Do Muscleheads Hate Graphic Design?

A work friend of mine recently decided to start bulking up. He purchased one of those three gallon tubs of protein powder from GNC - specifically, Russian Bear 5000. As you'll see above, the packaging layout for this product is astonishing. When was the last time you saw black, yellow, white, pink and purple integrated together? And what font is that?

I am no workout freak and definitely not in the target market for these powders, so I recognize that my personal opinion about this category might not prove too insightful. With that said, I am baffled by the packaging. Does Russian Bear 5K have a marketing department? Or even an unpaid marketing intern? Were there several designs that were rejected before they ultimately chose the packaging above?

My friend explained that he chose RB5K because it contains more calories per serving than many of the other competiting brands. I'm sure that this appeal accounts for why some protein powders succeed, but's best sellers section lists products that appear to be successful for other reasons. One example of this is MuscleTech Nitro-Tech Hardcore Triple Chocolate Milkshake. Just below the pronouncement of being "hardcore" the label explains that one scoop will "immediately trigger an anabolic environment by optimizing nitrogen retention, nutrient absorption, protein synthesis and cellular regeneration."

Perhaps this swirl of black, purple, red and yellow best illustrates what this process looks like inside of your body. Or maybe it's difficult to connote badass-ness AND explain complex metabolic processes. (Even so, I don't believe they are drawing enough attention this high chocolate multiple - 3X. I wonder if that translates to 300% cacao in gourmand terms.)

Do muscle powders lack traditional notions of "good design" because the people using these products believe that what is visually attractive cannot be hardcore? Is this market so reliant on word-of-mouth that packaging is irrelevant? Or is this a strategy that no one has yet explored?

photo credits: &

Simply A Good Idea

The solubility of sugar crystals in iced coffee is quite low. It prevents me from sweetening this drink to my desired level. Still, I often find myself purchasing this beverage at coffee shops that don't offer simple syrup - mostly because this liquid is such a rarity.

Thankfully, the Dunkin' Donuts near my office (34th & Madison) has recently begun squirting this fine liquid into their iced coffees as they assemble them behind the counter.

Since the Dunkin' franchise model allows its stores a mild amount of rogueish behavior I'd be somewhat surprised if this is a national initiative. But I think it should be, as it's a very subtle refinement that improves the product experience (unless you enjoy chomping on sugar crystals). Nothing about this change would prevent Dunkin' from maintaining its position as the unpretentious, functional coffee shop choice for people that wouldn't mind watching yuppie scum die - while scarfing down a donut hole or two.

Yes, simple syrup is rarely seen sweetening coffee outside of boho/trendy coffee shops, but Dunkers could avoid this halo as long as they didn't make you ask for it in Fritalian. (Plus, the chain has been adding Starbucks-like drinks to its menu for some time.)

If it's cost effective they should roll this out.

photo credit: Flickr - xsquared

Dentist Office Video Slideshows

It's hard to trace exactly when the changeover occurred, but sometime within the past decade the dental community made a striking decision. No longer was it adequate to engage in a waiting room pamphlet-based soft sell of available services. In the old days, after you finished reading Newsweek and started scanning the area for other good magazines, a small table offering generic materials about porcelin veneers might catch your eye. Maybe you'd walk over and read through them - maybe not. It was all very calm, opt-in and low-pressure. Downright civilized. Then the video screens showed up.

The before and after photo story is a compelling narrative in the Western world. When a TV infomerical for an ab machine morphs a before shot of some pudgy loser into an after shot of some ripped dude kicking ass, I am always impressed. No, that pudgy guy isn't an aesthetic ideal, but he's certainly not offensive. The same cannot be said of the ravages of periodontosis.

But dentists everywhere seem to love showing frightful before and after video slideshows. Sometimes the TV is mounted in the waiting room - but most often in the examining room. What I find strange about this practice is that these aren't personal highlight reels. I'm quite confident that my dentist was not the one responsible for any of the work being displayed. These are just strange, abstract horror stories with remarkably happy endings.

