Episode 311
July 14, 2023

Looking for Love and Meaning in All the Wrong Places

Orchid Bertelsen has lived many lives in her journey from innovation to business ops. Ever heard of Nestlé’s digital human Cookie Coach, Ruth? Hint: She was heavily involved in the making of Ruth and its success in bridging the gap between technology and human connection. Be sure to stay tuned until the end to hear about the shifting dynamics between consumers and corporations in the digital age, the loving nature of critique, how Facebook never really died in the land of Suburbia, and in true Orchid fashion: a Scandoval reference.

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Orchid Bertelsen has lived many lives in her journey from innovation to business ops. Ever heard of Nestlé’s digital human Cookie Coach, Ruth? Hint: She was heavily involved in the making of Ruth and its success in bridging the gap between technology and human connection. Be sure to stay tuned until the end to hear about the shifting dynamics between consumers and corporations in the digital age, the loving nature of critique, how Facebook never really died in the land of Suburbia, and in true Orchid fashion: a Scandoval reference.

Threadaverse

  • {00:12:12} - “At the heart of {the Virtual Human Cookie Coach} was how can we serve more customers through a connected and consistent experience while utilizing technology and obviously using all of that information to make the product better, to make the experience better.” - Orchid
  • {00:14:45} - “Microsoft is so far ahead of everything and they always fail as a result. That's the problem.” - Brian
  • {00:16:52} - “If you use technology you can infinitely have more relationships and connectivity and serve more customers than your human constraints of the nature of having one person having one conversation at a time.” - Orchid
  • {00:23:29} - “There is an opportunity and also a watch out that a lot of those fake relationships can take up more mental space than the real relationships that you're creating.” - Orchid
  • {00:31:03} - “Because there's a deficiency in the services that the government is providing or a frustration around that, people are looking to the private sector, and so all of those things between the rise of social media, between just asking more of corporations, I think that's where people want to engage. And that's why there is critique because there is a higher expectation of how brands and companies conduct their business.” - Orchid
  • {00:33:20} - “Customers and fans have an unbelievable amount of power that outweighs the collective bargaining capabilities of the workforce. And I wonder if that's a fundamentally modern problem that we've never really said out loud, but we all sense to be true.” - Phillip
  • {00:40:43} - “They had to find something novel that they were uniquely positioned to deliver on and so that's why you had the pivot from a lot of talk about the Metaverse to all of a sudden they have released a product. And I would say one of the most successful product releases in modern history. But now they've released a product that is not shiny, it is not new, it is not innovative, but it works and it works for the people in this time.” - Orchid

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Orchid: [00:00:00] I think a lot of people will take criticism and say like, "Hey, if you're criticizing this, you don't want to be here." And I don't think that's true. I think it's very much like voting. If you are willing to take the time and the energy to say, "Hey, I believe in this thing, but I believe that it can be better."

Brian: [00:01:10] Hello and welcome to Future Commerce, the podcast where we explore the intersection of culture and commerce. I am Brian.

Phillip: [00:01:17] I'm Phillip. Today we have a very special guest, the venerable Orchid Bertelsen, who's taking over guest hosting duties over at the Infinite Shelf podcast for this season, but also holds the prestigious role of Chief Operating Officer at Common Thread Collective. Welcome to the show. I was going to say "back to the show," but this is the first time you're actually on the Future Commerce podcast, Orchid.

Orchid: [00:01:37] Woo-woo. Yeah, no, thanks so much for having me. And, obviously, I'll come all the time if Brian's going to say everything with such energy. That was fantastic.

Brian: [00:01:47] I mean, you obviously haven't listened to enough Future Commerce yet because I tend to get a little yell-y on the podcast, occasionally. It gets a little wild.

Phillip: [00:01:58] Shout-y

Brian: [00:01:58] Very shout-y

Orchid: [00:01:58] That's because you're supposed to be drinking energy drinks, but you just drink a nice cab, right? That's your energy drink.

Brian: [00:02:06] No, I mean, I drink a lot of things. I think everyone that's watched this show on YouTube knows that I drink a lot of things all the time. I drink a lot of water and I drink a lot of Nespresso and I drink a lot of Suja and I drink a lot of wine.

Orchid: [00:02:22] Wow. Yeah, we stand a Beverage King. I think that's what Gen Zers would say. No one would ever say that. {laughter}

Brian: [00:02:28] A Beverage Beast.

Phillip: [00:02:29] I'm definitely not allowed to say that. My kids told me that my performance on the podcast is cringe.

Brian: [00:02:39] That's rough.

Phillip: [00:02:39] Goal in life unlocked.

Orchid: [00:02:42] But they listen to it though. That's sweet. That's part of the battle. They listen to it.

Phillip: [00:02:50] It's like a parlor trick amongst their friends... Actually, this is how it goes, "My dad knows Mr. Beast," which is not actually true, which is like a nuance to them. They don't care that I have done things with the Feastables brand in various capacities. They're subscribed to us. It's such a weird thing, but the way they interpret is "My dad knows Mr. Beast," and then they prove it by showing their friends my YouTube channel. But then they quickly just flash it. They're like, "Yeah, it's cringe. You don't want to listen to it. You don't want to watch this."

Orchid: [00:03:26] {laughter} I think it's sweet. That's all we can ever aspire to, is that they even talk about us, right?

Brian: [00:03:32] Yes, that's true. That's it.

Phillip: [00:03:33] That's so true.

Brian: [00:03:34] Talking about you is a win. {laughter}

Phillip: [00:03:38] I often think back, Brian, you probably already know this, but I've never told you this Orchid. There is a, I think, John Adams quote that says, "I must study politics and war so that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy." And then he goes on with like, "My sons have to study mathematics and philosophy and geography and natural history so that their kids can study tapestry and poetry and architecture." And I'm like, "I must study commerce so that my kids can study creator and influencer dynamics on YouTube." That is my cross to bear.

