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Vote with your clicks, with your sponsorship, with your bookstore dollars. Vote with your conversations, with your letters to the editor, by changing the channel. –Seth Godin

For the last few years I’ve been a huge fan of the Under Armour brand. There was something about their marketing, their spokespeople, their attitude, and the apparel itself that spoke to me.

I read news stories about how Stephen Curry, one of the NBA’s biggest stars and the face of the Under Armour brand, had been half-heartedly pitched by Nike—they mispronounced his name, which sounds like “Steph-in,” not “Steph-on”—before choosing Under Armour as his endorsement partner. And I ate it up.

I even read stories about how the company’s founder and CEO, Kevin Plank, started the company by selling sweat-wicking athletic t-shirts out of the trunk of his car. A true boot-strapper, an American success story, taking it to Nike. What was not to like?

I bought so much Under Armour gear you would have thought I owned stock in the company (which I do).

Fast forward a few years to last week, when a story broke about the CEO, Kevin Plank, and his comments as a new member of President Trump’s American Manufacturing Council. Plank told CNBC: “To have such a pro-business president is something that is a real asset for the country.”

That was, apparently, a mistake.

Plank has since faced backlash from Curry* not to mention two other big names under the Under Armour flag: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Misty Copeland. Under Armour eventually released a statement clarifying Plank’s and the company’s position, but the damage had been done. [EDIT: Since posting this on February 14, the story continues to evolve. Under Armour’s CEO, Kevin Plank, took out a full-page ad in the Baltimore Sun on February 15 to write an open letter to Baltimore, where UA is headquartered, clarifying his previous statements about President Trump.]

*Curry said he agreed with Plank’s comments, if you take “asset” and “remove the -et.”

I started writing this piece a few times, including the day after Pennsylvania-based construction supplies retailer 84 Lumber aired a controversial, seemingly pro-immigration ad during the Super Bowl. Its CEO, Maggie Hardy Magerko, a Trump supporter, then came out and said the commercial wasn’t necessarily promulgating a pro-immigration message, so much as a vaguer, “that through struggles we will do anything we possibly can to make [the world] a better place for our children” message. In other words, 84 Lumber paid at least $10 million for a Super Bowl ad, the result of which is a lack of understanding of what it meant.

I could have written this piece even earlier, following the #DeleteUber movement in late January, when the on-demand taxi app caught flack by undermining a cab driver strike at JFK Airport in New York, in response to President Trump’s short-lived executive order on immigration (a.k.a the “Muslim ban”). Consumers were outraged that while cab drivers staged a work stoppage to draw attention to the ban, Uber was still sending its fleet to the airport—and charging higher rates, a.k.a. “surge pricing”—during the ban to capitalize on the lack of competition due to the strike. In response, hundreds of thousands of Uber’s (ex-)customers deleted the app from their phones.

When I heard about #DeleteUber, I rolled my eyes as I often do when I catch wind of this sort of slacktivism. Will it really make a difference?

Uber isn’t a publicly traded company, so we don’t know whether the company’s value took a hit (more on that later), but #DeleteUber certainly had a ripple effect:

  1. Uber’s biggest competitor, Lyft, smelled blood in the water and pledged to donate $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union over the next four years. (The ACLU was in the news at that same time for its lawyers storming American airports to offer pro bono council to Muslims affected by the ban.)
  2. Uber set aside $3 million for a legal-defense fund to support drivers.
  3. Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, facing consumer and employee pressure, stepped down from President Trump’s economic advisory council.

So, did some silly slacktivism campaign actually move the needle in any significant way? Hell yes.

My friend Elliot has taken to calling this “commercial activism,” a.k.a. voting with your wallet. Perhaps the most prominent recent example is Nordstrom, which announced it would stop selling Ivanka Trump’s clothing line. (President Trump famously replied to this news via Twitter.)

Nordstrom said sales of the eponymous brand have plummeted over its past fiscal year, and that this was purely a business decision. If that’s true, and people are exercising commercial activism in response to a president whose beliefs and policies oppose their own, then we’re seeing something special here. And we should expect a lot more of it moving forward, regardless of who (or even which party) is in the White House.

Brands like Patagonia pride themselves on doing the right thing, particularly from an environmental perspective, by encouraging people to “buy less” of their clothing rather than wastefully replacing their coats after a few years when all then need are a few minor repairs. (I know this to be true from personal experience: I once brought in an old Patagonia coat to one of their retail locations to be repaired; instead, they offered to take my old coat and let me select a new one right off the rack.)

While it’s a unique and interesting time from a business perspective to think about how brands might align themselves politically to put themselves in the best possible positions financially, for me it raises lots of questions.

For example, would (or should) a left- or right-leaning CEO or brand intentionally manipulate its marketing messaging against its own core beliefs if they thought it would help them sell more widgets? If they did, is that unethical?

And circling back to my earlier example, should Kevin Plank’s (the Under Armour CEO) comments dictate whether I continue to buy Under Armour’s products if I don’t agree with Plank’s political views? What if Plank supports Trump, but his employees—including the spokespeople who came out against him—mostly don’t? Should I simply ignore the CEO’s comments, because by boycotting him I’m affecting his employees, who had nothing to do with those comments?

I’m not sure how I feel about Under Armour at the moment. As The Rock said in speaking out against Plank, “a good company is not solely defined by its CEO.” But do I want to put money in Kevin Plank’s pockets, knowing that he may use a tiny fraction of it to support a political candidate I don’t like? And if I decide to buy Nike, or Adidas instead, must I research those companies’ executives’ campaign contribution history? Or do I just stick my head in the sand and simply buy whichever products I like best, regardless of my (or the company’s) political leanings?

