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Every once in a while air passengers are bound to suffer from disruptions to their travel plans because of strikes in airlines due to work disputes, primarily with their pilots. Disruptions mean they may get as bad as complete cancellation of planned and paid-for flights whereof passengers are left stranded in their home airport or in some foreign country (strikes mostly affect international flights). The painful outcome of those disputes and strikes is that everybody ends up bruised to some extent — the airlines and their management, employees, and obviously the passengers-customers — whether in the short-term or long-term, monetarily and non-monetarily.

The highest-profile strike of recent times relates most apparently to the German major airline Lufthansa. It is actually a dispute lingering since 2014, causing repeated waves of strikes by its pilots. But this blog article will focus more closely on another dispute and chain of strikes at the Israeli airline El Al because it has brought the airline too close to the brink of business collapse.  Incidentally, as in Lufthansa, this dispute is also going on-and-off since 2014.

Of course there have been strikes in other airlines (e.g., Air France, Korean Air, China Airlines [Taiwan]) but the disruptions at Lufthansa seem to surpass them all in scale. Most strikes, as in the cases listed above, are triggered by the pilots, and that is crucial because the whole operation of an airline depends on them, giving them a lot of power over the management and owners of the respective company. Moreover, the lives of so many people (passengers) are in the hands of the pilots, relying on their professional skills and resourcefulness. The hot public debate surrounding those strikes is usually whether the pilots are abusing that power or are they making justified claims towards their employers.

There are, nevertheless, other types of strikes, as in the case, for example, of British Airways where the latest dispute was called by cabin crew members, specifically those hired after 2010 in apparently worse terms than for their more veteran colleagues. The ensuing strike was particularly disturbing because it was declared on last Christmas and the following days running to New Year (a continued strike occurred in January 2017). But the strikes by pilots tend to differ from strikes by other airline employees in impact on the regular flight schedule and implications of the demands made.

  • Unfortunately for some passengers in Britain, that holidays strike at British Airways coincided with other sanctions by airport workers of a Swiss contractor. The article will refer later on to other sources of disruption to air travel versus strikes originated within the airlines.

The primary demand of the pilots of Lufthansa is for a pay rise at an annual average rate of 3.7% to be paid retroactively to 5,400 pilots over a period of five years since 2012. The pilots’ union claimed that their compensation has eroded with inflation due to a wage freeze, causing them “a significant loss of purchasing power”. Lufthansa offered a rise of 4.4% from now on to be paid in two installments and another one-off payment. Drastic disruptions to the airline’s flight schedule occurred most recently in November 2016 as no agreement was reached by that time.

On a single day starting the latest ‘wave’ on 23rd November Lufthansa had to cancel according to media reports around 900 flights, affecting about 100,000 passengers. That leg of the strike extended for four days, causing overall cancellation of nearly 2,800 flights, affecting 350,000 passengers. The strike resumed on 28th November for two more days, forcing the cancellation of 1,700 flights with around 180,000 passengers in total affected. It was planned to start with short-haul flights and then expand to include also long-haul ones. (Note: Only flights under the banner of Lufthansa were implicated, excluding  Brussels Airlines, Austrian Airlines and Swiss Airlines also owned by the  group). [Sources: The Guardian 23rd Nov.; Reuters 28th Nov. 2016.]

It is hard to put an exact figure on the financial damages from those strikes. Reports suggest that the airline’s cost accrued from each striking day runs in millions of euros; total cost to Lufthansa since 2014 is estimated at €500m. It is hoped the dispute is now coming to a close following arbitration; the airline agreed to a four-stage wage increase of 8.7% plus a one-off payment, awaiting final approval and confirmation.

The pilots in El Al have demands for pay rise and improvement of working conditions. The dispute over working conditions may tell even better how deep and bitter is the conflict between the pilots and the company’s management and owners. Two issues are most striking. First, the pilots complain of an unreasonable workload because the airline is adding too many flights to its schedule, including to new destinations, and which they cannot sustain — the pilots argue they risk arriving to flights too tired and unfit to perform them. The second issue concerns the terms of employment of pilots ages 65-67: Retirement age in Israel for men is currently 67 but recent global regulation (2014) determines that pilots of age 65 and above cannot fly passenger aircrafts. The last strike over the dispute as a whole took place in mid-November 2016. An initial agreement was almost signed when the second issue triggered an additional strike in the past month. To resolve the age gap El Al suggested the senior pilots will work as instructors and examiners and in other managerial jobs but their income will be reduced considerably. The pilots did not agree to this condition. Last week a draft agreement was signed that will hopefully put an end to the dispute and the annoying disruptions of flights — but no one yet is ready to assure passengers of no more surprises.

El Al’s passengers had to suffer from flight delays and cancellations during several strikes. Although there were not too many cancellations that El Al had to announce (certainly not anywhere near as many as for Lufthansa), the ‘surprise’ nature of disruption of normal schedule was hard to tolerate and resolve — pilots would simply inform El Al at the last minute that they are sick and cannot attend their flights. El Al would then struggle to find replacing pilots from within and outside the company, leading in the ‘fortunate’ cases to delays of up to 12 hours in flight departures and in worse cases to flight cancellations. This mode of action by the pilots threatens to destroy customer confidence in the service provider as disruption comes completely with no warning and no preparation — the passenger arrives to the gate for his or her flight, yet the pilot does not. El Al tried to hire other airlines to execute the flights in jeopardy, a reasonable reaction that angered pilots even more (they argued it was more of a routine by management to deliver flights added to the already-busy schedule). All this wrangling was fought on the back of passengers.

The pilots and the airline’s leadership were so embroiled in their dispute, publicly attacking each other with all sorts of allegations, that they may have not been able to see anymore how this conflict appears especially to customers, nor how it affects them. Of course each side apologised and claimed they cared dearly about the customers, but it became increasingly difficult to believe them. Some of the details that were revealed were rather bizarre and difficult to accept. For instance, the allegation that pilots are extending long-haul flights by up to an hour to exceed 12 hours (e.g., to North America) to gain a bonus. Or, the pilots’ requirement that they would return from long-haul flights in Business Class and be paid as if they carried out the return flight to Israel. These claims made it harder to support the pilots’ struggle.

The pilots were not doing too well in gaining the support of the consumer public. They have let their grudge with the employer to be targeted at passengers. For example, during a flight in last November from a European city to Tel-Aviv they refrained from talking to the passengers and giving them customary updates about flight progress, weather conditions and other information. The captain indeed gave a welcome message at the beginning of the flight but not at half-time or towards the end of the journey as in the normal conduct of rapport on El Al’s flights. Before landing there was only a standard recorded message. It has to be understood that the Israeli public holds the pilots at high esteem and credits them with making El Al one of the safest airlines globally. Hearing the voice of the captain or first officer giving their messages to passengers is an important part of the relationship — it goes beyond the information conveyed in carrying a voice of authority, reassuring and friendly. At the end of the flight, while passengers disembarked, the pilots also remained seated in their cockpit cabin, another irregular conduct. It is a sad mistake, just like a statement made on TV by the union’s representative in the last strike that El Al’s pilots “could not find the motivation” to attend their flights, an agitating statement and a poor display of disrespect.

However, the owners and senior management of El Al should not feel comfortable and content either about their performance.  It seems they were not listening close enough to warnings from pilots for months about the course of the company. El Al’s leadership has chosen an aggressive strategy of expansion at all cost in an effort to hold on in an open competition on airway routes. This expansion included addition of destinations, increasing the frequency of flights, and the launch of a low-cost subsidiary (“Up”). El Al is trying to do something it simply cannot — it cannot become Lufthansa and it cannot beat airlines like Ryanair or EasyJet. The airline’s leadership must re-consider  the range and number of its destinations with respect to its resources.

The alternative cost of the expansion is negligence of the quality of service on board its flights — over recent years the airline omitted benefits to passengers in Economy/Tourist Class such as drinks served (including personal servings of wine or beer), free Israeli newspapers on flights home, and failing to upgrade their entertainment systems on airplanes in medium-range flights (3+ hours). Creating tourist sub-classes nowadays from standard to premium may start to correct the existing deficiencies. El Al must re-instate a realistic focus on quality of service and regain a competitive advantage on assets it can support — service onboard in addition to security and safety.

Flight disruptions may result from events other than a strike at the airline: take for example terrorist attacks or threats, strikes of airport workers, and phenomena of nature such as heavy snow or the event of volcanic ash clouds created by the eruption in Iceland in 2010. Yet, on these occasions an airline can justifiably claim to be upset by a “superior force” not in its control. It does not have that kind of protection when the disruption originates within its organization. Travel customers purchase their flight tickets from the airline and hence they least expect the airline to be the source of disruption. Besides the legal terms, there is a contract of the airline’s brand with its customers to be consistent and reliable in serving them and providing them value for their money. That is also the essence of keeping a brand’s promise.

Passengers endure different types of cost due to a flight disruption, foremost in the case of outright cancellation: financial losses (e.g., flight fare itself if cancelled, continued flights missed, ground services in the destination country such as lodging and transportation, and business-related damages when applicable), inconvenience of making new travel arrangements or cancellations, and the anguish of going through the ordeal. In some cases being stranded in a foreign country may cause greater costs than if being still in the home country. Beyond the bad experience of dealing with the disruption itself, one should not underestimate additional less direct costs: (a) putting off the excitement of anticipation before leaving on a vacation or for a special event, causing deep disappointment and frustration; (b) spoiling the enjoyment of a trip at its end on return home, causing anger and sadness (happy or unhappy memories of an experience are affected by its peak-moment, up or down, and its ending).

The disruptions in El Al because of the pilots’ strikes may have not been as severe as in other large airlines, particularly in Lufthansa, but the dispute threatened to have  much more severe consequences for the airline:

  • First, because something basic in the trust and confidence of Israeli consumers in El Al, which is essential for its survival, was in critical danger of being broken.
  • Second, El Al does not have the financial backing of a company like Lufthansa and probably other “big players” and cannot tolerate the same level of losses and damages to its brand stature.
  • Third, El Al allowed the dispute to build-up with increasing animosity and disruptions until it was very close to a tipping-point of collapse — pilots in charge of divisions of its aircraft fleet have officially resigned and the final trigger would have been resignation of El Al’s chief pilot. Was it necessary to threaten to fire the last fatal bullet?

