Archive for November, 2009

Power of Contrast Comes Through in McDonald’s Story

When contrast is so great that it challenges our assumptions, you’ve got the makings of a good story.

So it is in The Huffington Post article, “McDonald’s Gets Modern European-Style Makeover in NYC.”

Is there a restaurant interior more dreary than the classic McDonald’s? Clearly, the original objective for the seating area was to make cleaning up a spilled shake or squished fries as easy as possible.

Now we learn that McDonald’s plans to remake its look in a quest for hipness:

The eatery is outfitted with outlets for plugging in laptops, upholstered vinyl chairs instead of Fiberglas seats bolted to the floor, subdued lighting and employees whose all-black uniforms suggest a hip boutique.

I can’t believe they’re doing away with the fiberglass seats.

It was almost a rite of passage for every kid to misbehave in McDonald’s, inevitably fall off the chair and get conked on the head as a reminder from the karma gods to listen to their mom.

To show the lengths McDonald’s is going to to be hip or, dare we say, avant garde, the walls are decorated with a design based on French architect Philippe Avanzi’s magnified thumbprint.

Very shrewd decision to use a French architect. To borrow an architect’s thumb from Turkey or Indonesia just doesn’t have the same je ne sais quoi.

The redesigned McDonald’s features “reproductions of Danish designer Arne Jacobsen’s chairs including the Egg chair, a classic of mid-century functionality that would look right at home on The Jetsons.”

I wish I had paid more attention in art history. Aside from The Jetsons, I’m not exactly sure what that means.

But here’s where the story adds a twist of friction thanks to some fine investigative reporting.

When McDonald’s first hired Avanzi in 2006 to help redesign its European outlets, Avanzi brought in Danish furniture producer Fritz Hansen to supply authentic Jacobsen chairs.

But Hansen, the sole licensed manufacturer of Jacobsen chairs, ended the partnership because McDonald’s was also buying unauthorized copies.

I’m not convinced the PR person’s retort takes the sting out of this accusation:

Proud said the chairs at the New York store are “modeled after” Jacobsen’s designs.

Let me get this straight.

McDonald’s was getting a better price for the Jacobsen chairs on the gray market which caused the Danish furniture guy to cut off McDonald’s official supply. So McDonald’s now buys a knock-off version that only the chair cognoscenti can tell the difference.

I smell a made-for-TV script.

P.S. I’ve snagged the photos of redesigned McDonald’s locations in France and Italy from the French (what can I say) post “McDonald’s à la sauce design.” They actually look pretty good.


Crafting a Guest Post with Entertainment Quotient

The vast majority of my posts address topics outside the confines of the Agency.

My last company-centric post was back in July, taking a trip down nostalgia lane with our 21-year anniversary in mind.

With the caveat out of the way, I wanted to highlight a guest post from Wei Wang out of our Beijing office.

The piece, titled “Don’t Assume China Mimics US-Style Social Media,” appeared on the blue-chip property ReadWriteWeb yesterday.

While I wouldn’t call it classic storytelling – there’s no protagonist, obstacle or happy ending – the social media scene in China is brought to life with anecdotes and personal experiences.

I particularly liked the fortune-telling anecdote which “jars Western sensibilities.”

It’s worth noting that our head of Editorial Services, Bonnie Lamb, edited the work from Wei (who was writing in her second language) and RWW’s Andrew Lobo tightened the piece into its final form.

Here’s the RWW guest post:

China enjoyed center stage this week thanks to President Obama’s visit. Naturally, trade relations were on the agenda.

For Internet companies sitting in the US, news reports that chronicled the President’s every move in China provide a visible reminder of the business opportunity that can seem a click away.

So, why not export social media to China just like KFC and American Idol? After all, seeing Yao Ming, arguably China’s grandest international star, on Facebook and Twitter, one naturally figures that, aside from the language and periodic blocking of websites, “What’s the diff?”

With Facebook gaining little traction in China (having only 390,000 users), and tweets virtually grinding to a halt since the government started blocking Twitter, these things point to the “diff.”

Simply flinging an American product into the Chinese market won’t succeed, because every social media category has a Chinese equivalent that is tuned to the specific needs of the mainland Chinese market.

Take one of China’s “Facebooks,”, which already has secured over 40 million users since launching only last year. The platform gained its initial popularity through applications that you would recognize from Facebook, such as “Friends for sale” and “Parking wars” – but with a Chinese twist.

Take, for example, the application called “Xingming Yuanfen,” in which you can type in a friend’s name and test your “yuanfen” (i.e. your predetermined relationship with that person). Another application explains who you were in your previous life. It turns out I was a bandit, much to the chagrin of my parents.

These “fortune-telling” applications enjoy incredible popularity on computers and mobile phones. While fortune-telling jars Western sensibilities, it remains a part of Chinese culture.

But the best example of China walking to the beat of its own drummer is the continued popularity of the BBS.

That’s not a typo.

