May 29, 2011#

The Word According to Groupon

A few months ago, I postulated that Groupon, while good for consumers, may not be good for brands.

Whether that turns out to be so,  Groupon certainly appears to know how to build its own brand.

With a business model that’s relatively easy to replicate—literally hundreds of competitors have jumped into the space in the past year, including non other than Glen Beck,  Groupon is determined not to be a mere coupon distributer or promoter of  “cheap pizza or sushi for everyone who wants to hire it.”

As reported in the New York Times, Groupon’s aim is more lofty than that:  to be “perceived as in impartial guide to a city or a neighborhood, somewhat in the manner of the local paper’s weekend section.”  To achieve this worthy goal, Groupon has hired over 400 writers, and editors, who bring stories, texture and humor to their clients offers.

This is an important and smart positioning, and one that I suspect will serve Groupon well, as it faces the swarm of competitors looking to steal a piece of its enormous honey comb.

January 18, 2011#

Can the Apple Brand Survive Without Steven Jobs?

As technology visionary and marketing impresario Steve Jobs  steps aside to deal with his on-going health challenges, the question once again arises:  can the Apple brand be as strong without him?

The answer is an unequivocal yes.  Steve Jobs defines Apple’s brand.  But Steve Jobs in not the Apple brand.

The company is now bigger than the man.  As long it remains true to its founder’s vision of world changing transformational innovation and delivers on it, always staying one step ahead of the competition, it will continue to inspire extraordinary trust and loyalty among its customers.

Ultimately, as long as the company remains committed to living  its founder’s defining core value, whether he remains at the helm or not, Apple will continue to thrive.  What is this core value?  Ten years ago, Mr. Jobs beautifully defined it in front of an audience as follows :

“We’re not about making boxes so people can get their jobs done . . . We believe people with passion can change the world for the better.”

January 17, 2011#

J&J Product Recalls Damage Corporate Brand

How damaged is J&J’s reputation as a result of the recent multi-product recalls?

The company is limping, but we see no reason why it can’t turn things around.

Of course, J&J wrote the book on product crisis management. Yet the company seems to have forgotten everything it learned when it earned high praise from consumers and industry pundits alike following the original Tylenol recall in 1982.

Recently, J&J has recalled “288 million items, including about 136 million bottles of liguid Tylenol, Motrin, Zyrtec and Benadryl for infants and children,” according to a recent report in the New York Times.   The causes:  quality control problems.

Up to this point, J&J has been able to lay low, and hide in the shadow of other, bigger corporate crises, namely, BP and Toyota.

But with a growing number of negative news reports and surging consumer disenfranchisement expressed on-line, it’s time for J&J to step forward and take center stage.

As a first step, J&J needs to dust off its brand credo which has successful guided the company to being one of the most trusted in the world.

Next it needs to fix the product problems–fast–and to physically communicate its safeguards in the form of tangible proof (once again taking a page from the original Tylenol recall when they invented the safety cap).

Simultaneously, it needs to start talking publicly, broadly and repeatedly, to reestablish its historically well-earned reputation for transparency, by honestly explaining what went wrong, what the company is doing to fix the problems, how and when.   They could actually learn a thing or two from BP and Toyota on this.

J&J can fix this.  It’s time to step forward into the spot light.

November 5, 2010#

The Micro-Script Rules — A Review

Like a child with a strange, shiny new toy, today’s marketers are simultaneously besotted and confused by new media.  Unfortunately, in their quest for digital nirvana they all too often take Marshall McLuhan’s famously coined phrase about the medium being the message to an unhealthy extreme, largely forgetting that the message is still a critical component of the message.

