The City that Never Sleeps

For the past two weeks, between job applications, interviews, volleyball tournaments, travelling and a whole host of other activities, I haven`t had much time to put my thoughts together. But here I am now as I just came back from my own dream land – a second trip to Manhattan, New York within a span of only three months. I think I’ve fallen in love all over again.

It’s hard to describe New York with a few words; you really have to be there to appreciate all the things the city has to offer. There is so much going on within such a densely populated island that there are always new things to do and to see. If I had to sum up the enjoyment of living in Manhattan, I would say it is largely experiential and incredibly fast-paced. Much of what you see has somewhat of a shock value and everyone is lining up to get a glimpse of the next cool attraction.

And as always, what better way to describe my experience than via a top 10 list of thoughts and observations from my vacation?

1. In the words of Jay-Z, the city never sleeps. At any block or intersection, you will see the same amount of foot traffic during the day as you will at night. Businesses and customers alike thrive on this level of activity and it is always extremely bright in Times Square regardless of the time of day. Even the subway is operating 24 hours a day to cater to the busy city lifestyle.

2. Every other car on the street is a yellow cab. Obviously a pretty common form of transportation and you can see that most cabs generally look the same. And they’re all standardized with fancy touchscreens, payment systems and of course, bulletproof glass.

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But speaking of cabs…

3. Most drivers have little to no regard for pedestrians. If you think downtown Toronto is bad, wait until you see NYC. Cabs will weave in and out of lanes at ridiculous speeds and emergency vehicles have a hard time finding an open lane. I would not want to drive in NYC.

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But then again…

4. Pedestrians have little to no regard for safety either. You will rarely see them wait for the walking pedestrian signal before crossing the street. You end up just following the crowd thinking “well everyone else is crossing, I guess I can cross too.”

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5. The subway system is highly complex. Here in Toronto we basically have two main subway lines (four if you include the Sheppard and Scarborough RT lines). In NYC, there are well over 20 different subway lines that all bend and curve in unexpected directions. On top of that, subway delays and route changes due to construction are quite common, so planning your trip beforehand is a must.

6. Luxury brands for a luxurious lifestyle. Take a walk along 5th avenue and all you will see are stores, hotels, and ads for some of the most premium retail brands, many of which attract lineups that extend outside the store (e.g. Abercrombie & Fitch, Juicy Couture).

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7. Flagship store galore. Times Square is prime real estate for advertising and you will see a flagship store for just about every brand you could imagine from the Disney flagship store to the Hershey flagship store to the Toys’R’Us flagship store just to name a few. All such stores offer a grand in-store experience filled with company history, extensive merchandise and cute gimmicks. In many cases, you feel like a kid in a candy store.

A life-sized Mario Kart from one of my favourite flagship stores, Nintendo World.

A life-sized Mario Kart from one of my favourite flagship stores, Nintendo World.

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Just one section of NYC’s iconic FAO Schwarz.

8. The economy runs on Broadway. You can tell from the ticket prices, the billboards, the size of the secondary market, and the industry’s dependence on star power how significant the theatrical arts are in the city. And rightfully so – I had the chance to see Wicked and was thoroughly impressed with my first Broadway play. They really know how to manage talent on Broadway.

The stage of the Gershwin Theatre, venue for the award-winning play Wicked.

The stage of the Gershwin Theatre, venue for the award-winning play Wicked.

9. Food options aplenty. I made sure to try a wide range of cuisines and was not once disappointed: Shake Shack, Lombardi’s Pizza, Maze by Gordon Ramsay, Ippudo, Eataly, Carnegie Deli. These were just a few of the must-haves in Manhattan and each of them have their own devout fan following.

The original Shake Shack. Yes the line loops around, but it's well worth the wait.

The original Shake Shack. Yes the line loops around, but it’s well worth the wait.

10. An impossible standard of living. Between paying for rent, eating out, seeing Broadway plays, paying for transportation and spending time with friends, I can only imagine how difficult it is for residents to sustain such an expensive lifestyle. Prioritization would be crucial as there are endless spending temptations that one would have to avoid.

Bonus: Garbage on the streetsThere are no bins into which residents dump their garbage bags. They simply leave them on the sidewalks to be picked up. Apparently this is normal but it’s not very pleasant when you have to walk home along a street full of everyone’s stinky trash.