Not only do these montages make patients less comfortable in an already tense environment, they also don't really make all that much sense when analzyed as point-of-sale signage. After all, if I'm that guy with only two teeth in my mouth, I hardly think that seeing a before/after combo that matches my predicament will put me over the edge and convince me to get some work done. If my problem is on the screen and I'm at the dentist, chances are high that I'm not there for a 6 month cleaning.

These screens should only be utilized to pitch the more mundane cosmetic services (such as teeth whitening). Unbelievable success stories need to be saved for campaigns outside of the office, to wow people who thought there was no hope left for their smile.

photo credit:

The Heineken Draught Keg: Fresh as Ever

Draft keg beer is a living thing. It stays fresh for 30-45 days and must be kept cold at all times. It is quite delicious.

Most domestically produced bottled/canned beer is pasteurized. (Exceptions include microbrewed bottle conditioned beers.) Pasteurization involves passing filled, capped bottles (or sealed cans) through a 140 degree water rinse for several minutes to kill bacteria and therefore stabilize the beer. This is what allows it to sit at room temperature for months at a time. Many imported kegs also undergo pasteurization to survive the much longer journey from brewery to distant bar glass. Unfortunately, this process often ruins a beer's flavor profile.

Heineken seemingly turned these accepted truths upside down with its 2007 release of the Draught Keg. How, you may wonder, were they able to design a keg that doesn't need to be kept cold, has no apparent shelf life, but can dispense brewery fresh beer for thirty consecutive days after opening?

Well, they didn't. The Heineken Draught Keg contains the same pasteurized beer as Heineken cans and bottles. However, this 5 liter keg features a built-in pressurized carbon dioxide pump that creates the same perfectly foamy head that you'd get from a bar keg. (The pressure is also what allows the beer to remain crisply pasteurized for 30 days after opening.)

It's important to note that Heineken has virtually no keg heritage here in the U.S. Not only is it a no-show at college keggers, Heineken is rarely, if ever, on tap at the local bar. It's the perfect beer to offer in pseudo fresh-keg form, since it has no readily fresh tap for comparison.

Why are consumers so crazy about this item? (It's a heavily stocked item in my area.) I think the associative brilliance of this innovation is that it pretends to be a beer snob solution (think Guinness draught can/bottle nitrogen widgets) while really tapping into the needs of the post-grad keg reminiscers and present day party-goers seeking to bring something kitschy/different through the front door. It's a keg (and a "cute" one at that), but it doesn't weigh 75 lbs. Mini keg. Case closed.

It's fascinating that Heineken is the only brand offering a faux-fresh keg at liquor and convenience stores nationwide. What's next, the Corona keg? Budweiser, are you paying attention?

Photo Credit: Flickr - nicnbill

Can Fish, Rock & Roll or Baseball Ever Save Camden, NJ?

The Voice of the Eye - Flickr

My foolish, unflagging love for a band that plays songs called "Fluffhead" and "You Enjoy Myself" led me to one of the most dangerous cities in America last Sunday.  Since I've taken a stroll through South Central LA and have spent a fair amount of time in the parts of Brooklyn that don't have gourmet dog pastry stores, I thought I would be somewhat prepared for what I would encounter in Camden, NJ.  Our group had printed out Google Map directions to the Susquehanna Bank Center, but after choosing the wrong exit for Route 30 and bending at the ibanker-in-the-car's uninformed insistence to follow the roads that an iPhone suggested, we found ourselves driving through the center of this fair hamlet.

You can only see so many consecutive, crumbling buildings and overgrown lots (the choicest surrounded by barbed wire) before getting the sense that New Jersey has given up on this place. Some Wikipedia research revealed that this isn't exactly the case.  In addition to building a concert ampitheatre, the last 20 years have seen investment in a waterfront aquarium and the creation of a minor league baseball team.

After paying Livenation $20 to park in an end-times airplane hangar we asked the parking attendant how long it usually takes to get out of the heavily packed lot after a show.  It was quite telling and sad to hear her say "Oh, I don't know.  I get out of here before the concert starts."  Her voice was less marked by summer job boredom and more by human survival instinct.