One of my business partners, Bill Schley, reminds us that the message, pure and simple, delivered with words, still matters . . . a lot.  Largely because this is how we have always communicated with one and other, and always will.  Inundated by an onslaught of media coming from every imaginable direction,  consumers are increasingly weary of companies and their sales pitches.   Consequently, they increasingly turning to friends and family and like-minded communities for guidance on what’s best to buy.
That’s where The Micro-Script Rules comes in.  The book provides an easy step-by-step guide on how to distill selling messages down to their most important and relevant essence, then put them into neat, little word packages that are not only easy to remember, but most important of all, are easy to repeat, because PEOPLE WILL WANT TO REPEAT THEM.   He has taken the oldest marketing tool in history, viral marketing, and retooled it for today’s time and attention stressed environment.  This books can help ANYONE communicate better by empowering others to convey your message for you.
May 31, 2010#

Zappos Founder Speaks About the Importance of Brand Focus

Tony Hsieh, Zappos’ founder and CEO, truly understands and values the power of focus.  He also knows that a business needs to stand for something important in the minds of customers and employees alike if it’s to flourish,  and that this sometimes requires giving things up – especially those things that are not consistent and supportive of the company vision, purpose and positioning.    

Here are Mr. Hsieh’s own inspiring words on the subject from an interview in the May 31- June 6 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek.

“We asked ourselves what we wanted the company to stand for.  We didn’t want to sell just shoes.  I wasn’t even into shoes—I used to wear a pair with holes in them—but I was passionate about customer service.  I wanted us to have a whole company built around it, and we couldn’t control the customer experience when a quarter of the inventory was out of control.

“We knew we had to stop doing drop shipping.  It was as if it were a drug.  Over the long term, it was critical that we were handling the merchandise ourselves.  This was the toughest decision I’ve had to make.  We couldn’t build a brand around customer service if we couldn’t deliver it.  When we had the goods in our control, we were able to do so much more.

“Once we made that decision, all the other decisions became easy.  We had already given up a lot, but we knew what we stood for at that point, and our employees could see that we were serious about this.  That made all the difference.”

May 22, 2010#

What Movies Can Teach Us About Brand Positioning

Last night, I had the pleasure of listening to Kevin Cootes speak about his book, The Big Picture:  Essential Business Lessons from the Movies.   In his entertaining presentation, he identified some basic business lessons to be learned from watching movies.  Things like the importance of story telling for more effective communications, customer service, business strategy, leadership and building and maintaining brand equity.  Nothing a seasoned businessperson doesn’t already know, but all good and helpful reminders.

While I was listening it dawned on me that one of the greatest business lessons movies offer is the value of a simple, unique and memorable brand positioning.

By was of example, here are some of my favorite movie taglines that embody the essence of the movie they’re used to promote.   From start to finish, these movies remain true to their core positioning, just as the best companies, in all that they do,  product, pricing, distribution, sales and marketing, remain true to theirs.

Tagline                                                                                         Movie

Houston, we have a problem.                                            Apollo 13                                          

The list is life.                                                                             Schindler’s List

One man’s struggle to take it easy.                                   Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

You don’t assign him a murder case,                                Dirty Harry

                      you just turn him loose.

They’re young, their in love, and they kill people.      Bonnie and Clyde

The mission is a man            .                                                    Saving Private Ryan

The true story of a real fake.                                                 Catch Me if You Can

The first casualty of war is innocence.                               Platoon

November 9, 2009#

India’s uber brands

An intersting feature of the Indian market is the large number of brands that have succesfully crossed un-related customer categories. Some examples

Reliance: Oil and gas, wireless, retail, etc

Godrej: Appliances, personal care, security equipment, etc

Tata: Auto, tea, wireless, etc

Religare: Financial services, healthcare, travel

Kingfisher: Beer, airline

These brands are able to convince customers that they are equally capabable of making tea and cars or refrigerators and deodarant. How did they get customer’s to trust them across such diverse seemingly unrelated categories?

Maybe it reflects the importance that family plays in all aspect of one’s life. So it stands to reason that consumers will trust a brand family across a wide range of activities. Maybe it is a result of the weak retail distribution system that is unduly influenced by a few large companies.

Whatever the reason it creates interesting brand challenges. How do you create meaningful and differentiating brand ideas that cross so many categories without becoming too soft and “airy”, as some have become. It is important for Indian companies to figure this out. They have global ambitions and other socities maynot be as favorable to multi-category brands. And the Indian consumer is changing- the role of the family is weakening and the retail market will get stronger, offering customers more choices in every category.

The evolvement of these brands will be intersting to follow.

September 3, 2009#

Is Southwest Heading South?

Just last year, Southwest Airlines ran a campaign proudly pronouncing that they had “no hidden fees,” clearly taking a jab at the other airlines.    Just another indication of Southwest’s unique, unconventional and customer focused business approach. Consumers loved it.