All in all, I think I would love to live in Manhattan for at least a few months at some point in my life. It’s a very different lifestyle and it’s great for energetic individuals like myself. It would certainly provide a brand new perspective. But for now, I will simply continue to enjoy my vacation. I will be heading to Chicago for the weekend and will have another list of observations for you all soon. Stay tuned!

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Consumer Awareness and the 40-Hour Workweek

A friend of mine recently sent me this interesting read on the 40-hour workweek.

The article came up during our conversation as we were catching up with each other`s lives over lunch after barely speaking for the past few years. Naturally, we caught up on the usual topics like careers, relationships, and future plans. From sharing how her life transpired over the last four years, it seemed she was relatively fulfilled with all the things she had the great opportunity to experience. But what stood out the most, as is pretty common with young people, was all the travelling she had done. And as a result, she encouraged me to pursue a similar experience especially because of the Western lifestyle described in the article.

It’s an interesting read for me not just because of my desire to explore the world as encouraged by my friend, but also because of my career path as a marketer, the very profession that perpetuates consumer spending. The thing is – I don’t think that this “culture of unnecessaries” as described in the article is necessarily a bad thing. More importantly, I think this simply supports the idea that knowledge is power. There’s nothing wrong with occasionally indulging in material goods, paying for convenience and gratification, and ultimately substituting our scarce time with money and spending – it’s a practical reality and frankly, as the author points out, our economy runs on it. But I think knowing that this is the reality can help us achieve a more healthy, balanced lifestyle that includes both cost-effective yet wholesome activities as well as the more financially costly guilty pleasures.

The topic reminds me of the various stories and findings discussed in a book that I’m currently reading called Why We Buy by Paco Underhill. A classic must-read for marketers, Why We Buy explores the science of consumer shopping behaviour and discusses various tactics that retailers can use to improve sales. As both a marketer and a consumer, I have this neat dual role of being sparked by the interesting strategies presented while understanding that I can also “fall” for said strategies.

But once again, none of these strategies are bad per se. As Martin Lindstrom points out in discussing the ethics of neuromarketing in his bestseller Buyology (another great read), a hammer can be used to bludgeon someone over the head, but when put in the right hands and used for the right purposes, it can be a useful and productive tool. My thoughts exactly on the nature of the 40-hour workweek lifestyle and the related marketing strategies employed by companies that support our economy. Our awareness of the strategies protects us from their misuse and abuse, but also informs us of their potential positive use.

So while I don’t think our 40-hour workweek culture will change, I do think we can be armed with sufficient information to spend in moderation while also pursuing gratification through more wholesome activities.

Redefining Your Product Category

It’s not enough to win with quality or technical features. If every brand’s point of difference is simply the quality of its products, it’s not really a point of difference no matter how true their claims are – it’s merely the cost of entry. What’s needed is the initiative to compete in some other unidentified element, as was done in the following campaign that recently went viral.

Instead of following the tradition of boasting overall superior protection, Always took a different approach with its #Likeagirl ad – female empowerment. Other brands such as Kotex, which once took a satirical approach, and HelloFlo, which boldly and directly used humour to address first-timers, also deserve honourable mentions for differentiating their brands in areas outside of technical quality. The emergence of such a variety of campaigns certainly makes for an interesting battle in the feminine hygiene category and it is difficult to say which branding strategy will prevail in the long-term.

However, I think the Always ad is worth noting as it is highly reminiscent of the award-winning Dove Campaign for Real Beauty (although the two relate to different categories, I wouldn’t be surprised if P&G owed some of its inspiration to one of its closest competitors in Unilever). Obviously as a male, I am no expert on feminine hygiene, but what makes a great marketer is someone who understands their target market even if they don’t belong in that market as a consumer themselves. And the brand team behind the Always ad has indeed proven that it understands its target market of primarily young female teens going through puberty, as well as their respective mothers seeking to educate their growing daughters. Said teens and mothers connect emotionally with empowering messages and Always has capitalized on this trend.

By connecting with the consumer on an emotional level, Always has effectively captured a unique point of difference that is difficult for competitors to imitate without being seen as copycats. Rather than falling victim to battles of product quality (similar to the Pepsi Taste Test Challenge), P&G redefined the category in a way that was unique and compelling, steering clear of challenging its competition directly. As a result, to the consumer, it’s no longer about buying the pad that provides the most protection; it’s about associating with a brand that makes them feel good about themselves.