Among a parent’s worst nightmares is this: Your child climbs into a car alone with a stranger. Just the thought of that scenario strikes fear into the heart of any mother or father. So, why would a company create a business model based on that situation?
A few months ago, ride-sharing icons Uber and Lyft grabbed headlines and goodwill by saying that they do not allow those under age 18 to use their services. Like others who heard the news, I applauded it: “That’s great—two for-profit firms forgoing income in order to protect young people.”
At the same time, the news made me wonder if there are other ride-sharing companies that don’t hold the same convictions and, instead, are willing to put kids into cars with whomever might be driving them. That’s when I came across a company that doesn’t just transport minors occasionally, it specializes in chauffeuring them.
In 2014, three southern California moms who were struggling “to get their busy kids to and from school and all their activities,” founded HopSkipDrive, a transportation service specifically designed for those age six and up. Just five years later, the firm has a staff of 50+ people, a presence in large metropolitan markets like Los Angeles and Washington D.C., and contracts with over 150 school districts.
How did a small, unconventional startup not only grow so quickly but even more importantly, persuade so many parents and others to trust the company with their most “precious cargo”? HopSkipDrive has achieved this rapid success through a combination of clear mission-focus and strict attention to detail.
Yes, busy parents who need to get their children to afterschool practices, lessons, etc., want to be sure that their kids arrive on-time, but their main concern, as mentioned above, is safety. If someone else is driving, who is the person who will be alone with their child in a car? Of course, the individual should be a skilled driver, but more importantly, can he/she be trusted?
Unfortunately, even with ridesharing companies that vet their drivers, you can’t always be sure ‘who you’re getting.’ Many of us have heard of rare but horrific incidents in which unstable drivers have harassed, raped, and even killed their passengers.
Nothing bad has happened to me while ridesharing, but my own recent experience caused me to question driver-screening. Our family had been staying at a resort for a few days and needed to get to a certain rental car center in order to continue our vacation. Using the Uber app, I requested a ride and watched on my phone for several minutes as the driver made his way toward the resort. Then, when he was only a minute away, he dropped the ride!
I can’t be sure what happened, but here’s my guess: A minute from where I was waiting, the resort had a gate where those entering the grounds via private vehicle needed to stop and show identification, i.e., a driver’s license. It may not be the reason he bailed at the last moment, but it’s sobering to think that the person who was going to give me a ride either didn’t have a valid driver’s license or wasn’t responsible enough to bring it with him.
It’s one thing to imagine a questionable driver chauffeuring an adult, it’s another thing to think of a young child confined in that vehicle. How could any company eliminate the risk inherent in such a situation?
When I first heard of HopSkipDrive, I was skeptical, not about demand for the service, but about the firm’s ability to ensure children’s safety in such an offering. As a working dad who helped drive his busy kids for years to/from school and practices and who commiserated with parents in similar predicaments, I knew there was a need. I wasn’t sure, though, how a company might manage the business model in a way that would give parents the confidence to say, “I’ll let my daughter or son ride with you.”
In light of such significant reservations, the main way HopSkipDrive maintains the trust of thousands of parents and schools each day is by painstakingly picking its drivers. In fact, the company uses an exhaustive 15-point certification process that requires the following of each applicant:
Because of the meticulous selection process and the exceptionally kind and positive rapport those hired are expected to have with their passengers, HopSkipDrive doesn’t just call its personnel “drivers” but “CareDrivers.”
Special care and concern for safety begins as soon as CareDrivers arrive for a pickup. They wear bright orange HopSkipDrive t-shirts and verify their identity by confirming their passenger’s code word and birthday. Customers also can review CareDrivers’ profiles before pickup in order to know “who they are, what they look like, and the kind of car they drive.”
Throughout the ride, the company continues to leverage technology in order to ensure security. Dedicated HopSkipDrive staff members monitor each ride remotely through its duration, and parents can do the same. They also can receive alerts when their child has been picked up and dropped off.
As good as all of these systems are for onboarding employees and overseeing operations, they probably wouldn’t be effective if the company didn’t do something else very well: Embrace a compelling mission.
HopSkipDrive doesn’t just see itself as a provider of transportation service, i.e., getting kids from point A to point B, or even as an alleviator of parental stress, which it certainly does. Instead, this front-and-center statement on the company’s homepage communicates its mission: “Success starts by showing up. We help get them there.”
HopSkipDrive takes kids to school, piano lessons, basketball practice, and countless other developmental activities that are vital for children’s intellectual, social, and emotional growth. Those formative in-person experiences help them thrive now and contribute to their success in life for years to come. However, children can’t enjoy those activities unless someone ‘gets them there.’
In an interview with Yahoo Finance, HopSkipDrive’s CEO Joanna McFarland affirms that mission, saying “Oftentimes mobility is a huge barrier simply to access to education, and that’s something we’re helping to solve.”
It’s also confirming that employees appear to embrace the same purpose, such as one CareDriver who says “I feel really empowered being part of the greater good, getting kids safely where they need to go.”
As you might expect from the exacting service standards described above, “the greater good” does come at a higher cost. McFarland acknowledges that HopSkipDrive is a “premium service” that has “much different economics” than those of Uber and Lyft. Rides reportedly start at about $20.
However, the rates are comparable to what one would pay a caregiver. McFarland suggests the same in saying, “We think about [HopSkipDrive] much more as a substitute to a babysitter that drives than a comparison to an Uber and Lyft.”
The bottom-line is whether a substantial number of consumers (families and schools) find value in HopSkipDrive’s services. Apparently they do, as evidenced by the facts that the company is in seven markets and growing rapidly, has served over 6,000 schools, and has transported more than 650,000 children.
