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Why I stopped blogging:

My last post here is dated February 25th. I wish I could say that was the last time I was genuinely interested enough to write and share something pertinent with you guys about brand management or marketing strategy or social business, but that isn’t true. If you scroll back through my posts for 2013 and the second half of 2012, you will probably notice that I was already kind of losing interest in blogging for the sake of blogging. Truth is, sometimes, even someone as outspoken as me just doesn’t have anything really all that pertinent to write about on a blog like this one, and though the discipline to carry on writing “content” day after day anyway is admirable in many ways, I found the exercise pretty much mired in futility.

A friend of mine in the industry told me about a year ago that I needed to publish something on this blog at least 3-5 times per week. He was pretty adamant about it, and I suppose he should know. He has 10x the readership and the twitter followers. He has published 10x more books than I have (I only have the one), he gets paid a shit-ton more than I do to spend half as much time on stage. He’s big time. Career-wise, he is in every way my better. I should listen to him. The thing is, I don’t think that post quantity or post frequency or even an editorial calendar’s consistency really matters. Traffic to this blog remains strong even if I don’t post a single thing for months. I have so many posts here that I could probably never publish anything again and my traffic would stay consistent for the next 3+ years. More importantly, I don’t really care about pulling traffic to my blog anymore. I used to. For ego, mostly. A 12,000 visitor day was like Christmas morning to me once. I felt important and validated. I look back on that now and ask myself what the fuck I was thinking.

Oh yeah… that’s another thing. I probably shouldn’t curse here. This is a business blog. Well, so much for that rule too. I live in the real world, and in that world, people say fuck. In fact, they get pretty creative about it. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but at least it’s honest, and there’s a lot to be said for people who aren’t afraid to speak their minds.

I have always prided myself on publishing quality content. As much as I hate the term “content,” I will use it here to describe what you are reading right now, if only to make a point: I stopped doing that months ago. I did. I was just going through the motions. Writing a blog post just because I am supposed to fill space robs a blog like this one of its value. Even though I never intended to shift from publishing quality blog posts to publishing “content,” it’s where I was headed. I woke up one morning and sat at my desk and realized that I was turning into just another social media asshole who publishes shit just to have something to publish. Just to get traffic to a stupid website. Just to see his name mentioned a couple hundred times in a Twitter stream and feel important and validated. That’s not who I want to be and it sure as shit isn’t why I got into blogging. I didn’t like where things were going, and since I didn’t know what else to do, I backed off and worked on other things.

Why some of my “peers” might want to back off for a few months as well:

Top 10 Ways to Create Successful Content

Why Net Promoter Score Is The New ROI

5 Strategies to Better Engage With A social Media Audience

8 Ways Klout Is Revolutionizing Business

11 Reasons Why Google Glass is the Most Important Technology in Human History

Stop. Just stop. Shut the fuck up. Really.

You want to feel important, go do something important, something that actually matters:

Help a company solve a real problem. (Selling them a product doesn’t exactly qualify.)

Help curb domestic violence in your state by even 1/10 of a percent.

Help create a digital bipartisan policy innovation exchange. (Holy shit! Using social media to depolarize discussions about real issues and even crowdsource real solutions to real problems? Shut. Up!)

Develop social business systems and protocols aimed at boosting customer retention (loyalty is a process, not just a marketing buzzword).

Do something. But for fuck’s sake, stop filling empty space with “content.”  It’s gotten so bad, even I was getting sucked into it just to keep up with this shit:

The CMO is dead. 

Digital is Dead. 

Marketing is Dead.

Advertising is Dead.

Print is Dead.

Stop. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re all just writing the same shit over and over again, and most of it is utter nonsense. There’s no value to it. Most of it isn’t even accurate, let alone helpful to anyone. Hell, it isn’t even entertaining. If any of you wrote even one of those blog posts as an email and sent it to your boss, you would probably be fired shortly thereafter for being an incompetent dumbass. So what makes a digital editor or a social media “expert” think it belongs on a blog (or worse, on major pubs’ blogs like Forbes.com or HBR.com or Money.com)?