The Israeli public still perceives El Al as its national airline although it is now in private ownership.  All stakeholders within the organization should bear that responsibility and share the interest to act carefully and cleverly to maintain that position. It is highly important for preserving the loyalty of their core target segment of Israeli consumers, but no less vital, remaining a preferred airline for Jews around the world. This strength, and further measures of improved business focus, can also increase its attractiveness to any tourists visiting Israel for flying El Al.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Tremors continue to shake ground in the field of television viewing since the start of this decade,  especially with respect to how televised content is consumed. It is possible to say that the concept of television is being transformed. The move of Netflix away from rental of DVDs, delivered by mail, towards online streaming, seems to have signaled the start of this transformation which is affecting the consumers and the media industry together. Netflix is of course not doing it alone, changing how televised video content is made available to consumers — other digital services include Hulu, Amazon Prime, and YouTube, as better known examples. Many consumers, most of all Millennials, are attracted to having better control and discretion of what, how and when they watch video programming content of the kind we are used to associate with TV.

Two primary shifts in TV viewing need to be considered: (1) watching less TV programmes in real-time; but more important and characteristic of the changes in the past decade: (2) watching less TV on the screen of a TV set in favour of screens of personal computers, tablets and smartphones. The first shift is not so new — watching a programme not at the time of its scheduled broadcast can be traced to at least thirty-five years ago thanks to the VCR (Video Cassette Recorder); later on came the DVD, but most DVD sets used by households were non-recorders.

The popularity of watching TV content in shifted-time has increased somewhat more with the introduction of new devices and services, namely Digital Video Recorder (DVR) and Video-on-Demand (VOD). The VOD service has actually created new options for viewers to access a special video library and watch programmes or films that are not available on broadcast channels (not available at all or not at that period).

The second shift noted is more closely associated with the Internet availability of video content, including TV programmes, that is not dependent on traditional broadcasters (networks, but also cable and satellite TV services). Whether the application for watching the content is web-based or a mobile app is less crucial to our matter. Streaming potentially breaks the tie between the televised content and the physical TV set (but that is an option, not a necessity). It is not surprising that new-age digital media companies that offer video content by streaming have been followed by the TV networks worldwide that now allow consumers to view their programmes online (viewing may be free or by paid subscription).

As we look into greater details of various possibilities of viewing televised content, we may find that defining TV viewing is not clear-cut. For instance, if one is streaming the content of a programme (e.g., a comedy episode) ordered from Netflix to a laptop that is connected to a TV set (or streaming directly to a Smart TV), is he or she watching TV? Apparently, 79% of US streamers primarily stream the video content to their TV sets! (CSG International, Insights Blog, 8 Sept. 2016). Vice versa, if one is watching a programme (e.g., evening news) at the time of its broadcast but on a laptop by live streaming, is he or she not watching TV? It can be confusing. Consumers stream TV content of the type of TV series episodes (e.g., comedy, drama, crime), documentaries, news editions, as well as cinema films. The key to achieve greater coherence and consistency may be to define ‘TV’ by the kind of its programming content, not by the technology of devices or distribution platforms (BARB’s Annual Viewing Report: UK’s Viewing Habits, April 2016, pp. 6-7, also see pp. 8-9).

Many consumers, mostly the younger ones (under 35), are turning away from fixed timetable TV programming. They are more selective in regard to the programmes they wish to watch at the time convenient to them. The choice of more savvy TV viewers is getting more in a form of cherry-picking. They may receive recommendations what programmes to watch from friends who have similar tastes or from the online content provider based on their stated preferences and past viewing behaviour (possibly adding what similar-in-kind programmes others are viewing). Consumers may choose to watch, for example, legacy TV series or programmes of a particular genre, as well as new selections of TV-type programmes produced independently by video content providers such as Netflix, exclusive to their subscribers.

For consumers who have less leisure time it may also become a matter of efficiency in allocating their limited TV viewing time to the programmes they really want to watch, thus not being constrained by the programmes scheduled for those hours. People watch only a small portion of the channels available to them in their TV cable or satellite packages, and are less comfortable with their inflexible programming plans. TV viewers wander to other channels such as a VOD service of their regular provider or by streaming from online video content providers.

When looking at ‘traditional TV viewing’, which includes live TV (aka real-time or linear) and adjunct time-shifted services like DVR and VOD(†), the number of weekly hours US young persons ages 18-24 spend watching TV has decreased across all quarters from a level of 23-26 hours in 2011 to a level of 15-18 hours in 2015, and further to 14-16 hours in 2016 (excluding Q4). In addition, when comparing between age groups, it can be seen that the 12-17 years (teenagers) and 18-24 years age groups are most similar to each other in the number of their TV watching hour(decreasing between Q1/2011 and  Q3/2016) and are now even closer to each other than five years ago. There is a decline in number of weekly TV watching hours also in the 25-34 age group, and though more modest a decline, also among those ages 35-49, but there is no discernible trend in age group 35-64 and even a small increase among seniors 65 years old and above (based on data from Nielsen, visualised by MarketingCharts.com). Note that the band of weekly hours mounts as the age rises. Another chart summarises those differences more sharply: the number of hours spent watching TV per week decreased in the younger age groups (12-17 & 18-24) by 37%-40% in five years, 28% still in age group 25-34, and only ~11% among ages 35-49 (weekly hours increased 7% among 65+).

  • Note: The original figures by Nielsen indicate that most traditional TV viewing time is still ‘live’ or linear, accounting for 85%-90% of time, and the rest goes to viewing programmes by DVR or VOD (figures of BARB for the UK indicate a similar ratio).
  • † Clarification: ‘Live’ TV includes of course live programmes or events that are taking place and filmed as they are broadcast or transmitted, but ‘live’ refers here more generally to programmes that are viewed at the time scheduled by a TV company for broadcasting, to be distinguised from programmes watched at a time chosen by a viewer. One possible development is that the concept of VOD will be expanded dramatically.
  • Statistics about streaming usage are still difficult to obtain. Figures brought by MarketingCharts from a less familiar source (‘SSRS’ online and mobile survey company) suggest that the number of hours Millennials spend weekly watching streamed content through various modes increased gradually and almost continuously in 2013-2015, though the overall level is still modest (~1.5 hours in 2013, rising up from 3.3 to  4.5 hours during 2014 until standing on a plateau of 5.5-5.7 hours in 2015).

Research of the British Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB) notably shows that, other than the TV screen, personal computers (desktop/laptop) and tablets are the  more frequently used for watching TV content on their screens, usually in the evening, while smartphones remain much less popular — smartphones are probably less accepted for TV viewing because their screens are too small to enjoy the images and are not convenient to watch for an extended time. Furthermore, with no evidence showing otherwise, it seems a greater part of time spent viewing not on a TV screen in the UK is still done at home (BARB’s Annual Viewing Report, April 2016, pp. 10-11).

The more traditional TV networks and service providers (cable and satellite) have to acknowledge that the rules of the game in the TV domain have changed: “As both traditional service providers and streaming services alike are looking to engage viewing audiences and hold on to subscribers, catering to the individual needs of each viewer is increasingly paramount” (CSG International: Insights Blog, see their infographic of global content viewing trends). Indeed we can see that TV networks and service providers try to adapt at different levels of extent and pace to changes in the competitive environment and shifts thereof in viewing patterns of consumers. Networks are getting more deeply into the Internet space, availing at least some of their content to viewers by streaming on their websites or through mobile apps, and even greater programming content may be offered to customers by subscription (e.g., BBC iPlayer). Especially in the area of news, we see news websites inserting more video content into their reports, including live coverage. The cable and satellite service providers are working to enhance their channels and VOD libraries to bring content that viewers may be seeking by streaming (e.g., HBO) and thus dissuade customers from churning to other services.

The media industry, most broadly speaking, sees a lot of movement in recent years. It seems that media companies, mainly the larger corporations, are trying to get into each other’s territory — TV (broadcast, streaming), digital media content (Internet & mobile), telecom infrastructure, TV and cinema production, etc. The new business and technology mixtures are created through mergers and acquisitions, accompanied by integration of different functions (horizontal and vertical) that will enable companies greater capabilities along the wider spectrum of the production and transmission of video content to consumers. Notably, there is emphasis on delivery of digital content through various platforms in combined modes (e.g., text, still images, video and audio). Content characteristic of TV programmes is just part of the media ‘basket’ companies are planning to offer their customers. A further implication is that content of different domains in Internet and TV formats will be increasingly blended on the same screen — from news information and education to entertainment and shopping.

In a highly remarkable merger in sight, AT&T is planned to acquire Time Warner for $85 billion. The deal between the parties is already agreed, but approval by the American antitrust authority is still in question (peculiarly, a political matter is also involved because of the bitter dispute between President Trump and CNN owned by Time Warner). This merger would combine the competencies of Time Warner mainly in content (including production and broadcasting) with the telecommunication infrastructure and services of AT&T in Internet and wireless (‘mobile’) communication. It should allow the integrated corporation to reach a wider audience with a richer and greatly varied content on screens of TV sets, personal computers and mobile devices.

Time Warner holds a broad and impressive portfolio of TV channels, production units and digital services for delivering their content. The most famous brand is probably CNN which includes its American and International channels. But Time Warner also owns HBO for TV programmes and Cinemax for cinema films, both available to subscribers by streaming. In fact, Time Warner also owned in the past the AOL Internet company. In 2015 AOL moved hands to Verizon telecom company, and just within months Verizon also acquired the troubled Internet company Yahoo. The expansion of Verizon is yet another example of an integration of telecom infrastructure and services with digital  content capabilities, but it does not have yet a strong TV presence.

  • Time Warner spun off its print arm of magazines in 2014, identified now as the independent company Time Inc.. Some of its better known magazine brands include the Time magazine of current affairs and Fortune magazine of business affairs, but overall the company publishes magazines in various areas of interest (e.g., entertainment, fashion & beauty, photography, home and design, as well as politics, business and technology).

