Saturday, December 29, 2007

Social Media Connecting People and Food

Over Christmas I read The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan (and wrote about it here on my personal blog). That inspired me to find out more about some of the food I buy. One item: Laura's Lean Beef, a line of organic beef available at conventional grocery stores. We've been buying it for some time now; it tastes great, and it doesn't give my partner (who's allergic to many antibiotics) an allergy meltdown the way a lot of typical grocery store beef does.

But there were two things that always crossed my mind when I'd pick up a package of it:

  • "This is better than the other beef in this store, but it's probably not really the best choice." (A lot of organic food is made using unsustainable industrial farming practices just like conventional* food; sure, it's better that it's not soaked in pesticide, but it's not exactly what the word "organic" suggests to most people.)

  • "I'm such a sucker. Some ad agency created this 'Laura' character."

Well, here's a pleasant surprise: the company seems to actually practice sustainable (not just organic) farming and production. And not only is Laura a real person; she's got a blog.

And it's great; Laura has gotten everything about business blogging right. The purpose of it is, of course, to promote her beef, but it's written in a personal tone. It talks about their company and their farming practices, but it also talks about daily life on the farm and her own life (including some entries about a riding accident).

There are plenty of comments - and Laura responds to them, so there's a real discussion between the owner of this company and her customers. While I was skimming it, I found a comment from a customer who mentioned that she was getting spoiled Laura's beef at her supermarket - and immediately, a response from Laura asking for details so that they could fix the problem.

This is a great market niche for blogging, of course; along with the many health and environmental reasons for producing meat in a sustainable way, there is usually a philosophical idea at work here: the idea that we have become totally disconnected from our food and its origins, to the detriment of our health, the planet's health, and the quality of our eating experiences. So linking a CEO to her market through a blog makes sense when part of the mission is connecting the customer with the food on her plate.

Still, given how often companies get this wrong - including people with resources far greater than Laura and her company have on hand - it just made my day to see a company whose products I like doing this absolutely right.

Check out the blog. And the beef.

* Isn't it odd that "conventional" means cows designed to eat grass being stuck in feedlots eating corn-based (and until a short time ago, cow-based - ugh!) feed which makes them ill, blows out their livers, requires them to be medicated constantly, and along the way helps evolve antibiotic-resistant bacteria and strains of e. coli that can survive the acidity of human stomachs (and kill human beings)... while apparently letting cows graze in pastures and eat the grass they are designed to digest is considered unusual?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Opinions on Hold

This opinionated marketers is on vacation. The flow of opinions will resume in a few days when I return!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Maureen's Opinions Take a Holiday

Not sure what my esteemed colleague is up to with respect to Bloggin' around the Christmas Tree, but this opinionated marketer is taking a break.

I'll be back with the New Year.

But before I go, I thought I'd share a picture of my all time favorite Christmas decoration:


I'm not entirely sure how old plastic Santa on reindeer with the broken leg (and the light bulb in its belly) is, but this dates to one of my parents' first Christmases, so it's from the mid- to late-1940's. In any case, none of the Rogers "kids" have any recall of Christmas without it.

Ah, the good old days, when plastic crap was Made in America, not just in China.

Happy Holidays to marketers everywhere (opinionated or not), and for those who still believe, I hope that Santa is very good to you.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

A Simple Technology Rule: Use it to Talk to Customers

This seems obvious, right? We've got all of this old technology (like phones), not so new technology (email, your web site), and cutting-edge stuff (social networks) available, and so we should use it to improve communications with our customers. Improvement means not just talking in more ways, but more useful ways. We can make it easier for customers to find the right people in the organization to help them. We can put useful information at their fingertips. We can help would-be customer evangelists spread the word.

Or, we could not bother. I experienced an example of this with Washington Mutual, the bank whose ads position them as the happy bank with a human face where you don't have to go through layers of bureaucracy to get help.

The other day I got an email from them about a business account, informing me that my phone number had been changed. The problem was, I hadn't changed any phone number with them, and the number now on my account was not mine. (It was a number of mine with one digit changed - weird.)

My first thought, of course, was that the security of my account might have been compromised. The email ended with a note that if I had not made this change, I should call an 800 number right away.

Which is precisely what I did. Did that 800 number take me to a security department that could figure out what was going on? Or at least to a person, because obviously this problem required human intervention?

Oh, no. "Welcome to Washington Mutual! Para informacion en espanol...."

I was at the top level of the main service menu. And a funny thing about WaMu's main menu: there is no option that sounds right for "I think my account security has been compromised." And there is no option to speak to a person. (Hitting "0" gives you a "bad customer, that wasn't a choice!" option.)

Is that really the experience you want a customer to have when they are sitting there wondering if someone's gotten into their account and is taking their money?

I eventually chose the option to find out about recent transactions, and then intentionally entered an incorrect access code, which bounced me from voicemail to a person, who had no idea how my phone number got changed (but did reset my password).

