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The problem with assumptions is that they always come with blind spots.

The friendlier and human a company is, the more potential for success it will have. This goes back to the theory that the company with the least amount of assholes wins. I think it goes without saying that unfriendly, emotionally disconnected, self-interested employees (and managers) always act as hurdles to internal collaboration, process improvement and the adoption of new ideas. They build walls. They create silos. They are agents of “no.”

Friendly companies are created by friendly employees and friendly management. Great customer experiences (whether they come in the form of great customer service or simply pleasant shopping adventures) begin with a culture of “we give a shit.” These customer-centric companies understand the need for fluid internal collaboration and the continuous improvement of process that affect, somewhere down the line, consumers’ perception of the brand.

But is that enough?

Consider the following two lists, and ask yourself which company you would rather buy your products from:

Company A:

  • It’s a great place to work.
  • I read an article about how cross-functional teams brainstorm to develop new products.
  • They offer trainees $5,000 to quit their first week. No one ever takes the money.
  • They have awesome customer service.
  • Returns are never a problem. They treat you so nicely.
  • I love shopping there.
  • Their CMO seems like a really cool guy on Twitter.

Company B:

  • I’ve heard it’s kind of a revolving door there.
  • Made in China, I think.
  • They have horrible customer service.
  • Have fun getting them to send you a replacement.
  • The lines at their stores are a pain.
  • I have no idea who their CMO is. He sure isn’t on Twitter.

Obviously, Company A probably has a market advantage, right?

Maybe. What if Company B makes much cooler products?

What if Company B’s products are equal in every way to Company A’s but at a much lower price?

That changes the equation a bit, doesn’t it? Now, Company B might become far more competitive (and successful) in spite of all of the negatives listed above.

Now let me throw in a twist: What if, against all logic, Company B’s process actually requires an antisocial environment in order to produce cooler products? What if it requires a quasi-tyrannical leadership and hermetically-sealed silos in order to be successful? What if becoming a “social business” actually ended up hurting it?

Under Steve and Walt, Apple and Disney weren’t exactly examples of what a “social business” should be, and yet they became, in spite of many of the things that the social business model preaches, enormous successes. They changed technology. They changed entertainment. They changed culture. They changed the world for the better.

How can this be?

Would Apple and Disney have been better off with a stable of bloggers and community managers on their payroll? Twitter accounts? Facebook pages? Youtube channels? Foursquare promotions? Would they have been better off if Steve and Walt had been avid proponents of “social business” ideals, flat organizations and cowdsource-driven product design? Really?

I want you to think about that for a minute, before you go back to reading blog post after blog post about the coming “social business” revolution and all the good it will bring to the world. It just isn’t that simple. Becoming a social business doesn’t necessarily help a businesses create more value for anyone or become better at what it does.

Becoming a more social company is not the same as becoming a better company.

I am not at all suggesting that companies are better off ignoring the social space. I wouldn’t dream of ever advising a company to stay off Twitter and Facebook. It would be irresponsible of me to drive a wedge between an organization and the amazing potential that social media has in store for them. BUT, it would be equally irresponsible of me to suggest that trying to become a “social business” is always going to be  in their best interest.

If you are a CEO, ask yourself why you really want your business to become “more social.” Is it because you really love your customers? Is it because you are looking for better, faster, cheaper ways to gather consumer insights? Is it because becoming “more social” allows you to increase your reach into social channels? Is it because industry experts told you it’s the thing to do this year? Why are you really focusing on this?

Here’s a better idea for you: Focus on building a better company, not just a more social one. Identify key areas of potential improvement and make those your focus. If social media can help you in this endeavor, then by all means find out how and do it:

Use social technologies to improve your customer service and reduce purchasing barriers.

Use social networks to help more people discover your great products or recommend wonderful employees.

Use social platforms to give your customers a reason to be loyal and act as good will ambassadors for you everywhere they go.

