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Slate offers up some funny, albeit biting, commentary on a recent report of increased parity in gender assignment to household grocery shopping.

Whether or not you agree with author Amanda Marcotte’s interpretation of bias in the Chicago Tribune article, there’s a cautionary tale in her reaction to the Tribune’s reporting that’s worth paying attention to.  Marcotte discredits its findings because there isn’t enough data presented to back them up. In looking at the case presented, she saw contradictory and inconsistent application of information, and figured that a gender bias was the culprit.

While this may or may not be the case, it’s a good reminder to reporters and researchers alike: go ahead and use context, use that background knowledge. But don’t let these things define your work – research needs to be based in what the data says, not what you want it to mean.

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So what constitutes a brand, really?

In a recent Warc Blog entry , author Robert Passikoff (President of firm Brand Keys) gives a good definition: He defines it as “a name, term, symbol, or combination thereof that identifies goods and services so strongly imbued with values, and articulated and emotional meaning, as to be easily differentiated by the public from the competition.”

He then builds on this characterization to question trending industry “chatter” that regards consumers who, in tightening their belts, as having become brand disloyal by transferring purchases from once-favored brands to cheaper alternatives.

And he’s right in one thing, there’s a lot of business reporting lately about consumers’ changing buying habits. Global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company reported as early as 2009 that consumers are purchasing lower-priced brands that they have in years past (in any given CPG category, an average of 18% of consumers bought lower-priced brands in the past two years). Similar findings have been issued by like organizations (i.e. Bloomberg) since then.

But what are these reports talking about when they say ‘brand’? Consumers, past and present, want value – either in terms of bang for their buck or an emotional reward. Passikoff doesn’t think that today’s consumers are being disloyal; they’re just scrutinizing a brand’s value proposition more closely now than they have in recent past. Brands can’t compete on recognition alone in today’s marketplace; they have to provide some substantial meaning to their customers. Brands with high awareness and little value, he says, aren’t truly brands. They are ‘category placeholders.’

Now that's brand loyalty

His argument is both classic and timely – A brand should always know its core values and meaning, and believe in their proposition well enough to convincingly articulate it to consumers. When things get lean, it means you just have to work harder: to make sure that a brand’s proposition is expressed in a compelling way, and that the brand promise is delivered.

What’s tough now is that consumer relationships with media are changing rapidly from passive receptivity to user-controlled experience. Some even anticipate a future where technology and its users will approach a merged experience. So I for one hope that Mr. Passikoff is right and that, as we grapple to understand how people relate to ads differently on TV versus online, in traditional ads versus those in social networking sites, etc., we can rely on some constants. People will always respond to real value.

Kevin Lonnie (head of research firm KL Communications and IMRO Vice President) argues in a recent blog post that market researchers should consider a re-engineered model for gauging consumer attitude and behavior. In the process, he mentions the Wall Street Journal’s recent article about P&G: the consumer packaged goods giant that built its success on Middle America has just released, for the first time in 38 years, bargain-price dish soap. It looks as if P&G is a new adherent to the “Consumer Hourglass Theory,” which describes a partitioned marketplace comprised of high-end and low-end buying publics.

Sure, there are brands that have banked their success on targeting and engaging these segments of the market before. But when dish soap, that basic household necessity, needs to factor such considerations into its sales and marketing strategies…that’s a little different.

This isn’t some variation to the Long Tail theory. It’s an indicator that there’s a fundamental shift afoot in consumer self-perception―potentially even, most significantly, among those whose income and security have remained stable throughout the economic downturn. P&G is assuming that those folks who used to be in the aspirational middle have now hunkered down. An attitudinal change like this could have serious ramifications for how a wide range or brands and products ought to handle their branding, messaging, and even channel distribution.

In an interesting interview with NPR, former Los Angeles and New York Police Chief Bill Bratton addresses the ongoing debate over Internet privacy rights, again brought to the front of media attention by recent flash-mob riots in Philadelphia and England.

The struggle to resolve issues of individual privacy rights with protection of public safety isn’t a new one. But now, government officials have to contend with a virtually omnipresent information stream and a communication vehicle that taps into innate social mechanisms—As apparently, participants in the  mobs this summer might have been moved by some of the same instincts that propel flocks, schools, herds, and swarms in coordinated movement.

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute and National Science Foundation have found that, as with birds, fish, mammals, or insects, our instincts sometimes propel us to do things contrary to an initial choice of action.

It’s no surprise that people are inclined to change up what we’re doing in order to keep in step with others in our social network. But it is interesting to find the same model for group behavior in other species.  And not just that, but that it is precisely the willingness to individuals to change course that is most important to a group’s movement. So much so that according to one of the study authors, “we don’t necessarily pay more attention to those doing the same as us, but many times [we pay more attention] to those doing something different.”

