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Archive for July, 2008

*Sigh.* As of today, the brandbuilder’s Power 150 (Ad Age) ranking has dropped to 203rd.

To make matters worse, that ranking still links to the brandbuilder blog’s old URL (at blogspot). This brandbuilder blog (wordpress) is nowhere near the Power 150′s radar.

Same blog, new url: All the difference in the world.

I guess the brandbuilder’s Power 150, technorati and Viral Garden rankings shouldn’t matter to me. It isn’t that the content has become less relevant: Moving to wordpress essentially restarted the visitor and link clock to zero, that’s all. With time, things will get back to where they were. So yeah, I know I should just press on and not care…

It’s just that I’m not that friggin’ zen.

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I have to admit it, my latest guilty pleasure is watching HBO’s “Generation Kill” (the story of the 1st Marine Recon Batallion in the first few weeks of the 2003 invasion of Iraq) on Sunday nights. The 7-part miniseries is currently on episode 3, and so far so good. Think “The Wire” meets “3 Kings” with a “Band of Brothers” vibe. 

In terms of pure entertainment, it’s mostly a guy thing I guess, so it may miss the mark with broad audiences. But in terms of painting a pretty complex web of interactions between layers of hierarchy, leadership styles and gradients of professionalism, the show is pure gold. MBA students should be required to watch the show just to see what great leadership and bad leadership look like, and perhaps more importantly how they can work together hand in hand within a single, complex, diverse organization. Sure, the vernacular is more akin to military units and sports teams than the board room, but the principles of applied leadership are exactly the same.

Management Lessons from Generation Kill so far:

  1. As a leader, being competent matters.
  2. As a leader, being competent doesn’t always matter.
  3. Leaders who cultivate cults of personality don’t have to explain themselves as much.
  4. Expectations don’t have to be realistic. Instead, they should always be just shy of impossibly high and unwavering. (Shatter your people’s comfort zone early and consistently.)
  5. Clarity of purpose is key.
  6. Clarity of execution is key.
  7. Use a map or a diagram. Point at something and tell your team where they are, where you want them to go, how you expect them to get there, how fast, etc..
  8. If a process doesn’t exist, create one.
  9. If a process needs to be improved, improve it.
  10. Excuses have an effective range of exactly zero meters.
  11. Train harder and more often than any reasonable person would, then train some more.
  12. The mission is the mission. 99% completion = failure. 100% completion = success.
  13. Success is the only currency you have when it comes to securing a better place on the food chain.
  14. Not everyone in your organization is an A-lister. Too bad. Welcome to the real world. You still need to get the job done. (See #10)
  15. Mistakes may happen, but there will be no screwups.
  16. Every organization needs a ball buster somewhere towards the top of the hierarchy to keep everyone in line.
  17. The grooming standard must be maintained. It is the foundation upon which everything else either clicks like a well oiled .50 cal or falters like a one-eyed, three legged dog.
  18. Be the first to get the thing done. People don’t always notice the best, but they always notice the first.
  19. Do what the other guys are too afraid to do.
  20. Never let the enemy dictate the pace of your movements.
  21. Keep the violence of initiative on your side.
  22. Understand the rules of engagement.
  23. Communicate the rules of engagement to your team in real time.
  24. Let whatever you fear the most be the thing that drives you the most.
  25. Do not dwell on mistakes. Learn from them quickly and move on.
  26. Personal opinions are always irrelevant and unwelcome.
  27. Respect for authority doesn’t have to come from the heart, but it has to come anyway.
  28. Orders are orders. If they were optional, they would be called something else.
  29. Your job description is subject to change at a moment’s notice. Accept this and move on.
  30. If you want routine, you are in the wrong job.
  31. Following the same road as everyone else is no way to get in the game.
  32. How you phrase/present your report matters at least as much as what the report is actually about.
  33. Look after your people but never hold their hand.
  34. Hold your people to the highest standards.
  35. Get the job done. Every time. Faster than anyone else. Be that guy.
  36. Know how to sell your successes.
  37. Action wins. Hesitation loses.
  38. The shortest way between two points is exactly that: The shortest way. (See #18 and #35).
  39. The shortest way is rarely the easiest way.
  40. The easiest way is almost never the right way.
  41. Once failure stops being an option, it effectively cease to exist as a potential outcome.
  42. Nothing you do will ever work the way you expected it to. Embrace the elegant predictability of Murphy’s Law and get the job done anyway.
  43. Blind ambition and gross incompetence often get you there just as well as the other option.
  44. Know your place along the chain of command.
  45. Treat others with respect.
  46. Do not confuse treating people with respect with being polite.
  47. Your environment does not dictate the success of your mission. You do.
  48. Nobody cares about why something didn’t get done. They only care that it didn’t get done.
  49. If you don’t get it done, you probably don’t belong here.
  50. Your job isn’t to be cool or fun or popular. Your job is to kick ass.

And we’re only on the third episode. This is definitely a to be continued post.

 

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Those of us who have been using Vista pretty much since the start already knew this, but there has been so much bad publicity around it that it’s hard to separate myth from reality anymore. Well, Microsoft recently decided to try a little experiment to see if Vista haters and skeptics really, truly didn’t like Vista, or if they were just being dragged along by the anti-Vista bandwagon. (Thanks in great part to Apple’s brilliantly executed Mac vs. PC ad campaign.)

The experiment was simple: Invite a group of Vista skeptics to test drive a new OS code-named “mojave,” without telling them that mojave was actually… you guessed it: Vista.

As it turns out, over 90% of the testers (who thought Vista sucked before coming in for their mojave sneak peek) LOVED Mojave. You can check out their reactions when they are told that Mojave was in fact Vista.

Wow! Vista actually rocks! Who knew.  ;D

The blind test is nothing new in marketing circles, but what sets this apart from the old Coke vs. Pepsi blind test ad campaigns is that the question here isn’t one of preference. Coke isn’t better than Pepsi, and Pepsi isn’t better than Coke. People prefer one over the other because of their taste buds, mostly. As powerful an ad campaign as it may be, you might as well have folks do blind tests comparing Methodist and Presbyterian doctrine. Which do you LIKE better? Which do you PREFER? The “Mojave” experiment doesn’t address preference or taste: It addresses perception vs. reality. Vista had (and to some extent still has) a pretty poor image in the marketplace because very few . This is in part due to a) driver incompatibility issues early on in the OS’ release, b) the fact that many “legacy” PCs aren’t powerful enough to run the OS, and c) a very aggressive campaign to discredit microsoft by its longtime rival Apple.

