This newsletter was originally published via email on the 8th May 2016. You can also sign up to receive Ice Cream Sundae by filling the form on the right-hand side column or here.
Sometimes I struggle writing these essay length Sundae pieces every week. Generally once I figure out my topic it’s been getting easier the more I write. Not so much this week. I’ve been writing several drafts and everything feels kind of sluggish.
I’ve started measuring the time I take to write them. On average it takes me about four to six hours a week. I’ve been averaging four in the past few weeks; this week might be more like six or even seven.
I have no idea if the time is good or bad, I’m still not too sure who or what I should be comparing this exercise to. I think the closest similar inspiration I know could be Maria Popova’s Brainpickings email in terms of length though the content is different, possibly even more demanding of your attention as a reader than this is. Ice Cream Sundae is meant to be a fairly fun, light and easy read.
I’ve been alternating between feeling sorry for myself and picking myself back up lately; getting back on track rolling that rock up the hill like Sisyphus once more. Sometimes I hesitate how personal or negative it’s worth being in writing this newsletter. I don’t want to dwell on anything negative too much, though I think it can be worthwhile to say I don’t always feel like a million dollars. Nobody does and I believe there’s some value in taking a moment acknowledging our own humanity whatever it looks like. The mistake might be to wallow in the feeling and overdo it; I’ll do my best to avoid that.
We always want to show our best sides publicly, though of course being human and life in general carries a whole range of emotions and situations, not all positive.
Social media has done funny stuff for this, we display personas increasingly detached from our real lives and there are sometimes consequences for people on the receiving end. The term “social media depression” was coined to describe states of envy, resentment or loneliness people can feel when passively browsing the multitude of amazing photos friends or acquaintances post.
Just so we’re clear nothing that bad happened, just a few things that make everything else feel kind of tiring. I’m looking for work and it’s not happening as easily or quickly as I would have liked. More specifically after a couple of interviews for this one interesting job, I was told I’m not quite strategic enough for the role. That was upsetting given how being a strategist is my main job title. I guess Sisyphus must have had those days when he thought: “Screw this rock today; I’ll just lay down here at the bottom of the hill for a little while.”
I’ve been freelancing for over a year now and while the independence, freedom and variety of projects is incredible, sometimes the uncertainty is tough.
I’m sure it’ll all turn out fine, partly because it has before and also because I’m confident in my abilities and experience. I know I’m good at what I do (Extremely talented and experienced professionals have told me so and I believe them) though sometimes I look around and wonder if I should do more of the same as other peers; like spend more time commenting and providing opinions about the marketing and advertising industry rather than writing about banana jokes, Japanimation or roller coasters.
Uncertainty creeps in and can easily take over.
I’ve regularly been thinking about what I’m trying to achieve with this email newsletter and realise I haven’t written about it here, now seems like a good time.
Last year a few friends and acquaintances told me that I should start an email newsletter. They said from either experience or hearsay that it was the most effective form of marketing to attract new clients and stay on their radar. I’d only recently started freelancing. Attracting clients, staying on people’s radar and hopefully raising my profile in the industry seemed like an essential endeavour and it still does.
The exercise for this kind of email marketing is slightly different than for online retailers such as Amazon or Zappos, in addition to be kept in mind be having a presence in your inbox, their intention is also to encourage you to visit their website and ideally purchase products. While it’s great if you check out my website, I on the other hand don’t sell anything directly so I don’t necessarily need you to click on the links I provide.
If you’re reading this I’m assuming you know you can contact me if you’re looking for marketing and brand strategy advice. (Though please tell me if I’m mistaken).
I was already signed up to a few different email newsletters. One of the most popular formats for marketers or prominent bloggers and podcasters like Tim Ferriss or James Altucher seems to be a curated collection of the best or most interesting links of the week. Good examples include friends like Neil Perkin’s Weekly Fish Food, the Storythings newsletter, James Whatley’s Five Things on Friday and strategy nomadic couple Faris & Rosie Yakob’s Strands of Genius. I think the latter two typically have less links and a little more personal context but it depends from week to week. I enjoy them all though admit I rarely have time to look at all the links they send. I recommend checking them out though; they’re certainly worth it.