Well, it appears that’s all about to change.  As was reported in the Wall Street Journal this morning, while they may not be hidden, Southwest is adding all kinds of extra fees that are starting to make them look an awful like those other airlines they like to point their finger at.

Here’s the problem.  Southwest isn’t supposed to look and act like other airlines. That’s why they got into the business. That’s why people fly them.   They’re supposed to really and truly care about their customers, to treat them with respect, a rare notion at 35,000 feet these days.  What people especially like about Southwest is that they treat everyone equally.  Right?  Isn’t that an essential part of the Southwest Way?

Apparently, not anymore.  For $10 extra you can now buy your way past others and go straight to the head of the boarding line.

Granted, not a big deal in the overall scheme of things.  And it’s easy to appreciate Southwest’s need to generate additional profit; particularly in light of its recession induced revenue declines in the first half of the year.  

But if Southwest isn’t careful, it’ll end up forgetting who it is, one extra fee at a time. It’ll forget what makes it special and why so many customers are passionately loyal  (which has nothing to do with rewards programs);  just like Saturn seemed to lose sight of itself, along with Starbucks more recently (although Howard Schultz is now attempting to return it back to its roots).  

This is the challenge of all small companies that grow to be large companies: Remaining true to the core customer values that made you great in the first place.   Not easy, but doable. 

June 29, 2009#

Brands get focus from knowing what they are best at.

Striving to be best at something that is important and relevant is a great focuser . It not only helps position that brand clearly, it also acts as a filter for the actions the brand takes.  This is true if the brand is a product, a company or even a political campaign. Barack Obama won the election because he convinced voters he was the best at bringing about the change that matters most to the middle class and if he governs with that focus,  he will continue to be successful. But many brands forget this and  expanding or becoming bigger become their focus.

A recent article in Fortune about Sony (Sony: Lost in transformation) is a great example of how great brands can loose a sense of what they are best at and start to flounder. If you are as old as I am, you remember when Sony was the best at making products that delivered the truest picture or sound. Products like Trintron or Walkman followed from this focus. Then came entries into music and films and it started to dilute what Sony was best at. This lack of focus prevented them from nurturing the first reader and loosing that market to Amazon’s Kindle. Their new goal is to be the best at seamlessly connecting content and delivery systems. It remains to be seen if this is just a rationale for the businesses they own or it will lead Sony to once again being the best at something that customers find important and relevant.

Economic upheaval is difficult on most organizations but it severely punishes brands that don’t know what they are best at. It exposes how growth and size became the focus rather than the byproducts of focus . Those that will emerge stronger will have used this crisis to find what they are best at and refocused their brands.

May 19, 2009#

A Cup of Coffee is Not Just A Cup of Coffee

The Times reported today the launch of a new ad campaign for Starbucks.  The campaign focuses on the superiority of their coffee.  Simple text print ads carry headline messages like:

·      Who would taste 250,000 cups of coffee just to ensure the quality of one?

·      There’s only one place to get a cup of coffee as good as Starbucks.  STARBUCKS.

·      Starbucks or nothing.  Because compromise leaves a really bad aftertaste.

·      We think making coffee is an art form.  They think it’s a new revenue stream. 

We believe Starbucks is smart to overtly reassert its rightful position as a superior cup of coffee.

Of course, some would disagree.  There are those who think that what distinguishes Starbucks from other, less expensive competitors, now including McDonald’s—with its new popular McCafe offering—has more to do with the environmental experience in the store than with simply a great cup of coffee.   Indeed, Starbucks knows that the in-store experience is important to customers, and a relevant competitive advantage.  In fact, the company has referred internally to their stores as The Third Place: home is first, work is second, and Starbucks is third.  The Third Place is an oasis from the outside world where people find music, internet access, romance, relationships, conversation, even spirituality.

All  true.  At least for some. Particularly Generation Y.   But when competition is challenging the core of what you stand for—the best cup of coffee—you need to stand tall and defend it.  If competition succeeds at convincing consumers that their cup of coffee is just as good as Starbucks, and, oh by the way, less expensive too, Starbucks will soon become consumers’ Last Place.