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I was inspired by Chris Brogan’s post today in which he discusses confidence and conviction. Before you read my comment (below), go check out his post and come back. Here are some highlights:

The guest at the table next to mine asked their server, “What do you think of the halibut special?”

The server replied, “I’m not really sure. What did you have in mind when you came in? You know, people really are much happier when they have something in mind. I think it’s okay. I’ve sold a lot of it. I haven’t personally tried it, but it looks good.”

All I was thinking was, if I were the server, I’d say this:

“It’s a great presentation: crispy top and served over our lime rice. I’ve sold lots of it today.”

[…]

No waffling allowed.

Confidence and conviction are the key to many things in life.

A frequent critic (and someone I admire a lot), Ben Kunz, once said something like this about me (not his exact words): “What I hate most about you is that you always sound like you know exactly what you’re talking about, and that’s dangerous.”

I took this to be a great compliment. Again, I admire Ben a lot. He doesn’t let me rest on my laurels.

I take great pride in my confidence and conviction in matters that are important to me. I use confidence as a leadership trait all the time. And I admit when I’m wrong as often as is necessary to make those two traits worth a damn.

This got me thinking. This is a pretty important topic, especially given Ben’s “dangerous” comment thrown in. It may not seem like it, but confidence and conviction are two of the most important building blocks of professional competence. And in an “industry” (Social Media) drowning in incompetence, the danger isn’t that someone should speak with conviction about what they are competent in. Incompetence posing as competence is the danger, not confidence and conviction. Here is my response to Chris’ post:

Reminds me of rule #3: Know your sh*t. As a waiter, an executive, a cultural anthropologist, a politician, a teacher, a doctor or whatever. Just know your sh*t. A waiter who hasn’t tasted everything on the menu isn’t taking their job seriously.

Knowing exactly what you’re talking about isn’t dangerous. It just means that when you bother to open your mouth, you aren’t just making monkey noises for the sake of getting attention. You speak with purpose about something you know about. I’ve watched you in action, Chris. If the common advice is to listen 80% of the time and talk 20% of it, you have the uncommon trait of pushing the ratio to its limits: You listen about 95% of the time and talk 5% of it, if that. That tells me that when you DO say something, I had better listen. And so far, even what you think is just improv is still seeped in insight. You have good instincts, Chris. It’s why you rarely say something dumb.

Likewise, when you don’t know something, you have no problem saying “I don’t know but let’s find out,” which takes confidence as well, and lays the foundations for conviction when someone asks the question again next time and you actually know the answer.

With all due respect to Ben, the danger isn’t to speak with confidence and conviction about things you know. The danger is to speak with false confidence and a facade of conviction about things you don’t know well enough. Too many people choose the latter as their MO. You don’t. It’s why I read your stuff.

We saw this last year with the Social Media R.O.I. debacle, which few of the self-professed “experts” and “gurus” who blabbed about the “mysterious” acronym bothered to even look up in wikepedia, much less learn about from a business class or an actual management job. Instead of either learning how to define R.O.I. or (god forbid) tie to a P&L, many just made up their own versions. Others dismissed the need for R.O.I. completely. Precious few admitted that R.O.I. was outside of their expertise, which was the right thing to do. The professional thing to do.

Here’s a tip: Community managers don’t necessarily need to be experts in R.O.I. – Case in point: If you’re an expert in customer service on Twitter, or community management, or online reputation management, speak with confidence and conviction about that. The guy responding to negative comments on facebook doesn’t need to be an expert in doing anything but creating content and managing positive and negative comments. The R.O.I. piece, let it go to someone better equipped and trained to deal with it. Leave the stuff you don’t know to people who DO know. Businesses need real expertise, not smoke and mirrors and made-up “expertise.”

As an aside, you will get a lot further in life by learning how to get good at something than pretending to be good at something you suck at.

Don’t lie. Don’t make it up, hoping you won’t get found out. Learn what you can, be honest about what you know and don’t know yet, and make sure that you know what you’re talking about before opening your mouth. In other words, just know your sh*t.

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You’re always in beta. Always. If you think you aren’t, you’re already falling behind and bleeding relevance.

