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Archive for October, 2005

Raison d’etre

all rights reserved, olivier blanchard 2005

Kathy Sierra rocks. She does. If you don’t read her blog regularly, you’re missing out on some seriously good stuff about passion. Passion in business. Passion in design. Passion in your customers. Passion in the world.

Today’s post is definitely worth a read. If there is one thing I have learned in my years of having worked in what some like to call “the marketing” world, it’s this: You can’t fake it. The best advertising agency can’t save you if your product isn’t great. And by great, I mean REALLY great.

How do you make a product great? Is it by being passionate about it? Of course, but more specifically, it is by being passionate about that product’s place in the world. Its purpose. The way people interract with it.

You have to be obsessed with a simple thought: “Will the people I am making this for really, really love it?”

Will they love using it? Will it make their lives easier? Will it make their lives better? Will it make them happy?

(Questions like will they love it so much that they’ll tell all of their friends about it?, those come a little bit later.)

Remember the story about the homemade cheescakes from Alabama ending up in one of New Orleans’ best restaurants? This is the same thing.

A little old lady in Alabama made cheesecakes. At first, it was probably for her family. For her closest friends. Probably two or three times per year, she made this cheesecake. Thanksgiving. Christmas. A birthday. It was probably a big event in her immediate cirle. Something special. Something to be anticipated. The rest of the year, she probably heard a lot of “so… when are you going to make that cheesecake for us again?”

I would guess that this little old lady started making that cheesecake a bit more often because more and more people got to taste it… and so more and more people started asking for more.

And then more and more people who had never tasted it, hearing so many stories about it, started asking for it too.

“Come on, can you please make one for us? Pleeeeease?”

The little old lady probably started expanding her clientelle by baking one for a sick neighbor. Baking a half dozen for a church fund raiser. Baking a few more for a local diner, just to make ends meet here and there, when the farm didn’t quite pay off on its own this month or that.

I doubt that this little old lady started off by pacing back and forth in her kitchen wondering: “How do I make the best cheesecake the world has ever known?”

“How do I start making tons of cash with this recipe?”

“How should I sell this to restaurants all over the country? Advertising or word-of-mouth?”

Nope. This little old lady simply baked cheesecakes because it made people happy. If she made some money out of the deal, great. If not, well, at least her work would put smiles on people’s faces, and that was reward enough for her.

That’s how her cheesecakes ended up on the dessert menu of one of the best restaurants in the country.

Her approach to baking cheesecakes isn’t all that removed from what makes some designs better than others.

When my Passat effortlessly accelerates past a truck struggling to get up a mountain road, I am happy. When I nail a photo with my old Pentax K-1000 or my new Canon, I am happy. When I clip into my Look pedals and hear that comforting slap of the spring against my cleat, I am happy. When I take my first sip of Orangina after months of not having been able to get my hands on a bottle, I am happy. When I read the first few lines of a Chuck Palahniuk novel, yeah, I am happy.

You can bet that behind every single one of these experiences is the unapologetic application of at least one person’s passion for driving, photography, cycling, drinking seriously good carbonated orange juice, or reading… um… well, reading.

Note that I am talking about experiences here. Experiences. That’s what all of this is about.

If your work is a labor of love, if at the basis of your design, or your idea is the question: “will they love this?” then you’re on the right track. It can be a movie. A screwdriver. A remote control. An mp3 player. A hotdog. A computer game. A lawnmower. It can be anything.

If instead, the driving questions in your product development meetings are more along the lines of “if we make it less ergonomic, can we shave another 7% off the cost?” you may not be headed in the best of directions.

“If we use cheaper materials…”

“If we take away some of the utility…”

“If we only offer it in gray…”

The death of good design happens one unanswered question at a time. One bad assumption at a time. One little sliver of fear at a time. Meeting after meeting after meeting, people who have no understanding of what your customers want or love or wish for take you further and further away from the point. It happens because all too often, the customers – the users – aren’t part of the discussion, and the entire concept of experience is shoved aside and forgotten.

And we wonder why it doesn’t usually take long for the discussion to turn into a monologue.

If your product isn’t designed with your customers in mind, if it doesn’t take into account their experience of it, no amount of advertising, PR or clever marketing will make up for its shortcomings. You have to start with the product itself. You have to start with the product’s raison d’etre. You have to start with a certain measure of passion. Other than recruiting and nurturing incredible talent, that is any business’ singlemost important priority.

If passion isn’t in your vocabulary, then focus on putting something in your customers’ hands that makes them want more of what you have to offer.

I am not talking about keychains with your logo on it.

Design starts with passion for the world, for the way things are used and for making people happy.

When I say people, I mean users.

When I say passion, I mean curiosity.

That’s why when I saw that Kathy’s top suggestion in her latest post was to favor hiring “a creative, user-focused product designer” over a “creative, award-winning advertising designer,” the heavens parted and I heard angels sing. (I did.)

Now, I don’t completely agree with Kathy on every single suggestion she makes. Ad agencies can be VERY valuable. This is especially true of agencies/firms that work with their clients as true strategic partners. (Tom Peters calls them “PSF”: Professional Services Firms, and has a fantastic – and free – little downloadable e-book on the subject right here.) But I do agree with the thought behind her suggestions: Ad agencies and PR firms need to do more than just “sell” to stay relevant.

That means that if you own a company that develops products, you need to invite your strategic partner to the table BEFORE the products are designed. Not afterwards.

Sure, a great ad agency can inspire people to buy your products. A great agency can make a trip to a fast food restaurant look like a Disneyworld vacation. They can make you feel that buying a particular car will make driving an adventure. But… none of this really means anything if you can’t really deliver on their promises.

The burger joint isn’t an amusement park. Most people’s morning commute isn’t the great arctic tundra.

Once the commercials are off the air and your customers realize that your burger wasn’t really all that great, that the service sucked, that your car seat is kind of uncomfortable and that the windshield wipers are too noisy, what kind of relationship do you expect to have with them?

Why should they ever buy anything from you again?

Why should they ever recommend you to their friends?

No matter how cool and well crafted, without something rock solid to back it up, your message is nothing but hot air.

You can’t keep doing this. You can’t. Those days are over.

The solution: Call your marketing firm right now and ask them to come help you design your next product. Ask them to come study your customer service department. Ask them to help you find ways to spend more time with your customers. Your users. Your fans.

Treat them like a PSF and ask them to come help you become the company you know can be. Could be. Should be.

The cool thing is that they can still make ads for you. They can still spread the word and give you the exposure you crave, but just think about how much more effective they will be at doing this once they are truly a part of what it is you do.

Think about how much more successful your company will be once you have shifted your focus away from selling, and back to making your customers happy with you?

Marketing firms are a lot more effective at doing this than you realize. And if yours can’t do this for you, find one that will. They’re out there. I know a few.

Kathy’s original table is a lot clearer than this one.

If you’re an ad agency or a marketing/PR firm and business is slow, maybe it’s time to start thinking about evolving into something more than what you are. Start looking for ways to help your clients evolve rather than just being relegated to creative job shop and media bullhorn status. (You’re better than that, and you know it.) Find ways to coach your clients through the sometimes difficult process of becoming what Fast Company would call a… well… a “fast company”. You owe it to yourself.

Perhaps more importantly, you owe it to them.

(Or hey, if business is great, don’t change a thing.) :)

As for Kathy’s very cool 200 dairy cow idea, don’t kill your advertising budget just yet. You can have your cake and eat it too.

Consider this: It only costs $500 to buy a dairy cow for a village or a needy family through Heifer international. But… Why a cow? Here’s why:

“One healthy cow can produce four gallons of milk per day. The protein in milk can transform sick, malnourished children into healthy boys and girls. The sale of surplus milk earns money for school fees, medicine, clothing and home improvements. And because a healthy cow can have a calf every year, your gift of a heifer could eventually help an entire community move from poverty to self-reliance. And that’s a present that’s impossible to top!

There you go.

So while a gift of 200 cows sounds pretty damn cool, one cow woud be a good start… and then two… and twenty… and fifty. (Sometimes, starting small and letting something grow is a lot more rewarding for everyone involved than just throwing a big chunk of money at it.) Getting employees and customers involved might be a great way to keep your advertising… er… PSF budget and still raise enough money to fund a whole lot of cows. Maybe even a whole lot more than 200 by the time you’re done.

Incidentally, if you want to do something now but a cow isn’t in your budget yet, a water buffalo is only $250 (they’re vital to subsistance farmers in Asia). A pig is $120. A goat is $120. Check out the site for all of the options. It’s pretty cool.

Anyway. Back to the point: Passion. Professional Services Firms. Inspired product development. Happy users/customers. Triggering cultural shifts. Dairy cows for 3rd world farmers. Get the idea?

Okay. Since you’re still here, I have a treat for you.

A Haiku:

Ripples in a pond

reach every shore.

Your heart is the pebble.

Kathy, you rock.

One last thing: Check out the Sarah McLachlan video that inspired Kathy’s post here. Even if you aren’t a fan, what she’s done with it is pretty awe-inspiring.

