Brands tiptoe through today’s political minefields.

In 2017, not only is the United States politically divided into nearly equal camps, but it seems as though the gulf between the two sides is wider than it’s been in decades.

In my own personal experience, I haven’t witnessed political rifts this big since the anti-war era of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  But even then, that divide wasn’t so much on partisan grounds as on philosophical ones.

[And it wasn’t an equal divide, either.  Remember President Richard Nixon’s slogan about the “silent majority”?  It was — to the tune of a 61% Nixon victory in the presidential election of 1972.]

Historically, the people who manage product brands have adhered to a formula similar to that of distant relatives getting together for a holiday meal: avoid talking about politics and religion.  But in times where politics can overtake even the best-curated brands, that’s become more difficult.

Recently, international market research firm Ipsos studied the issue. It tested a number of well-known brands that have been the subject of “political” controversies.  Considering one measure – stock price – Ipsos found that there has been minimal impact on brand health when looking at the publicly traded brands that President Donald Trump has mentioned in his various late-night tweets.

But viewed another way, Ipsos found that there’s an ever-expanding emphasis on partisan politics. Americans have become more likely to combine their behavior as consumers with their ideological or partisan loyalties.  One measure is the spike in searches on Google for the term “boycott,” as can be seen clearly in this chart:

According to Ipsos, politically-minded boycotts appear to be having noticeable business impacts. Looking at around 30 publicly traded brands, those with the highest rate of consumer boycotts since the November 2016 election are the ones that experienced the worst stock market performance – by a factor of about -15%.

Prudent advice would be for brands to respond to the hyper-partisan environment by trying not to be drawn into ideological debates. That’s a smart move, as most of the brands Ipsos tested have a fairly evenly balanced mix of self-described Democrats and Republicans.

In such an environment, no matter which way a company might be perceived to be moving “politically,” there will be a substantial portion of its customers who object.

And object they do: As part of its study, Ipsos surveyed consumers on their boycotting behaviors.  More than 25% of the survey respondents revealed that they have stopped using products or services from a company because of its perceived political leanings.  And as Ipsos has found, the brands with the highest rate of recent consumer boycott activity have also experienced the worst stock market performance.

Trying to avoid becoming part of today’s sometimes-toxic political environment isn’t always easy for brands to accomplish. Even for brands that make a concerted effort, it is increasingly hard to predict what factors might drive a company into the limelight — or whether anything the company does or doesn’t do can control what actually happens.

Ipsos cautions that staying on the political sidelines isn’t as easy as it has been in the past. It has determined that political party identification now ranks as one of the most central aspects of how consumers organize their lives – and how they relate to brands as well.

To illustrate, Ipsos presents the cases of Nordstrom and Uber. Both companies feature customer bases that skew somewhat more Democrat, but with significant percentages of Republicans as well.  Since the 2016 Presidential election, both companies have experienced politically-themed PR incidents that were magnified on social media platforms, to negative effect.

Different groups reacted in different ways – Republicans turned off by Nordstrom (dropping Ivanka Trump’s clothing line) and Democrats turned off by Uber (Travis Kalanick’s involvement with Donald Trump’s economic advisory council).

But the end result was the same:  the brands’ reputations suffered.

In today’s environment, it seems as though assiduously maintaining a non-partisan, non-confrontational stance is still the best policy for maintaining brand strength.  But it isn’t a guarantee anymore.

Additional findings and conclusion from the Ipsos evaluation can be found here.

The great, disappearing retail store act.

What’s in store for retail? Maybe not much at all …

There have been quite a few news reports about store closings since the beginning of this year — many of them focused on big brands like Kmart, JCPenney and Abercrombie & Fitch.

But what about the retail industry as a whole?

Recently, GetApp conducted research among a more general group of U.S. retailers that run online retail operations as well as a physical stores.

Among this group of respondents, two out of three believe that they could be closing their physical stores within the coming decade and operating their business solely online:

  • Extremely likely to be running my business solely online by 2027: ~23%
  • Likely: ~43%
  • Not sure: ~17%
  • Unlikely: ~12%
  • Extremely unlikely: ~4%

If these figures turn out to be even somewhat accurate, the “retail apocalypse” some news organizations are talking about will have become even more of a reality than even the most hyperventilating journalists are predicting.