Fact: The driver compatibility issue is pretty-much ancient history.

Fact: Computers are pretty cheap these days, so while some businesses may not want to allocate the funds to upgrade their hardware or consider virtualizing their PCs, consumers should be able to upgrade their laptops and home PCs to a Vista system without too much trouble.

Fact: The Mac vs. PC campaign may have been fresh and cool and based in truth a year ago, but it has now slipped into the realm of disinformation. In addition, many of the so-called “crapware” that bogs down new computers has nothing to do with Microsoft or Vista. (If your new Vista PC is loaded with stuff you don’t want, the system builder installed it on your machine, not Microsoft.) Sony recently released a crapware-free PC that actually allows users to enjoy a pure vista experience right out of the box, and it pretty much rocks.

Anyhoo. The Mojave experiment is clever, honest, simple and effective. It is what it is: A series of videos showing real people being blown away with how great Vista actually is, after having so brainwashed by 21 months of negative messaging.

Kudos to Microsoft for having taken this approach to bringing the reality of Vista forward with people like you and me rather than an expensive round of corporate messaging. Very clever. You can check it out for yourself here. Hat tip to Steve Clayton for the link. Other articles on the subject at Microsoft Sherpa here, here and here.

have a great Tuesday, everyone. ;)

 

Transparency: I manage US Microsoft distribution for SYNNEX, a global distributor of IT and Business processes. Though the job doesn’t skew my opinion of Vista one bit, it’s worth mentioning.

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Watching it burn

Some of us who have managed projects know a little bit about budgets. Simply put, a budget is a bucket of money set up to pay for all of the line items in a project – or a series of projects.

Typically, the budget is set based on little things like what the client (internal or external) is looking to accomplish, what the client is able to spend, and ROI: (Return On Investment) Do the project’s benefits outweigh its cost, etc.

If you’re thinking “wow, that sounds like it takes a lot of planning and strategery,” you’re right. It does. The one thing you want to ensure as a project manager is that the goals, tactics and budget are aligned before a project starts: If the project is going to cost more than the budget allows, something is going to have to be cut from the project. Simple, basic stuff. If you don’t do this, you might run out of money before the project ends, which isn’t good. Your options then are a) ask the client for more money, b) close the project before having delivered it 100%, or c) eat the added cost. None of these options are good.

It’s with this simple methodology that I look at our federal budget deficit. Is it more complex than a marketing campaign? Of course it is. Infinitely so. But the principle is the same: Figure out how much funding you need to operate your series of projects (social security, national defense, infrastructure, research, wars, etc.), make the necessary adjustments, and go forward with what you can afford.

… Except… that isn’t how everyone understands the fundamentals of running a business/country. The latest Budget Deficit figures look pretty impressive. From CNN.com:

The White House on Monday predicted a record deficit of $490 billion for the 2009 budget year, a senior government official told CNN.

The deficit would amount to roughly 3.5 percent of the nation’s $14 trillion economy.

The official pointed to a faltering economy and the bipartisan $170 billion stimulus package that passed earlier this year for the record deficit.

The fiscal year begins October 1, 2008.

The federal deficit is the difference between what the government spends and what it takes in from taxes and other revenue sources. The government must borrow money to make up the difference.

President Bush inherited a budget surplus of $128 billion when he took office in 2001 but has since posted a budget deficit every year.

Wow.

Maybe I am reading this wrong, but if the FY’09 $490 BILLION deficit is indeed for the 2009 budget year, we’re talking about overspending $1,342,465,700 per day for 365 days in a row.

Wait… Let me get this straight. The US government is overspending (all up) at a rate of 1.3 BILLION dollars per day?

Tell me I’m not understanding this correctly. Please. Someone tell that figure needs to somehow be stretched out over the last 8 years or something… Pretty please? Tell me there is no way that the United States of America’s operating budget is so poorly managed that it bleeding $1.3B per day. Tell me I am wrong about this.  Tell me there is a plan to fix this. One that doesn’t involve a) just printing more money, or b) borrowing from foreign banks.

Maybe this kind of topic changes the conversation when it comes to what types of questions really need to be on people’s minds (and lips) when political candidates (from Presidential elections down to your municipal seats) run for office. Maybe the conversation should shift from soft broad-sweeping opinions about religion and security to cold hard facts and specific plans to fix what is broken. And by the way, this isn’t an indictment of either political party. Republicans and democrats together need to fix this – which is to say this isn’t just about this candidate or that one, but about us, American taxpayers and voters, who perhaps should refocus our attention when it comes to our definition of political leadership, and what our silver-haired years will be like, and the future our children will inherit.

Maybe there’s a branding lesson in there somewhere, both for world powers and the political candidates who aspire to help run them.

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Twitter’s growing pains.

I don’t want to jump on the “twitter keeps crashing” bandwaggon. It’s already pretty full. But man, it’s hard not to.

I just need to remind myself that twitter is free, so I probably need to check my expectations at the door and cut the twitter team some slack. Whatever they’re doing to the code or the servers or whatever, I’m sure it’ll be for the best in the end.  Growing pains are just part of the process. We’ve just become so used to things always working pretty well that as soon as something doesn’t, we scream foul. Maybe we just need to chill a little bit, and let nature take its course with twitter. I’ve tried the Plurk thing. Reluctantly. And yeah, I have a plurk account now… but I never use it. I prefer Twitter. Looks like we all do. There must be a reason.

I guess it’s a testament to how important twitter has become to some of us that when it does crash or get hickups, we all get pretty upset about it. It would be like our cell phones or email not working consistently… or our cable TV… or the subway or bus system deciding that on some mornings, people are just going to have to find another way to get to work. None of those things would be good. Except unlike all of the above examples, twitter is 100% free, so… I guess I shouldn’t complain too much, if at all.

Twitter IT guys, please try to fix your problems soon so we all find better things to complain about than “twitter is down again.” More importantly, the sooner you get your problems fixed, the sooner we can get back to our microblogging conversations.

I think it’s time for my Friday morning venti latte now.

