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Archive for the ‘common sense’ Category

Afghan "Shura" - Source: US Navy

A debater with thin skin is much like a soldier without composure: He isn’t much good to his craft, not to mention his cause.

I find myself debating a lot these days. Many of the topics revolve around business, brand management, crisis communications, Social Media, R.O.I. and marketing, while others touch on far more important ones like geostrategy, culture, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and Constitutional law. I believe debate to be a healthy pursuit – not simply an entertaining passtime – and engage in it with both delight and passion. I relish the opportunity to face off against another’s intellect and wit, especially when the act of debating an issue helps bring a discussion back from a place of hateful discord to one of mutual respect, if only for a few minutes.

It doesn’t mean both parties will agree or that one side will convert the other. I am not that naïve. All it means is that both parties will discuss the issue with respect towards each other. Debate is at its best an exercise in civility, at its worst an ugly, pointless brawl or shouting match.

The latter happens when emotions rather than reason get the best of someone involved.

Before you get to riled up, consider this that if debate is indeed a manner of combat (and it is,) it at least has the virtue of being bloodless. As such, it is a gentleman’s (and likewise a lady’s) sport. Losing an argument isn’t the end of the world. In fact, it may come with its share of benefits, not the least of which may be an education.

Now might be a good time to point out that debates are not about proving that one’s feelings about an issue should prevail. Debates are about arguing points, not feelings. “My feelings are more right than your feelings,” is an impossible argument. You might as well try to argue that your choice of a favorite color is better than someone else’s choice of their favorite color. It is completely pointless.

In every debate are two conjoined threads: One holds fast to reason while the other weaves itself into feelings and emotions. unless you want your exchange to degenerate into mindless hysterics, always focus on the former. While passion can – and should – drive a debate, it should never be the instrument of its discourse. Ever.

How this translates to this blog and exchanges I might have with you on Facebook, Twitter or even in the real world of face-to-face interactions is this: I will never tell you that your feelings about an issue are wrong. I may, however, tell you that your thinking around an issue is.

And then prove it to you.

When this happens, here’s how to best me: Prove me wrong. Not with feelings, not with arguments about feelings, and certainly not with anger, scorn, insults or threats. Best me with reason. If you make your argument, I will yield. (Gladly, in fact.) It happens regularly.

If you cannot make your argument, break off, give the topic of discussion more thought, do more research and try again when you’re better prepared.

Never will your feelings about an issue be enough to convince anyone of the validity of your position, especially if they revolve around anger. No emotion or personal belief, even if echoed by your peers, can ever justify the abdication of reason, especially in a debate. Show me your cool head. Show me the depth of your intellect. Show me the extent to which you have reflected upon an issue. Preparation here is key: Know what you are talking about. Know it from every possible angle. Consider all of the points of view, and recognize their every strength and weakness based on its own bias, not yours.

Only when you can see every angle can you consider yourself ready to enter into a debate – that is, a discussion about a topic with someone of the opposite viewpoint. Regarding this topic, here is something to consider: Spending most of your time both listening to a single viewpoint and discussing it with like-minded peers will not prepare you for a debate, the object of which is this: To prove the validity of your point in spite of your feelings, rather than by recruiting others to the emotion that secures your adherence to it.

A few tips on debating issues both online and offline:

1. Know the subject thoroughly. Not just your side of the issue, but all sides equally.

2. Trust both, but separate reason from emotion. The former is your ally. The latter is not.

3. Unless you live in a theocracy, morality and religion are subjective arguments, not objective arguments. Subjective arguments, while fascinating in certain social situations, have no place in reasonable debate.

(Update: Rick pointed out that I may be wrong about this in the comment section, and I see his point. Our discussion about context helps shed some light about this. I indeed failed to take into account the context of a debate when I suggested #3. He’s right.)

4. Respect your opponent even if s/he does not respect you. (Your professionalism, kindness and honor are yours. Their absence in an opponent has no bearing on your own.)

5. The moment either person involved loses their temper, the debate is over.

6. Thin skin and public debates do not mix.

7. Be aware that debating a point with an unreasonable person may be a complete waste of your time. Debating the virtues of civil rights legislation with a racist, for instance, may not be the most productive use of your time. Likewise, arguing ethics with a crook probably won’t get you anywhere. Just as worthy opponents make great sport, worthy opponents make great debates. Too one sided a contest typically yields disappointing results. Don’t waste your time on unworthy foes.

8. At least 1 out of 4 people who disagree with you may be utterly incapable of arguing a point objectively. See item 7 for further instructions.