Improve internal collaboration and organizational efficiency.

Infuse your product management groups with insights and ideas from followers and fans.

Use social monitoring tools to identify new opportunities and spot potential threats.

The sky is the limit when it comes to how social media can help you become a better company.

But “being more social” doesn’t, in and of itself, amount to a whole lot. What does that even mean in a business context? Paying someone to hang out on Twitter all day and push out links to marketing content? Write formulaic blog posts to hopefully attract visitors to your website? Hire an agency to manage a Facebook page for you so you appear to be “more social?” Hire a ghost blogger to pretend that your CEO is committed to the social web? What’s the point of any of that? Why waste so much time and energy on pointless bullshit that isn’t benefiting anyone?

Now consider these two questions:

1. Will adopting a “social business” model really help patent-driven, data security conscious companies like Michelin, 3M and Pfizer become more competitive, more successful, and better at what they do?

2. Would adopting a “social business” model have helped Apple and Disney accomplish what they did? Or might it have gotten in the way by creating too much of a distraction or altering internal focus? Might an effort to become more “social” instead of generating brilliant products have worked against Apple and Disney?

Before you answer, consider this: The value of social media adoption and social process integration comes in degrees. Because every company is unique, every company will become more or less “social” based on its needs, capabilities and the dynamics of their internal cultures. Each of them will decide to what extent, and in the service of the improvement of what function, “social” will become part of its process. And guess what: There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

So again…

Question: Should Michelin, 3M and Pfizer, Disney and Apple become more “social?”

Answer: Only to the extent to which they and their customers will benefit from it. That could be a little, a lot, or not at all.

There’s a why question hidden in that Q&A, and a how question as well. You need to help companies answer both if you really want to help them.

Recap.

1. The “social business” ideal doesn’t apply to every business. That’s the problem with ideals: Ideally, they’re great. In reality, the world is messy. Things don’t always work the way we wish they would. “The road to hell,” as they say, “is paved with good intentions.” The road to epic screw-ups is as well. Proceed with clear purpose, and caution will mostly take care of itself.

2. Beware the salesmen of utopia. Selling ideals is one thing. Adapting them to your company’s needs is another entirely. Good consultants should be able to successfully put their advice into practice, not just suggest unrealistic goals and then watch you fumble at an impossible play.

3. If you focus less on “being social” and more on becoming a better company, you will be much better off by the end of the coming fiscal year. If social platforms can help you become that better company, great! Get working on it. If not, don’t sweat it. Focus on what matters, not on the flavor of the moment, no matter how many consultants and tech bloggers come to you carrying buckets of freshly brewed Koolaid.

Now stop reading blogs and go kick ass. Cheers.

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Filed under Opinion.

I want to share a head scratching moment with you for a sec. See if you can figure out what’s going on over at Ferrero (the makers of my beloved Nutella).

First, this article/press release found in The Drum from 6 November 2011:

Ferrero is to launch a £6m campaign to promote both flagship brand Ferrero Rocher and the Ferrero Collection.

The 30 second ad, by RKCR/Y&R will launch today (6 November) during Downton Abbey on ITV1, with a second standalone film also set to launch on 21 November.

Entitled ‘Food of the Gods’ the new campaign aims to change consumer attitudes to the brand, to make its range more social, having established the brand as one of quality for special occasions.

> UPDATE (11/30/11): A Ferrero representative contacted me today to let me know that the above statement (“Entitled ‘food of the Gods'”) was removed from the article published by The Drum. The email suggests that The Drum made an error in regards to the campaign’s name. This change affects certain elements of this post as it was written before the change.

Both campaigns will run until Christmas.

Mauro de Felip, marketing director for Ferrero, said: “The launch of these new creative advertising campaigns provides us with an excellent platform to exhibit our market leadership in special sharing and gifting. Both creatives capture the ‘new’ special that is relevant to consumers, and demonstrates our ability as a business to adapt to current market conditions and understand shifting consumer attitudes.”   (Source.)