I have about 25-30 tabs open in my browser at any given time and half of those are articles or videos I mean to read or watch. I also have the One Tab plugin with who knows how many more links I mean to check out. I’ve got way more links to interesting stuff than I have time to consume them in.
I recently interviewed Cindy Gallop for my podcast and she talks about this idea of “collaborative competition” to designate businesses reproducing competitors’ work, doing the same thing everyone else is in the same industry. This leads to homogeneity and makes businesses vulnerable to innovative or disruptive newcomers. Think of the iPod showing up in a world of almost identical portable CD players and you’ll get the idea.
I wanted to do something different.
Another recurring piece of advice I read is that if you’re going to commit to doing something on a weekly basis, you had better enjoy it because it will take time.
I enjoy telling stories, may it be about my own life, or made up ones. I have a science-fiction novel vaguely on the go that I admit I haven’t been writing anything for in close to a year or so, aside perhaps a few paragraphs here and there. I wrote an ugly and illegible first draft for NaNoWriMo in 2014 and that’s about it. That said I still want to improve my writing and the most consistent advice from writers is to practice. I thought of the newsletter as an opportunity to do so.
I didn’t feel like writing more about where brands are going or what advertising trends mean because I read a lot of this stuff from other talented strategists and marketing commentators already. I also research and write about branding and marketing for a living. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy my job and will happily help you with brand and marketing advice if you need it. It’s just that I consider writing for this newsletter to be more like leisure time – or at least a hybrid of work and leisure. As a freelancer there is little difference.
The four to six hours it takes to write usually represent five to seven more episodes of TV series I used to watch per week, rather than hours working on projects, looking for new work, meeting potential clients or taking care of admin and chasing invoice payments. Now I might only watch one or two episodes of TV series and have drastically reduced the number of shows I’m following.
I enjoy writing and telling stories so that’s the direction I took for the Ice Cream Sundae newsletter. I wasn’t sure what the length would be; I naturally tended towards this 1,500 – 2,000 words long essay kind of format.
I get great feedback from readers who enjoy it and my email open rate is three times higher than the marketing industry average, so I’m probably doing something right.
If I read something as a story, whether inspired from real events or fictional I’m more likely to remember and the memory is more likely to stick. I think these Sundae newsletters are slowly shaping up and improving. In the past few I feel like I’m getting better at weaving in interesting brand and marketing information relevant to the story I’m writing. I think it’s enriching the whole newsletter with my professional point of view little by little. By the way, if you have questions, comments or feedback it’s always a pleasure to hear from you, don’t hesitate sending a reply.
I’ve been reminding myself of my New Year motto, a sort of guideline to live my life by in 2016: “It’s not over till the fat lady sings.” As I wrote then, I find it really encouraging.
I watched Neil Gaiman’s inspiring speech to the University of the Arts class of 2012 again, about living a life as a freelancer and making good art. His advice is priceless and useful regardless of the kind of work you do. It helped me shape and complete this Sundae. If you haven’t seen it I highly recommend watching it right now. It’s only 20 minutes long.
I also listened to a bunch of motivating guilty pleasure type songs and started researching the effect of music on mood; though that’s a whole topic I’ll keep for another Sundae. One more draft in my slowly growing library of future editions.
It’s kind of fitting I published an interview with brand strategist Heidi Hackemer on my podcast this week. Heidi’s consultancy is called Wolf & Wilhelmine, after her grandmother who survived incredible hardships during World War II to give birth to Heidi’s father and look after her family. Her stories are amazing, and it was a fun conversation. I said “Wow” a lot.
I’m ready to get back up and start rolling that rock up the hill again. I think we all have some kind of rock to keep rolling up a hill, there’s just some kind of trick in beginning to enjoy the climb more than focus on reaching the destination. I guess sometimes I forget that part, and then I remember again.
Thanks for reading, don’t forget to forward it to a friend if you’ve enjoyed it!
Already another episode of the podcast! This week we go back to gaming with my first ever live audience recording at the GameCamp Unconference that took place last weekend in London at the South Bank University.