What does being in Beta mean? It means being in perpetual test mode. It means constantly asking “how could I do this better,” even when this worked just fine. How can I listen better? How could I improve customer service? How can I make my billing process smoother? How could we improve the UI/UX of our websites? How can I engage my user community even better? How could this brochure have been better?

I know what you’re thinking: Poor kid. He’s terminally obsessive-compulsive. 😀 (Actually, I’m just compulsive, not obsessive, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The point is this: The moment you start thinking that you have found the perfect model, the second you start adopting a “let’s not change anything” mentality, you’re screwed. The “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke” saying I hear a lot in the South is may have been pretty good advice a hundred years ago, but it isn’t anymore. Not if you want your company to stay competitive. Not if you want to see your company grow. Not if you want to see chronic improvement in everything you do.

Check out today’s video if you haven’t already. And if it doesn’t launch for you, go watch it here. (Thanks, Viddler!)

Interestingly, the “you’re always in Beta” mindset that I am talking about today seriously reminds me of the mindset athletes and coaches get into when it comes to improving performance. Say you’re currently a 24:00 5K runner, and you want to relive your college glory days by running an 18:00 5K a year from now. How do you do it? Simple: By stressing your system one little bit at a time. By challenging your comfort zone with every run. Going from 24:00 to 23:55, then 23:50, then 23:45 for the same distance, and so on. Turning up the heat and the intensity for a few weeks, then giving your body a chance to adapt. To plateau. And then starting over with a new cycle of stress and adaptation followed by a rest period. During that time, you are constantly testing your boundaries, monitoring success and failure, learning what works and what doesn’t. (And yes, measuring your progress to know what works and what doesn’t.) Pretty basic stuff.

The alternative would be to keep running the same 5K route every day at the exact same speed, in the exact same way. What would happen? Well, you would become pretty good at running a 5K  in 24:00. Comfortable? Sure. But whatever happened to improvement? See where I am going with this?

Okay, now let’s complicate things a little bit:

As a triathlete, training and competing in what essentially amounts to three sports (swimming, cycling and running) adds some pretty substantial layers of complexity. Not only do I have to figure out how to train for three specific sports, but I have to figure out how to combine and integrate all three in a way that doesn’t lead to injury or burnout. I also have to fit all three in my already busy schedule. Then I have to consider how to time my training cycles to coincide with specific races. In addition, I have to incorporate changes in nutrition and hydration based on my workouts, my training mode, outside temperatures, etc. And if I get into my head that I am going to train for a marathon, half Ironman or full-on mac-daddy Ironman, all of these variables take on a level of complexity I can’t even begin to explain in one blog post. How much Gatorade should I drink per hour in 94 degree temperatures at 80% of my maximum heart rate? How many energy gels can I absorb per hour without getting sick to my stomach? What cadence should I adopt to sustain an average speed of 21mph for 112 miles? Only one way to find out: Test it.

And I haven’t even talked about gear. Will the improved aerodynamics gained from dropping my aerobars down 2 millimeters shave 20 seconds off my 40K time? Maybe… but as a result, will my upper body’s new angle offset my hip angle enough to reduce my power output or stress my hip flexors enough that I will start cramping up 5 miles into the run? How will I find out? There’s only one way: Getting out there and testing that theory. It’s clipboard and stopwatch time for the next six weeks.

Should I go with a disc wheel or a deep dish rim for my next race? How will I know which works better for me on a moderately hilly course in 15mph crosswinds? Only one way: I have to go test each wheel configuration on a variety of courses in completely different wind conditions. Then I’ll know what works best in specific course conditions.

Rear-mounted bottle-cages or frame-mounted? Aero helmet or regular helmet? Motion control shoes or racing flats? Test test test test test. You get the picture.

Call it an occupational benefit or a pre-existing condition, but being a triathlete kind of trains you to be in a perpetual Beta mindset. And it isn’t a stretch to jump from the world of competitive endurance sports to the world of business performance. Different application, but same principles and same basic methodology: Ask, test, observe, validate, learn, repeat.

But before you do all this – the testing, the experimentation, the analysis and learning and adaptation – you have to make a choice. You have to pick a camp. You have to decide whether you are satisfied with your business performance as it is today (“good enough” is good enough for you and your customers), or hungry for improvement.