9. If you represent a company or organization, heated debates may be ill-advised – especially when they touch on religion, sex and politics. If you are answerable to no one but yourself, no such limitations exist beyond those you impose on yourself. In either case, always remember item 4: The golden rule of public debates.

10. If you are bested, acknowledge it gracefully. If you win, thank your opponent for his/her gracious effort. All other outcomes are to be avoided whenever possible. Nothing is gained from the murder of civility, especially in matters of public debate.

One final note: Debate with heart, let outrage fuel your argument when it must, but keep your sense of humor close at hand. When all else fails, it may yet carry you through. The ability to laugh at yourself, at your own stumbles, at the witty barbs of your opponent when they deserve a nod, can be all the armor you need to compensate for any unwanted thinness of skin.

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giant snowball, by olivier blanchard 2009

Today’s bit of Marketing, Customer Experience, Design & Product Development advice comes from Kathy Sierra‘s awesome old blog:

“Your job is to anticipate… To give them what they want and/or what they need just before they have to “ask” for it – to be surprising yet self-evident at the same time. If you are too far behind, or too far ahead of them, you create problems, but if you are right with them, leading them ever so slightly, the flow of events feels natural and exciting at the same time.”

Walter Murch

iPod wasn’t designed by users. It was designed for users. No… wait… it was designed to be loved by users.

This seems really basic and simple, right? Just plain old common sense… Yet how many companies do it? Very few. So until every single company figures this out, it is worth repeating, even if it seems like a no-brainer.

If your job deals with customer experience design, (product, web, retail, customer service, touchpoint ideation, advertising, etc.) print either the sentence that came just before this paragraph or Walter Murch’s bit of wisdom, and pin it to your office wall. Either one can (and probably should) become your new mantra.

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Seattle, by Olivier Blanchard - 2008

Check out these great bits of advice from Dave Lorenzo’s Career Intensity blog:

“Deciding: ‘Familiarize yourself with common decision-making errors—such as going along with a group choice to maintain cohesion. Watch for tendencies within yourself to commit such errors.’

Leaders make bold decisions. They see them through, and if they aren’t working out, they make new decisions. The worst thing you can do for your career is make no choices or let your choices be made for you. Taking a passive approach to your goals is unlikely to result in success. Even if you make a bad decision, it’s better to mess up and learn from it than to remain stagnant. Failures are great opportunities to learn more about yourself and the world. Move ahead by choosing wisely and boldly.”

(If you’re asking yourself… yeah, cool career advice, but… what does this have to do with branding, hold on. I’m getting to it.)

“It takes someone who believes in herself and her ideas to challenge the status quo. These are the people who shake things up and change them for the better. You don’t have to be contentious to challenge. The best way to suggest changes is not to bash the old ways, but to offer new and positive ideas.

If you are part of a team working on a project that you believe could be going more smoothly, step up and present your ideas. Most likely, everyone will be excited to approach the work from a new angle. And you will begin to earn a reputation for innovation.”

Still not catching on? Okay… Let’s try one more:

“In the famous words of Einstein, “Imagination is more important than knowledge”.

What separates the dazzling winners from everyone else is that they are able to envision a grand future. What turns them into winners is that they are able to leap into that future and do the hard work necessary to make it great.

Particularly for die-hard realists and people who have been trained (by parents, friends, or spouse) to be ‘responsible’ and ‘stable’, indulging in imagination can be difficult. For every idea that’s even mildly revolutionary, a little voice chimes in, ‘Impossible. You can’t do that. That’s stupid. It’ll never work.’ Quiet that voice and spend some time ruminating on your wild, far-out, fanciful ideas. Great leader do things that no one before them has done.”

Still no? Tsssk… Okay. I’ll give you a hint: Substitute “brand” for “career”. Everything that Dave so brilliantly recommends is exactly the kind of advice that you can put to good use in building strong brands – from ‘brand you’ to the next retail darling, iconic consumer good or dazzling web application.

Brands aren’t built in a vacuum. They aren’t built by functionaries. They do not thrive in stagnant bureaucracies. Brands are built by empowered visionaries. Brands are built on enthusiasm, conviction, and courage… Or they are doomed from the start.

You are the heart and soul of the brand you represent and serve. If you want your brand to be a market leader, you must be a leader in your job as well. Your qualities are your brand’s attributes. Your weaknesses are its flaws. Everything you are, everything you do, affects its success and future.

So… don’t ever let anyone turn you into a tool. Challenge everything. Question every assumption. Wage war on routine and bureaucracy. Accept no compromise…

… and read Dave’s blog. It’s a good one.

