Cheryl Swanson is the founder of a company called Toniq, a brand strategy enterprise that blends traditional marketing with anthropology, sociology, the psychology of symbolism, and new forms of consumer research. In the interests of full disclosure, let me say that Cheryl is a friend of my wife’s and now a friend of mine. I have known her for many years. In fact, this interview was conducted at the Sir Raleigh hotel in Miami where we were staying for a wedding of a mutual friend. This transcript has been lightly edited for ease of reading. By the by, Cheryl is married to the Craig Swanson who was kind enough to share his software advice this week.
Grant: Cheryl, thanks a million for doing the interview. Could you tell us how you study culture at your firm Toniq?
Cheryl: But everybody has a feel. It’s in their DNA or just looking at culture anyway. They don’t even know they’re doing it. It’s almost tacit.
Cheryl: So there’s the tacit part and then there’s the overt part. And the overt part is categorized into a process, but even without the process, people are instinctively doing it at Toniq. We all come from different backgrounds but the one common theme is that instinct for culture.
Grant: What is that instinct for that culture? What difference does that make as a mindset, as a way of looking at the world, reading the newspaper, sitting on the subway?
Cheryl: They’re always channeling what’s going on. It has nothing to do with how cool they are, how hip they are, or it’s not about that. It’s about a true interest in human beings and how they live, how they live in groups, how they interact, the differences between human beings of various societies, et cetera. So for example, Amy, who actually just went on to do something else but let’s use her as an example. She’s 30‑ish. Every single one of her friends are from a different part of the planet. She’s Korean. A lot of her friends are Asian, a lot are African. She’ll go to a wedding in Ethiopia, she’ll go to a wedding in Hong Kong, or she’ll go to a wedding in Europe. It doesn’t really matter. In Israel.
She’s constantly traveling the world, but on top of that, she’s constantly looking at stuff, documenting, taking photographs, looking at the culture of the particular place. So if it’s in New York ‑‑ if we’re just in New York, without even knowing it, this is the tacit part ‑‑ she’s constantly looking at fashion, at technology, at where people go to hang out, where people congregate, what kinds of things stimulate them, movies. She’s just like a cultural sponge; always absorbing, so this is how she does tacit.
Erica, on the other hand, she’s a mom so she’s not out on the hotspots and doing all that stuff. But she knows kind of what is happening in the "sphere of mom‑ness." So constantly working all that stuff out. So when we deal project for craft, she’s already 100 miles ahead of everyone else because she’s already channeled moms without even knowing she’s channeled. It’s the whole "sphere of mom‑ness."
Kyla is more of a true culture consumer, as in high culture, so she knows what’s going on in theater and high art and classical music. She also is a mom in the suburbs so it’s like this weird amalgam of all that and "kid‑ness" as well. And Craig is just…
Grant: I love the idea of kid‑ness.
Grant: That is kind of language we use. I bet outsiders go, "Goodness! What does this ‘kid‑ness’ mean exactly?" Can you take us through what kid‑ness means?
Cheryl: Kid‑ness means anything pertaining to kids and their health and their nurturing and their growth and their well‑being. And so the "sphere of kid‑ness" is how they interact with each other ‑‑ like they’re always punching each other out, but also the things you buy for them. So, the stores are like inherent for kid‑ness, the brands that are inherent to kid‑ness like the kinds of strollers, the kinds of diapers, the kinds of environmentally‑friendly scenarios, the kinds of food they eat, all that stuff. The kinds of ‑‑ by the way ‑‑ the kinds of technology they consume, because they are starting to consume technology at like eighteen months. So for example…
Grant: When I did a project for Jeep, they said "Tell us about Jeep‑ness." And what they were saying was "Give us the whole bundle."
Cheryl: The essence.
Grant: The essence and the whole.
Cheryl: And everything around it.
Grant: Yeah, complicated, messy…
Cheryl: Yeah, it’s the whole world of it and the essence of it is. The nurturing and care of bringing up kids, that’s the middle and then everything, yeah, the big mess, it’s the big, undulating mess that’s around that…is kid‑ness.
Cheryl: It’s also a kind of parent. The kind of parent now, that used to be a helicopter parent, that’s morphing into a free‑range parent, letting them actually fail. Because there was a period where parenting in the world of kid‑ness was very hovering and smothering,
Cheryl: Now, I think because of the recession, actually, when all of the activities got cut, like by a third, seriously, in a time poll, parents like just had to cut because they didn’t have, they couldn’t pay for the piano, karate, judo and ballet. So they had to cut and as times got worse, the relationships with kids got better. So, that’s another part of, that’s, I digress, but that’s a whole other part of it.
Grant: No, it’s a great example ‑‑ the client says "We need to know," – and you think, "OK, to serve this client we need to have some concept of kid‑ness." Then you look in this messy bundle of kid‑ness. You look and you go, "Oh look, something is changing." And it’s changing for these economic reasons.
Grant: Parents are going from hovering to something else and that becomes the insight that goes back to the core.
Cheryl: Exactly right. And there’s usually a tipping point that makes it into the culture at large that, or there’s something, there’s some sort of event, you would call it a culture matter or I don’t now, something like that, and event that happens that changes perceptions or like creates a little bit of tension and drama. One of them in that area was this woman who an acquaintance of mine, She’s a writer; a syndicated writer. She lives in Brooklyn. She’s Yale educated. She’s brilliant, and she’s really funny, and she has a nine year old son and she let him ride the subway to school by himself.