The very next day, I had an almost identical experience with them when I tried to activate a new ATM card on the web. I got an error message indicating that the information I entered didn't match what they had. So I went through the same "no menu option makes sense for what's happening" hassle, eventually got a person who activated my card (and verified that all the information I entered did indeed match what they had).

I am the customer who lets a company know when something is wrong, so I clicked the "contact us" link on their web site, and wrote a short message in the form provided to tell them that it's not okay with me that when there is a potentially serious problem, I'm shunted to a voicemail system offering me no useful options or a way to get a person easily. (How hard is it to set up a special 800 number?) And that these two experiences left me feeling very unsure whether any of their IT systems works properly and my money is safe with them.

I was pleased to find that form; far too many companies still have web sites designed to prevent customer feedback: no forms, no email addresses, or forms that are designed to let customers only submit structured information that the company wants to hear, rather than other feedback from customers who care enough to tell them what's going on. Okay, I thought, score one for WaMu.

And then I clicked send.


The form doesn't work. I tried in two different browsers in case I was having some browser-specific issue. You can't talk back to them.

This is such basic stuff. There are still a whole lot of companies out there who, before they try to tackle new media, or spend money on ads about how friendly and approachable they are, need to do the basics: create a web site that makes interaction with customers easier, not more frustrating for them.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Branding public spaces

One of the more distressing advertising and branding trends of the last few decades or so has been the creeping corporate claim on public places.

We see it all the time now with sports venues.  In Boston, The Boston Garden was replaced with the Fleet (Bank) Center, which has been replaced by TD North Garden. At least TD North had the grace to leave the word "Garden" in the name, so that we can all go back to referring to the new edifice on the site of the ancient Boston Garden as "The Garden." (Pronunciation key: The GAH-din.)

Ball fields/stadiums have a history, of course, of being named after the team owners: Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field in Chicago, Briggs Field in Detroit, Sullivan Stadium in Foxboro (former home of the Patriots). But the practice of naming the ball park after the family has been replaced by offering up the names to corporate sponsors. Comerica. Tropicana. QualComm.

I'm guessing that the majority of sports venues have sold naming rights to a corporation. Thus the stadium where the Patriots play is Gillette (a.k.a., the Razor), not Kraft (after the family that owns them, not the mac and cheese people).

Me, call me a sentimental fool, but I prefer the old time names to the corporates. Give me Fenway Park, Dodger Stadium, and - yes - even Yankee Stadium any old day. (And was there ever a better name for a baseball park than The Polo Grounds?)

Sports is one thing. Other public spaces are also up for grabs these days.

Adopt a highway, anyone?

And, while the signage is discreet, the Massachusetts State House has (or had - I'm not sure if they're still there) little signs on the front fence telling us who did the plantings.

Now, the state would like to give our august, venerable and quite beautiful State House - designed by Charles Bullfinch - an overhaul, and they're looking for corporate money.

I just hope they don't post little (let alone big) signs all over the place thanking the patrons for their largesse.

Whatever happened to doing something good without demanding recognition for it?

In any case, I thought this was a recent whine until I saw this picture from an 1885 edition of Punch on the incredibly interesting and wonderful Paleo Future blog, which covers futurist predictions over the years (starting in the late nineteenth century, right on up through the 1990's).


In any case, I was highly amused by this old cartoon of the Statue of Liberty tarted up with a bunch of fake advertising signs. (Note the quite prescient ad for "Suredeath Cigarettes" a good 80 years before the Surgeon General's report smoked the tobacco companies out.)

Here's my vote to keep some public spaces unbranded. Some things are sacred.

But the fact that advertising consuming everything was a reasonable fear well over 100 years ago? Plus ├ža change, no?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Social Media and Marketing - Cousins, Not Twins

Chris Brogan has a good post up about why social media is not a form of marketing:

Here’s where I’m going with this: marketers trying to come into social media and rapidly become versed in the tools and believe what they’re doing is social media, are probably doomed to a lot of pain and disappointment along the way. Marketers who come into social media and feel that these tools will deliver the same kinds of clean stats and clear cut wins and campaign thinking overall are doomed as well.

Marketing is a discipline with lots of emphasis on channel thinking, on campaigns, on message shaping, on control and covering all the bases.

Social media is a set of tools that permit regular people access to potential audiences of shared interest. These tools give voice, give preference, give rise to individuality, give flexibility, collaborative opportunity, and a whole lot of other things that don’t resemble traditional marketing the same way gym class felt absolutely nothing like social studies.

Marketers have tools. They understand what they do very well. They understand lead acquisition, and brand strategy, and all kinds of things that the folks who use social media tools could really do to understand before knocking.

The other day I wrote about how Twitter is often used in ways that may be useful, but that take it outside the realm of social media - because when you use it to broadcast, it's not longer social, it's just a medium. That's something for marketers to think about as they wrap their arms around any social medium.