The TV business is reshaping. Frahad Manjoo of the New-York Times (October 2016 [1]) foresees a future of TV “built on lots of bold, possibly speculative experiments”. Advanced digital technology companies (information, Internet & mobile) of the kind of Google, Amazon, Facebook and Netflix may readily disrupt efforts of the large telecom and “old-guard” media companies. When TV viewing habits also are fluctuating and reforming, business decisions involve much “educated guessing”.  In another article, Barnes and Steel [2] consider repercussions of the AT&T-Time Warner deal on other media and telecom companies. While some of those companies declare their objection and intent to fight the merger, they may follow a similar trail.  The cases of four companies are reviewed:

  1. The Walt Disney Company insists on its market position as a predator and not as a prey to technology companies. Its current objective is to bring more premium TV channels directly to consumers by streaming; that may entail the purchase of desired brands (e.g., Pixar, Marvel, ESPN).
  2. Comcast, a telecom company (cable [TV] and broadband), is also the owner of TV networks or channels  (e.g., NBC and MSNBC), as well as film and TV studios. It may not sit idle and may try to take over another telecom company to complement its coverage (e.g., extending to wireless).
  3. 21st Century Fox (cable TV, films) is claiming to have no plans of expansion and entering into new areas. It previously failed to acquire Time Warner (2014). But the recent AT&T-Time Warner deal may change their plans. (The Murdoch family is currently aiming to take full control of UK-based Sky satellite TV).
  4. CBS and Viacom engage together in TV broadcasting, a cable TV service, and TV and cinema productions. The controlling owner (Redstone family) may now be encouraged to unite the sister companies (once again) into a single corporation.

We should not rush to assume that watching TV programmes on a TV set or watching programmes in real-time are about to end anytime soon. Traditional live TV viewing and digital video viewing are complementary, possibly preferred on different devices at different times and in differing circumstances (eMarketer, 14 March 2016).

There may be personal but also social benefits or incentives to watching programmes or films in the ‘old-fashioned’ way. First, enjoyment and visual comfort, particularly for certain types of video content, are expected to be greater when viewed on a large screen (37” and above). Second, there is real value in watching a programme such as an episode of a popular TV series at the same time with others so that one can share impressions and discuss it with acquaintances the next day or right after the show. A similar argument can be made for watching live a sports contest, on top of the thrill of watching the event as it unfolds. Third, there is still pleasure and enjoyment in watching TV together with family or friends on a large TV set at one’s home (and in some cases in a pub or bar).

The new technological developments in distributing and displaying video content in high quality, offer opportunities for consumers to improve and enrich in several ways their experience of viewing TV programing and other types of video content. Consumers would be given more freedom of choice and flexibility to watch TV as they truly like. Companies in the wide spectrum of media, telecom and Internet may also find new business possibilities to enhance their services to customers, including in particular TV-like content. But it will take more time to see how the TV domain shapes-up.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

In New-York Times (International Edition), 26 October 2016:

[1]  “A Risky Bid With the TV Industry Up for Grabs”, Farhad Manjoo,

[2] “A Chilly Reaction to AT&T Deal”, Brooks Barnes and Emily Steel

 

 

It is usually not a pleasant feeling to be alone in a scary place or event — think of being stuck in a dark elevator or being involved in a car accident. People commonly seek to be with someone for comfort and company. But the companion does not always have to be another person. A research by Dunn and Hoegg (2014) provides corroboration that the need to share fear matters to humans while the identity of the companion, whether a person or an object, is less critical.  More specifically, sharing fear with a product from an unfamiliar brand may facilitate a quick emotional attachment with that brand without requiring to build a relationship over a lengthy period of time (1).

Fear is evoked by the presence or anticipation of a danger or threat. Feeling fear may be triggered by an unfamiliar event to which one is unsure how to respond (uncertainty) or an unexpected event at a specific moment (surprise); experiencing fear is furthermore likely when the event encountered is both unfamiliar and unexpected. It is important to note, nonetheless, that not every encounter with an unfamiliar or unexpected event necessarily leads to  fear. The Amygdala in the temporal lobe of the brain is the “centre” where fear arises. However, the amygdala like other brain structures is responsible for multiple functions. The amygdala is activated in response to unfamiliarity, unpredictability or ambiguity, but not every instance necessarily means the evocation of fear. For example, tension from facing an unfamiliar problem that one is at loss how to solve may not result in fear. Additionally, fear as well as other states of emotion are the outcome of appraisal of physical feelings (e.g., faster heartbeats, startle, warmth), considering the conditions in which they were triggered; it is a cognitive interpretation of their meaning (“why do I feel that way?”). Activation of other brain structures together with the amygdala may influence whether similar feelings triggered by an unexpected event are interpreted, for instance, as fear, anger, or surprise. The context in which an event occurs can matter a lot for the appraisal of emotions (2).

Dunn and Hoegg emphasise the emotional charge of consumer attachment with a brand versus cognitive underpinnings. Brand attachment has often been conceptualised as the product of a relationship between consumers and the target brand built over time. It should take a longer time to achieve a more solid brand attachment because of cognitive processes for establishing brand connections in memory and stronger favourable brand attitudes. However, this explanation is subject to criticism of missing the important role of emotions in bonding between consumers and a brand which does not necessarily require a long time. By focusing their studies on unfamiliar brands, Dunn and Hoegg intended to show that emotional attachment can emerge much more quickly when the consumers are distressed and are looking for a partner to share their fear with, and that partner or companion can be a brand of a given product.

On the same grounds, the researchers chose a scale of emotional attachment (Thomson, MacInnis and Park, 2005 [3]) as more appropriate over a scale that combines emotional and cognitive aspects of attachment and gives greater weight to cognitive constructs (Park, MacInnis et al., 2010 [4]). The emotional scale comprises three dimensions: (a) Affection (affectionate, friendly, loved, peaceful); (b) Passion (passionate, delighted, captivated); (c) Connection (connected, bonded, attached). Nevertheless, in the later research Park and MacInnis with colleagues offer a broader perspective that accounts for two bases of brand attachment: (i) a connection between self-concept and a brand; and (ii) brand prominence in memory.

While ‘brand prominence’ can be regarded as more cognitive-oriented (accessibility of thoughts and feelings in memory), a ‘brand-self connection’ entails the expansion of one’s concept of self to incorporate others, such as brands, within it — and that involves an emotional element. Park and MacInnis et al. emphasise the brand-self connection as the emotional core of their definition of brand attachment, while brand prominence is a facilitator in actualizing the attachment (analyses substantiate that brand attachment is a better predictor than attitudes of intentions to perform more difficult types of behavior reflecting commitment, and the brand-self connection is more essential for driving this behaviour). The three-dimension scale of emotional brand attachment seems very relevant for the research goals of Dunn and Hoegg, even though it is more restricted from a stand-point of the theoretical roots of brand attachment.

The desire to affiliate with others in scaring and upsetting situations is recognised as a mechanism for coping with negative emotions in those situations. Episodes of armed conflict, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters make people get closer to each other, unite and show solidarity. However, the researchers note that the act of affiliation is essential for coping rather than the affiliation target. That is, the literature on affiliation or attachment relates to interpersonal connections as well as attachment to objects (although objects are viewed as substitutes in absence of other persons [pet animals should also be considered]). We can find support for possible attachment to products and their brands in the human tendency to animate or anthropomorphise objects by assigning them traits of living beings, whether animals or humans. Brands may be animated in order to help consumers relate with them more comfortably, making them appear more vivid to them. It is one of the processes that facilitates the development of consumers’ relationships with their brands in use; consumers connect with brands also through the role brands fulfilled in their personal history, heritage and family traditions, and how brands integrate in their preferred lifestyles (5).

Dunn and Hoegg investigate how consumers connect with a brand on occasions of incidental fear. They make a clear distinction between events that may trigger fear (or other emotions) and fear appeals strategically planned in advertising (e.g., in order to induce a particular desired behaviour). Events that incidentally cause fear would be independent and uncontrolled. Additionally, the intensity and range of emotions felt is expected to differ when consumers actively participate in an event and hence experience it directly in contrast to watching TV ads — in direct consumer experiences, emotional feelings are likely to be more intensive and specific.  In a model for measuring consumption emotions developed and tested by Richins, fear is characterised as a negative and more active (as opposed to receptive) emotion, next to other emotions such as anger, worry, discontent, sadness and shame (6).

  • In their experiments, the researchers try to emulate incidental fear by displaying to participants clips from cinema films or TV series’ episodes, and present evidence that manipulations successfully elicited the intended emotions as dominant in response to each video clip. Yet, it remains somewhat ambiguous how real and direct the experience of watching scenes in a film or a TV programme is perceived and felt with regard to the emotions evoked.

The following are more concrete findings from the studies and their insights:

Emotional brand attachment is generated through perception that the brand shares the fear with the consumer — Study 1 confirms that emotional attachment with an unfamiliar brand is generated when a product (juice) by that brand is present and can be consumed during the fear-inducing experience (more than for emotions of sadness, excitement and happiness). But moreover, it is shown that the emotional attachment is mediated (conditioned) by perception of the consumer that the brand shared the fear with him or her.

Humans precede product brands —  Sharing fear with a brand contributes to stronger emotional brand attachment, but only if they still have a desire generated by fear to affiliate with others. If conversely that desire is satiated by a perception of the consumers that they are already socially affiliated with other people, the effect on brand attachment is muted.

  • Note: Participants in Study 2 were asked to perform a search with words related to feelings of affiliation and social connectedness (e.g., included, accepted, involved) to prime affiliation. Given the statements used to measure (non-)affiliation (e.g., “I feel disconnected from the world around me”), it is a little questionable how effective such a priming condition could be (though the authors show it was sufficient). It might have been more tangible to ask participants to think of people dear to them, family and close friends, and write about them.

Balancing negative and positive emotional effects on attitudes — Based on analyses in Study 2 the researchers also suggest that increased positive effect of emotional brand attachment may counterbalance and override a negative influence of ‘affect transfer’ on attitudes due to fear.