I was lucky to have some excellent guests join, such as Ed Fortune who writes for Starburst Magazine, Dave who used to teach video game design and development in Beijing and now started his own independent games studio, George who studies in the Games Culture department of the university and many more. We were 14 by the end of the episode which is pretty good also considering I recorded at 11am shortly after the beginning of the event given there wasn’t much going on at that point.
We had a fun conversation about geek culture, tabletop roleplaying games, live action role playing games, indie video games, Candy Crush and the ads that get stuck in our heads. I hope you enjoy the conversation, please share it with with you friends on social media if you enjoy listening!
Links and information mentioned:
- GameCamp London
- Ed Fortune & Ed’s blog
- Dave – Dr Davient Studio
- George Cheal
- Sarah Cole
- Starburst magazine
- Line wobbler 1 dimensional game
- The Haberdashery Collective
- Lemon duelling / lemon duel game
- Egg & spoon race
- Blind nerf duel / Nerf guns
- Killer: The Game of Assassination
- London South Bank University
- Games Cultures course at LSBU
- Super Mario Land
- Crash Bandicoot
- Mario party
- LARP – live action roleplaying games
- Dr Who magazine
- Marvel UK
- Star Wars
- SFX magazine
- Tom Hiddleston
- Fab Radio International
- The Bookworm Podcast
- Flatworld book
- Inside Out
- Game Theory
- Serious Games
- Hide & Seek
- Mr Wolf
- Jason Voorhies
- Betrayal at the house on the hill
- Hero Quest
- Dungeons & Dragons cartoon / tv series
- Warhammer fantasy
- Vampire the Masquerade
- Rockets ray guns and really nice tea
- mega game
- A vision of azad
- Watch the skies / XCOM simulator
- Rachel Thompson episode
- Day of the Tentacle
- Candy Crush
- Space invaders
- Pac man
- Magic The Gathering
- Dr Pepper – What’s the worst that can happen?
- Dr Pepper – FB updates controversy
- Kia-Ora – orange drink advert
- Weetabix “I will survive” advert
- Inside Out Tripledent Gum advert
- Delta Green
[Subscribe to the podcast: on iTunes, Stitcher, RSS feed or to download this episode directly to your device, please right-click here. Please give the show a rating and a review if you enjoy it!]
A couple of months ago I attended a fascinating talk from Kwame Ferreira at London’s Creative Mornings event, you can find the video of the talk via the link. I introduced myself following his talk and Kwame was kind enough to spare some time to meet with me and have a conversation for the podcast.
Kwame heads a global innovation design & engineering agency and incubator fund, particularly known for developing socially conscious innovation. They solve design and technology problems both large coporations, and also use their time and imagination to solve problems for communities throughout the world where they occasionally send team members in areas problems might need solving, like countries in Africa. As an example and something they are known for, they are helping Dutch company Fairphone design and build the operating system of their new smartphone.
While it is possible to find a couple of talks from Kwame online, he doesn’t tend to be very public and so I felt privileged that he gave his time for this excellent conversation about the future, design and technology. I hope you enjoy it!
Some of the information mentioned:
- KwameCorp / Kwamecorp on Twitter
- Andrew Logan (artist)
- Convent near Lisbon
- South of Portugal
- Burning Man
- Gift Economy
- Invisibilia Podcast: Our Computers, Ourselves
- Energy Canyon Theory
- Radiolab podcast episode referring to the Energy Canyon theory: Cellmates
- Michael Jordan
- Design & Innovation agency Fjord
- Accenture acquisition of Fjord
- Service design
- Google search
- Agile software development
- Silicon valley
- Roche Pharmaceuticals
- The VOID methodology – value oriented innovation design
- Bond Bracelet
- Office manager bot algorithm working via Slack
- UI – User interface
- Google AI computer wins at a game of Go against a top human player
- AI – Artificial Intelligence
- Neural Network
- Architecture for learning
- Block chain (database)
- Tim Berners-Lee
- Snake video game
- Patagonia “Don’t Buy this Jacket” ad
- Fair Phone
This newsletter was originally published via email on the 1st May 2016. You can also sign up to receive Ice Cream Sundae with the form on the right-hand side column or here.