I don't pretend to have any answers, but rather I'm just intrigued by Camden as a case study of failed (or insanely slow) gentrification.  If these seemingly popular infrastructure ventures have not led to much positive growth in the surrounding non-waterfront community, what will help? Should stadiums and family event centers only be built after a struggling community gets the financial support to fix its core problems - joblessness, poverty, et. al?  Maybe these buildings shouldn't be Step #1.  Is it important to build these structures in areas that require one to drive through the city, rather than situate them near a highway entrance/exit?

Do you wait until Google deems the area safe enough to drive its Street View mapping car through, before breaking ground? (It's quite ironic that Camden hasn't been Street View'd yet, as it's one of the few places in America through which you'd actually need to take a virtual stroll before showing up.)

Mark Paul Gosselaar is Smart

Jimmy Fallon has been leading a charge to reunite the cast of Saved by the Bell (celebrating its 20th anniversary) as a way of drawing some attention to his late night show.  Surprisingly, most of the cast has signed on for this.

It's tough for any actor to escape a campy past and still be in on the joke - rather than part of it. This past Monday, Mark Paul Gosselaar did this in impressive form.  He appeared on Fallon's show, fully in character, to pledge his participation in the reunion. Rather than show up in a suit and sheepishly listen as Fallon annoyingly rehashes his favorite Bayside moments, Gosselaar rocked a familiar old outfit and even interrupted the interview to take a call from Jessie Spano on his giant, grey, iconic cell phone.  Definitely worth a watch.

Amtrak: Step Yo Game Up

Flickr - Pandangel

Amtrak has so many problems that writing this post somewhat pains me.  I've had many great experiences with this service, but the company's absolute inability to keep costs down prevents me from riding with any serious regularity.  Unfortunately, a recent industry innovation may further deepen Amtrak's problems.

Up until last year the transportation options for getting around the Northeast had clear lines of demarcation.  Flying was situated at the top of the tier, for its perceived time savings, despite the time usually allotted to security checks, delays and transportation by cab/subway to/from the airport.  Amtrak sat one rung below. That left Greyhound, Fung Wah and Lucky Star to fight over the business of poor college students, post-grads, and middle-aged adults without cars.

Within the last year or so two new bus lines joined the market: Megabus and Bolt Bus (a Greyhound subsidiary).  These services launched offering WiFi internet access for laptop users. The connection speed doesn't allow one to download movies, but the bandwidth certainly lends itself to robust web surfing.  Currently, this offering serves mostly as a differentiator between the bus lines.  I can't imagine that too many regular Amtrak riders are trading down to the WiFi buses.

But, it's likely that there's going to be a glacial trend to the downside.  Although I don't have solid data regarding the Amtrak ridership demo, I assume that historically there's been an element of trading up from buses to trains as income rises.  Poor college students eventually get jobs, and recent grads with crappy jobs sometimes improve their lot in life.   If Amtrak never gets around to offering WiFi, I find it quite unlikely that current WiFi bus riders (for business or pleasure trips) trade up to Amtrak with the same regularity that bus passengers typically did in the past. (This worldview assumes that services such as MiFi remain expensive and far from mainstream for quite some time.)

If Amtrak does offer WiFi, however, it probably won't lead to a substantive increase in ridership - so it's a slight incremental cost without too much positive benefit (aside from staying relevant).  Still, I find it hard to believe that the cost savings of eliminating their free magazine couldn't pay for WiFi for every passenger (or at least 2-3 devoted WiFi cars).

My colleague Jeffrey pointed out that perhaps some drivers would be convinced to ride the train for certain trips if they knew that they could get some WiFi-related work done during the ride.  Though this is a valid point, I'm not convinced that drivers are malleable enough in their transporation habits to choose the train often enough to result in a tangible volume shift in this segment.

To end on an unrealistically positive note, if Amtrak could somehow find a way to decrease its ticket prices by 40-60% and offer WiFi, then I think there would be a tremendous shift in the way everyone gets around.  Until then, enjoy the Snack Car.

mydailystyle's eBay Auctions

Style blogs are 2000s apparel punk rock.  I love the way that they spit in the face of fashion magazine ad clutter & industry pretension and get right to the point - cool/wearable clothing, styled well. Some of it is preposterously expensive and some is thrifted - depending upon on the wearer.  Perspective either takes the form of candid street capture of the best dressed people seen that day or one person's daily fashion diary.