It all comes back, I think, to things Seth Godin was saying a long time ago about interruption marketing versus permission marketing. We marketers have an astonishing ability to turn everything into interruption; whether it's email campaigns that don't bother with personalization and - the ultimate email crime, in my view - deliver messages to which the user can't reply, or using YouTube to blast something out without paying attention to what viewers are saying, to using Twitter as a handy way to get ads to someone's SMS mailbox.

There's no question that social media are useful marketing tools. The challenge, of course, is using them as social media.

When you have a hammer, every problem is a nail; when you're a marketer, sometimes every problem is sneaking a message in front of an eyeball. From the user point of view, the most successful social media are likely to be those that let users take unwanted nails and jab them back into the marketer's eyeball. Those that turn into marketing vehicles (hi, Facebook!) are likely to be abandoned by users.

Here's the challenge for savvy 21st century marketers, or those that want to be them: how do you market in that environment?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Harley Ad: Bad for Badness Sake

I find so many of the Christmas ads on TV cloying and/or annoying, that I was just delighted to see the Harley Davidson ad on Chris Mathews and/or Keith Olberman the other night.

A leather clad Santa in a black sleigh drawn by 8 Harleys comes into sight.

The message? He knows if you've been bad or good, so be bad for badness sake.

Not that I'm in any danger of going out and buying a Harley - or any Harley gear whatsoever - but the ad made me smile on a lot of fronts.

It's definitely a holiday ad, but doesn't compromise one iota on the core Harley brand. It's on message, and it's definitely got the right look and feel. Not one scintilla of soupy sentiment at all!

No "kiss begins with K", no skull mangling Lexus tune, no 'should I get my wife a power saw at Lowe's?' nonsense.

Harley is by far my favorite ad of the 2007 holiday season. (So far, I'd have to give the first runner up nod to the car company ads with the Duh choir. I'm not quite sure who the ads are for - Hyundai? - but the choral singing is good, and it's fun to hear all those carols sung without words.

This link isn't to quite the same Harley ad that I saw, but it's along the same lines.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Twitter: social networking or broadcast medium

Shel Holtz wrote about how a newspaper is using Twitter and it got me thinking about Twitter as a social medium vs. Twitter as a broadcast medium:

A local newspaper has integrated Twitter into its news offerings, according to an article today in The Nashua Telegraph (New Hampshire, USA) has created a section of its website for breaking news; the news items are fed directly to a Telegraph Twitter stream with links (TinyURLs, of course) to a mobile version of the newspaper’s website.

A current look at the newspaper’s tweets shows weather information (including school and airport information), along with news about a local murder trial and other information that could be important to local residents...

I was an initial Twitter skeptic who dived into it to see what all the fuss was about. I'v found that it's a fun social application. For me, it's a bit like having an ongoing IM conversation with a bunch of people.

But there's always been an element to it that I'd call "broadcast." There are plenty of organizations using Twitter: media outfits like newspapers and television programs, as well as associations, non-profits, and presidential candidates. All of that leaves me cold.

First of all, it's not social. It nice that I can follow Barack Obama on Twitter but you know what? Barack's not following me. Well, maybe, but I doubt anyone is reading it (nor is there any compelling reason to). This is a use of Twitter to broadcast messages to an audience, not interact with them.

That's not necessarily bad, but it makes Twitter less a cutting-edge social networking tool than a new implementation of broadcast SMS or email.

And it adds a spammy aspect to it. It's one thing to get an email telling me that some fellow Houston blogger is now following me; hey, somebody new I might have things in common with! When I got an email that the Today Show was following me, however, I didn't see it as a new networking opportunity, but rather a way for the Today Show to spam me via Twitter to get me to look at their content.

Second, I wonder if this kind of Twitter use fails a basic test of any medium: is the timeliness, format, and intrusiveness of the messages matched with their utility to the user?

New technologies tend to find their place. Email is a great way to send detailed information that doesn't require a response immediately; if you want immediate feedback, pick up the phone. Or send an IM. Twitter is an ongoing conversation in which you can reply to something hours later.

Like Shel I give the Nashua Telegraph credit for experimenting with it; that's smart. As a user I can't imagine following my local paper, the Houston Chronicle, on Twitter. There's nothing there that I can't get more conveniently via RSS or on their web site, when I feel like looking at it.

I'm not knocking anybody here, but just asking the question: is this a good match between content and medium? I'm skeptical. It will be interesting to see how it works out for newspapers - and everybody else.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Pragmatic Marketing Rule #11

This is the eleventh in a series of posts on Practical Product Management Rules from Pragmatic Marketing.

Pragmatic Marketing Rule #11:  Don't expect your sales channel to conduct win/loss analysis.

If I had a dollar for every pipeline review meeting at which we knocked a few of last month's hot prospects into the "L" column, at which point someone (more than likely me) ask "Why'd we lose?"...

Well, I might not be rich, but I would definitely have enough money to buy a very good raincoat.