Let that soak in for a minute.

Now… I am a very big fan of Ferrero, and have been since childhood. As a little French boy, I remember their ads, I was raised on their products (my allowance went almost exclusively to Kinder Surprise eggs for many years), and if you have been following this blog and its twitter feed for the last few years, you know how much I dig Nutella – one of Ferrero’s signature products/brands. So you can be assured that I am not writing this post to bash the company or throw them under the bus. I want them to do well. In fact, I want them to do VERY well. Perhaps that is why I notice their mistakes more than  mistakes made by companies I don’t really care about: As much as it sucks to see companies do the wrong thing over and over again when you don’t care of they succeed or fail, it is terribly frustrating to watch a company you actually care come off the tracks again and again and again.

Okay. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, read Mauro de Felip’s statement again and let’s look at some of the things keeping Ferrero from being a lot more successful than it already is.

Note: If you are in a hurry, skip 1-4 and go straight to 5 and 6.

Error 1: Brand Identity Disorder.

The folks at Ferrero still think Rocher needs to be  a luxury or prestige brand.

Let’s think about what qualities are innate to luxury brands: One is price. The other is exclusivity. You can’t just go to your local CarMax and buy a Bentley. Target doesn’t carry Cartier timepieces. K-Mart doesn’t have a Gucci section.  The bakery at Publix, BiLo or Piggly Wiggly doesn’t sell Lenôtre confections.

See where I am going with this? Luxury brands don’t place their products in convenience stores and grimy old grocery stores. Where do I find Ferrero’s products? In the case of Nutella, between the peanut butter and the grape jam squeeze bottles. In the case of Rocher (the gold-wrapped nutty chocolate balls Ferrero considers ), somewhere between the beef jerky and the nail clippers, right by the cash register, or in the chocolate aisle at your local CVS.

Ferrero Rocher is no more a prestige brand than Toblerone. The emphasis of their marketing should be on letting consumers feel like treating themselves to something delicious (and as often as possible) rather than making them feel like they only deserve to enjoy them mostly on special occasions, or when they can afford to spend more on chocolate products than they really want to.

The lesson here is that when you position your product as a luxury product (especially when it isn’t), you screw yourself in 3 ways:

1. You create a socioeconomic disconnect between your market and your product. People can’t relate to it as well as they might a more “down to earth” alternative. That creates a barrier between your product and your market. Your job is to break down barriers between your products and your customers, not erect them.

2. Because your premium pricing can’t bridge the gap between image and actual value, it teaches consumers to look for more budget friendly alternatives. In other words, it makes them buy from the competition instead of from you. This is how you guarantee that your market share will remain stalled for years.

3. Even if your pricing is competitive, too much of an emphasis on building a premium image will give consumers the wrong impression. If consumers believe – before they even walk into a store – that they can’t justify the expense of buying your product, they will stick to more budget-friendly alternatives.  This is how you ensure that your consumers’ buy-rate will never increase.

Error 2: Chasing very bad assumptions.

Someone at Ferrero Rocher still seems to think that people feel better about themselves when they spend more money on chocolate than the average consumer. This is true of some consumers IF you are a boutique chocolatier or confectionary, but the moment you a) begin selling your products alongside commodity products in everyday grocery stores and b) try to appeal to the average consumer rather than an exclusive clientele, you’re in the weeds with that theory.

There was a time when it was cool to blow cash on flashy sports cars, mansions and champagne breakfasts just to show off. Here’s the problem: The 80’s are long gone. The average consumer is looking to satisfy a need for the best price possible. Strangely though, Ferrero Rocher ads are still clinging to the same outdated narrative as if the 80’s were still going strong. Only now, we have moved Rocher from the manor house to the outer reaches of Mount Olympus.