Regardless of how (or whether) I’ll personally take action moving forward, my takeaway from the last few weeks is this: brands absolutely care what consumers think of them, perhaps more now than at any point in history. Companies exist to make money, and if consumers decide—for whatever reason, political or otherwise—to stop giving them money, they will notice and they will react.

As the Seth Godin quote at the top of this post suggests, we as Americans don’t just vote in November. we vote with our money–and our social media, and our Google search history, and what we watch on TV–all day, every day. I don’t know about you, but I plan to make my votes count.

We’ll Miss You, Jim

On Sunday, my 35th birthday, my step-grandfather, Jim, passed away at age 93.

I met Jim about 20 years ago, when my mother was dating Jim’s son and my stepdad, Tom. Jim and his late wife, Rose, were older than my biological grandparents. As is typical with blended families, we didn’t know what to call them, so we simply referred to them as Jim and Rose.

Over the years we would visit with Jim and Rose, going to their house on Long Island for holidays. Even when they became my ex-step-grandparents, I still made a point to stay in touch as much as I could with an occasional visit when I was in town, or a call to the house every so often. When Rose passed away a few years ago, my wife and I attended the wake.

Since his wife’s passing, Jim’s own health had begun to deteriorate. He had fought and won a battle with cancer two decades earlier, but now his body was breaking down though his mind stayed sharp.

Over the past year, I put reminders in my calendar to call him every few weeks to check in, to see what he was up to, what he was reading, how he was feeling. My wife and I would stop by for a visit when we could, and he was always appreciative when we did. On one of my visits, when he was still feeling well enough to move around the kitchen, he made me lunch—chicken soup.

Despite what I can only imagine was heartbreaking frustration at not being able to use his body to do much of anything, he didn’t let his brain quit. He devoured the New York Times every day, listened to books on tape with an old school tape player at his side, read long biographies, and listened to music.

Once he mentioned that he had read about all the excitement the then-new musical Hamilton was generating on Broadway, and that he was curious about it—though not sure he’d like the show’s hip-hop score. A few days later I sent him the original cast recording.

Given the speed of the singing and rapping—especially the character who rapped in double-time with a French accent—I wasn’t sure Jim would get past the first few songs before setting it aside. But when I called him a few days later, he told me he had listened to it twice.

He admitted that the music was not exactly his cup of tea, but that he did his best to follow along using the CD’s printed liner notes. That just blew me away. That he would even listen to Hamilton (twice), no less read the tiny-print lyrics, told me a lot about Jim’s thirst for knowledge. Just because he didn’t have the energy to leave the house, take a train into Manhattan to see the show on Broadway, didn’t mean he wasn’t going to at least see what all the fuss was about if he had the capability to do so from his living room.

In the past few months his health took a turn for the worse. I didn’t get the full details—I could have, but didn’t feel the need to pry—but it seemed that as hard as he battled he wasn’t going to win this time. Still, he persisted. On several occasions I thought I would be speaking to him on the phone for the last time. On some calls, I got the sense he thought that, too, especially when he would effusively thank me for calling him so often.

In the last months I began to call more frequently. His daily routine of taking midday walks had been all but curtailed; he spent a lot of time at home sitting, doing some light physical therapy in the house when he had the energy. I figured he was bored, so I called. Sometimes he was too tired to chat and only stayed on the phone a few minutes. Usually I could tell his energy level by how well I could hear him. In the past few weeks, despite some complaints about physical weakness and pain, he sounded as good as he’d sounded to me in years. In one of our most recent conversations, Jim told me he had just finished a biography about the Wright brothers (on his iPad), and suggested I check it out.

This past Thursday, I called Jim to firm up plans for my wife and I to come out to Long Island and see him on my next visit to New York a week later. He jokingly said, “Um, let me check my calendar. Let’s see, Saturday. Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing. Yeah sure, you can come by on Saturday.”

I wasn’t planning to call Jim this week because I knew I’d see him in a few days. I went on with my day and week, celebrating my 35th birthday over the weekend. I even received a card from Jim in the mail.

On Sunday night, while returning some birthday calls I’d missed during the day, I spoke with my stepdad, Tom, who told me that Jim had passed away earlier that day. He had been in some pain and the family made the decision to move him to a hospice facility, where he passed away peacefully.

Jim told me stories about his childhood, growing up on a farm, and about his time after the war when he and Rose moved to Virginia for a few years, not far from where I live now. He told me stories about taking his station wagon full of kids across the country to camp in national parks. About how with the help of doctors and medication and meditative gardening in his backyard, how he beat cancer.

If you met him just once, you would say Jim was a nice man. He was also a World War II veteran, a teacher, a gardener, a cancer survivor, a husband and father of four, a grandfather and step-grandfather. And he was my friend.

In this episode of The Profit, “The Soup Market,” Marcus Lemonis visits a Milwaukee-area soup shop.

The store has been reasonably successful, but with grand plans to expand its footprint from 5 stores to 50+, and a co-owner who died unexpectedly, owner and soup chef (“soupier”?) Dave Jurena needs Marcus’s help.

Within a few minutes of stepping inside one of The Soup Market locations, meeting Dave in person, and tasting a few soup samples, Marcus already has a few thoughts. The inside of the shop, he says, looks like a hospital cafeteria. The soups themselves are a little thick, not the light fare he expects when ordering soup. And he’s concerned that the calorie count of these thick soups isn’t posted anywhere, nor does Dave care to know how caloric his soups are.

