of growth (usually labeled “new urbanism”) are extraordinarily expensive and unattainable for most families: precisely the people who stand to benefit most from an urban environment.

I want to develop a greater awareness of the cost of this design has on our world. It’s not “just” the car, suburbs, etc, but each of these are symptoms that make the sickness greater. Consider this: what is the difference between a house and a home? To me, a “home” is more than just fixtures and furniture, it’s how a family integrates itself with the greater society around it.

The prognosis I propose is going to depend on whether or not we place a priority on the family. This means that our decisions have to be for what is best not for individuals, but for families, making it easier to raise them up in a more effective way. Asking “what is good for the family?” provides the criteria for making good decisions, and also helps us prioritize the most important questions, not merely the questions of special interest groups.I believe it is by a preferential option for the family that we will begin to re-integrate as a society.

As far as “how” to do this, I believe the answer has to be public, private, and public/private. Public, meaning the funds we use to construct new roads has to take into consideration how to create truly livable, walkable spaces at a human scale. This includes transportation and services. Private, meaning private organizations (churches, businesses) can be invaluable business partners for developing this. And public/private, meaning that when the public cooperates well with private enterprise, both stand to benefit tremendously; however, the private ought not to benefit over and above the public.

What this might teach me as a marketer is that choosing the “family option” is not always the most popular, might not spark the most joy inside someone, and might not be the best “business” decision, but it is the right decision. People are drawn to light, and providing an image for how happy a family may become by using our product or service  is perhaps the beginning for many of our products and services. That’s what Disney does in its marketing, and it seems to be working out for them.




Spanish Customer Service: A Lesson for Marketers

I felt closer to my butcher in Spain than I do to most of my neighbors in the USA. We shake hands, we smile, we talk recipes, he knows about my son and how well he is sleeping, and he usually gives me an extra slice of really good jamón when I order some. His name is Patxi Goñi and he runs a market stall inside one of the great markets in Pamplona. He takes his time with me, he is never in a rush, and he can see whether or not I have much time and adjusts accordingly. He is extremely attentive to my needs as a human, much more so than as a buyer of meats.

I compare this to my experience at my local grocery store back in the USA. Sure the checkout clerk is very pleasant, and she is quite efficient…too much so. The prompt to “swipe my card” is up before I have had a word in, and there is no eye contact when she says, “have a good day!” Some of the magic of a human interaction has been lost.

It’s interesting that when I am waiting to be served by Patxi, I take a number but am treated like a human.

However, when I am served immediately in my local store in the USA I feel like I have just had take-a-number service. Ironic, isn’t it?

Now, with Patxi in this example, sometimes the waiting lines were a bit too long for my tastes, so I would turn to a third example, that could present a middle ground that works for all.

In the small-sized Eroski supermarket, we had practically everything we needed in a relatively small space. Sure, we didn’t have as many choices, but we could always get by on what we found there. Gradually got to know everyone who worked there. Workers would often continue conversations we were having before, for example about yogurt flavors of a certain brand.

In the Eroski sometimes there would be a long line, but because of the small size of the store, cashiers would appear almost instantaneously. This allowed them to plan for bursts of customers while treating each of them like a real, breathing human being. The only time when things felt a little bit “efficient” was Saturday morning, where everyone was doing their shopping for Sunday (Almost all grocery stores are still closed in Pamplona on Sunday). Still, there was never any rush, and you almost always received courteous, human service.

I think this middle ground is the ideal that most companies today should hope to strive for, especially with respect to resource planning. Simple analytics of tracking busy times and having extra staff available, even if that is not their primary function, is essential.

Here is the marketing lesson:

In a typical marketing filter we have

Awareness à Understanding à Interaction à Transaction

And in a world where the “interaction” phase of our marketing is so susceptible to the distractions and busyness of our life, we are missing a HUGE opportunity in not planning how to treat the customer like a human being, adding so much value to their interaction that the transaction becomes the seamless next step.

I have a few ideas for small steps we can all make in whatever position we have, either inter- or intra-organizationally. These include the following:

  • Asking the other how they are doing before asking them to do something for you
  • Spending time getting to know someone’s interests, asking them about their hobbies and outside work life, etc.
  • If they have family, ask them about their family—each and every day.
  • Check in with people even without a business need, just once a day.
  • Build in an extra few minutes with every person you are going to talk to.
  • Have someone critique your emails for intelligibility / tone / etc.
  • Make birthdays a big deal, send them a special note (even email) on the day of.
  • Eye contact, eye contact, eye contact.
  • Make a written / visual reminder to have every conversation begin with the other person in mind.

We interact and care for another person always. This is fundamental to being a “good” marketer, otherwise we end up as manipulators, because marketing is something we do “for” someone, not “to” someone.