It certainly lends additional credibility to current narrative about the downward slide of shopping malls across the United States …

When it comes to city parklands, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul rule.

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Although I lived in five states prior to going away to college, I spent the most time in those formative years of my life residing in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota.

The city parks in both towns are major amenities. Indeed, you could say that the entire fabric of life in the two cities is interwoven with the park systems; they’re that special.  And my family was no exception in taking advantage of everything the parks had to offer.

So it wasn’t much of a surprise to find that both cities are at the very top of the list of U.S. cities with the best parks.

The evaluation is done annually by The Trust for Public Land, and covers the 100 most populous cities in the United States.

The major metric studied is the percent of city residents who live within a 10-minute walk of a park — although other characteristics are also analyzed, such as park size and investment, the number of playgrounds, dog parks and recreation centers in relation to city population, and so on.

In the 2017 evaluation, Minneapolis topped the list of 100 cities, helped by superior park access across all ages and income levels, as well as achieving top scores in park investment as well as the number of senior and recreation centers, plus dog parks.

In total, an incredible 15% of Minneapolis’ entire square mileage is dedicated to park space.

St. Paul was right behind Minneapolis in the #2 slot out of 100 cities evaluated. As visitors to the Twin Cities know, Minneapolis is blessed with seven natural lakes within its borders, whereas next-door St. Paul has just two.  Nevertheless, its commitment to parkland is nearly as strong.

Here’s how the Top 10 list of cities shakes out:

  • #1 Minneapolis, MN
  • #2 St. Paul, MN
  • #3 San Francisco, CA
  • #4 Washington, DC
  • #5 Portland, OR
  • #6 Arlington, VA
  • #7 (tie) Irvine, CA and New York, NY
  • #9 Madison, WI
  • #10 Cincinnati, OH

Several of these cities shine in certain attributes. San Francisco, for instance, scores highest for park access, with nearly every resident living within a 10-minute walk of a park.

Three cities (Arlington, Irvine and Madison), achieved Top 10 ranking for only the second time (all three first made it into the Top 10 ranking in 2016).

What about cities that appear at the bottom of the Trust for Public Land list? They tend to be “car-dominated” cities, where parks aren’t easily accessible by foot for many residents.  For the record, here are the cities that rank lowest in the rankings:

  • #90 (tie) Fresno, CA, Hialeah, FL and Jacksonville, FL
  • #93 (tie) Laredo, TX and Winston-Salem, NC
  • #95 Mesa, AZ
  • #96 Louisville, KY
  • #97 Charlotte, NC
  • #98 (tie) Fort Wayne, IN and Indianapolis, IN
Bottom dweller: A crumbling structure in a padlocked park in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Interestingly, one of these cities – Charlotte – leads all others in median park size (~16 acres). Of course, this likely means that residents’ access to them suffers because there are fewer small parks scattered around the city.

To see the full rankings as well as each city’s score by category evaluated, you can view a comparative chart here.

Based on your experience, do any of the city rankings surprise you? Is there a particular city that you think should be singled out for praise (or pan) about their parklands?

For job seekers in America, the compass points south and west.

Downtown Miami

Many factors go into determining what may be the best cities for job seekers to find employment. There are any number of measures – not least qualitative ones such as where friends and family members reside, and what kind of family safety net exists.

But there are other measures, too – factors that are a little easier to apply across all workers:

  • How favorable is the local labor market to job seekers?
  • What are salary levels after adjusting for cost-of-living factors?
  • What is the “work-life” balance that the community offers?
  • What are the prospects for job security and advancement opportunities?

Seeking to find clues as to which metro areas represent the best environments for job seekers, job posting website Indeed set about analyzing data gathered from respondents who live in the 50 largest metro areas on the Indeed review database.

Indeed’s research methodology is explained here. Its analysis began by posing the four questions above and applying a percentile score for each one based on the feedback it received, followed by additional analytical calculations to come up with a consolidated score for each of the 50 metro areas.