And I wouldn't know any more about why we lost a deal than if I hadn't opened my mouth and asked the question.

After all, there's only so much you can learn from "our price was too high," "our product sucks," and "they went with somebody else." The reasons I've heard salespeople give for their losses is right up there with the list of sins we used to confess in grammar school: I fought with my sister, I talked back to my mother.

Asking them why we won doesn't tend to yield all that much fresh information, either.

If this were one of the questions asked on Family Feud, the number one answer would surely be - Ding! Ding! Ding! - SUPERIOR SALESMANSHIP!

It's just not in the nature of most sales people to get all analytical about why something did or did not happen.

That's what you're here for. (Many years ago, I attended a sales kick-off during which they gave us some type of short-form Myers-Briggs test, and categorized us as Red, Orange, Green, or Blue. 99% of the sales folks were Reds - Extraverts, in Myers-Briggs parlance. The home office folks were about evenly split among the other colors, with the analytically minded introverts (including all the product managers) clustered in the Blue and Green groups.)

So the first reason you don't want your sales guys doing W-L analysis is because most of them probably won't be all that good at it. Just like a product managers/product marketers probably wouldn't be all that good at sales.

You also want and need your sales people to look forward, not backward. Obviously, you want your sales folks to learn from their mistakes, your mistakes, and everyone else's, but you also need them to be optimistic and positive. Okay, they really won't be very good salespeople if they are blinder-wearing Pollyanna's, but you definitely want your sales folks to be running on half-full, not half-empty.

Further, if you rely on your sales people for Win-Loss analysis, you're also going to miss out on the opportunity to find out whether there are aspects of your sales process that need work. (Guaranteed that no sales person is ever going to tell you "I got outsold".)

How do I like to go about Win-Loss analysis?

All kidding aside, I do like to have a mini-debrief with the salesperson and (more important) the sales engineer on what they think went right or wrong. Getting an initial impression by those closest to the sale (or loss) may yield a useful avenue for questioning the new customer (or prospect that got away).

I like to have a list of questions - about product, pricing, process - that I will run through. If there's a complex sales process, with many steps and multiple people involved - influencers, decision makers - I like to talk to a couple of folks. Realistically, this isn't always feasible - especially if you're talking about a Loss. (Just like salespeople, customers want to look forward, too.) Sometimes, the best you can hope for is a good, candid conversation with the person who was your prime sponsor or contact person during the sales cycle.

In addition to specific questions on aspects of our product, pricing, and process, I also like to ask flat out - in the case of a loss - what we could have done better, what would it have taken to win,  where the competition outshone us. And, in the case of a winning situation, I like to ask those same questions about the competitor.

Win-Loss conversations - which should be kept to about 10-15 minutes (or, second best, an e-mail exchange) - should occur within a week or two after the decision is made. This is especially true when it's a loss we're talking about, but you want to get to the winners when the why's and wherefores are still fresh in their minds as well.

It goes without saying that the information should be kept in some sort of a system - not on your person hard disk, let alone in paper files (or, heaven forbid, in your head). And that you should really try to make some sense of it as a whole and not just look at disaggregate information points. This is not all that easy to do when you're looking at a data containing a large element of subjective matter, but there's no point in collecting Win-Loss data unless you're planning on drawing some general inferences from it.

What can your Win-Loss analysis help you with?

  • Determining what features you need to add to your product
  • Refining your pricing
  • Shaping your marketing message
  • Homing in on a more sharply defined target market
  • Improving your sales and marketing processes

Yes, lots of good things can and will come from it.

Just don't ask your sales folks to do the heavy lifting for you.


Note: This goes for both direct and indirect sales channels, of course. For indirect, in spades.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Stupid Ideas Die Hard

I just received a call - on my cell phone - that was a prerecorded message offering me a certificate for a discount on services from the Durrett Chiropractic & Natural Health Care Clinic here in Houston.

Apart from the little detail that this call was illegal - the number is on the national do not call list and I have no relationship of any kind with these people - I have to wonder: Who thought sending prerecorded ads to people's phones was a good way to get new customers? Did they think someone would say, "Oh, hey, I've been wanting to see a chiropracter and these folks must be good - after all, they called my cell phone with an ad!"

It actually annoyed me enough that I filed an FCC complaint (it's really fast to do it via the web).

My guess is that someone convinced them this was a good idea and charged them money to execute the campaign. And poorly - the ad consisted of rapid-fire speech with bad enunciation. I couldn't tell what the name of the practice was (but reverse lookup solved that). If you're going to get in people's faces in obnoxious ways, at least say your name clearly.

It's amazing to me that people still do this stuff. Dear Durrett Chiropractic people, people fire the folks giving you marketing advice ASAP.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Regional Branding: the KC Animal Health Corridor

I saw a small piece in a recent Economist on Kansas City's attempt to make itself into the Silicon Valley of animal health.