Orchid: [00:04:23] That's what we're hoping for, though. I'm hoping that by the time my kid goes to college, it's just going to be like YouTube University or Meta University with Professor Zuckerberg in the Metaverse, right?

Brian: [00:04:35] Is that what you really want? Professor Zuck?

Orchid: [00:04:38] Yeah kind of. I don't know. I mean, it might just be what was that ongoing spoof in The Simpsons where Walt Disney just had his head cryogenically frozen, and at some point, he was going to be defrosted. It's kind of like that. I think it would be a digital human Zuckerberg. I don't think it'd be like actually Mark because we don't even know what's going to happen post cage match.

Phillip: [00:04:58] So yeah. Metahuman brains in Jars. That's been my Guiding Light, Orchid, has been the idea of I want to tip toe up to the line of the far future. What does the society in an eCommerce society in the far future look like? But you can't actually say the words out loud. You just have to get people, you know, you have to do the thing where you say three quarters of the rhyme and let them finish it in their head. But you've literally built metahumans.

Brian: [00:05:32] True.

Phillip: [00:05:32] So you're the perfect person to talk about some of this stuff. Actually, for people who aren't aware, you have literally built metahuman campaigns in your past role as an Innovation Lead at Nestlé.

Orchid: [00:05:47] Yeah. Head of Digital Innovation and Strategy at Nestlé USA.

Phillip: [00:05:50] And those are all big, important words. But what would you say you did there?

Orchid: [00:05:57] {laughter} What is it that you do here? That's like very much a scene from Office Space. So I was part of the Center for Marketing Excellence. So within large co.s you usually have some kind of center of excellence. Which is effectively an internal consultancy. My role when I started at Nestlé and I was there for about six years, I started as the digital strategist over the ice cream portfolio and a lot of that was working in between agencies and the brands to make sure things were aligned to strategy, to best practices and really ask the tough questions of the agency and just be that internal partner for the brand teams. And over time, I moved from the ice cream portfolio to the full Nestlé USA portfolio, which is a portfolio of about 40 brands. So think Coffee Mate, Starbucks at home, Hot Pockets, DiGiorno, not Nespresso, unfortunately. That's a separate entity. Yeah, that's a whole other thing. Sorry, Brian, I can't get you a discount.

Brian: [00:06:54] Dang it.

Orchid: [00:06:54] And then it also included Tollhouse. So in the role of leading digital innovation and strategy, it was very much what is going on out there in the world of technology, the intersection of technology and marketing that we as Nestlé, at the time, really should be looking at. What are some alphas and betas that our platform partners are putting out? What is Meta doing? What is Pinterest doing? What should we be testing? And then depending on how the test netted out, is that something we should be scaling across our portfolio? And so a lot of the work was done with the platform partners, but then there was also the work of what's coming down the pike where we would use different external partners and startups to try to create? And so the Tollhouse Digital Human Initiative came out of that. There was no platform partner. How the genesis of that project came about was that we were doing a project around getting better consumer insights. And when you are the largest food and beverage company in the world, the brand marketers don't engage with actual consumers on a day-to-day basis. All of that is relegated to customer service, which is effectively thought of as a cost center no matter where you are. And so we wanted to flip the script and say, "All right, from a cost center, can it be an insights generator? These are the only people within the company who actually talk to our customers day to day." And so we went down this path of saying like, "Okay, what there?"

Phillip: [00:08:30] "What if we also didn't talk to them and let a computer talk to them?"

Orchid: [00:08:36] {laughter} Okay, okay, okay. I see where you're going with this, but let me get there. So actually, Ruth, the digital human, actually started as a voice skill because those were all the rage. So we're like, "Okay, well, of the questions that we usually receive from customer service, there are large categories and large themes." Of course, "There's no expiration date." There's "Is this gluten free?" That sort of thing. But there were these complex questions around, "I want to substitute regular flour for almond flour. How do I do that?" And so there was a large enough volume of that coming through where we said can that be a voice skill? And voice skills are just annoying to develop because it's not like you're just developing it for one platform. You have to develop it for multiple platforms. So now you're doing it for Siri, now you're doing it for Alexa, and I'm just setting off everybody's voice devices...

Phillip: [00:09:28] For sure.

Orchid: [00:09:30] Hey, Siri, download Infinite Shelf. {laughter}

Brian: [00:09:33] Yes.

Orchid: [00:09:35] Done. We hacked it. That's growth hacking. That's growth hacking. {background "That's growth hacking."} Oh, my gosh. Oh, no, she is. She's doing it.

Brian: [00:09:43] You growth hacked yourself.

Orchid: [00:09:47] {laughter} That is unfortunately the lesson.

Phillip: [00:09:49] I didn't show you. It popped for me too, when I said, "Okay Google." It's fantastic.

Orchid: [00:09:53] Yeah, that's perfect.

Phillip: [00:09:55] Can you put this into an eBook and sell this?

Brian: [00:09:58] That's a playbook.

Phillip: [00:10:00] This feels like a thing that you could do.

Orchid: [00:10:03] Most ebooks should just be a tweet, honestly.

Phillip: [00:10:05] That's true. And most tweets shouldn't exist.

Orchid: [00:10:07] True.

Phillip: [00:10:08] They won't because Twitter may not exist in the near future.

Orchid: [00:10:10] They should be Threads.

Brian: [00:10:11] Yeah. Threads.

Phillip: [00:10:11] They should be Threads. But I digress.

Brian: [00:10:13] We'll get there.

Phillip: [00:10:13] Okay. Sorry. So you were down this path of building on this idea of voice assistants and skills and voice are actually kind of like this multi-channel, multi-platform initiative that's really annoying.

Orchid: [00:10:26] Yeah. Because then it's just like developing apps for different platforms. Any kind of version release you have to do you have to do for another one.