Here is a dose of reality the folks at Ferrero probably need to hear: Nobody cares that you are serving mounds of Ferrero Rocher at your house parties, just like the fantasy millionaire models in all of their commercials. It’s a chocolate and nut ball you grabbed at the local Walgreen’s, not caviar from Caspian Sea belugas.

This outdated world view has to be hurting the Ferrero business, especially in a market like the United States, where 99% of consumers look for value and flavor rather than the notion that a chocolate treat will make them look or feel like a billionaire.

As for that billionaire market, the 0.o1%, how many boxes of Ferrero Rocher is it really buying?

Ferrero should be focusing on fighting for relevance and wallet share rather than perpetuating an image that is no longer relevant in today’s world.

I am struck by Mr. de Felip’s admission that the company wants to change perceptions about the brand. That’s terrific. If Mr. de Felip has any hopes of changing perceptions, increasing both market share and boosting monthly sales volume (objective indicators of that change), he and his team need to drop their internal assumptions, go out into the world, and look very closely at how they position the brand from the perspective of 2011 consumers.

Error 3: Holding on to outdated business dogma.

Because it has always been strong for them, the folks at Ferrero Rocher still think the Christmas season is the key to boosting sales. Even today, Ferrero Rocher still places its bets on Christmas season campaigns.

Here’s the problem: Teaching consumers that your product is a seasonal treat is the best way to make sure they won’t think about you for the other 11 months of the year.

The term you are looking for is strategic myopia.

Fortunately, this is an easy fix. Even if Ferrero executives aren’t yet ready to focus on boosting sales for Rocher year round, other holidays can help spread the sales load to all fourquarters instead of just one: How does Ferrero leverage chocolate-rich holidays like Easter, Halloween, Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day? Not well, if at all. My question is why? Time to spread the advertising budget to other holidays and look for alternatives in terms of consumer engagement. (If only someone were to invent digital social networks where consumer communities could be… oh, never mind.)

As for the other 7 months of the year, it isn’t so hard either. With Rocher being pretty much everywhere now, the problem isn’t one of availability or distribution. So what is it?

The answer might be found in the context of the brand’s narrative. It is still so deeply rooted in the Christmas season that Ferrero is simply not top of mind for consumers at any other time during the year.

Think of this process as an internal Google search. When you think about Easter in the US, you think Cadbury eggs and Peeps. Valentine’s Day: Russel Stover, maybe even M&Ms. Halloween: Reese’s, Kit-Kat, Snicker’s, M&M’s again, etc. If Rocher is not top of mind, your marketing isn’t working. It’s that simple.

Shifting to year-round relevance wouldn’t suck. What’s strange is Ferrero already knows how to do this with their other brands: Nutella, Kinder, and the ubiquitous Tic-Tac. Why not do it with Rocher as well?

Error 4: Thinking that buzzwords and wishful thinking will save you.

Ferrero Rocher doesn’t need to “make its range more social.” It just needs to actually connect with its market. I am referring to this:

Entitled ‘Food of the Gods’ the new campaign aims to change consumer attitudes to the brand, to make its range more social, having established the brand as one of quality for special occasions.

Both campaigns will run until Christmas.

I have no idea what that first sentence is supposed to mean, so let me try to paraphrase it. Here we go:

Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah social blah blah blah blah blah blah.

Ferrero, let me share a few very important market insights with you:

1. Just because you use the word “social” in a sentence or attach it to a campaign doesn’t mean anything you are doing is actually social. Say no to buzzwords. If indeed you have something social to offer your consumers, great. If not, don’t pretend you do.

2. Nobody cares how much money you blew on your upscale advertising campaign. This is especially true now, during a global recession. People are too savvy to be impressed by that, and far too cynical right now to find it charming.