The most important validation, however, comes directly from those children—the actual riders—such as one young passenger who says, “They know my passcode, they talk to me, they make me feel very welcome. I’m never like, nervous to get in. In fact, I usually look forward to it because it’s a lot of fun.” Her experience is the best evidence that HopSkipDrive’s ridesharing for kids is “Mindful Marketing.”
Unfortunately, there are accidents in life. Cars collide. Homes flood. People break bones. Insurance lessens the impact of such events, but what about damage to pizza? Well, Domino’s now offers protection for even that unexpected occurrence.
The nation’s pizza deliver leader is very good at getting its products from its stores to our doors, but it seems less confident about our ability to do the same. For that reason, the company recently introduced “carryout insurance.”
Domino’s now promises: “If damage occurs to your carryout order after you leave the store, just bring it back and we’ll remake it for free.” The firm lists a few reasonable provisos: The order must be uneaten, with nothing missing, in its original packaging, and accompanied by a receipt. The firm also offers examples of accidents that qualify for a claim like slipping and falling, "my kid sat on it," and "a stranger sneezed on it." In other words, it seems like the company will cover just about any claim consumers make.
How much does the pizza insurance cost? According to Domino’s it’s “free for all customers.” Some may be thinking, “But, there are no free [pizza] lunches,”—customers must be paying for the insurance indirectly. That may be true; however, Domino’s doesn’t appear to have increased its prices. The company needs to be careful that the costs of its pies stay in-line with those of Papa John’s and Pizza Hut in the highly competitive pizza market.
It’s also likely that pizza insurance claims haven’t taken a significant bite out of the firm’s bottom-line, which raises a key question, “Do people really need pizza insurance?”
Let’s say that someone spends $30 on a pizza pickup order, then drops it while taking it out of their car. The accident may ruin their day, but it probably wouldn’t pose any significant financial hardship. People who can afford to spend $30 on takeout food generally can afford to lose $30 worth of takeout food.
Contrast that loss to a serious car accident, a home fire, or the death of a family’s primary breadwinner. Those events could prove financially devastating, if not insured.
Such scenarios remind me of advice my dad once gave me: Insure the big things that could break you; don’t bother to insure littler things like electronics and lawn mowers. Even though they may be somewhat costly to replace, it’s worth the risk because replacement wouldn’t be financial catastrophic. I also liked the line my Dad said to salespeople who tried to pressure him to insure small items: “All your talk of insurance is making me wonder about the quality of this product and whether I should be buying it.”
My father’s insurance advice is similar to that of Todd Erkis, a professor of finance and risk management at Saint Joseph’s University, who says that “Insurance is key to protecting yourself against financial ruin.” Consistent with that view, Erkis suggests that new college graduates should buy just four types of insurance in order to hedge against possible financial hardship: health, long-term disability, renter’s, and car insurance.
Writing for Mint Life, Nicholas Pell adds just two other types of insurance to buy: home owner’s, which is analogous to renter’s, and life insurance. New college graduates often don’t have dependents and, therefore, don’t really need life insurance, but those who do should use insurance to protect their survivors from poverty.
All this to say, people don’t need pizza insurance, even if it’s “free.” So, what is Domino’s doing? In the very crowded market for restaurant pizza, Domino’s is probably trying to gain a little bit of perceptual separation from its closest competitors. Papa John’s and Pizza Hut don’t offer carryout insurance, which makes Domino’s distinct.
However, while Domino’s may have created a difference, the insurance doesn't deliver any real competitive advantage. Again, people don’t need the insurance, so it probably won’t sway many purchase decisions. Furthermore, who ever thinks they might drop their pizzas? In sum, the insurance just doesn’t offer any measurable improvement to Domino ’s value proposition.
Still, Domino’s has savvy marketers. The company wouldn’t be so successful if it didn’t. The firm’s marketing team probably intends carryout insurance as more of a promotional strategy than a product enhancement. In other words, it doesn’t matter if the insurance causes people to buy more pizzas, as long as publicity and word-of-mouth about the unusual offering helps keep Domino’s top-of-mind. That added exposure, in turn, should lead to more pizza purchases.
But would the firm really go to such lengths just for promotion? It's done so before.
Prior to carryout insurance, the company’s “Paving for Pizza” campaign represented a similar strategy. Domino’s promised to patch potholes around the country so the road hazards wouldn’t wreck pizza deliveries. Of course, a company as far-flung as Domino’s could never repair enough roads to actually make a significant delivery difference in most of its locations. However, the notion of a pizza company patching roads was so novel it captured press attention, as well as created some community goodwill. In short, the program seemed to be a very effective, albeit unconventional, means of pizza promotion.
Will carryout insurance, work as well for Domino’s? I doubt it. Despite the fact that I’m writing about it now and you’re reading about it, I don’t believe the company’s newest ploy will capture the interest or hearts of people like the paving program did.
There’s nothing wrong with Domino’s promising extra protection for pizzas; in fact, it’s a nice extra benefit, if anyone ever needs it. However, that lack of real consumer value, teamed with minimal promotional impact, places carryout insurance in the box of “Simple-Minded Marketing.”
Girl Scout: “Is this [lemonade] made from real lemons?”
Wednesday and Pugsley, seated at their lemonade stand: “Yes.”
Girl Scout: “I’ll buy a cup, if you buy a box of my delicious Girl Scout cookies.”
Wednesday: “Are they made from real Girl Scouts?”
This dark humor from the 1991 comedy movie The Addams Family may scare up a few laughs, but it’s actually a good example of the product name debate that has many people asking, “Does a burger have to be meat?” and “What makes milk, milk?”
Hamburgers are to blame for the most recent round of debate. A few weeks ago, Burger King started testing a “meatless Whopper,” a vegetable-based patty that contains heme, “a protein cultivated from soybean roots that mimics the texture of meat.”
Veggie burgers have been around for a long time, but thanks to business partner Impossible Foods, founded in 2011 by Stanford biochemistry professor Patrick Brown, the newest generation of vegetable patties not only taste much more like meat, they even bleed like beef.