Cheryl: And this is in the era of helicopter parents where they have the car service pick them up, or you know, parents are dropping them off and then, you know. And then she wrote about it as a writer and literally, incurred the wrath of the world. People from Israel, people from Europe, people from South America, people from all over the United States, North America, everywhere, were lambasting her in the, on blogs and in the media, etc. because she kept writing about her son’s experience on the subway by himself as a nine year old. So all of this, landed her on the "Today Show."
She ended up writing a book about it. I’ll get you the name of it, but she ended up writing a book about the whole experience. What has happened is that, in confluence with the recession, ended up creating this whole new approach to parenting that’s more about letting them fail and create mistakes.
She said we’re basically infantilizing kids to the point where ten year olds are the new two year olds They just can’t do anything on their own. Then I remembered I was commuting, when I lived in Princeton, into the city during the ’70s. The city in the ’70s was ‑‑ the city was bankrupt and Abe Beame was mayor and it was like trash, there were like garbage strikes and all, it was a disaster.
I was commuting in, on my own, from Princeton, New Jersey to Port Authority, New York and then taking the subway to American Ballet Theater. I was twelve. You know, like even a twelve year old, you wouldn’t let them do that now, but nobody batted an eye, like that was fine.
Cheryl: So I think, so it was, the Lenore thing and the recession created a whole new approach to it.
Grant: That’s right, there’s some shift that starts happening and then it takes a journalist or someone like her to formalize the change and to write the book. Then we go, as a culture, "OK, there’s a new model here."
Cheryl: New model. So that was this whole idea of the whole world of kid‑ness, but anyway, Kyla and Erica were right on that. They were right on it because they’re parents and it is in their DNA anyway.
Grant: That’s a great point. Then it ends up getting into this client stream and through them into the marketing stream, and then it gets out into the general culture. So if people haven’t seen the book by the journalists on the anti‑hovering helicopter parent. They’re going to see the marketing that is reflected the intelligence that you picked up…
Cheryl: Yes, yes.
Grant: …and they go, "Oh, OK, new model."
Cheryl: New Model.
Grant: That is just our culture changing.
Grant: That’s interesting.
Cheryl: Yeah, exactly right. So we have the DNA part and then we also have the moreover processed part. The more over processed part is to… See, and I am not really dogmatic about this at Toniq because they are so instinctive in their channeling of culture. But, the process part is really about taking global culture through media. So magazines, the old model, newspapers, blogs, websites, and then disciplines like fashion that tend to be leading edge. Fashion, technology, automotive, architecture, design, looking at those. We tend to look at ones that are very lifestyle driven and that impact people’s lives on a daily basis.
[baby screaming in background]
Cheryl: [jokingly] You’re going to have kid‑ness in the background of this whole thing. So technology and fashion that tend to impact people’s lives on a daily basis and then more permanent areas like design and architecture that can be quite as changy.
Grant: Right. Slower, longing cycles.
Cheryl: Longer cycles of change that tend to manifest trends that are more on a five‑ to ten‑year time horizon. So we look at all those categories and we look at also cultural hot spots. So it would be Buenos Aires. It would be L.A., and New York, and Chicago, and Atlanta, and Miami, ‑‑ and Miami is a big one ‑‑ it would be Toronto. It would be Paris, Hong Kong. Big…20 of them. And then…
Grant: And how are you watching each of these like automotive. How do you stay in touch?
Cheryl: We have subscriptions to hundreds of magazines.
Grant: Yes I have seen them. It is a wall.
Cheryl: [makes swishing noise] We do quick scans. Again, we are not really dogmatic, it is more like just absorb. If we happen to be needing to do, honestly, things about color trends or whatever we will start really absorbing the car magazines. We have them around, but we will really focus in on them if we have got specific client things. But, they are generally around and we do scans of them.
Grant: And those scans are a process of pattern recognition?
Cheryl: Pattern recognition.
Grant: You’re just watching stuff go by. In fact, I was at a fashion magazine and there was a photo pour. The woman in a room just looking at photos as they raced past her and she would go, "Yes. Yes. No. Yes." You know like she was picking fish out of the stream. You’re doing…
Cheryl: Yes, yeah. It’s that as well, words, keywords that are key and colors. Because everyone is trained and understanding color, texture, pattern, keywords. By the way this is not necessarily overt. It is really about "What are you seeing?" In other words, we are not going to say look for these words it is about, "Oh, what are the patterns? What are the commons themes that are coming up across this variety of media online, as well as the variety of media and across all these disciplines?" That is how we can then start putting together key trends.
Grant: Can we talk about that?
Grant: That is the real… or some part of the genius of your craft is that ability to look at automotive and take it all in, and then look at the world of architecture and go, "Ding!"
Cheryl: Ding! Yes.
Grant: Or something right? Something chimes or I want to hear all the things that you use.
Cheryl: Something does chime. So you see…
Grant: What metaphor? Is that the metaphor that you would use, or what metaphor would you use?
Cheryl: Ding. I like Ding. Ding is good. There is a "Ding" that happens.
Grant: But there is some sense of "Oh, there is something" and then you have to search for it? And you have to go, "Oh, what just chimed?"
Cheryl: Well, you know what will happen? Let’s say, I don’t know if we put a word to that, but it is probably a good thing to that. It is just that visceral awareness that you go, "Oh, metallics are like ‑‑ Wow, there’s copper! I never saw copper before this year. There is copper in hmmm…" This is what happened with Fusion, by the way, this is why it’s orangey copper.