Sometimes the date is helpful to avoid spending that much time wondering what I should be writing about. Easter was the last seasonal event I wrote about and I’m gladly going with the easy route here making this Sundae about May Day.
About help, I just found out the Mayday distress signal used mainly by aviators and mariners come from the French “m’aidez” Short for “venez m’aider” (Come and help me). A radio officer in London Croydon Airport invented the procedure in 1923. Much of the air traffic was between London and Paris at the time, so they wanted to make sure they came up with something everybody could easily understand. When used, the signal is to be repeated three times to make sure it isn’t mistaken for another similar sounding word.
May 1st is a public holiday in many countries, including the UK. When I moved to London I remember asking colleagues what the May Day Bank Holiday was celebrating and none of them knew. The consensus seemed to be that I should be happy it’s a public holiday and enjoy it without asking so many questions.
One of my all time favourite operas, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, was performed for the very first time in Vienna on May 1st 1786.
The beautiful overture is an excellent excuse to provide a musical theme while you’re reading this. I’m listening to the whole opera while writing this.
May Day is an ancient spring festival celebrated in many European countries, rooted in pagan traditions. It apparently comes from Floralia, the Roman spring festival in honour of Flora, Goddess of flowers. In Latin, it was called “Ludi Florae” The Games of Flora. You probably know by now that I like games so that got my attention. The Roman festival celebrated flowers and fertility in a pleasure and fun seeking atmosphere. The Games were organised for the people of Rome, and remaining texts from that time tell us the entertainment in 68 AD featured a tightrope-walking elephant. In case you’re wondering what that looks like, here’s a video of an elephant walking a tightrope in a Thai zoo. I’m not sure what they have to do to train the elephant or if it’s a good thing for the animal altogether.
As mentioned, flowers are an important part of the celebrations. In France, it’s traditional to buy and gift a few strands of “muguet”, lily of the valley. Legend says giving the small white bell shaped flowers goes back to the 16th century. French king Charles IX was visiting the South of France with his mother Catherine de Medici in 1560, their host Chevalier Louis de Girard de Maisonforte gave the young king the flowers from his garden for good luck. The king appreciated the gesture and decided to make it a recurring event. He would give ladies of the court lily of the valley every spring. The tradition quickly extended to the whole country and is alive and well to this day. There’s a folk song about it too.
A slightly mysterious recurring tradition of May Day celebrations is the Maypole erected in the centre of the festival.
Typically a wooden pole, sometimes decorated with greenery, flowers and ribbons tied to it. It is primarily found in Germanic countries, and people dance around the maypole during the spring festivities. We know the origins of the practice are old, dating from days of Germanic paganism of the Iron Age (Which includes Norse religions and more).
Unfortunately the exact significance of the maypole was lost on the way, even though the tradition remains. Folklorists continuously debate the meaning of the maypole. Some believe there is a relation with the Norse cosmological tree connecting the nine worlds, Yggdrasil. Others think it is a symbol of the world axis. Some ideas are also related to the pole as a phallic symbol and related to the idea of fertility associated with spring celebrations. Unsurprisingly people like Sigmund Freud supported these ideas.
As far as I know it is the rare seasonal holiday that doesn’t boast much by way of promotional marketing stuff. Some stores have sales going on but advertising symbols don’t immediately come to mind as they do for Easter or Christmas – speaking for myself in any case.
I wonder what the promotions or advertised products and services could look like for May Day.
Pizza Hut spring flower topping special? KFC Zinger spring chicken combo? How about a Durex branded maypole? That might be a step too far. To keep this on safer grounds, McDonalds could make up a May Day Menu featuring a spring onion burger.
These may or may not sound like fun. If I were to devise a marketing and brand strategy, I would start by identifying and specifying the challenge to solve or opportunity to take advantage of. Until this is clearly established there is no particular frame of reference to evaluate whether spending your marketing budget on sponsoring a series of May Day village fetes may or may not be a better idea than organising a competition for a lucky customer to win a dream summer holiday.
In a similar fashion to the kind of freedom the School of Communications Arts 2.0 students I’ve been recently mentoring have, May Day is an open brief here so I can make up whatever I want as long as it sounds plausible.