That is the same bulletin board system that went by the wayside in the US with dial-up modems and US Robotics. Chinese students – who, like their counterparts in the US, are more open to experimentation than other segments – established the foundation for the BBS to flourish in China.

All major universities operate their own BBS. Peking University and Tsinghua University (which are the Harvard and MIT of China) host the Weiming BBS (named after Weiming Lake at Peking University) and Shuimu Tsinghua BBS, respectively.

With 10+ years’ worth of graduates who grew up on the BBS now driving the Chinese Internet market, these same people have fueled a range of BBS sites tied to their interests and professions. According to the latest CINIC (China Internet Network Information Center) report, roughly 30% of Chinese Web users spend a significant amount of time on a BBS. So, these sites certainly transcend geekdom.

55BBS, for example, is an online community where users share discount information, coupons and other creative ways of landing a good deal. Users also show off what they got from their latest shopping spree, showing off a photo of a skin care product as if it were a trophy.

Perhaps the most unique phenomenon in China is Tianya, the #1 BBS, with almost 30 million users.

What is Tianya? Think of it as a gathering place for an eclectic blend of intellectuals, journalists, freelancers, professors, researchers, gadflies, etc. Users write on and comment about sensitive social issues that may be off-limits to mainstream media. People also head to this forum to gossip about celebrities (okay, some things don’t change between cultures).

A Chinese word has been coined for BBS evangelists: “Da’rens,” which roughly means “people who really know how to do something.” We’re now starting to see some “Da’rens” parlay their popularity into commercial success. The famous makeup Da’ren known as Arora started out writing about cosmetics on a BBS before launching a blog for the mega-portal

From a Chinese perspective, the fundamental difference between a blog and BBS is that a BBS allows for anonymity, which appeals to the introversion of many Chinese. Blogging is also more of a solitary activity, with readers chiming in with comments later. The BBS, on the other hand, is more of a collaborative undertaking, which again appeals to the Chinese.

This all means that Internet companies from the US looking to crack the mainland Chinese market need to do their homework and tailor their products accordingly.

Here’s an easy litmus test when planning your market entry in China: “What’s the difference between the US and Chinese version of your product?”

If the answer takes more than 60 seconds to explain, then you’ve got a fighting chance.

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Transforming Table Scraps into Energy Makes for a Good Story

Compelling storytelling in business often threads together anecdotes and numbers into a single tale.

This dynamic comes across loud and clear in the USA Today article “Utility Turns Table Scraps into Electricity” by Julie Schmit

The story focuses on the East Bay Municipal Utility District in the San Francisco Bay Area and its first-of-a-kind treatment of wastewater.

Great anecdote sets the stage for the process:

Upon arrival via truck at the plant, the food scraps look like mounds of wet dirt. They’re dumped into 20,000-gallon underground tanks. There, grinders turn the scraps into a mud-like substance. Bigger items, such as rocks and utensils, fall out.

On a recent morning, it took just minutes for a 20-ton truck to unload. Pressure pulls most of the odors into the tank. Still, the smell of cheese was present.

“That all comes from last night’s dinner plates,” Williams said as he watched.

Schmit puts the reader at the scene.

I confess I have a weakness for bad puns:

The food-scrap project “hasn’t been a cakewalk,” said David Williams, the director of wastewater for the utility.

This is also a story where the numbers deliver context:

  • 2,300 companies provide food scraps
  • 30 million tons of food waste go to landfills each year
  • The utility processes 100 to 200 tons of food scraps a week
  • Food scraps provide enough to power for 1,300 to 2,600 homes
  • If the utility secured all 1,800 tons of scraps from commercial enterprises in the region, it could power 25,000 homes
  • 50% of U.S. food waste could power 2.5M homes

It’s no easy task to explain the science behind taking half-eaten burgers, overcooked veggies, etc. and magically transforming the stuff into electricity.

While the narrative does an admirable job, depicting the process visually makes it easily understood (even if most people are going to stumble over the word “anaerobic”).

(For a larger version, click here.)

Why this graphic only shows up in the print version remains a mystery. If you’re going to take the time to create such a visual, why not insert it into the digital version as well? Perhaps USA Today was running short on bytes that day.

It’s revealing to contrast the USA Today graphic with the one on the utility’s Web site:

(For a larger version, click here.)

Needless to say, USA Today simplified the information and increased the visual appeal.

All in all, it’s a good story and one that an enterprising youngster can seize upon; i.e., “I’m not wasting food; it’s going to make our electricity.”

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Borrowing from Crocodile Dundee, “Now That’s an Anecdote”

Like most business publications, the Journal has been covering the maneuvering related to the Supreme Court addressing the question on intellectual property:

When can a business method be patented?

As you would expect, stories have revolved around attorneys and CEOs informally pleading their cases that just so happen to align with their own interests. Not exactly scintillating content.

To the credit of Journal reporter Jess Bravin, he captures a wonderful anecdote in his story Justices to Test Patents For Business Methods:

In 1917, for instance, the U.S. Patent Office granted Clarence Saunders a patent for a “self-serving store,” where customers took items from shelves and brought them to a checkout counter to pay, rather than giving shopping lists to clerks who then fetched the groceries. Mr. Saunders licensed his patent to independent grocery stores under the name Piggly Wiggly.