Cheryl: All the sudden we starting seeing warm and cool coppers, like orangey coppers and cool coppers, more sort of brown in cameras ‑‑ so that’s personal technology, handheld technology. We didn’t see it in razors. We saw in handheld technology, we saw cameras, phone. Then all the sudden we started seeing cars. Then all the sudden we started seeing interiors, like with walls of copper, like metallic walls. Then we started seeing furniture. So, once we see it in three places, it’s got to be the rule of three. Once it starts popping up, and it’s not really faddish, it’s much more the long‑term, that’s when we start looking for it ‑‑ but we don’t look for it unless we have seen it in three places. Then we start seeing if it’s bubbling up in other areas.
We don’t want to see it too much, because if it’s too much, then that means it’s not leading edge, it’s already over before we started ‑‑ you know, that kind of thing. That’s what happened with Venus. That’s why Venus is translucent.
In 1998, iMac or ‑‑ yeah it was iMac ‑‑ and there were a few other areas of interior design that were starting to do like translucent and biomorphic‑shaped. Those were two things that we saw. Translucent ‑‑ everything had been opaque and glossy. To create this breakthrough new feminine razor, we needed to really do something breakthrough.
Then, the Venus name arose, the goddess of all things.
Grant: Is that your work, or is that somebody else’s?
Cheryl: Well, the name ‑‑ the team was an amalgam of us and the client, and the VP of marketing, Mary Anne Pesce had a lamp in her bedroom…
Grant: I’ve seen this.
Cheryl: …that was biomorphically‑shaped. And she, immediately the word "Venus" came to mind. She called me and said, "What do you think of ‘Venus?’" I said, "Oh my God! For Gillette? The bastion of masculinity? You’re going to do a brand name of ‘Venus?’" Firmly roots them in feminine shaving. Done. You own it. Its female beauty. It’s the quintessence of it, so there you go.
Cheryl: We had already done our work around translucent ‑‑ it had to be. It couldn’t be pink; it had to be credible. So then we went back in time and realized that the feminine principal ‑‑ you know, to be credible ‑‑ it needed to be rooted in the feminine principle. The colors of the feminine principle were the colors of the oceans; the life‑giving force. You know, "la mere" is mother, and the ocean and the moon, which is linked to the oceans in a cycle, so it’s the female cycle.
Because our first interaction ‑‑ our first perceptions of color, our collective unconscious, the Yin Yang perception of color ‑‑ we perceive color, this is a whole other thing, on five different levels. But in the Yin Yang, sort of collective unconscious, it’s how we interacted with color and nature when we were hominids on the plane; when we were first forming human culture.
The fact that the waters were the life‑giving force; they were the female principle. They were cool and recessive, not aggressive like the masculine principle. So the masculine principle is all warm and advancing, and reds, and mars and mercury, and war and warring and all of that, and the sun gods, those are all male. The female principals are all cool, blue, and silver.
So all the sudden this whole story starting making sense to me, "OK, that would be breakthrough, it’s not pink." And then we have this Venus lamp, so curvilinear. And, this is before the visual language of the world was very ‑‑ we were coming off this very Donald Trump, very 80’s, Gordon Gecko, all the way through the end of the 90’s, very rigid, geometric visual language.
It was morphing. The iMac was one of the examples and the Taurus. Ford Taurus was another one. It had sort of this melted back end. It was like a melted candle, which is a guy thing, really, which meant that the whole visual language of the world was going very feminine.
So biomorphic, translucent, and then rooting in really, really collective human trends. The color of the brand in the feminine principal, as opposed to some faddish at the moment sort of thing. Boom, half a million dollar brand within three years.
Cheryl: I know. Seems easy now in retrospect.
Cheryl: So that’s how the confluence of all the trends came together. We looked at all those worlds to make that happen. The other thing we do is trend excursions. This is a formal part. Trend excursions, we either bring clients with us or not but immerse them in culture generally, and then a specific culture. So if it’s a chocolate project, immersing them on the bleeding edge of chocolate and talking to visionaries. We also talk to visionaries as part of the expert interviews. People who are right on the edge of culture and if we start hearing ‑‑ for example, you’re an expert, we’ll talk to stylists. We’ll talk to fashion people. We’ll talk to car designers. We’ll talk to, we have a plethora of people that we talk to and seeing what they’re saying.
We also immerse ourselves in doing these trend excursion things. What else is part of our thing? And then talking to consumers, and they can’t give us trends but we can start watching their lifestyles and seeing what’s important to them and then matching all the stuff together and that’s kind of our process.
Grant: Yeah. So it was kind of this general listening to culture and then there are visionaries and then consumers. I think there was forth piece that I’m missing.
Cheryl: And the immersion.
Grant: The immersion.
Cheryl: The trend hunts. The trend excursion things. Yeah.
Grant: And that’s when you take the plane wherever. Maybe to SoHo, or something.
Cheryl: Yeah. But you know what I like and that’s the vision I have? It’s like the SETI. It’s like listening posts for trends. Instead of listening for aliens, we’re listening for and we see the little blips. We start seeing little blips on the screen [laughs] and it’s like a listening posts.
Grant: Yeah. The fact that you listen so carefully, but also so broadly allows you to go, "Oh, we’re getting the same signal from here, here, and here." Once you get to the rule of three, then you’re formally paying attention.