There’s no right or wrong answer here. It doesn’t matter what camp you decide to align yourself with: The one happy with the way things are or the one looking to kick ass a little more each day. What matters is that your decision work for you. But let’s be clear about the impact that your choice will have on your business: Sticking with a “let’s not change anything” mindset will not earn you more customers, increase customer loyalty or generate more sales. Where you are today is exactly where you will be tomorrow. If you’re lucky. Eventually, perhaps not next week or next month or next year, but eventually, this mindset will seal your doom. A Beta mindset, however, will help you uncover ways to innovate, earn more customers, cut costs, increase customer and employee loyalty, improve product design and performance… You name it: Whatever the opportunity to improve, do do things better and smarter, may be, you will systematically uncover it in the same way that Apple, Nike, BMW, Cervelo, HBO, Michael Phelps, IDEO, Lance Armstrong, Comcast and Zappos have.

If you want your company to be best in class, to own a market or an industry, to be the trendsetter, the example to follow, the leader in a category, you must adopt a perpetual Beta mindset. You have to constantly stress your systems and processes. You have to turn every action into a test an look at every activity as an opportunity to experiment.You have to measure, analyze, learn, adapt and repeat the cycle over and over and over again.

Question everything.

Work harder than the next guy to build the best XYZ the world has ever seen, and then find ways to make it even better.

Perfection is a process, not a milestone.

Embrace a state of perpetual Beta.


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Via the SwampFox Insights blog:

“The majority of the world’s designers focus all their efforts on developing products and services exclusively for the richest 10% of the world’s customers. Nothing less than a revolution in design is needed to reach the other 90%.”

—Dr. Paul Polak, International Development Enterprises

The man has a point.

Check out this brilliant website.

A lot of people don’t think of “design” as being all that important, because our daily interactions with “design” are limited to gadgets like the iPod or the latest pair of Oakley sunglasses, or maybe a faucet or something. Maybe we think of design when it comes to cars and clothes and furniture. But smart design can also save thousands of lives every day. Yes, something as seemingly superfluous as “design” can change the world. (Starting with the first tool, taking a detour via the wheel, and fast-forwarding to the millions of things we now take for granted, like the plasma TV, the hybrid automobile, the artificial heart, and even the ubiquitous bottle of Coca Cola.

If you aren’t the humanitarian type and couldn’t care less about saving lives, bear in mind that design can also create entirely new markets. (We just talked about getting there before the herd, so your ears should be perking up just about now.)

How can smart design can create new markets? According to this article in the New York Times entitled “Design That Solves Problems for the World’s Poor” (annoying subscription required):

“A billion customers in the world, are waiting for a $2 pair of eyeglasses, a $10 solar lantern and a $100 house.”

For starters.

That’s something to think about. Not in terms of exploitation, but in terms of wealth and opportunity creation. (The development of the easy-to-use, virtually crunch-proof windup $100 laptop – specifically designed to introduce computers and the internet to 3rd world children – is probably among the most ambitious of these types of endeavors, but also a great example of how we can start to create opportunity in regions of the world in which mere survival is still the order of the day.)

While everyone else is trying to appeal to the richest 10%, maybe, just maybe, the real opportunities are elsewhere. Maybe the time to get into these markets is before they even exist. The seeds are being planted now. The herd is starting to gather. Maybe by the time the market exists and the pastures are green and lush, you’ll find yourself in the back again. Maybe you’ll kick yourself in the butt for not having made a move sooner. (History repeats itself.)

What if you could create one of the most lucrative companies of the 21st century AND save tens of thousands of lives at the same time? What if you really could be enormously successful AND help save the world all in one fell swoop? What if you could have your cake and eat it too?

In this economy, perhaps these are questions worth asking yourself – especially if you are a US or Western European manufacturing company looking for a reason to go on.

Don’t even approach the problem from a humanitarian standpoint if you don’t want to. Approach it from a business standpoint. Here’s the problem you need to solve: 90% of the planet’s population wants something that they probably can’t get very easily. All you have to do is figure out what that is, how much they’re willing to pay for it, and how to get it to them. It could be a mode of transportation. It could be a light source. It could be a sanitary product. It could be food. It could be a garment. It could be knowledge. It could be something as simple as a tougher bicycle wheel. It could be anything.

There is no single answer. There are probably thousands upon thousands. And that’s exciting.

