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In Memory of Joy

I thought for a while before writing this blog entry, which is really about a personal matter, a death in my family of my father’s first cousin this week. I just attended her funeral. I thought: “is it right to mix a personal family matter with this blog, which usually discusses more formal, business stuff, like my research work.”

After contemplating it for a while, I came to the realization that a lot of this blog actually is about personal matters. In fact, a lot of my research is sort of personal and introspective. I recently have given a few doctoral consortium talks about research topics and research impact, and I’ve noted how personal good research often is. So, if there’s one thing I’ve discovered lately that feel important, it’s that the personal and the “business” oriented concerns mix and merged together in my thoughts and in my research.

Blogs are interesting places where we can do this sort of exploration. This blog in a way gives you a little insight into some of the stories behind my other writing, and it gives me a forum for exploring my own thoughts in a way that’s a lot less constrained and forced than my more formal writing like articles or book chapters.

So I am writing this blog entry about my late cousin Julie Garden, was also known as Joy Hall. Joy had a lasting impact on my life and interests and I wanted to share some of the impact she had on me in on the world in general.

Joy was an entrepreneur. After getting her accounting degree (one of the first women in Canada to do so), in the 1950s, she had an idea for a new company that she started with her husband, Moe. The company was called Ambassador Leather Goods. Her idea was to make a type of file folder for credit cards and build it into a stylish wallet. They distributed it through mail-order sales, in a time when the mail order company was cutting-edge marketing science.

Joy was an innovator. The idea behind the company was to merge two at that time cutting-edge trends: the rise of credit cards, and the consequent need the people and organize them, and the efficiency of the mail system and the ability of it to look deliver goods and services through direct mail and catalog-based businesses. This was like riding the Internet wave of the 1950s.

Joy was extremely successful. The business Joy and her husband started was wildly successful, moving from Toronto to Niagara Falls, Canada and from there to Niagara Falls, New York. In the memorial service today, her brother quoted the astonishing figure that at one time 87% of the mail going to Niagara Falls, New York was headed to Ambassador Leather Goods. The company later relocated again, this time to Phoenix, Arizona, which at this time in the mid-1960s was still largely undeveloped, but whose potential Joy, again presciently, recognized.

One of the things that I noticed when I read about Joy’s business in some of the reflections that people had about it online, one of thing that people found most memorable about the Ambassador Leather Goods catalog was the picture of Joy and Moe on the inside front cover and it was signed Joy and Moe Hall. People reflected on that picture. They opined that this was a happy family, a family that somehow by buying these wallets in different goods through the mail they were partaking in. I have no doubt that this personal touch, with their actual signatures, was Joy’s idea.

In a way this was a brand community, maybe even one of the first brand communities. It was a mixing of familial and close knit communal feelings with the commercial and economic workings of the business.

That theme, the relationship and interrelationship of the communal and the commercial, has been a central element of my research work throughout my career. It certainly was a part of Joy’s business and her family’s business as well, as they experimented with forms of multilevel marketing that tried to combine various social relationships with the logics of business. Ruminating on them, writing about them, I had contemplated these interesting social interminglings for decades before I even entered my doctoral program.

It was during her time in Phoenix that Joy had a serious health issue that led her to distrust conventional medicine and to embrace alternative forms of treatment. She was diagnosed with a terminal disease, but she resisted conventional treatments and drugs and sought out alternative treatments, which cured her.

After this incredible experience, she became an evangelical advocate of various sorts of alternative remedies and alternative belief systems. Later, she would be instrumental in institutionalizing, fundraising, and bringing naturopathic medicine to Canada. Because of this work, naturopathy has thrived in Canada, and on practically every corner in my neighborhood there is a naturopathic and homeopathic clinic.

Joy was into healthy food. I remember first learning about the merits of organic food and about vegetarianism from Joy when I was just a kid. And colonic irrigation. Wheat grass juice. Chelation therary. And aura reading. I remember that she insisted that green grapes had powerful anti-toxin properties. She had cheated death once, and I think she planned to continue cheating it, perhaps indefinitely. She was very interested in life extension, and I believe she had ties to the early post-human movement.

Joy was an iconoclast. Another way that Joy influenced my thinking, probably the most profound way, was her introduction of a range of alternative thinkers and writers to me. I remember one of the early books she gave me to read I was probably about 11 years old) was Vera Stanley Alder’s “The Finding of the Third Eye,” and T. Lobsang Rampa’s “You Forever.”