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all rights reserved, olivier blanchard 2005

I was driving back from the veterinarian’s office today, pondering a new business opportunity I kind of tripped on, when the term “microventure” popped up in my buzzing little head. I did a quick google search as soon as I got home, and of course, the term had already been coined. *sigh*

Anyhoo. My definition of a microventure may be a bit different from what an economist’s would be. In my little world, a microventure is just a small 1-2 person startup that requires virtually zero capital and probably won’t, by itself, make anyone rich anytime soon. I am talking about ventures that start very, very small.
Stuff you’re already kind of doing… just… without the money-making part.
Do you knit really cool sweaters for your family and friends? Are their friends asking you to make some for them too? Are your pies winning local awards or state fair contests every year? Do you grow the most amazing tulips anyone in the tri-county area has ever seen? Are your pesticide-free vegetables turning heads at the local health food store?
You might be sitting on some pretty amazing potential.
I remember eating the most fantastic cheesecake in a posh New Orleans restaurant two years ago. I mean… this thing was unlike any other cheesecake I had ever tasted. Culinary heaven. Seriously. So I asked the waiter if they were made in-house, and he told me that no, they were baked by this little old lady in Alabama who lived on a farm in the middle of nowhere.
I should have asked how the little old lady and the restaurant came to form this wonderful relationship. How do you get from creating a unique recipe and baking cheesecakes for your church in your old kitchen stove to supplying one of the best restaurants in the country?
With no advertising.
With no capital.
With no infrastructure or representation or technology.
Pretty cool.
Microventures can be about anything. Growing the juiciest tomatoes. Writing inspiring children’s books. Breeding gorgeous cockatiels. Making really cool looking art. Designing even cooler furniture. Designing stunning websites. Making gorgeous cabinets. Whatever. Microventures are about doing something unique. Something you can be the best in the world at. Something that will help you change the world, even if it’s just a tiny little bit.
What separates microventures from other small businesses is the fact that they are completely unique. They don’t follow a model. They aren’t a copy of what someone else is already doing. You won’t find them in infomercials. There’s no kit. There’s no program. There’s nothing to buy into. There’s no pyramid. It’s just you and your own highly specialized contribution to the world.
At their core, they are about new ideas. Serious talent. Hard work. Patience.
And most importantly, not relying on them to pay the bills anytime soon.
You should dream big, but you kind of have to start small. Build your business, one brick at a time. Be happy with a positive cash flow, but don’t expect to quit your day job just yet.
Note the “micro” in microventure.
Note the emphasis on “yet”.
So, back to my irrelevant little story: The veterinarian’s office. The lightbulb moment. The drive back to my house. The subsequent blog search to see what (if anything) had already been written about it. Fast forward to Hugh Macleod’s “The Global Microbrand” post on gapingvoid. Pause on the WOW moment when I realize that there must be some kind of weird eureka synergy to this blogging thing.
Hugh’s global microbrand theory is kind of like the third and fourth steps in my microventure concept. (Step 1: Start. Step 2: Make money. Step 3: Work out the kinks and get really, really good at it. Step 4: Reach far beyond your zipcode.)
Here’s some of what he has to say:
Since I first used the term here in December of last year, I have been totally besotted with the idea of “The Global Microbrand”.

A small, tiny brand, that “sells” all over the world.
With the internet, of course, a global microbrand is easier to create than ever before. But they’ve existed for a while. Imagine a well-known author or painter, selling his work all over the world. Or a small whisky distillery in Scotland. Or a small cheese maker in rural France, whose produce is exported to Paris, London, Tokyo etc. Ditto with a violin maker in Italy. A classical guitar maker in Spain. A commercial sign maker in New England. Or a sheet metal entrepreneur in the U.K.

And with the advent of blogs this was no longer just limited to people who made products. We saw that any service professional with a bit of talent and something to say could spread their message far and wide beyond their immediate client base and local market, without needing a high-profile name or the goodwill of the mainstream media. (…)
The Global Microbrand is sustainable. With it, you are not beholden to one boss, one company, one customer, one local economy or even one industry. Your brand develops relationships in enough different places to where your permanent address becomes almost irrelevant. (…)
Of course, “The Global Microbrand” is not conceptual rocket science. You don’t need a Nobel Prize in order to understand the idea. What excites me about it is the fact that I now live in a small cottage in the English boonies, and careerwise I’m getting a lot more done than when I lived in a large apartment in New York or London, for a fifth of the overheads. For one fiftieth of the stress levels.
(Read the rest of his post here.)
So anyway. Yep. Blogging is a crucial element of creating (or at least nurturing) your own global microbrand. Global microbrands fit much better in the web 2.0 world of quality discussions, solid referals and passionate clients than in the splattergun approach of traditional advertising’s high traffic/high exposure model.
The microbrand’s highly specialized nature is exactly what makes it so relevant… and successful.
The old lady in baking cheesecakes in Alabama. The blanquette maker in Languedoc. The cabinet maker in Antwerp. The Christmas ornament maker in Sri Lanka. The business consultant in Lima. All potential global microbrands. All potential really cool little stories.
All potential agents of change.
Building a whole new world economy, one little brick at a time.
In closing, I will leave you with Hugh’s parting words from his post:
“There are thousands of reasons why people write blogs. But it seems to me the biggest reason that drives the bloggers I read the most is, we’re all looking for our own personal global microbrand. That is the prize. That is the ticket off the treadmill. And I don’t think it’s a bad one to aim for. (…) as long as we keep blogging, avoid high overheads and keep making the best suits in the world, nobody can take it away from us.”
Put your passion to work. It’ll be one of the most rewarding adventures you’ll ever go on.
:)

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Blog Appreciation Day

all rights reserved, olivier blanchard 2005

Okay. Some days, I don’t have anything really all that relevant to write about. It isn’t so much that I didn’t do anything interesting today (I did), but… I’d rather yield the floor to fellow bloggers whose posts were particularly good.

First, grab a cup of java and go hit Kathy Sierra’s latest post: if you could change only one thing. Not only will you learn about kerning and trapped white space, but it’s a damn good exploration of the potential for change… one observation at a time.

Then hop on over to hugh’s gaping void blog for a brilliant Seth Godin paraphrase: “The future of marketing is being able to create stories other people will want to tell.” Then check out his blog cards and buy a set. (You know you want to!)

And then there’s an afternoon’s worth of reading with Tom Peters’ The “PSF” IS Everything! , which is probably the coolest thing I’ve read all month. (Over three pages anyway.) Be ready because it’s 109 pages long… But they’re short pages. And they’re GREAT pages. Great great great great great. Really.

And if you’re hungry for more once you’re done, feel free to pick any of the links on the right side of this page. Some are about marketing. Others are about advertising. Design. Photography. PR. They’re all really good.

Discover a new voice today.

:)

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Fear Is Irrelevant.

All rights reserved, olivier blanchard 2005

“Dear President Jackson,

The
canal system in this country is being threatened by a new form of transportation
known as “railroads” . . .


If the canal boats are
supplanted by railroads, boat builders would suffer, and towline, whip, and
harness makers would be left destitute . . .


God never
intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed.”


Sincerely,

Martin Van Buren
Governor, State of New York, 1829

There will always be a railroad coming. Chinese factories being built. Evolution will happen, in nature as in business, in science as in politics, in art as in manufacturing. Change is as inevitable as hurricanes and floods and wars and revolutions. Change is the vehicle through which cancer will be cured and people will walk on Mars and we will eventually wean ourselves from fossil fuels. Whether you like it or not, entire industries will crumble and others will sprout to take their place.

Whether you like it or not, you will either be a catalyst for change, or a victim of it.

Innovation and market disruption will either make you successful or irrelevant.

You will either change the world or watch it race right by.

This is the reality of the world, and you need to face it now.

Starbucks changed the world. Yahoo and Google changed the world. Apple changed the world. Ford. Tolkien. Picasso. American Express. HBO. Xerox. CNN. Netflix is changing the world right now. Ten years from now, some of these names will have stopped innovating. Some of these names will have settled for “safe”. Some of these names will fade away.

Fear won’t stop the train from coming. It won’t make the barbarians turn around. It is completely irrelevant.

Fear is an illusion.

Either embrace change as an opportunity to become something great, or pack it up and go home. There is no middle ground. Not anymore.

Imagine. Create. Invent. Lead. Chart your own course. Make up new words for what you do. For what you are. For where you’re headed. Make up new words now, because you’ll need them later.

Fortune doesn’t favor the “also in.”

Don’t settle for being the best. Instead, work your ass off to be the first. This isn’t about beating the other guys. You can’t. You won’t. Those kinds of victories are short-lived and meaningless. Be unique. Become an icon. Become a legend.

But expect to fall on your face a lot. It’s the price you pay for getting there, and getting there first. By first, I don’t mean necessarily first to market. I mean first to success.

Remember IDEO’s mantra: Fail often to succeed faster. It isn’t just relevant to rapid prototyping anymore.

Come close, because I am going to tell you a little secret. Come on. Lean in a little. Lend me your ear and listen.