Burger King isn’t the only fast food chain seeing potential in a plant-based future. McDonald’s has started selling a McVegan burger and vegan McNuggets in Europe, Del Taco will begin to offer meatless tacos, and White Castle and Red Robin are already serving meatless burgers.
For years, nutritionists have been telling us to eat less meat and more vegetables, so what’s not to like about the growing selection of ‘plant food’? The concern is that the new nomenclature, like the word meatless, confuses consumers.
For instance, Nebraska’s farm groups have lobbied for a more restrictive use of the word meat: “any edible portion of any livestock or poultry, carcass, or part thereof.” As one of the nation’s leaders in commercial red meat production, the state has a real “steak” in ensuring that consumers do not migrate away from ‘real’ meat.
Last October, Missouri became the first state to legislate that anything that doesn’t come from “harvested production livestock or poultry” cannot be called meat. That goes for lab-grown meat, like Finless Foods is creating by taking cells of dead fish, putting them in pretri dishes, and cultivating their division into edible protein.
The dairy industry has faced similar and even more far-reaching name-related challenges. For about the last two decades, producers of traditional cow’s milk have witnessed a surge in competition from the likes of almond, cashew, hemp, oat, rice, and soy “milk.” According to Mintel, dairy milk sales declined by 15% from 2012 to 2017, all while non-dairy milk sales increased by more than 60%, with almond milk grabbing a 64% share of the market.
It was in this context that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb remarked that almond milk shouldn’t be called milk since “an almond does not lactate.” Shortly thereafter, the FDA opened a public comment period, inviting consumers and industry members to share their opinions on the milk-naming debate.
The FDA is justified in asking whether there’s been slippage in the “standards of identity” that ensure consumers understand exactly what they’re purchasing. That’s its job. However, the agency would do well to look back much further than the last 20 years, for instance, to 1626 when Francis Bacon observed that certain plants “have milk in them when they are cut.” Likewise, in the late 1700s, the Encyclopedia Britannica published that “the emulsive liquors of vegetables may be called vegetable milks.”
The fact is, people have been using the word milk to refer to similar-looking white liquids for centuries, if not much longer, from a wide variety of sources. Consider, for instance, milk from coconuts, as well as milk from other animals like goats and camels. Indeed, “nondairy milks [have] abounded in many other cultures across the globe.”
Furthermore, meat and milk are far from the only names that have been extended to describe a broader range of products. Take another common dairy product—butter. Peanut butter is entirely plant-based (no dairy), yet the FDA carved out an exception because the product's creamy texture resembles butter and because few people would be eager to purchase “peanut paste.”
It’s not to say that anything goes, i.e., that industries and companies can feel free to call their products whatever they’d like. However, names needn’t be limited to one narrow product category, provided that they serve at least one of the following legitimate functions:
Most importantly, neither the product category name nor the brand name should mislead a reasonable consumer. The labels listed above probably aren’t confusing to you or the vast majority of people who read them because marketers and our culture in general have done good jobs educating us about the words’ meanings
So, most Americans know “meatless” means a product does not contain meat. Likewise, as attorney Justin Person has said, “If a consumer is confused about the source of a product labeled ‘almond milk,’ then he has bigger problems than being confused about which milk to buy.” Reasonable people also know that Girl Scout cookies don’t contain Girl Scouts.
It’s not surprising that the beef and dairy industries want to preserve exclusivity for their product category names. However, given that consumers aren’t confused by broader-based naming and may even be helped by it, it looks like the two industries are doing little more than protecting their own livelihoods, which makes their name-related lobbying “Single-Minded Marketing.”
Cutthroat Kitchen, The Amazing Race, The Voice—television viewership is one sign that our culture loves competition. However, adult obsessions often trickle down to the littlest in society: Now children are the main participants in contest programs like American Ninja Warrior Junior, which prompts the question: Is marketing making kids too competitive?
It’s been 19 years since CBS’s Survivor kicked off the ‘recent’ reality TV craze, which American Idol and other competition-based programs helped explode. If one considers gameshows, then people first watched competition television in 1938 with Spelling Bee and in 1941 with Truth or Consequences.
It could help at the onset to clarify concepts. Not all “reality TV” involves competition per se, e.g., Keeping up with the Kardashians. Likewise, there’s a broad range of competition TV, some of which is more real/organic, like Deadliest Catch, while other shows are more scripted, e.g., Family Feud.
For many years, adults have been the primary participants in these programs, but more recently that focus has shifted to series showcasing much younger competitors, for instance:
This list is by no means comprehensive; there are many other kid-focused, competition-based television series, not to mention dozens featuring adult competitors, which begs the question: Are these shows telling children that life is all about winning?
Take even a brief look at plants and animals of the natural world and it’s easy to understand the old adages eat or be eaten and only the strongest survive. Life is competitive. However, we’re human beings. Aren’t we above winning at any cost? Shouldn’t we value cooperation over competition?
In her U.S. News & World Report article “How Toxic Competition Is Ruining Our Kids – and What to Do About It,” Katie Hurley identifies four outcomes of over-the-top competitiveness for children: fractured friendships, stress, burnout, and missing out on part of their childhood.
Kids are naturally wired to want to win. Anyone who’s played games with children, whether it’s checkers or chess, knows that you don’t have to tell them to dislike losing. In fact, many kids, even very young ones, loath defeat so much that they have a hard time dealing with not winning: Some throw tantrums or storm out of the room and sulk.
Is kid-focused competition TV fueling that destructive fire? Are these shows encouraging the next generation to exalt winning above all?
First, it’s important to support that competition is fundamentally a good thing. Yes, all life needs to be competitive to survive, but beyond perpetuating existence, competition teaches things like responding to adversity, avoiding complacency, and valuing hard work. And, when participating in a group, competition also can teach teamwork and communication.