My first reaction - foolishly - was that "Animal Health Corridor" was a not particularly catchy or interesting name.

Then I paused for a sec, and reminded myself that it's a pretty good name in that it's straightforward, no nonsense, and absolutely tells it exactly like it is.

And they've apparently got the facts to back their claims that, when it comes to animal health, they are, indeed the place to be.

I found all this out on the KC Animal Health Corridor web site.

OK, the paw logo may be a little hokey - and seems to leave out our hoofed and feathered friends - but they build their case quite compelling. Nice to see a brand that can back itself up.

The Kansas City area is plunk in the middle of live stock country, and they make the most of it. They're also nearby to top tier veterinary schools and headquarters to a whole slew of corporate head quarters for animal health related enterprises.

Living petless in a city in the Northeast, I'm about as far from animal health issues as I can possibly be. Truly, my major animal health issue is hoping that we have enough of a cold spell to tamp down the rat population lurking beneath our trees, sidewalks, and foundations.

But I really like the fact that, when we keep hearing that the central part of the country is emptying out, Kansas City has looked around and staked a legitimate claim here. They are/were, after all, a big stockyard center. So why not.

And animal health is a huge business.

KC is going for it. Everything seems to be up to date and complete on their site: facts, figures, testimonials.

Hey, if I were running an animal health company, I'd sure consider locating it there.

Just like I'd put Massachusetts on my short list for bio-tech.

Nice branding, nice marketing, nice getting a city slicker like me to take a look at what they have to offer.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Those Darn Customers

From the "Customers, they are so annoying!" files, Pragmatic Marketing's Tuned In blog comments on Microsoft's response to customers having problems with Outlook 2007:

Yesterday Microsoft released an update to Outlook 2007 to help speed up the downloading of messages and reduce the annoying and highly criticized freezing associated with moving or deleting messages. Microsoft indicated that the problem stemmed from RSS feeds, email, and calendar files all being stored in the same .PST file which as one might imagine could grow in size rather quickly depending on the user. The problem lies not with the software, but how users are using the software. Jessica Arnold Outlooks Program Manager told ComputerWorld "Outlook wasn't designed to be a file dump, it was meant to be a communications tool...There is that fine line, but we don't necessarily want to optimize the software for people that store their e-mail in the same .PST file for ten years."

Except that, um, that's how customers actually use the software. Silly customers!

It's not unusual to find that customers are using your products in ways you didn't anticipate (and didn't design for). You can only predict so much while you're developing the product, especially when you are working with new technologies that lead to new user habits.

But once you find out what people are actually doing, the right response is to make your product meet those needs (or perhaps spin off a companion product that addresses the new needs and works nicely with the current product). The right response is almost never to complain that the customers are doing things wrong.

Then again, this is the same company that's been loading up its office suite with "helpful" features that almost everyone I know turns off as soon as they install it. Bad customers! No auto-formatted numbered lists for you!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A note to the toy companies

I was going to say "toy makers" but, alas, most of the toy makers aren't here, they're in China, where a goodly number of them are apparently using lead paint, the date rape drug, and a lot of other nasty things to produce toys for our little ones.

(As Christmas approaches, toyland is certainly an Opinionated Marketing theme, as seen on John's post - and Mary's comment - yesterday.)

So, here's what I have to say to the toy companies who have been so blithely and blindly producing and MARKETING more and more, cheaper and cheaper, shoddier and shoddier, built-to-discard tomorrow (if not later today) crap:

Hah, hah, the backlash and losses that you're going to experience this Christmas serve you right.

(And I'm not letting American consumers off the hook, here, either. Our dazed, crazed, never satisfied desire from more and more, cheaper and cheaper, etc. etc., nonsense to shove in our maws - or, worse, the maws of our children - has been going on mindlessly for far too long. Time to think: about the implications of all this junk on children; about the implications of turning a blind eye to less than stellar safety, environmental, and worker-related practices in China in exchange for the devil's bargain of more crap. May this be the season when we all start to think straight on this.)

Now that I've got that out of my system, what constructive message would I send to toy companies?

Here goes:

  • Maybe you're already doing this, by why not establish a certification program and put it on all the toys that you, personally, will attest have been created with safe inputs; are of high quality; and have been produced under humane and decent conditions? Have it be like Sarbanes-Oxley: the CEO is responsible for ensuring that all this happens. Which will mean a lot more feet on those Chinese streets to make sure that standards are being met.

    Parents could look at a toy and see that the CEO of, say, Mattel had signed off on it. Or else.

    Sure, there might be illegal knock-offs that made their way into the country. And, sadly, they'd no doubt end up in cheapo-depot stores that sell to poor people. But at least some people would feel and be more protected.