Ready? Okay, here it goes: Failure is a point on a learning curve. Nothing more. It’s nothing to be afraid of as long as you keep those little feet moving.

:)

The only true failure is to never have tried… or to have given up too soon.

Trust me on this one.

Related post: Seth Godin’s “What Are You Afraid Of?

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Top 25

Ooooooooo!!!! Look who made Technocrati’s top 25 list of Branding blogs:

1. gapingvoid
2. Johnnie Moore’s Weblog
3. Thinking by Peter Davidson
4. The Social Customer Manifesto
5. Media Culpa
6. everyhuman
7. Influx
8. superchefblog
9. Piaras Kelly PR
10. IF
11. Advertising/Design Goodness
12. Emergence Marketing
13. Brand Infection
14. Cherryflava
15. 360east
16. brandXpress Blog
17. Jane Genova: Speechwriter Ghostwriter
18. Media Orchard
19. Jefte.net
20. Marketing Usabile
21. Shotgun Marketing Blog
22. Casual Fridays
23. My Name is Kate
24. The Brand Builder Blog
25 Day Care For Your Brain

I’m not usually a joiner, but this is a club I can definitely be proud of.

Thanks for reading. :)

twittergrader-sc

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Substance vs. Flash

In his latest post about viral marketing, the always dead-on John Moore serves us another platter of wicked wisdom tapas:

“My advice to clients is to spend dollars to make the product more remarkable, not to make the word of mouth tactic more remarkable.”

So yeah, while BK’s subservient chicken and the “Wake Up With The King” campaigns are clever, cool and the subject of oodles of attention, they only serve to perpetuate themselves. They do absolutely nothing to get me into a Burger King.

(Now, a $0.99 whopper, on the other hand…)

Don’t het me wrong: Cool ideas, especially in advertising always get my attention… BUT the “cool factor” (or in this case, the “fresh” factor) of a campaign is quick to fade when it does more for the agency that developed it than for the brand it was intended to represent.

If there’s no substance behind an ad, its shelf-life will be counted in single-digits. In other words, while viral is fun, it’s also a tricky medium. It has to be backed up by something actually worth talking about. A new product. A product Improvement. Something.

Case in point: Giantology‘s brilliant faux archeological digs (complete with videos and nessy-esque reports) is the perfect viral vehicle for Sony Playstation 2′s upcoming “Shadow of the Colossus“. (Thanks, Spike.)

Chick-Fil-A’s “Eat More Chickins” campaign has been going strong for as long as I can remember. The latest in the collection of quirky cow fetish head trips is a loosely medieval calendar of famous cows, including bovine versions of Lancelot, Joan Of Arc, Robin Hood (and possibly even Vercingetorix, but I’ll have to double-check that one).

Granted, seeing the renegade cows dangling from giant billboards doesn’t make me instantly crave a chicken sandwich, but they do help me identify with the brand. Moreover, next time I do crave a chicken sandwich, Chick-fil-A will most likely be the first company I will think of.

The cheekishly creepy king and the subservient chicken, on the other hand, make me crave more creative advertising, but not a trip to Burger King.

But back to the point: Without something of substance to anchor a viral campaign to, you’re left with essentially… um… nothing more than flash.

If Burger King were to finally develop decent fries (think McDonald’s and Wendy’s), now THAT would be something worth talking about. Know what I mean?

What’s on BK’s menu these days anyway? Why should I bother to find out? Neither the king nor the chicken are telling me, and that’s really too bad.

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That Bond Called Trust

All rights reserved, olivier blanchard 2005

In 1998, I decided to get back into running, so I grabbed my old Nike running shoes and hit the road. Of course, it didn’t take long for me to develop some aches and pain. Not the kind that you can just brush off, mind you. The kind that threatened to stop my comeback dead in its tracks.

When I walked into Jeff Milliman’s store that March, it wasn’t to buy shoes. It was to get advice on how to get rid of the sharp pain that burned out of the side of my right knee every time I passed the six mile mark.

Jeff listened to my problem and smiled. He had me take off my shoes and roll up my pants. He watched me walk around his store. And then he gave me a pair of shoes.

“Here. Try these,” he said.

“You mean like… here?”

“No, I mean take them home. Run in them for a couple of weeks. If they work for you, come back and pay for them. If not, we’ll try another shoe.”

Just like that.

Jeff had never met me before. He didn’t know my name. If I had gone home that day with those shoes and never came back, he would have had no way to find me.

He took a big chance, trusting a complete stranger.

But ultimately, it paid off.

The shoes fixed the problem, and my ITBS quickly went away.

Two pairs of shoes later, I ran my first marathon.

Four more pairs, and I completed my first Ironman.

Add the shorts, the shirts, the energy drinks, the gels, the bars, the race belt, the hats, the sunglasses, the bodyglide, the socks, the decals, and you’ll get an idea of of how well Jeff’s gamble paid off.

That doesn’t take into account the dozens of people I sent his way over the years.

It doesn’t count the free publicity he got from my triathlon club’s website and newsletter.

Yeah, it paid off nicely.

I’m just one guy. Multiply this by a hundred customers.

The point is that I didn’t go into his store to buy shoes, but I walked out with a pair anyway.

I ran in those shoes every day for two weeks.
By the time I walked back into Jeff’s store to pay him, I was more interested in thanking him for having been such a cool guy. The moment I walked out of his store with that pair of shoes, I was a customer for life.
Imagine a restaurant manager telling you “here, since you liked our food so much, take this pie home. If you like it, come back next week and pay for it. If not, it’s on the house.”
Imagine a wireless service provider telling you “hey, take the phone and try the plan on for size. If it works for you, come back next month and we’ll finish the paperwork. If not, we’ll try something else that’ll suit you better.”
Refreshing? You bet.
Ultimately, it wasn’t about the shoes. It was about the gesture. It was about the trust. It was about essentially putting me completely in the driver’s seat.
And it was about getting me back on the road.

Establish that kind of bond with your customers, and they’ll never, ever leave you.
So… The question begs to be asked: What kind of bonds are you forging with your customers?

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all rights reserved, olivier blanchard 2005

It was bound to happen sooner or later: WOMM is under attack, and this time, the FTC isn’t far.
As Yoda would say, “Begun, the semantic wars have.”

Tuesday, Commercial Alert issued a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), asking them to investigate alledgedly fraudulent “buzz marketing” practices by Procter & Gamble’s Tremor.

(Read the full story here.)

Among the buzzwords floating around in this, the prelude to what will surely become a heated debate, are “buzz marketing”, “stealth marketing”, and of course “word-of-mouth marketing”.

The basic question is: Are these three terms describing the same thing?

The answer is of course: no… but the critical question is: Will the public know that?

In other words, will most people be able to tell the three apart?

The answer, sadly, is again, no. The lines are still blurred because those three terms aren’t clearly set apart from each other. “Word-of-mouth marketing” is too broad a concept. “Buzz marketing” and “stealth marketing”, unfortunately, can easily fall into its broad semantic realm.

Put simply, WOMM is facing an identity problem. Not in the sense that it doesn’t know what it stands for, (it does) but in the sense that most people don’t. Not unless they do some digging.

My fear is that if someone gives them the wrong impression right from the start, they won’t bother to dig. They will just take whatever bad press is thrown their way and be satisfied with that.

Don’t think “if.” Think “when.”

WOMM is simply the acronym for “word-of-mouth marketing”, which exactly describes what it is: marketing that focuses on word-of-mouth channels. Simple enough? Sure.

But not clear enough.

Perhaps WOMM isn’t simply what it does (use word-of-mouth to spread the good word), but what it is about. At its core. At its heart.

I am talking about authenticity.

I am not suggesting that WOMM be renamed AWOMM (Authentic Word-Of-Mouth Marketing), but you get the idea. If the very reputation of WOMM is going to hinge on its ability to separate itself from “stealth marketing” and potentially fraudulent practices, that is the kind of clarity it needs to bring to the court of public opinion.

Think Superman’s “S” printed big on his chest.

Think the axes and fireman’s helmet painted in gold on the big shiny red trucks screaming down the road to go save lives.

A cool tag lines isn’t enough here. Neither is a well-crafted manifesto or code of ethics. In an age of buzzwords and soundbites and thirty-second news stories, there isn’t always time to explain your side of the story.

All it will take to sink the very concept of WOMM will be one short ill-researched segment on a major network.

All it will take is a pretty graphic filling up the screen that says “Word-of-mouth marketing under fire”.

All it will take will be one news anchor confusing “stealth marketing” with “word-of-mouth marketing”.

Game over. Once people doubt your integrity, you are screwed. That doubt will never, ever completely go away.

Think Enron.

Think Richard Nixon.

Think Jimmy Swaggart.

Don’t think it won’t happen. The wheels are already moving in that direction.

Don’t think “if.” Think “when.”

Again, I am not suggesting that WOMM become AWOMM, but that’s the idea.