I could choose a specific brand and think about the marketing activities they could run at this time of year. As strange as it may sound, in this case it sounds like more fun to imagine for a moment I’m in charge of the brand called May Day. My next steps would be to ask many questions, such as: What are the values and attributes of this brand? What does May Day represent for people?
I was also reminded May Day is a James Bond villain’s henchwoman in A View to a Kill, the 1985 film starring Roger Moore, Christopher Walken as the villain Max Zorin who wants to destroy the Silicon Valley. Grace Jones plays May Day, Zorin’s lover and chief henchwoman, apparently ridiculous strong. While an interesting anecdote, it’s unlikely to be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of May Day as a brand. We can probably safely remove it from the equation.
As stated earlier on, May Day is about springtime. It’s about the revival of life after sleepy winter. It’s about days getting longer, the sun getting slightly warmer, bright colours, flowers and fertility. I could keep writing more concepts and in a professional setting I probably would because there is interesting meaning to consider tied to all these ideas. This is an enjoyable part of my job that brings us into the territory of semiotics, that is the study of meaning-making, sign processes and meaningful communication.
The main message of May Day as a brand could be something like: “spring in full swing.”
The mood is merry, chipper.
The function is to celebrate life.
The action involves dancing.
The effect is infectious fun.
The result is fertility, the creation of new life.
If we were designing a logo and branded materials, we’d likely choose green as a dominant colour.
This would be the start of defining the May Day brand. If we pursued this into strategic territories, we might consider the place of that event in the yearly calendar and how it differs or resembles other holidays like Christmas or Halloween. This is only one of the many aspects we could research to further develop this as a brand strategy.
While I’ve occasionally heard people tell me this kind of branding exercise is a lot of hot air (and admittedly in some cases I agree with them), when taken seriously and done well the brand strategy can and should form a strong foundation for any business. This can meaningfully inform all the business activities from product design, distribution, human resources, internal communications, marketing communications or customer service.
Possibly and ironically jarring with all this branding and marketing jargon, May 1st is also the International Worker’s Day.
It’s a celebration of working classes and labourers promoted by international labour movements, socialists, communists and anarchists. The date was chosen in 1889 by newly formed Second International in Paris.
The date was chosen to commemorate the Haymarket Affair, the aftermath of a bombing that took place during a labour demonstration on May 4th 1886 in Chicago. What started as a peaceful rally of workers striking and demanding eight-hour working days turned ugly when someone threw a dynamite bomb at the police. Seven officers and at least four civilians were killed, and many more wounded. May Day has become focal point for demonstrations by various worker’s unions, socialist, communist and anarchist groups.
When I lived in Perpignan last year, the building of the largest union in France, la CGT (General Confederation of Labour), happened to be across the small street from my room. That’s why on May 1st last year loud recording & chanting of The Internationale by a group of unionists suddenly woke me up. That was followed by several speeches reminding me of all the progress acquired by workers over the years, from eight-hour long working days to paid holidays, as well as what was left to struggle about in their view. Speeches were interspersed with partisan and revolutionary song favourites like Motivés, Bella Ciao or La Cucaracha.
This is a whole different direction you could easily go in for a May Day brand strategy, worker’s have been associating meaning to the day for over a century and some parts of the world brand idea associations with worker’s rights and struggles are perhaps stronger than ideas of spring time and fertility.
There is rarely only one best answer to developing a brand strategy. In the meantime, whether you associate today with spring or with worker’s rights, have a fantastic Sunday however you celebrate it.
If you’d like to check out more Ice Cream content, I’ve published a fun conversation with Alexis Kennedy and Cash DeCuir from FailBetter Games who design and develop a fabulous online subterranean Victorian Gothic narrative game called Fallen London. The game is available for free online and now on iPhone application as well if you want to check it out.
If you’ve enjoyed reading this newsletter and know a friend who will too, please forward it on to them.
Till’ next week!