It’s natural to think of competition in connection to sports, but the preceding benefits, as well as others, often accrue to individuals who engage in all types of competition, including academic ones.
The last three years, I’ve had the opportunity to involve teams of marketing students in a regional marketing plan competition. First, there’s a wealth of learning that occurs in the preparation process, getting ready to compete. Second, the knowledge that you’re competing against other schools, encourages everyone to ‘up their game.’ Third, you can learn from your competitors: seeing what they do well and emulating those best practices.
Whether it’s academics or sports, competition also is just plain fun, part of which is undoubtedly from the adrenaline rush—you’re on stage, being tested, while others watch. There’s also the pure ‘love of the game.’
Growing up, my favorite sport was basketball. Although, I enjoyed shooting around by myself, there was nothing like playing a game against others. In fact, besides playing on our high school team, I often arranged pick-up games with my peers. There were plenty of times I didn’t win, and I certainly didn’t like losing, but having the opportunity to play was always more important than the outcome. Win or lose, I could congratulate my opponents, telling them “good game” and suggesting “let’s play again sometime.”
Continuing with sports examples, it’s unlikely that just watching competition, live or on TV, does much to make a person more competitive. For instance, there are plenty of older sports spectators sitting on couches who may be passionate about their favorite teams, but they don’t exhibit any signs of becoming more competitive.
On the other hand, younger people are probably more prone to watch competitions they enjoy and want to participate in them, provided they have the requisite skills. It’s really what happens after joining ‘the game’ that makes a person more or less competitive.
In the same “Toxic Competition” article referenced above, Hurley describes how most often super-competitive kids are products of overzealous parents, pushing their offspring too hard to achieve. Most of us who have been around kids’ sports or similar competitive endeavors can relate: It’s really not the kids who are too competitive; it’s their parents.
I haven’t seen all of the kid-focused competition TV programs listed above, but I have watched some of them. From what I’ve witnessed, the shows model healthy competition, e.g., the children are not placed under inordinate amounts of stress, they are frequently praised for their efforts, and any criticism they receive is constructive. The shows also present positive reactions to the outcomes, highlighting both humble winners and gracious losers.
Like most human behaviors, there are probably many factors that contribute to kids’ competitiveness. It’s unlikely, though, that competition TV causes children to espouse winning at any cost. Rather, most of these programs model healthy competition for kids. As such, the shows also represent “Mindful Marketing.”
When you walk into a Walmart this month, you won’t see someone who’s been a fixture at the front of its stores for decades—the greeter. The world’s largest retailer’s decision to eliminate the iconic position quickly drew harsh criticism, which seemed to take the company by surprise and has made many wonder: Was Walmart right to send loyal employees into unemployment?
In mid-February this year, the big box retailer informed employees that effective April 26, the greeter role would be replaced by an expanded “customer host” position, requiring a greater range of job skills and physical demands like being able “to lift 25-pound (11-kilogram) packages, climb ladders and stand for long periods.”
Those who have worked in organizations for any significant time know it’s not unusual for positions to be added, deleted, and changed. What’s different about Walmart’s move is that its 1.5 million U.S. associates make it the nation’s largest private employer, and many of those who have filled the greeter role have been people with disabilities.
Given that unique employment impact, it’s understandable that many have not liked the change. Fred Wirth, whose son Joe uses a wheelchair and who worked as a Walmart greeter before losing his job, claimed the company’s plan was “just a systematic way of getting rid of all the disabled people.”
Could Wirth’s claim be true? Is the world’s largest retailer intentionally trying to displace workers with disabilities?
To answer that question, it’s helpful to understand the legal context for any such agenda. Title I of the American’s with Disabilities Act “prohibits covered employers from discriminating against people with disabilities in all employment-related activities, including hiring, pay, benefits, firing and promotions.”
Organizations aren’t expected to employ people who cannot perform the functions of a job. However, firms are required to provide “reasonable accommodation” for individuals with disabilities. For instance, a company could modify the height of a service desk in order to allow an individual in a wheelchair to more comfortably interact with customers.
To its credit, Walmart has tried to transition disabled greeters into different positions and otherwise accommodate them. It began to do so in 2015, when it started a pilot program that introduced the customer host position, who not only greets customers but also keeps the entrances safe and clean, assists with returns, and checks receipts as needed. During this program, the company claims it was able to help 80% of affected associates find new positions, many involving promotions.
Greg Foran, president and CEO of Walmart's U.S. stores, says that it’s the company’s goal to offer “appropriate accommodations that will enable these associates to continue in other roles with their store.” For instance, the company was able to offer jobs in self-checkout to three longtime greeters, all of whom have cerebral palsy.
Unfortunately, not every former greeter could be reasonably accommodated or had skills that would readily translate to other work. For these reasons, Walmart has extended the 60 day transition period in order to allow extra time for greeters with disabilities to find other jobs within the company.
Besides what seems to be a good faith effort to continue to employ individuals with disabilities, it’s worth noting that Walmart historically has been one of few employers to actively hire people with disabilities. It’s easy to criticize Walmart for its recent move away from greeters, but how many associates with disabilities do we see working in Target or most other retailers?
It’s also important to recognize retail’s great state of flux. The sector has become extremely competitive, largely due to e-commerce and online giant Amazon, which has helped precipitate store closings for some of the greatest retailers ever, e.g., Sears, Kmart, and Toys R Us.
Furthermore, when consumers do shop in-store, they are increasingly greeted by touchscreen kiosks and self-checkouts, not people. The grocery store where our family shops has a robot, rather than a person, roaming the floors to look for spills and dropped products.
Most of these technological advancements are driven by firms’ desires for greater efficiency and effectiveness. There also are times for most of us when it’s just easier to deal with a machine than a person. Nothing against bank tellers, but most people probably prefer to get cash from an ATM and to have funds deposited electronically into their accounts.