Phillip: [00:10:36] Of course.

Orchid: [00:10:36] And part of it too is that baking is always going to be a multimodal experience. So in addition to reading, like hearing it, you also have to see it. So then we're like, okay, well do you use one of the devices that has a screen and voice? And then we're like, okay, well, this is getting a little too complex. I don't think there's a user experience that we like. And so this is really kind of when digital humans were all the rage the first time around. I want to say about what, three, three, four years ago at this point. And so we're like, okay, well, you know, this is an experience that involves high empathy. Is there a way that we can personally embody what the brand should look like, should sound like? If you were to engage with someone who is an ambassador of the brand. And influencers tend to be challenging because you're dealing with like, well, mostly if I can be very candid, 20 year olds who make poor life decisions, and all of a sudden you're multi, you know, your multi-billion dollar brand is like dependent on how this person decides to act in their normal lives.

Phillip: [00:11:38] Go on...

Orchid: [00:11:39] I'm just saying. It's true. It's true. So we said, okay, well, if we were to create an ambassador for the brand, what would she look like? What would she sound like? What is the kind of experience that she could enable? So I think that's on like the marketing brand experience...

Phillip: [00:11:53] Could we give her a biblical name of some kind?

Orchid: [00:11:55] No, she's named after Ruth Wakefield, who is the founder of Tollhouse. {laughter}

Phillip: [00:12:00] Got it. {laughter}

Orchid: [00:12:02] We didn't name her Eve. Okay.

Brian: [00:12:06] Wow.

Orchid: [00:12:06] Although in hindsight. No, I'm just kidding. And so it was a very fun project. But [00:12:12] at the heart of it was how can we serve more customers through a connected and consistent experience while utilizing technology. And obviously using all of that information to make the product better, to make the experience better, things like that. [00:12:28]

Phillip: [00:12:28] One thing that comes up over and over again, again, Brian opened up saying, "Oh, we're at the intersection of culture and commerce." I think that there's a meta narrative in that too, is how experimental consumer brands can be in finding new ways to connect with their customers, but doing so in a way that, okay, we're going to check a bunch of boxes here. You're going to learn a little bit about the history and the trivia of this brand that you may never have gone to seek or search out yourself. I would never have known Ruth's background, but now I've learned it because I'm getting that through the lens of an experience that is trying to solve a problem. But I'm also learning something and when I learn something about a brand, maybe I find something deeper to identify with. Maybe it personifies it a little bit. But the other thing is we all kind of know what's happening here, right? This idea that there's a subtext of you interacting with something that's not trying to pass as human. You're offloading some repetitive operational work so that you can have humans that need to do real human things and answer real human questions that require logic and reasoning beyond that of which you could program into a computer, a set of prompts. I think that customer is really hip to those things now and actually appreciate the fact that companies are finding creative ways and new ways to experiment to make those interesting.

Brian: [00:14:10] One company was like, "I wonder what would best represent our brand." And they had these word processors and they're like, "A paperclip would be..."

Orchid: [00:14:24] {laughteer} I love Clippy. I am a clippy stan. I think Clippy was ahead of their time because I don't really think Clippy is gendered, you know what I mean? But no, I mean, I think it's similar where you have...

Phillip: [00:14:36] What does Clippy's OnlyFans say that Clippy identifies as? Let's see.

Orchid: [00:14:40] Does Clippy have an OnlyFans? Is Microsoft that cool?

Brian: [00:14:45]  [00:14:45]Microsoft is so far ahead of everything and they always fail as a result. That's the problem. [00:14:50]

Orchid: [00:14:52] They're just lapping themselves at this point.

Brian: [00:14:54] Yes.

Phillip: [00:14:55] The lapping themselves content is exclusive to OnlyFans subscribers, though. That is the problem.

Orchid: [00:15:03] I will say when humans are looking for a problem or for someone to solve their problems there is a generational gap between wanting to speak to a human and just wanting your thing resolved. So I think Amazon does this really well in terms of their live chat within their app. They have so many prompts that are automatically programed based on the massive amount of data that they have. It's a pretty good experience. They're like, "Hey, you're not reaching out to see how my day is." You're reaching out because either your package was stolen or you want to make a return or whatever that is. And so you want to get in and out as quickly as possible. You want to resolve that issue. What you do not want is for it to escalate. And Phillip, I think to your point about, yes, we need to free up human time away from the repetitive questions like, "Is this nut free?" That is a very easy answer or question to answer. And the humans really need to have their time freed up in order to do the human things. And so a big point of inspiration for me was from the movie Her with Joaquin Phenix and Scarlett Johansson.

Phillip: [00:16:03] Wow. Okay. That's prescient now because... Okay. Yeah.

Orchid: [00:16:09] So so one of the key scenes in... This movie is years old. So if this is spoiler alert, like this is on you, but one of the last scenes is that Joaquin Phenix is asking Scarlett Johansson, who's this AI who's been talking, he's been having this deep emotional connection with because she's literally in his ear and he says, "You know, this is really special to me. How many of these other conversations are you having?" She's like, "Well, I'm having like hundreds of thousands of other conversations, but like only about 3,000 that are as meaningful as this." And I think that and that's like a whole other thing that we could unpack. But I thought what was so interesting about that was when we talk about the personalization of marketing messages, when we talk about personalization of marketing experience, all these things,  [00:16:52]if you use technology you can infinitely have more relationships and connectivity and serve more customers than your human constraints of the nature of having one person having one conversation at a time. [00:17:07]

Phillip: [00:17:07] Are you familiar with Dunbar's number?

Orchid: [00:17:09] Well, Dunbar is actually my VP of finance, so I'm familiar with his number. But I think we're actually talking about different Dunbars.