Presence of the brand and attention to it are required yet sufficient — Study 3 demonstrates that neither consumption of the product (juice) nor even touching it (the bottle), both forms of physical interaction, are really needed for feeling affiliated and forming emotional attachment — forced consumption in particular does not contribute to stronger perceived sharing or emotional attachment than merely seeing the product when feeling fear, that is making an eye contact and visually attending to the product in search for a companion. (Unexpectedly, in the case of action and excitement, consuming the drink increases emotional attachment.) Study 4 stresses, nevertheless, that the brand must be present during the emotional event for generating increased emotional attachment — having the brand nearby while experiencing the fear is essential for consumers to feel connected with the brand as their sharing partner (tested with a different product, potato chips).

The research paper suffers from a deficit in practice. That is, marketing managers and professionals might be disappointed to discover that it could be most difficult to have any control of those situations of incidental fear and to act on them to their advantage. In order to have any influence on the consumer a company would be required to anticipate an individual event in advance and to find a way to intervene (i.e., make their product present) without being perceived too intrusive or self-interested — two non-negligible challenges. An additional restriction is posed by the relation of the ‘fear effect’ to brands not previously familiar to the consumers.

Let us consider some potential scenarios where brands might benefit and the difficulties that are likely to arise in implementing it:

Undertaking medical treatments or tests — Some treatments can be alarming and frightening on occasion to different patients. A sense of fear is likely to enter already, and perhaps especially, while waiting. It is a opportunity for introducing the brand-companion in the waiting hall; even more so given that patients are usually not allowed to or prevented from using artifacts during the treatment (mostly no food and drinks). First, a company may have a difficulty to obtain access to places where patients wait for treatment. Second, consumers-patients are likely to bring products with them from home to entertain them (of brands they know). Third, patients often arrive with a family or friend companion, thus satisfying their need for affiliation with another person which dominates affiliation with an object. Still, there is room for ingenuity how to locate the brand close enough to the treatment episode (e.g., shops offering books or toys, especially for children, in the premises of a clinic or hospital).

Trekking or hiking in nature — Some routes, particularly in mountainous areas, can be quite adventurous, not to say dangerous. If a brand could find a way to introduce its product just before the consumer starts the hiking trip, it may benefit from being with him or her if fear arises. One problem is that hikers are advised and even required not to embark alone on more dangerous routes. Another problem is that those trekking or hiking sites often offer local brands, that while not being familiar to the consumers they also are not likely to be available to them at home, and thus the opportunity to develop a relationship based on the early emotional attachment is lost.

Offering legal, financial, insurance, and technical services in events of crisis — In various occasions of accidents, malfunctions, and disasters, people need help to cope with the crisis and the negative emotions it may evoke, particularly fear. A service provider would be expected to counsel the customer in his or her distress, and of course propose a solution (e.g. how to fix one’s home after a fire or an earthquake). Unfortunately,  one cannot make an eye contact with an intangible service. The company has to find creative and practical ways to make itself readily visible and accessible to the consumer when needed by offering instruments and cues for making contact (e.g., an alarm and communication device for the elderly and people with more risky medical conditions).

  • Dunn and Hoegg are aware of the limitation of the findings to unfamiliar brands. They reasonably propose that “because fear leads to a general motivation to affiliate, emotional brand attachment would be enhanced regardless of the familiarity with the brand” (p. 165). It should take further research, however, to substantiate this proposition.

Despite the possible difficulties companies will likely need to deal with, the doors are not completely shut to them to benefit from this phenomenon. But they must come up with creative and non-intursive solutions to make their brands and products present in the right place at the right time. At the very least, marketers should be aware of the potential effect of sharing fear with the consumer and understand how it can work in the brand’s benefit. It is worth remembering, after all, the saying “a friend in need is a friend indeed” whereby in some incidents the friend can be a brand.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

(1) “The Effect of Fear on Emotional Brand Attachment”; Lea Dunn and JoAndrea Hoegg, 2014; Journal of Consumer Research, 41 (June), pp. 152-168.

(2) “What Is Emotion?: History, Measures and Meanings”; Jerome Kagan, 2007; New Haven and London: Yale University Press. Also see: “The Experience of Emotion”; Lisa Feldman Barrett, Bejta Mesquita, Kevin N. Ochsner, & James J. Gross, 2007; Annual Review of Psychology, 58, pp. 373-403.

(3) “The Ties That Bind: Measuring the Strength of Consumers’ Emotional Attachments to Brands”; Mathew Thomson, Deborah J. MacInnis, & C. Whan Park, 2005; Journal of Consumer Psychology, 15 (1), pp. 77-91.

(4) “Brand Attachment and Brand Attitude Strength: Conceptual and Empirical Differentiation of Two Critical Brand Equity Drivers”; C. Whan Park, Deborah J. MacInnis, Joseph Priester, Andreas B. Eisengerich, & Dawn Iacobucci, 2010; Journal of Marketing, 74 (November), 1-17.

(5) “Consumers and Their Brands: Developing Relationship Theory in Consumer Research”; Susan Fournier, 1998; Journal of Consumer Research, 24 (March), pp. 343-373.

(6) “Measuring Emotions in the Consumption Experience”; Marsha L. Richins, 1997; Journal of Consumer Research, 24 (September), pp. 127-146.

Touch-screens are becoming the norm of display and interaction on mobile devices, from smartphones to tablets — devices with screen sizes in the range of 4” to 10”. Maximal area of the device’s face is dedicated to the screen, leaving a thin surrounding frame with enough space primarily for the physical ‘On’ button (e.g., awakening the screen, returning to the ‘Home’ display). Most controls for operating a smartphone or tablet and their applications are now virtual, represented as visual icons, symbols and keystrokes on the screen. Users can interact with the device (even for dialing a phone number) by pointing, swiping and similar hand (finger) gestures applied to the screen’s display. It all sounds and feels great, and mostly functions alright, but not all is bright — there is still much room for improvement and better fine-tuning.

The focal devices of this article are smartphones with screens normally between 4” and 5.4” and tablets that carry mostly screens in size of 7” to 10” (extra-size smartphones, also-known-as ‘phablets’, embody a screen larger than 5.4”). They essentially enlarge the real-estate of the screen by doing away with physical controls on the device (buttons and keypads). Operation of the device and interaction with its applications is delegated almost wholly to the touch of virtual controls and other finger-gestures.

This new form of handheld computer-type devices provides a highly advanced class of viewing verbal and pictorial content and interacting with them through manual gestures. Touch-screens were available already in the turn of the century with Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). The touch-screens of smartphones and tablets are yet empowered in several important aspects: (1) they can be operated with the touch of fingers without need for a pen or stylus; (2) the screens are larger; and (3) the images are in much higher quality. The differences do not end here, if only to mention the communication abilities of the more recent mobile devices. Smartphones in particular can be said to converge a phone and a PDA in a single device, but with some additional capabilities that neither mobile phones nor PDAs have had in earlier times.

The first critical problem to address with touch-screen mobile devices concerns writing. A user is likely to encounter difficulties frequently when writing text with a virtual keyboard — it is rather easy to miss target character keystrokes. The difficulty is not simply in typing text but in getting the words spelled correctly, and overall avoiding character typing errors. The difficulty to produce a text without errors is likely to turn out more acute and agitating with smartphones and the smaller tablets (i.e., 7-8”). It may also cause users to leave spaces in the wrong places, and inversely to concatenate words. Correcting errors can be furthermore annoying when the user cannot find the direction arrows or point his or her finger to stand at the right position of correction; going backspace is not useful if one already moved to another line when the earlier error is noticed or any other correction of text is demanded.

Mobile devices foster writing correspondence texts (e.g., e-mails, chatting, social media updates and comments) even faster than with other modes, specially when users are in motion.  People tend to write correspondence as such more quickly and haphazardly, taking less care to avoid mistakes, and textproofing before sending is usually not in high priority or time-affordable. The result is that producing a well-thought and error-free text message on a touch-screen with a virtual keyboard may be an irritating mission (e.g., either abort message or send it with some errors).

  • Writing alphanumeric text with a 12-key physical pad is hardly convenient, and is usually time-consuming. In that sense QWERTY-type keyboards, physical or virtual, are better. There is yet an important difference to notice: The keys on a physical keyboard (e.g.,  Nokia E5 that followed on the original Blackberry phones) can be quite small but they feel like separated bumpers (i.e., giving the user a tactile feedback where the finger rests) whereas a virtual keyboard is completely flat and smooth. The cost of the physical keyboard is of course the smaller screen.

Mistyping is mostly associated with failure to accurately ‘hit’ the intended character keystroke with one’s index finger, and often enough with the thumb (e.g., when in motion and only one hand is free to hold the device and write). That is because virtual character keys tend to be too small for our fingers used for texting (less so on 10” tablet screens). The kind of errors that may result are typing the wrong character, typing the same character inadvertently twice, or  not typing the designated character. Apparently, failing to execute selected actions also occurs with images, such as when having to press virtual buttons or activating icon and text hyperlinks. These controls could be related to the device and its utilities or embedded in websites and imported apps. These issues are well-explained by Steven Hoober in an article in UXMatters (“Common Misconceptions About Touch”, 18 March 2013). Hoober makes an important distinction between seeing clearly text and icon targets and touching them effectively, and he recommends target sizes for them (in measures of points and millimeters).

Hoober refers to an additional sensitive and critical consideration in preventing users from taking accidentally the wrong action: he calls this ‘preventing interference errors’. He clearly suggests to avoid placing controls for actions with opposite consequences too near each other lest trying to touch-press one control could result in adversely activating the other unwanted control. This applies especially to actions associated with catastrophic results or outcomes that are difficult to undo. For instance, he recommends separating sufficiently the locations of controls for Send and Delete actions (Hoober recommends a distance of at least 8mms and preferably 10mms between centres of the controls [the target point of finger contact]).