She introduced me to the work of Baba Ram Dass and Dr. John Lilly. I even met some of the spirit channeling and UFO worshiping Unarians at a meeting in her home where, as an impressionable 12 or 13-year-old, I was told by one of their leaders and ‘sensitives’ that I had an “extraordinarily high vibration level” (I felt really special at the time). That exposure contributed to a lifelong interest in mysticism and alternative and particularly Eastern religions, some of which is apparent in my writings about Burning Man (particularly the book chapters).

Joy was a freethinker, she used her wealth and influence to explore and share new ideas. I remember her enthusiasm and her clear bright eyes, the passion with which she spoke, and my own thrilling excitement when I heard the ideas I had never heard from anyone else before being shared. She would take the time to invite my sister and I to share in these ideas, coming to meetings as if we were sort of modern-day cellar Christians, in her wild, extravagant penthouse mansion on Toronto’s Bloor Street was our secret hiding place.

This is my tribute to my cousin, Joy Garden, to a dynamic, independent, free spirited, and compassionate woman who changed the lives of so many she touched.

Joy, you are loved, and you will be missed.

Brandthro Goes Hardcore


Well, after a long absence Brandthroposophy is back online. There’s been a lot of busy craziness in my household, and lots of productivity on the writing front (which I will be happy to fill you in on in future postings). I have a lot of new material in store for you and I’m planning some exciting changes with the Brandthroposophy website and form.

No, the changes aren’t that kind of hard-core. There’s enough of that on the Internet already. But they’re the kind of material that this blog has become known for, stuff that challenges contemporary marketing thought, develops methodologies, and keeps you up-to-date on the latest theory and practice merging anthropology and cultural studies with the needs of consumer researchers, and retailers, and marketers.

I have some ideas coming up that are going to take this blog, um, where no blog has gone before (sorry).

Thank you for hanging in there. Here we go.

Deep Thinking about Deep Recession II: Globalization

Global financial shifts

These postings are about the current “deep” “recession.” As CNN reported yesterday, “the U.S. economy suffered its largest drop in 26 years during the fourth quarter.The nation’s gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic activity, fell at an annual rate of 6.3% during the final three months of 2008″ (see original story on Worldwide, similar, and worse, is being repeated. And the pain isn’t likely to end yet.

In this post, I’ll briefly discuss the first of three critically important factors that make this global recession different from past recessions, Globalization, which I defined loosely as continental shifts in capital flows.

The evidence is everywhere. Foreign investors own 45% of U.S. Treasuries, with Asian investors alone holding more than 30%. U.S. stocks made up 69% of the world market capitalization in 1970; today they make up 42%. And Western Europeans and North Americans are increasingly hiring programmers and designers from Asia and Eastern Europe. These include hiring “virtual personal assistants” on other continents to screen phone calls, pay bills, and even handle customers. One example is that the website hired two India-based reporters last year. Their assignment? To cover Pasadena city council meetings that are broadcast over the Web. Information tech and globalization obviously are intertwined in different ways such as these, although I discuss them separately for the sake of intelligibility. I’ll deal with infotech in my next post. So let’s turn to globalization.

Continental shifts in capital flows acknowledges that a lot of the productive labor has shifted to Asia, in particular, China and India (Thomas Freidman’s The World is Flat book has publicized this well-known trend). These major flows of capital — not only monetary, but human capital, the kind that creates innovations and brands, and even social capital — have been shifting radically for well over a decade with relatively little corresponding reaction at the level of markets and currency. If that’s true, then the shifts we have already seen might be moderate compared to the ones to come.

In other words, if North American car companies can’t build cars that global consumers want to drive and buy, then propping them up artificially only means that they’re going to come down harder when they do, eventually, fall. The United States and much of Western Europe is dependent upon a number of industries that are being similarly propped up. The market is beginning to reflect that. And, even as companies in these countries survive but find themselves with growing liabilities, they’re going to be spending much more of their capital servicing their increasing their debt rather than making investments in brands and innovation that will pay off into the future. If currency rates continue to decline, those foreign debts become harder and harder to service, for governments as well as companies.