The study provides interesting insight into how social networks might operate in exerting influence over our attitudes, preferences, and behaviors…whether good or bad.

Graffiti artist Bansky has again broadened his spectrum of work, this time with a television special called ‘Antics Roadshow,’ which recently aired on Britain’s national Channel 4 TV station.

The hour-long program charts recent and notable public pranks, from the political (a Russian performance group’s dedication to the KSB) to the silly (Mario Kart takes to the streets of France, banana peels in tow). There are as many motivations as there are pranksters, but they all seem to share an affinity for play.

They’ve also all made exceptional use of surprise. Some of the pranks, especially those that are intentionally provocative, can feel jarring or even threatening. But after the initial reactions wash back, they leave a residual thoughtfulness.

There’s nothing better than communication – whatever the intention, whatever the form – that turns expectations on its head and makes you reconsider. Check out Bansky’s video here.

Voyurl, a new data mining service that allows web browsers to collect and analyze their own surf data, wants to give consumers the same power as advertisers to assess their web behavior: Voyurl collects search and surf data to make content recommendations, and to allow individual consumers to analyze their own behavioral trends.

It’s an interesting take on the ongoing privacy debate over tracking consumer behavior online – Voyurl hopes that by putting the same information in consumer hands that third-parties are collecting on them, they will be able to leverage this knowledge in an empowering way.

Curious to see what others are reading into your surfing habits? Sign up for a beta account here.

If you had to choose, which would you let go of first – sight, sound, or touch? Losing any of the three would be a serious setback, granted, but I think I would rather bid farewell to sound or touch (maybe even both together) than lose sight.

Our world is primarily oriented towards sight. More than sound, it’s the sense by which we navigate and communicate with the world around us…Albert Mehrabian, the researcher who developed the often quoted communication equation, attributes 7% of communication to what is verbalized, 38% to tone, and 55% to body language. Cut out sight and you’re in an end game, losing.

And touch, even with its ability to warm the soul and bring physical benefits besides, is not going to get you through the day. I’m putting my money on the guy who can see over the guy who can feel, every time.

So, sight is critical to our relationship with the world. How might this relationship be changed by…enhanced vision? Scientists at Oxford University are developing a tool to help enhance vision when it’s beyond correction. These ‘bionic glasses‘ are really compact computers, outfitted with the same technology you find in today’s smart phones and gaming systems: video cameras, position detectors, face recognition and tracking software, and depth sensors.

Rather than refocusing your eyes’ vision, they supplement it. Let’s say you have bad eyesight – the really bad, regularly-walk- into-the-wrong-bathroom variety. Wearing these glasses, video cameras embedded in the frame’s corners would record the men and women symbols on the respective bathroom’s doors as you approach them. Shape recognition technology would then register these forms, and tiny LED lights embedded in the glass lenses would illuminate the forms of the symbols, giving you a visual cue as to which door you need to walk through. Voila, embarrassing social faux pas avoided.

And this is only one of numerous possibilities for device functionality – a few others proposed by the Clinical Neurology team, led by Dr. Stephen Hicks, including coding of objects in the environ, either by color or intensity of illumination, and an ear piece that voices over text registered and translated from street signs.

It’s not hard to conceive of the commercial applications this might have. Despite the hype, virtual reality never really took root as hoped in the early 1990. Probably most importantly because of the quality of imaging technology used – but perhaps in part, as well, to the totality of the barrier it demanded of users. How about an enhanced reality, however? While these glasses wouldn’t allow for complete immersion in another environment, they would allow users to maintain social contact, as well as appearances. Augmented reality is already in play on phones, computer screens, and television screens…In some ways, glasses would offer greater convenience factor than these other devices for users seeking to engage a form of augmented reality. Is it possible that glasses might become our next ‘screen’?

Indie rock band Kaiser Chiefs have put an spin on their latest album release that makes innovative and resourceful use of social networking to drive CD sales.

The band is selling a customizable CD: Buyers can select 10 tracks from an available 20 to include in their CD, and then choose combinations of and adjust several available graphic components to create their own cover art. Once completed, a buyer’s customized CD is made available on the band’s site, where other buyers can opt to select your production (plus, you get royalties for every purchase of your produced version). The site even tracks purchases made of each version produced, allowing buyers to track how their version is faring against other buyers’ productions.

It’s not only a great idea, but a well executed one – This process, if cumbersome, wouldn’t provide any type of incentive for fans to engage with it. But putting together the CD is simple and fun. Check it out here.