Marcus also hates the sloppy presentation of the soup and bread on a plate, thinks the bread smells like it’s not fresh, and is concerned the shops aren’t collecting data at the point of sale for which soups sell best and worst. Dave estimates soup makes up about 60% of the shop’s revenue, but doesn’t know what the second-best selling item is.

Marcus asks Estephanie, one of the shop’s young, friendly assistant managers, to step outside to ask her a few questions without Dave hovering. When he asks Estephanie who she reports to, she squirms and says, “Dave…?” It’s obvious to Marcus, and the audience, she’s hiding something. There’s clearly an underlying issue, but it’s above her pay grade. No one can blame her for not getting in the middle of whatever it is. Estephanie grudgingly mentions someone named Grace, but says she’s unsure of Grace’s role at the company.

Next, Marcus pokes around in the kitchen at another TSM location, getting to know some of the other employees including Kevin, who is introduced as the director of operations. Kevin, in front of Dave, mentions Grace as well. Dave quietly says to Kevin, “Don’t mention Grace,” and then tells Marcus Grace will be leaving the company soon. Dave is red-faced and clearly uncomfortable talking about Grace.

Marcus smells something fishy–besides the cioppino. Unwilling to let the Grace thing go, he also asks Mayra the kitchen manager, outside of Dave’s earshot, who she goes to if she has a kitchen problem. “Grace,” Mayra says without hesitation. When Marcus asks if Grace reports to Kevin, Mayra says, “I really don’t know,” with the same awkwardness we saw from Estephanie and Kevin earlier. He revisits the issue Kevin, who describes the relationship between Grace and Kevin as “brother-sister,” and “dysfunctional,” before Dave interrupts them.

Upon visiting a third store, Marcus is confused to see Dave’s wife, Jill, again. He had met her at the first store that morning, but since she’s not technically involved in the business he thought it odd to see her twice in one day. When he asks Dave why she’s here, he says it’s “to support me.”

“Is that really the reason?” Marcus asks. Dave says: “And to keep Grace away.”

When Marcus prods, Dave is as cold as gazpacho and says three or four times, “I’m not going to talk about it. Next subject.” Marcus won’t let it go, and finally Dave says, “I wish you would go. I have no interest in your services,” and storms out.

Marcus reaches Dave on the phone an hour later. Dave explains there was a “blow-out fight” between he and Grace, and they mutually agreed to part ways. Marcus is satisfied, for the time being, and agrees to set the Grace thing aside. For now.

Marcus and Dave go over the numbers together. We see the little cartoon infographic we get every episode, this one specific to increasing the margins on a cup of soup–though Dave himself doesn’t know how much it costs him to make a cup of soup–from 52% to 70%.

And finally, here’s Marcus’s offer: factoring the $85,000 TSM is in debt, Marcus is willing to pay $315,000 for 50% of the business. Before agreeing to take Marcus’s money, Dave wants to know “what that looks like” in terms of how Marcus intends to spend money when it comes to improving the look of the stores, which Marcus hates. Marcus says no, he’s 100% in charge and won’t agree to any such conditions before making the deal. Dave, who pretty much has no choice, agrees. And with a handshake, Dave and Marcus consomme-d their relationship.

Marcus has Dave to bring a few of his soups to a lab to test their nutritional content and, surprising to no one, they are found to be heart attacks in a bowl. (As if this episode didn’t already smack of Seinfeld, the lab scene calls back Jerry, Elaine and Kramer having the “no-fat” frozen yogurt tested.) Marcus suggests tweaking some of the recipes to make them healthier. Dave wants no part of it, suggesting Marcus should stick to business and let Dave stick to soup.

Later, who makes an appearance at the store but Grace. She blows past the counter and walks to the back room. Marcus tries to stop her, pretending he thinks she’s a customer, but he knows what’s up. Her explanation is, “I’m Grace,” and she keeps going. Since Dave isn’t around, Marcus takes the opportunity to ask her what the deal is.

Grace says she is “kinda freaked out, I’m shaking right now.” Grace tells Marcus she is the director of operations–not Kevin–and that Dave requested she be invisible during the episode. She very much still works at TSM and still draws a paycheck. After a little more Marcus-style prodding–he’s like the Howard Stern of small business reality shows–Grace finally says she thinks Dave’s wife, Jill doesn’t trust her, and that she has become a problem in the Jurenas’ marriage, though nothing has ever happened between she and Dave.

The plot thickens–much like Dave’s African peanut soup.

As Marcus leaves the store, Dave’s wife, Jill, is skulking literally around the corner from the store. Is she keeping a lookout for Grace?

Marcus confronts Dave about Grace. Again. Dave says she’s a great worker who really stepped up when his business partner died, and that he developed feelings for her. He says he told his wife about it, and that nothing actually happened between he and Grace. Marcus considers walking away, but decides to power through for the sake of the employees. What a guy.

Marcus forges a deal with a pretzel company to supply TSM with a better bread option. And Dave even agrees to make a healthier soup to appease Marcus. Marcus is simply inspiring, not unlike chicken soup for the soul.

Marcus goes home to Chicago, then comes back two weeks later for the grand re-opening of one of TSM’s locations, having spent $60,000 renovating the shop and installing a point-of-sale system. People are lined up at the door. Dave gives an emotionless speech about how excited he is for the re-opening, and everyone files in for free soup. Dave’s wife, Jill, says she’s very proud of Dave. But wait…

Marcus spots Grace hanging around outside the store. Marcus brings Dave outside to take one last shot at ironing things out between Dave and Grace. He mediates, Dave apologizes, and Grace accepts. But Marcus is still pissed that Dave, against his wishes, excluded Grace from the opening. Marcus is again questioning his decision to partner with Dave. Perhaps he should have chosen salad instead.

