Train of Thoughts

August 25, 2016

For the 8 percent of Americans like me who travel longer than an hour each way to work, you understand the monotony and intellectual stagnation that is our commutes. Luckily, I believe I found the cure: podcasts. Like any good millennial should, I have turned to podcasts to get my dose of NPR, Gimlet Media and Big Think. However, this cure has become more of an addiction, and in these past months, you would be hard pressed to find me without my headphones. So for those standing behind me in line at Starbucks, please just tap me on the shoulder, as I am elbows deep in topics I never knew were interesting or inspiring. Here are a few of what I find to be stand-out podcasts:

“Under the Influence:”

In these 30-minute episodes, Host Terry O’Reilly delves into the boardroom to illuminate the nuances of advertising, marketing and public relations tactics that often vie, and sometimes fail, to get stakeholders’ attentions. In an episode that really captured me, O’Reilly analyzes the some of the world’s most long-lived brands and the keys to their success.

For me, Terry’s Stella Artois case study was the most compelling. As one of the oldest continuously-operating company, founded in 1366, Stella Artois has cultivated an upscale image carrying its long-standing slogan, “reassuringly expensive.”  He describes how, in the early 2000s, Stella Artois made a fateful decision that would have a big impact on their reputation; they chose to start selling their beer in supermarkets. On paper this decision made sense, as grocery stores gave Stella thousands of new locations to sell from. However, stores began discounting the beer and treating the product as a loss leader—a product designed not to earn profit, but used as an advertising ploy to attract customers inside. Once inside the customer then in turn spends money on more profitable items. Stella’s taste, high alcohol percentage and discounted price, spurred young men to start drinking Stella. A number of these young men were binge drinkers and rabble-rousers. Suddenly, Stella Artois’ upscale image was tarnished by pictures of soccer hooligans causing trouble and drinking Stellas. As a result, respectable pubs and upscale supermarkets stopped distributing Stella Artois. Moreover, their catch-phrase, “reassuringly expensive,” no longer made sense. The company pushed to reclaim their heritage and their image. To do this, they first pulled their brand out of certain supermarkets. The company’s marketing pivoted to focus on the beer’s high quality and brewing standards with the new theme line “she is a thing of beauty.” They also printed a 9-step instructional pouring poster to accompany the new Stella Artois chalice. These tactics changed the conversation and convinced the public to look at the beer in a new light. Cheers.

“99% Invisible:”

Design is all around us, but so much of it goes unnoticed. “99 P.I.,” a podcast hosted by Roman Mars, investigates the process and power of design on all scales from flags to cities themselves. Mars has an uncanny ability to make topics that typically would only peripherally interest me, and bring them to center-stage for further exploration. Episodes are generally 20 minutes long. One of my favorite episodes was about the architecture of San Francisco’s Chinatown when it was rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake. Prior to the quake, this neighborhood looked like the rest of SF. With the chance to start fresh, the now iconic pagodas sprouted to match Americans’ ideas of what China looked like, but in reality they more closely mirrored Chinese design from centuries prior. These and many more topics make “99% Invisible” 100 percent worth your time.

“Planet Money:”

Ever since I read “Freakonomics,” I have been looking for consumable case studies with a particular focus on behavioral economics. NPR’s “Planet Money” does just this for me with topics that range from the unbundling by cable companies to the price of buying a foreign passport. This show does not require an advanced degree in finance, because it makes complex economic concepts accessible. In a recent episode, Adam Davidson discussed the implications of a mall that straddled two municipalities with differing minimum wages. This episode delved into the costs for store owners and employees on both sides of the mall.

“Think Again:”

Unlike the other podcasts described above, “Think Again” has an atypical format that differs from the public radio model. Jason Gots surprises the world’s brightest minds with ideas they are not at all prepared to discuss. The show asks these experts from their respective fields to candidly comment on hand-picked previously recorded interviews from the Big Think archive. For me, the podcast provides insight into the minds of some of the best and brightest to illustrate how each processes and values ideas that often require a high level of nuance. Moreover, there is something compelling to the “beginner’s mind” angle. If you are looking for an episode to start with, try episode 41 with poet Sarah Kay as she discusses who gets—and inversely who doesn’t get—a voice, what she would do if the Earth was imminently doomed by an asteroid impact and much more.

Let’s face it, there are few things that can make one’s commute less awful. For me, these podcasts allow me to tune out the overcrowded railcars that are Bay Area Rapid Transit and tune in to something much more pleasant and stimulating. I’m always on the hunt for new podcasts that cause me to lose track of time, so for those commuters who are also listening to something surprisingly interesting, let me know below what podcast you have on tap.