Phillip: [00:17:17] Different Dunbar. Actually, by the way, we do need to talk a little bit about the shift into the agency world, because I'm fascinated about that. But Dunbar's number for those who aren't hip, is sort of shorthand for this theory that sociologists, I think Richard Dunbar came up with, that there's a maximum, a theoretical maximum number of human relationships that you could maintain, and that number is artificially small because human cognition was developed organically through evolution to very small groups of people. And we haven't necessarily evolved beyond that. How do I know? Because just look at society. They're not terribly evolved. So this idea is that there's a low number of relationships you can maintain. And the way that we have sort of extended that into the commerce space is that, well, what happens when every brand is vying for that relationship? And I guess the question is, can you foresee a future, Orchid, where people do have true parasocial relationships with brands or maybe these creations of brands that mean something on a personal level to them, or is that something that they cosplay as because it makes them interesting or unique or quirky? Because I tend to think it's more the latter. I have a middle schooler who has made her whole personality about French fries, who lives in my house, and I don't think she actually cares about French fries all that much, but she thinks it's funny and it's a meme that she's perpetuating and she will keep that up for as long as she lives, as far as she's concerned today. And that's how I think people actually participate with brands, is that there's a role they're playing. It's more cosplay than anything else. But I'm curious what you think about that kind of work. Is it just an interesting earned media opportunity or are you actually trying to hit on a real relationship at some point in making that sort of investment?

Orchid: [00:19:20] I think in the short term, definitely a media play because there's always some benefit to first mover advantage and to demonstrate that you are innovative and that your brand wants to try new things. Because from a business perspective, there are so many brands, even pre Nestlé that I worked on that were legacy brands where the reality was that their major client base, which was boomers weren't buying more of the product. They had bought all the product that they could. And there is still a limitation as the average human lifespan. And so they weren't getting additional customer growth out of that generation. So they needed to start to find younger pastures like millennials, so they needed to market in a different way so that not everybody was the Steve Buscemi meme of carrying a skateboard saying, "Hello, fellow kids." Although I feel like that almost every day because I work with a lot of Gen Zers. So I think that there is a way. What brands tend to do, especially legacy brands when they're trying to recreate or reinvent themselves, is that you have to continue to message to the people who are buying your product, but also message to the people who might, who you want them to think about you differently, but not so differently to alienate the people who are actually driving volume. So I think that with the Tollhouse case, the reality is like most of the customer base, I mean, they buy very heavily during the holidays. It's grandmothers or, you know, probably not grandfathers. I don't mean to be sexist, but grandmothers baking with their kids generally or with their grandkids. And so Ruth and this digital human that we created with a company called Soul Machines. So what that was was that it was covered in Vice. It was picked up in these publications that kind of leaned into the fact that like, "Hey, this could be cool." But there's also this thing as uncanny valley, which hasn't been solved yet. And we weren't trying to solve it. But I'm pretty sure I can tell you, my mother and my mother in law, who are in their late 60s, they're not reading Vice. That article is not going to alienate the way that they think about the brand. And so you do have to do both. Now to answer your question about do we expect to build a deep, meaningful brand experience? I think that that relationship is only... You can only pull it off if you're like one of like three brands in the world. I don't think that a lot of people are out there to have like a deep relationship with their brand, I think is very dependent on the category. I think it's very dependent on switching costs. There're all those things that are dependent on it. I do think a lot of brand marketers, because they spend so much time thinking about their brand, they're like, "Customers are going to think about us just as much." I was like, "The hell they will."

Brian: [00:22:09] Yeah.

Orchid: [00:22:10] I do think you have to be honest about what are you trying to do out here. Are you trying to provide a human good or are you trying to sell some product?

Brian: [00:22:19] It's interesting that you would say that. I think the question is, is content taking up the same level of space as a human relationship would and replacing our brain space or emotional energy around it, even if we're not thinking about it the same way? So the parasocial relationship, does it carry just as much weight with us as an actual relationship does? And does it take up the same space?

Orchid: [00:22:53] I think so. Have you followed Scandavol? But seriously, if you draw a parallel between people who are obsessed and rabid sports fans and following the lives of their favorite athletes. And then also, like for me personally, following the housewives or following Vanderpump Rules and these influencers and these creators, if you think about the space and time that I spend in various platforms and you get invited into their lives in a way that feels very genuine to you... I know more about what's happening with them than some of my friends, and you end up spending more time talking about it because it is this like cultural zeitgeist where you're like, "Everybody's talking about it." So this is part of a community. So I do think that [00:23:39] there is an opportunity and also a watch out that a lot of those fake relationships can take up more mental space than the real relationships that you're creating. [00:23:52]

Brian: [00:24:48] A thought struck me much earlier as we started getting into this. And I do wonder, and this is just wild for me to think about, and I'm just going to say it on the podcast because this is where my brain goes in a conversation like this. If because there are so many relationships to manage, if we will in the future have digital amalgamations of people that will sort of be proxies for sets of friends. Like we have individual units that are on...

Phillip: [00:25:22] I'm not high enough for this I don't think.

Brian: [00:25:24] I know I'm pushing.

Orchid: [00:25:25] Can I give you an example?

Brian: [00:25:26] Yeah, go ahead.

Orchid: [00:25:27] So I have two friends that I text about new technologies. The three of us were just chatting about Threads this morning and we're like, "Okay, you were on Mastodon, you were on Blue Sky. Where do we think Threads is? Yo, why are you so hyped on Threads? I see you posting. Why are you being so thirsty?" So that is a friend group. I've got another friend group where we only text about Bravo. Any of the shows on Bravo. Like, "Hey, Scandoval broke. Did you see that new thing?" So it's interesting because I get what you're saying in terms of you self-organize your personal relationships into content categories or even entertainment categories you think can be like, "Oh well these are my like technology friends. These are my trashy TV friends."

Brian: [00:26:14] Totally. No, that's actually dead on.