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1. Bad Customer Service

As a follow-up to my US air travel rants of yore, this piece by Joseph Jaffe (also a follow-up to his own rants on the same subject – his being specific to Delta Airlines):

A bunch of my colleagues experienced the delta skelter.

About 10% of the Microsoft people travelling from Atlanta to Brussels on july 21st couldn’t find their luggage in Brussels. Some of the luggage are still missing today. Among the retrieved ones, the suitcases of my lovely colleagues Valérie and Virginie… in  very bad shape (see picture). Valérie called Delta today to discuss a compensation but they asked her to call again within a week.  They obviously don’t have the time to handle her complain.

Bad goes around.

Wow. Check out the picture of the bag here. Imagine if you took your car into a mechanic’s shop for service, it came back with a huge dent in the hood and grease stains all over the seats, and the customer service manager told you “uh, yeah, sorry ’bout that… Why don’t you come back later this week when I have time to talk to you.”

Imagine any company outside of the airline industry doing this. “Sorry about your suits sir, the dry-cleaning machine must have malfunctioned. Come back later this week and we’ll see what we can do for you.” I don’t think so.

2. Bait & Switch Tactics

Seth Godin also focuses on the airline industry today with this:

I feel badly for the airline industry. They are caught in a never-ending price war due to online websites and their own commodification. Pick the cheapest flight to get from here to there…

The natural short-term solution is bait and switch. Advertise the lowest price you can imagine and then require add on fees so you can actually make a profit.

Air Canada, which my readers generally concur is the single worst major airline in North America, has a fascinating policy. No oversized duffel bags, regardless of weight, unless they contain hockey gear. No shin guards, you pay $80 a bag.

Of course, you can have whatever rules you want, even if they’re only designed to help defensemen. The problems with bait and switch are:

1. You have to be very careful to apply them equally, because people hate being treated worse than everyone else.

2. You have to be prepared for anger, resentment and brand disintegration.

 See what his answer to pain vs. pleasure is for companies like Air Canada here. (Hint: Disney has a pretty good system in place.)

3. Community Managers

Chris Brogan has a great piece on the essential skills of a community manager, which ties in nicely with the Tribalization of Business post from Monday. Some of these skills include being experienced communicators, being ambassadors and advocates all in one, being bodyguards and protectors, etc. Great post, but the real gold here is found within the comments. Here are two of my favorite:

“The great community manager is able to match the importance of the bottom line with the requirement of providing customers with a feeling of being #1. He or she is an advocate for the customer while being able to discern what is realistic ahead of time.” – Sol Young

“Not a skill, but an essential for a good community manager is to be empowered by their organization. They need to have very public, spontaneous conversations; sometimes shiny happy ones, sometimes trickier ones. Not an easy string for many companies to cut, but the only way for real conversation and communities to evolve.” – Pamela O’Hara

Join the conversation here.

Chris Abraham follows suit with this post about the importance of Community Leaders:

I woke up to an amazing article written by Jonathan Trenn, The fallacy of community, and I responded in a comment to a pretty passionate article and a passionate comment string, and here’s what I wrote — and I have expanded the argument below, so it is an expansion:

Gosh, I don’t know what to say here… there are so many different types of communities, many of which can surely be manufactured. What every successful community requires is community leadership. Community leadership can be organic and emergent or they can be hired in the form of online community managers or facilitators. A strong leadership — people who have skin in the game — is more important than a good web application; also, these community leaders are often the main draw to the community and can be the difference between keeping or losing your members when a competitor comes to town.

Read the full article here. It’s good. (Why the focus on communities all of a sudden? Whatever the reason, I like that it is on so many people’s minds.)

4. Starbucks, design, and the future

John Moore gives a sneak peek at the design of future of Starbucks stores. (kind of cool, but will it work?)

5. The writing on the wall finally gets the attention of Ford execs.

CNN reports that Ford Motor Co., faced with its largest quarterly loss ever, is finally planning to “shift product line, bringing European-made vehicles to North America.” Duh.

The company said it will make big changes to the vehicles it sells domestically – bringing six small cars made in Europe to the North American market.

Ford said that three large truck and sport utility vehicle plants in Wayne, Mich., Louisville, Ky., and Cuautitlan, Mexico would be switched over for the manufacture of small cars. Re-tooling will begin in December, the company said.

In addition to converting the three plants in North America, Ford said it will ramp up production of small utility vehicles at its Kansas City, Mo., assembly plant, including the Ford Escape, Escape Hybrid, Mercury Mariner and Mariner Hybrid.

Check out Ford’s “new” Euro offerings here. Better late than never, I guess.

6. Back to work already!

Okay, lunch break over. I have to get back to work now. Have a great Wednesday, everyone.

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I was recently asked why I didn’t own www.olivierblanchard.com. My answer was a frustrated mix of grunts, shrugs and frowns. Why? Because the cold hard ugly truth is that another Olivier Blanchard beat me to it.

And just so you know, that sucks- at least for me. 

Just so you know, there are four very distinct Olivier Blanchards in my universe:

1. Me.

2. The MIT professor, author, and international Economics superstar (whom I hope to accidentally meet in an airport terminal someday). If you google me, you get him instead. He is basically the James Bond of Economics.

3. My paternal grandfather – who was Cavalry Officer in both WWI and WW2 and after whom I was named.

4. This guy. The guy who nabbed the best url in the world if you happen to share the same name as yours truly. The guy who robbed me of my dream to claim ownership of olivierblanchard.com, at least for now. 

For the record, I don’t hate olivier Blanchard #4. I really don’t. I bet he’s a super nice guy. I’d probably end up really liking the guy if we ever shared a few beers and started talking about design or visual arts.  (He’s a photographer, which I guess carries its own layer of irony.)  I just really wish I had beaten him to it because now I’m a little bit screwed. I am considering other options to expand my very own little corner of the web universe, but none as good and simple as olivierblanchard.com.

Foo.

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Even if you don’t care for cycling, even if you think that watching cycling on TV (or in real life) is as boring as watching the grass grow – only with more lycra and crazy looking sunglasses, you might still want to head over to VS. tonight (yes, the TV network) and watch today’s Tour De France coverage.