In the digital age, most people also probably don’t care about being greeted as soon as they enter a big box retailer. For some, it may even be a turn-off.
One of the greatest gifts any of us can be given is a job, but employment should be more than biding time to get a paycheck. Work should be meaningful to the person doing it, as well as to the company paying for it and to others ‘consuming’ it. The position of Walmart store greeter once served a more useful purpose, but it has outlived its useful life.
You probably wouldn’t want to sit or stand in the same place, day after day, repeating over and over, “Welcome to Walmart” to largely apathetic passersby. I wouldn’t. Most people, including individuals with disabilities, are capable of much more.
Even certain advocates for the disabled have applauded Walmart’s efforts to transition greeters to other positions. For instance, senior disability specialist at National Disability Rights Network Cheryl-Bates-Harris says, “Walmart is now opening the door to actually help individuals realize their full employment potential.”
So, it’s very unlikely that Walmart is intentionally trying to displace disabled workers. More likely, it wants to remain viable in a fiercely competitive retail arena, which will, in turn, allow it to continue to employ millions of people, including those with disabilities.
Sometimes organizations need to make tough decisions that negatively impact certain people in the short-run. However, offering meaningful work that provides valuable service to others in the long-run equals “Mindful Marketing.”
On March 15, a gunman killed 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. During two weeks in late March and early April, a suspect set fire to three churches in Louisiana. While most people denounce such religious violence, some seem to suggest, ‘If only people would lighten up and not take faith so seriously, there wouldn’t be such incidents.’ Perhaps that reasoning was behind a television series that gets a laugh over God.
Based on Simon Rich’s book “What in God’s Name,” Miracle Workers tells the story of two low-level angels, Craig and Eliza, who try to save humanity from God, who has grown “frustrated with the current state of Earth.” The seven-episode TBS series, which aired this past February and March and is still available for streaming online, summoned considerable star power, namely Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame, who plays an angel named Craig, and Golden Globe winner Steven Buscemi, who plays God and who has appeared in a wide variety of TV shows and films, including Fargo and Reservoir Dogs.
At first glance, the premise of Miracle Workers seems like it could be biblical. Those familiar with the book of Exodus may recall an exchange between God and Moses after he returned from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments to find the Israelites worshipping a golden calf. Ironically, the first and second commandments on the stone tablets were “You shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall make no idols.” God wanted to “destroy” the Israelites and make Moses into a great nation, but Moses seemingly convinced God to relent, and the Israelites were spared.
Compared to the gravity of that scriptural account, Miracle Workers casts God and religion in a much less serious light. Admittedly, I’ve only seen the trailer, watched some online segments of the show, and read reviews, but it quickly becomes apparent that the series presents a less-than-complimentary perspective of the Divine.
For instance, in just the first few minutes of episode #1, the series shows God dressed in sweatpants, an unbuttoned shirt, and sandals with socks, lounging purposelessly on a couch, as he scrolls through TV channels. Suddenly, an assistant appears to call him to a 1:00 meeting, which he hopes is for a “fantasy football draft,” but she reminds him he is to present his “plan to end all pain.” He obviously isn’t ready, by virtue of his response, “That was today?”
Fast forward in the show, and an even more unkempt-looking God finishes swigging a beer, wipes his mouth with his hand, and launches the empty bottle through the air toward a small round trashcan. The bottle misses the basket and shatters on the floor, leading him to let loose an expletive. In another episode, assistants find God brushing his teeth with foot cream, apparently because he can’t read the labeling on the tube.
As tensions related to religion rise around the world, maybe Buscemi’s portrayal of God is what’s needed: a deity who’s more approachable—one we can relate to and laugh about. After all, “laughter is the best medicine.”
Interestingly, I’m currently working with two colleagues on a research project that’s investigating how advertising humor might support reconciliation. I’m a big believer that laughter goes a long way in breaking down social barriers and developing interpersonal rapport. I’m also a big proponent of humor in the classroom, which students seem to appreciate.
Of course, there’s a difference between laughing with people and laughing at them. There’s also a difference between good-natured, two-way teasing in which people playfully pick on each other, and one-way, vicious skewering of others.
For instance, if a friend shows up at an event with his hair wildly wind-blown, others might joke, “Joe, did you just wake up?” People actually appreciate that kind of benign ribbing because it shows they’re liked and considered part of the group. On the other hand, few would think it’s funny to say, “Don’t be an idiot, Joe. Wear a hat next time or the wind will blow away the little hair you have left.” The latter “humor” feels much less friendly and more malicious.
As the earlier examples suggest, the humor in Miracle Workers makes God out to be a bumbling buffoon, i.e., an idiot. But, does it matter? God is big; He can take it. That’s true. He certainly doesn’t need human approval to build His self-esteem or validate his existence. The problem, however, is in how people perceive the show’s humor.
So, what do viewers think of Miracle Workers’ unconventional comedy? Some people love the show. For instance, one reviewer said, “This by far, is the funniest comedy I have ever seen. I cannot wait to watch more.” Another offered similar praise, “I think this is a creative and fantastic TV show which will be one of the greatest sitcoms.”
Other opinions are more tempered, for example: “The comedy was pretty decent but nothing I'd consider really, really funny.”
Then, there were those who saw a comedic catastrophe: “I was hoping the show would be better than the promos. It wasn’t. It felt like a high school play. The writing was bad without one good joke. It needs help from God. A miracle.” Another offered a similar critique, “This show is not even remotely funny. It borders on pathetic.”