In his latest blog post, Brains On Fire‘s Spike Jones paraphrases WOMM innovator George Silverman’s words of wisdom from the first WOMMA conference:

“If there’s money to be made in word of mouth marketing, then every marketing sleaze ball in the world will come crawling through the woodwork.”

Yep. You know it. And they will sink this beautiful ship faster than you can say “what happened?”

How do you protect yourself against this? Simple: You create an identity that unquestionably states your raison d’etre.

The fact that one of WOMMA’s central goals is to bring authenticity back into the game should be clear to anyone from the moment they hear the name.

The alternative is to spend the next ten years being on the defensive every time unscrupulousous outfit gets caught doing something shady.

Trust me, you don’t want that.

The difference between what we like to think of as “word-of-mouth marketing” and its shadier cousins also has to be clearly delineated.

As much as I dislike acronyms (especially long ones), WOMM needs to become AWOMM. WOMMA may need to become AWOMMA. If not in name, at least in the minds of everyone.

Somehow.

All 6+ billion of us.

This needs to happen now, before it’s too late.

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Innovation Starts Here

all rights reserved, olivier blanchard 2005

Innovation begins with insight, not advice.

It begins with curiosity and an open pair of eyes. Or ears. Or hands. Or a few thousand taste buds.

At its core, it begins with people with a talent for both observation and creative problem-solving. These people aren’t “inventors”. They aren’t necessarily scientists in white lab coats testing gadgets all day. They probably aren’t PhD’s or MBA’s. They aren’t likely to be tenured executives. They could be anybody. A cashier. A janitor. An art student. A factory worker. A chef. A dish-washer. A police detective. They are simply people with a specific talent. Something they were born with. Whomever they are, when you meet one, you know right away that you’ve uncovered something special.

No matter what anyone tries to tell you, innovation can’t be taught in a classroom. It isn’t something you can get a degree in. It doesn’t work that way.

Conversely, innovation doesn’t just happen.

That’s why “asses in seats” as a hiring practice, as an HR mandate, doesn’t cut it anymore.

The resumes, the CV’s, the diplomas, they have very little to do with one’s ability to hand a company its next ten years at the top of the heap. Its next evolutionary leap or two. The next exciting chapter in its epic business adventure.

Innovators, whether they specialize in identity crafting, product design, specific technology or the arts don’t exactly grow on trees.

Think about Food. Warfare. Fashion. Web design. Social Programs. Photography. Genetics. Philosophy.

Think Julius Caesar. Think Steve Jobs. Think Fats Domino.

Think the team that developed the mp3 format.

Think the farmer or merchant who designed the first wheel.

Think Louis Pasteur and Marie Curie.

Innovation always changes the world. Even the slightest hint of it.

Always.

Innovation leads to evolution leads to growth leads to the future. Innovation is the key to any business’ success. Continued innovation is the key to any business’ longevity.

Imagine Microsoft without innovation. Sony. Canon. BMW. T&S Brass. Krispy Kreme. HBO. Trek bikes. Nike. Oakley. Fitleist.

The most important thing you have to know about innovation is that it all starts with the right people. Not asses in seats, but talented, gifted people with a particular skill: With an ability to see the world like very few other people can. It starts with individuals literally worth their weight in gold.

But having people like this on your payroll isn’t enough. You have to empower them. You have to let them out into the world. You have to get them in front of your customers. You have to let them walk around your stores. Your factories. Your customer service call centers. You have to send them to your competitors’ backyards. You have to let them loose. Give them a camera. Give them a notepad. Give them a plastic baggie.

Give them five minutes inside a store, and they’ll figure out five things that will boost its sales by ten percent inside of a week.

And that isn’t even about innovation. We’re still stuck on simple observation and insight, at this point. This is just a warmup. An appetizer. A taste of amazing things to come.

These people, these innovators, they are your contextual interpreters. They are the only people in the entire world who can translate your customers’ needs into the next big idea.

Your next big idea.

They are the people who know how to turn your customers into rabid brand advocates after spending ten minutes with them.

The truth about communicating with your customers is that it’s harder to do than you think. Focus groups are too limiting. Field testing comes way too late in the game. Customer service is too busy responding to complaints to effectively put them in context for you.

To understand what your customers need, you need an intermediary to intuitively make sense of what they have to say. You need people who can be anthropologists and data analysts and artists and creative thinkers all at once. You need people who can turn a need into an idea, an idea into a concept, a concept into a design, a design into a product, a product into a success, a success into a cultural phenomenon.

Apple’s customers didn’t ask for the iPod. Moviegoers didn’t ask for ‘Titanic’ or ‘Gladiator’ or ‘The Matrix’. They didn’t ask for WOMM.

They asked to be free of bulky CD players. They asked for “blow-us-away” entertainment. They asked for truth in Marketing.

Without these interpreters, these innovators, your business will never be more than what it is today. It doesn’t matter how many big clients you land, how many customers you sell to, how much money you spend on advertising. It doesn’t matter how many MBA’s you hire. For your company to be relevant, for your identity to be worth anything, you need to constantly outdo yourself in the eyes of your customers:

Every year, Versace designs new collections. Apple releases new cool technology. New Balance creates lighter running shoes. Seth Godin publishes a new book. Trek designs a faster bike.

Innovation drives business.

Conversely, McDonalds stays the same. Home Depot stays the same. TV sitcoms stay the same.

Stagnation leads nowhere.

Think 6% annual growth. Think price pressures from imports. Think customer apathy.

This week, fellow brand strategist Jennifer Rice (What’s Your Brand Mantra) makes some very valid observations about the role of innovation in business:

- Brands that aren’t in touch with their customers miss out on small but critical innovation opportunities.

- Brands that seek customer insight only along predetermined lines of thinking (like taste tests) can easily miss out on the real opportunities.

Bingo.

In her piece, Jennifer also quotes an Ad Age post in which the author erroneously muses:

“Companies spend billions on market research to divine the needs and wants of consumers and businesses. Yet the new-product failure rate remains high. And we’re not coming up with better product concepts by listening to the voice of the customer. Why? Maybe the customer isn’t worth listening to.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Wrong x infinity. Your customers are worth listening to. The problem is that…

1) You’re just not putting the right people in front of them.
2) You don’t understand the relationship you have with your customers.
3) This isn’t about divination. It’s about dialogue.
4) That dialogue has to be about more than just going through the motions. (Hey, we’ve spent millions on this. It should be working, no?)
5) Remember that thing Jennifer mentioned about predetermined lines of thinking? Read it again.

Don’t mistake customer involvement with design by committee.

Jennifer comes to the rescue with an astute piece of advice:

“My personal philosophy on customer involvement is this: Find out what they want. Then figure out how to deliver it. Customers should be involved in need identification… or as John puts it, they should serve as the inspiration. But it’s the company’s job to figure out the best, most cost-effective solution to that need.”

“Find out what they want. Then figure out how to deliver it.”

Yep.

Without the right people taking care of this for you, you’ll waste years and a ton of money chasing your tails, with very little to show for it.

Seriously. Hire talent. Hire insight. Hire those drivers of innovation. If you can’t find any, hire companies that make a point of keeping folks like this on staff so you don’t have to.

Think IDEO.

Think FROG Design.

Whether you hire an individual or a team, let them become a part of who you are. Give them the tools and the means and the authority to work their magic. That’s it. Really. I’m not kidding. They’ll take care of the rest for you.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can afford to keep going without this vital piece of the business puzzle. You can’t. You’ll either see snail-slow growth, or you will see your company crash and burn before its time.

That kind of talent doesn’t grow on trees. Seek it out. Make it yours. Don’t ever make the mistake of letting it pass you by.

Your competitor won’t.

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All rights reserved 2004, Olivier Blanchard

Interesting point made by Brains On Fire’s Spike Jones today in regards to the link between employee happiness and customer service:

“Happy employees make happy customers. That’s where a good identity lives and breathes – and grows from. If any of the (wireless) carriers had the buy-in of their employees and actually cared about them (and took care of them), then things could start to change. (…) I’m talking about the real people that represent the identity on a daily basis.”

If you’ve read my recent posts on flight attendants and Lowes employees, you’ll know that I couldn’t agree more.

What I want to very briefly bring up today is the issue of employee unhapiness, and how easily it can drag a company’s image down.

Case in point: Walmart.

I guess it depends on the person, but I think that we can all agree that in general – perhaps with the exception of the elderly greeters – most Walmart employees don’t seem particularly passionate about their jobs. I don’t think I’m being unfair by saying that. Some even seem to really, really, really hate their job. (More on that in a bit.)

I’m not judging, mind you, and I am not saying that Walmart employees should act as happy as Starbucks baristas… But I can’t help but wonder why they don’t. Does Starbucks pay that much better than Walmart? Is serving coffee all day that much more fun than stocking or scanning stuff?

Is there really that much of a difference?

Is it just that working at Starbucks is cool but working at Walmart isn’t? Are a person’s identity and sense of self worth tied-in with the image of the company they work for? (If Starbucks is cool, then working at Starbucks makes me cool? If Walmart sucks, then working for Walmart means I suck?)

Maybe. I don’t know.