I Will Never Get a Bill: Medical Care Reform

Yesterday we had to take an ambulance to the hospital. All is okay.

I will never get a bill for this.

We were triaged and treated immediately. No bills.

We were given a medication that began to help, then a doctor saw us for a complete examination as soon as was medically appropriate. No bills.

Health care in Spain is not “free,” but for all the basics and then some you will never get a bill.

Today I am writing about medical care. I’m not an expert in this field but I have gotten to know the Spanish and European system very well and I have worked for a group that designed economic models of long term care coverage that saved states money.

The medical care system has and continues to work very, very well here in Spain. Sure, there are problems, and there are waiting times for some procedures. Also, sometimes people will pay about $60-200 for a second opinion outside of the main hospital out of pocket. If you are diagnosed with cancer, this can be well worth your time.

Ohh but the HUGE TAXES. Actually, your tax dollars here go to pay for a whole heck of a lot more than healthcare…some things good, some things bad. Too many? Definitely! Much of the government is far too unnecessary and inefficient. But, healthcare is not the reason that people pay higher taxes here.

For example, the World Bank has a neat chart about healthcare expenditures as a percentage of GDP. For Spain, between 2011-2015 healthcare spending is 9% of GDP.  For the USA it’s 17.1%. In dollar amounts, that’s approximately $9,340 per person in the USA per year, or $2,657 per person in Spain. Yes, salaries are much lower in Spain, but what matters here is the difference in the proportion of the GDP that is being spent. In the USA we pay 90% more per person for the healthcare we receive.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Ohh but those long, socialist waiting lines. It depends on your own particular health administration, but here in Navarra, this is a myth. Also, the facilities are beautiful.


As I see it, we are paying much more money for much less care in the USA, and we are leaving those who can least afford it to be vulnerable to the costs of medical attention. $1000 emergency room visits for a family of 3 that make $50,000? Are you kidding me? Whatever stereotype you have in your mind on this that allows you to blame the victim of a sickness is sheer perversity. Yes, we need to incentivize people to take care of themselves and to understand and listen to their bodies. This is fundamental. But this doesn’t account for the fact that we are spending far too much money for far too little care.

Diagnosis: too much money for too little care.

Prognosis: Rebalance how we spend our medical dollars; redistribute the financial burden for how we pay for this care; redesign key features of our medical system that cause us to pay absurd amounts for care.

Rebalance: Study how to spend money in the most effective ways to provide the best care for the most people and high-quality care for all people. This can be in simple tricks like funding public-private partnerships that allow hospitals to improve care and efficiency. Also, get insurers out of the pharmaceutical business and

Redistribute: Move medical care down to not only a state-level, but a metropolitan statistical area (MSA) level. Allow people within their own area to shape policies on what types of elective (non-emergency) coverage is covered. Allow taxes to follow these areas, and allow rural health care to be funded by the overall system.

Redesign: Create public-private partnerships (improved efficiency, higher quality care, allow for religious institutions to participate fully with their own values) to provide care. Create a national “race-to-the-bottom” for generic drugs, antibiotics, which are produced as cheaply as possible at the highest quality standards. Begin a national pharmacy system, which allows one to pick up their prescriptions anywhere, or at least the closest pharmacy. Allow these drugs to be subsidized based on income.

The European model can teach us a lot. But let’s not let our attachment to what is familiar prevent us from doing the right thing.



Creativity: A Semi-Finite Resource

When our lives undergo tremendous change, be it moving jobs, homes, traveling, marriage, divorce, children, etc, we are required to respond. However, we can either choose to use creativity and joy or we can use fear.

If we look at change as something scary, that is is painful and to be handled, it can easily burn through our energy in just a few hours. We might not feel inspired to “create” because we are “dealing” with change, that is, we are spending down our creative resources.

On the other hand, if we look at it as an opportunity to express our creativity, to solve problems in creative ways, we can actually receive a tremendous amount of energy and further creativity. As I arrived at a creative solution to a problem while on the treadmill the other day, in the blink of an eye 40 minutes had passed, while normally I only run for 10-15. I was pumped!

Fear is the enemy of creativity, but creativity is far more powerful than fear. Fear invites us to burn through our last remaining molecules of creativity by making us worry, making us wonder “what if,” and so we have spent our creativity on a soul-sucking waste of time. That’s why we can become mopey and alone and exhausted. We have spent our last bit of energy being creative through fearing.

In those moments of fear, that is the best time to return to something that you do well, something that gives you joy, something that is of service to others. For example, working on a drawing, painting, singing, organizing something, cooking a meal, planning an event, making lists. All of these things are small ways to actually “do” something and restore the creative juices so that you can start re-energizing yourself.