The preceding perspectives were solely about the show’s humor. How did people perceive the comedic portrayal of God? As might be expected, some took exception to the divine representation saying, for instance, “I don't like that God is portrayed as a maniacal sociopath who manipulates angels into doing horrible things to people on Earth whom he decides he doesn't like,” and “[I] don't like God being portrayed as a slovenly, self-centered maniac,” and “Our God is perfect in All Ways. This show portrays God as being a bumbling idiot unable to make a decision . . . Nothing but blasphemy.”
However, others were quick to discount such ‘biased’ interpretations, many making the same plea to not take the series too seriously because “It’s just a TV show.”
That is a good point. Miracle Workers isn’t part of the K-12 public school curriculum. Still, is it fair to dismiss anything as “just a ____” until we see its impact? When it aired, Alex Haley’s Roots was “just a TV show,” but it had indelible social influence.
Of course, Miracle Workers is a comedy, not a critically-acclaimed drama, so does that mean its cultural impact isn’t serious? Probably not—just look at sitcoms over the years that have helped shape society like All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and The Cosby Show, to name a few.
So, if TV shows, even sitcoms, have social impact, a final question seems to be: Is any topic fair for them to ridicule? People increasingly agree that it’s wrong to tease people about things like their race, their gender, and their body shape/size. Beliefs, however, appear to be held to a different standard, and perhaps they should. We are born as a certain race and gender, whereas our beliefs are things we choose and can more readily change.
However, not all beliefs are equal. For instance, I’m a big Pittsburgh Steelers fan, but I don’t mind getting teased about that team loyalty, or about my beliefs about my field—marketing. I should also be able to take teasing about my Christian faith, as others have endured far worse.
It’s different, though, when the butt of the joke isn’t me, but God. It’s hard to explain why other than, for a person of faith, God is ‘the ultimate’ and therefore deserving of the utmost respect. There’s also probably a connection to the third of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” which any unflattering or derogatory portrayal of God seems to violate.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects free speech, which allows Miracle Workers to lampoon God. However, just because an organization or an individual has a right to do something doesn’t mean that they should.
I once heard a joke about a man who wanted to know if there would be golf in heaven. Sometime later, I remembered the joke and told it to two Christians I was with at the time. The joke didn’t make fun of God, but one of the people kindly expressed that he didn’t think any humor involving God was appropriate. The other individual defended my choice.
Although I still believe the joke is fine, I appreciate that first person’s beliefs and wouldn’t want to cause him angst by using similar humor around him. A little laughter is not that important. Sometimes the best thing to do is to not exercise our rights, out of respect for others.
When it comes to not caring for the humor in Miracle Workers, I know I’m in the minority. More people like the show and don’t take issue with it taunting God. So, the series seems to be a success, and it will likely continue to attract viewers online and perhaps continue into a second season. However, the show’s insensitivity toward one of many people’s most strongly held beliefs makes Miracle Workers “Single-Minded Marketing.”
As I chatted with prospective students and their parents at a luncheon in our college’s cafeteria, I suspected that something wasn’t going well for one of the families. While others talked and laughed around the table, one mom seemed distracted, checking her phone and whispering with her daughter. Then suddenly she stood up, apologized for needing to make a call, and walked quickly from the room, leaving us to wonder what was wrong.
Sometime later, she returned to the table with a look of relief. After others left, she told me what had happened. Her own mother, a senior citizen, had received a ‘distressed’ phone call from someone claiming to be her grandson, who said he was sick and needed money. Confused but ready to act, the grandmother called and left messages for her son and for her daughter, the mom at our table, who fortunately was able to explain to her mother that someone was trying to trick her.
I told the mom I was very sorry to hear what had happened and was glad she was able to intervene. I also said I could empathize because the same thing had happened to my mother just a couple of years before! Then the real irony of the situation hit me. Here was a family, attending a luncheon to talk with a professor about marketing, all while they became the victims of a ‘telemarketing scam.’ How could their college visit and any interest in marketing be redeemed?
People do some terrible things under the auspices of “marketing.” Granted, most people are probably quick to differentiate this type of telephone scam from any legitimate business; still, these calls and others involving more or less manipulation form a continuum that many likely lump together as telemarketing. Allow me to paint a picture of that spectrum as I see it, then I’ll return to the targeting the older consumers.
On one end of the scale, call it the left, are calls like the one described above, or worse. Some extremely ruthless individuals conduct “virtual kidnappings” in which they contact victims by phone or social media messaging and pretend they have abducted one of their loved ones in order to collect a ransom. Kidnapping is illegal and considered immoral by most rational people, so it’s nonsensical to support it as legitimate business or valid telemarketing. The practice also involves blatant deception and coercion in that the perpetrators lie to their victims and exert pressure to try to force them to act.
On the opposite, or right, end of the continuum are examples like this one: Your bank calls to ask if you’d be interested in a home equity loan or a great rate on a certificate of deposit, etc. You may or may not appreciate such calls, but you do know your bank is a legitimate business that can follow through fairly on its offerings. Furthermore, if product descriptions are accurate and you don’t feel forced to accept them, there is no deception or coercion.
Occupying the middle of the spectrum are a variety of other phone calls with different degrees of deception or coercion. For instance, at our home we regularly receive calls “about our electric bill.” The voicemail messages are vague enough to make me wonder if they’re from our current utility provider, wanting to correct some kind of billing mistake. However, I realize it’s actually some other company, hoping to gain our business.
Those types of calls are probably not coercive, i.e., if I ever spoke with one of their representatives, I could freely choose whether or not to make a switch. The initial calls, however, are deceptive and, therefore, unethical, which is not a good way to begin a business relationship or any other relationship.
Also in the middle of the scale are calls that say your computer’s software is out of date or it memory is running low, etc. Most of us recognize that those claims are untrue and there’s no way such outsiders could know if they were. So, most people see through the deception, ignore the coercion, and dismiss the calls as scams. However, not everyone does.