On the ground level of consumers and consumption these shifts in capital manifest as unemployment and general belt-tightening. People lose their jobs in the Rust Belt, the support services that serve them fold, housing prices drop, tourism recedes, and so on. Government artificially stoking spending only works if the spending can be directed into areas that are going to create lasting jobs and redistribute capital away from its current configuration — the configuration that is at least partially causing these shifts.

That’s trend #1. Trend #2 is Informationalization, which I’ll talk about in the next post.

Sage Seals the Deal!


The ink is, literally, just drying on the contract.

A little while ago, a senior editor at Sage publications, approached me about writing a Sage Research Methods book specifically devoted to netnography, the conduct of online anthropology. I thought it was a great idea, and enthusiastically began developing the outline for the book. That outline proposal went through a quick and careful review at Sage, resulting in some useful comments and suggestions. I incorporated them into a revised plan, and now we’ve got a signed deal.

I’m delighted to be working on this book for the esteemed Sage Research Methods series.

Here is a little overview of the book, and I’m sure I’ll be providing more information about it as I write it and we get closer to publication.

“Netnography: Researching Cultures and Communities Online” is going to be a methodological primer on a (relatively) new (yet established!) research technique: “netnography.” Netnography is a qualitative, interpretive, contextual research methodology that adapts the traditional, in-person ethnographic research techniques of anthropology to the study of the online cultures and communities formed through computer-mediated communications (“CMC”).

The Sage Research Methods book will thoroughly introduce, explain, and illustrate the method of netnography to interested scholars and other researchers. The book is needed because there are currently no other books that fill this void. With a history stretching back over twelve years in consumer and marketing research, netnography has been widely accepted by these constituents in this field of research. Netnography therefore differs from past qualitative Internet research techniques in that it offers, under the rubric of a single term, a rigorous set of guidelines for the conduct of online ethnographic research.

The overarching justification for the book is that netnography is an important and distinct technique and compares favorably with other research methods. The distinctive feature of netnography is that it combines the contextual strengths of ethnography with the reach and accessibility of Internet-based research techniques.

The technique has been well received within the fields of marketing and consumer research, and has begun to spread to other fields with recent publications in sociology, game studies, travel, cultural studies journals. The intention of this book is to broaden the reach of this methodology, offering and explaining it to scholars across a range of academic disciplines, as well as to continue to systematize and develop the approach.

The book will achieve its objective of introducing, explaining, and illustrating the method of netnography by offering a structure that initially overviews the history and explains the importance of online culture and community. The next parts of the book present and summarize various approaches to performing research online, and introduce and detail the method of netnography. Netnographic procedures are illustrated with a range of examples from published and ongoing research across a variety of fields, and in a variety of international contexts. The book will be written for a global audience of interested students, scholars, and researchers from any social scientific field that might include qualitative data analysis in its research.

The book concludes with a discussion of the ways netnography has already been adapted and altered, a presentation of the multifarious ways that the online space of culture and community is currently changing, and a discussion about how the method can be further adapted by individual researchers and teams to realize its full potential in this rapidly changing research environment.

In summary, this book will introduce the method of netnography, explain it and illustrate it. In so doing, it will also help to provide an organizing frame around the conduct of online research attuned to its cultural qualities. The book will provide guidelines for a rigorous application of Internet research methodology for social scientists across many disciplines, including sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, business and marketing.

The book is scheduled for release in late 2009.

Communal Confessions

Communal Confession Online

I just ran across an interesting piece of research reported in BusinessWeek. This research, conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon, found that people are more willing to disclose the truth about their bad behaviors when they’re asked about them casually online, rather than through a more formal survey.

Now, isn’t that interesting.

The researchers (George Loewenstein, a behavioral economist, is reported to be the co-author) found that 50% of people who were asked “Who BAD are U?” admitted to cheating on their taxes. But when sent to an official looking site with formal insignia and privacy notices, on 25% admitted to cheating.

I have to wonder if that degree of honesty tells us something about the internet and about our use of research techniques. The study was interpreted to mean that we get more honest answers “from the MySpace generation” (there’s a deliberate generational difference being investigated here) using an informal and even playful type of questioning style rather than a more formal one.

Now take this to the next level. What does this study suggest about all the naturally-occurring conversations going on out there in cyberspace? Is this just Millennials or gamer gens or MySpacers? Just the under-25 crowd, or is there a sea change adrift, matie? Might a lot of these informal consumer-to-consumer exchanges online exhibit more honesty and more validity that a lot of the more formal survey work? Consider which one–informal observation or formal surveys–would be a better way to assess consumer opinion?