Grant: Then you’re building, as in the case of Gillette and Venus. You’re starting to think about what it is you’ve got. You’ve got translucent coming through. You’ve got colors coming through, and you start to conceptualize them.
Grant: And then the client pitches in something and you go, "Oh yeah." It starts to come together.
Cheryl: Yeah. It starts to come together. One of the things that a broad spectrum of clients have said about us and I think this is why we’re still in business, is that we take the culture that we channel. By the way, we listen with our eyes. It’s really interesting, because I did this, but really, we’re doing this. So we’re actually listening with our eyeballs, which is kind of interesting. We also listen with our ears. We do the whole ‑‑ like music and all that. And now we’re doing it on an olfactory, a scent piece.
Anyway, what our clients say to us is we end up making all the trends, and all the insights and all the culture, all that stuff; we turn it into something that they can activate. So what we do is we take the broad piece ‑‑ we’ll take culture, generally, and we’ll turn it into trends, socially lifestyle trends.
We’ll turn it into then, maybe it’s visual trends, maybe it’s lifestyle trends, and then we turn it into concepts. And maybe the concepts are new product concepts, maybe they’re color. Generally, the Venus example, I had to turn that into an actual product and then to turn it into a brand.
A lot of them say that a lot of the trend and brand strategy firms, they either start here like with the strategy, but then they don’t do the culture piece. And so you’re not sure if it’s actually making sense.
Cheryl: Or they start here and leave it.
Cheryl: So you don’t know. So I have all of this now. What the hell do I do? So we try to do the whole funnel and pull it right into, and here are four new product ideas.
Cheryl: And here’s how to activate them.
Cheryl: Instead of leaving them hanging. And here are four big, huge trends and go work it out yourself.
Grant: Yeah. And I’ve heard you use that term "activate" before. Why that term instead of some other, or what do you mean by it?
Cheryl: Activate means bringing it to life. It’s saying ‑‑ almost giving them a roadmap to a brand; a roadmap to a product and then a brand so they’re not left with a lot of cool insight. It’s just cool, and they don’t know what to do with it. It’s saying, "Here it is," and "Here is how you make something happen with it." So that’s why activate, because activate evokes the dynamism that’s inherent in creating something.
Grant: What’s being activated? Maybe I’m taking the term too literally, but is there some sense in which culture is being activated?
Cheryl: Yes. Culture is being activated. Culture is being activated and the internal processes in a corporation are being activated. So, culture is a stimulus to activate the brand development process.
Cheryl: So you’re using that as a stimulus.
Grant: And then, to do their job, to take advantage of what you’ve given them, they have to be activating. They’re in some sense releasing what it is you made available to them.
Cheryl: They’re deploying culture for the sake of brand development.
Grant: But it’s almost like you’re giving them, not just a set of recommendations, I mean it’s never just, it’s the wrong word ever to use here but…
Grant: But, it’s…
Cheryl: It’s a map.
Grant: … a recommendation that contains all this potentiality. And they’re well‑organized potentiality and you’ve directed their attention. But, I don’t know, I’m just going with the term activation. It feels like you’re now encouraging them to open this physics of radioactive or something, and they get to open it up in their lab. And then it’s like, instead of this thin idea, it’s this quite powerful thing that ends up in the corporation.
Cheryl: It’s like a capsule of cultural dynamism and they can just go "Woah!"
Grant: Yeah. It’s like contents under pressure.
Cheryl: Contents under pressure.
Cheryl: And if this were ‑‑ it’s totally, I like the metaphor because if we were a few years, I always envision our presentations it’s like a hologram, like Star Trek, you can present it in a hologram and it would actually be moving and breathing and…
Cheryl: Doing this.
Cheryl: So, I like the metaphor, because it is, instead of like a [hand clap] flat PowerPoint.
Cheryl: If this were 2050, it would be in a capsule and it would be moving. You would actually stick that capsule into like the brand development process and out would come Venus, or out would come "Whoosh!" Because I see that what we’re giving them is dynamic, not static.
Cheryl: So, I think…
Grant: Which is great because often culture gets thinner and irradiated in some sense.
Grant: By the time it gets into the corporation…
Cheryl: It’s flat.
Grant: So many people have been thinking it down…
Grant: That it’s very hard for them to build up out of that. And one of the things that wowed me about your work is your presentations, in a way that my work does not. And so this is a very much an occasion for envy on my part. [laughs]
Grant: I hand over the PowerPoint deck. And then I sometimes see my recommendations brought to life. But, often I see that a lot of it’s got lost in transmission. It’s my fault. And part of the problem is I gave them PowerPoint deck. You do something much richer than that. Can you take us through what it is you give the plan?
Cheryl: Well, I want it even to be richer. I want it to be fully censorial and motion picture quality and all that because people tend to relate to ‑‑ you know, pictures are worth a thousand words kind of thing?
Cheryl: They tend to relate to imagery in a way, I think, that really visceral, and then they get it. They don’t have to work so hard to convince their management when they’re dealing with a left brain. So, we try to make it a right brain associative of process when they’re receiving the cultural information. So, they go, "Oh, wow!" because they’re all human beings. That’s the one common thing. So, they might not be that tribe or whatever, but they can relate to it because of their humanness. So, we try to activate the humanness.
We try to do a lot of it visually and artifact‑wise a touch, a scent, sometimes music. That’s probably the least of them, but we do activate touch, sight… What about smell? Well, a little bit.