Touch-screen devices benefit indeed from a larger screen real-estate for image display. But there is nonetheless competition on that real-estate for the content of display, and competition can be quite tough especially on devices with screens smaller than 7” in size. The competition is prominently between images of controls and the content of device utilities, webpages and apps. It applies primarily to the interface of a virtual keyboard that requires a relatively large space (in some cases up to 50% of screen area). However, there could be other controls needed for operating the device and specific utilities, websites or apps (e.g., designers may have to give up on some pictorial imagery in order to allow enough space for action controls like “Add to Basket”).

Focusing on the virtual keyboard: when called-upon to write, it pops-up and hides  other content of the display (e.g., e-mail message, shopping webpage) in the lower part of the screen. It may hide content that the user actually needs to see while proceeding in composing a message or responding to content in a website. The smaller the screen, on one hand a larger part of the underlying display is hidden, on the other hand the keystrokes have to be smaller. Unlike with a physical keyboard, the virtual one can at least be dropped out when not in use and called again when needed for writing. But it can be disturbing if every few moments one has to drop out the keyboard and surface it again to resume writing. With larger screens there should still be enough space for text in the e-mail message editor that one can scroll; with screens 7” or less one may be able to see only up to four lines at a time and even that in small type difficult to read (changing zoom may help but also cause trouble — more below).

Virtual keyboards on mobile devices are split into two or three displays due to space limitations (e.g., Latin letters as for English or German [but with some order variations], numeric figures and symbols, and an extra keyboard for non-Latin alphabets as Hebrew, Arabic, Cyrillic). But in any particular set of keyboard display, some character keys or controls may have to be forsaken for space limitations. As suggested above, it is most annoying when the direction arrows are eliminated (e.g., on a Samsung 7” tablet) because it makes it more difficult to go back and forth across a text while composing and editing it.

Relying on gestures can save space for screen real-estate and help in making interactions fluid and efficient, but working with a touch-screen has limitations. Raluca Budiu of Nielsen & Norman Group (user experience research and usability experts, 19 April 2015) lists some of the main problems that may arise for users: (1) The leading problem concerns typing, and particularly the need to continuously divide attention between the content written and the keypad area; (2) Poor tactile feedback, small keypads and crowded keys make the typing experience more troublesome; (3) The target size of controls or keys has to be considerably larger with touch interface to optimize reaching time and minimise errors compared with a mouse; (4) Since there can be many target areas on a touch-screen (especially of smartphones), it is easy to make accidental touch errors (see Hoober’s ‘interference error’) — some errors can “leave the user disoriented and unsure of what happened”. Budiu notes that respecting the Undo usability heuristic is furthermore important with mobile devices.

References to those main problems could be found in the earlier paragraphs of this article. Two more issues are addressed below:

Scrolling over a touch-screen — Mobile devices do not apply a scrolling bar — the user can scroll by swiping the index finger in a swoosh movement up or down over the touch-screen. The smaller the screen, and if one is in a landscape mode, more scrolling may be needed (shifting left and right is also possible). Trouble may start when the window display is populated by ‘clickable’ tiles or pictures: if the user does not swipe the finger quickly and lightly enough over the image, he or she may activate the underlying link rather than scroll across the window. When that happens, the user may arrive to a different window display, and one has to find the way back. More disturbing, when the content is online and connectivity can be slow on occasion, the user may remain stuck for a long time before being able to return to the desired location of content and resume work.

Zooming and automatic change of size —  Since type on touch-screens of mobile devices can be small and uneasy to read, one can zoom-in to enlarge the display appearance and the text in it. This is usually done by swiping the index and thumb fingers away from each other over the screen (conversely, one can zoom-out to reduce size but see more content by bringing the fingers closer together). But caution: one has to be accurate, and this does not always work so well. One may accidentally “blow” a picture image over the whole screen, for instance. When writing an e-mail message zooming can be helpful as one toggles between writing and reading the composed text. Yet, these devices are smart and sometimes they try to adjust the size for you according to the identified mode of use; sometimes it is appropriate but on occasion it causes trouble and nuisance. In more drastic cases, whilst trying to enlarge the type on a webpage, the system may lock in a loop and continue zooming-in until the user can see nothing coherent and has to start over again.

  • Note that the scrolling and size problems were encountered much more frequently on a Samsung tablet, either 7” or 10”, than on an Apple’s 10” iPad .

People may discover at times that although they were sure they could see exactly where their hand should reach and act, it somehow missed the target. That may happen because perception augmented by cognitive conception and processes of location and action are not the same in the human brain. These processes are connected (i.e., they share and pass information between them) but are nonetheless distinct. Visual information flows and is processed in two pathways: (a) perceptual but non-conceptual information is passed through the ventral stream to the temporal lobe where percepts are interpreted into meaningful images of scenes and objects; (b) visuospatial (location) and visuomotor (action) signals are transferred through the dorsal stream to the parietal lobe to guide, for instance, our manual movements. The ventral-temporal (semantic) visual system allows to identify a target for action yet the dorsal-parietal (pragmatic) visual system is responsible in parallel for determining where the target is and how to act upon it. Furthermore, action requires only a subset of information from percepts, including size, shape and orientation of a target object to complete a task, much less than what we perceive and even recognize as seeing. The conceptual identity of the target is mostly not required.

Jacob and Jeannerod (2003), distinguishing between Semantic and Pragmatic vision as cited above, argue that pragmatic vision processed in the parietal lobe is more complex and multi-layered than has been theorised and described in literature on vision. Humans may believe they act on whatever they perceive (as an image) but in fact they usually act on the nonconscious signals that arrive directly to the parietal lobe. Recognising and identifying clearly the target and understanding what to do with it are therefore not enough — the target should be designed in a form that permits (affords) the visuomotor system to perform the action correctly and efficiently. The semantic and pragmatic processes occur simultaneously. In some instances the semantic system may assist the pragmatic system but usually deliberate intervention is not needed. A user should not have to tilt the tablet, for example, while trying to accurately and slowly direct his finger to touch the small backward or forward arrows of the browser on the touch-screen. This is an example of an effortful action users should not be driven to.

Using mobile devices with touch-screens has advantages and can be a gratifying experience. But there is also a lot that can be done to improve that experience, moreover if the aspiration is that consumers will use these devices much more frequently for performing more tasks, and especially that they will use tablets more than desktop and laptop computers in the future. Although the touch-screen mobile devices promote to use fingers, they should support the use of a pen or stylus and perhaps even encourage it with smaller screen devices (for typing and not just for drawing). It is also helpful to enlarge the images of keystrokes, icons and symbols as one approaches to touch any of these controls. These are just hints and there are probably many more ways interaction designers can create to improve mobile users’ experiences, making them more effective and enjoyable.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Reference:

Ways of Seeing: The Scope and Limits of Visual Cognition; Pierre Jacob and Marc Jeannerod, 2003; Oxford University Press.

Additional recommended reading:

Mobile Computing; Jesper Kjeldskov; In Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction (2nd edition, Chapter 9); Interaction Design Foundation.

 

 

 

A new film this year, “Sully”, tells the story of US Airways Flight 1549 that landed safely onto the water surface of the Hudson River on 15 January 2009 following a drastic damage to the plane’s two engines. This article is specifically about the decision process of the captain Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger with the backing of his co-pilot (first officer) Jeff Skiles; the film helps to highlight some instructive and interesting aspects of human judgement and decision-making in an acute crisis situation. Furthermore, the film shows how those cognitive processes contrast with computer algorithms and simulations and why the ‘human factor’ must not be ignored.

There were altogether 155 people on board of the Airbus A320 aircraft in its flight 1549 from New-York to North Carolina: 150 passengers and five crew members. The story unfolds whilst following Sully in the aftermath of the incident during the investigation of the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) which he was facing together with Skiles. The film (directed by Clint Eastwood, featuring Tom Hanks as Sully and Aaron Ackhart as Skiles, 2016) is based on Sullenberger’s autobiographic book “Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters” (2009). Additional resources such as interviews and documentaries were also used in preparation of this article.

  • The film is excellent, recommended for its way of delivering the drama of the story during and after the flight, and for the acting of the leading actors. A caution to those who have not seen the film: the article includes some ‘spoilers’. On the other hand, facts of this flight and the investigation that followed were essentially known before the film.

This article is not explicitly about consumers, although the passengers, as customers, were obviously directly affected by the conduct of the pilots as it saved their lives. The focus, as presented above, is on the decision process of the captain Sullenberger. We may expect that such an extraordinary positive outcome of the flight, rescued from a dangerous circumstance, would have a favourable impact on the image of the airline US Airways that employs such talented flight crew members. But improving corporate image or customer service and relationships were not the relevant considerations during the flight, just saving lives.

Incident Schedule: Less than 2 minutes after take-off (at ~15:27) a flock of birds (Canada geese) clashed into both engines of the aircraft. It is vital to realise that from that moment, the flight lasted less than four minutes! The captain took control of the plane from his co-pilot immediately after impact with the birds, and then had between 30 seconds to one minute to make a decision where to land.  Next, just 151 seconds passed from impact with the birds and until the plane was approaching right above the Hudson river for landing on the water. Finally, impact with water occurred 208 seconds after impact with the birds (at ~15:30).

Using Heuristics: The investigators of NTSB told Sully (Hanks) about flight calculations performed in their computer simulations, and argued that according to the simulation results it had not been inevitable to land on the Hudson river, a highly risky type of crash-land. In response, Sully said that it had been impossible for himself and Skiles to perform all those detailed calculations during the four minutes of the flight after the impact of the birds with the aircraft’s engines; he was relying instead on what he saw with his eyes in front of him — the course of the plane and the terrain below them as the plane was gliding with no engine power.

The visual guidance Sully describes as using to navigate the plane resembles a type of ‘gaze heuristic’ identified by professor Gerd Gigerenzer (1). In the example given by Gigerenzer, a player who tries to catch a ball flying in the air does not have time to calculate the trajectory of the ball, considering its initial position, speed and angle of projection. Moreover, the player should also take into account wind, air resistance and ball spin. The ball would be on the ground by the time the player makes the necessary estimations and computation. An alternative intuitive strategy (heuristic) is to ‘fix gaze on the ball, start running, and adjust one’s speed so that the angle of gaze remains constant’. The situation of the aircraft flight is of course different, more complex and perilous, but a similar logic seems to hold: navigating the plane in air safely towards the terrain surface (land or water) when there is no time for any advanced computation (the pilot’s gaze would have to be fixed on the terrain beneath towards a prospect landing ‘runway’). Winter winds in New-York City on that frozen day have probably made the landing task even more complicated.  But in those few minutes available to Sully, he found this type of ‘gaze’ or eyesight guiding rule the most practical and helpful.