I don’t know if the big online companies like Buzzmetrics and Cymfony have noticed this study (or of course the smaller-smarter-quicker upstarts likes MotiveQuest and Netbase), but I think this research definitely supports their general research approach.

Using informal, unobtrusively-obtained online conversations seems to produce more valid, more honest, more real, more multifaceted consumer opinion data than online or offline surveys. That’s the implication I draw from this. That’s a core contention behind netnography as well. If you work with better data, you’re going to get better results, it’s that simple.

I couldn’t find any publication data on the Loewenstein study. If anyone has further info on it, I’d be grateful and will publish it here. I’d also love to see estimates anyone has on the amount of money currently spend on online and offline surveys, versus more observational techniques like webtrawling/content analysis and ethnography.

Applying Netnography and the Netnography08 Conference: Part 3

Now I want to talk a little bit about the keynote address that I was honored and delighted to give at Netnography08 in Munich, Germany last week. My presentation sought to provide a fairly broad overview of the method of netnography and to look at it from a big picture point of view. How has it been developed? How has it been used? What patterns are there in the way that it has been applied by scholars and other researchers?

I began by reminiscing a little bit about the origins of the technique in my thesis year, and gave some details on that. Then, I went straight to the definition and carefully looked at the origins of netnography in ethnography, and the ethnographic stance of participant- observation. I re-examined the goals of netnography as similar to the desired insights we get from ethnography.

Then, I turned to my assessment, and here was where things got a little bit interesting. I overviewed some of my early work, and detailed how well it did, or didn’t fit with my intended stance, and with the participative ethnographic imperative. After this I started looking at the published works that had used netnography as a method since then. What I detected was a movement, a pretty dramatic one, towards a purely observational stance, and away from a participative one. Some of my own work could definitely be included as participating and even contributing to this trend.

When I looked at the major marketing research firms that were using information in online forums, discussion groups, and the blogosphere, I could detect very similar patterns emerging, a movement towards larger datasets, a classification-and-sorting approach that necessarily decontextualized the communal and cultural elements and characteristics of the data.

After detailing this, I went back to the classics and quoted some of the most important sociologists and scholars, The Masters and Giants upon whose Shoulders we stand. I drew on their wisdom to inform the topics that related directly to online communities and the major ways we were seeing them behave.

I bumped that knowledge against the ethnographic goal of participation again to argue that different types of knowledge and insight are generated through participation. Not better knowledge and insight, necessarily, but different. The different stance and perspective afforded by participation added real value-that was why ethnography was so often held up as the gold standard of innovation-seeking marketing research (in books such as Cagan and Vogel’s classic Creating Breakthrough Products, for example).

In the next part of the presentation, I outlined my own analysis of why this movement away from participation and towards more observational and quantified stances was occurring. My conclusion was that marketing research is still related to models of marketing that are quickly becoming outdated.

Just as marketing was oftentimes still about talking instead of listening, marketing research was still about taking rather than giving. In the margins, I briefly outlined a vision, A New Hope for what marketing and marketing research could one day become. I believe that the participative options opened up by managers doing netnography could play an important role in this ongoing transformation not only of business and marketing, but even of society (yes, lofty big and maybe impractical “vision thing” thoughts for the keynote….).

I enjoyed the talk very much and plan to write it up for one forum or another, maybe develop it into the book I’m planning on writing about online communities and their range of implications.

Before I close this topic of the Netnography08 conference in Munich, I also want to mention that I had a chance to meet some very interesting colleagues there. Prof. Dr. Frank-Martin Belz from the TUM Business School in Munich. He holds the—wait for this (and it’s worth waiting for) “Chair of Brewery and Food Industry Management.” I asked him if it includes samples of beer. He smiled slowly, and nodded. Now that is a dream-job. Seriously though, we found out that we have lots in common with his work on sustainability and communities.

Nice also to see Prof. Dr. Anton Meyer again, to catch up with McKinsey’s Florian Jodl, and to see Fabian Göbel, and to meet Rita.

And here’s a major callout to Maria Horn, the Insights Strategist from the ad agency G2 in Hamburg, who is a regular reader of this blog. It was great to meet you, Rita, Maria, Fred, and all the rest of you.