Orchid: [00:26:18] Isn't that natural? Like how it's always been? No, I think it was more of like, "Oh, we went to the same high school and we didn't move out of a five mile radius of where we grew up."

Phillip: [00:26:28] Maybe that's part of it. I do think maybe there's a nature. There are, you know, something we wrote about in The Multiplayer Brand, which is a new zine out by Future Commerce.

Orchid: [00:26:40] Oh this one?

Phillip: [00:26:40] Yeah, there it is. That's the one if you're watching on YouTube, you can see it. Thank you. Wow. Gosh, do I hold my copy up there? Dare I? It's here. I promise. Hold on. There it is. Okay.

Orchid: [00:26:53] Heyyy.

Phillip: [00:26:55] But 100 pages, $20. Free shipping.

Brian: [00:26:58] I got extra.

Phillip: [00:26:59] Visions.FutureCommerce.com. But something we wrote about here is this idea of well, why does critique of a brand exist? And I sort of drew this dotted line between the idea that brands move so quickly and they demand so much of us in such short periods of time in the modern era that maybe critique arises as a defense mechanism for us to slow them down. We find fault with them in the same way that you would in a human relationship to say, "Hey, hey, hey, hey. You're moving way too fast here. I am not ready for this level of commitment you're asking me to."

Brian: [00:27:37] Don't ask me to help you move.

Phillip: [00:27:39] Exactly.

Orchid: [00:27:40] We're too old for that.

Phillip: [00:27:42] But I think those are natural reactions and human behaviors that you don't necessarily examine, but you just follow your instinct. And your instinct says, "I have to aggregate the amount of information and friends groups based on things like topical analysis of technology trends because that is my defense mechanism of being bombarded with messages and imagery all day long." I also think sometimes there are people that fall in love with their pillow and you're going to have weird things that happen in the world where it's like, in fact, so many people fall in love with their pillow every year. There's like Google Autocomplete results about like, "Is it normal to love a pillow?" "Why am I emotionally attached to my pillow?" Like, if you can make a decision as your brand that you build for the relationship that you idealize with your customer that you wish that they have. And then there will be people that always take it too far, too and too literally. And you don't want that either. So it's somewhere in the middle of like this intimacy or it's fan but not necessarily a fanatic like and that's where... I don't know.

Brian: [00:28:55] There are so many jokes I can make right now. And I am just going. stop.

Phillip: [00:28:58] The question to you, since you have built brands, Orchid, is that something you can even set out purposely to try to engineer? Or is it like it just happens and you have no control over it and customers are going to make your brand into whatever they want it to be and sometimes you benefit and sometimes you don't?

Orchid: [00:29:17] Well, I think you I mean, that's a very that's like the cynical end of the spectrum. I think that you control some of it, but there's a lot that you don't control. And that's the beautiful thing about it, is that when someone truly feels that they connect with a brand's ethos, they want to be a part of it. They want to be able to shape it. They want to be able to interpret it in a way that fits their worldview. And I think that's okay. And I think that that is, and I think we talked about this at Visions during Visions Summit a little bit as well, which is that this is the nature of media. We went from very push, very much the brand is what the brand tells you it is and you have no way to speak back to it because it is you are only engaging with it through a magazine ad, through a TV ad, through radio. And then with the rise of social media, now you can talk back to brands and now brands on Twitter, better or worse, have a voice. They can answer back, they can engage. And I think too, and come with me on this journey, that I think people are asking way more of brands and corporations than they ever have. And I think it's because the government isn't doing a lot of what it should do. Or when you talk about income inequality, when you talk about rents going up, when you talk about all these things. And so that's why it's like it feels like over the last 5 to 10 years, a lot of people are saying, "Hey, corporations should be doing more. They should be taking me across state lines so that I can go to a health care clinic," or whatever it is.  [00:31:03]Because there's a deficiency in the services that the government is providing or a frustration around that, people are looking to the private sector. And so I think all of those things between the rise of social media, between just asking more of corporations, I think that's where people want to engage. And that's why there is critique because there is a higher expectation of how brands and companies conduct their business. [00:31:26]

Brian: [00:31:28] Yeah. And with corporations leading the way...

Orchid: [00:31:33] Like "our company's people?" Yeah, that's like the funny meme. I don't know. Are they?

Brian: [00:31:37] Well, and even more than that, if you engage with them enough, do you start to become sort of a digital citizen of the corporation? Are customers and employees sort of on equal footing in some ways? By buying something or taking money from something, you're actually on both sides of the same coin. You're a part of it.

Phillip: [00:32:08] Maybe it's deeper, Brian.

Orchid: [00:32:13] People are looking for meaning in all the wrong places. But that's just my very...

Phillip: [00:32:17] Yeah, looking for love and meaning in all the wrong places. One last little thought about that, and then maybe we can shift gears. But I think that you're really on to something really profound, Orchid. There's a power that the customer base has with a brand that exceeds the amount of power that its own employees have in its organization now. I think that there is organized labor as a thing is coming back. We're seeing it in small ways all over, at least in the United States, in various types of jobs. But those are small scale efforts when you compare that to, say, the Snyder cut. You have concerted efforts that take place in organized efforts to lobby against a brand, whether it's a media brand or a basketball team or a football organization.  [00:33:20]Customers and fans have an unbelievable amount of power that outweighs the collective bargaining capabilities of the workforce. And I wonder if that's a fundamentally modern problem that we've never really said out loud, but we all sense to be true. [00:33:36] Something I wish that I had thought about before we wrote The Multiplayer Brand by Future Commerce.