Try to activate all the senses, so we have artifacts, we have lots of visuals and we have very minimal words. The words are like a voice over and the words are like essence. So, it really coalesces the idea to [whistles] what it is.
Grant: Right. And it’s a real "unpackable." It’s an activation word, in that you have to open it up.
Grant: Yeah. It makes me think that you’ve found a way to short‑circuit the problem of the too‑rational corporation that has this way of "thinking things down." Your method speaks to what they know about culture. They watch TV and they go to the movies …
Grant: And they’re at the mall. So, picking up this stuff. And then they tend, I think, sometimes to forget that in the work a day world of the corporation.
Grant: Sometime you invite them to remember what they know ,and sometimes what they’re obliged to forget they know inside the corporation. I mean when they’re being problem solvers, who’ve got this whole thing of "How do we make our numbers?"
Cheryl: So, it’s for us…
Grant: Does that sound right or not?
Cheryl: It’s totally right. I think for us it was knowing your audience. So, to some degree a lot of the delivery of culture is performance art and knowing that these guys are living their corporate lives in a left brain, very rational problem solution world. So, our thing is to activate their humanness and know that what they are trying to do is wow their audience and their consumers. But we have to wow them, in order for them to be able to wow their audiences. We treat them as consumers of culture, because they are. We treat them as our consumers, our audience and just try to wow them.
I always say that I try to get this at the end of presentations ‑‑ people laughing and totally, filly engaged with the work, totally, totally. If I feel like during any presentation I start seeing the Blackberries coming out and people disengaging, that’s when we stop and start cracking jokes and doing whatever, just to get them back into ‑‑ get their emotions and their senses engaged.
So we pull out the artifacts and start playing "show and tell" and doing all that stuff, because if it is delivered in a flat way, then it’s not really going to go anywhere.
Grant: You came up as a dancer, and you were then the master of a non‑verbal means of communication, and this is all about communicating things that language, if you said it in language, it wouldn’t necessarily be powerful or interesting. Has that make a difference? Can you talk about that for a minute.
Cheryl: The performance art part? That helped absolutely. Making these presentations performance art and keeping people engaged, they can hear, because that’s a lot of it ‑‑ is getting it passed the people that are the guardians of it internally, and actually getting them inside it so that they manifest it and they start evangelizing it internally.
Grant: You’re activating them to activate others, who will activate others, who then activate the consumer.
Cheryl: So part of the delivery of it is to really be stimulating and make it performance art, as opposed to corporate presentation. And now my point…
Grant: See, I’m in the other direction just for purposes of contrast, I came in as a anthropologist. What do I know? But I came in and I really hewed to what I took to be the principle language of the corporation ‑‑ the discourse that people use ‑‑ and I tried to get culture into that. Trying to get everything packed into this fragile vessel, and then try to get it in a way that will allow the corporation to get it out again. Once it’s inside the walls of the corporation it just doesn’t work. Which is, again, why I’m so wowed by your approach.
It’s like, in some sense, you didn’t buy them at their word, you didn’t conform to the discourse of the corporation. You said "No, we’re going to use a different fuller, richer language when we talk to them," which I think is great, I wish I’d done that.
Cheryl: Well, but I think both can work, I really do. I do think, though, it’s interesting because thankfully more women are in big corporations because my approach ‑‑ it’s more right brained and more emotion‑based, and it tends to be really gotten and received by female people and guys are kind of getting it now. But no, I think your approach, really, it appeals to the more masculine principle and side of things. But yes, I noticed that for the first five years of Toniq, all my clients were female. And now guys they started realizing, "Oh, Venus is successful?" and we deployed it for male things like Mach3 and "Oh, Mach3 is really successful."
It was women that brought us into all those projects, Fusion is really successful. So it’s a lot of female associative and all that.
So performance art ‑‑ they kid me now. My clients actually played this back to me, they said "Every project that we do with you has choreography." So for Mach3 everyone started doing this, because it was breaking the horizons and the essence of the brand is breakthrough, so it was breakthrough this way.
For Venus, it was emerging and revealing from the ocean, so it was this and by the way that makes a V, but it was she just emerges, and by the way not italic. She emerges. So none of the typography was italic, it was very straight and confident.
Grant: You know I realize this is not going to be on the tape. So on the first instance you were doing a shape that is like a..
Cheryl: A triangle, with a point at the top ‑‑ breaking through the horizon.
Grant: Touching fingers, touching above the head in a triangle. In the second instance, you were doing…
Cheryl: It’s a V. Pointing outward.
Grant: …a V, almost a fountain, hands above the head, going in either direction.
Cheryl: Pointing this way, and looking upward. So for Fusion, I can talk about these because it’s been codified now and they kind of talk about it. But for Fusion, if you think about the motion of fusion, it’s two things coming together. We actually did that name and all that. And for the Fusion product, the actual razor was a shaving surface and a trimmer. So, those two things coming together. Then, they go around a nucleus. And, then, [makes explosion noise] they blast out. So, we were talking to guys. Right? You know these Gen X guys that I was telling you about earlier.
The one word that kept coming out. This is where words are really important. The one word that kept coming out was "reaction." Getting a reaction from those that were important to them; girls, at work, with their family. So, getting the reaction that they sought.
So, I thought. "Wow! OK. So, Fusion is not necessarily just about two things coming together," even though that’s the rational part. The emotional part of this brand is enabling guys to get the reaction they seek. So, for us, we distilled the essence down to "start the reaction." [makes explosion noise] And we wanted the more outward expansive, because that was more aspirational, versus the inward, encircling.