Ten days later, while back in Chicago, Marcus gets a call from Grace. Grace says Dave fired her for insubordination, and when she refused to leave, Dave had the police escort her out. She also reveals that two years ago she filed a sexual harassment complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after Dave made a sexual advance toward her. While that’s messed up, and Dave is now coming off like a scummy weirdo, I kinda feel like this is something Grace might have mentioned to Marcus a little sooner.

Marcus goes back to Milwaukee to confront Dave and sees that the new menu board, fresh produce display, and POS system are gone. The pretzels are missing, too, and TSM is now selling ice cream.

Marcus, now stewing, questions Dave, who tells him he doesn’t like any of the ideas Marcus implemented. They bicker, but it’s all beside the point. Marcus whips out his trump card, the paperwork from Grace’s EEOC complaint. Dave goes back into red-face mode, says the complaint is “being taken care of,” and that he doesn’t think he and Marcus are a good partnership. Marcus, class act that he is, wishes Dave good luck, shakes his hand, and walks out. After taking about a $100K hit on this failed investment, Marcus may be eating ramen tonight.

“I saw his true colors,” Marcus concludes. “I’m outta here.” I can believe he walked away from the deal. What I cannot believe is that he didn’t even attempt a soup-related play on words to end the episode. Personally, I would have gone with, I ultimately decided that Dave’s bisque was simply not worth the risk.

This was an entertaining hour of TV but it leaves me with one question: had Dave been more flexible and cooperative with Marcus, would Marcus have been willing to stick out the partnership despite Grace’s sexual harassment claim? How much of a role did ethics play in Marcus’s decision to walk away, and how much was simply because Dave was a pain in the ass to work with?

What do you think?

As a business development manager at Warc–a service devoted to helping advertising professionals create, buy and sell effective advertising*–I spend eight hours every workday talking to prospective clients about how insights (i.e. research) is the first step to building strategic ad campaigns that drive sales.

*Sorry for the elevator pitch but I couldn’t help myself!

My day job, combined with my friends Gil and Elliot’s recent interest in advertising, got me thinking about why I’m loyal to some of my own favorite brands.

*As savvy consumers, Gil and Elliot have begun to take notice of contemporary advertising platforms like product placement, native advertising and highly-paid YouTube celebrities, a.k.a. YouTubers.

And where better to start than a product I buy quite a bit of: beer.

I’d consider myself a bit of a beer snob, but I didn’t start that way. Ten years ago, then in my early 20s and always on a budget, I generally drank whatever was cheapest. My first question when I visited a bar was, “Do you have any specials?”

It wasn’t until a trip to visit my uncle Frankie in Arizona back in 2007 that I started to form a connection to one beer in particular.

When I got off the plane, happy to trade my heavy winter clothing I’d brought from New York for a t-shirt and jeans, Frankie picked me up from the airport and brought me to his favorite local sports bar, Zipps, for some wings and beers.

As I reviewed the bar’s domestic beer selection, Frankie suggested a beer I’d never heard of from a brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado. The beer was called Fat Tire.

“Do you mean Flat Tire?” I asked.

“No man, it’s Fat Tire,” Frankie replied.

I ordered the beer with the odd name, and I liked it a lot. It wasn’t too fancy, just a simple, drinkable amber ale. It had more flavor than the cheap, light beers I was used to drinking.

Frankie and I had a great weekend together. Frankie is just six years older than me, so our relationship growing up had been sibling rivalry-esque. But on my visit we had a chance to hang out for the first time as adults. I was glad for the chance to bond with my uncle and, of course, try Fat Tire.

fat-tire

I was disappointed when I returned home to New York and learned that New Belgium, the brewery that produced Fat Tire, didn’t distribute its beer in my area. I would continue to look for Fat Tire every time I visited Arizona, Las Vegas, or the West Coast. I enjoyed the thought of having a “go-to” beer when I traveled to the other side of the country. If a bar, restaurant or casino was serving Fat Tire, I ordered it.

When I got married a few years later, I was excited to learn that Fat Tire was available in Virginia, the state where my wife and I tied the knot. I made sure we were serving my favorite beer during the cocktail hour and reception.

Since that first visit to Arizona, I’ve tried many, many new beers, and have developed a fairly sophisticated palate when it comes to craft beers. Have I had better beers than New Belgium’s Fat Tire? Sure. But I still consider Fat Tire my favorite beer. It’s not because it’s the best beer I’ve ever had; it’s because I associate it with that positive memory of my visit to Arizona, the subsequent visits to see family Out West, and my wedding.

So, what does this have to do with advertising? What can an advertising professional–for example, someone at an ad agency whose job it is to figure out where and when to advertise on behalf of its client, a craft brewery–take away from my story?

Bud Light and Coors Light, which fall under the massive conglomerates Anheuser-Busch InBev and Molson Coors, have been associating themselves with the things Americans love for many years or years, particularly when it comes to sports. It’s just about impossible to consume an American sporting event–watching on TV or online, listening on the radio, or in-person–without seeing several ads for these beer brands. And whether you consciously notice it or not, you’re associating the (hopefully) positive experience of watching your team play with the brands that advertise alongside it.

Of course, an independent, employee-owned brewery like Fat Tire, or the many even smaller breweries like it, don’t have the budget to flood the airwaves with commercials to raise awareness for their beers. But when my wife and I attended a small music festival in Charlottesville, Virginia, a few years back, New Belgium was there with a sponsored tent and pouring four of its beers I’d never had before including a tasty summer brew, Snapshot. I’ve purchased Snapshot and other New Belgium beers since then, and I always associate their beers with positive memories.