    Oh, and, by the way, as with SOX attestations, the CEO can go to jail if he/she signs off on something that ends up, say, killing a kid. That might put a little backbone in the system, no? (Of course, the toy companies are not likely to do this on their own, but it's really time for them to stop taking the Chinese middle-men to the middle-men to the middle-men's word for things. They really do need to take ownership of what's going on in their supply chain.)
  • And while you're at it, why not come up with some "built to last" products - and not just ones that you're going to market at a premium to all those high end, elite parents who can afford to pay extra for something made out of wood painted with non-toxic paint. How about a decent quality toy line for everyone. I'm not saying complete death to plastics, but why not a little less of it. (I'm guessing that a lot more little girls hang on to their Raggedy Ann dolls forever than they do to one of their two-dozen Bratz.)
  • Set up a Made in America product line. You will clean up. People may have to pay more, which means they may buy less, but is anyone going to buy less than they are this year?

As I said, the toy companies may be all over this already.

As for those who are shopping for kids this season, my advice is two-fold: books and less.

What to do with the left-over money?

Put it in the kid's college fund, or make a donation to a charity in the kid's name. By the time a child's seven or eight, they're perfectly capable of understanding that - greedy guts that they are - they have a lot more than some of the other children out there.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

When Life Hands the Other Guy Lemons... Chinese Toys and American Toymakers

Recent news about lead-tainted toys manufactured in China have been helpful to one segment of the toy industries: small companies making hand-crafted toys in the US. But it's hard for small operations to gear up to meet unexpected demand, so we see - for example - things like this from a toymaker in Maine:


This is probably a one-year bounce for these folks, and I hope they've made the best of it. One might criticize them for having to stop taking orders on December 6, but then again, I don't think anybody makes wooden toys in Maine by hand to dominate the toy universe; my guess is that that owners of this business do what they do for a love of their work and some lifestyle choices, as well as to pay the mortgage.

So here's hoping that after this busy season they're able to take a nice vacation. The one bit of advice I'd have for them: they should people who are interested in their toys to leave their contact information so that they can be notified when the company is ready to take orders for upcoming birthdays, special events, and of course next year's holiday shopping season.

It's very hard to turn a windfall from someone else's problems into a long-term gain, but there is an opportunity here.

An interesting note: as I was reading about this, I found this article about how European toymakers have also benefited. But the first toymaker mentioned in Playmobil - not exactly a mom and pop operation. Europe is not exactly a hub of low-cost manufacturing; how is it that Playmobil makes its toys so close to home?

Turns out that it's a business consideration:

Schauer said Playmobil, a family-owned company in Zirndorf, Germany, faced intense pressure to move production to China. Most of the industry was moving there, she said, and German banks did not want to lend money to companies to build toy factories at home.

What the companies discovered, though, was that while China's unit labor costs were a fraction of those in the West - the equivalent of $1.50 an hour compared with $30 an hour in western Germany - the distance between China and the companies' biggest markets eroded some of that cost advantage.

In addition, Lego and Playmobil need to respond quickly to fickle consumer demand. To speed up the production of a surprise hit - a Playmobil World Cup soccer player, for example - would be costly in China, where factories are set up to churn out vast volumes of toys with long lead times.

"Toys are not the fashion business, but they are like the fashion business," Padda said. "The need to be able to react to what is going on in the market made us choose" Europe.

And so if you give a kid in your life Lego this year, it was likely made in Denmark. Because when a company makes these outsourcing decisions, cost isn't the only factor.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Pragmatic Marketing Rule #10

This is the tenth in a series of posts on Practical Product Management Rules from Pragmatic Marketing.

Pragmatic Marketing Rule #10:  Find market segments that value your distinctive competence.

I suspect that all technology marketers have, at one time or another, attempted to broaden their market to extend beyond whatever segment they find themselves in. Sometimes this makes absolute sense: there are adjacent markets which may be equally well served by your products. Or almost equally well served.

The problem occurs when you start convincing yourself that your offerings - as is - will work for everybody.

At the macro level of "distinctive competence", you're not going to sell bleeding edge technology into an industry where companies typically adopt new-fangled "stuff" with a 5 year lag. You're not going to sell a costly, hands-on services model to a company that prides itself on do-it-yourself. You're not going to sell expensive, nice-to-have bells and whistles to a company that's driven strictly by the bottom line and which operates on the thinnest of margins.

At the less grand, micro level "distinctive competence" may translate into a feature set (or singular feature) that is ideal for one market, and might seem like it should at least be somewhat useful for other markets, as well.

But unless that shiny new market really needs and wants what you have to offer, well, heading down this path will get you to the marketing equivalent of the Boulevard of Broken Dreams: more expense to attract fewer customers, longer sales cycles, more price resistance, less satisfied customers. You name it, you'll find it when you start drifting into territory that doesn't value your distinctive competence.

So before heading in this direction, you owe yourself and your product a critical examination of just how and why someone wants and needs what you've got that's different. Plain and simple, if you can't come up with an answer, those potential customers won't be able to, either.

Sure, you'll convince some of them to buy your wares by share force of will. But this is not the recipe for market success.