Cheryl: So, they have this core strength that emanates outward. [makes explosion noise] So, for Fusion, the movement was [makes explosion noise] emanating outward like this. So, that, then, became the whole visual language of the brand. Everything goes this way.
Cheryl: So, with Mach3 everything goes this way, [makes explosion noise] and with Venus, everything was that way.
Grant: Right. So. We’re doing from the first… So, this is what?
Cheryl: This is Mach3.
Grant: Fingers touching above the head is…
Grant: Dynamically upward. Upward motion. And, the second one is…
Cheryl: Venus going dynamically outward.
Grant: Venus fountain out?
Cheryl: And, then, for Fusion, it is emanating from the core center.
Grant: And, she’s talking about her solar plexus?
Grant: From the solar plexus.
Grant: With arms outstretched in both directions.
Cheryl: Right. In either direction. So, like a fusion explosion.
Cheryl: Nuclear explosion. [makes explosion noise] A nuclear explosion; emanating outward. So, this happens with every project I do. And, we don’t even think. This is tacit. A piece of choreography happens. But, for everyone inside the corporation, they now go Fusion, Mach3, Venus, whatever.
Grant: It becomes their mnemonic; their tag.
Cheryl: It becomes their instant symbol.
Grant: It becomes. Yes. Something. Yes.
Cheryl: An instant symbol that becomes iconic for the brand and starts to become [swoosh noise] , you know, their swoosh.
Cheryl: They’re Nike Swoosh.
Grant: So, listen. A lot of people have been trained in dance and only a tiny percent of them could do what you’re doing because you’re not just the master of movement, you’re also the master of ‑‑ you’re fantastically, imaginative, conceptual, creative, in and through language, as this transcript bears witness. Where do you get your verbal facility from? Did you have to add that on or was that Skidmore coming up through dance and liberal arts?
Cheryl: It was probably both. I’m also sort of realizing that language was getting corrupted when I entered the design business. First it was marketing, and then it was design, largely because…
Grant: Let’s just give the reader just a quick sketch of your career trajectories from Skidmore ‑‑ or no ‑‑ from dance through Skidmore on.
Cheryl: It was dance to anthropology, to traveling around the world, to working…
Grant: So by the time you went to Skidmore you weren’t dancing anymore?
Cheryl: I was dancing a little bit still.
Grant: Little bit.
Cheryl: Yeah, I was a dance minor.
Cheryl: I was an anthropology/sociology major, English and dance minor, so the two.
Grant: And then the first job was in design or marketing?
Cheryl: Brain reserve.
Grant: Oh, brain reserve. Oh! Faith Popcorn.
Cheryl: Faith. Faith Popcorn for like six years and then design. And I started seeing… so with Faith Popcorn everything was words, there was no symbolism at all. I realized that marketers were creating brands with words ‑‑ that they’re created with words but they’re delivered to consumers visually.
Grant: And that often was the creative process, right? That you’d take the words…
Grant: …and a guy like me would do the research, marketers would turn it into a deck, you’d go to the creative people who would turn it back into…
Grant: …visuals, yeah.
Cheryl: And then the marketers would go. So you’d go to a phase one design meeting or advertising concept meeting, phase one, and the marketers would be like freaked out. I started noticing all this antagonism in the first meeting, because they would be like, "That’s not what I meant by youthful," or "That’s not what I meant by blue. That’s not what I meant by cool," or bleh or whatever ‑‑ or kid‑ness.
Cheryl: "That’s not what I meant by that." And the designers would say, "But that’s what I meant by that." So it became all these subjective perceptions of the words colliding in the phase one meeting and becoming very antagonistic, like a lot of arm wrestling about what the words meant. Over and over to the point where the agency/marketer relationship was very "us versus them" ‑‑ versus we’re a team together, creating this thing for the world, so…
Cheryl: And it was very ’80s/’90s to have [makes scraping noise] , this conflict built into the relationship. That’s when it invented what became the Brand Effervescence process that we employ at Toniq.
Grant: That others have employed, without necessarily…
Cheryl: Giving me credit? [laughs] Just blatantly stolen and whatever. But art people… No, I’m kidding. But that’s when I realized we needed visual positioning as well.
Cheryl: So the definition of visual positioning, I created it. I don’t know if someone else created it at the same time. But I definitely created this idea of visual positioning that’s inherent to Brand Effervescence that basically says, "OK, you have the word positioning." There’s a lot of subjective perception of ‑‑ I could say "blue" and you’ll think of that blue. Meanwhile, Pam’s [Grant’s wife] thinking about Tiffany blue.
Cheryl: Always. And Craig’s [Cheryl’s husband] thinking of Caribbean blue. And I’m thinking of navy blue. That’s four people, four different versions of the word. Right? You can take an essence word. Distill it down to the core meaning, and still have as many perceptions of that core essence as there are people sitting around the table. So what I thought was needed was, "OK, now we did this positioning. Now we need a visual playground." It’s not totally prescriptive. Like, "You’ve got to use this PMS blue." But it’s a zone, like of Caribbeanesque blues. So for Venus, it was aquatic. It was tropical aquatic blues, but that’s still a range.
So it gives creatives; enough latitude to be creative, but also parameters, but a vector. So you can’t go outside these walls, so you don’t have to do a lot of "what if." Throwing stuff against the wall to see if it sticks. And by the way, [indecipherable 41:20] has already signed off on this.