As it turns out, New Belgium didn’t have to spend millions of dollars on a 30-second Super Bowl commercial to create an opportunity to earn my business.

Now, let’s be realistic: I don’t stand in the beer aisle at my local grocery store and stare blankly into the cold cases while I replay the Fat Tire-related highlights of my life every time I buy a six-pack. But on some level, I’m thinking that when I’m buying that beer, a positive feeling will come along with it.

The craft beer business these days is brutally competitive. While there are more tiny breweries making great beer than there have been in any point in American history, it also means they’re all vying for market share (from beer snobs like me) and, unfortunately, they won’t all get it. But with the limited marketing dollars they may have, I’d advise them to make their presence felt at local events. As Peter Sims suggests in his book, Little Bets, if you can cheaply and quickly test an idea, it’ll allow you to tweak a good idea until it’s great–or rule out a bad idea all together. Maybe that means hosting a beer tasting at a local food truck festival. Or sponsoring a tent and selling your best beers at a small concert. Or just pouring small cups of cold beer to sweaty volunteers on a hot day at a charity event, even a summer 5K.

Small craft breweries will never realistically compete with AB Inbev and Molson Coors. For most, the best case scenario is to gain enough national attention to get acquired by one of the “Big Beer” companies. Even the biggest American craft brewery, The Boston Beer Company (which brews Samuel Adams) isn’t close. As its founder, Jim Koch says, Budweiser pours more beer down the drain than his brewery produces in a year.

But if you can start small and local, and connect your beer brand with something positive that your prospective consumers can look back on and smile, you’re off to a pretty good start.

When my wife and I arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, after a full day of traveling from our safari lodgings to a boutique hotel in the Camps Bay area of the city, we were surprised to learn we had been upgraded from our original room to a suite for the first four nights of our stay. However, we are also surprised to learn the suite wasn’t available on our fifth and final night, so we would have to move rooms.

Tired, hungry and cranky, we asked if there was anything that could be done to avoid having to move rooms. (We’re not the neatest unpackers, and didn’t want the hassle of having to pack up, unpack, and pack again a day later.) We asked if it was possible to cancel the last night’s reservation–we were thinking if we had to pack up everything anyway, we might try to find a hotel room in another part of the city for our final night in Cape Town.

The front desk staffer said he would call the owner, an American gentleman, about our situation. Shortly after, the same staffer found us and explained that no other rooms were available for our last night, and we would indeed have to move rooms our fifth night. He was nice and polite, and by then we’d settled into our room and were in better spirits. We said sure, it was no big deal, and the matter was over in our eyes.

About ten minutes later, while getting ready for bed, I received an email on my phone from the owner of the hotel, which I’ve included below. (I took out a handful of text from the original email to redact any personal information, about us and him, or impertinent comments.) We’ve decided to take the high road and not “out” him by revealing his name or which hotel in Cape Town he owns. But the email itself is too good not to share; it’s truly a master class in how not to speak to your hotel guests. Enjoy.

Oh, and despite this insane email, the hotel was actually really nice and we stayed all five nights.

Hello Bobby,

I just received a call from our night manager sayin that you are unhappy about having to move rooms for the extra night you added to your stay.

I probably should have spoiled the surprise at the time which you have done yourselves now.

I wanted to do something nice at the time upgraded you to our largest and most expensive suite. You added the extra night on and only a different room was available.

I feel really put out. Rather than a thanks for the upgrade you want to leave the last night you added on because you have to change rooms.

I turned away a guest who stayed with us twice before yesterday as we didnt have the [fifth and final night] available. We are not a 300 room Westin and I am now really upset with this and I have so much work to do just too upset to deal with guests full stop.

There will be no refund for the [fifth night] if you decide to leave. In fact I would rather you left and upgrade some other guests as your wife played up and is giving us difficulty after what I did. This is such a slap in the face. Do I dare ask who you are voting for?

It will be a long time before I do this again for a pair of American guests. I cannot keep up with our enquiries and I am very very put out to have my time wasted like this as well.

I dont care if you like this message or not. Let me make this clear! Yes I do take it personally as [this hotel] is my baby!

[Signed owner’s name]

The following travelogue details the first four days of a recent two-week trip my wife and I took to South Africa. This first post, in a series of, well, I’m not sure how many yet, describes our experience on safari in Kruger National Park, South Africa’s prodigious game reserve, in the northeast corner of the country. (All photos courtesy of Kimberly Calise.)

Each day of our three-night stay at Jock Safari Lodge began the same way.

We awoke at 5 am to a call from Lazarus (Laz for short), our safari ranger for the duration of our stay. From that point we had 30 minutes to get out of bed and get to the green open-air Toyota Land Cruiser where Laz was waiting.

dsc_1159With our eyes barely open we threw on the safari outfits we’d carefully picked out a few weeks before–breathable outerwear to keep us cool (which we’d learn would not be a problem on safari in September) and cover us the strong African sun and the persistent, (possibly) malaria-carrying mosquitoes. We’d step out of our room, spray ourselves down with bug repellent, head to the dining room for a quick cup of coffee* and a snack, and get going on the first of two three-hour game drives that day.

*On the advice of a friend who had been on safari in South Africa a few years before, I made a point not to have too much caffeine before we left. You don’t want to be the guy, my friend warned, who makes the ranger turn back so you can use the bathroom in the middle of a drive.

The Big Five

The goal of of a safari trip is, ostensibly, to see The Big Five: African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros. The Big Five (TB5, as I’ll refer to them) might seem arbitrary to the uninitiated, as it was to me; I was more excited about seeing, say, a giraffe than a Cape buffalo. But in fact these are the five animals that were historically the most difficult (and dangerous) to hunt on foot.* (We did see TB5. Kind of. More on that later.)