This is why I say it’s semi-finite, it depends on how you use it.

Stability and Creativity

There are few feelings as sweet as creative juices pumping through your veins, with moths in your stomach over a new idea that you can’t wait to pitch, with the feelings of endless possibilities at your fingertips. You will hold court in a few days and colleagues will walk away inspired and awestruck with how their world has shifted. And, I bet, you would do almost anything to stay in that place for as long as possible. Being “creative” is part of our human nature, it is an almost transcendental experience where we take the best of who we are and try to gift that to the world and inspire it.

However, sometimes we go through ruts in creativity. In a recent book, the accidental creative, author Todd Henry suggests a neat set of techniques for developing your own creativity, even though you don’t necessarily consider yourself a “creative” type. I am with Todd on all of this, however, I am going to add a few things:

To become creative we need to find our place of stability. This does not necessarily mean a geographic location or financial success.

Stability in the traditional sense is not always for the best. Sometimes it really takes one getting out of their comfort zone, really trying to do hard things, pushing your heart and soul to the max that helps them discover what the real foundation for stability is. In Pamplona I see many pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago, all of them looking for something deeper, for some greater stability than just the creature comforts of a comfortable bed and a clean kitchen.

What it does mean is we need to find either faith, a routine, a ritual, a coffee, a ____ that helps us feel “okay.” It’s hardest to  be creativity when we don’t have that feeling of being “okay,” because we are then operating without security, with a sense of fear. For those who are more self aware than myself, they have discovered the capacity to operate in any environment and not be controlled by the environment of where they are. They are almost always “okay.” As a man of faith, I find prayer to be a place of stability, that which allows me to function, even when everything might be changing around me.

The great thing about pushing our limits with stability is that it allows us to have even greater creativity when we are in a more familiar environment. The results of doing something hard are always worthwhile for helping us grow into more of what we are, into being more creative. Pushing ourselves allows us to know our own created greatness and inspire others to become great themselves. Perhaps, this is the most fundamentally important thing to keep in mind about creativity, especially when we are going through periods of instability.

4 Things Big Retailers Rob from Us

For the last three years I have been living in Pamplona, Spain, and have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the culture and the life here. There are so many differences and similarities between this culture and my own from the USA, many aspects of which I hope to help integrate into the USA, perhaps spreading by some kind of ideavirus (my current marketing read).

Pamplona is essentially a big village. People that live here are often from one of the many surrounding little villages (yes, they are as picturesque as you can possibly imagine), and they bring their own small village mentality with them. This means that for may years, big companies and shopping centers hadn’t really placed Pamplona as a strategic market.

What this meant is the idyllic view of a European city was in full force. You would go to individual fruit vendors, butchers, repair shops, and all manner of specialists. And, since people didn’t really leave or return to the city, chances are you visited these people because they were your cousins, your uncles, or your best friend’s family members. Things were integrated, linked together by the ties of family and kinship, of knowing your neighbors, and of living in close proximity with each other.

Then comes a Macy’s style department store to the middle of the city, El Corte Inglés. This store is beautiful  (though I don’t care for the architecture). The products are beautifully displayed, they have everything you need (mostly), and it’s organized just as we might see the late Marshall Fields or Macy’s of today.

A few things changed when El Corte Inglés came to town, and it this arrival has stolen 4 things from up:

  • Money back guarantees: Communal Justice
    Money back guarantees would have been unheard of before hand. Today if it breaks within two years, you are entitled to a full refund at El Corte Inglés. Before hand in Pamplona, no shop offered a guarantee, but that didn’t mean a shop would hem and haw if you weren’t satisfied with the product. They knew that their reputation was at stake if you weren’t happy with the product, and that word traveled exceptionally fast around the village. There was a system of communal justice, but it was backed up by relationships, perhaps much morepowerful than money back guarantees. This meant that the products tended to be better, because losing one’s reputation in a small village would spell the end of the business altogether.
  • Higher expectations for customer service: Transactional relationships
    In the past, there was really no one who had an incentive to provide a high level of customer service and assistance. If you wanted something you talked to the shop owner who would help you buy it. There are still many stores with this model today. But the shop keeper might even be reluctant to sell it to you if they knew it wasn’t the right thing. Now, however, many shops that have the best quality products have had to force themselves to provide a higher level of customer attention, service, and adopt a “customer is always right,” type attitude. However, customer service at El Corte Inglés has the tendency to turn you into a transaction as opposed to a person. Your money is the reason I am giving you the attention, which also happens to be the business model for the (ahem) world’s oldest profession. It’s not a genuine relationship, and you can feel the difference.
  • Shopping districts: Less equal opportunities for small businesses
    The addition of this large department store downtown has had the effect of establishing a shopping district. The logic of the people is that if you can’t find it at a nearby shop, it’s in El Corte Inglés, or if it’s not at El Corte Inglés, you can find it at a shop nearby. This means that stores that are too far away will not have success where they are. High end stores paying the most in rental costs are now moving other shops who may offer lower priced, higher quality alternatives, out of the market. This makes it harder to compete with the big players, and in turn smaller businesses have to work much harder, raise prices, and push in order to stay in business.
  • Innovation: The disintegration of community.
    I won’t blame El Corte Inglés for human nature. When someone can find higher quality service or products or an experience that they like more, the ties to family and community become less likely to shape buying decisions. The blender you may have bought at the hardware shop on the corner is now bought at El Corte Inglés, because …..there was a sale, the clerk talked you into it, it was convenient, the other shop was out, you needed it now, it was an impulse buy…Regardless, the sense of community begins to fall apart when we start to districtify our shopping, when we start Rather, when there are many options spread over a wider area, then we start to see only the things offered by the giants, and we might not visit the Mom-and-Pop stores that have a lot greater care and concern for our life, family and well-being.