Orchid: [00:33:42] I have a lot of thoughts about that. I mean, I think part of it is that I think we're all about the same age. I know, Brian, you're a spring chicken. Phillip and or the millennial Gen X Cuspers. And I think that because there was little information shared, I mean, we remember when the Internet was launched, okay? And so we lived through the infancy of it. I was on Prodigy, I was on Aim like, you know, like there were all these things. Facebook started when I was a sophomore in college. And so I think that we were genuinely exploited to a certain degree in our career, wrapped up in the myth of capitalism and capitalism is a very real thing. But it's like, you know, if you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you can achieve anything. And I think that we kind of went along with it, and I think that now that we're in positions of power and now you have Gen Zers and even, you know, Gen Alpha with all the world's information at their fingertips, we're saying like, "Hey, that didn't work out so great. That caused a lot of the inequality that we are facing now." And so we have genuine concerns and we want to be a part of this, but we also need to feel like the time that we invest here is worth it. And we're interested in building something together. Because I will say that I think a lot of people will take criticism and saying like, "Hey if you're criticizing this, you don't want to be here." And I don't think that's true. I think it's very much like voting. If you are willing to take the time and the energy to say, "Hey, I believe in this thing, but I believe that it can be better. Here's what I want to do. I'm going to take this time to organize all these folks because we actually believe in the thing. We are actually trying to fight for a situation where we stay here." I think that that is still a very good thing versus people just checking out because it is a free market. If they didn't want to work there, they wouldn't. And so I do think that this critique is actually very loving in a way. It's saying like, "Hey, this is my perspective. This is what I expected and this is where you're falling short." Now it's the organization's prerogative to say, "All right, I hear you. Is this something that I want to do? Is this something that I don't want to do based on my goals and based on my limitations?" And I think it's okay to have that discourse and that dialog.

Brian: [00:36:15] Right. Or what 99% of my customers say and you're like the 1% saying, "Yeah, this doesn't fit what I thought it would." Yeah, I think critiques are amazing in that sense.

Orchid: [00:36:29] It still hurts. I don't want to pretend like, you know, actually receiving critique is easy. It is not easy.

Phillip: [00:36:38] I think the expectation for a lot of knowledge work, which has been my career path has been tending more towards putting yourself out into the world and inviting critique, whether implicitly or explicitly, but without the understanding that that's actually what we have done over the last 20 years. And when you're inviting people's perspectives and opinions and you're not prepared to receive them, I think that's where a lot of the modern challenges over... Yeah, that comes back to Dunbar's numbers. How many of these relationships do you really care about and how many of these opinions do you really need to solicit?

Brian: [00:38:11] Speaking of Dunbar's number and inviting critique and all of the above. Well, Zuck just dropped Threads. {laughter} It seems like all of the parasocial relationships that have been built up on Twitter and Instagram are filtering directly into a combined world, the combined Instagram and Twitter, and you get Threads. At least that's sort of the feeling that I get. Copy the feature set of Twitter and bring over all of your Instagram followers.

Orchid: [00:38:46] Just version one of Facebook. But what I'll do is I'll actually use Threads as a parallel for my career. Okay. Because I was very much at, my job was to look at the forefront of technology and say, okay, what can we bring in? Let's imagine the future. What do we need to do now in order to get there? Let's imagine what that can be. And I would parallel that with Facebook's change to Meta, or in their focus on the Metaverse is that they're looking for they're saying like, "Hey, this is where we're going to go. We're going to start building there." But what they found was that innovation, when it's too far out and it's not actually tied to business impact, you can't actually survive as a business and there's such a niche group of customers and users who are interested in that that you don't actually get everybody on board. Not right away. And so my pivot to hey agency side now I came agency side so kind of coming full circle but into an operations role of managing the PNL, of developing people, of making sure the service is excellent is kind of like where Meta's at. "Yeah. We do still believe that the Metaverse is the future. We still believe that innovation is important, but we also got a company to build and we talk about brass tacks like user growth and business growth and share price and the opportunity." Threads is very pragmatic. Is it bright and shiny and new and never been done before? Absolutely not. But Facebook was very, very well positioned because they had a strong social graph. They had a lot of distrust of Twitter that they could use to their advantage. And they needed to find something novel that wasn't a TikTok competitor or a TikTok clone. [00:40:43] They had to find something novel that they were uniquely positioned to deliver on and so that's why you had the pivot from a lot of talk about the Metaverse to all of a sudden they have released a product. And I would say one of the most successful product releases in modern history. But now they've released a product that is not shiny, it is not new, it is not innovative, but it works and it works for the people in this time. [00:41:06]

Brian: [00:41:09] And that's the metaphor for your career. I like that.

Phillip: [00:41:12] The metaphor for your career is that do you see that move to agency side as having all the same parallels? Because it feels like I see it a little differently. Having helped build a digital agency. And it's choosing a different kind of hard.

Orchid: [00:41:33] Well, the way that I see it is more of it's my career pivot from innovation to business operations.

Phillip: [00:41:40] I see. And that's not as sexy on the tin, right?

Orchid: [00:41:44] No, it's not. It's not. And I think some people will understand it. Not everybody will. But innovation and putting pretty decks together and imagining the future is really fun. But I wanted to create business impact. I wanted to know that the actions that I was taking and the decisions I was making was making the company a better and stronger place, both financially and in a way where it's repeatable, and scalable. I wanted something that was a little more tangible. And I also knew that managing a PNL was just like not something that I was really doing to any significant degree. And I also am old enough to know that if you want to succeed in business and thrive in capitalism, which is what it is, you have to be tied to the numbers. And what you're doing at work has to be tied to the numbers somehow.

Phillip: [00:42:38] Yeah. And nothing is more measurable in the agency model than your gross margin and your being on pace on a recurring basis for delivering value for your client. Those things are measurable. And you can see pretty quick data that supports hypotheses around things that need to change or be altered course correct, that sort of thing. Do you agree with that, number one? Number two, is that part of the allure or the nature of the business is that you can see a pretty tight turnaround, whereas maybe in large consumer brands it's a much longer payback period or a much longer time before you start to see the efforts of your work?