Relying on Senses: Sullenberger made extensive use of his senses (visual, auditory, olfactory) to collect every information he could get from his surrounding environment. To start with, the pilots could see the birds coming in front of them right before some of them were clashing into the engines — this evidence was crucial to identifying instantly the cause of the problem though they still needed some time to assess the extent of damage. In an interview to CBS’s programme 60 Minutes (with Katie Couric, February 2009), Sully says that he saw the smoke coming out from both engines, smelled the burned flesh of the birds, and subsequently heard a hushing noise from the engines (i.e., made by the remaining blades). He could also feel the trembling of the broken engines. This multi-modal sensory information contributed to convincing him that the engines were lost (i.e., unable to produce thrust) in addition to failure to restart them. Sully also utilised all that time information from the various meters or clocks in the cockpit dashboard in front of him (while Skiles was reading to him from the manuals). The captain was thus attentive to multiple visual stimuli (including and beyond using a visual guidance heuristic) in his decision process, from early judgement to action on his decision to land onto the water of the Hudson river.

Computer algorithms can ‘pick-up’ and process all the technical information of the aircraft displayed to the pilots in the cockpit. The algorithms may also apply in the computations additional measurements (e.g., climate conditions) and perhaps data from sensors installed in the aircraft. But the computer algorithms cannot ‘experience’ the flight event like the pilots. Sully could ‘feel the aircraft’, almost simultaneously and rapidly perceive the sensory stimuli he received in the cockpit, within and outside the cabin, and respond to them (e.g., make judgement). Information available to him seconds after impact with the birds gave him indications about the condition of the engines that algorithms as used in the simulations could not receive. That point was made clear in the dispute that emerged between Sully and the investigating committee with regard to the condition of one of the engines. The investigators claimed that early tests and simulations suggested one of the engines was still functioning and could allow the pilots to bring the plane to land in one of the nearby airports (returning to La Guardia or reverting to Teterboro in New-Jersey). Sully (Hanks) disagreed and argued that his indications were clear that the second engine referred to was badly damaged and non-functional — both engines had no thrust. Sully was proven right — the committee eventually updated that missing parts of the disputed engine were found and showed that the engine was indeed non-functional, disproving the early tests.

Timing and the Human Factor: The captain Sullenberger had furthermore a strong argument with the investigating committee of NTSB about their simulations in attempt to re-construct or replicate the sequence of events during the flight. The committee argued that pilots in a flight simulator ‘virtually’ made a successful landing in both La Guardia and Teterboro airports when the simulator computer was given the data of the flight. Sully (Hanks) found a problem with those live but virtual simulations. The flight simulation was flawed because it made the assumption the pilots could immediately know where it was possible to land, and they were instructed to do so. Sully and Skiles indeed knew immediately the cause of damage but still needed time to assess the extent of damage before Sully could decide how to react. Therefore, they could not actually turn the plane towards one of those airports right after bird impact as the simulating pilots did. The committee ignored the human factor, as argued by Sully, that had required him up to one minute to realise the extent of damage and his decision options.

The conversation of Sully with air controllers demonstrates his assessments step-by-step in real-time that he could not make it to La Guardia or alternatively to Teterboro — both were effectively considered — before concluding that the aircraft may find itself in the water of the Hudson. Then the captain directed the plane straight above the river in approach to crash-landing. One may also note how brief were his response statements to the air controller.  Sully was confident that landing on the Hudson was “the only viable alternative”. He told so in his interview to CBS. In the film, Sully (Hanks) told Skiles (Ackhart) during a recuperating break outside the committee hall that he had no question left in his mind that they have done the right thing.

Given the strong resistance of Sully, the committee ordered additional flight simulations where the pilots were “held” waiting for 35 seconds to account for the time needed to assess the damage before attempting to land anywhere. Following this minimum delay the simulating pilots failed to land safely neither at La Guardia nor at Teterboro. It was evident that those missing seconds were critical to arriving in time to land in those airports. Worse than that, the committee had to admit (as shown in the film) that the pilots made multiple attempts (17) in their simulations before ‘landing’ successfully in those airports. The human factor of evaluation before making a sound decision in this kind of emergency situation must not be ignored.

Delving a little deeper into the event helps to realise how difficult the situation was.  The pilots were trying to execute a three-part checklist of instructions. They were not told, however, that those instructions were made to match a situation of loss of both engines at a much higher altitude than they were at just after completing take-off. The NTSB’s report (AAR-10-03) finds that the dual engine failure at a low altitude was critical — it allowed the pilots too little time to fulfill the existing three-part checklist. In an interview to Newsweek in 2015, Sullenberger said on that challenge: “We were given a three-page checklist to go through, and we only made it through the first page, so I had to intuitively know what to do.”  The NTSB committee further accepts in its report that landing at La Guardia could succeed only if started right after the bird strike, but as explained earlier, that was unrealistic; importantly, they note the realisation made by Sullenberger that an attempt to land at La Guardia “would have been an irrevocable choice, eliminating all other options”.

The NTSB also commends Sullenberger in its report for operating the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU). The captain asked Skiles to try operating the APU after their failed attempt to restart the engines. Sully decided to take this action before they could reach the article on the APU in the checklist. The operation of the APU was most beneficial according to NTSB to allow electricity on board.

Notwithstanding the judgement and decision-making capabilities of Sully, his decision to land on waters of the Hudson river could have ended-up miserably without his experience and skills as a pilot to execute it rightly. He has had 30 years of experience as a commercial pilot in civil aviation since 1980 (with US Airways and its predecessors), and before that had served in the US Air Force in the 1970s as a pilot of military jets (Phantom F-4). The danger in landing on water is that the plane would swindle and not reach in parallel to the water surface, thus one of the wings might hit water, break-up and cause the whole plane to capsize and break-up into the water (as happened in a flight in 1996). That Sully succeeded to safely “ditch” on water surface is not obvious.

The performance of Sullenberger from decision-making to execution seems extraordinary. His judgement and decision capacity in these flight conditions may be exceptional; it is unclear if other pilots could perform as well as he has done. Human judgement is not infallible; it may be subject to biases and errors and succumb to information overload. It is not too difficult to think of examples of people making bad judgements and decisions (e.g., in finance, health etc.). Yet Sully has demonstrated that high capacity of human judgement and sound decision-making exists, and we can be optimistic about that.

It is hard, and not straightforward, to extend conclusions from flying airplanes to other areas of activity. In one aspect, however, there can be some helpful lessons to learn from this episode in thinking more deeply and critically about the replacement of human judgement and decision-making with computer algorithms, machine learning and robotics. Such algorithms work best in familiar and repeated events or situations. But in new and less familiar situations and in less ordinary and more dynamic conditions humans are able to perform more promptly and appropriately. Computer algorithms can often be very helpful but they are not always and necessarily superior to human thinking.

This kind of discussion is needed, for example, in respect to self-driving cars. It is a very active field in industry these days, connecting automakers with technology companies for installing autonomous computer driving systems in cars. Google is planning on creating ‘driverless’ cars without a steering wheel or pedals; their logic is that humans should not be involved anymore in driving: “Requiring a licensed driver be able to take over from the computer actually increases the likelihood of an accident because people aren’t that reliable” (2). This claim is excessive and questionable. We have to carefully distinguish between computer aid to humans and replacing human judgement and decision-making with computer algorithms.

Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger has allowed himself as the flight captain to be guided by his experience, intuition and common sense to land the plane safely and save the lives of all passengers and crew on board. He was wholly focused on “solving this problem” as he told CBS, the task of landing the plane without casualties. He recruited his best personal resources and skills to this task, and in his success he might give everyone hope and strength in belief in human capacity.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

(1) “Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious”, Gerd Gigerenzer, 2007, Allen Lane (Pinguin Books).

(2) “Some Assembly Required”, Erin Griffith, Fortune (Europe Edition), 1 July 2016.

 

Department stores are competing hard for more than thirty years to overcome the challenges posed to them by shopping centres and malls. They keep refreshing their interior designs, merchandising and marketing methods to remain relevant, up-to-date, and especially reinvigorated for the younger generations of shoppers. Department stores and shopping centres are two different models in retailing for offering a wide array of product categories, and accompanying services, within enclosed built environments — different in requirements and responsibilities of managing them, in their structures, and most importantly with respect to the shopping experiences they create. There is enough room in consumers’ lives for shopping both ways.

Shopping centres may be found in the central areas of cities and on their outskirts, on main roads at city-gates and in suburban neighbourhoods. A shopping mall, according to the American genuine model, is a shopping centre characterised by location outside the city centre, housed in a single- or two-floor building spread over a large area and a large-space parking lot, free of charge. But shopping centres or malls exhibit nowadays such a variety of architectural structures and styles of interior design, at different sizes and locations, that the distinction in terms has become quite vague and less important.

Department stores belong traditionally in city centres. They also are typically housed inPartial back closed windows allows a glimpse into the Coop store their dedicated buildings (e.g., 5 to 7 floors, including one or two underground floors). Each floor in a contemporary store is hosting one or more departments (e.g., cosmetics, accessories, menswear, furniture, electric goods and electronics/digital) or amenities (e.g., restaurants). That was not the case in the early days (1850s-1920s) when the retail space open to the public included only up to three floors and the rest of the building was used for production, staff accommodation, and other administrative functions; the range of products was much smaller. So the department store as we better know it today follows the format redeveloped in the 1930s and further progressed soon after World War II. The styles of interior design and visual merchandising, nevertheless, have certainly changed several times over the years.