You, may, of course, be able to create that market success by tweaking your product, through creative pricing, by offering mo' better services. Just make sure that's what you really want to do.

Yes, focusing on your distinctive competence - or even on your simple, technical differentiation - may mean that you find yourself in a niche. Again, you need to make sure that being a niche player is what you really want to be.

If not, find yourself a distinctive competence, or means of differentiation that won't relegate you to a niche. (I know, I know. That's not going to happen overnight - nor should it.)

Friday, December 07, 2007

Hamming it up for Chanukah

I was at a small gathering at my friend Susan's the other night, and she took a few moments to light the third candle on her menorah. Susan and her husband sang a song in Hebrew (which, as Susan pointed out, sounded just like the theme song for the old Western TV show, The Lawman. Those of a certain age - Susan and I among them - will sort of remember it: "The lawman came with the sun/There was a job to be done." Of course, I recalled the words as "came with a gun", which actually makes as much sense as "with the sun."). Susan then recited a beautiful poem by Rilke (yes, I had to ask).

It was a very nice moment, and nice to observe this bit of ritual with empty nester friends.

What's this got to do with marketing?

Not much, but I was over on Seth Godin's blog the other day, and he had this hilarious picture out there.


Maybe this is one of those urban legends, maybe not. I'm enjoying it too much to do my usual Scopes check.

Know thy audience.

It's really a Marketing 101, isn't it?

Sure, there are plenty of "cultural Jews", who eat treyf and celebrate Chanukah. As a "cultural Catholic", I get what that "cultural-name-of-religion-goes here" is all about.

But who came up with the idea of cashing in on a religious holiday by trying to push goods that are off limits to that religion?

Nothing, but nothing, is going to make ham Kosher for Pesach. Or Chanukah, for that matter.

So Happy Chanukah to those of you who celebrate it.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Is it the Season to Annoy Your Customers?

Apparently. Well, it happens every year; it's the busiest retail season of the year, so retailers put their email marketing (along with all other marketing) into high gear.

I used to like getting my weekly Borders email. I often use the coupons they send. The emails work; they get me into the store.

But I hate their holiday emails for several reasons.

  • I get one every single day. There is no retail store in the world I need to hear from every day. I could not possibly shop anywhere enough to justify getting something every day. The emails that I used to like getting now register to me as borderline spam and it'll be a Christmas miracle if I haven't opted out by the time the holidays are over.
  • They bombard me with a ton of products, most of which don't interest me. I'm part of their rewards program; they know what I've bought. Maybe they could try targeted content?
  • They include coupons that are only valid for a day or two. Why even bother to save the email if I know I won't have time to get to the store before the coupon expires? DELETE.
  • There are so many different coupons that it becomes too much effort to even try to sort through them. Am I better off with today's 25% off (but only if you come in right away) or will tomorrow bring a buy two, get one free offer? This is one is just for books, but this one is for DVDs. Wait, this one is for holiday cards, but it expired. Wait... screw it, let's just shop an Amazon.

Here's what Borders could have done to get me into the store: send me an email with, say, a holiday gift giving guide - maybe a list of topics with links to suggestions on their site, something that would make me think, "Hey, Diane really likes mysteries, maybe I can find something nice for her there." Include a coupon or two that's good until Christmas. Put one in there for a coffee at the in-store cafe - seriously, it would make a holiday shopping trip more pleasant.

In other words, send me something that's useful to me. And don't bug me every day.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

CitiBunk: what's with the irrelevant ads?

Years ago, Citi ran an ad campaign in which "people" talked about how helpful CB was when they detected unusual spending patterns. I mean, they actually called the consumer to find out if they were actually consuming at the clip that their transactions seemed to indicate.

The folks in the ads were all over themselves praising Citi for protecting them - although, given a credit card holder's limited exposure on use of a stolen hard, they were actually protecting themselves.

I remember Saturday Night Live spoofing this campaign with a very funny riff on "First National Change Bank" that depicted customers grateful because they could go into the bank, give the teller a twenty dollar bill and get back a ten, a five, and five ones.

Citi, it appears, is at it again with another statement of the obvious campaign, in which they tout how people can and do use their Citi credit cards to, like, buy stuff.

Buy stuff? With a credit card?

Never would have thought of that on my own!

Admittedly, the ads are cute.

In one, there's a very cute mutt in bed with a stuffed poodle. Apparently, his owners tried everything to keep Max from howling. Figuring that their pup was lonely, the bought him a mirror. Then new dog food. Then a new dog bed. Finally, they settled on the stuffed poodle. All's right in the world. And they, apparently, could never have carried it off without Citi.

In another one, a non-cooking shopaholic turns her kitchen into a walk-in closet. Again, all with the help of her Citi cards. Now, if ever there's an ad that I can identify with, it's one about someone who doesn't cook. (Alternative use for my kitchen: solarium/reading room.)

What this has to do with a Citi card, well.