So there’s not the antagonism in the phase one; the arm wrestling. All of a sudden, now you’re a unit creating this thing for consumers. So you’re not spending a lot of extra money on junk. You’re deploying all your resources in the right zone. That’s another way to activate it.
To activate it in a way that’s not scattershot, but really in a zone. So that’s why I call it "visual territories" because it’s a territory. It’s not a prescription, but it’s a zone.
Grant: And it ends up being a Rosetta stone for two people to use quite different languages. The creative parties and the marketing parties.
Cheryl: You got it. And they go, "Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, I get it."
Grant: And you’re building a consensus.
Grant: And you do get people that are now making the…
Cheryl: The Mach3 sign.
Grant: …the Mach3 sign.
Grant: But, once you’ve got people there, you’ve not just communicated the idea. You’ve built a kind of consensus, they’re with you.
Grant: Yes or…
Cheryl: Yes. Absolutely. But it all goes to what is going on.
Grant: They don’t just get you. They’re there. You’ve brought them in.
Grant: They can be enthusiastic about this idea, because they get it at a level, in a way that’s just a kind of not a verbal, intellectual consent. "I see what you are saying, and I reserve my judgment." It’s more of a visceral emotional…
Cheryl: They get it right here.
Grant: …the viscerality, if that’s a word, of your communications creates a viscerality of consent in them.
Cheryl: Yeah. You got it, and it takes the subjectivity, out of the process. It enables us to channel culture in a way that’s strategic. That’s where the activation comes in. It’s saying, "OK, here’s this culture thing. Guys want to impress the people at work. They want the reaction. They are seeking the reactions: positive reactions from girls." So, that cultural motif, activated in a way, visually. So, this is why I say activate, because, now, they also have a symbol set for that cultural insight. You see what I’m saying? A way to bring it to life that people will get.
Grant: Yeah. In some sense you preserve very much more of what the consumer is and what the visionaries said to you. Some of that gets in, too, to the extent that you’ve been surveying culture. The way I do things there’s a radical act of the diminution, where you know I diminish, and, then, it has to be rebuilt up again, at the other end. And, you preserve more of the original cultural signal.
Cheryl: I can’t compare it, but maybe.
Grant: It’s like more…
Cheryl: Maybe I think that’s right.
Grant: …gets through, until that the moment the corporation really comes to terms with it, there’s more of the culture there for them to work with that’s very carefully chosen. I’m not just suggesting you are just communicating a chunk. It’s all this huge amount of thoughtful working and reworking that goes into it, but more of culture, yes. The thing about the corporation is being siloed that noisy kind of…
Grant: Noisy kind of. Sorry. [noise]
Cheryl: What I want to have happen. I think the key thing for you is to say, a consumer sees it and they go, "Aha!"
Grant: Yeah, yeah!
Cheryl: Like "I get it!" So once it’s gone through the filter of the corporation, it’s still recognizable to consumers as something that is relevant to them.
Grant: Yeah, yeah totally! And more than that it vibrates in a way that few a things around them do.
Grant: Right? They go "Whoa what’s that!?"
Cheryl: Creating something distinctive.
Grant: And that’s kind of them undergoing the experience you had when you were doing your survey of culture and you go "Oh, Ding!"
Grant: "Chime!" it’s like they get a chime kind of like sensation.
Cheryl: So there has to be a sense of recognition for the consumer otherwise it’s meaningless really. They have to go [clink of wine glass] but a new interpretation for them. Something that you’ve re‑casted in a way that looks really fresh and new for them.
Grant: Yeah and it should be just beyond what they know in an interestingly and fresh way, but if it is too far out there…
Cheryl: They won’t get it.
Grant: …it’s like "Ooh, that’s weird!"
Cheryl: Yeah, they won’t get it. But that is why the iPhone and all that is so… Because kids… It’s like an instinct to just play with your fingers and just finger paint and do… Got it done. So that wasn’t foreign that was actually… That broke down a lot of barriers.
Cheryl: And that was interesting, too, because the rational side of just technology is that it’s got to be complex, and its got to be rrr‑rrr‑rrr.
Grant: Right. How many features can we pack into this thing? It was engineers doing what engineers sometimes do.
Cheryl: Yeah and what happened with iPhone, the reason it’s been so successful and "i" anything, is its just totally intuitive, and visceral, and human.
Grant: Yeah the "i" doesn’t stand for information it stands for intuition…
Cheryl: Yeah, there you go!
Cheryl: And "i" which is I, I.
Grant: Yeah, nice, right… iPhone.
Cheryl: Which is kind of nice.
Cheryl: That was fun. Are we done? Do you have more questions?
Grant: I have a million more questions, but this feels like this is a really useful kind of stretch…
Cheryl: You can follow up.
Grant: No it’s really good are you kidding me this is brilliant! This is so great!
Cheryl: Oh we had fun, and it was like five minutes.
Cheryl: It felt like five minutes.
Grant: This is a great system. No, it’s really good.
Cheryl: But you know what? If I had to rationally say to somebody, "OK this is how you do it…" See, I would have to start with people that kind of get it anyway. Because the one, two, three… I give you tons and tons and tons of kudos because to instruct people in how to do it is way out of my depth. I can’t. I have to start with people who are already…
Grant: Right, well I do to. I have to say that I have worked with people… I once worked for a big engineering firm filled with engineers, and I had been doing ethnographic research for them and I had heard a song called "I’ll Remember You, Will You Remember Me" by the Canadian singer McLachlan.
