Published on: November 11, 2008by Michael Sansolo
In the middle of last week, 10 students at my son’s college were arrested. Their crime: performing the Star Spangled Banner. It’s true.
Now the odds are that you had a reaction to that previous paragraph, but the reaction might be entirely wrong without understanding the context of the arrests. Here are the details that matter.
1. My son wasn’t involved. (Sorry, I’m a parent and it was the first question I asked.)
2. The students launched into the anthem after hearing the results of Tuesday’s election. Many of them had voted for the first time and they were feeling patriotic. In fact, there were reports that many in the crowd were crying while the anthem was played.
3. The problem wasn’t that they played the anthem. The problem was they played it in the streets of Rochester, NY, at 1 a.m. One of the students admitted later that bringing cymbals into the street after midnight should have convinced someone that this was a bad idea.
4. My son’s college is a conservatory with only 500 undergraduate students. That means the students performed the anthem really, really well, but it also means an enormous percentage of the student body was arrested that night. If the same percentage had been arrested at a major state school, the number of detainees would have topped 1,000.
5. Everyone was released without fuss.
In short, context tells us everything. Without knowing the facts around an event, we have no idea how to act or react. Context is why we greet gasoline prices dropping to $2 per gallon with glee this year when just a few years ago we would have been stunned at such high prices. Similarly, it’s why we look at the Dow Jones hitting 8,500 with dismay when for most of history that amount was unthinkably high.
(Likewise, there were many times in my life when the notion of college students solemnly performing the National Anthem would have been equally shocking.)
Context matters in our industry too. Providing the entire story is part of the narrative we have to give our employees and our customers to make sure they understand why things are the way they are. Whatever the challenge is—economics, health and wellness, the environment or more—too often we neglect the story. We don’t give context and the absence hinders us from greater gains.
For instance, right now shoppers are rightfully worried. They hear, see and feel the economic news and they worry about how to make ends meet. They look at rising food prices and look at their budgets and try to figure out what’s happening. If we give them context, the story changes.
Context is how we tell them to save money while shopping for food. Context is when we position meals, not ingredients and when we display the range of choices in stores. Context is when we put together the picture of good health and how eating better can work.
Luckily, there are examples of context out there. There are great retailers who talk about meals and health in a way that consumers understand. Walk into a Wegmans and see the displays of entire meals featuring all the ingredients you need to make them. Look at the signs in Whole Foods talking about the path products take in getting to the stores. Look at the product information in Trader Joe’s giving every item a unique and interesting story. Look at the clear definition of price value in Walmart, Aldi and more.
Context means the story is told well and with context facts suddenly make sense. Context is the difference between 10 kids being arrested for playing the Star Spangled Banner and 10 students being detained briefly for being a public nuisance at 1 a.m.
Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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