Special occasion as I’m writing this on my father’s 70th birthday! I’m on holidays in the South of France, running around to post this episode of the podcast slightly in advance compared to the Wednesday publishing day because there’s a high chance tomorrow would be too difficult to publish online after celebrations planned tonight – and that’s of course due to the fact the house I’m staying at doesn’t have an internet connection, rather than any consequences of a potentially inebriated evening.
For those who follow I also skipped the online release of the previous week’s Ice Cream Sundae newsletter, I’ll publish it in a few days instead. For those who wish to be up to date, the best way is to subscribe to the list and get it directly in your inbox!
Great episode today! I had a fantastic catch up with my friend James Whatley aka Whatleydude a few weeks ago, w.e had a fun conversation and I hope you enjoy listening as much as I enjoyed having the conversation. James is the Digital Director for Ogilvy & Mather in London, one of the largest advertising agencies in the world. He also co-hosts a weekly audio podcast called The Voicemail with Stefan Constantinescu, where the latest mobile technology news, and write an excellent weekly newsletter called “5 Things on Friday“. We talk about those and a lot of his other projects and activities in the episode including some travels, arts, comic books, gaming, advertising, digital marketing and more.
Some links to information mentioned in the episode:
- Follow James Whatley on Twitter
- The Voicemail podcast on iTunes
- Emirgan Park, Tulip Gardens in Istanbul
- Wolverine #90, 1988
- Sabretooth (Comics)
- Canvey Island, Essex, UK
- “Crumbs” 2. An expression of dismay
- Adam Cohen, CircusBoy1 & Airborne Circus
- Super Mario Bros. NES
- Alas Smith & Jones
- BIG, Tom Hanks
- Adventures in the Skin Trade, Dylan Thomas
- The Poor School, Theatre, London
- I’m Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here
- Animal Crossing
- Nokia N8
- Nokia N95
- Nokia E71
- Mobile Geeks of London
- Lucozade Energy Challenge 2009
- Ogilvy & Mather
- Effie Awards
- Expedia Travel Your Tweet Interesting
- Mobile World Congress
- Pinky & The Brain
- Drafts Board Game Cafe
- The Last of Us
- Assassin’s Creed
- Tom Clancy’s The Division
- Domaine Les Arabesques
- Hero Quest
- Space Marine / Space Hulk
- Reader for MAC
- Mario Kart N64
- Yeti Blue USB Microphone
May the 4th be with you!
This week on the podcast I had a fascinating conversation with Heidi Hackemer about everything from the courageous stories of her grandmother during and after the Second World War, to her travels around the United States with a pickup truck or a motocycle, to her career in branding and advertising and her founding of her current brand strategy consultancy, Wolf & Wilhelmine.
As I explain in the beginning, I’m trying something slightly different in this episode, I suspected I was over-preparing for a few of the previous interviews I published, in that it was taking me hours and I was also making a lot of assumptions based on the information I’d found rather than ask questions and let the interviewee speak. This time I chose to limit myself to an hour of preparation and see where the conversation went. I don’t know if it’s a direct consequence or if I’m making this up, though it seemed while editing that I’m making more “Ah” and “Hum” sounds than usual… In any case it was a great conversation and I hope you enjoy listening to it.
As Heidi mentions, she will be speaking at the FutureFlash conference near Toronto, Canada, in a few weeks on the 18th and 19th May 2016. The event website says it’s sold out though of course if you’re already going then watch out for Heidi’s talk!
A few links to the information mentioned in the episode:
- Follow Heidi on Twitter / Instagram / Medium.com
- Wolf & Wilhelmine
- Heather LeFevre Twitter / Podcast interview
- Brain Surfing
- Faris & Rosie Yakob / Genius steals
- Joshua Tree National Park
- Grand Canyon
- Death Valley
- Hugh Garry interview (cycled across Death Valley)
- Battle of Stalingrad
- Ellis Island
- Pigeon racing
- Ernest Hemingway
- The Blues Brothers
- Music: U2, The Police, Queen
- We Learn Nothing, Tim Kreider
- FCB (advertising agency)
- Copywriter / Art Director
- The BBH Barn – internship programme
- Dating Brian
- School of Communications Arts 2.0
- 6 items or less
- Field of Dreams
- Travels with Charley: In Search of America, John Steinbeck
- Valerie Nguyen
- Google Innovation Lab
- Red Bull / Felix Baumgartner Supersonic Fall
- Jason Harris, CEO @ Mekanism
- The United State of Women Summit
- Haagen Dazs Vanilla Swiss Almond
- Ica & Contagious FutureFlash 2016
- Beyonce’s lastest album Lemonage and new clothing line
- Get Rich or Die Vlogging: The sad economics of internet fame
Spring is taking its time to show up here in London, the weather has been relatively chilly, alternating cloudy drizzle and sunshine for the past few days. Fortunately I don’t mind the weather, I’m happy to be back in London.