Are you kidding me?

The action of walking down an aisle to pick up to a bottle of ketchup could be patented? (Which probably means someone also owns the patent on the salad bar concept.)

Back to the Piggly Wiggly -

I found Mr. Saunders’ Patent No. 1242872 and couldn’t help but notice the filing date of October 21, 1916 and the issue date of October 1917.

It’s comforting to know that even back then, the U.S. Patent Office moved at its own pace.

I love the language in the actual patent:

The object of my said invention is to provide a store equipment by which the customer will be enabled to serve himself and in so doing, will be required to review the entire assortment of goods carried in stock, conveniently and attractively displayed and after selecting the list of goods desired, will be required to pass a checking and paying station at which the goods select may be billed, packaged and settled for before retiring from the store, thus relieving the store of a large proportion of the usual incidental expenses, or overhead charges required to operate it, all as well be herinafter more fully described and claimed.

Apparently, English teachers back in 1917 were a bit more tolerant of run-together sentences.

I have a feeling we’re going to hear more stories about Clarence Saunders and his unique patent in the coming weeks.

To net it out, companies ranging from IBM to Novartis to Amazon aspire to be Piggly Wiggly.

Side note: I suspect Jess Bravin, who works out of D.C., discovered this anecdote at the local Patent Museum which spotlights how Mr. Saunders transformed his patent into the Piggly Wiggly empire.

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A Mass Comms Curriculum Alone Short-sheets Tomorrow’s PR Pro

I was delighted when Steve Farnsworth asked me to contribute a guest post to his blog.

The content follows.

While it’s not exactly focused on storytelling, it still falls under the communications umbrella.

Steve originally approached me to share my perspective on the changing role of internal PR practitioners.

No question, the economic downturn has been one catalyst for change.

I can’t think of one corporate PR department – with the possible exception of the Johnson & Johnson PR folks who support Purell – that hasn’t been asked to do more with less after a reduction in staff or agency budget or both.

Yet, the more I thought on this topic, the more I came to realize the skills and way of thinking that will elevate tomorrow’s corporate PR pro are the very same traits that will enable tomorrow’s agency PR practitioner to succeed.

Don’t get me wrong.

I appreciate there are marked differences between an internal and external role, although my own internal experience was limited to the PR department of a union called the California School Employees Association (CSEA).

The internal demands of serving so many different stakeholders alone require a certain quality that defies definition. At the tactical level, shepherding a news release through the labyrinth innocuously known as the corporate review process requires finesse and patience.

But the same macro issues impact both internal and external professionals – hence, the decision to look at the future of the overall PR professional from a skills perspective.

I’m going to call this PR person of the future “Ruvin” (squished together my parents’ two names; not above looking for ways to one-up my siblings with the holidays around the corner).

Here’s the key.

Ruvin must command interdisciplinary skills.

Time Magazine ran a provocative Q&A last month with Malcolm Gladwell who pontificated that aspiring journalists should skip J-school and study other domains. He stressed that today’s journalist must bring something more to the table than reporting skills. As exhibit A, he pointed to Jonathan Weil from Bloomberg who broke the Enron story thanks to financial acumen as much as reporting expertise.

I’m not ready to say Ruvin should bail on a mass comms degree, but he/she might if the school’s curriculum doesn’t have the flexibility to cut across multiple disciplines.

Because Ruvin needs finance to read a balance sheet like Brother Weil.

Ruvin also needs videography, photography and editing skills that exceed your garden-variety postings on Facebook.

And don’t forget computer sciences, where programming and an affinity for adopting the latest software tools provide the means to “write on the Net.”

It might have been years since Ruvin walked into a traditional library, but he/she better have a background in library science tuned to dig out and correlate information from that big digital library in the sky called the Web.

Aspects of anthropology such as ethnology all have a place in shaping Ruvin’s foundation for a career in PR.

In other words, tomorrow’s PR practitioner must straddle business and science as well as the arts.

Yes, Ruvin should evolve and polish the soft skills too.

The art of persuasion.

The ability to probe a resource to pull out meaningful content.

Knowing how verbal cues and body language can communicate strength of conviction.


But with society redefining relationships and what influences those relationships, and the PR profession evolving toward communications that go direct as well as through third parties, the social gadfly + writing formula by itself won’t automatically translate into success down the road.

One of my favorite modern artists is Chuck Close who takes portraits to a different level. His painting and photography talent serve as only the starting point for his pieces.

Close has immersed himself in the printing process ranging from carving linoleum blocks to applying acid to his etching plates. Geometry – the use of a grid to break the face down into incremental units – and even topology also come to play in his art.

This collision of creativity and science produces stunning results not possible with only the “arts.”

That’s how I see the future of public relations.

Only by drawing from science, business and the arts will PR continue to make extraordinary contributions to organizations.

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