3. The gods of Olympus don’t make your brand narrative more social. In fact, they do the exact opposite: How much more exclusive can you get than the gods up on their mountain, looking down on us mortals? Are the gods not the prefect metaphor for the super rich? At a time when income inequality in Europe and the US is at its highest, when movements like #OccupyWallStreet illustrate a growing disdain for the super wealthy, is it really intelligent to align your brand with that 0.01% of the population that the other 99.9% isn’t all that happy with? (Especially if your market is that 99.9%.) More to the point, can someone explain to me how the penultimate aura of exclusivity embodied by Mount Olympus makes a brand’s range “more social?”

4. You don’t have to be a trained Jungian analyst to understand that Ferrero Rocher’s ads are 100% about ego projection. They have nothing to do with the reality of the market, which is to say the experiences of the consumers they aim to influence. Whomever is signing off on these ads and the direction of the brand’s marketing might consider walking out of the palace gates, coming down from the mountain and hanging out with average mortals, if only for a few days. A recalibration might be in order. These choices are not happening in a vacuum. Someone’s ego is driving this trainwreck.

Back to the “social” thing: Being “social” is not the end game. Connecting with your audience, with your market, with the people who will make you part of their lives for the next 50+ years, THAT is the goal. Focus on creating that connection.

Making a brand’s “range more social” means nothing and accomplishes even less. Buzzwords can’t take the place of results.

Error 5: Believing your own spin.

Denial cripples brands and erodes their relevance with every passing day.

“The launch of these new creative advertising campaigns provides us with an excellent platform to exhibit our market leadership in special sharing and gifting. Both creatives capture the ‘new’ special that is relevant to consumers, and demonstrates our ability as a business to adapt to current market conditions and understand shifting consumer attitudes.”

No.

– Advertising campaigns don’t provide brands with a platform to exhibit market leadership. They’re ads, not annual reports. Market leadership is exhibited by numbers. If you really want to talk about market leadership, let’s see the numbers. What makes you a market leader? What does that mean?

– There is no “new special,” and even it there were, it can’t be “relevant to consumers” if those consumers have no idea what it is or what it means. If you really want to talk about the “new special,” it has to be understood by the market. It has to be real. It can’t just be the product of an internal memo.

– Spending £6,000,000 on an ad campaign in 2011 doesn’t demonstrate a company’s ability to “adapt to current market conditions and understand shifting consumer attitudes.” In fact, it demonstrates the exact opposite.

But none of what we have talked about so far is as tragic as my next point:

Error 6: Allowing bullshit to pile up in your front yard.

New is new. New is not old. When a concept has been at the core of an ad campaign for 4+ years, it cannot be refered to as “new.”

Here is the quote again:

“Entitled ‘Food of the Gods’ the new campaign aims to change consumer attitudes to the brand, to make its range more social, having established the brand as one of quality for special occasions.”

“The launch of these new creative advertising campaigns […]. Both creatives capture the ‘new’ special that is relevant to consumers, and demonstrates our ability as a business to adapt to current market conditions and understand shifting consumer attitudes.”

So the assumption here, or the message being conveyed by Ferrero, is that the brand is doing something new with these ads. They are “new campaigns” with “new creative” that aim to capture the “new special” and change consumer attitudes. One might expect, then, that these ads would be nothing like Ferrero’s previous ads. Right?

Let’s see what Ferrero’s ads looked like in 2010:

(If the video doesn’t play, go watch it here.)

Wait a second… Aren’t those… gods? Isn’t the ad about Ferrero Rocher being the food of the gods? Wasn’t the ad campaign actually called “Food of the Gods?”

I’m confused. What’s so new about this year’s campaign then?

Here is another one, also from 2010, which features not only the gods but mythological hero Ulysses:

(If the video doesn’t play, go watch it here.)

Okay. Let’s go back a little further. Maybe that was just a glitch. Here is a 2007 TV ad from Ferrero:

(If the video doesn’t play, go watch it here.)

#Facepalm

I really want to ignore the fact that this 2007 ad is about the gods of Olympus inviting their “Nordic cousins” (Norse gods AND Mr. Santa Claus himself) to share with them their “Food of the Gods”. I really do. I really, really, really do.