The resulting list shows a definite skew towards the south and west. In order of rank, here are the ten metro areas that scored as the most attractive places for job seekers:

#1. Miami, FL

#2. Orlando, FL

#3. Raleigh, NC

#4. Austin, TX

#5. Sacramento, CA

#6. San Jose, CA

#7. Jacksonville, FL

#8. San Diego, CA

#9. Houston, TX

#10. Memphis, TN

Not all metro areas ranked equally strongly across the four measurement categories. Overall leader Miami scored very highly for work-life-balance as well as job security and advancement, but its cost-of-living factors were decidedly less impressive.

“Where are cities in the Northeast and the Midwest?”, you might ask. Not only are they nowhere to be found in the Top 10, they aren’t in the second group of ten in Indeed’s ranking, either:

#11. Las Vegas, NV

#12. San Francisco, CA

#13. Riverside, CA

#14. Atlanta, GA

#15. Los Angeles, CA

#16. San Antonio, TX

#17. Seattle, WA

#18. Hartford, CT

#19. Charlotte, NC

#20. Tampa, FL

… except for one: Hartford (#18 on Indeed’s list).

Likely, the scarcity of Northeastern and Midwestern cities correlates with the loss of manufacturing jobs, which have typically been so important to those metro areas.  Many of these markets have struggled to become more diversified.

If there are similar characteristics between the top-scoring cities beside geography, it’s that they’re high-tech bastions, highly diversified economies or – very significantly – the seat of state government.

In fact, if you look at the Top 10 metro areas, three of them are state capital cities; in the next group, there are two more.  Not surprisingly, those cities were ranked higher than others for job security.  And salary levels compared to the cost of living in those areas were also quite lucrative.

So much for the adage that a government paycheck is low but the job security is high; it turns out, they both are.

For more details on the Indeed listing, how the ranking was derived, and individual scores by metro area for the four criteria shown above, click here.

Does social media actually depress people? A new study says yes — sort of.

For some time now, we’ve been hearing the contention made that social media causes people to become angry or depressed.

One aspect of this phenomenon, the argument goes, is the “politicization” of social media — most recently exhibited in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Another aspect is the notion that since so many people engage in never-ending “happy talk” on social media — presenting their activities and their lives as a constant stream of oh-so-fabulous experiences — it’s only natural that those who encounter those social posts invariably become depressed when comparing them to their own dreary lives that come up wanting.

But much of this line of thought has been mere conjecture, awaiting analysis by social scientists.

One other question I’ve had in my mind is one of causation:  Even if you believe that social media contributes to feelings of depression and/or anger, is using social media what makes people feel depressed … or are people who are prone to depression or anger the very people who are more likely to use social media in the first place?

Recently, we’ve begun to see some research work that is pointing to the causation — and the finding that social media does actually contribute to negative mental health for some users of social media.

One such study appeared in the February 2017 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology. Titled “Association of Facebook Use with Compromised Well-Being:  A Longitudinal Study,” the paper presents findings from three sets of data collected from ~5,200 subjects in Gallup’s Social Network panel.

The researchers — Drs. Holly Shakya and Nicholas Christakis — studied the relationships between Facebook activity over time with self-reported measures such as physical health, mental health and overall life satisfaction. There were other, more objective measures that were part of the analysis as well, such as weight and BMI information.

The study detected a correlation between increased Facebook activity and negative impacts on the well-being of the research subjects.  ore specifically, certain users who practiced the following social media behaviors more often (within one standard deviation) …

  • Liking social posts
  • Following links on Facebook
  • Updating their own social status frequently

… showed a decrease of 5% to 8% of a standard deviation in their emotional well-being.

As it turns out, the same correlation also applied when tracking people who migrated from light to moderate Facebook usage; these individuals were prone to suffer negative mental health impacts similar to the subjects who gravitated from moderate to heavy Facebook usage.

The Shakya/Christakis study presented several hypotheses seeking to explain the findings, including:

  • Social media usage comes at the expense of “real world,” face-to-face interactions.
  • Social media usage undermines self-esteem by triggering users to compare their own lives with the carefully constructed pictures presented by their social media contacts.