I guess I could see a little kid wanting to grow up to be a barista: They make coffee, the coffee makes people happy, so it isn’t a bad job. I don’t know too many kids who would ever find working register 12 at Walmart fun or cool or rewarding.

Obviously, Walmart has an image problem, and the entire company’s identity may be caught in a self-perpetuating vicious cycle of substandard customer-to-brand experiences.

Maybe it’s time Walmart did something to change that?

It’s really a lot more simple than you’d think: By focusing on any one of the four links in that wheel would affect the other three. Put simply, improving service would improve customer experiences, which would in turn improve the brand’s image, which would then boost employees’ sense of worth, which would motivate them to provide friendlier service, etc.

Spike is 100% right when he brings up people as being the core element of a company’s identity. Beyond professionalism and happiness at one’s job, an employee’s sense of worth within the context of this identity directly affects the quality of the service they provide in the eyes of their customers.

(It’s okay to read that one again. It had some twists.)

Unhappy employees can turn even the best companies into “have beens”. In contrast, happy employees can turn even the most average companies into WOM-worthy lovebrands.

Ask yourself: Do you feel special when you buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks? Do you feel special when you buy a BMW or an Apple computer? Do Starbucks, BMW and Apple employees play any role in that?

Do you feel special when you buy something at Walmart or Alltel or Circuit City? Do those companies’ employees play any role in that?

Do you think that those employees’ sense of worth relative to their jobs has anything to do with how happy or unhappy they are to work there?

Sometimes though, employee unhappiness goes way beyond poor service… and gets a little… trippy. Perfect example: A few months ago, I was walking by the storage systems aisle of my local Walmart when I saw this guy absolutely reach his breaking point – which was kind of entertaining at the time, but is in a very real way symptomatic of the malaise that exists within companies that do very little to inspire, engage or otherwise empower their employees.

Here’s a play-by-play of that little incident (see the image at the top of this post):

Walmart guy spots a bin sitting in the middle of the storage systems aisle.
Walmart guy yells “@#&%!!!! Not again!!!!”
Walmart guy grabs the bin and tosses it on a shelf, yelling “I already @#&^%$ put you away three times this morning, %$#&^ %^$#*&!!!”
The bin bounces off the shelf, hits him in the shoulder, and tumbles back to the middle of the aisle.
Walmart guy screams “@#&$%!!!!!!!”, grabs the bin, swings it over his head and slams it down on the ground.
Repeat.
Again, but as hard as he can, this time.
Walmart guy kicks the bin into the shelves, still screaming obscenities.
Walmart guy calms down and stops screaming.
Walmart guy calmly walks over to the bin and picks it up.
Walmart guy puts the bin up on its shelf and walks away as if nothing had happened.

Wow, huh?

Okay. There’s a huge difference between the apathetic (see “lethargic”) cashiers who are just way too bored to crack a smile or make eye contact, and the guy who goes postal on a product he’s tired of putting away fifty times a day. I understand that. But still.

It kind of makes you wonder about just how lousy it must be to work at a place like this every day, where very few people feel pride or joy or excitement when it comes to the role they play in the machine that is their workplace.

This isn’t just boredom. This kind of catharsis is the result of a pretty oppressive environment.

Without getting too deep in Dr. Phil Territory here, let’s just say that when Walmart guy beats up the plastic storage bin, he’s really lashing out at Walmart and its customers because quitting isn’t an option, and he can’t do it any other way.

It goes well beyond feeling unappreciated or undervalued.

It’s really more about a sense from this guy that because his job has no finality, no real impact on anything and no relevance, neither does he.

Worse yet: He feels powerless to do anything about it.

… Which is why he beats up the offending but otherwise stoic storage bin.

Even if you zoned out through much of that sorry attempt at Jungian psychobabble, just understand that what this guy is feeling is not healthy.

What you need to take from this is that you don’t build positive customer experiences in this kind of environment.

You can’t allow your employees to ever feel trapped or helpless. In other words, when they walk by the lobster tank, they shouldn’t be able to empathize with the lobsters. When they walk by the meat department and its endless rows of neat little square packages, they shouldn’t get a sense that it says something about their place in the world.

They should be thinking about how pretty the rows of meat packages look, and how healthy the lobsters look, and how they’re going to help a bunch of customers today. Blue vests to the rescue. Walmart superheroes. They have to understand their value to the Walmart world and that starts by finding value in helping customers have a fantastic shopping experience at Walmart.

Helping people and being paid in smiles is kind of like pouring them the perfect cup of Starbucks’ coffee. Think about that sunny parking lot outside. Think about the droves of happy people taking their blue bags of Walmart stuff back to their cars. Think about the smiling yellow dots all over the place. Think about birds chirping and pretty clouds drifting in perfectly blue skies.

Think about those Walmart employees’ role in making that world happen and about how good it feels to have that kind of power.

Yes, Walmart could be a fun place to work AND a fun place to shop. But it isn’t, and it has nothing but its management to blame for it.

Remember Spike’s words of wisdom: Happy employees make happy customers.

Likewise, unhappy employees make unhappy customers.

There are ways to make your employees happy. Perhaps more importantly, there are ways to make your employees feel proud. And no, rewarding them isn’t something you can fake or buy off with plaques and pins and little bonuses. It’s something that has to feel real.

If you want to inspire your customers, you first have to inspire your employees. If you want to do that, you have to make them feel like they truly are a part of your company and not just worthless pawns.

You have to make them feel like they are on a mission.

You have to make them feel good about the work they do for you.

Does that sound complicated? It really isn’t. It’s actually the simplest thing in the world. Starbucks is doing it. So is Apple. So is Loreal. So is Nike. So is Coca Cola.

Treat people with respect. Give them something worthwhile to do. Inspire them to be knights in your kingdom… or at least happy to be there for as long as they want to stay. That’s it. That’s all you really need to do to get things rolling in the right direction.

As always, it really is that simple.

Maybe you don’t see it yet, but it is.

I promise.

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The Good News

The good news is that service seems to be getting a little better. Companies are starting to pay attention to their customers more, and I am seeing more smiles now than a year ago. Or five years ago, for that matter. The bad news is that too few companies are catching on.

Example:

The Good – Ruby Tuesday.

I never thought I would say anything nice about a chain that I always kind of considered to be an “also in” casual eatery/bar, but I guess hell does occasionally freeze over, and thanks to genetic research, yes, pigs can fly.

So here I am, about to sing the praises of Ruby Tuesday, because to be quite frank, they surprised me big time last weekend.

To set this up, I have to once again bring up the fact that I am not a fan of the Ruby T or of TGIF or Appleby’s or Chili’s. It isn’t so much that I dislike them. It’s more that they don’t do much for me. Sure, the food’s good and the service is adequate, but… it’s just kind of Blah. O’Charley’s. Bennigan’s. The dozens of other chains just like them. You can change the tag line all you want, you paint the walls a different color, you can feature new stuff on your menu, but it’s still just different versions of the same thing.

At least to me.

But that changed this weekend when my wife, a gift certificate in hand, dragged me and the kids to the local Ruby T.

First of all, the manager’s name was stensiled on the front door. Now… I don’t know why that struck me as cool or relevant. I don’t even know why I even noticed it. But the fact of the matter is that it made me feel pretty safe about the fact that this restaurant had the confidence to semi-permanently announce to the world that so-and-so was the manager. It’s a small thing, but I noticed.

Second, we were greeted by three separate people, and all seemed very happy to see us. (No the restaurant wasn’t empty.) We aren’t talking about polite smiles here. These people actually seemed happy. It was a nice change from the norm.

Third, I noticed that our kids’ activity books were different. One was geared for kids under 10 and the other was a little more relevant to a 10-14 year old. That’s pretty cool. Most places just have one kids’ menu, but somebody at corporate realized that 10-year-olds don’t necessarily want to color bunnies and trace dinosaurs. I thought that it was a nice touch for them to have two separate menus/activity booklets. Ruby T might not be the only restaurant to do this, but it’s the first one that I’ve been to. That’s the kind of attention to detail that gets my attention.

Fourth, they changed their menu concept and took a chance: Instead of being all things to all people by introducing yet another skillet dish or quesadilla this or cajun that, Ruby T decided to go on the offensive as THE burger specialist. Their menu still has all of the usual stuff, but it now also sports 36 different burgers on a huge double-page thing that squarely placed them (at least in my mind) at the top of the burger market heap.

Sorry Fuddruckers and your like, but Ruby Tuesday (of all people) has taken the lead.

36 burgers? Big, juicy, perfectly cooked burgers?

36?!?!

Impressive.

And while I like Fuddruckers and their concept of letting us (their customers) decide what to put on our burgers, they’re falling short on the delivery: Sure, letting us build our own burgers is cool, but you’re basically only giving us tomatoes, lettuce, onions and pickles… eh. That’s not a lot of choice, is it?

Now compare that with 36 different burgers, and you can see where I am going with this: If you’re going to be in the foodservice business, be relevant. If you want to be relevant, stand out. Stand out by… well, overdoing it: 36 different burgers is completely ridiculous, but that’s exactly what’s so brilliant about it.