Whatever it is, it could also have applications right here, where the richest 10% of the world population lives and eats and shops 24/7/365.

It might even be a better option than trying to become the next Google.

Food for thought.

So… what are you working on right now?

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engagement by the brandbuilder

Above and below: Some revamped slides from Monday’s presentation. These two companion messages (Engagement and P2P) seem to have resonated with the audience, so I thought I would elaborate on that topic a little.

First: Should companies continue to launch and drive  marketing, advertising, promotional and other types of business development and awareness campaigns?

Yes. Absolutely. No question.

Traditional media “push” strategies and tactics, when developed by the right people and used properly, can be extremely effective. I am a big fan of great campaigns, so keep creating GREAT push campaigns.

But “engagement” – and by that I mean customer engagement (even if those customers are not technically customers yet) – is not a campaign. It isn’t even a strategy. It is a commitment to a being the kind of business that people will want to be a part of and whose products and community people will want to share with friends and family. The kind of business that people  will naturally want to support proactively for years and years.

What we are talking about here has its basis in culture. Call it company culture, corporate culture, management culture… it doesn’t matter. The point is that if your company still refers to itself as a B2B (biz to biz) or a B2C (biz to consumer) company, you are missing the boat. Thin about every great experience you’ve had with a business: Fantastic service at a hotel – where the folks at the desk (and the rest of the staff) makes a point to remember your name. Think of the same kind of service at a restaurant or retail outlet. Think about how you feel about a physician with fantastic bedside vs. a physician who acts like spending any time with you is the chore from hell. Now ask yourself which you would rather be: The business that makes people WANT to come back and recommend you to their friends, or the business that will either fail to be memorable – or worse, give people a reason to find a better option than you next time.

It doesn’t matter if you are a hair salon, car rental company, commercial lender, real estate agent, architectural firm, coffee shop or IT distribution company: Create great experiences based on building relationships with your customers (and your community) and your brand will quickly find itself on the rise.

Fail to do so, and your situation will NEVER improve. No matter how much you lower your prices, no matter how much money you spend on advertising, public relations, call campaigns and promotional incentives, you will still be struggling to get past 5% annual growth (once the economy recovers, that is).

You must learn to become a P2P (people to people) company. Period. There is no other option for you. Not anymore.

Starting with the way you treat your employees – from the way in which you hire, train, mentor and manage them and the words you choose to use around the office (do you refer to your team members as “headcount”?), to the type of relationship you build with the people you do business with.

You are a P2P company, by the brandbuilder

Have a great Weekend, everyone. 😉

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Roger Waters crowd

Pete Quily just saved me a few hours of work by publishing a fantastic Presidential Election/social media scorecard that outlines how the Obama campaign took advantage of social media and the internet to supercharge his grassroots movement all the way to victory. Remember the jokes about his having been a “community organizer?” It appears that the ability to create, organize and engage communities is a pretty useful skill after all. Combine it with social media, and you can work some serious magic – both in the political world AND the business world. If the Obama campaign’s success with social media strategies don’t convince CEOs and CMOs across the US that this “search”, Facebook and Twitter stuff is serious business, I don’t know what will.

Here are the numbers:

Barack Obama Vs. John McCain Search Engine and Social Media Showdown

Internet Presence
Barack Obama
John McCain
% Difference
Leading
Google Pagerank
8
8
0
Pages in Google’s Index
1,820,000
30,700
5828
Obama
Links to Website
in Yahoo – Pages
643,416
513,665
25
Obama
Links to Website
in Yahoo – Inlinks
255,334
165,296
54
Obama

