Learning From Creatures, Colleges, and Companies. | Bruce Turkel

My daughter sent her college applications out a couple of months ago and is waiting for her acceptance letters to arrive in the mail. So far she’s received two green lights and no turndowns so I’m proud to report she’s two for two.
She wrote her college application essays about her love of photography and the environment. She talked about taking her camera, nicknamed Nick Canon (it’s a Canon SLR, get it?) on nature hikes and how she’s going to choose her school not just for its academic offering but also for its natural surroundings.

Yesterday she texted me a copy of the acceptance letter she received from one of the schools. In the margins of the laser printed form letter an admissions counselor scrawled in longhand, “You and Nick Canon are going to enjoy the scenery at COLLEGE.”

How smart is that? Not only does the customized letter show that someone actually read her essay and paid attention, but those 12 words also created all kinds of warm and fuzzies. All of a sudden, a school that was in the bottom half of her desirability list leapfrogged to the top three on the list.

Scientists have been researching why users are so addicted to their smartphones and Blackberries (it’s no surprise they’re called “Crackberries”). What they’ve found is that every little “ding” stimulates a shot of dopamine into the bloodstream of the users. You can almost hear Sally Field exclaim, “You like me. You really like me” every time the phone rings. It’s such a powerful charge that Apple has recently exploited it further with the iPhone 4S’ Siri app. Each time the phone does your bidding and answers affirmatively with your name, it’s a satisfying and fulfilling experience.

Lighted doorsills on cars. Social networking sites that send you an email when someone posts your photo. Restaurateurs who bring you a complimentary amuse-bouche or after dinner drink. Beautifully designed products that make you smile each time you look at them. Doctors and nurses who take a little extra time to sit and talk with you about your health and your lifestyle. People who use your name when they speak to you. Pets who love you unconditionally.

Each of these uncommon delights gives us a little “Atta boy” or “Atta girl” that reminds us that we matter. Each one makes us feel good about ourselves. Each one makes us want to go back for more.

Marshall McLuhan said, “The Medium is the Message.” What we’re discovering is that not only is the medium the message, but the message is also the medium. And if done properly, both of them are the massage – specifically for our egos.

Thanks to computerization and technology, most products we buy are very good at doing what they’re supposed to do. For example, when was the last time you had a television set that broke? TVs have become so reliable that the industry had to invent an entirely new type of TV – the flat screen – just to keep us buying them. Apple is so accomplished at regularly upgrading their products to create desire that you don’t really buy their goods, you subscribe to them. All of a sudden, a product’s popularity isn’t just measured by its functionality, but by how that product makes us feel about ourselves. If we feel welcomed, pampered, pleased, delighted, we buy. If we feel validated, we buy a lot.

I don’t think most people like rats. They can be dirty, dangerous, and destructive. Throughout history the rodents have carried numerous diseases and have been responsible for immeasurable human suffering through plagues and pestilence. Just a glimpse of the rodents’ beady little eyes, gruff gray fur, and scrabbly-skinny tails provokes fear and loathing.

According to Wikipedia, “rodents have sharp incisors that they use to gnaw wood, break into food, and bite predators.” And the family of common rodents includes not just rats but mice, porcupines, beavers, guinea pigs, hamsters, and squirrels as well. That means that squirrels and rats are related. So why do people hate rats but think squirrels are cute?

Ah, it’s the distinct differences between the two that make all the difference. While rats have those gross, scaly tails, squirrels have broad, fluffy ones. Rats look matted and mangy. Squirrels have thick, luxuriant fur. A park full of squirrels is delightful. A park full of rats? Disgusting! Rats have those aforementioned beady eyes. Squirrels have big, shiny eyes. In fact, the dimensions of a squirrel’s face are similar to that of a human baby.

In other words, rats gross us out while squirrels appeal to our maternal and paternal instincts and make us feel good about ourselves. And therefore, them.

So has evolution crowned squirrels as the original branding gurus? You’ve never heard anyone described as a “dirty squirrel,” have you? How about a “squirrel fink”? No one’s ever “squirreled out a friend,” have they? And when was the last time a bad situation was described as “squirrels deserting a sinking ship”?

No, it’s the rats that got the bad rap. And the squirrels — like other savvy creatures, colleges, and companies — get all the peanuts.

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