In the third ad in the series, the new mother-in-law of the vegetarian daughter-in-law puts a tofu turkey on the holiday table. Remind me never to eat a tofu turkey. It looks like either an uncooked turkey-turkey or a turkey molded out of Crisco. Yuck.

Yet again, Citi to the rescue.

Don't leave home without it.

Obviously, the ads were clever enough for me to read, and maybe that's what Citi is intending - it puts their name in front of an audience who might not ever read a straightforward, boring old ad for a credit card.

But is it going to motivate me to sign up for a City card?

No way!

What might motivate me is Frequent Flyer miles. (Actually, that would motivate my husband to motivate me.) A donation to a charity of choice. Accumulation of bonus points.

Sorry, just being able to spend with it doesn't exactly inspire me to want to learn more.

"Whatever your story is, your Citi card can help you write it."

Maybe I'm the American oddball, but, in truth, my personal story doesn't have all that much to do with the stuff I buy.

Chalk this one up to yet another ad campaign that I draw a major blank on.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Strategeries and Tacticizing

If you've ever been to an emergency room, you know that waiting is part of the drill. Put two marketing types into one, add some interesting posters on the bulletin boards, and there's a new way to pass the time and for one of you to not think about the pain he's in. As we sat waiting for someone to come and draw blood from my partner, I said, "Hey, look... they've got a brand pyramid."

Not one that makes a lot of sense, though. How do strategies rest of initiatives? Why is the vision a tiny thing at the top? What does "best of the best" mean? (At least the brand promise makes sense, even if would probably apply to any hospital in the world.) To someone sitting there in pain - which would later turn out to be an appendix on its way to rupturing - is there really a brand promise besides "we will make you better" or "we will keep you from dying" which matters?

Here's the mark of a poorly organized strategy represented by any geometric shape of your choice: the documents that come from are even stranger. If the summary doesn't make sense, the things that arise from it will make less. And so next to the pyramid I spied this:

The first group isn't awful, although since the piece was tacked to a bulletin board in an area where patients sit and wait for care, I might have put "patient-centered" up at the top. And "competent." The second section, however, show signs of someone just giving up on sticking to the structure. "We are operational discipline?" And systemness? What the heck is systemness?

These characteristic lead to actual initiatives and something called "big dots." I'm not sure what "big dots" are and how they differ from initiatives...

Note that one of the items is to "maximize net revenue cycle." Now, we all know that hospitals are businesses, but as you're sitting in agony, or watching a loved one and getting scared because it's one in the morning and the pain is getting worse and something is wrong and you are not sure what, it's hard to take comfort from knowing that you're in a place that's truly committed to maximizing their net revenue cycle.

So perhaps lesson one is that these kinds of internal documents should not be stuck to bulletin boards where your customers (in this case, patients) should see them. But then lesson two is that they are often going to see them anyway, so perhaps you should be sure they leave people feeling better about you. And lesson three would be the ditch the strategy pyramid or obelisk or ziggurat and come up with a strategy that you could explain to someone in a few sentences while waiting for a bus and sound like a normal human being doing so, instead of like an MBA candidate with Tourette's Syndrome.

The good news is that when your strategy documents leads to this kind of stuff, if you've got good people, they generally just ignore it and do their jobs. That's precisely what seems to have happened at the hospital in question; while they should, perhaps, hire fewer people to think about strategy and more phlebotomists, the actual medical personnel were nice, caring, folks. My partner was admitted and had surgery is recovering, and fortunately everyone involved seems to be thinking about patient care and not the strategy doubletalk emanating from their management.

Clearly there's a disconnect between whoever is coming up with this stuff and the front line employees - and I am very glad about that.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Pragmatic Marketing Rule #9

This is the ninth in a series of posts on Practical Product Management Rules from Pragmatic Marketing.

Rule #9: The building is full of product experts. Your company needs market experts.

There's nothing worse than a marketing person who knows little about the product they're marketing. Matters not whether you're "just" in marcomm, minimal fluency is required. The bar gets raised for product marketing and product management, of course.

But as the rule says, if you're in technology marketing: the building is full of product experts. Developers. Services folks. Sales engineers.

Nice if you can demonstrate your understanding of SOA, your appreciation of MDM, your giga-intimacy with bits, bytes, and all assortments of herz's.

What the company also (and really) needs from marketing is insight on what's happening in the market - in general.

  • What's the competition up to?
  • What trends - technical and business - do you need to keep an eye on?
  • What's up with the wonderful world of compliance and regulation? (Eek, it's everywhere.)
  • What's going on in the verticals of interest?

Not to mention what's happening in the market - in particular. I.e., your customers, your prospects.

  • What's lurking out there that might have an impact on your customers and prospects - and how they might benefit from your product at this particular time.
  • And just how do those customers use your product?
  • What connections are they making between the features and benefits?
  • What are they asking for?
  • What do they need that they aren't asking for?