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Via OrangeYeti, from AdPulp, here is a little bit of an interview given by Maurice Levy (Publicis Groupe) to Scott Donaton (of Ad Age). If you’ve ever worked for a company that was so set in its ways that it had grown stale, you’ll understand what Levy is talking about:

“I have never stabilized an organization. Crystallizing an organization is freezing the energy. In chemistry, instability is very good because it creates some combinations you don’t expect.”

“Without change, there is fossilization,and that’s the worst thing that can happen.”

“Ideas,are so fragile, so tenuous, that managers must destroy layers that can obscure or damage them. If you have an organization that is too administrative, you are just killing the ideas. As we say in France, when you ask a committee to draw a horse, you get a camel.”

Read the full interview here.

So there you have it: As a business leader, look for flux. Look for tangents. Look for the unexpected. Recruit adventurously. Give your people the freedom and flexibility to contribute in the most personal, passionate of ways. Eliminate silos and procedures when it comes to the sharing of ideas. When it comes to dialogue. When it comes to cooperation. Decentralize “meetings”. Deconstruct the project ideation process. Empower your people to set the stage for extraordinary new products, business improvements, and creative work.

If you can’t trust your people enough to empower them, to literally give them the keys to the place, then you aren’t hiring the right people. Your job as a leader isn’t always to “lead”. Most of the time, because you aren’t there to bark orders or stand over everyone’s shoulder, it is simply to create an environment, an ecosystem, that allows your team, your army, to do the best possible work they can. It is to create a culture that makes them want to be a part of something greater than the sum of their job description. That makes them proud to be, even.

Ideas are fragile.

Without change, organizations die.

These are the two little mantras you should keep chanting every time you pick up the phone, or a magazine, or your TV remote. They should be in the back of your mind every time you shake someone’s hand or invite them to have a seat.

Embrace instability. Welcome change. Engage uncertainty. Welcome the unknown and love it for all of its infinite number of possibilities.

And they truly are infinite.

Chew on that. Have a great Friday. 😉

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illustration by Tom Fishburne

illustration by Tom Fishburne

The value of being ordinary is exactly zero.  Here’s what Tom Fishburne has to say about it:

“Blending into the herd” feels like one of the most common responses to the recession.  2009 is full of so much risk on its own, businesses are becoming even more risk adverse than usual to compensate.  The first projects to get cut are the speculative ones.  Many companies are pulling back on innovation as a way to batten the hatches.

This defense is illusory though.  If anything, retailers are facing even greater pressure to rationalize their shelves.  Redundant products are in danger of getting cut.  Consumers are shifting to cheaper private label if there’s no compelling reason to buy branded products. Differentiation is more important than ever.

I think this climate creates a lot of opportunity for brands that are willing to try something new.  The ones that can adapt the quickest and offer something truly unique have the potential to not only survive, but thrive.

Amen.

Not that there isn’t value in commodity products. (Check out the crowds at Wal-Mart and Costco.) But not every brand is a commodity brand. Not every company’s model meshes with the 99-cent value meal. And for those millions of companies – big and small – for whom being in business is about more than offering the cheapest product on the market, differentiation matters. If grabbing wallet-share was a struggle before, it has now become a knuckle fight to the death. Being better, smarter, faster has now become a matter of survival.

And kids, being better, faster, smarter takes a lot of work. And deliberate focus. It doesn’t happen by accident. Likewise, it sure doesn’t happen by “blending in” or “Playing it safe.” In this economy, value isn’t just your competitive edge, it’s your lifeline. The more unique you are, the more outstanding your value, the greater your opportunity to thrive in any economy – perhaps particularly a distressed one, when clients and customers are particularly careful when it comes to how they choose to spend their money.

Standing out has its advantages: When you stand out, you stand for something. When you don’t, you stand for nothing – and there isn’t much value in that.

Think of innovation and differentiation as your double-sided ticket out of this economic mess. Companies that will create unique value, unique products and unique experiences will lurch ahead, while companies that focus on trying to survive by contracting and blending in with the masses will be lucky to last the year.

After all, then the going gets tough, the tough don’t wuss out and blend with the herd.

Have a great Monday, everyone.  😉

(Hat tip to John Moore for hooking us up with this via Twitter.)

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tribes-cover

The value of communities to the well-being and growth of businesses and organizations which serve them became crystal clear to me again today. (Not that it wasn’t already clear, but it’s important to revisit this sort of thing with real life examples as often as possible.)

