Posts tagged “California”

Michael’s War Story: The glass is more than half full

This story comes from Michael Powell, Cultural Anthropologist at Shook Kelley. He blogs occasionally here and tweets unoccasionally here.

I was on the job at Shook Kelley (a Los Angeles strategy and design firm with roots in architecture) for about one and a half weeks when I was asked to travel to a small town in central California for a brand strategy project. The research goals were ambiguous; essentially, learn as much as we can about this place and what makes it tick, looking to discover unique or meaningful veins for the design team to consider in reshaping or reinvigorating the town’s brand. I was the only anthropologist on staff and expectations were large for what I might dig up.

This was 2006, before the recession hit rural central California. But things were already tough. Like so many other small towns in out-of-the way areas, this one suffered from a degree of “brain drain.” Young people didn’t want to stay, they wanted to leave for the city or head to college somewhere. The economy wasn’t growing. Maybe tourism, some on the Chamber of Commerce thought, could help stimulate the local economy. This had precedence, but it also seemed far-fetched. What was the appeal of this small town over any others? Was there a history here? Even located in the most productive agricultural area in the country (if not the world) would anyone be willing to drive a few hours to “eat local” and learn about the land, when farmer’s markets easily accessible much closer to California’s major metro areas? The local farms here were mostly industrial size, and seemed less appealing to the locavore.

I drove to the town in a separate car from another small team, led by a brand strategist who wanted to make a documentary-style film about the town. He was accompanied by a filmmaker. These two already knew exactly what they wanted to create – a kind of Ken Burns-style reflective piece about what makes small towns great. I was new to the firm, so I figured I would tag along and find out how things worked. After a handful of “man on the street” interviews with unsuspecting locals, with me standing behind the cameraman, I realized this was a two-person operation: the first person stops pedestrians and asks them what’s meaningful about living here, the other records. Not much need for a third wheel ethnographer in that operation. I decided to head my own way and see what I could find. It was just a two-day trip, so I thought I should make myself a little useful. “Good luck,” the guys told me, and we agreed to meet up later for dinner.

I walked to the coffee shop on Main Street, grabbing the local newspaper on the way. I sat down and started searching the back of the paper for classifieds, calendars and events. I found a lead: The Optimists Club was having a meeting that afternoon, in just an hour. I got on the phone and gave them a call. I explained who I was, the firm I worked for and the project we were doing with the Chamber of Commerce. “Sure, come on down and you can sit in on the meeting,” they told me. At this point, I had no clue what the Optimists Club is, but I understand that it’s some kind of local community group focused on creating positive change for the town. This sounded like my goal, too. [NB: Optimist Club]

The Club meeting was at a local community hall, like a VFW-style hall with plain lobby and a set of meeting rooms. Not knowing what to expect, I arrived early and introduced myself to the people who looked like the Optimists organizers. The person I spoke with on the phone greeted me cordially, and invited me to have a cup of coffee. The room was set up in a square formation, with three sides of tables and some space in the middle for a presenter or speaker. Unfortunately for the ethnographer, there’s no chair in the back to hide away and watch the proceedings. My style of research is to begin in the background, staying away from any kind of intervention in order to get the beat or rhythm of what’s happening around me before I jump in with a lot of questions. It didn’t look like that would happen today. Still, I positioned myself in the corner. A couple pf dozen people eventually filed in, one or two noticing the strange face among them.

At five or ten minutes after the hour, everyone was still chatting and catching up. I was taking note of the pace of things. It’s a small town, I figured, what’s the rush? Of course, this was a lot different than the small towns I knew well, growing up in the Midwest, where punctuality is priority.

Then, the leader of the Optimists Club approaches me, sits down and curiously asks “Do you do much public speaking in your line of work?” On occasion, yes, I tell him. “Okay, well, our speaker couldn’t make it today. Could you talk to the group?”

What the hell, why not? After all, it’s the Optimists Club, not the Washington Press Corps.

As I listened to myself suddenly introduced to the Club members a moment later, I remembered that I knew barely anything about my own firm, much less the specifics of this project, which, truth be told, was not crafted with ethnographic research in mind. I stood up, and I just start talking.

After rambling on for probably 10 minutes, I realized two important things. One, I had run out of things to talk about concerning the firm and the project. And two, if I don’t think of something else to talk about quickly, the Optimists were going to turn negative on me.

And then I remembered why I came to the Optimists Club in the first place.

“So, tell me about your town,” I asked.

The next two hours gave me a wealth of information. This was not a focus group, but rather a much more ideal situation for an ethnographic group encounter. It was their turf, not mine. It was their club, not mine. They felt comfortable talking as a group of friends who worked together to make the community better, and I was a welcomed outsider who was curious about them and genuinely interested. By the end of the meeting, I felt like I had read the book about the town and understood its cultural, social, political and economic dynamics. Afterwards, I stopped by a couple places the Optimists had mentioned and talked with more locals, now asking more pointed questions.

At the end of the afternoon, I met up with my new colleagues at the bar on Main Street. “So…how did it go?” I asked them. “This place is boring!” they told me. They had made progress, but were not getting good insights. Fortunately, our subsequent discussion about what I had learned that afternoon helped in guiding their film.

In any case, it was a lesson learned in the field: Stay optimistic.