Ruby T gets MAJOR kudos from me on the guts it took to just say “Hey, you know what? Why don’t we just go all the way with this? And while we’re at it, let’s stab a big steak knife right down the middle of them to make a point?”

Good job.

Fifth, the waiters and greeters all wished us a nice afternoon on our way out and were super friendly and upbeat. That’s always nice.

So while I still won’t put ruby Tuesday on my Top 10 favorite restaurant places, at least it’s on my rotation now, which, actually, is saying a lot.

Now for the bad: Lowes.

My wife and I went straight to Lowes after our Ruby Tuesday burger lunch and got to experience a company that absolutely doesn’t get it.

I know it’s a “warehouse”. I get it. But when I ask someone who works there where something is, I expect them to kind of have an idea… and maybe even have some sense that… you know, a smile doesn’t hurt. Anyway, this weekend, the item was a hand truck. Here’s basically what happened:

14:03
“Hi, can you tell me where the hand trucks are?”
“Aisle 54.”
Wrong answer.

14:09
“Excuse me. Do you know where the hand trucks are?”
“Um… yeah. Aisle 21.”
Wrong answer.

14:12
“Hi. I’m looking for the hand carts.”
“Yep. Go that way and turn right on aisle 52.”
Wrong answer.

14:19 – Customer Service Counter
“Hi. Can you tell me where the hand trucks are?”
“Sure, let me check.” *Looking through a reference binder* “Aisle 54.”
“Nope. I’ve already been there. They’re not there.”
“Oh. Let me call someone.”
(I’ll spare you the intercom thing and the subsequent radio chatter.)
“They’re on aisle 41, sir.”
Wrong answer.

14:29
“Excuse me. Hand trucks. Where?”
“They’re in aisle 23.”
Wrong answer.

14:35
“Can you help me? I’m looking for hand trucks.”
“Sure! They’re with the ladders and step ladders. right over there and on your left.”
Wrong answer.

I finally give up and find my wife still waiting by the dish washers for someone to notice her. Just as I arrive, someone finally asks us “have you guys been helped yet?”

Um… “Yeah, we’d like to buy this model. But while you’re here, do you know where the hand trucks are, by any chance?”

“They’re right on the other side of this aisle, sir.”

Bingo.

Having to spend close to 45 minutes looking for an item in a store is completely ridiculous.

To have to wait thirty minutes to be waited on is completely ridiculous.

To have the loader guy who tossed our new dishwasher into the back of our van turn around and walk off without as much as a smile or a “have a nice day” or a “thanks for shopping at Lowes” just sucks. He just turned around and walked off. It was rude.

And the Lowes site seems to be down this morning, so I can’t rip a logo to add to this post. Way to go.

Some businesses actually try to stand out and make their customers want to come back. Others obviously couldn’t care less.

The good news is that more and more businesses are starting to focus on their customers’ experiences again rather than just crunching numbers. The bad news is that they are still the exception rather than the rule. When even a company like Lowes doesn’t get it, you know you still have a long way to go.

One last thing: If your company is going to advertise friendly service, deliver on your promises.

If you don’t, someone else will.

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Blogosphere Heaven

All rights reserved 2005 Olivier Blanchard

Here’s what I love about blogs: They foster discussion. They promote dialogue. They bring ideas together in one place. Natural evolution for the web? You bet.

Natural evolution of word-of-mouth? Yep.

Case in point: Brains On Fire – The blog. I just discovered it a few weeks ago.

Brains On Fire is a cool little Identity Company based out of Greenville, SC. Something you should know about the Brains On Fire crew is that they stay busy. Very busy. But they still make the time to publish a very tight and sometimes inspiring blog. Nothing fancy, mind you. No photos, no illustrations, no 15-page manifestos – like some people (ahem). But I like it because they make simplicity work.

The format kind of works for me, and though I enjoy the occasional long-winded piece, short little bits are very practical.

Unlike this blog, you can be in and out of their latest post inside of two minutes. But that’s where they getcha: Just because you spent almost no time at all reading their brilliant little comments doesn’t mean you’re done. Nope. Chances are, you’re going to spend all day thinking about that wicked little piece of prose they laid out of for you.

That little slice of pie they left out on the table.

That delicious little crumb.

That irresistible little lure.

It’s going to do its thing somewhere inside your brain and pop out a few hours later with ten new ideas in hand.

No, it isn’t viral in the marketing sense of the term, but it is definitely so in its effect.

So back to the point: Blogs foster discussion. Dialogue. The sharing of ideas.

A few days ago, Robbin Phillips posted a little thing about trying to rename RSS feeds. How could we make RSS more mainstream? How could we make the concept a household name? Something that everyone over the age of fifty who knows how to use a mouse would know about and kind of understand?

Think cookies. Think ladybugs. Think worker bees. Think pickles.

And guess what: Comments on posts like these, posts that foster discussion, posts that ask a question, posts that force us to actually type stuff on that thing called a… keyboard are triple what the more straightforward blog entries typically log.

Discussion drives blogs.

Dialogue.

The sharing of ideas.

That’s what blogs are about. Check out the (ever-growing) selection of fine marketing blogs in the margin, and have fun.

By the way, we did come up with a new name for RSS. It’s a good one too.

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Brilliant article on FROG Design’s website this week: The iPod and the Bathtub:Managing Perceptions through Design Language

Personally, when I look at an iPod, my mind doesn’t immediately make the connection with toilet bowls and bathtubs, but that’s probably the result of conditioning. Or rather… “sensitization”.

Instead, I think back to the perfectly clean white plastic spaceship sets of Star Wars (the original – Episode IV) and the shiny white plastic armors of the movie’s Imperial troopers.

I think back to ‘Space 1999′, the old-timey sci-fi TV show in which the moon (and the occupants of a futuristic base on its surface) were thrown out of orbit and sent flying into space. (Again, white plastic and clean shapes everywhere.)

I think back to “2001, a Space Odyssey” (mentioned in the article), and another Kubrick film: “A Clockwork Orange”, which also made use of the color white in a number of ways, from the gang’s clothing to the lifelike statues in the milk bar.

Plain white and clean, simplistic lines take me back to the heyday of posh science-fiction, when silver suits and giant foreheads gave way to shag rugs and space-walking go-go boots.

When white was powerful and modern and clean.

Think ‘Barbarella’.

Think ‘Space 1999′

But it could just as easily have been born somewhere between the shower and the sink, and that’s one of the questions raised by the article: How does a product’s design language fit in with conventions? With perceptions?

Aside from this – my latest unfortunate tangent – this is an article you should all read, because it does a very good job of putting the often overlooked role of design language and brand language in context with a product’s eventual success in the market.

An exerpt: “…the most common failure of products is not that they failto communicate, but they communicate the wrong message.”

Bam!

Here’s another: “changes in the design of the modern kitchen had been brought about “by two things that had nothing to do with cooking a meal- the automobile and the airplane.”

Seriously. Read it, save it, copy it, and spread it around. This is good stuff.

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All rights reserved Olivier Blanchard 2005

Also read Friendly Skies? (previous post).

Before I start, I want to say that I have run into some fantastic flight attendants in my travels. Professional, friendly, funny, caring… They’re out there. They’re rare, but they’re out there.

I wanted to start with that because where I am going next probably isn’t going to make most flight attendants happy. And unless you’re in that first category (the great flight attendants), that’s just too bad.

I know that flight attendants wear many hats: They help load and unload passengers. They are in charge of security inside the cabin. They provide safety training and are there to assist passengers in case of an emergency. They serve drinks and food. They babysit 40-200 passengers on who knows how many flights each week. They’re on their feet a lot. They’re constantly traveling.

It’s a tough job.

I get that.

But see, part of their job is to take care of passengers. Customers. People.

Take care of them.

They are called “flight attendants” for a reason.

They aren’t called “cabin police.”

“Cabin bullies.”

“Passenger Herders.”

See where I’m going with this?

I’ve noticed that many flight attendants these days aren’t all that nice, especially in the main cabin.

In steerage.

Well, guess what? The majority of your customers are back here with me. They’re not in the front with the half dozen empty couches waiting for upgrades to step forward.

They’re back here. We‘re back here. Your customers. The folks whose cash keeps your airline from going out of business. The folks whose patronage you depend on to keep wearing that uniform.

I know your job is hard, but so is Jane Spears’. Jane is a waitress at a very busy restaurant not far from here. Jane always smiles. Jane gets great tips. People give up their place in line just to make sure they get one of her tables. Jane is one of the reasons why the restaurant she works for does so well.

Part of your job as a flight attendant is serving drinks and serving food. It’s only a small part of the job, but you can’t walk away from it. I am not suggesting that you are an airline waitstaff. Not at all. You do a lot more. But you get my point.

Jane works for tips, and Jane makes a killing. Not every waiter in her restaurant takes home the same cash. But the thing about Jane is that every day, even when she’s having a bad day, she is exceptional at taking care of people. She always smiles. She’s always fast. She makes everyone want to come back.