Search Engine Results for Candidates Names in Quotes & Social Media Presence

Google
56,200,000
42,800,000
31
Obama
Google News
136,000
371,620
173
McCain
Google Blog
4,633,997
3,094,453
50
Obama
Technorati
412,219
313,497
31
Obama
WordPress.com
19,692
14,468
36
Obama
Google Image
24,200,000
8,620,000
181
Obama
Flickr
73,076
15,168
382
Obama
Flickr Photostream* 50,218 No Profile 50,218
Obama
Flickr Contacts* 7,148 No Profile 7,148
Obama
Google Video
136,000
89,800
51
Obama
Youtube
358,000
191,000
87
Obama
Youtube Videos Posted*
1,819
330
451
Obama
Youtube Subscribers*
117,873
none listed
117,873
Obama
Youtube Friends*
25,226
none listed
25,226
Obama
Facebook
567,000
18,700
2932
Obama
Facebook Supporters*
2,444,384
627,459
290
Obama
Facebook Wall Posts*
495,320
132,802
273
Obama
Facebook Notes*
1,669
125
1235
Obama
MySpace
859,000
319,000
169
Obama
MySpace Friends*
844,781
219,463
285
Obama
MySpace Comments*
147,630
none listed
147,630
Obama
Twitter
506,000
44,800
1129
Obama
Twitter Followers*
121,314
4,911
2470
Obama
Twitter Updates*
262
25
1048
Obama
Friend Feed
34,300
27,400
25
Obama

The statistic that should sum it all up: John McCain’s social network page has only 3 suggested sites, Obama’s suggests 16. One side understood how to seed social media channels to foster grass roots movements while the other had absolutely no idea what to do with social media beyond the obvious (using YouTube as a broadcast channel, and probing the value of Facebook/MySpace communities).

The Twitter Factor

Take a look at the Twitter numbers (in blue): Only 25 updates for @JohnMcCain vs. 262 updates for @BarackObama.

Less than 5,000 followers for John McCain vs. 121,300 followers for Barack Obama.

Boiled down to the basics: 10x more updates for Obama = almost 25x more followers for Obama.

Note: John McCain’s social networking site sadly makes zero reference to Twitter. Missed opportunity? Probably: One of the most notable effects of the McCain campaigns lack of focus on Twitter was obvious during the final few weeks of the campaign: A significant pro-Obama bias which left many McCain supporters alienated on the exploding live micro-blogging service. Instead of feeding John McCain’s social-media savvy army of supporters on Twitter, his campaign left them with little to do but huddle together and stand fast against a deluge of pro-Obama chatter. Imagine what YOU could do with 5,000 organized followers/customer/fans rooting for you on Twitter. Not understanding the value of these channels most certainly cost the McCain campaign dearly in the final weeks of leading to the Nov. 4 elections.

Why should anyone care about Twitter? One word: Numbers. According to stats provided by compete.com last month, Twitter’s year-over-year growth clocked at 573% in September 2008 vs. Facebook’s very respectable 84% YoY growth and MySpace’s negative 15% YoY growth. (Yep, MySpace’s unique visits are apparently shrinking.) Twitter’s growth is staggering.

At this rate, it may take less than 3 years for Twitter’s estimated 2.5 million* visitors to reach Facebook’s current 100 million* mark. When you consider that presidential elections can be won or lost by just a few thousand votes, it doesn’t take a social media expert to understand the extent to which Twitter WILL play a vital role in the 2012 presidential race.

* Worldwide numbers. Not US numbers. It is estimated that approximately 40% of Twitter users are in the United States.

Below: Twitter demographics (usage by age and gender). If you’re a student looking for a cool project involving social media, overlay this data with voter demographics and see what you find out.

2510539719_6e0af78a8a

To understand the full extent of the Obama campaign’s digital and social media strategies in these historic elections click here: Blue State Digital’s case study on the Obama online campaign is pretty comprehensive. (Political science, communications and marketing students will be studying this for years to come.)

Read Pete’s full post here. Great stuff.

Have a great Friday, everyone! 🙂

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An astute brand valuation reminder from Tom Fishburne today:

“If you act enough like a commodity, sooner or later consumers will treat you like one.”

(Yes, even in uncertain economic times.)  BOGO isn’t for everyone. Don’t fall into that trap.

Read his post here.

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Don’t call it a comeback
I been here for years
Rockin my peers and puttin suckas in fear…

“Mama Said Knock You Out” – LL Cool J

As I’ve already lamented, moving the brandbuilder from blogspot to wordpress several months ago effectively destroyed its search engine relevance: Years of hyperlinks, trackbacks and traffic were left behind at the old url, and the brandbuilder’s new web address essentially rolled the odometer back to zero. The impact on my readership wasn’t too bad – you guys quickly found your way to the new URL and RSS, and daily visits went back to normal after a few short weeks – but solid daily traffic alone can’t rebuild my technorati and other search engine relevance overnight. It’s going to take time to get back to the various Marketing blog rankings put forth by Technorati, Viral Garden, Power 150, etc. I am just going to have to be patient and let technology do its thing. Grrrr.