I’m still looking for a new freelance project to work on, and keeping my eyes out for full time roles in case something interesting comes up. In the meantime I started mentoring at the School of Communications Arts 2.0, a fantastic opportunity to work on exciting creative briefs with students. In addition to writing the weekly newsletter I’m slowly working to build a library of drafts for future editions as well. The podcast takes time too: scheduling and recording interviews, editing existing episodes and publishing weekly. Throw in some time to catch up with friends, do a few interesting things around London and my week is pretty full.
Sometimes I wonder how long I’ll be able to sustain writing these weekly essays with everything else, but so far so good. I’m contemplating the idea of seasons, like for TV series. I might take a break over the summer for a few weeks. This is the 30th Sundae; 30 weeks in a row, rain or shine. I’ll give myself a pat on the back for that. There, done.
Last week’s Sundae was pretty serious (for me at least), so this week I’m revisiting another one of my informal thematic series, those of you who subscribed a while ago might remember I wrote about theme parks in a series I called “A few of my favourite things”. Cue tunes from the Sound of Music. You can think of this new one as a companion piece. Last time I wrote about theme and amusement parks in general, now I’ll dive more specifically about some of these parks most important rides: roller coasters.
In France and much of continental Europe, they’re called Russian Mountains (“Montagnes Russes”) because that’s where the idea originally comes from.
“A good roller coaster is better than sex.”
~Michael Quinn, Letters to the Editor, Oui Magazine, January 1978
Depending on sources, the first Russian Mountains seem to have been built in the 17th century. It was a winter entertainment activity, essentially giant adult sized ice slides. They would build two facing timber towers, generally around 21 to 24 metres high (70-80 feet) but the highest on record was 60 metres (200 feet)! They’d ice 60 metres long (200 feet) slope on a 50-degree incline supported by wooden beams. Riders would sit on small sleds, most often just a block of ice with a rope to hold on to. They would come to a halt thanks to sand spread at the end of the slope, and then they could climb the stairs of the opposing tower for another go.
Catherine The Great liked these so much she asked for a summer version to be designed and built at her private residence. Instead of ice and sleds, it had rudimentary wheeled carts on grooved tracks. In the early 19th century, the French took the idea of the Russian Mountains and improved on them. They developed many improvements of early roller coasters, including the first loop in 1846.
As mentioned in an earlier Sundae about childhood fears, I was really afraid of roller coasters when I was younger. Now I love them. I started researching the hormonal mechanics of fear, pleasure and thrill seeking, though I’m probably only touching the surface for now.
“My job is basically to get as close to making people poop their pants as possible, then have them step off in ecstasy and want to go again.”
I can’t remember for sure the first roller coaster I went on and enjoyed. I think it was at Parc Asterix near Paris, known for a few good thrill rides, in particular Goudurix, a steel coaster open since the beginning of the theme park in 1989. It held the European record for the greatest number of inversions until 1995: 7. It’s known among enthusiasts as a rough and uncomfortable ride. I still loved it. I loved the traditional wooden coaster they built a few years later even more, Tonnerre de Zeus. Space Mountain in Disneyland Paris was also one of my favourites for a long time. As opposed to the traditional ride in America, this one featured a launched train rather than a lift, so you start the ride going really fast, and inversions.
Different people have different reactions to fear and excitement, in particular our brains release more or less of the hormones generated by instinctive fight or flight reactions. Dopamine is probably the most important one, usually called the pleasure or reward hormone. While complex in a way I admit to barely understand, dopamine has also been a hot topic in the world of branding and marketing these past few years. I may have already mentioned Simon Sinek’s Start with Why talk and book where he talks about dopamine release, pleasure and reward.