What’s In A Business Name?

Lunchroom Hannibal, Amsterdam, May 2009
Don’t order the fava beans with the chianti.

Challenger Copyprint, Amsterdam, May 2009
Not the most encouraging association.

Synergy Project Management, San Francisco, July 2009
Needs a better illustration of the concept of synergy besides a plain ol’ pipe!

we bring you a pizza, Amsterdam, May 2009
U-Wash Doggie, Los Angeles, February 2009

Some names tell you what the business does.

Hand Car Wash, Los Angeles, February 2009
Trashy Lingerie, Los Angeles, February 2009
Ethical Drugs, Los Angeles, February 2009

Some names tell you something about how they do it.

See more pictures from Amsterdam here and Los Angeles here.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • Lou Rosenfeld revisits an old engagement where the client sought to dissuade usage – What they told me was that they didn't really want to make it easy for veterans—those people risking their lives for their country—to learn about the health benefits that they were entitled to. And that taxpayers had committed to funding. All to save money—and for what??

    IT issue? Not. It was an issue of business model design, and this particular business model was shrouded in a sick morality emanating from the top levels of the VA's management structure. Absolutely immorally, shamefully, and horribly sick.

    [With the theme of persuasion, manipulation, and user-centeredness floating around lately, good to consider an example where the organization goals are 180 degrees from the user's supposed goals]

  • Citations for California drivers not using hands-free are on the rise – Seems like there was good compliance when the law was first passed but the numbers are climbing back up. One might think the best way to drive adoption of a product/service/behavior is to make it legally mandated but people are citing the poor user experience with Bluetooth headsets as a reason/rationalization for ignoring the law. "Sometimes, it can be more dangerous to figure out your Bluetooth than just to pick up the phone."

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • American Airlines' 'Nerd-bird' flights between San Jose, CA and Austin, TX to end – The flights of mostly electrical engineers, computer programmers and other tech-savvy passengers have been run by American Airlines daily since 1992. Because the recession has cut sharply into business and other travel, American has announced it will discontinue its twice-a-day nonstop flights between the two tech centers as of Aug. 25.
  • Derivative (or, if you prefer, rip-off) book titles that capitalize on other successful books – Ultimately, the best locutions are those that credit quotidian, trivial objects with earthshaking influence, like “Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World,” by Mark Kurlansky. The more obvious the significance of the subject, the less successful the title. After all, where’s the element of surprise or wit in “A Man Without Equal: Jesus, the Man Who Changed the World”?

    Some of the more unlikely candidates endowed with superhuman powers by authors include “Tea: The Drink That Changed the World,” “Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World,” “Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World” and “Sugar: The Grass That Changed the World.”

    The tricky part is gauging just when the magic wears off. “Essentially it works until it doesn’t work,” Mr. Dolan said, “and you hope you’re on the right side of that line.”

Highway of Heavenly Views Turns Commute Into Hell

The New York Times writes about our local Highway 1/Devil’s Slide closure.

Not that the problems, or the need to make do, are new. The highway has been closed dozens of times because of unstable geology, once in 1995 when a rock slide caused it to drop eight feet. In all, the roadway has fallen 46 feet since 1937, when the state first paved it.

It’s easy to feel abandoned out here on the coast with commute/road/traffic problems – many people in this area don’t know about the closure, don’t know what Devil’s Slide is, haven’t heard of Montara, etc. So some national coverage of our local woes at least offers a bit of validation.

Latino-owned businesses add to economy

Days after blogging about the dramatic impact of Latino culture, there’s a front page story in the SF Chron about Latino-owned businesses.

Theirs is one of a increasing number of Latino-owned businesses in California and across the country that reflect the nation’s growing Latino population. The number of Latino-owned businesses in the United States grew by 31 percent between 1997 and 2002, more than three times the rate for all businesses. In California, Latino businesses grew 27 percent, more than twice as much as businesses overall, according to a report released Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

“It illustrates that the contribution they make to the economy is growing rapidly,” said Lee Wentela, chief of the bureau’s economic census branch. He said 15 percent of all California businesses are owned by Latinos.

Indeed, the vast majority of Latino entrepreneurs nationally have only themselves on the payroll — 87 percent versus 75 percent for all businesses.

The impact of Latinos on California and its economy is deepening. In 1997, 336,405 Latino-owned businesses took in $51.7 billion in California. In 2002, the 427,727 Latino-owned businesses in California had $57.2 billion in sales and other receipts, a 27 percent rise in the number of businesses and an 11 percent increase in their economic impact.

In 1997, Latinos accounted for 9.8 million or 30 percent of Californians. By 2002, their number had risen 21 percent to 11.9 million, and they made up 34 percent of California’s population. Nationwide, the Latino population grew 33 percent, from 29.2 million to 38.8 million, or 13 percent of the total population.

Happy Cows?

The California Supreme Court denied review of a dismissed suit from PETA, claiming that consumers were being misled with the California Milk Producers ads claiming that happy cows come from California, when in fact, PETA points out, the cows couldn’t be very happy since they live in dirt, are repeatedly impregnated, milked while pregnant and then slaughtered.

Jeez. I mean, it turns out Mayor McCheese wasn’t really the mayor, either. Plus, he was eventually going to be eaten, which I believe violated the second element of the Charter of Office.


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