Finally, a great big thank you to Hyve for their invitation and major Bavarian hospitality. Thanks to Julia J. for her limo services (don’t quit your day job), to Hans G. for soccer commentary, and to Steffen H. for his kind and able tour guiding. Mega-thanks also to Johann for the thoughtful talks and insights. As before, I had a very memorable and enjoyable time in Munich.

I came away from this conference with a renewed sense that German companies like Hyve, Beiersdorf, Adidas, BMW, and Burda are global innovators and early adopters. These are companies that are recognizing, developing, and spreading the use of netnography for marketing and innovation.

Applying Netnography and the Netnography08 Conference: Part 2

Last posting, I began to tell you about some of the presentations at Netnography08 that really brought to light how netnography is being adapted and used by companies in their innovation processes. I started with a netnography from the Burda Community Network concerning the world of media, and consumers’ media habits. Then I overviewed a great innovation netnography for Adidas that resulted in a new product and package.

Next, Michael Bartl from Hyve AG discussed another example, a netnography for a water treatment company about water purity. After searching for water treatment groups on the Internet, they found extremely active groups centered around aquarium ownership, and the issues faced by those who were keeping exotic fish in their homes. That’s kind of interesting—an example of the unexpected way that netnography can help find unconventional links between topics that can spark creativity and illuminate connections. It also illuminates the relation to the search for “lead users” (see Eric von Hippel’s work in this area for details), suggesting how netnography can help accelerate the process of finding “experts” in related domains.

From these postings and insights, Hyve and their client developed a metaphor that demonstrated how the important elements of all water treatment concerns mapped onto the concerns that aquarium owners faced and extensively discussed online. From here, they looked for a range of ideas and opportunities, finally deciding that water treatment and quality were a major mass market opportunity.

The opportunity lay in the needs of travelers going to places where they didn’t trust the water (as a Mexican tourist, I know I’ve been in that boat more than once!—for details, see the new Sex in the City movie).

Drawing on the techniques and technologies used by aquarium owners, they decided to develop a sort of embedded “test strip” that would tell consumers whether the water being tested was safe to drink and use. The next step was to decide where to embed it, since a test strip by itself was unwieldy and difficult. Their decision? To put the test strip, with a simple “do not drink” red circle and bar across it that would become visible if the water was no good, on the tip of a toothbrush handle. Pretty clever. They are pitching the resulting product as the “WaterCheck” toothbrush.

Stephan Ruppert of NiveaThe third presentation I’ll tell you about was by Stephan Ruppert, a brand manager of Nivea skin and sun care products for Beiersdorf. Beiersdorf was managing and investigating the use of their self-tanning products and undertook a netnography with Hyve in order to unearth new ideas for subsequent ideation and innovation. They found a lot of information about people using and recommending various self-tanning products.

One of the useful findings of the study was the sheer degree of online conversations about tanning products online. Consumers made very strong recommendations, and offered up even stronger critiques of the various self-tanning options. Some products were seen as too strong, some too weak, applicators were carefully described and reviewed, and the color, authenticity, and evenness or blotchiness of the resulting tan described and assessed. This was clearly a product with considerable involvement. Across sites devoted to sunless tanning, tanning, and wellness sites.

One of the things that the netnography turned up that Nivea had not considered before was the importance of removing the tan, especially from consumers’ hands. Consumer shared all sorts of secrets and tips about how to get the tanning solution out of their skin. These ranged from drastic methods like sandpaper, alcohol based solvents, and detergents to more organic alternatives like loofah sponges and lemon juice. But consumers still seemed unhappy with these alternatives.

Dr. Ruppert said that it was only logical to think about removing tans but, until the netnography revealed the category in all of its stark, voice-of-the-consumer reality and detail, they had never done so.

The category they were looking at was now named “de-tanning”: how to get the tan out. With their knowledge and expertise they took these netnographic findings, ideated within the de-tanning category and launched a strong and successful product offering to meet these consumers’ unmet needs.

These were just a few of the very insightful sessions at Netnography08. Other speakers included Michael Trauttman of Kempertrautmann talking about a wide variety of community oriented advertising and marketing options, and Michael Frank of PlanNet presenting on the topic of user-generated advertising. There was also a set of very interesting workshops (including one that detailed “Twitter as a Netnographic Field,” and a panel devoted to discussing the ins and outs of netnographic research.

In my next post, I’ll provide some details about the keynote address that I gave to open up the conference.