the frequency a kenny chung blog

Is the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) in the process of a rebranding campaign? Everyone knows they could use some good press (there’s only so much news you can read about budget cutbacks or more potential fair hikes).

I usually use Tuesdays to critique NYC Subway advertisements, but today something else caught my eye. Take a look at the new map:

Subway map redesign (before and after)
Subway map redesign (before and after)

You can immediately tell that the main colors are a bit more muted. At first, it may just seem that the brighter blue of the water makes the land look greyer by comparison, but both colors have changed. The land is now more of a concrete color, which makes sense only from a non-cartographic kind of way. But it does bring a retro look and feel to it all.

As far as the layout goes, I think it’s a big improvement. There’s more room to actually see the subway lines (particularly in Manhattan) and there’s less clutter. However, I hope they create one with as much information as the old one for the big kiosk-type maps on the subway platforms.

As far as the rationale behind redesigning the map, that’s a different story. To me, it was not worth redoing. Sure, it’ll be noticed by the experienced straphanger’s eye, but why even bother? Until something big happens like the completion of the famed 2nd Avenue line or the city finishes the new Brooklyn Nets stadium, there’s not much worth bringing attention to.

It would have definitely been a better idea if they switched the colors after they actually made noteworthy changes. It would then perform the double duty of catching eyeballs and showing progress for a perpetually floundering transit system.

And of course, I’m not a big fan of the color choice. But as fellow native New Yorkers can attest to, people will complain, get used to it, and then forget all about it. I mean, that’s how it works whenever they hike up the fares, change express trains to local, cut service…

edit: I also noticed that their Service Change signs are now different color, with a new layout and printed on glossy paper. I can’t help but think that it had something to do with how easy it is to spoof Subway posters. Check out the new ones:

Redesigned Subway Changes Poster
Redesigned Subway Changes Poster

ZYNC is a charge card that American Express launched last year. The target demographic is younger adults and teens (you can read more details about ZYNC in this article). The thing about younger target audiences is that it’s hard for established/traditional (read: older) companies to find a way to connect with them through the right channels and with the right message.

Last month, The National played a concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was at least partially sponsored by American Express in promotion for the ZYNC card. Since the concert was to benefit AIDS, YouTube and VEVO live-streamed the entire set of The National. There was a general atmosphere of altruism at the show and AMEX definitely played a part in it.

Fans of The National are generally young, skewing a bit hipster. Therefore, it was a great opportunity to promote a charge card aimed at young people who have enough expendable income to pay for concerts. In addition to having the AMEX and ZYNC logos plastered everywhere, there were also people handing out business-sized cards with a download code to get a free MP3 and Video download from the show. On the back of this card was a picture of the AMEX ZYNC card.

AMEX ZYNC promotional materials for The National at BAM
AMEX ZYNC Promotional materials from The National show at BAM

I went to the website listed and entered my code and e-mail address. I received a confirmation e-mail with AMEX branding and then promptly forgot all about it.

A little less than a month later, I got the following e-mail:

The National AMEX ZYNC promo email

What a great promotional campaign. American Express really did their homework and I give them an A for hitting all the marks.

The National performing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music
A picture I took of The National performing at BAM in Brooklyn

And here’s a video I recorded of The National performing “Fake Empire” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from May 15, 2010.

Locusts are the farmers’ plague. They swarm together and once they create groups, they multiple quickly. Left to their own devices, they can decimate entire crop fields. Their impact has been so severe that pesticides are designed specifically for locust population control.

But studies as recent as 2009 have shown that when locusts swarm together, serotonin (the neurotransmitter responsible for mood regulation) is released in relatively great quantities. If human biochemistry (and emotional constructs) apply, then one could even infer that locusts become happy when they are in large groups (by that same token, they could also just be very, very angry…).

I compare locusts to social media users because of similar core behaviors. Both can amass in great numbers to share a common sentiment, but both can also create irreparable damage if uncontrolled. As I mentioned in last month’s blog post about the role of psychology is social media branding, knowing the opinions of others greatly affects our own behaviors. Groupthink plays a large role in why people downvote threads in Reddit, how the RickRoll became a meme, and how brands are made or broken in the social media space.

Consider the recent viral hit of the fake BP Global PR Twitter account. Obviously, there are tons of people who are more than angry about the oil spill and how BP has handled it. But give people a platform to complain about it, make it funny, and soon you’ll have thousands of people nodding in agreement. BP never stood a chance.

Swarm of Locusts in Mexico (credit Jose Acosta)
Swarm of Locusts in Mexico (Credit: Jose Acosta/AP)

So how can you leverage swarms to improve your social media presence? The short answer is you can’t always. The Internet has opened the floodgates of uncensored, unfiltered opinion, and rarely does any one entity have control of the message anymore (see also: the Streisand effect).

Now, onto the long answer. Should companies treat social media users like locusts? In some regards, yes. Companies and individuals have to take preemptive steps, instead of being reactive to negative criticism. Don’t ignore complaints (because there are a ton of websites dedicated to reviewing customer service). Acknowledge problems and propose solutions. Don’t overpromise and underdeliver. Be as transparent as possible, because we live in the Information Age, where anybody can confirm or deny any claim with a few simple clicks.

Branding is no longer limited to the commercials you see or word of mouth from real-life friends. Companies need to think with this mindset or else they’ll fall victim to and be decimated by a swarm of social media locusts.

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