*These days, TB5 is essentially a marketing campaign, a brand, even. From the airport gift shop to the hundreds of small shops in between Kruger and Johannesburg and Cape Town, TB5 adorned kitschy souvenirs, from placemats to postcards. There’s also some historical context around TB5, as Laz explained to us one night over dinner: When European hunters would come to Africa to hunt dangerous and rare game, many were killed attempting to fill their trophy room with heads and hides. Laz says it wasn’t uncommon for European hunters to have safari tales about how a buffalo, or a rhino, killed one of their family members or friends.

It didn’t take long for us to see our first TB5 animal. In fact, we saw one from our cab from the airport to the park, 90 minutes before we arrived at Jock. Our driver, a part-time safari ranger himself, pointed to his left and matter-of-factly said, “Elephant.”

Sure enough, about 30 feet from our car was an adult African elephant. My wife, perhaps without realizing it, exclaimed “Oh my word!”–simultaneously channeling the wonderment of a 5-year-old and the phraseology of a 90-year-old. But I can’t blame her, because that’s why we were there: to see things we’ve never seen before, and see them up close. And we were off to a pretty good start.

But as exciting as it might have been to see that first elephant, Laz made sure the full Jock experience was worth the price of admission–and a massive upgrade from casual cab-side animal spotting.

Laz was undoubtedly looking for and finding clues that were going right over our heads. He would examine dung and tracks in the sand, listen for birds tipping off the location of land animals, scan the horizon for movement hundreds of yards away, and I imagine he was doing things we didn’t even realize, like smelling for clues. Even when it got dark, and the rest of us could barely make out an elephant if it was charging the vehicle, Laz was pointing out tiny rodents climbing up trees with nothing but a flashlight he waved back and forth in front of the truck like a windshield wiper. Laz and his fellow rangers–usually three or four trucks went out at a time–would communicate on the radio to let each other know if they spotted something that was worth taking their passengers to see. To be honest, I didn’t want to know how Laz was so good at his job. I thought of him as a safari magician. Telling me how he does the tricks would only detract from the experience.

On Safari in Kruger National Park
south-africa-mapOf Kruger National Park’s (KNP) 7,523 square miles (about the size of Israel), Jock had exclusive rights to game drives on 23 square miles, and could also track game on any public land within KNP.

While some animals, like cheetahs, are very rare in Kruger, others, such as impala, were everywhere.* The rangers call impala the fast food of the safari because a) they’re plentiful for any predator looking for an easy meal, b) they run fast, and c) the markings on their back side look a lot like an “M,” which might remind you of the golden arches of McDonald’s.

*There are about 150,000 impala in KNP, versus about 150 cheetah. Oddly enough, we saw 3 cheetahs at once–or 2% of the total cheetah population in KNP.

Elephants were fairly easy to find as well, both because they’re one of the more populous animals in the park (about 14,000 in KNP), and they’re huge. We were fortunate to see this scene a few times. We even had an angsty teenage elephant take a few threatening steps towards our truck and trumpet at us, before losing interest.

Giraffes, though not part of The Big Five, were one of the animals we had hoped to see. Kruger didn’t disappoint. Of course we knew what a giraffe looked like, and we’d seen then in zoos, but experience is amplified in their natural environment. (Fun fact about giraffes we learned on one of Jock’s daily nature walks: they eat upwind. Apparently the type of tree they typically eat releases bitter-tasting tannins as a defense mechanism to prevent animals from feasting on them. The wind can often carry the scent of those tannins to other trees nearby, which then triggers those trees to release their tannins. By eating upwind, i.e. in the opposite direction the wind is blowing, giraffes avoid the bitter leaves. They’re like the guy at the table who sends wine back.)

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About an hour into our morning drives, Laz would pull over in a safe-ish part of the park, pull down a little metal shelf attached to the front of the truck, put down a safari-patterned tablecloth, and set up a coffee and cookies for his passengers–my wife and me, a 40-something German couple, and a 30-something Swiss couple. He would carefully scoop two spoons full of instant coffee into each mug (ours first, then his once we all had a cup), the hot water from the Thermos, and even a splash of milk. (He also offered Amarula, a cream-fruit liqueur, if we preferred.) We would stand around the truck, sometimes asking him questions, other times just enjoying the quiet. What I enjoyed most about these little coffee breaks–besides not being at my desk at work–was that they forced us to stop, look around, and appreciate how lucky we were in that moment.

A few minutes after the coffee break on our first morning out, and not too far from the “safe” spot we were casually drinking coffee, we stumbled upon an adult male lion napping–our first lion sighting. While we certainly hoped to see more than just one lion, I think everyone in Laz’s truck silently checked off “lion” on their TB5 mental Bingo card.

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Big Five, Schmig Five

Though the TB5 is table stakes for a great safari experience, my wife and I were also hoping to see some “bonus” animals. After a relatively uneventful drive on our second day on safari–meaning we only saw elephants, impala, giraffes, kudu (essentially an African antelope), and buffalo–we stumbled upon a small body of water within the park. (Water is rare in Kruger during September and October, the end of their dry season. In fact, our bungalow at the lodge overlooked a river bed, but it was completely dry and we actually ended up using it as a road during our drives. Occasionally some rhinos or buffaloes would drop by to say hello to diners at lunch.)

In the water was a bashful hippopotamus who barely poked her head out a couple of times, enough for us to snap a few photos. Laz explained that hippos, despite being vegetarians, were actually the #1 human killers in Africa.* While not carnivorous, they’re very territorial. It doesn’t take much, just a poor soul in rural Africa washing up in some water, to motivate a hippo to defend her territory by crushing its perceived threat.