There is however another recent format of a department store which resides within a shopping centre. It is a reduced and condensed exemplar of the ‘classic’ department store, probably not how consumers more often perceive and think of such stores. But having a reduced store version is perhaps not a problem inasmuch as its location. Shopping centres invite retail chains of department stores to open a branch as an anchor store in their premises, and it seems as a necessary action by the retailers to maintain visibility and presence amid the threat of the shopping centres posed to them. This venture also allows the retailer to extend and reach shoppers away from city centres. Yet, one may question if it helps and serves the interests of the department store retailer as much as of the proprietor of the shopping centre. Being more limited in space and scope of products, while surrounded by a few hundred other shops and stores under the same roof, the department store could get more easily lost and vanish from shopper attention in the crowded space. It should be much more difficult for the store to remain conspicuous in this kind of environment, especially when shoppers can refer to a selection of specialist shops in any category they are interested almost next door.

When a shopper enters a respectable department store he or she tends to get absorbed within it. The variety of products on display, lights and colours, brand signs, and furnishing and fixtures in different shapes and styles pull you in, making you forget of the outer world. The shopper may find almost anything one needs and seeks, whether it is for wearing, decorating the living room, or working in the kitchen, enough to forget there is a street and other shops and stores out there. Think of stores — just for illustration — such as  KaDeWe in Berlin, Selfridges in London, La Rinascente in Milano, or Printemps in Paris: that is the magic of a department store. Of course there are many other stores of this type from different chains, in different styles and atmospherics (which may vary between departments within the same store), and in some of the main cities in each country. For instance, Marks & Spencer opened its modern flag store in a glass building at the turn of the century in Manchester, not in London. Not long afterwards Selfridges also opened a store in Manchester, and then in Birmingham. Printemps and Galeries Lafayette sit next to each other on Boulevard Hausmann in Paris — both are very elegant though the latter  looks more glittering and artistic,  appearing even more upscale and luxurious than the former. Now Galeries Lafayette is planning its yet most modern concept of a department store to open on Champs Élysées.

That is not the impression and feeling one gets in a shopping centre. Although a centre can be absorbing and entertaining in its own way, usually it would be the centre’s environment that is absorbing as a whole and much less any single shop or store. Even in larger stores the shopper is never too far from being exposed again to other retail outlets that can be quickly accessed. In the shopping centre or mall, a shopper moves around between shops and stores, reviews and compares their brand and product selections, and at any point in time he or she can easily return to “feel free” walking in the public pathways of the centre, eye-scanning other stores. It is a different manner and form of shopping experience for a consumer than visiting a department store.

The rise of branding and consumer brands since the 1980s has also had an important impact on trade, organisation and visual merchandising in department stores, as in other types of stores in general. There is a much stronger emphasis in the layout of floors on organisation by brand, particularly in fashion (clothing and accessories) departments. The course of the shopping trip is affected as a result. Shoppers are driven to search first by brand rather than by attribute of the product type they seek. That is, a shopper would search and examine a variety of articles (e.g., shirts, trousers, sweaters, jackets) displayed in a section dedicated to a particular brand before seeing similar articles from other brands. It can make the trip more tiresome if one is looking for a type of clothing by fabric, cut or fit, colour and visual pattern. But not everything on a floor is always sorted in brand sections, like a shop-in-shop; often a shopper may find concentrated displays of items like shirts or rain coats of different models from several brands. Furthermore, there is still continuity on a floor so that one can move around, take along articles from different brands to compare and fit together, and then pay for everything at the same cashier.

In some cases, especially for more renowned and luxury brands, the shop-in-shop arrangement is formal where a brand is given more autonomy to run its dedicated “shop” (known as a concession), making their own merchandising decisions and employing their own personnel for serving and selling to customers. The flexibility of shoppers may be somewhat more restricted when buying from brand concessions. However, even when some “brand shops” are more formal, much of the merchandising is already segregated into brand sections, and shoppers frequently cannot easily tell between formal and less formal business arrangements for brand displays. The sections assigned toView over terraces in a multi-storey department store specific brands are usually not physically fully enclosed and separated from other areas: some look more like “booths”, others are more widely open at the front facing a pathway. Significantly, shoppers can still feel they are walking in the same space of a department or floor, and then move smoothly to another type of department (e.g., from men or women fashion to home goods). That kind of continuity and flexibility while shopping is not affordable when wandering between individual shops and stores in a shopping centre or mall. The segregation of floor layout into dominant brand sections or “shops” within a department store (and some architectural elements) can blur the lines and make the department store seem more similar to a shopping centre, but not quite. The shopping experiences remain distinct in nature and flavour.

  • “With so many counters rented out to other retailers, it is as though the modern department store has returned to the format of the early nineteenth-century bazaar.” (English Shops and Shopping, Kathryn A. Morrison, 2003, Yale University Press/English Heritage.)

Department stores have gone through salient changes, even transformations, over the years. In as early as the 1930s stores started a transition to an open space layout, removing partitions between old-time rooms to allow for larger halls on each floor. Other changes were more pronounced after World War II and into the 1950s, such as  permitting self-service while reducing the need of shoppers to rely on sellers, and accordingly displaying merchandise more openly visible and accessible to the shoppers at arm’s reach. These developments have altered the dynamics of shopping and paved the way for creative advances in visual merchandising.

Department stores have also introduced more supporting services (e.g., repairs of various kinds, photo processing, orders & deliveries,  gift lists, cafeterias and restaurants). In the new millennium department stores joined the digital scene, added online shopping and expanded other services and interactions with consumers through the online and mobile channels. In more recent years we also witness a resurgence of emphasis on food, particularly high quality food or delicatessen. Department stores have opened food halls that include merchandise for sale (fresh and packaged) and bars where shoppers can eat from freshly made dishes of different types of food and cuisines (e.g., KaDeWe, La Rinascente, Jelmoli in Zürich).

Department stores in Israel have always been in a smaller scale than their counterparts  overseas, a modest version. But they suffered greatly with the emergence of shopping centres. The only chain that still exists today (“HaMashbir”) was originally established in 1947 by the largest labour union organisation in the country. Since the first American-style mall was opened near Tel-Aviv in 1985 the chain has started to decline; as more shopping centres opened their gates the stores became outdated and lost the interest of consumers. By the end of the 1990s the chain had come near collapse until it was salvaged in 2003 by a private businessman (Shavit) who took upon himself to rebuild and revive it.

The chain now has 39 branches across the country, but they are mostly far from the scale of those abroad and about a half are located in shopping centres. Yet in 2011 HaMashbir opened its first large multi-category store in the centre of Jerusalem, occupying 5000sqm in seven floors. It seems the stores have gone through a few rounds of remodelling until settling upon their current look and style. They are overall elegant but not fancy, less luxurious and brand-laden, intended to better accommodate consumers of the middle class and to attract families.

It is rather surprising that Tel-Aviv is still awaiting a full-scale department store. The chain has stores in two shopping centres in Tel-Aviv but none left on main streets. At least in two leading shopping centres the stores have shrunk over the years, and one of them is gone. The latter in particular, located once in a lucrative and most popular shopping mall in a northern suburb, was reduced from two floors to a single floor and gave up its fashion department amid the plentiful of competing fashion stores in the mall, until eventually it closed down. Another store remains near Tel-Aviv in “Ayalon Mall”, the first mall of Israel.

Tel-Aviv has the population size (400,000) and flow of visitors on weekdays (more than a million) to justify a world-class store on a main street. Such a store has also the potential of increasing the city’s attraction to tourists. The detriments for the retail chain are likely to be the high real estate prices, difficulty to find a building suitable for housing the store, and the competition from existing shopping centres as well as from stores in high-street shopping districts. Yet especially in a city like Tel-Aviv a properly designed and planned department store is most likely to be a shopping and leisure institution and centre of activity to many who live, work or tour the city.

Shopping centres and department stores can exist side by side because they are essentially different models and concepts of an enriched retail complex in enclosed environments. Unlike the shopping centre, the department store is a world in itself of retail and not an assortment of individual retail establishments. The department store engages shoppers through  its structure, design and function given the powers the retailer has to plan and manage the large store as an integrated retailing space. Consequently, a department store engenders customer experiences that are different from a shopping centre regarding the customers’ shopping trips or journeys and how they spend their time for leisure in the store. One just has to look at the flows of people who flock through the doors of department stores in major cities, most of all as weekends get nearer.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

One of the things people probably most dislike is getting sick because of some food they have eaten — usually an annoying and unpleasant experience. The sickness can happen within hours or two to three days after eating the contaminated food. The trouble is that oftentimes one has no way of anticipating the disease until feeling sick, and sometimes even after becoming ill it is not easy to connect the disease with consumed food. A food item may come from a respected and trusted brand, the expiry date looks fine, the food may also taste good, and still without suspicion it may cause poisoning and sickness. Food companies are walking on the edge of food safety when they skip necessary precautionary measures to prevent and detect contaminations in time, but furthermore when they conceal problems or try to solve them quietly in the factory without warning of a looming health risk to their customers.

  • The most common infections and poisoning are caused by bacteria of the type of Salmonella, Listeria, and E-Coli. But a foodborne disease may also be viral (e.g., norovirus) or being caused by insects (e.g., food moth). For most people a foodborne disease is not dangerous; it will cause sickness and inconvenience, passing after a few days without medical treatment. Yet, these diseases may be troublesome and cause more serious complications in people whose health is vulnerable (e.g., little children, seniors, pregnant women, prior illnesses, weaken immune system).

This summer there were a number of incidents of food contamination revealed in Israel. Yet two of the cases are more significant and instructive: the cornflakes of Unilever (Telma) and ready-to-eat salads by Shamir Salads.  First, the failures exposed in the conduct of the two concerned companies commend particular attention and taking lesson from them. Second, these incidents were the earliest to become public (late July, beginning of August) and have put the matter of food safety under a spotlight. A number of additional incidents of contamination may have been revealed just because of that, partly reported by alarmed food companies themselves (e.g., salmon fish, halva, frozen potato fries, pre-prepared grilled hamburger).