Not as technologically savvy as those in the younger generations, many older folks are unsure if the supposed computer issues are real or how serious they may be. So, their relative lack of knowledge makes them more easily deceived. Furthermore, concern that something bad may happen to their computer can coerce them to take unneeded action. Fortunately, however, many senior citizens will first call one of their children, grandchildren, or other trusted individual and ask their advice.
Any of us can be duped about products/services that we don’t know well. For older individuals, there’s the added challenge of declining mental and physical faculties. Their minds often aren’t as sharp as they once were. They may not process information as quickly or remember as many details, both of which can negatively affect their decision making.
In addition, declining physical skills further complicate decreased cognitive capabilities. As we age, our vision and hearing decline, which can prevent us from doing things like reading small print on product packages or catching every word a phone caller says. For these reasons older people are particularly vulnerable to illegitimate forms of telemarketing.
That last sentence and my earlier bank example point to my opinion that, despite the many bad examples, there are legitimate forms of telemarketing, namely ones that provide a fair value to consumers, that use honest communication, and that allow freedom in response, all while respecting individuals’ home lives. For instance, someone in need of extra money may appreciate a phone call from their bank informing or reminding them that it offers a good rate on home equity loans.
In contrast, telemarketing that’s fraudulent is against the law. Title 18 of U.S. Code § 1343 identifies such illegal activity as wire fraud, which involves any interstate or foreign commerce that uses electronic communication to gain “money or property by false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises.” Using the phone to scam people is a “common example” of wire fraud. Those found guilty of wire fraud are subject to fines as high as $1 million and up to 30 years in prison.
However, fraudulent telemarketing is not just illegal, it’s also unethical. It’s deceptive to mislead others about who’s calling and the nature of the call. Similarly, it’s coercive to play on people’s emotions and/or to apply unnecessary time pressure in order to force quick action. It’s especially abhorrent to do those things to individuals who are more vulnerable to such tactics.
So, how did this professor try to help marketing save face with a family and young person considering a career in the field? I explained that such occurrences of coercion and deceit don't represent marketing's core tenet of mutually beneficial exchange. At the same time, such examples are good reminders that those of us in marketing need to work harder to distance such illegitimate behavior from proper practice of the discipline.
I also mentioned Mindful Marketing and the possibility of writing a piece related to the incident for the blog. We talked about more typical college visit items afterward, but as the family was leaving, the mom’s attention returned to the telemarketing scam, and she suggested it would be good if I’d write about those issues.
When Gallup presents its annual research about the honesty and ethical standards of various professions, telemarketers typically rank near the bottom of the results. There are legitimate forms of telemarketing, but phone scams aimed at our moms, grandmas, and other older people certainly aren’t among them. Given that these practices hurt those targeted and can land the perpetrators in jail, such schemes make it easy to call them “Mindless Marketing.”
It was shocking to hear the news: TV’s beloved “Aunt Becky” charged with fraud in “the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted in the U.S.” Most people understand that a business model based on bribery is wrong, but there’s another angle to this story that's relevant to each of us, as marketers of ourselves.
To summarize the scandal, Lori Loughlin, who played Rebecca Donaldson-Katsopolis on the classic ABC sitcom Full House and the Netflix sequel Fuller House, and starred in the Hallmark's When the Heart Calls, was one of fifty people implicated in the admissions scandal that also netted actress Felicity Huffman, known for her role in ABC’s Desperate Housewives. The mastermind of the manipulation was Rick Singer, CEO of The Key, which promised to help “the wealthiest families in the US” get their children into some of the country’s most prestigious colleges.
Many tutors, SAT prep courses, and other admissions aids honestly and legally help students improve their chances of acceptance to their preferred colleges. So, how did Singer run afoul of the law? He allegedly helped his clients’ children cheat on ACT and SAT tests, and he bribed college athletic department personnel so they would claim that certain students were recruits for their teams, even when some never played the sport in question.
However, perhaps the most devious thing Singer did was create “The Key Worldwide Foundation,” which was supposedly a charity that funded programs for underprivileged children in the U.S. and abroad. In reality, the Foundation served as a front for money-laundering, or a way for the wealthy to pay Singer who then channeled bribes to accomplices on college campus that included USC, Yale, and New York University, among other prestigious schools.
As someone who works in higher education, has one child who recently graduated from college, and has another who is currently making his college decision, the admissions scandal hit close to home. However, the scandal is even more unsettling to me as a marketer.
No, I’m not just talking about what Singer did. His bad decisions to build a business based on cheating and bribery and to operate a fake foundation were certainly appalling and surprising. What was even more amazing to me was the apparent ease in which he secured willing parties to the schemes, not just from the general population but from those representing high society and higher education—people who stereotypically ‘should know better.’
In addition to accomplished actresses Loughlin and Huffman, alleged scandal participants include an array of elite professionals from business, academia, and other fields. Some of the specific individuals implicated, along with their current or former positions, are:
Why would so many smart and talented people risk their reputations and/or careers to associate with Singer. The motives were likely mixed. Of course, many of the participants were parents who may have been willing to do anything to see their children succeed. Those who accepted bribes, probably wanted the money. Some may have felt pressure to assist for the good of their institution. Maybe some saw or heard of others doing similar things and rationalized ‘there’s safety in numbers.’
Whatever the motive, I doubt that many of the participants, if any, seriously thought that they would get caught. If they did, they probably wouldn’t have participated. Instead, they operated under the delusion that what could be hidden from public view didn’t matter.
That misconception is one of the biggest fallacies of marketing, in general, and personal branding, specifically. In an article I wrote a couple of years ago, I aimed to debunk that myth by suggesting that a personal brand consists of three elements: character, competencies, and communication. I likened the first two components to the layers of a cake and the last one to its icing.