Cheryl: Oh yeah, Sara McLachlan.
Grant: It was so perfectly what the consumers had been telling us, that I sent it to my client and I didn’t hear back from them. I never send my client’s stuff.
Grant: This is really off the mark for me, and I didn’t hear anything. So I phoned him a month later and I said, "Did you get the CD I sent you ?" and the guy said, "Yeah, we got it! We didn’t really know why you sent it to us. Because I played it for the guys and nobody could get it. The weird thing was that when the secretaries would hear it they would all burst into tears." [laughter]
Cheryl: [laughter] OK.
Grant: So there were some people in the corporation that totally got why this was a resonant song, but they weren’t these guys.
Cheryl: That’s what’s hard! That’s what’s hard. So that’s why for me a lot of my first presentations where with guys like that… That’s why I made them OK… We are not connecting this way so we have got to connect viscerally on some human level.
Cheryl: And then they sort of got it, and I think really highly‑evolved male people with big right brains would get me, get it. Now they’re getting it because they see that now we have a track record of success, so even if they don’t get it they accept it. If they don’t get it is, "All right just let them do their thing." That’s why I think females were a little more attuned to this initially. Weird, it’s kind of weird.
Grant: It is weird.
Cheryl: And a lot of Virgos, too, oddly. Then I started asking people when their birthdays were. This has nothing to do with anything, but oddly, lot of Virgos.
Cheryl: Isn’t that weird?
Cheryl: Pam is one of them.
Cheryl: Two biggest clients to start. That has nothing to do with anything.
Grant: No, no.
Cheryl: But it was kind of wacky.
Grant: Yeah. I guess my feeling was always… I mean for the extent this is a useful contrast, as an anthropologist, I always thought that people was going to treat me as this "Ooh, this witch doctor effect." Ooh, magic spells and stuff. And so I always played it as conventional. I would wear a suit. I would use absolutely rational language, and anytime they try to push me in that direction, I thought "You guys are probably going to marginalize me, and I am going to be as rational and businesslike as I possibly can."
Cheryl: Right. I get that.
Grant: It was sort of an act of cowardice, because I wasn’t prepared to let in any of the other stuff which would have made my presentations more powerful and more efficient in getting culture into the corporation. In some sense I was swearing off this stuff that would have made my presentation more effective, and you didn’t. You have the courage to say "No, we are going to do bodily gestures, and we are going to use scents, and we are going to use a whole, a larger emotional palette."
Cheryl: And find women who will hire us.
Cheryl: No, I don’t know. I think I you sell yourself short there because I think your approach is the reason why anthropology and culture actually got all the way up to the C suite. I do. I really do. I needed to go through other venues, the girl route, and there were a lot of girls in C suite. We then talk to their bosses who were guys and say, "No, no, no, this is really cool." And I didn’t know how to do anything else because I was a dancer so this is my approach but I think that…
Grant: But you could have played it… Remember lots of women in the ’70s and ’80s wore those very severe suits and very severe haircuts and play good game as I was playing the game, really totally conventional.
Cheryl: But you had to then. You did have to then.
Grant: But you didn’t. I mean you cared to be different.
Cheryl: But I came to being in the ’90s, so it was a little easier. I was working in the ’80s but I was still like sussing it out.
Cheryl: I worked for Faith Popcorn, who was complete lunatic. Technically not conforming to the corporate culture at all.
Grant: And you wonder if she didn’t say, "Listen, I can’t. I shouldn’t want to play the game. I can’t play the game in a conventional way."
Cheryl: Well, she just couldn’t. She just couldn’t.
Grant: Right, and once you’ve made that decision then you can go big.
Cheryl: Extreme. And then you wear the extremeness like its own thing. That becomes its own thing. Hence the name. At one point she was… We were experimenting with her name like "Should we change her? Make it a little more waspy and corporate?" and so we did. We did a group of mailings with the Waspies ‑‑ a completely fictitious name by the way ‑‑ and then Faith Popcorn. And the Faith Popcorn ones were just more intriguing because people wanted to know who the hell she was. She wasn’t famous yet.
Cheryl: What? I mean I had lots of people hang up on me because they thought I was crank‑calling them, but others were interestingly really intrigued. So, there was that, but that was the ’80s so you could be… If you really wore the extreme mantle, you wore it like…
Grant: Yeah. [to waiter] Did you want to clear this table. where I don’t want to keep you from? Oh, you are OK? Great thanks.
Man: Are you OK?
Grant: Yeah, we are good. Thanks.
Cheryl: We have to pay him. I still haven’t paid him. I have to pay him.
Grant: No, no, here. You got dinner, working breakfast, that’s my idea of a bargain. You get the expensive meals.
Cheryl: Yeah, that was good.
Grant: This is superb.
Cheryl: Oh, good.
Grant: This is just so rich and so perfect.
Cheryl: Oh, good, excellent.
Grant: It makes my nerve endings tingle when things are really good and I think "Did we get this? Did we get this?"
Grant: Great. It has been superb. Thanks a million.
Cheryl: I’m glad we got it done.
Grant: Yeah, and look 59 minutes and 27 seconds.
Cheryl: And how brilliant? It’s brilliant with babies crying in the background.
Grant: [mockingly] Yeah, those bastards.
Transcription by CastingWords (highly recommended for exemplary work)