Judging from the RSS feed of today’s stage, Stage 17 sounds epic. No… not epic. EPIC: Not one, not two, but THREE major (HC) mountain climbs (the crushing Col du Galibier, the leg-shredding Col de la Croix de Fer, and the Holy Grail of cycling: Alpe D’Huez), the best riders in the world struggling to stay in the race, crashes galore, cyclists misjudging turns in 70mph descents and flying off mountainsides… It is absolutely insane.

Sure, I miss the early days of Lance Armstrong’s dominance – when the show was all about his crushing superiority on the climbs and in the time-trial, but this is spectacle. Pure, raw warfare on wheels. No engines. No time-outs. No half-times. No substitutions. Just sweat, blood and grit against some of the most spectacular vistas in the world. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know one rider from the next. This kind of stage is so intense, so pure, that you will find yourself rooting and cheering for the guy with the most heart. The most huevos. The guy who wants the stage win the most. You will find yourself cheering for a guy whose name you can’t even pronounce and whom you have never heard of before. That dude in green, or that dude in white or orange or blue. Who knows.

Whether you’re into cycling or not, this is truly sport at its best. Skip the sitcom re-runs tonight and tune in to VS. for a couple of hours. If the climbing portions bore you, stick around for the descents. (Between the full speed motorbike cameras and the sweeping helicopter shots, you are sure to gain a whole new appreciation for what is without a doubt one of the toughest and most dangerous sports in the world.)

Seriously. Wow.

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Beeline Labs, Deloitte LLC and The Society For New Communications Research recently partnered to conduct a first-of-its-kind study of how more than 140 organizations are employing online communities dubbed “Tribalization Of Business.”

Francois Gossieaux (Marketing 2.0 and Beeline Labs honcho) sent me this pretty killer summary of the report last week, and I am just now getting to it. Fantastic stats and insights for any company, large or small, looking to incorporate community interactions into their business model. (Customer communities, user communities, thought leadership communities, etc.) You really owe it to yourself to click on the links and read up on this. It won’t take a lot of your time, and you will learn some pretty interesting (dare I say actionable ?) stuff in the process.

The report and summary also include some pretty killer best practices, so take note.

The summary: http://www.beelinelabs.com/files/TribalizationStudyrelease.pdf

The Tribalization report’s web page: http://www.beelinelabs.com/tribalization/

Additional reading:

Have a great Tuesday, everyone!

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It happens every single year: Sometime between mid-July and mid-August, my posting rate drops considerably. You can almost set your calendars to it. I struggle with this a bit, as my contributions to this and other blogs are pretty important to me, but year after year, I find myself falling into the same pattern: One post per week- maybe two - is about all I seem to manage.

Possible reasons for this annual phenomenon:

1. Summer: The days are long. The sun is warm. I spend as much time outside as I can, which in my world means running and cycling for hours on end at a pretty high level of exertion. When I finally drag my salty tired body home, the last thing I want to do is spend more energy thinking about writing a post, much less reading and writing. My priorities are (not necessarily in that order) food, drink, shower, rest, QT with the family.

In the winter, when it is way too cold and dark for me to go ride my bike for three hours after work, I come home energized and ready to write 30,000 word daily.

2. Frenchness: The French take the summer off. I am French. The slowdown usually hits the week leading to Bastille Day. Draw your own conclusions.

3. Creative cycles and summer writing projects: My need to write shifts genres cyclically. I go through extremely prolific blogging periods. I also go through very creative periods. While the two often overlap, there are times in the year when they are diametrically opposed. This is such a time. Do I want to write? Yes. Am I writing? Yes. Does this writing have anything to do with the brandbuilder blog? Nope.

4. Blogging self doubt: Some people occasionally take my posts out of context and take offense to them. It usually happens in the warmer months for whatever reason. Believe it or not, that doesn’t make my day, especially when I didn’t mean anything by the posts in question. An hefty daily dose of hate mail from people whose feelings I didn’t mean to hurt makes me want to take a step back and take a break for a few weeks.

5. Summer movies. Batman. Ironman. Hulk. WallE. Hellboy. Mummy. Not all good, but all must be attended and watched. This takes time and neurons.

6. W.O.R.K. Traveling in July and almost every week in August + Working so much I don’t have a minute to myself during the day. Nuff said. 

7. Kids are out of school. I do stuff with them. It’s fun. Blogging can wait.

8. Yard work. House work. (Currently revamping the front yard and back yards. Redoing the living room. Looking at new carpet. Painting rooms on the horizon.) Projects abound. I need a gardner and a contractor. (I really don’t have time for this stuff… and don’t enjoy it all that much.)

9. Photo shoots. Love them. Hate them. Either way, they take up a lot of time and energy. Going back to shooting only for myself as soon as humanly possible.

10. Maybe there’s just less going on. Less to talk and write about – at least in the marketing and brand develpment worlds this time of year.

11. Le Tour de France. (Add the Olympiads this year for a full summer of TV sports.)

Whatever the reasons may be (all of the above,) no worries, the slowdown you may have noticed recently is normal. It happens every year. Enjoy the light blogging over the next few weeks, read lessof what I have to say and go experience the world more. (Yes, out there in the sun with big wide open skies and fresh air, not inside a climate-controled room with artificial light.) The BrandBuilder will be there when you get back.

Have a great Monday!

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(Corporate leaps of faith rock my world.) photo by toimaginetoo

I like to go back to the archives every once in a while – partly because I’m a little crunched for time these days, but mostly because the vault contains some pretty solid posts that you guys might never had the opportunity to read. I originally wrote this post for the Corante Marketing Hub, back when I was its online editor.

Back then, Grant McCracken had pointed us to Coca Cola’s apparent then-new shift to the long tail:

“Given its pending portfolio of coffee soda, gourmet teas and Godiva drinks, Coca-Cola is expected to expend more time and energy on low-volume, high-margin categories than ever. (…)

Rather than look at beverages on a category by category basis, Mary Minnick, head of marketing, innovation and strategic growth, has said Coke is looking at how beverages fit into consumers lives. She has described the need states as, “Enjoyment today,” “feel good today,” and “be well tomorrow.”

- Kenneth Hein, from Strategy: Coke Seeks Relief (Again) By Scratching The Niche. (Adweek. March 06, 2006.)

And that seemed fine and good and all, but… whatever happened to… just… great taste?

When I order a latte from my favorite coffee shop or buy a bottle of Orangina or and IBC cream soda, it isn’t because of “enjoyment today,” “feel good today,” and “be well tomorrow.” It isn’t because of clever packaging or image or transference or projection. It’s because I’m in the mood for a particular flavor. This is about mood and palates and lifestyles, not “feeling good” and “being well”.

Oh, I know… I don’t have TCCC’s millions of dollars of research at my fingertips… but you know what? I’m wired just like everyone else, and I know why I buy drinks. I know why my friends and colleagues buy drinks. They like the taste. They look for context. Catch-phrases have nothing to do with it.

You can make any study and any set of numbers and statistics and results say anything you want. Especially when you have a whole lot of time and money invested in new products whose development needs to be justified to a board of directors.

Could this be a case of the tail wagging the dog? (TCCC’s need for some kind of ROI from its product development programs?) Is TCCC’s real strategy just a numbers’ game? Is it to throw as many products at us and see if anything sticks? Where ten years ago, none of these new drinks might have ever seen the light of day, now they’ve found a chance at life in “the long tail.” Could this just be a front? I guess the question is worth asking, even though I’ll assume – for the sake of this discussion – that this isn’t the case.

TCCC, here’s a tip: Drop the gimmicks. Focus on taste. Whether you love wines, beers bubble teas or kefirs, it always comes down to flavor. Most people who choose to drink Coca Cola do so because they prefer it over the taste of Pepsi. It isn’t because the cans are red or because Coca Cola makes them feel happy or look cool. (The glass bottles might be the exception.) The taste, before anything else, is at the core of the Coca Cola experience.

Whether you’re The Coca Cola Company or a startup with a great idea for a product, before you spend millions overthinking your strategy, just focus on making a really great product. One that people will love to discover and use and talk about. If you love it, chances are that lots of people out there will love it too. If you really want to grab hold of the long tail, you have to start with you. The game isn’t about pleasing everyone – or the majority of “the market” (which has been TCCC’s strategy for decades). It’s about creating a product for a very specific core of rabid fans/customers.

The trick though, is this: You can’t do it by trying to fill a need based on market research (American women between the ages of 32 and 46 with a median annual income of $68-97K responded favorably to XYZ… yadayadaya…). It’s what TCCC has been doing for years, without much success. It’s what everybody’s been doing too. It’s what you do if you want to be an “also in”. Your only recourse once you’ve greenlighted a new product launch is to outspend your competitors in everything from advertising to POP displays to licensing rights, and then try to hang on as long as you can. It’s ridiculous.

The right way to do this is to do the work. The real work: Instead of quantifying a culture, penetrate it. The supertool here isn’t statistics, it’s anthropology. Here’s another tip: the moment you start quantifying tastes, you’ve lost your focus and drifted back to the lukewarm center, just like everyone else. This is the easiest mistake to make, and also the most common.

The way you develop a chocolate-flavored drink isn’t by talking to 10,000 people on the street. It’s by talking to 10,000 chocoholics. These might even be people who love chocolate but hate chocolate drinks. (How cool would it be to have 10,000 people with such specific tastes tell you why they love chocolate but hate chocolate drinks? Tell me you wouldn’t crack that code with that level of feedback.)

The point is: Do your research at the extreme edge of the bell curve.

The way you develop a new endurance drink is by talking to rabid cyclists and triathletes and marathoners. The way you develop a new game console is by talking to avid gamers (not casual gamers). The way you develop a new Pop Tart flavor is by talking to people for whom Pop Tarts is a major food group. This isn’t about talking to 0.3% of American shoppers who are representative of the 60% of shoppers who place Pop Tarts in their Top 10 likeliest breakfast foods. It’s about talking to the fraction of a percent of people who live and breathe the stuff that is at the core of your new product’s identity and raison d’etre and will buy your new flavor of Pop Tarts every other week.

Not just talking to them, but understanding what makes them tick and embracing them completely.

The long tail, after all, isn’t about markets. It’s about cultures. Subcultures, even. The more specific, the better. Think skateboarders. Think triathletes. Think online gamers. Think photography hobbyists. You either become a central part of those cultures, or you go home packing.

(Incidentally, the Pop Tart team absolutely gets it.)

If TCCC wants to grab hold of the long tail and make its new strategy work, it needs to un-Coke itself. It needs to shed the TCCC formula where these offshoot brands are concerned. It needs to create truly independent subsidiaries staffed by people who live inside the cultures they are trying to cater to, and completely outside the reach of the Coca Cola culture.

Think of it as United Artists trying to produce “independent” films with $100,000 budgets. The only way they could do it well would be to create a smaller studio managed and staffed by people who live, eat and breathe the indy culture… and let them do their thing without corporate interference, bureaucracy and big business politics. Anything short of that would result in total and utter failure.

Remember Coca Cola Blak? That was the type of product Mary Minnick was talking about: Low volume, high margin (wishful thinking if your product is perceived merely as water, natural and artificial flavoring, food coloring and high fructose corn syrup… and doesn’t taste so unbelievably good that it will make people want to trade their current favorite flavor for it). TCCC going after the Starbucks crowd with Blak may have seemed like a good idea on paper, and I guess it was worth the shot (no pun intended). It might even have worked had the price point matched the perceived value of a Coca Cola retail product.

Blak launched in 2006, when his piece was written… and finally died a few months ago after a long painful battle with dismal sales and lack of interest. (Most likely due to its very high pricepoint – holding true to Mary’s strategy - than its missing the boat on taste. Red Bull doesn’t exactly taste delicious, yet it has found its market. Draw your own conclusions.)

Beware business plans that look great on paper and are based on top-down (wishful) thinking. Successful entrepreneurs (and their projects) usually do a whole lot better when their ideas come from the bottom of the distribution tree: See a need, fill a need. (That includes understanding the pricepoint-value perception feedback loop.)

Truly understanding your customers, your users, your future fans (your market), heck, actually getting back to becoming one of them is the only way to discover your next great game changing idea. The rest, as they say, is up to you.

Have a great Tuesday, everyone.

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Today is Bastille Day – which is how the rest of the world calls France’s “Fete Nationale,” or simply “le 14 Juillet.”

This day in 1789, the people of Paris stormed the Bastille (Louis XVI’s political prison) and started down a road that eventually led to France becoming a Republic, just a few short years after the United States of America.

Joyeux Anniversaire, Republique Francaise. I miss not being there for your birthday anymore.

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Ever noticed how positive attitudes are infectious? You walk into a store, and everyone who works there is jazzed and happy to be there and energetic… and by the time you leave, you have completely adopted their mood?

Ever noticed that the opposite is also true: Walk into a business where everyone is negative or apathetic, and you find yourself feeling the same dread and negativity?

Sitting in Houston’s Toyota arena with thousands of the world’s most innovative Microsoft partners, I was reminded of the power that other people’s attitudes and moods have over our own – and remembered a post that Kathy Sierra shared many moons ago on her brilliant but now sadly defunct “Passionate Users” blog. It talked about happy vs. angry people, emotional contagion, and the role mirror neurons play in our involuntary tendency to be drawn into other people’s positive or negative attitudes. Very cool stuff, and particularly relevant to some of the discussions I have been involved with in the last few days with some of my international peers. I did some quick digging to find it so I could share it with you. Here are some of the highlights:

Mirror neurons and our innate tendency to pick up other people’s behaviors, good and bad.

There is now strong evidence to suggest that humans have the same type of “mirror neurons” found in monkeys. It’s what these neurons do that’s amazing–they activate in the same way when you’re watching someone else do something as they do when you’re doing it yourself! This mirroring process/capability is thought to be behind our ability to empathize, but you can imagine the role these neurons have played in keeping us alive as a species. We learn from watching others. We learn from imitating (mirroring) others. The potential problem, though, is that these neurons go happily about their business of imitating others without our conscious intention.

Think about that…

Although the neuroscientific findings are new, your sports coach and your parents didn’t need to know the cause to recognize the effects:

“Choose your role models carefully.”
“Watching Michael Jordan will help you get better.”
“You’re hanging out with the wrong crowd; they’re a bad influence.”
“Don’t watch people doing it wrong… watch the experts!”

We’ve all experienced it. How often have you found yourself sliding into the accent of those around you? Spend a month in England and even a California valley girl sounds different. Spend a week in Texas and even a native New Yorker starts slowing down his speech. How often have you found yourself laughing, dressing, skiing like your closest friend? Has someone ever observed that you and a close friend or significant other had similar mannerisms? When I was in junior high school, it was tough for people to tell my best friends and I apart on the phone–we all sounded so much alike that we could fool even our parents.

But the effect of our innate ability and need to imitate goes way past teenage phone tricks. Spend time with a nervous, anxious person and physiological monitoring would most likely show you mimicking the anxiety and nervousness, in ways that affect your brain and body in a concrete, measurable way. Find yourself in a room full of pissed off people and feel the smile slide right off your face. Listen to people complaining endlessly about work, and you’ll find yourself starting to do the same. How many of us have been horrified to suddenly realize that we’ve spent the last half-hour caught up in a gossip session–despite our strong aversion to gossip? The behavior of others we’re around is nearly irresistible.

Why choosing who you work, play and hang out with matters.

When we’re consciously aware and diligent, we can fight this. But the stress of maintaining that conscious struggle against an unconscious, ancient process is a non-stop stressful drain on our mental, emotional, and physical bandwidth. And no, I’m not suggesting that we can’t or should’nt spend time with people who are angry, negative, critical, depressed, gossiping, whatever. Some (including my sister and father) chose professions (nurse practitioner and cop, respectively) that demand it. And some (like my daughter) volunteer to help those who are suffering (in her case, the homeless). Some people don’t want to avoid their more hostile family members. But in those situations–where we choose to be with people who we do not want to mirror–we have to be extremely careful! Nurses, cops, mental health workers, EMTs, social workers, red cross volunteers, fire fighters, psychiatrists, oncologists, etc. are often at a higher risk (in some cases, WAY higher) for burnout, alcoholism, divorce, stress, or depression unless they take specific steps to avoid getting too sucked in to be effective.

So, when Robert says he wants to spend time hanging around “happy people” and keeping his distance from “deeply unhappy” people, he’s keeping his brain from making–over the long term–negative structural and chemical changes. Regarding the effect of mirror neurons and emotional contagion on personal performance, neurologist Richard Restak offers this advice:

“If you want to accomplish something that demands determination and endurance, try to surround yourself with people possessing these qualities. And try to limit the time you spend with people given to pessimism and expressions of futility. Unfortunately, negative emotions exert a more powerful effect in social situations than positive ones, thanks to the phenomena of emotional contagion.”

This sounds harsh, and it is, but it’s his recommendation based on the facts as the neuroscientists interpret them today. This is not new age self-help–it’s simply the way brains work.

Emotional Contagion explained.

Steven Stosny, an expert on road rage, is quoted in Restak’s book:

“Anger and resentment are thet most contagious of emotions,” according to Stonsy. “If you are near a resentful or angry person, you are more prone to become resentful or angry yourself. If one driver engages in angry gestures and takes on the facial expressions of hostility, surrounding drivers will unconsciously imitate the behavior–resulting in an escalation of anger and resentment in all of the drivers. Added to this, the drivers are now more easily startled as a result of the outpouring of adrenaline accompanying their anger. The result is a temper tantrum that can easily escalate into road rage.”

From a paper on Memetics and Social Contagion,

“…social scientific research has largely confirmed the thesis that affect, attitudes, beliefs and behavior can indeed spread through populations as if they were somehow infectious. Simple exposure sometimes appears to be a sufficient condition for social transmission to occur. This is the social contagion thesis; that sociocultural phenomena can spread through, and leap between, populations more like outbreaks of measles or chicken pox than through a process of rational choice.”

Emotional contagion is considered one of the primary drivers of group/mob behavior, and the recent work on “mirror neurons” helps explain the underlying cause. But it’s not just about groups. From a Cambridge University Press book:

“When we are talking to someone who is depressed it may make us feel depressed, whereas if we talk to someone who is feeling self-confident and buoyant we are likely to feel good about ourselves. This phenomenon, known as emotional contagion, is identified here, and compelling evidence for its affect is offered from a variety of disciplines – social and developmental psychology, history, cross-cultural psychology, experimental psychology, and psychopathology.”

[For a business management perspective, see the Yale School of Management paper titled The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion In Groups]

Can any of us honestly say we haven’t experienced emotional contagion? Even if we ourselves haven’t felt our energy drain from being around a perpetually negative person, we’ve watched it happen to someone we care about. We’ve noticed a change in ourselves or our loved ones based on who we/they spend time with. We’ve all known at least one person who really did seem able to “light up the room with their smile,” or another who could “kill the mood” without saying a word. We’ve all found ourselves drawn to some people and not others, based on how we felt around them, in ways we weren’t able to articulate.

Happy People are better able to think logically

Neuroscience has made a long, intense study of the brain’s fear system–one of the oldest, most primitive parts of our brain. Anger and negativity usually stem from the anxiety and/or fear response in the brain, and one thing we know for sure–when the brain thinks its about to be eaten or smashed by a giant boulder, there’s no time to stop and think! In many ways, fear/anger and the ability to think rationally and logically are almost mutually exclusive. Those who stopped to weigh the pros and cons of a flight-or-fight decision were eaten, and didn’t pass on their afraid-yet-thoughtful genes.

Happines is associated most heavily with the left (i.e. logical) side of the brain, while anger is associated with the right (emotional, non-logical) side of the brain. From a Society for Neuroscience article on Bliss and the Brain:

“Furthermore, studies suggest that certain people’s ability to see life through rose-colored glasses links to a heightened left-sided brain function. A scrutiny of brain activity indicates that individuals with natural positive dispositions have trumped up activity in the left prefrontal cortex compared with their more negative counterparts. “

In other words, happy people are better able to think logically.

And apparently happier = healthier:

“Evidence suggests that the left-siders may better handle stressful events on a biological level. For example, studies show that they have a higher function of cells that help defend the body, known as natural killer cells, compared with individuals who have greater right side activity. Left-sided students who face a stressful exam have a smaller drop in their killer cells than right-siders. Other research indicates that generally left-siders may have lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.”

And while we’re dispelling the Happy=Vacuous myth, let’s look at a couple more misperceptions:

“Happy people aren’t critical.”
“Happy people don’t get angry.”
“Happy people are obedient.”
“Happy people can’t be a disruptive force for change.”

So can Happy and criticism live happily together?

One of the world’s leading experts in the art of happiness is the Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Just about everyone who hears him speak is struck by how, well, happy he is. How he can describe–with laughter–some of the most traumatizing events of his past. Talk about perspective

But he is quite outspoken with his criticism of China. The thing is, he doesn’t believe that criticism requires anger, or that being happy means you can’t be a disruptive influence for good. On happiness, he has this to say:

“The fact that there is always a positive side to life is the one thing that gives me a lot of happiness. This world is not perfect. There are problems. But things like happiness and unhappiness are relative. Realizing this gives you hope.”

And among the “happy people”, there’s Mahatma Gandhi, a force for change that included non-violent but oh-most-definitely-disobedient behavior. A few of my favorite Gandhi quotes:

In a gentle way, you can shake the world.

It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings.

The argument for and against anger

But then there’s the argument that says “anger” is morally (and intellectually) superior to “happy”. The American Psychological Association has this to say on anger:

“People who are easily angered generally have what some psychologists call a low tolerance for frustration, meaning simply that they feel that they should not have to be subjected to frustration, inconvenience, or annoyance. They can’t take things in stride, and they’re particularly infuriated if the situation seems somehow unjust: for example, being corrected for a minor mistake.”

Of course it’s still a myth that “happy people” don’t get angry. Of course they do. Anger is often an appropriate response. But there’s a Grand Canyon between a happy-person-who-gets-angry and an unhappy-angry-person. So yes, we get angry. Happiness is not our only emotion, it is simply the outlook we have chosen to cultivate because it is usually the most effective, thoughtful, healthy, and productive.

And there’s this one we hear most often, especially in reference to comment moderation–”if you can’t say whatever the hell you want to express your anger, you can’t be authentic and honest.” While that may be true, here’s what the psychologists say:

“Psychologists now say that this is a dangerous myth. Some people use this theory as a license to hurt others. Research has found that “letting it rip” with anger actually escalates anger and aggression and does nothing to help you (or the person you’re angry with) resolve the situation.

It’s best to find out what it is that triggers your anger, and then to develop strategies to keep those triggers from tipping you over the edge.”

And finally, another Ghandi quote:

“Be the change that you want to see in the world.”

If the scientists are right, I might also add,

Be around the change you want to see in the world.

Strong organizations and communities are able to harness the power of emotional contagion to create engaging, productive and extremely effective collaborative ecosystems. The truly exceptional among them also manage to extend this collective positivity to their human/customer touchpoints (retail outlets, salespeople, CSRs, etc.). Obvious examples of this are Starbucks (except in airports), Mac Stores, and Whole Foods grocery outlets.

This week, a very large scale example of this (and the trigger for this post) was Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference in Houston, TX.

The complete opposite of this might be, say, the checkout at Walmart, Home Depot or Taco Bell, a prison ward, or an Vietnamese sweat shop.

Success breeds success. Enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm. Professionalism breeds professionalism.

Likewise, mediocrity breeds mediocrity. Apathy breeds apathy. Negative attitudes breed negative attitudes.

Now you know. What you do with this knowledge is up to you. For me, the choice is pretty simple. Always has been.

Have a great Friday. ;)

photo credit: Christopher Wray McCann

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Just got back from Microsoft’s WPC in Houston, and I have one word to share with you (and one you might not normally associate with Microsoft): Inspiring.

Go ahead and buy into the whole Mac vs. PC propaganda if you must, but when you get to rub elbows with thousands of the world’s smartest, most engaged, most sophisticated IT professionals – some of whom are quite literally working to change the world using Microsoft based tools – and see how incredible the Microsoft partner community actually is, it completely changes the level of the Mac vs. PC conversation.

And I mean completely.

Not to mention the depth and breadth of products being developed, released, upgraded and optimized at lightning speed. Baffling.

No, I am not drinking any funny koolaid. If you are a long time reader of this blog, you know I’m not the type.

And just in case you were wondering, when I looked across the ocean of PC folks from around the world who were in Houston for the event this week, I didn’t see anyone who looked one bit like the PC guy in the Apple commercials. Not even close. As a matter of fact, most looked a hell of a lot trendier than the ads’ little coffee-shop dwelling Apple dude.

Nothing against Mac people (I dig Mac’s approach to design and completely understand the appeal) but in the real world, being a PC means you can actually change the world, not just entertain it – which is why I made the switch almost a decade ago.

And hate mail from Mac users can start flowing… now.  ;D

More posts about my experiences in Houston coming soon.

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Where am I going to be today, Tuesday and Wednesday? Houston, TX, that’s where!

(With about a gazillion other “PC” peeps, courtesy of Microsoft.)

Yep, it’s World-Wide Partner Conference time again (WWPC).

But first, I have to tackle a drive to Charlotte, NC, a shuttle ride from long term parking, get through check-in and security, a flight, a cab ride, and a hotel check-in. What could possibly go wrong? I can’t wait to find out.

:)

Follow my updates here, on the Microsoft Sherpa Blog, and on twitter.

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America Rules England Sucks – Watch more free videos

Courtesy of the OC on this most hallowed of days. Who knew that the birth of democracy would turn out so friggin’ badass? (Maybe The French.)

If the embed fails again, go here to watch the video.

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Incredible presentation/video/analysis. (Hat tip to Alceste’s blog.)

Infographics heaven.

If the embedded thing didn’t work (I’m posting this from my office and that can cause some compatibility issues, the link is: http://youtube.com/watch?v=lBvaHZIrt0o )

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So instead, I will just post this haiku:

GM US sales dropped 18% in june.

Toyota US sales dropped 21% in June.

More imagination is needed.

Source: CNN

With every car and truck and van in the US looking essentially the same and absolutely no effort whatsoever by major car manufacturers to create sexy, well-designed, fuel-efficient, compact cars to give the overpriced mini Cooper and gender-limited VW Bug a run for their money, we are left with a sea of cars no one wants.

Problem #1: Wallet share is tight. Buying a new car in the current economy is already a tough proposition.

Problem #2: Buying a car is an investment. Resale values of vehicles with weak mileage efficiency are dropping fast. Investing in a car today with gas prices looking the way they do (+ market insecurity) means consumers aren’t likely to fork out big bucks for a new car anytime soon.

Problem #3: Our “bigger is better” supersize-me attitude needs to change. The days of the macho-by-horsepower association are coming to a close. Deal with it.

Problem #4: Auto manufacturers are not reacting quickly enough to the oil crisis. (As if it wasn’t always coming. Didn’t anyone have a Plan-B? Really?)

Problem #5: Most cars don’t have a purpose or an identity. Nissan’s X-Terra’s success 8 years ago was due to the fact that it had a very clear place in the pantheon of vehicles. Same with the H2, the Mini Cooper, and the VW bug. Today’s contenders are Toyota’s FJ Cruiser and to some extent the H3, but that’s about it. Every other SUV is just another copy of a copy of a copy. Ford’s Mustang GT fills the muscle car void fairly well, but we aren’t exactly talking middle of the bell curve here. Crossovers are a nice concept, but I have a tough time getting excited by any new design – they’re all the same. Ergo: I’m bored just trying to think of an interesting or unique car i am jonesing for under $30K.

There is a clear absence of imagination in the auto industry, at least in the US. derivative designs create an “also-in” design culture that offers no clear value to anyone. Sure, I can get excited about Aston Martin or Bugati’s latest supercars, but when I look at cars I can actually afford – the middle of the bell curve - what am I left with? Where is the sexy, smart, well designed sub-$20K car with great gas mileage and suite of electronic interfaces I have been asking for? Where are my power outlets for laptops and media player recharges? (Real outlets, not cigarette lighter outlets.) Where is my built-in hands-free system for my phone? Where is my media player plug-in?

I’m not saying that we should all adopt the euro supercompact-car concept (although if you live in the city, don’t have any kids, and absolutely need a car, perhaps you should consider one), but there is a healthy compromise that can be met. Why is it that we aren’t seeing it yet? Every compact car on the market that isn’t a mini or a bug is manufactured on the cheap and designed on the quick. This needs to change.

Cars should always be cool. They should always be more than just a set of wheels to go to work or to the store. I’m not sure when the industry shifted to a zero personality model, but auto makers need to turn this around. Cars with personalities sell. Period. They sell because they stand for something. They help their owners express who they are. Identity development needs to become part of every new car design – not just at the brand level (a BMW is a BMW /a Mercedes is a Mercedes) but at the level of the individual model. Scion has adopted the concept 100%, but its designs look like someone got a hold of ten-year-old early concept drafts from 2-3 automakers and actually turned them into production cars without making any changes. (Right idea: Unique models for unique uses, but horrible execution: Not a whole lot of curb appeal, and heinously derivative designs.)

Is it really THAT hard to get this right?

Here’s what the next big auto hit looks like:

1. It has so much personality, it could be a Mac. (Sorry, I’m supposed to be the PC guy, but we all know where “cool” lives these days.)

2. It looks GREAT. Not just good, but GREAT. People want to rent it from hertz and budget and Avis. Your friends want to drive it when you show it off at your next together. People on the street stare at it when you drive by.

3. The interior is a mix between the cockpit of a 1930′s rallye speedster and the cabin of a brand spanking new custom Leer jet.

4. Real power outlets. Media player interfaces. Hands free wireless interface. Just do it.

5. MPG superstar status. Make it part of the car’s identity. Not an afterthought, but at the very core of the car’s purpose.

6. $12K-$18K is the sweet spot. It’s a compact.

7. But make it look, feel and perform like a $30K+ car.

8. Invent something smarter than a cool cup holder. Like a built-in passive cabin ventilation system for really hot summer days. Or a slot for a portable hard drive inside the dashboard. Or a fully insulated trunk compartment for laptops, cameras and other electronics. Or accessible + concealable storage compartments for passengers. Or a new seat adjustment interface. Or yeah… a better cup holder.

Europeans have been designing very cool, high performance compact cars for decades. Look to Renault, Citroen, Opel and Peugeot, for starters. Even mercedes sells compact cars in Europe now.

Think, guys. Dream a little. Invent something that brings value to the market. More importantly, make your brand, your designs and your every conversation with us, the people who should be dreaming about driving your cars, stand for something. Give us something to desire and crave and get excited about.

A 20% drop in sales might be great for your car lease units, but that isn’t where you want to be. Wake up and do something.

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Today is Canada Day!

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