Brands aspire to generate a positive emotional trigger among consumers going above and beyond the functional or rational purpose of the products or services they promote.
I’ve been listening to this interesting podcast episode about branding and marketing from the perspective of the Cracked comedic website team. Another great classic reference is Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout. The book treats with the idea of positioning a brand with meaning in the heads of people to the level of belonging to a collective unconscious.
What are the first words that come to mind when you read Coca-Cola? How about Volvo? And Nike? A brilliant visual example is the brand tags experiment, a simple idea showing how brands exist in people’s heads. It shows both some of the ideas the brand intentionally wants associated with them, like Coca-Cola and love, or Volvo and safety, and notions people have like an idea association between Nike and child labour. The site has 1.7 million tags so far, you can go and add a few more if ever you’re bored.
Back to roller coasters and thrill seeking in general. As I said, some people get more dopamine, adrenaline and endorphins from experiencing those kids of thrills. That’s why some people like them, others less so. And then one more ingredient is essential to end with a pleasurable experience: safety.
A truly safe environment is the key to really enjoy a scary roller coaster ride or a similar thrilling experience.
It’s a fine line between the safe environment giving us the confidence boost that follows the exciting or thrilling sensation of a roller coaster ride, and the ‘real’ experience of fear. Safety is the most important aspect of roller coaster design and where they naturally spend the most time. I feel reassured and apprehensive in about equal measures getting on board a roller coaster; the restraints make me feel like I’m in safe hands to enjoy the thrill of the ride.
Even for all the safety work that goes into roller coasters these days, there are still accidents, as the tragedy crash that happened last year at Alton Towers in the UK and cost two women their legs. Just this week they admitted the crash was due to human error and health and safety features. There is risk involved, but then again there’s risk involved in living any day, every day. According to this article you are way more likely to die or be injured while fishing than riding a roller coaster. In fact, if you’re in the UK somehow they calculated that your average chance of dying of any cause today is one in 41,667. Pretty gruesome, though luckily we don’t have to think about that all the time or else we would probably stop enjoying every pleasurable vice in life.
I recently learned from a friend that her parents first met on a roller coaster ride, and while researching for this Sundae I also learned there is a belief associated with some research in neuroscience stating you are more likely to be attached or attracted to someone if you meet them for the first time in a strongly emotional situation, fearful or happy. We associate the memory with the people we shared an experience with.
I rode the oldest roller coaster still operating: The Cyclone on Coney Island, New York with my brother and my little nephew back in 2003.
It was built in the early 20th century, opening in 1927. It makes a ridiculous amount of noise, the old carts are rickety and only feature lap restraints. It was heaps of fun. I loved it! My little nephew was absolutely terrified at first and then started to enjoy the ride. As per the earlier quote, by the time it was over he wanted another go.
The last theme park I visited with friends was Universal Studios in Singapore a few years ago and it doesn’t have that much by way of roller coasters, though there are two racing ones based on a Battlestar Galactica theme that were good fun. I’d love to go back to a theme park soon. Summer is coming up, maybe a visit to Alton Towers, Port Aventura in Spain or maybe even somewhere in the US could be a fun idea. If you’re into the idea of joining me for this, please give me a shout!
I’m sure the opening quote about roller coasters being better than sex is debatable. Talking about sex, I published an interview with Cindy Gallop in my podcast this week if you’d like to check it out. She is a renowned public speaker in the branding and advertising industry and also has a business called “Make Love Not Porn” dedicated to promote and talk about sex in a different way than pornography represents it. We had a fascinating conversation, though of course I’m biased in recommending it.
If ever you have any feedback or questions for me about the newsletter or the podcast I’m always happy to hear from you and reply. Lastly, if you know a friend who likes roller coasters and might appreciate reading this, please forward it to them.
All the best, enjoy the rest of your weekend!
This newsletter was originally published via email on the 24h April 2016. You can also sign up to receive Ice Cream Sundae with the form on the right-hand side column or here.