When I spend four hours on a plane and watch flight attendants treat customer after customer like cattle, I think about Jane. I think about how amazing it would be if every flight attendant were just like her. Pleasant. Soothing. Fast. Caring. Personable.

The way flight attendants used to be.

I think about how much I would be willing to pay extra, specifically to fly with an airline that promises that kind of service. $20. $50. I don’t know. When you give your customers something tangible to value, pricepoints become less of an issue.

I think maybe that there’s a better way to inspire customer loyalty than through air mileage rewards programs.

I also wonder how quickly most flight attendants would start being more like her if they made their money on tips.

This is the part where you stop and read that last line again. That’s right. Tips.

Here’s the deal: Airlines charge extra for meals now. $7 for a lousy day old salad. It’s just a matter of time before the pretzels and the quarter cup of soda aren’t free anymore either. Why not go with the full restaurant model?

Now… flight attendants have zero control over the quality of the food being served on their flight, but they have complete control over how it is served. How the drinks are served.

How passengers are treated.

Customers.

I’m thinking that if the airlines can’t pay their flight attendants enough to make them happy, if they can’t train them well enough to make them friendly, then maybe they should let us do it for them with our own cash.

Maybe if flight attendants made a good portion of their money from tips, things would turn around a bit. In-flight customer experience would improve dramatically. People wouldn’t get talked down to. Food carts wouldn’t be used as weapons.

That’s right. Tips. Just like waiters. Bellhops. Maitres D’Hotel. Doormen. Bathroom attendants.

Tips give flight attendants an incentive to work a little smarter. To treat us better. To take pride in their jobs again.

Imagine what $1 for every third passenger could add to your bottom-line each week.

Imagine what $1 from zero passenger would do to your bottom-line each week.

I know this is going to sound slimy, but I have to say it: *Cringing* This might be a good way for airlines to save money. The slime melts off when you realize that by putting flight attendants’ livelyhood in the hands of passengers, you’re giving your flight attendants the power and the incentive to boost customer satisfaction and their own cash flow.

Give us cheaper tickets. Give us a small cash refund on our ticket right at the gate. Tell us:

“If you don’t have a great experience flying with us today, here’s $3 back, but if you do, thank your cabin crew on the way out.”

Why not?

Would some flight attendants leave? Sure. But they would probably be the ones who need to leave anyway. The food cart bullies. Shame on them.

Will this ever happen? Probably not. There are unions to contend with, for one. It would require a huge paradigm shift in the airline industry. It would require a tremendous amount of scrutiny to prevent management abuses. The public would have to be made aware of it. Airlines would have to provide real value to make this work. A lame “please tip your attendants” plea wouldn’t be enough.

Airlines would actually have to start thinking about pulling themselves out of the “also in” mentality that has been driving them into the red for over a decade.

Airlines would have to start focusing on their customers again.

Reward miles aren’t cutting it. Crappy seats aren’t cutting it. Lousy attitudes in the cabin aren’t cutting it. Something needs to change.

Tips for flight attendants might not be the answer, but it might be a good start.

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The Truth about WOMM


Soundbite of the week:

As WOMMA CEO Andy Sernovitz pointed out marketers have three choices when it comes to word of mouth: They need to choose to participate in it, they need to choose honesty in their communications and they need to choose to make it easy by working with products and services that are good enough to warrant word of mouth. “Truth always rises to the surface” he said.

- Realty Freak, speaking of his experience at the WOMMA conference in NYC last week

Note: Realty Freak’s blog makes no apologies about holding the realty industry to high ethical standards. That’s actually the whole point. His blog’s mission statement is basically spelled out in RF’s very first post:

“Realty Freak” will be part of my ongoing effort to help change the real estate industry for the better by exposing the less transparent practices of real estate agents and brokers.

Bravo.

And there is the fundamental spirit of WOMM (for anyone who still can’t distinguish between WOMMand stealth marketing: Truth.

Anyway, great new blog.

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Friendly Skies?

Happy, shiny, smiley people.
Once upon a time, air travel was a glamorous adventure.

Think back to the super caravelles and their lavish bathrooms.

Think back to the professionalism, poise and attention to detail that were as much a part of being a flight attendant as were their perfectly tailored uniforms.

Think back to comfortable seats, even in coach.

Think back to real silverware and large food trays, and freshly baked buns.

Think back to when airlines still focused on their passengers’ experience rather than trying to stack as many asses in seats as humanly possible.

Here’s the deal: I’m only 34, so my memories of air travel don’t go beyond the late seventies. Actually, my first intercontinental flight was in 1982, when I first came to the US on vacation. At the time, I was either flying PanAm, TWA, British Caledonian or Sabena.

Who?

Exactly.

In 20 years, airlines have gone from pretty good to lousy, and many of the big names have faded into oblivion. Sure, I am making a dangerous generalization here, but still. My experiences with air travel these past few years haven’t been great. I hadn’t really thought about it until this past weekend, when I flew Delta to attend a friend’s wedding just a few hours outside of Kansas City, MO.

Very simply, here’s what happened: I got on my plane, and started making my way to seat 27C… but somewhere between rows 14 and 18, I realized that something wasn’t right: I still felt like I was in first class. I stopped, looked around, and saw that all of the seats in the cabin were wide leather seats… not the skinny little ill-designed shoe-horns I usually have to fold myself into.

As soon as I sank into my comfortable armchair, I dove for the emergency card in the seat pocket in front of me, and looked at the cover. MD88. Delta still flies the good old MD88. Thank god for small miracles.

Let me tell you something: Despite its ample size, the MD88 takes off, flies, and lands like a rodeo bull. Every time I land in one of those things, it feels like we’re going to bounce right off the runway and end up tumbling into a field, BUT those seats make it all worthwhile. I’m not kidding.

What’s less cool is the $7 the airlines want to charge you for a stale salad in a cheap cardboard box now. What’s THAT about? $7 for a day-old salad? People are suckers.

If you’re sitting in the back of the plane, you’re lucky if there’s anything left by the time the cart makes its way back to you. (So not only are people desperate enough to spend $7 on a crappy meal, but the airlines don’t even carry enough food for everyone on the plane.) That’s what I call adding insult to injury, but that’s just me.

Too much closeness: 1/3 of my seat taken by Mr. snores = not a cool flight. Partial refund anyone?

Speaking of carts, I remember a time when flight attendants gently tapped you on the shoulder if they needed to get by. Nowadays, they just roll. I guess they’ll keep right on rolling until they finally fracture someone’s elbow. I’ve actually witnessed a pair purposely bump people with the corner of their carts to knock them out of the way.

Instead of saying “I’m sorry,” they said “please keep the aisle clear, sir.”

No joke.

That wasn’t Delta though, or the MD88. This was on an US Airways A-321, where even a lean, medium-built guy like me can’t completely fit in my sardine seat.

As sad as it is, I guess when you spend more time training flight attendants to be cops than hostesses, when customer service is just a line item on a checklist, some of the politeness and basic human compassion that we once took for granted are bound to become a casualty of war.

Maybe instead of a plastic pair of wings on their chest, we should just give them a badge and a taser gun. Maybe we should be read our miranda rights somewhere between the belt buckle instructions and the life vest demo.

“… in case of a water landing, your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will result in the indiscriminate smashing of a giant block of solid metal into the back of your head at the cabin crew’s discretion.”

What’s goin on here? What’s this week’s excuse for the downward spiral of customer care in the airline industry? Money troubles? Security concerns? Profitability issues? Technology limitations?

How about this: Maybe the airlines just don’t care.

But being that I’m an optimist, I’d venture to say that it’s isn’t as much an issue of not caring as it is an issue of not knowing what’s going on outside first class.

Perhaps if more airline executives cared enough to fly coach incognito, say, just for the sake of doing market research, they might get wise and fix the debacle that is the airline industry today.
We’re talking shambles, here.

We’re talking the last days of the Roman Empire.

We’re talking terminal denial.

It’s just about come to the point where you have to insert quarters into a meter just to use a filthy 2x3x5 bathroom. Don’t think it won’t happen either.

Grim.


So yeah, the airlines could do better. A lot better. And some of them are trying. Virgin. Song. Blue. Southwest, even. It’s great… and my hat’s off to any airline that tries to raise the bar a bit and make flying pleasant again. Or fun. Or memorable.

But here’s the thing: You don’t need clown outfits and superminis on leggy stewardesses to lure me into booking a flight with your airline. As a steerage passenger, here’s all I really want:

1) Friendly, courteous gate agents. (No, not just polite. I said “friendly”.)
2) Seats actually designed for adults of normal stature, not 5′ tall space aliens with a bad case of scoliosis.
3) Friendly, courteous flight attendants. (Yes, “friendly”.)
4) Not to be viciously rammed in my sleep by the unforgiving edge of a 200lb food cart.
5) Free meals on flights longer than 3 hours. Charge it to the ticket. enough with the nonsense already.
6) If I am going to pay $7 for a meal, make it worth my while. I’ve had MRE’s better than this.
7) Prohibit people from carrying their fast food on the plane. It stinks the place up.
8) I don’t mean to be insensitive, but if the passenger next to me is so large that half of them is in my seat, I want a partial refund right there on the spot.
9) Friendly, courteous flight attendants. (It’s worth mentioning again.)
10) Take off on time. Land on time. Don’t overbook.