I was chatting with a group of very experienced entrepreneurs about business organizations and networks when it struck me: In the B2B world, doing your part to ensure that your business community is healthy, informed, well connected and engaged is probably the most important thing you can do to foster the type of environment most suitable to create net new clients.

This has traditionally been the role of Chambers of Commerce, but we are starting to see that Social Media are giving rise to new types of business communities (Or as Seth might call them, business tribes.) This isn’t to say that the Chamber of Commerce model is dead or dying – far from it – but it is important to note that the dynamics of how and why business communities come to be are changing.

Ten years ago, Chambers of Commerce, professional organizations and country clubs were pretty much the only real viable option for businesses when it came to joining and leveraging premier business networks. Today, through the advent of Social Media, individuals and businesses have the ability to a) create their own business networks and communities, b) do so on their own terms, and c) do it all for free.

How can Chambers of Commerce remain healthy and relevant in this new age? Simple: Reconnect with the communities they serve. Shed the “business club” image, let the networking become landscape rather than focus, and engage their communities in a way that will truly elevate them. This is clearly a ‘leadership through service’ type of mission as opposed to a “build it and they will come” vision. Some organizations are already there, but many still haven’t made that transition.

Remember that thing about leadership in action being an irresistible draw? This is what organizations need to tap into. Don’t worry so much about membership growth, “relevance” and networking. Just get out there and make something happen. Act as the catalyst and the connector. Leverage networks to recruit volunteers, not members, and help them connect through projects they can really sink their teeth into. The self-serving rewards will come, but only if you don’t make them your focus.

In order for a Chamber of Commerce membership to make sense, a member business should have to commit to actually paying something forward (and I don’t mean annual membership dues). Ask yourself this: As a business owner, what can you give back to the business community? How can you help? How can you establish yourself as a unique resource? Do you have a skill? A bucket of knowledge or insight? A gift for teaching or motivating? Then put it to good use: Start something. Get a few of your fellow business owners together and start a program to bring hope and ideas to troubled public schools (those with high dropout rates). Tell kids about your success story. Let them know that owning a business isn’t something that is limited to “rich people.” Inspire them. Plant seeds. Lift them up. Mentor them if they ask you to. As a business community organizer, ask yourself how you can create these types of opportunities and actually generate results you and your partners in crime can be proud of. There’s a start.

Community leadership begins with a) being a catalyst for growth opportunities and b) acting as a connector. Some business organizations do so better than others, but the mere fact that many Chambers of Commerce no longer play that role in their communities tells me that something is missing in their focus. Perhaps some Chambers are suffering from an identity crisis. Perhaps they have served larger businesses too long, or haven’t focused enough on involving younger entrepreneurs and business owners. Perhaps they have pigeon-holed themselves and don’t know how to return to their small business roots. Sometimes, when companies and organizations have been doing the same thing in the same way with the same people for a very long time, they can lose touch with the world outside their four walls. It might not seem that way from within, but when most of the community you serve can’t tell you with clarity or certainty what your company or organization does for them, trust me: You aren’t connecting.

And if you’re only touching 10% of the businesses or potential customers in your community, you aren’t connecting either. It’s time to make a change.

First: Tactics and tools:

Digital networking: Any organization that is in the community building business must know how to wield social media tools like a marketing ninja. Period. This isn’t up for debate. It isn’t enough to have a website and a newsletter. If you don’t have active FaceBook and Linked-In groups, you’re already falling behind. (Emphasis on “active.” Just having a group and doing nothing with it = zero impact.) If you don’t have a community space (check out Ning.com for a simple platform), you’re also missing the boat. If you also aren’t leveraging Twitter – or haven’t yet invited some of your leaders to contribute to a community/Chamber blog or online publication – I have to ask… how exactly are you engaging with your business community?

Physical networking (yeah, the old fashioned kind): Organize, sponsor, host and manage events, but gear them to benefit non-members as much as members. Radical idea? Not really: Connecting your members is a great idea, but sooner or later, your network becomes an echo chamber. What you need to do is reach out, not pull in. As with most organization with hefty membership fees, there seems to be a wall that goes up between members and non-members once money is exchanged. Whether real or perceived, that wall doesn’t do anyone any good. Tear it down. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t continue to offer members-only events and perks, but in order to grow, you also have to increase your focus on true community involvement. That’s where the magic is. That’s where leadership happens. That’s where relevance is built.