Orchid: [00:43:33] Yeah, I think I mean, obviously, whatever decisions you make when it comes to your career are ultimately going to be selfish. And so part of it is like, well, what do I want to be known for? Like, I'm not going to give a Ted talk on like a digital human. Sure, that's fine. But I want to be known for being someone who does meaningful work, who builds businesses. That's what I wanted to be known for. And so to your point as well, yeah, I think it is about the pragmatism and being able to show demonstrable results and impact in a measurable time. Because when I think about about careers and work, I think about it in terms of effort versus impact. And when you're an innovation, in a large organization I've talked to other folks in other organizations who have very, very similar roles. And one of the refrains is that it's very, very high effort, but minimal business impact. High effort, meaning if you're trying to sell the future, you are out front and so you do have to get buy in from all levels, specially now when every dollar is scrutinized. And so that turns into like 12, 15, 20 versions of a deck and two stakeholder management. And you're saying this is the important thing. But like, if a factory breaks down and now they have to invest over there, there goes your project. And so when you think about it, it was like high effort, minimal impact because I don't even know if this is going to get bought in. You kind of get from 1 to 5 big projects a year. And so now, every single day I can see the impact of my work, for better or for worse, because as a leader, you're going to make decisions that you feel were right at the time based on the information that you have. But in hindsight, like maybe it wasn't quite the right decision.

Brian: [00:45:33] Yeah, innovation is hard. I think that's what I hear you saying.

Orchid: [00:45:37] You have to be a masochist. Which I am. {laughter}

Brian: [00:45:38] You do. You do. I think the thing is, back to your digital metahuman example. You had to, you know, you were like, "Oh, well, why don't we create a voice assistant?" "Okay, well, actually, we have to create a voice assistant across four platforms. And every time we update one of them, we have to update all of them," and "Oh, wait, this needs a visual component as well." And it's just long tail expenses. These are just expenses that keep piling up and then the time frame extends and it just gets wild and then you have people asking, "How is this actually benefiting the business?"

Orchid: [00:46:17] Yeah, they're like, "I don't want this to be a science experiment."

Brian: [00:46:19] Right.

Phillip: [00:46:20] Well, and I totally understand that perspective especially when things seem uncertain. I don't know how we'll actually mythologize this moment in American economic history when we look back, is that we were much ado about nothing? I don't know. I'm not sure. Maybe there's another shoe that has to drop, like maybe there's something that just hasn't happened yet.

Orchid: [00:46:48] Or it could be aliens. We don't talk about aliens.

Phillip: [00:46:49] It could be aliens. First contact. It could be a lot of things. That could be the something that's a catalyst that fulfills all of our anxiety and worry in this moment. What I do know is the future doesn't build itself, and typically there was a model around this in sort of the innovator's dilemma and this idea of how businesses become generational and cultural businesses over time and reinvent themselves. And just to bring it back to I don't think that there is a clearer example of a business that was pre Web 2.0, social media 1.0 that has been able to stay relevant and culturally significant than Facebook, Meta, Instagram.

Brian: [00:47:40] Well, it's interesting.

Phillip: [00:47:41] Reinventing themselves and reiventing the modern web at least 2 to 3 time and making the leap from Web and Web 2.0 to app to the new social media, to influencer creator to short form video. They have stayed with it.

Brian: [00:47:58] As of like six months ago everyone in this in this country was like, "Facebook is dying."

Phillip: [00:48:07] That's because they misheard Zuck. They heard him say "Metaverse." He was saying "Threadaverse." You just couldn't understand.

Brian: [00:48:15] He was muffled.

Orchid: [00:48:16] {laughter} Yeah. I mean, I think it's interesting, though, because I moved from San Francisco last year to Detroit, now the suburbs of Detroit. And so my life has changed dramatically from always being in large city centers and like very tech focused. To being in like, I live a very suburban life. And I got to tell you, Facebook groups is so incredibly strong, especially when you have school aged children. I deleted Facebook for a very long time and I was mad that I had to reinstall it when I got here. But I don't believe I think, yes, if you talk well, I mean, it's not coastal elites. I'm kind of saying that in tongue in cheek, but like I think there is a certain set of folks who are like, "Facebook is dying. It's not going to be the same." But I think a lot of people also forget that it is so ingrained in a lot of people's lives in a way that it is their only connection to their community outside of just walking down and talking to your neighbors.

Phillip: [00:49:13] Yeah, Uh huh. There's a stranglehold that I think that all of these modes of communication have in the way that we develop taste now, which is a very relevant conversation. Our tastes and preferences inform what we buy and how we buy it. And those are, to get the heady part of this in what we do at Future Commerce is that is part of like the cultural affectation of how people belong and behave. So if what we buy and how we buy it is informed by who we are and how we behave, then those places are more digital and more controlled by a handful of companies. And that's where it happens. It happens in yes, maybe in Reddit to some degree. Maybe on Pinterest to some degree. But the way that people connect are on the handful of platforms that we all know and can cite, and maybe of diminishing importance, Twitter to some degree. But I think preferences and tastes are formed on Instagram, to quote our friend Ruby Thélot, "The Tyranny of Images." Well, that is Instagram's tagline, basically.

Orchid: [00:50:30] I would actually really respect it if they changed it to that.

Brian: [00:50:33] It would be way cooler.

Phillip: [00:50:35] Mad respect. Instagram by Meta, Tyranny of Images.

Orchid: [00:50:39] But yeah, I mean, you know, I think part a large part of my career shift too was to be more bullish in eCommerce. In commerce.

Phillip: [00:50:50] Say more about that.