Some of the current best are The Sartorialist, (great for his high quotient of natty men's style) Style and the City (Paris/London street fashion) and Kanye West's favorite: Sea of Shoes (I definitely didn't know about Margiela in high school).

The daily diary style blogs all follow the same basic format:  1) Picture of the day's outfit 2) List of brands featured 3) Fawning comments from readers.  One favorite blog of mine adds a slight twist to this formula and really opens up the possibility for a interesting brand collabo.

It's called my daily style and is curated by woman from Barcelona. She's been posting since March 2008 and has over 2,400,000 hits.  She chooses amazing outfit combinations then runs off to a cool part of the city to stage her own impromptu photoshoots.  

Interestingly, the right margin of her page links to an eBay store listing some of the items that she's worn.  Each of the garments have 900+ views each.  She's found a unique way to monetize her blog by liquidating her old items to the readers that admire them.

I think there's an opportunity here for a brand to contact her and create amazing limited 1 of 1s or 1 of 10s and have her feature them and sell through her eBay page.  Undoubtedly she'd be incented by the opportunity to design/consult on the product.  Scott Schumann's giddy post about his Gap ad showed that no matter how popular a style blogger may be, acknowledgement from a major brand is downright flattering

It would absolutely make sense for a brand to become involved in such a collabo, as these style blogs are one of the major spheres of influence today.  Even the fashion magazines cover them. It's incredible that I even need to call out this opportunity.  Is the image at the top of this post not insane?

A Most Uncouth Product Development

Source Material: Departures Online Magazine: Desire & Acquire

Many, many of my mid-to-late 20s friends have told me about non-iron Brooks Brothers dress shirts during the last 5 years. I have yet to experience their wonders first-hand, but have been told that you pull them out of the washer, hang up, and then BLAMO, you have a perfectly ironed shirt the next morning.

This strikes me as a product development worth mentioning. Brooks Brothers doesn't exactly deny that they sell this shirt, but they certainly don't mention it in their print ads. If you go to their website, you'll notice that the preponderance of their men's dress shirts are non-iron.

What's most interesting about the word-of-mouth I keep getting is that it's mostly from friends that don't have a history of purchasing their product.  The company's decision not to explicitly advertise this product feature vaguely reminds me of Frederic Rouzaud's (Managing Director of Louis Roederer) comments on hip-hop stars popping bottles onto models. Is there something declasse about not having all of one's shirts dry cleaned? Are they ashamed that some of their customers don't work in private equity? Or are they just choosing not to clutter their ads with relevant information?  (Yes, I understand it's "lifestyle advertising," but some people live a lifestyle that involves begrudginly ironing their shirts every morning, and I'm sure they'd like to be targeted too.)

The Xlerator: Classy Functionality

Just when you thought humankind had developed every object that's capable of exuding class through elegant functionality, along came the the Excel Dryer company of East Longmeadow, MA.  For years they produced the typical, nice-try public restroom hand dryers that inpatient people everywhere use for about 5 seconds before wiping their hands on their pants.

Sometime in the early 2000s the company unleashed their Xlerator model. This machine blasts out heatless air onto your hands so quickly and hard that skin is freakishly pushed away. The entire drying process takes 10 seconds.  And the gorgeousness of the design runs a close second in importance - it's really an objet d'art.  (At least compared to other things you find in public restrooms.)

When I first began to notice this product I found myself assigning high-levels of esteem to any early-adopter dining establishment. Now, since the product has been on the market for quite some time, I have different response.  I view any upscale restaurant lacking an Xlerator as somewhat of a dump.  Ok sure, you may have a human being standing in the bathroom squirting soap onto my hand and handing me a paper towel, but does he make jet-engine noises?  And I have to give him a $1 tip? (Honestly, there are times when I wish there was a vending machine-like dollar bill insertion point in the Xlerator - with the tips going directly to the design team.)