Offer mentor programs and pair members with non-members. Partner with the best of the best in particular fields – accounting, law, HR, advertising, IT, professional services – and create mini conferences to help members and non-members alike come together and learn things they otherwise might not. Create a small business assistance program through which distressed small business owners can receive emergency advice from a group of experienced business leaders. Create groups for specific verticals and industries – retail, foodservice, law firms, freelancers, manufacturers, etc. The possibilities are endless. (And if you are already doing all of these things, go back to the digital networking section of this post and ask yourself how you can leverage social media to promote your events and activities. You probably aren’t doing enough there.

If you aren’t doing these things yet, or aren’t doing them well, you are being outpaced by much smaller, younger, savvier organizations, and your brain trust is being recruited away. Once the brain trust starts to go, so do relevance, value, and of course, membership.

Second: Mindset.

These lessons are relevant to individual businesses as well: Stop thinking about your market as a giant phone book, and stop thinking of sales as “sales.” Become a connector. Become a facilitator. Reach out to people and companies in need, and offer to help. Make things happen. (You know… like bridge the gap between idea and execution?) Surround yourself with the best people and businesses and help them get even better at what they do. Use every means at your disposal to strengthen your neighborhood, your community, your industry, and help them all move forward. There’s your value.

It may seem silly to some, but the idea of “paying it forward” has its place in the business world, especially during tough economic times. Not just as an exercise on in good karma or for the sake of doing good deeds, but in strengthening the foundations of the community without whose support your business will fail. Just by connecting the right people, you can plant the seeds of a relationship that will keep one, two, perhaps three businesses afloat for another year – which may be all they need to get cooking again. Most of my clients come from referrals. Many of my friends’ clients are referrals as well. Without our network, without the constant drive to connect good people to other good people, without a taste for helping each other out, none of us would be as successful as we have been. Fact: Business is about relationships. Just like Social Media. Just like Word of Mouth marketing. Just like building strong brands. All of these things are interconnected.

Once you understand the vital connection that exists between you and your community, this kind of stuff becomes crystal clear.

If you haven’t done so already, click on Seth’s presentation (above) and take a few minutes to take it all in. Understanding Tribes, absorbing it, even, may be the most important thing you’ll do all year. It may even be the one thing that will save your business in this challenging economy.

If you haven’t joined your local Chamber of Commerce lately, perhaps you should. Only this time around, instead of asking what your Chamber can do for you, ask… well, you know. 😉

Leadership starts with you. Bouncing back from the troubled economy starts with you. (If we’ve learned anything these last few weeks, it’s that it sure as hell won’t start with either Wall Street, Detroit or Washington.) It’s all in your hands now. Our hands. And you know what? That’s the best economic news I’ve heard all year!

Have a great Tuesday, everyone. 😉

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Robert Killick on the need for intellectual curiosity and courage in the face of “unknowns” in today’s business leaders:

Risk was once seen as a catalyst for competitiveness, innovation and change in enterprise culture. Now it is seen as a negative barrier to be avoided with all sorts of precautionary measures. ‘Risk consciousness’ is the order of the day, but the preference to always dig up the dark side of humanity betrays a lack of faith in human reason. Curiosity and foolhardiness are often derided as irresponsible and egotistical traits, but the great heroes of the past have taken personal risks that benefit all of us.

Today, research and experimentation that does not have a measurable ‘positive effect’ is seen as irresponsible. Yet it is precisely through experimentation, risk – and, yes, mistakes – that some of the major scientific breakthroughs and technological inventions have come about. Without risky experimentation, and without individuals willing to take those risks in the pursuit of knowledge, we wouldn’t have aeroplanes, penicillin, MRI scans or X-rays.

The ability to handle risk – though technology, human ingenuity, reason and resilience – is a measure of modernity and it can only be achieved through more experimentation, not less. The hard won freedoms to creative expression, communication and to technological innovation should be treasured, and the twenty-first century should be when we take them even further.

Risk-adverse/risk-paralyzed leaders aren’t leaders at all. At best, they are followers promoted or appointed to positions they should have had enough common sense, integrity and professionalism to turn down.

Fact: Leaders “lead.” They take their companies in a specific direction and make sure that course corrections occur as needed along the way. Standing still, ignoring emerging market trends, rewarding business-as-usual strategies, waiting for competitors to make a move before testing the waters, or building protective walls around organizations are not examples of leadership.

No one is advocating making rash decisions of course, but in order for companies to be successful, their leaders must possess certain key personality traits – among them the essential combination of vision, courage and an unbreakable pioneering streak.

Bear this in mine when placing your bets on a company, new boss or potential candidates for an executive-level position.

Have a great week, everyone!

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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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