How can once devil-may-care New York City now ban the sale of 16 oz servings of sugary beverages? Is this not a bellwether indicator of a brewing cultural crisis with all things pleasurable? Could it be linked to the way we have turned sex into a compulsively athletic activity, indeed a spectator sport, with its own set of performance-enhancing drugs and surgeries? What about the raging diabetes epidemic despite the widespread availability of delicious and healthy food choices? What’s driving this polarization of the psyche? And what does it all mean for brands that offer pleasure to their consumers?
To shed light on this topic I brought together four of the most thought-provoking people I know at the Breslin in NYC’s Ace Hotel.
Tom LaForge, Global Director, Human and Cultural Insights, The Coca-Cola Company
Tom tells me his daughter once joked that he “always has ten browser windows open” and I love the truth of this. A true global citizen and a marvelously well-connected and well-read student of human beings, Tom will always leave you with something new you want to learn or think about.
Watts Wacker, Futurist
Lecturer, best-selling author, political commentator and social critic, Watts is one of the world’s most respected futurists - and a fully trained cowboy. Watts has been the futurist at SRI International, the legendary Menlo Park think tank, and spent ten years as the resident futurist at the preeminent social research organization, Yankelovich Partners. He never ceases to surprise me.
Dr. Samantha Boardman, Positive Psychologist
Samantha marries the art and fashion of New York City with the rigor of a Harvard-educated, Cornell-trained practicing psychiatrist. When she isn’t seeing patients or deepening her knowledge of positive psychology, she can be found at art openings, fashion shows, on Madison Avenue or volunteering for Citymeals-On-Wheels. I’m a huge fan of her sparkling Twitter and Tumblr blogs that capture her fascinating cultural and psychological observations.
Sumindi Peiris, VP Marketing, Russian Standard Born in Sri Lanka, Swiss educated and now a New Yorker running one of Russia’s most valuable brands, Sumindi is an accomplished marketer who defies categorization. But suffice it to say, her talents have not gone unnoticed by the distilled spirits industry. Having held marketing leadership positions at Schieffelin & Somerset and Bacardi, Sumindi Peiris is now VP Marketing for Russian Standard Vodka.
To set the stage for an inspired conversation on the Problem of Pleasure, Sumindi led us in a toast according to the Russian custom. Solemn words were said as we looked at each other with smiling eyes while clinking our glasses. You must have eye contact with each other when you toast or, as the Russian proverb puts it, you will be cursed with seven years of bad sex.
(You can see this practice at work in the picture of Medvedev and Obama toasting in Prague. No seven years for Medvedev and President Obama is clearly in the loop as well.) A beautiful reminder that all things pleasurable are best enjoyed 1) socially and 2) anchored to a vision of what is good for us all. By invoking such powers do we not seek to keep the addictive potential of our pleasures at bay?
Watts invited us to see our cultural crisis as the result of what happens when we uncouple pleasure and aspiration. What drives our aspirations, he pointed out, are our perceptions. And our perceptions are very hard to change. If you want to help people reconnect pleasure and aspiration, you have to do your work at the level of their most basic perceptions.
Watts said: remember that all pleasurable experiences have three phases: 1) anticipation, 2) the event itself and 3) the remembrance. Modern psychological insights teach us that the anticipation and the remembrance are in fact far more powerful in the pleasure center of our brain than the event itself. Which is why addicts talk about “chasing that first high and never finding it” and the dangers for them of slipping into euphoric recall.
Maybe the real threat to our human liberties doesn’t come from Nanny-Dictators like Mayor Bloomberg - perhaps it comes from ourselves. Watts has been revisiting Neil Postman’s 80s classic “Amusing Ourselves to Death” and was struck by his prophetic vision.
It was 1985 and we had all seen that George Orwell’s 1984 police state had not come to be. No pervasive power crushed us with everyday tyranny. No, it looked like Aldous Huxley had it right in “Brave New World.” We would tyrannize ourselves with distractions. No one needs to take away our books because we’ve stopped reading them. The future of culture is trivia. Hmmm.
Samantha weighed in on the soda ban. We’re living in a “big gulp” culture, she said, where the pursuit of pleasure becomes more and more maniacal. But Mayor Bloomberg’s mayoral soda edicts just represent more of the same. “Big gulp” government looks for quick fixes and doesn’t see more deeply what is really going on. Bloomberg’s edicts can be compared to a nanny taking away a child’s toy and hoping that their underlying behavior will change.
Samantha and Tom share an intense interest in understanding how positive psychology and its study of happiness can shed light on this. Happiness has two components: in-the-moment hedonic and affective happiness, and eudemonic happiness which is more holistic and covers bigger ideas like well-being, purpose and meaning. Pleasure is often more closely associated with in-the-moment hedonism. Great-tasting food (and Russian vodka), a warm bath, dancing to music, sex. We are embodied creatures and these are all the benefits of being such. Well-being includes these ideas. But it also includes the bigger ideas of purpose and meaning. When you dig into how people think and feel about purpose and meaning you find that living a good life, one where you help enhance the well-being of others becomes central to the conversation. So products that one person sees as offering pleasure (picture one person enjoying one product in a particular moment), can also be seen by another as harming rather than enhancing the well-being others (picture lots of people enjoying lots of products over a long time). Both perspectives are simultaneously and equally valid.
We live in a networked world, Tom reminded us. Our well-being is interrelated to everyone else’s and for this reason companies need to demonstrate they care and act for the well-being of others as they do their own. They can’t improve their well-being, financial or otherwise, if it harms the well-being of society. Most food and beverage products tend to be about hedonics. Even if they are at their core about nutrition they still have to taste good. Brands, the bigger ideas we wrap around the products, are social cues to how we wish to relate to others. As the world becomes more interconnected, companies that sell branded products need to find a way to provide pleasure in a way that clearly demonstrates that they are aware of how interconnected we all are and that they’ve taken into account the well-being of not just themselves, but everyone. Tom likes to think of it as “a fun and challenging puzzle: a product wrapped in a brand provided by a company within a highly interrelated society.”
How does a pleasurable brand find points in people’s lives where it can be useful to them in their progressions towards happiness? Could it be in what SCVNGR’s Seth Priebatsch calls the “game layer?”
Does not Johan Huizinga’s celebration of the festive culture of the high Middle Ages invite us all to be Homo Ludens - “humans who play?” Homo Ludens feel their feelings, are grounded in their local culture and customs, love legends and lore, live in high social solidarity and enjoy good food and drink. Sounds like positive psychology, doesn’t it?
Synthesis and conclusion: as our culture makes pleasure more and more of a problem, perhaps brands that offer pleasure can safeguard their future relevance by moving along these lines:
- Answer the WHY of your category and your brand. Why use it all? What good does it do in people’s lives?
- Is your business model based on getting people to use your brand more and more? Change your business model! Find a way so that people consume your brand less but enjoy it more. If it happens to be worth more, your “value equation” will improve and you’ll have stopped inciting excess.
- Excavate all the seemingly weird and arcane facts and stories about your brand and make them part of your evolving content and brand identity.
And what better to see this last point in action then to just notice Homo Ludens very much at play in the Ace Hotel itself?
The way this Portland-based hotel decided to adorn its reception desk in New York City with the little-known motto of New York State: Excelsior: Ever Upwards. The hotel used to be called The Breslin and the Ace kept the name alive in the name of its excellent restaurant - which doesn’t take reservations, so relax why don’t you? Those pipe-tube clothing racks in all the rooms: a reference to the old-fashioned way clothes are still carted around the nearby garment district.
And, finally the message waiting for us on the stair steps: