File under: Improv might just save your company.
Archive for January, 2006
Nike does two things exceedingly well: The first is product design. The second is marketing.
But I’m still trying to wrap my mind around whether or not Nike purposely focuses its innovation on cooler products rather than better products.
(Yes, there is a difference.)
I’m a triathlete, so I know a lot of runners. (And by a lot, I mean A LOT!) Not one runs in Nike. Zero. Zip. (Okay, maybe the track kids, but track cleats and super light racing flats are different from regular running shoes.)
Guess what running shoes most runners with a few years experience use: Mizuno, Asics, Saucony, Brooks, Pearl Izumi, even.
Exactly. Unless you’re an athlete, you’ve probably never heard of any of those brands.
What you know is Nike. Adidas. Reebok. New Balance.
The truth is that despite all of its innovation, all of its patents around the Air product line(s) and all of its marketing, almost nobody runs in Nike. (At least not for very long.) Most people who wear Nike shoes wear them to make a statement about their identity. Their lifestyle. Their place in the world. They don’t wear Nike running shoes because they’re going to help them run faster or further or more comfortably.
People who run in Nike shoes might look cool, but they are also the ones I see limping into running stores looking for a solution to their aches and pains.
The reason I bought my Nike Triaxx sports watch was because it looked cool and unique. When I run with a purpose, I switch to my Timex Ironman watch, or my Polar heart rate monitor. The only reason I swim in Nike briefs instead of Speedo is because the Nike swim brief looks better. It has nothing to do with performance. I never wear my Nike running vest to run. That’s what my Pearl Izumi vest is for. The Nike vest is what I wear before and after I run because it looks cooler – and because I don’t want to ruin it by drenching it in sweat every day.
The truth is that Nike is the Tommy Hilfiger of the sportswear world. The locker room’s Kenneth Cole. The stadium’s DKNY. Nike is all about blending sports with style. It’s about making jocks look trendy, and the trendy look sporty.
What Nike really is, is a sports couture house.
Nike, like DKNY, Ralph Lauren, Kenneth Cole and Brooks Brothers, provides us with clothes and accessories that help us define an image. But, to be fair, the same could be said of Adidas, Puma and Reebok.
What makes Nike different from anyone else in that regard is the focus of its advertising. Every year, Nike produces at least one ad that transcends image and takes us to a whole different place: Feeling.
Five seconds into the spot, no matter what you happen to be doing, you find yourself looking up at the TV. Fifteen seconds into it, your competitive juices are flowing. By the time it ends, you’re ready to head out the door and set a new personal best. It doesn’t matter if your sport is baseball, running, surfing or bull riding. The message is this: You’re an athlete. You’re a champion. Now go out there and unleash your superpowers.
Just do it.
Nike goes beyond making sports cool and glamorous and sexy. Nike actually makes us feel that we are part of a community. A brotherhood/sisterhood. We’re athletes. Nike channels that need, that basic component of the human psyche to belong and to feel that we can do something meaningful and courageous and brave and extraordinary. Nike, in becoming synonymous with sport, becomes the vehicle through which we experience our own athleticism.
In short, whether or not we run to the store to buy Nike products, Nike starts fires in our souls. How many brands can claim to do that?
When you buy a Nike product, you are buying into that promise. That image. That culture. When you wear the Nike swoosh, you are making a statement: I’m an athlete. I’m one of them. I’m one of you. You’re also spreading the gospel of sport.
The Nike brand completely transcends its products by making them seem like mere tools of the trade. Athletic accessories. Parts and components with which to customize your own athletic experience.
Your own athletic journey.
Obviously, I love all of Nike’s designs. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of Nike’s products. Nike’s fabricks rock. I was very impressed with what Nike’s Mike Parker had to say about innovation and the creative structure inside his company. (Thanks to fellow Corante contributor John Winsor for the interview.) Nike’s relentless pursuit of new technologies is awe-inspiring. I love Nike’s ads. I love Nike’s websites. Yeah, I’m a big fan.
But there’s a price you pay for focusing on designing cool, inspiring products rather than actually making better products: You end up appealing only to beginner and very light usage athletes.
The rest of us, the millions of runners, cyclists, swimmers, hikers, skiers, skaters, mountain bikers and triathletes, we aren’t really buying Nike’s stuff anymore. We can’t run or ride or trek in their shoes. We know their clothes won’t last if we wash them every day. Their optics aren’t the best. All in all, Nike just isn’t making products for us anymore, and it’s too bad… because we all wish they would.
We’d all buy Nike stuff in a heartbeat if we knew it were designed with performance in mind. You know… like in the good old days.
Nothing’s stopping you, Nike. You have the talent, you have the production capabilities, you have the distribution outlets, you have a captive market, and you still have the authenticity of your brand. So… please, please, please get out there and build us a real running shoe. Just do it.
And if you’ve forgotten how, I can dig up a few hundred thousand folks who’ll be more than happy to help.
Call me crazy, but whether Nike is still Nike twenty years from now may very well depend on whether or not you start working for them again.
Let’s face it: The PR industry hasn’t had a very good couple of decades. Between the public relations field’s relatively negative image (no, “spinster” is not an endearing term), its stubborn reliance on irrelevant “control” messages, and the backseat it generally takes to more glamorous marketing fields such as… advertising and well, branding, let’s just say that PR has kinda sorta become Marketing’s redheaded stepchild.
Well, that’s all about to change. PR is making a comeback… only not how you’d expect. Think blogs. Think satellite radio. Think word-of-mouth marketing and the growing influence of WOMMA. Think truth and ethics and relevance.
Does this sound a bit pie in the sky? Maybe a little. But if PR is to survive the coming decade, it’s going to have to adapt to changes that are as drastic as they are inevitable. To paraphrase Corante’s own Neville Hobson: if the public can’t get authentic and relevant messages from marketing and/or PR firms, they will get them elsewhere. Smart PR professionals will figure that out. Less smart PR professionals will simply find themselves… out of a job.
To understand the changes facing the PR world and its new role in the development of enduring brands, you kind of have to do a little bit of digging. Because we know that you have a pretty busy schedule, we’ve put together a short list of articles, blog posts and podcasts that shed some light on this little thing we like to call PR 2.0.
Okay, here we go. Let’s start at the beginning: (…)
Check out Marc Babej’s interview of Robert Passikoff. Especially the part about the role that emotional connections play in branding (and by default, in purchasing habits).
If it isn’t obvious to you already, there definitely seems to be a correlation between the role that emotions play in our purchasing habits, and the degree to which a product has been commoditized. (Assuming that’s even a real word.)
How much of a role, for example, do emotions play in buying toilet paper vs. a cup of coffee from Starbucks?
A set of truck tires vs. a new Powerbook?
A new furnace vs. a beautiful carbon fiber time-trial bike?
My point is that not every product (or brand) needs to worry about creating an emotional connection with its customers.
(No, I haven’t fallen on my head. Thanks for asking.)
I know, I know, this seems to go completely against what I usually preach, but it needs to be said: When it comes to building brands, sometimes, just giving customers a simple and effective product is all you need to worry about. You don’t need to sell a dream or a lifestyle or a coolness factor. You don’t need to promise great customer service or tell your customers about your family values or your commitment to quality. Sometimes, emotions have absolutely nothing to do with why your customers buy your product(s). All they want to know is that it’s going to work, that it’s going to work every time, and that it’ll always be there for you.
Look, as a victim of seasonal allergies, all I care about when I buy tissues is a) that they won’t explode when I blow my nose, and b) that they won’t rub my skin raw after a few hours of heavy usage. That’s it. It’s more about product features and dependability than emotional connections.
Same with my dish soap.
Same with my running shoes.
Same with my rewritable DVDs.
Same with my Chiquita bananas.
When AT&T – wait… no, it’s at&t now – tries to sell me on the concept of a connected world (whatever that means) with warm visuals and emotionally charged music, it’s wasting its time – and mine. All I want to know is that I’ll be getting the best possible connection on my international calls at the best possible price, and that my bill won’t get screwed up. Whether the honchos at at&t want to admit it or not, their global telecom empire is little more than a commodity in my world.
Sorry, at&t, I don’t mean to bruise any egos, but you’re just another bill in the mail, right next to my credit cards, my trash service, my cable provider and my utilities.
The reality is this: If your product is a commodity, emotions are pretty unlikely to affect your customers’ purchasing decisions. Instead, building value (features, dependability and pricepoints) might be a more straightforward affair. Perhaps even more importantly, focusing on broad (and deep) distribution channels might yield better results.
If your product is more of a luxury (even a small luxury – or “treat”), the importance of features doesn’t diminish, but the role played by emotions in your customers’ decision to purchase it increases. Think Cartier watches. Think Zipp 808 race wheels (yes, I’m a cycling geek). Think a dozen hot Krispy Kreme doughnuts, even.
If you think that one of the prerequisites for building a strong brand is the development of an emotional connection with customers, think again. Whenever possible, yes, it’s great, but if you’re an at&t or a Kleenex or a Heads & Shoulders shampoo, don’t waste your time. There are more relevant things for you to focus on.
Read: Friendly Skies – Part 1
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), well… 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.”
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.
Well, guess what? The majority of the airlines’ 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. The customers. The folks whose cash keeps airline from going out of business. The folks whose patronage flight attendants depend on to keep wearing that uniform.
I know their job is hard, but so is Jane Spears’. Jane is a waitress at a very busy restaurant not far from where I work. 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 the job of a flight attendant is to serve drinks and food. It’s only a small part of the job, but they can’t avoid it. I am not suggesting that they are an airline waitstaff. Not at all. They 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 amount of 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 for each ticket just to fly with an airline that promises that kind of service. $20. $50. I don’t know. When you give your customers something of tangible value, pricepoints become less of a concern.
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 Jane 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.
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. Perhaps to take pride in their jobs again, even.
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.”
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.