But what about that? It could be argued that heavy social media users are spending a good deal more time engaged in an activity which by definition is a pretty sedentary one.  Might the decreased physical activity of heavy social media users have a negative impact on mental health and well-being, too?

We won’t know anything much more definitive until the Shakya/Christakis study can be replicated in another longitudinal research study. However, it’s often quite difficult to replicate such findings in subsequent research, where results can be affected by how the questions are asked, how random the sample really is, and so forth.

I’m sure there are many social scientists who are itching to settle these fundamental questions about social media, but we might be waiting a bit longer; these research endeavors aren’t as tidy a process as one might think.

The U.S. Postal Services unveils its Informed Delivery notification service – about two decades too late.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Postal Service decided to get into the business of e-mail. But the effort is seemingly a day late and a dollar short.

Here’s how the scheme works: Via sending an e-mail with scanned images, the USPS will notify a customer of the postal mail that will be delivered that day.

It’s called Informed Delivery, and it’s being offered as a free service.

Exactly what is this intended to accomplish?

It isn’t as if receiving an e-mail notification of postal mail that’s going to be delivered within hours is particularly valuable.  If the information were that time-sensitive, why not receive the actual original item via e-mail to begin with?  That would have saved the sender 49 cents on the front end as well.

So the notion that this service would somehow stem the tide of mass migration to e-mail communications seems pretty far-fetched.

And here’s another thing: The USPS is offering the service free of charge – so it isn’t even going to reap any monetary income to recoup the cost of running the program.

That doesn’t seem to make very good business sense for an organization that’s already flooded with red ink.

Actually, I can think of one constituency that might benefit from Informed Delivery – rural residents who aren’t on regular delivery routes and who must travel a distance to pick up their mail at a post office. For those customers, I can see how they might choose to forgo a trip to town if the day’s mail isn’t anything to write home about — if you’ll pardon the expression.

But what portion of the population is made up of people like that? I’m not sure, but it’s likely far fewer than 5%.

And because the USPS is a quasi-governmental entity, it’s compelled to offer the same services to everyone.  So even the notion of offering Informed Delivery as “niche product” to just certain people isn’t relevant.

I guess the USPS deserves fair dues just for trying to come up with new ways to be relevant in the changing communications world. But it’s very difficult to come up with anything worthwhile when the entire foundation of the USPS’s mission has so been eroded over the past generation.

Suddenly, smartphones are looking like a mature market.

The smartphone diffusion curve. (Source: Business Insider)

In the consumer technology world, the pace of product innovation and maturation seems to be getting shorter and shorter.

When the television was introduced, it took decades for it to penetrate more than 90% of U.S. households. Later, when color TVs came on the market, it was years before the majority of households made the switch from black-and-white to color screens.

The dynamics of the mobile phone market illustrate how much the pace of adoption has changed.

Only a few years ago, well-fewer than half of all mobile phones in the market were smartphones. But smartphones rapidly eclipsed those older “feature phones” – so that now only a very small percentage of cellphones in use today are of the feature phone variety.

Now, in just as little time we’re seeing smartphones go from boom to … well, not quite bust.  In fewer than four years, the growth in smartphone sales has slowed from ~30% per year (in 2014) to just 4%.

That’s the definition of a “mature” market.  But it also demonstrates just how successful the smartphone has been in penetrating all corners of the market.

Consider this:  Market forecasting firm Ovum figures that by 2021, the smartphone will have claimed its position as the most popular consumer device of all time, when more than 5 billion of them are expected to be in use.

It’s part of a larger picture of connected smart devices in general, for which the total number in use is expected to double between now and 2021 – from an estimated 8 billion devices in 2016 to around 15 billion by then.

According to an evaluation conducted by research firm GfK, today only around 10% of consumers own either an Amazon Echo or Google Home device, but digital voice assistants are on the rise big-time. These interactive audio speakers offer a more “natural” way than smartphones or tablets to control smart home devices, with thousands of “skills” already perfected that allow them to interact with a large variety of apps.

There’s no question that home devices are the “next big thing,” but with their ubiquity, smartphones will continue to be the hub of the smart home for the foreseeable future.  Let’s check back in another three or four years and see how the dynamics look then.