Please, if you’re that kind of blogger/writer, back away from your computer and give some thought to what you’re about to write. Better yet, go find something relevant to write about. You’re making my brain hurt with this shit. Why are you even here? What are you doing? What value are you bringing to your industry? Stop. Go for a walk or a run or whatever, and think about what you should really be doing instead of throwing your very own personal turds at the same giant pile of turds everyone is already busy throwing their turds at. It’s big enough as it is. It’ll do just fine without your latest “contribution.”

An apology:

Even if my blog posts aren’t quite as awful as some, truth is that it’s been a while since I have contributed anything particularly intelligent or new or even special to our overall conversation. I woke up one morning and I realized I was just creating content, and it really turned me off from the whole thing. That break I just suggested, I took one. I’m not sure I’m really back yet, but I’m back today anyway, and I suppose that’s a start.

I don’t think I need to apologize for my physical absence since my last post on February 25. That was actually a good thing. What I do need to apologize for though, is my substantive absence since whenever the hell it was that I started posting “content” on this blog just to keep the wheels spinning. I let you guys down and I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for that to happen. I’m still trying to figure out exactly how I got sidetracked. Burnout maybe? Caught in the momentum of a flawed trajectory… Maybe it was a bunch of little things. I’ll give it some thought and let you know if I ever figure it out.

What comes next for this blog:

Moving forward, The BrandBuilder Blog will have no set editorial calendar. Maybe I publish something every day for a week, and maybe I don’t publish anything at all for a month. It will all depend on whether I have something relevant to share or even the time to share it. If I have nothing intelligent or pertinent to say, I won’t waste your time pretending that I do. Believe it or not, I don’t have awesome advice to give every damn day of the week. Most days, I’m just like everyone else: busy, confused, and filled with far more questions than answers. I don’t need to pretend that I am an expert or a guru… and though I hope to become an expert at something someday, I sure as shit don’t ever want to be a guru. Robes aren’t a good look for me.

So anyway, stay tuned. I’ll be back with more. Thanks for your patience.

*          *          *

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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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image by ilisu

Something Seth wrote quite a while back that still resonates with me today:

“As soon as they start using the tactics of the other guys, playing the game they play, they become them. As soon as they decide that they can buy (not earn) attention, it all changes.”

Chances are that you’ve forgotten what made your company or services or products so different. So unique. So good.

Chances are that your success has driven you away from those early days, when being different from everyone else, when being better was what it was all about.

Back when taking care of every new customer was like going out on a first date.

Chances are that you’re more focused on aligning your pricing to that of your competitors now than you ever were.

Chances are that you’ve started to copy their every move. You advertise where they advertise. You offer the same services they offer. The closer you get to beating them, the more like them you become.

Chances are that you are slowly becoming a clone of the very people you once thought sucked.

“As soon as they start using the tactics of the other guys, playing the game they play, they become them. As soon as they decide that they can buy (not earn) attention, it all changes.”

Stop.

Take a breather.

Go back to the start.

Are your products still the best? Are they still unique? Is your company still unique? Are you who you promised yourself you would be when you started?

Are you still earning attention?

If the answer is yes, congrats. You’re one of the rare few. I hope you manage to keep it up for decades to come.

If not… well, maybe it’s time to get back to basics. What do you say?

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I love this question on the Biztrek blog:

Stop for a moment to consider what would happen if your business no longer existed. How would your customers react. Would you really be missed? Could they easily get what they need from somewhere else? Would they be equally well off?

Assuming you aren’t Apple, Starbucks, Microsoft or Disney, how do you answer that question?

If you’re Exxon, your customers will go fuel up with BP or Shell.
If you’re Calvin Klein, your customers will buy Kenneth Cole or Ralph Lauren or DKNY instead.
If you’re Publix, your customers will cross the street to get their groceries from Bloom or BiLo or Ingles.
If you’re Best Buy, Circuit City will handle the overflow.
If you’re McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s will be happy to take over your share.
If you’re Joe Shmolinski, perhaps Jim Smith or Lucy Kilgore or Mack Jackson can do your job just as well.

So what about you? What’s your unique value proposition? What makes you indispensable to your customers/users/employers/market?

It isn’t a rhetorical question. Get out a piece of paper and actually write it down. You need to know what the answer is (1) and you need to be able to verbalize it to others (2) when they need to know what makes you or your product or your company worth their time and greenbacks.

Follow-up reading over at Client-Magnet.

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