That being said, Buzz Canuck‘s Sean Moffitt may just have tossed the (new) BrandBuilder blog its first bone by including me in his Ryder Cup of Word-of-Mouth, Buzz, and Viral dream team:

With the advent of golf’s best entertainment showcase about to take place, I thought I would provide the WOM version of the famed Ryder Cup tournament.

Why not pit the top 36 bloggers from the USA that speak on the subject of word of mouth, viral, buzz, influence and the engaging brand against the top 36 international bloggers that muse on the same subject?

Unlike some of the social media- and tech dedicated marketing and media bloggers, these broad-minded bloggers and company heads (below) have distinguished themselves by helping visitors understand how ideas spread, online and offline, through a range of different strategies and tactics and each recognizes the importance of having brands getting noticed, talked about and advocated in a 2.0 world. In my opinion, they are much closer to explaining the purpose and benefits of a range of new media, web 2.0, co-creation, social networks and other web, cultural and social phenomenon.

For my social media appetite, they are also among the best at understanding the art and science of buzz, not getting too hung up on the Silicon Valley gossip, the backslapping self-promotion (with the race exception), the technology minutiae, the journalistic ethic or political meaning behind peer-generated ideas, content and advocacy.

To my knowledge, no one has yet built the all star list of word of mouth savvy blogs – too often our best are muddled with overarching marketing categories (The Power 150) or not fully descriptive, catch-all social media lists. So here is my list, I’ve visited and read them all – my apologies to some of the non-english speaking International squad (there are limits to my comprehension even with pictures) and to some inevitable oversights.

To see my name next to such industry thought leaders like Jackie Huba and Ben McConnell, Andy Sernovitz, Sam Decker, Joseph Jaffe, John Moore, Mack Collier, Tom Asacker, Corante and Marketing 2.0’s very own Francois Gossieaux, and fellow Greenville resident and favorite sparring partner Spike Jones – to name but a few – is pretty humbling. I am very honored.

Check the whole list here. It’s pretty solid.

Segue:Imagine what would happen if you put us all in one room? Seriously. One firm. One think tank. One agency. All of us there. We could be like The Justice League of the Marketing world. Scary.

I definitely raise my glass to Sean Moffitt’s 100% non-scientific method for generating the list. Well played, sir. Well played. Thanks for marking the start of my return to “the lists.” (The check’s in the mail, buddy.)

Have a great, internet fame filled day, everyone! 😉

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GREAT question.

Read his post here.

So what do you think? Do you lean towards the mathematical systems driving the Googles, Yahoos, Alexas and Technoratis of the world, or do you tend to lean towards relevant content-based models supported by a combination of personal preferences and social networks like Twitter, Facebook, etc.?

Is it a combination of both? Is there another option? Pie chart, anyone?

What do you think?

Update: Interesting answers already from recruiter extraordinaire Maren Hogan and HWKU’s Erich.

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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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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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“The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.”

– William Pollard.

That’s worth framing and hanging in every meeting room from Portland to Tahiti (via Paris).

Also, via Tom Asacker:

“Over time, unchanging relationships can turn into shackles that limit an organization’s flexibility and lock it into active inertia. Established relationships with customers can prevent firms from responding effectively to changes in technology, regulations, or consumer preferences.”

– Donald Sull (Revival of the Fittest: Why Good Companies Go Bad an How Great Managers Remake Them.)

Do you see where I’m going with this?

So… your new mission every day is to keep things fresh. That’s it. Whether you’re in the business of designing ads, repairing engines, selling shoes or answering calls from angry customers, don’t ever, ever, ever let routine set in. Try different things. Learn something new from every customer. From every sale. From every design challenge. From every product launch. From every commercial you hear on the radio. From every movie you catch on cable. From the games your kids play. From magazines you’ve never picked up.

Keep things fresh.

And go read Tom Asacker’s post on that very topic. It’s very good.

Have a great Monday, everyone.

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Sally Hogstead’s “Radical Careering” advice isn’t about looking for greener pastures somewhere else, it’s about shooting a wholelot of life back into your professional universe.

Click the image and download the presentation. It’s short and fantastic.

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