Orchid: [00:50:52] Yeah. Because another thing that I was doing so as Head of Digital Innovation part of it is, yes digital marketing experiences, but part of it was also new business models. And so DTC was a very new business model for a legacy company that largely deals wholesale with wholesale customers. And so I built up the capabilities internally to be able to do that, thinking that it wasn't about volume, because anytime you look at a pure play DTC or even looking at DTC as a revenue generator within a large company that's largely wholesale, it ends up being a rounding error in terms of like the amount of revenue that you actually get through that channel for a variety of reasons, which we actually talk about on Infinite Shelf. And that's been really fun. But I wanted the eCommerce, the digitally native companies were able to engage with and connect with customers in a way and with a speed and agility that you don't see in legacy brands. And that was actually what I was really in love with. And I think a lot of people too, when you think about the brands that you want to support with a lot of these founder-led, very founder-visible brands, you believe in their dream and it's kind of like it's like it allows you to believe in the American dream again. Which is that you can do anything. You can be in a garage with like another guy and no money and create a company out of nothing. Is that true? We can get into it. But I think it's a mirage. I think the American dream for a lot of reasons is different now. And I think the reality is very different from maybe what our parents were sold on. But I think just seeing these founders' passions and being able to really understand their business to a deeper level and create that business impact, like that's why I wanted to focus on eCommerce. And there are a lot of reasons I went to Common Thread Collective in order to do that, partially because of the way that we think about a client's business. We're not just about media spend. It's about accurately financially forecasting the business to create growth, like true profitable growth for an eCommerce business.

Brian: [00:53:05] So taking into account CAC and cost of goods sold and everything that goes into all that.

Orchid: [00:53:10] All the things.

Brian: [00:53:11] Yeah, exactly.

Phillip: [00:53:12] Every acronym. You mentioned Infinite Shelf. When you're thinking about the content that you're creating there, who are you speaking to? Who's the muse of a listener of Infinite Shelf? And how can we...

Orchid: [00:53:26] That's a great question.

Phillip: [00:53:28] Because I think you have, the two of you both Ingrid and yourself, Orchid, you have this vantage point of experience in so many different brands, especially on cultural brands that think it's rare to have that kind of firepower in the hosting chair duties of a podcast these days, because what you have now is a bunch of it's very easy for anyone to spin up a podcast. So yeah. Give us the pitch a little bit.

Brian: [00:53:59] You held back by a little bit. You held back there.

Phillip: [00:54:02] The fact that Brian and I have a podcast.

Orchid: [00:54:04] Well, I was really drawn to Infinite Shelf and to Ingrid in particular because it felt like our careers kind of started at opposite ends and kind of intersected and we passed each other. She started at a digitally native company and went big enterprise. And then I went, I've always worked at very large companies and kind of went the other direction and she started an eCom and now I'm coming over to eCom. So I just felt like we had very similar but different experiences where we could actually give a more holistic view or holistic opinion or stance on how we view marketing and what works and what doesn't in our experience. So I think like from the vantage point perspective, it was really interesting. And I think for our audience, it really is people who are passionate about marketing and building a business online and it's not even building a business online. I think it's about having a part of their company be digitally enabled or pure play eCommerce, because a lot of what I've noticed, through my work and just through networking with founder communities is that no one well, maybe I won't say no one. I think there are very few instances where someone starts a business because they're like, You know what? The margins are great on this. And there's a white space opportunity, right? Usually, you get some kind of consulting grad who decides to start a business that way. But most of the time founders start businesses because they were probably creating something for themselves or there was something that they were passionate about that they started to talk about with other folks, and they realized that it was a problem that they could solve for a lot of people. Right. And so by nature of that, marketing is going to be new to them. Wholesale is going to be new. Influencer... They're learning all these things for the first time because they really just had this idea that they loved and now they're trying to build a company around it. And so for us, it's not I don't think we get as dissected as like, "Oh, we're for like post product market fit companies or like we're for founders. It's like, no, like we're, we're for people who are interested in ecommerce and all the things that come with it, especially with a bent on marketing and a passion for marketing."

Phillip: [00:56:22] That's great. Infinite Shelf in Season 3. Orchid Bertelsen just taken up the co-hosting duties. We really appreciate you having done it and what a cool thing.

Brian: [00:56:34] It's so fun.

Phillip: [00:56:34] I don't know how we've figured out how to convince you to hang out with us from time to time, but we're forever in your debt.

Orchid: [00:56:42] It gets me out of spreadsheets. {laugher} I can appreciate that.

Phillip: [00:56:47] I'll do literally anything that anyone asks me to do, as long as it's distracting me from the real spreadsheet work I need to be doing. Great to have you. Are you on the Threads? Where can people find you online?

Orchid: [00:56:58] I am on the Threads. I'm everywhere. I think I have the same username everywhere. It's just @OrchidBertelsen. Largely on Twitter. More on Threads, very on TikTok. I'm not posting things, okay? I'm a lurker on TikTok. Not that coordinated. I can't look at myself in the camera. The creators, they just stare at themselves. I can't do it. But you can largely find me on Infinite Shelf Season 3.

Brian: [00:57:24] Very cool.

Phillip: [00:57:24] Yeah. We always ask people at the end, what is the future of commerce?

Orchid: [00:57:29] Future of commerce is just multimodal, I think. I think it's it's, you know, eCommerce is such a funny thing because it's a funny name to me because it reminds me when social media was considered new media. Remember this?

Orchid: [00:57:45] Remember that media was like Twitter and Facebook and now it's just media. And I think we're going through the same thing where there's not going to be a delineation of how you do it or where you do it. Commerce is everywhere.

Phillip: [00:57:59] Yeah. Amazing. Thank you so much, Orchid.

Orchid: [00:58:02] Thank you.

Phillip: [00:58:04] Thank you all for listening to Future Commerce. You can find more episodes of this podcast and all Future Commerce properties, including Infinite Shelf, at FutureCommerce.com. And we're in your inbox respectfully three times a week with the analysis and insights that you need to power your business and to see around corners to see into the future. You can get that all one stop shop FutureCommerce.com/Subscribe. Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Future Commerce.

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