If being within spitting distance of a hippo wasn’t scary enough, a crocodile just happened to be hanging out nearby as well. Crocodiles, according to Laz, are the #2 killers of humans in Africa. And yet he didn’t make a move for his gun–all rangers carried a rifle in their truck, just in case–but instead took some video on his phone. That’s a sure sign you’re seeing something special: when the ranger gets excited about it. (Special was the word Laz would use in a whisper, if we asked about seeing something very rare, like a kill–e.g. a lion catching a zebra–or the live birth of an animal.)

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That night, we ate a boma-style dinner with our fellow drive passengers and Laz. When my wife asked him what a boma was, he explained its original was the “British Officers Mess Activity.”) He then explained that he was lying*, and that a boma was actually a traditional African meal in which a large group of people cook, eat and then go to sleep around a large fire. The boma buffet menu included kudu (very tender beef-like meat), buffalo pie (like shepherd’s pie) and sausage, warthog (tasted like chicken but gamier), plus some chicken and beef. I made a point to taste everything.

*Laz got us a couple of times like this. He also pointed out a small bird and pretended it was a baby ostrich before coming clean. “If I just said it was a regular bird, none of you would have wanted a picture!”

Big Cats

We spent our last three drives chasing a leopard.

One of the other rangers alerted Laz and the others that he had seen a leopard guarding a fresh kill, an impala carcass hanging from a tree. Leopards are solitary animals, and they don’t like to share their hard-earned meal–“fast food”–with wild dogs or other scavenger animals. (Fun/Gruesome nature fact: the impala carcass was wholly intact. I was expecting a bloody scene, but the leopard had apparently suffocated his prey without actually spilling any blood.)

When we arrived, the leopard wasn’t home. Laz thought he wasn’t far off, but now that we were on a public part of Kruger (as opposed to Jock’s exclusive land) there was a lot more tourist activity and the leopard wasn’t having any of it. We hung around for a bit, but the leopard never appeared.

Before our second attempt at spotting the leopard–see what I did there?–Laz suggested we try to track down Jock’s local pride of lions. (Think of it like the local chapter of an Elks Lodge, but, ya know, nothing like that.) I think he was hedging his bets that if we didn’t end up seeing the leopard that night, we’d settle for a bunch of lions.

Perhaps just to build up some drama, Laz stopped the vehicle in the middle of the arid river bed, took his rifle out of its case for the first time since we’d been there, and started walking towards the other side of the river bed, where he’d have a better view of the landscape. As my wife started to snap a few pictures of Laz walking away, he turned, and with his fake serious expression and tone of voice, said, “If I don’t make it back, send that picture to my kids and tell them I love them.” Then he smiled, and kept on walking.

He returned a few minutes later with the data he needed, and we were off to find the pride.

Most of our animal-spotting had been done from the side of the road, but the lions weren’t going to make it easy for us to see them. Laz pulled the Land Cruiser off the dirt road, warning us to duck our heads as we drove in between gangly trees and over dead branches to get a closer look. And just like that, there they were: 12 male lions.

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While the older male lions–the ones who had facial hair, a.k.a. manes–conserved their energy, the younger ones did battle. Against each other. My biggest takeaway from the safari is that animals are deliberate about how they use their time and energy. Everything they do is purposeful. For the older lions, napping was the best use of their time in that moment. But for the younger ones–think teenage Simba*–they were using the time to practice.

*Laz referenced The Lion King quite a few times on the trip, referring to warthogs as “Pumba,” or a mountain as “Pride Rock,” or working “Hakuna Matata” into the conversation. The Lion King, he said, was a common language among any of his guests, regardless of where they came from. 

The young lions, three or four of them, took turns walking away from each other, stalking slowly, and then running at and pouncing on one another. Once a lion was pounced on, a short wrestling match would ensue, and then another lion would start it all over again. It was remarkable how clear it was what they were doing, and how relatable it was to the behavior of human boys playfighting in the schoolyard.

As for us, we scored tons of pictures and video, and this sighting made our safari trip. Even if we never got a glimpse of the elusive (and quite frankly, rude) leopard, we had our lions. At that point we were playing with the house’s money, so Laz took another shot at finding Cousin Jeffrey’s favorite animal.

It was about a half hour drive from to the leopard’s refrigerator (a.k.a. the tree where he was storing his impala), and it was already dark by the time we got there. Laz shined his flashlight around the tree, and sure enough we could just barely make out a glimmer of the leopard’s eyes catching the light, betraying his location behind a bush directly beneath the tree. It was only a matter of time, we thought, before he came out of hiding, climbed up the tree, brought it down and started feasting.

But, as it turned out, a faint outline of the leopard behind the bush was the best look he’d allow.

With not much going on except us starting at a tree illuminated by a flashlight, Laz took the opportunity to serve our puza, or safari happy hour. (I asked him if puza, like boma, had a special meaning in African culture. “It means drinking.”) The leopard never came out of hiding, but at least now we had booze.

That night we went back to the lodge, recapping the day with the older German couple from Laz’s truck, and a younger German couple who were part of a different group. The younger Germans happened to be at the right place at the right time the day before, and actually had photos of the very same leopard we were chasing, bringing his kill up into the tree. Timing is everything on safari.

Still, despite a mild case of FOOMOS (fear of missing out on safari), we were satisfied with the day’s drives and Laz’s efforts to give us a special experience. On our final drive the next morning, we went directly to the same spot, hoping the leopard would seize the opportunity to dine in peace–besides the minor distraction of being there creepily watching him. But by the time we arrived the carcass was gone. He’d either eaten it and then the rest had been taken by scavengers, or more likely he had moved the stash.