Oh, and one last thing. If your airline uses “zones” to load your plane, here’s a tip: Don’t start with the front of the plane. If zone 1 is in the front of the plane and zone 5 is in the back of the plane, how about starting with zone 5? See, that way, the people in zone 5 aren’t in the way when the folks from zones 4 and 3 and 2 roll in. You could load a plane in ten minutes instead of twenty-five minutes.

Just in case you were spacing out just then: Start loading from the back. It’s faster.

If you’re going to treat us like cattle, at least drive us like cattle. It’s the least you can do.

*sigh*

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Brilliant series from John Moore at Brand Autopsy this week: Tribal Knowledge – Lessons Learned from Working Inside Starbucks.

As I write this, John is only on Lesson #5, but let me recap what he’s covered so far:

(Click on the lesson link for the full version.)

Lesson1: Building the Business Creates the Brand
“Your business creates your brand. Your brand should never create your business.”

Lesson 2: Make The Common Uncommon
“Before Starbucks, the common cup of coffee could best be described as a hot, brown liquid. A drink to be endured for its jumpstart your day benefits of caffeine. (…) What once was something to be endured, Starbucks made into something to be enjoyed. Something to experience.”

Lesson 3: Touchology Trumps Technology
“If we greet customers, exchange a few words with them and then custom-make a drink exactly to their taste, they will be eager to come back.”
- Howard Schultz, Starbucks Chairman & Visionary

Lesson 4: The Excess of Access
“Starbucks will not deny they are everywhere. But they are everywhere because customers want them to be everywhere. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be there. (Starbucks is smart like that.)”

Lesson 5: Re-Org Your Org Chart

(Wow.)

Okay, so maybe you aren’t a fan of Starbucks. Maybe there are things that Starbucks could still do better. (Things that your corner coffee house does better, or things that The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf Company are focusing on in their rise to success in a Starbucks-dominated world.) Fine. You’ll get no argument from me. But the fact of the matter is that Starbucks does a lot of things right, and these are only five of them.

What other companies are doing is easy in comparison: All they have to do is reverse-engineer the Starbucks experience and add their own tweaks. Starbucks’ weakness for some may be its lack of fresh sandwiches (think Panera and Atlanta Bread Company, for example). For others, it may be the pay-per-use WiFi service (Panera’s is free – More on that in an upcoming post). These are the flaws that the other guys are capitalizing on. Good for them too.

Just bear in mind that it isn’t easy being the first to market. Starbucks doesn’t have the benefit of learning from the market leader’s mistakes.

That being said, while Starbucks may not always win my dollar when I am jonesing for a tripple capuccino, it’s still the first brand I think of when I am, and the brand I visit most frequently to spend a few bucks on a satisfying jolt of caffeine coolness.

Is it about the coffee? Yeah, sure, but that’s only a small part of it. It’s also about the fantastic service at the drive-thru window. It’s about the convenience of the locations and the late hours. It’s about getting my coffee fast and without incident. It’s about the cool cup I get to take into my office that makes people suddenly crave a Starbucks cup of coffee themselves. It’s about the gift certificates I get every time the drive-thru line lags a bit. It’s about the fact that the quality of the Starbucks brand permeates every piece of my experience with them, from the excitement I feel every time I spy a Starbucks sign up the road, to the flavor of their drinks. Starbucks takes care of its customers, and that’s just cool.

(And I consider myself merely a recreational coffee drinker, if that.)

Now if they could only stop charging for wifi…

… and maybe teach their airport store employees to smile more. (But that’s just me.)

Anyway, check out the Brand Autopsy postings by either clicking on the link (top of page) or on the individual lessons. They’re worth the seven and a half minutes it’ll take you to read through them.

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If you spend any amount of time on a bike (and by a “bike”, I mean a bicycle), you know that even the best wheels get a little out of true over time (as in “wobbly”). At first, you can just tighten or losen the spokes a bit, but eventually, somebody comes out with a faster, lighter, stronger, better wheel so you don’t have to.

It’s still round, it does the same thing the old wheel did, but it does it better.

Don’t think of it as “reinventing” the wheel, but as simply improving it. It’s called progress. It isn’t to say that your old wheel is obsolete. If you like it better, if it brings you comfort, that’s great. Hold on to it. There’s nothing wrong with being old school. Quite the contrary. It’s very endearing.

The way I see it, there’s something to be said for a system that’s been steadily driving you forward at your own pace for ten, thirty, even fifty years.

Steel vs. Carbon fiber.
Round spokes vs. bladed spokes.
Strength vs. aerodynamics.

If that wheel was good enough for Eddy Merckx, it ought to be good enough for you.

Yep, there’s something to be said for nostalgia.

But you know… the guys who spent ten years working on the next wheel and the next wheel and the next wheel, they aren’t just out to change the original design just for the hell of it. They’re passionate about their work. They aren’t slaving over every minute detail because of ego or market pressures or boredom. They’re just trying to build a better wheel.

More importantly, they’re trying to build a better wheel for you.

For me.

For everyone.

And this might just be a much better wheel than the ones we’ve been using:

The wheel: Your Marketing Department
The Hub: Your CMO
The new spokes:

The Brand Operator
The Connections Planner
The Creative Leader
The Customers Experts
The Investment Analyst
The Independent Advisor

You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to buy it. But you should at least check it out… maybe take it out for a spin. You might be surprised.

Food for thought.

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That Magic Feeling

Image copyright 2005 by Olivier Blanchard
Buying a product. Taking it home. Taking it out of the box. Pressing PLAY. Turning the first page. Pulling the cork. Clipping in. Hitting the ignition. Biting into the first slice. Slipping into it. Walking into the new store. Spraying it on. Plugging it in. Connecting the pieces. Reading the owner’s manual. Shifting up. Putting your name on it. Clicking SEND on the order form. Taking it for a spin. Holding it in your hand. Just looking at it.

It should always feel like this.

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The Hertz Guy

Image copyright 2005 Olivier Blanchard

Remember that thing we talked about yesterday? Treat your customers really, really well?

Okay, here’s a little story about Hertz:

Imagine that you’re tired after having bounced your way across the country from one airport to the next. You finally land in LAX and take the shuttle to the Hertz lot to rent a car… but there’s a line. You look at your watch, you zone out, and you wait. Another day in paradise.

But then comes this guy whose name may or may not be Doug, and he opens up a three-foot wide stretch of counter just to help things move along a little faster. It’s late and it’s dark, and Doug has been dealing with weary travelers all day, but he’s all smiles and speed and professionalism. When it’s finally your turn, Doug says hello. He asks you how you’re doing. He asks you how your trip was. He asks if you’re going to get to enjoy L.A.

Doug asks all of this before and after he asks you for your DL and your CC. Doug wants you to relax and feel at home. Doug takes all of the stress of a day’s travel and makes it all melt away, right there at the counter.

Doug asks you what kind of car you would like to rent, and because you don’t want to take advantage of your boss, you go with the economy car. Doug warmly suggests you go with something a little more comfortable, but you explain that… while that would be nice, it isn’t necessary. You lock in your insurance at the rate of the economy car. The deal is sealed.

But then Doug says:

“You know what? I’m just going to let you have this (much better) car for the economy price. What the hell.” A few clippitty-clops of his fingers across his keyboard, and he hands you the keys to the car you really should be driving… only you aren’t being charged extra for it.

You didn’t have to ask for a thing.

Doug, the guy with the name tag you can’t quite remember, the guy with the friendly smile, he did it just to be nice.

He also did it because he is empowered by his company to make this kind of decision. Because he doesn’t have to jump through hoops to get something like this approved. He did it because, while that probably isn’t something Hertz encourages, it’s still something Hertz allows.

This speaks volumes about the kind of customer-driven company hertz really is.

It also speaks volumes about the kinds of people Hertz hires and nurtures.

That’s my experience with Hertz.

Guess where I’ll be renting from on my next trip.

Is there a lesson here? You bet. Throw away your reward cards and your memberships and all of the rest of the clutter for a minute. Now look at AVIS. Look at Hertz. Look at Budget and Thrifty and Enterprise. Look at all the car rental companies at every major airport in the country. What sets one apart from the rest?

A logo? A particular brand of car? Video screens inside the shuttle? Curbside service? Maybe.

A great customer experience? Definitely.

You bet there’s a lesson there.

By the way, if anyone from Hertz reads this, there’s a guy in LAX you really need to promote and give a big fat raise to. I’m not sure his name actually is Doug, but… he should be easy to spot. He’s the guy who is single-handedly turning every customer he has contact with into a Hertz fan. His customers all walk away smiling instead of stressed, tired looks on their faces.

Doug is a one-man repeat-customer factory. A customer service superhero. A WOM-worthy brand embassador.

Doug is the poster child for everything that customer service should be.

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