There it is, 4 things that I believe that big box retailers rob from our local communities. It’s a diagnosis of one part of the problem. However, I do not mean to assign blame to these retailers. In the USA, we often haven’t had anything before the Walmarts and the Macy’s. I’m not mad at them, either, but instead, I think we have cause for great hope. I think that movements such as the local food movement, or focusing on our local communities, dividing cities into neighborhoods, ensuring progressive zoning laws, and ensuring that communities can stay intact is a hugely important issue. Many are working on this, and as we are forced to sit in our cars for hours on end, we may inevitably start to contemplate what we have lost, but better is to brainstorm about what we might achieve.




Tradition and Intuition

Tradition is not based on intuition.

If you were an outside observe to so much of what occurs in a small city, church, or other community that had a long history, you would very much feel like an outsider. This doesn’t mean that this community isn’t welcoming, but rather that their traditions are not in the least bit intuitive.

This is certainly my experience in small town Spain and having to figure out any number of strange things, from the grocery stores being closed on Sundays to the strange ways that streets are named. In particular a choir I am part of would never bother to communicate that we would be singing 5 times during Holy Week, just because everyone already knew. I always, always had to ask. And yes, I always, always felt a bit stupid.

Now after about 3 years, I have finally started to integrate into the traditions. I am comfortable with the pace of the week, I have a sense about the upcoming events in the year, I understand how to go to the government to get most things that I need. I also understand how to use my networks of friends to find out the information I need. The best communication method in Spain is not the newspaper, it’s gossip.

What you have with any city that has a rhythm, a tradition, or a set of things that happen is you have a tradition. When you join a new company, you need a guide. When you get to know a specific community, you need someone to introduce you to these new traditions. Our success in living here has only been as a result of having excellent guides to introduce us to the places and people, and enabling us to grow on our own and be stabilized.

Tradition is wonderful in that it frees us from having to wonder what is going to happen next and it deepens our participation in what is happening with us. Serving the same food at thanksgiving means that you can salivate all year about the perfect doneness of the turkey, the special recipe of the gravy, and the goofy fruit salads with the marshmallows on top. However, those who are not part of that same tradition are completely missing out. They literally have no idea what is happening around them.

Now here is the marketing lesson: when we shape our communications, very few care about the traditions we have developed, they only care about understanding them as quickly as possible, so that they can avoid the embarrassment of having to “ask.” If you have traditions, make sure that you communicate not only where to look for the most accurate information, but also the information in a complete, clear way. However, once someone understands the traditions of your company, then they start to become a part of the company itself. They are a loyal customer, not just a buyer.

Southwest Airlines is an excellent case study. Southwest has a couple of interesting quirks, for example they only fly 737’s and they don’t assign seats. To an outsider, it’s very strange. It’s a foreign tradition. But, in the end, it’s also part of how Southwest  Airlines maintains such a tight culture: they make it easy to get into the tradition. We don’t assign seats, but don’t worry, we will make it easy to follow and fun.

Other Examples: Are you a chimney sweep? Run a Christmas in July special. Selling a special product seasonally? Make sure you explain why and what it is in 10 words or less. Selling wood pallets? Show them how they may need spring cleaning or maintenance check for their pallets. Offering life coaching? Talk about your quarterly webinars where you take direct questions and how the 90 check in with a life coach is one of the most cost effective coaching packages you can get. Once people know what to expect throughout the year, they will be far more able to participate in the tradition your company is building, and soon it will just be intuition.