I’d hardly say we’re disappointed by the leopard’s shyness, thought it would have been cool to see the last of our TB5 animals in action. But, as a fellow tourist told us a few days later at our next step, Cape Town, you don’t want to see everything a place has to offer on your first visit. Now you have an excuse to return.

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If this post wasn’t long enough for you, here’s some bonus material:

  • The male red-crested korhaan (a.k.a. “the baby ostrich”) has a unique mating ritual. To advertise its mad flying skills to its female counterparts, it performs an aerial display. The kurat shoots itself up into the air like a rocket, hits the peak of its flight, then drops like a rock down to the ground before parachuting its wings just a moment before landing.
  • Speaking of mating rituals, male rhinos defecate, then stamp on it track it on the ground around them to denote their territory. Female rhinos catch the scent, then they defecate nearby to advertise their own availability.
  • We often spotted large dirt mounds around trees. Our nature guide explained that these were termite mounds. Termites don’t actually eat wood. They eat mushrooms. So, they create these soil piles, under which mushrooms–and ultimately the trees themselves–grow.
  • On one drive we saw four or five male lions lazily sunning themselves, bellies up. Laz explained that they had just eaten a big meal, and turn their bellies up toward the sun because it apparently aids their digestion. Sounds like an old wives’ tale to me, lions.

Selling a Salesman

About five months ago I embarked on a new career path: sales. Up to that point I had no sales experience except for a few miserable months selling knives.

To get myself prepared, I watched my favorite movie about sales, Boiler Room (which, incidentally, is based on Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Wolf of Wall Street).

There’s a scene in Boiler Room when Seth, a young hotshot stockbroker played by Giovanni Ribisi, is sitting at home one Saturday morning eating breakfast when he gets a call from a guy named Ron, who’s trying to sell him a subscription to the Daily News.

Ron weakly gives his elevator pitch, mispronouncing Seth’s last name–though how does one mispronounce “Davis”?–and Seth says “not interested.” But before Seth lets Ron hang up, he gives him another shot at the call. “I get the same half-assed sales call from you guys every Saturday morning. If you want to close me you should sell me. Start again.”

Ron gives a stronger pitch (albeit clearly reading from a script), “feature-dumping” all the reasons why the Daily News is the best daily newspaper in the city, and even handling some objections from Seth.

At the end of the call Ron asks for the sale. Seth’s response: “Nah, I get the Times.”

As a new sales guy I’m hardly in the position to critique the technique of another sales guy, but on Thursday I was the recipient of a sales call from a rep at an online stock trading site where I’ve done a small amount of business in the past.

This wasn’t a typical cold call–i.e. a sales call in which no prior business relationship with that person exists–because I was already a customer of the site. But, it was most certainly a sales call in that the site makes its money when its customers make trades, and I was making none.

So the guy calls me on my cell phone in the middle of the workday, but I pick up–it was an area code I recognized. He introduces himself and asks “How are you?”–a surprisingly simple way to gauge the mood of the person on the other end of the phone, so you know how much time you’ll have to make your pitch.

He sounds a little “junior.” He explains that he’s noticed I haven’t been very active on the site lately. He’s right. I tend to pick stocks with little more sophistication than those people who fill out a March Madness bracket based on the mascots of the teams, and nothing has really inspired me to make a trade lately.

He goes on to ask me about my financial goals–am I saving for retirement, or do I just hope for a certain percentage return on my investment?–and shares some benchmarks based on other customers of the website. I’m reticent to share my financial goals with someone I don’t know so instead I ask, what does my account look like relative to those benchmarks he mentioned?

Now on a call like this, he’s probably making them at scale–he might make a couple hundred in a day. Most people won’t pick up, and the ones who do won’t talk to him for more than a few seconds. So it doesn’t make sense for him to learn everything about each customer he’s about to call, because it’s just not efficient to do so. I get it.

He takes a second to look up my account and shares some metrics. Fine. So, I ask him, what do you think I should do?

When a customer asks a salesperson this, the salesperson should be licking his chops. You better have a good answer. But this guy couldn’t give me anything specific. Again, because he probably didn’t think I’d pick up the phone, and because he was inexperienced, he certainly didn’t think I’d actually ask for his advice on how to invest my money.

I said, “If you have some ideas on any specific moves you think I should make, I’m all ears.” At this point, honestly, I just wanted to hear his reaction. He didn’t name a single stock, or type of fund, or anything he thought I should invest in. He agreed to follow up with an email (which he hasn’t yet) with some more information.

Obviously this guy wasn’t an experienced stockbroker–they had him calling down a list of people who weren’t using the site–but he’s got to go into the call with the mindset that if someone does answer, and they do ask him for a recommendation (more on “recos” in a moment), that he has something smart to say. This way instead of some jerk writing a blog post about this conversation with him, they’re investing money in a stock he suggested.

Early on in Boiler Room, when Seth is being trained on how to make cold calls by a senior broker, Greg (played by Nicky Katt), Seth asks what he should do if the person he calls wants to buy stock right there on the spot. Greg says, “You wanna go into every call expecting just that.” Greg instructs Seth to yell “reco” at the top of his lungs, at which point the first senior broker to get on the phone has the chance to close the sale. (See below. Semi-NSFW.)

I realize I’m hardly a “whale”–someone who invests massive sums–when it comes to stock trading. But if I was important enough to land on this guy’s call list, then I expect an idea, an insight, something from him that keeps me from uttering the five words every salesperson dreads: remove me from your list.

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