Unilever (Telma) — A contamination of salmonella was discovered by Unilever in Israel in packages of a few of its cornflakes products under the brand name of Telma (an Israeli-grown brand acquired by Unilever). The company insisted, however, that all contaminated packages remained in a company’s facility to be disposed of (they were converted into corn oil to be used as energy source for another industrial process). When upset consumers and the Ministry of Health pressured Unilever to provide assurances no packages reached food stores, the company claimed they had checked that the marked packages were separated and excluded from delivery in its facility. Only that this information was not accurate, not properly verified. It was soon after revealed that some 240 contaminated packaging parcels found their way out of the facility and distributed to food stores. Some of those cornflakes packages were probably consumed though no complaint of sickness was firmly connected with the cornflakes. Nevertheless, since cornflakes of the type contaminated are largely eaten by children, it is understandable that parents were strongly agitated by that belated discovery.

Unilever directed responsibility for the ‘mishap’ to an employee of a local logistics contractor who apparently mistakenly misplaced labels of some parcels for delivery and sent out the wrong packages. Even so, responsibility for the whole chain of supply of the products of Unilever rests with the company marketing them (not physically distributing them). That is the onus of the brand’s owner towards its customers. That Unilever failed to verify this mistake earlier makes the explanation just weaker.

  • Food safety experts suggest that it is unusual for a dry product like cornflakes to contract bacterial contamination of salmonella. Additionally, the cornflakes are roasted at a very high temperature that kills any bacteria that might have settled in the material. Therefore, it is much more likely that the culture of salmonella developed during the packaging or storage in preparation for distribution.

Shamir Salads — A contamination of salmonella was found in Mediterranean salads that contain tehina. Shamir Salads, like other food producers, buys the tehina mix as a raw material from a supplier, in this case a company named “HaNasich” (meaning “The Prince”). Badly enough, the grave problem for Shamir Salads is that the company did not identify the contamination itself. It failed twice: by not testing initially its raw material and by not testing the final salad product before delivery to retailers for any possible contamination. It should be clarified that laboratory tests are run on samples and therefore they cannot eliminate absolutely any contamination, but if sampling is conducted appropriately it gives a good chance of detecting the traces in time for further checks and corrective action. Skipping any sampling and tests cannot be excused.

The management of Shamir Salads argued in its defence that the company trusted its supplier, HaNasich, and therefore did not see any need to continuously check on the quality and safety of their tehina. The company was deeply disappointed and felt betrayed by its supplier for not advising them of any problems. The reference to the concept of trust between parties is not unfounded, but one can still check internally as a precautionary control measure without violating trust in the other party. A company does not have to trust blindly, especially not when a sensitive matter as health is concerned. It may even be doing a favour to its supplier that could miss contamination in its factory. Much less understandable is the lack of tests on the company’s finished products. If not before or during production, then at the very least testing of the finished salads would have given the company a chance of detecting a contamination before leaving the factory, investigating backwards and identifying the source in the tehina. Other companies (e.g., Strauss, Tzabar Salads) using the same tehina ran tests on their finished products and identified the contamination, linking it to tehina by HaNasich.

Both Unilever and Shamir Salads were actually forced to order recalls of their products. A recall becomes damaging in the public eye when the company does not seem to control the process and its timing, or is not honest with the consumers about the recall’s reasons and circumstances.

Complicated relations and flawed working of safety procedures in the food industry may have some responsibility for contamination getting lost or hidden from public knowledge. Companies have a reasonable interest to try to solve a problem in production they identify internally in hope they can contain it “behind closed doors”. It is a matter of calculated risk — but risks sometimes realise in a worse way. The Israeli Ministry of Health is criticised for not placing a proper procedure that requires food producers to perform microbiological lab tests on samples of finished product items and that current reporting procedures are vague. For instance, the companies are not required to report to the ministry until after ordering a recall due to contamination. Consequently, there are repeated conflicts over responsibility and blame-exchanges between producers and the Health Ministry. Furthermore, food companies are working with private labs that are in turn required to report directly to the Health Ministry only in case of contamination found in finished products and not in their raw materials. The implied outcome: food companies have a latent incentive to keep anything that happens in the factory silent, handle a “situation” for a longer time, and not report to anyone until the problem becomes severe or an urgent recall is inevitable.

Issues of food contamination and foodborne illnesses concern many countries, gaining particularly growing awareness in Western countries. The Fortune Magazine published an article, kind of special report, on problems of food safety in the United States (October 2015) titled “Contamination Nation“. The number of food recalls has grown more than twice from 2004 t0 2014 (2004: 288 recalls of which 240 of non-meat products; 2014: 659 recalls, 565 non-meat). Nearly half of recalls (47%) in the US are due to microbiological contamination. The highest proportion of recalls (21%) are of ready-to-eat food products.

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 48 million Americans suffer each year of foodborne illnesses (128,000 are hospitalised and 3,000 die of a foodborne illness).

The writer, Beth Kowitt, proposes four reasons it is so hard to battle food contamination and poisoning; their relevance extends to Israel and to many other nations:

  • Foodborne illnesses are very difficult to identify and track down their roots — cases of illness are sporadic and therefore hard to tie with a specific “outbreak”; hundreds of components may be involved in isolating a cause of poisoning.
  • The food industry does not trust state regulators, their knowledge and tools — major food companies are performing their own tests for bacteria on food and in factory premises and develop a knowledgebase independent of state departments or agencies (FDA, CDC); companies are reluctant to disclose information they do not have to, part in concern of being implicated before the epidemiological mapping is completed.
  • The more food is imported from other countries, the more difficult it gets to control and verify its safety — exporting countries have different food-safety standards and inspection regimes, and the more steps food passes before entering one’s destination country, there are more opportunities for becoming contaminated.
  • Consumers have to do more to protect themselves — when consumers seek certain ingredients to be reduced or excluded (e.g., potassium, salt, sugar) or refrain from consuming frozen products because of health considerations, they could render their food less protected from bacterial contamination of their food; consumers are responsible for taking active measures to reduce contamination risks at their homes (e.g., washing hands, boiling milk, checking meat temperature).

It may be added to the last reason that safeguarding from food contamination may start from the facilities of the food producer but it should continue through the retailers’ food stores and finally indeed at the consumers’ home kitchens. Retailers are obliged to keep stores and displays cleaned-up at all times and ensure products are not kept beyond their expiry date (e.g., chilled dairy products, ready-to-eat meals, eggs). As for consumers, the American CDC recommends four practices for protecting from contamination: Cook to kill bacteria, Clean working surfaces, Separate more risky items (meat, fruits and vegetables) from other food, and Chill to reduce chance of bacterial cultivation.

Next to the article cited above, Fortune brings the story of the Texan-based Blue Bell ice-cream company which demonstrates what happens when a food company stalls treatment of contamination hazards at its plants and even hides them for too long. The crisis has rolled during 2015 but an investigation found that its roots may have existed since 2010. There were three deaths and two more serious patient ilnesses in the same Kansas hospital in late 2014, and in total ten people were affected by listeria-type infection connected with the ice-cream over five years; establishing the connection with Blue Bell was hard.

Contamination occurred in two plants: at Brenham, Texas ‘homebase’, and in Oklahoma. It appears that already in 2013 the company discovered contamination in its Oklahoma plant that was not treated properly despite an FDA inspection. Importantly, bacteria were found in that plant on floors and catwalks (i.e., bacteria can be easily passed with movement of workers and objects). Additional flaws were found in further inspections, including “condensation dripping from machinery into ice cream and ingredient tanks; poor storage and food-handling practices; and failures to clean equipment thoroughly”. Because of its stalling, the company drifted into what experts call “recall creep” — it happens when executives think limited action every time they are told of listeria findings is enough to solve the problem and constrain commercial damages, thence find themselves forced to perform greater recalls over and over again.

Blue Bell is the third-largest ice cream maker in the US and its products are widely admired. Many people across the country are said to have saddened by the closure of the plants and loss of their beloved ice cream for a period. This year the company resumed production and marketing, adding gradually more flavours and markets, after a thorough clean-up of plants, change of procedures and rules and training of employees. One of the practices installed is “test-and-hold” where a production series is sample-tested  and all packs are held in storage until it is cleared from bacterial contamination.

A serious fatal crisis related to food safety in Israel occurred in 2003 with the milk formula for babies by Remedia. It should be noted this was not an incident of contamination. In this case the company made a change in the composition of one of its formula versions by which it drastically reduced or eliminated from the product the vitamin B1. This ingredient is vital for the development of the nervous system of babies. As a result, critical damage was caused to the health of babies: four babies died and several more children grew up with irreversible damage to their development (neural, cognitive and motor). Although this event is different, and the consequences in the recent contamination incidents are much less severe, two relevant notions are in order. First, a contamination incident can lead to just as severe consequences when the problem is mishandled and information is concealed from authorities and consumers as the crisis of Blue Bell proves. Second, Remedia made the grave mistake of throwing all the blame on a German company (Humana) that was hired to develop, implement and test the new recipe (and erred in its tests). However, Remedia was responsible and accountable for its product to the parents and babies in Israel, not the faulty German company it worked with. Remedia ceased to exist.

It is probably only human for the company’s managers to direct a justified accusation and blame for a failure on a contractor, supplier or business partner, as a way of saying: “Look, this is not a failure in our own operation; you can still trust us with everything we are doing for you”. It does mitigate responsibility somewhat, though from a consumer viewpoint this kind of ‘clearing’ does not work and is often doomed to be rejected. The companies that market the implicated products did allow them to be distributed to consumers. At the end of the day, it is their brand names on the products that count.

It is impossible nowadays to completely eliminate food contamination, particularly by bacteria. However, food companies (and not them alone) can and should make every effort for preventing bacterial and other types of contamination and poisoning. They are expected to show that they are proactively taking measures to that aim. In addition, the owners and executives have to be open and sincere about the causes or circumstances of recalls to consumers, and consider revealing incidents even beforehand as indication the company is acting responsibly. It is pure investment in the credibility of their brands.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Note:

These articles appeared in Fortune (Europe Edition), Number 13, 1st October 2015:

“Contamination Nation”, Beth Kowitt, pp. 53-56.

“How Blue Bell Blew It”, Peter Elkind, pp. 56-58.