Some individuals erroneously act as if they can overcome flawed character and inferior skills by spreading on a thick layer of overly flattering or even disingenuous communication. Besides being dishonest, this approach only works for so long. Eventually cracks in ‘the cake’ show through the communication. Unfortunately for them and others impacted by their indiscretions, those involved in the college admissions scandal seemed to subscribe to this hollow approach to personal branding.
As I was writing this blog post, my wife shared with me some very sad news. A good friend of ours from early in our marriage had passed away suddenly at home, at the age of 58. Mark Sneff was someone who built his personal brand the right way. Even as he developed his competencies to rise to the top of the HR profession, his character exuded integrity. Mark also was uniquely gifted at communicating “the truth in love”: He could offer an honest critique that felt like a high compliment.
As the outpouring of fond remembrances on his LinkedIn page suggests, Mark was a widely loved individual who many held in high regard. I’m not sure he thought much about personal branding. I am very confident, though, that he never would have resorted to a ruse to advance the educations or careers of his two children, who he loved greatly. Interestingly, Mark was the first person I ever invited to speak to my college classes.
It’s so nice to know people who ‘market themselves’ the right way. The recent college admissions scandal should be a reminder that it only take a moment to destroy a personal brand that took decades to build. Unfortunately, that fact means that Loughlin and all who participated in Singer’s schemes, not only injured themselves and others, they’re also guilty of “Mindless Marketing.”
I enjoy each day without something that many take for granted—eyesight. To safely navigate a sight-friendly word, a blind person develops other aptitudes, like a keener sense of hearing, and learns to use technology, such as a smartphone with GPS. Now one company has developed a hi-tech version of a tool blind folks have used forever—the cane. The thought of a ‘smart cane’ is intriguing, but is it Mindful Marketing?
A few years ago, members of Turkey’s Young Guru Academy (YGA), a nonprofit organization aimed at assisting disadvantaged members of society, began to develop WeWALK, a smart cane that uses ultrasonic sensors, microphones, and speakers to help individuals with visual impairments “see obstacles.” More specifically, a WeWALK hardware unit attaches to the handle of a blind person's cane, allowing him/her to more easily navigate outdoor environments.
Despite its recent start, the company has rapidly gained a social media following on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The firm also has been featured on CNN International, NowThis, Forbes, Dr. Oz, and certain New York City television outlets.
What features and benefits does WeWALK offer that have spurred its rapid rise? The following list summarizes key parts of the new product’s value proposition:
I applaud the idea and the innovation behind WeWALK and appreciate several of its strengths. For instance, overhead obstacle detection is a feature that I would find helpful. Oftentimes when I go hiking, or even when I am just walking down the sidewalk in a residential area, I never know when I am going to encounter an overhead object like a tree branch or some low-hanging sign.
In addition, the ability to connect to a smartphone via Bluetooth could save time and provide convenience by not having to hold a phone in one hand and a cane in the other. Allowing a free hand is a plus.
However, WeWALK also has some significant limitations. First, it does not attach to all types of canes that blind people use. I personally prefer a light-weight, rigid, National Federation of the Blind white cane with a metal tip, but WeWALK does not currently attach to this type of cane. Most of the canes that the device attaches to are much heavier and bulkier in nature. However, AppleVis does say that the firm has a goal of attaching to every popular cane in the world.
Another concern is how well the product can withstand the elements. Due to it being an outdoor product filled with many electronic components, one must be aware of rain during all seasons, as well as winter snow and summer heat. A useful addition to the product would be a protective case of some sort that would not muffle the sound from the speaker.
Speaking of the speaker, I would be interested in knowing how much volume can be produced. Outdoor environments can be quite noisy, due to traffic, construction, and other noises that may prevent the user from being able to hear its audio feedback while holding the cane at arm’s length.
It’s also worth noting that a five-hour battery life may not be enough to get someone through an entire day of traveling, especially while on vacation or otherwise being a tourist. Maybe this deficiency could be remedied by charging through an extra external battery that the user could carry in his or her backpack or purse. However, that power supplement would mean a rather long cord attaching the battery to the device, as well as extra weight.
One also must acknowledge the limitations inherent in any GPS product for the Blind. A GPS won’t tell a pedestrian when it’s safe to cross the street, the path to take through construction, nor will GPS directly lead the user across a large parking lot. Just about any blind person who is an experienced traveler would say that possessing strong mobility skills and knowing how to travel safely is essential before attempting to use any GPS product.
Just as when driving a car, a GPS will tell the driver how to get to the desired destination most of the time, but it does not know the rules of the road. It does not tell the driver to stop at a stop sign or obey the speed limit. Thus, I would not recommend this product to a blind person who does not possess adequate cane travel skills in the first place or who is fearful of traveling in unfamiliar environments.
Beyond the preceding limitations, a big turn-off for me is some of the language used on the firm’s about page. The first line says “WeWALK is the world's most revolutionary smart cane developed for the visually impaired people.” Using the word “the” before “visually impaired people” is a rather patronizing way of describing the target market, just as it is insensitive to use “the” before the name of a racial group. Furthermore, I don’t believe “blind” is a negative word, and I feel it’s fine to use “blind” when describing people who are not completely blind.
A better way to phrase the webpage phrase may be:
“WeWALK is the world's most revolutionary smart cane developed for blind and visually impaired individuals, allowing for greater independence and mobility through innovative technology,” or
“WeWALK is the world's most revolutionary smart cane, strategically built with the blind in mind, combining the white cane that you have known and loved for decades with ground-breaking technological advancements.”
In any case, the company should seriously rethink this use of language as it moves forward.
Overall, WeWALK is a decent and well-intentioned product that shouldn’t cause any serious harm. Still, at a price of $349, there are plenty of ways in which the product must improve before it can truly compete within the marketplace of technology and other tools targeted for blind and visually impaired individuals. Sometime in the future, WeWALK may be Mindful, but at this point I see the smart cane as “Simple-Minded Marketing.”
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