Now you see why I find myself scratching my head at what Mr. de Felip is talking about:

What precisely is “new” about this £6,000,000 ad campaign?

How will using the same narrative and imagery (the Gods of Olympus) that have been used since 2007 somehow “change” consumer perceptions or give the brand a more “social range?”

The myth you might be searching for is The Emperor’s New Clothes.

If nobody cares, nobody cares. But… what if someone actually cares?

No matter how off-target a company’s ads may be, no matter how poorly devised that company’s product positioning or how outdated its brand narrative may be, no matter how disconnected from reality its marketing executives may be, a good product is still a good product. Ferrero Rocher is pretty tasty, and Nutella is simply one of the most delicious chocolate-related products on the face of the Earth.

Those of us who have already discovered these products and love them won’t stop buying them just because their advertising misses the mark or the company’s marketing executives spout nonsense at journalists through their PR teams. We will continue to recommend them and help other consumers discover them. So… does any of it matter?

Yes, but only if someone at a company like Ferrero wants to become the market leader they claim to be. Only if someone there wants to see high double-digit growth in sales, an acceleration in market penetration and a real, concrete, sticky increase in market share.

If the powers that be at Ferrero are truly happy with the company’s performance as it stands, then this is all moot. If that were the case though, would Ferrero blow £6 million on an ad campaign whose aim is to “change” consumer perceptions? That tells me that somewhere at Ferrero, someone cares. That’s good.

Ferrero vs.  Apple by the numbers: The importance of relevance.

Now, with €6.6 billion in global sales in 2010 (an increase of 4.3% over 2009), the Ferrero group as a whole is doing extremely well. But I want to throw a couple of quick questions at the Ferrero folks:

1. If the Rocher brand were managed better, could that €6.6 billion look more like €8 billion? Wouldn’t that be better?

2. Strong balance sheets aside, is 4.3% YoY growth for the entire group really all that stellar?

Every company I have ever worked for would have fired me if I allowed my growth numbers to drop that low. The most anemic of  my employers limped along at 6% growth YoY before they hired me out of desperation. 6% YoY growth was considered horrible.

Much to my chagrin, the jump from 11% to 14% I managed in my first year at another company still wasn’t enough to uncork the champagne in the CEO’s office, even though they had been stuck at 11% for half a decade.

It has always seemed to me that somewhere between 18% and 20% was the magic YoY growth figure for most executives and investors. I certainly never received any significant accolades if my numbers fell below 16% YoY growth.

Here’s a sobering little bit of insight: Most years, 4.3% barely keeps up with inflation.

For some context, let’s compare Ferrero’s 4.3% YoY growth for 2010 to Apple’s numbers for the same period:

87.2% YoY growth for iPhone and 24% for Mac.

Granted, using the incredible 87.2% YoY growth figure for iPhone might be a little unfair since the product is fairly new and cool and relevant, but… that is precisely why it matters: iPhone is exciting and relevant. Rocher no longer is, for the reasons outlined in this post. 87% growth vs. 4% growth. The numbers don’t lie. Ferrero needs to take a long look at their business and be realistic about what is happening to it.

But okay. To be kind, let’s instead compare Rocher to Mac, since the product was launched in the 1980’s, which was Ferrero’s heyday:

In an economic downturn, Mac is still seeing 24% YoY growth. Ferrero is only seeing 4.3% YoY growth.

What is going on?

Ferrero vs. Hershey by the numbers: Why Ferrero should be seeing double-digit growth.

If you feel that comparing a candy/chocolate company to a technology company isn’t fair, fine. Compare Ferrero’s growth to Hershey’s for 2010, and what you will find is a near stalemate:

Hershey’s 2010 YoY growth was 7% (source, source).

Ferrero’s 2010 YoY growth was 4.3% (source)

Now consider that Hershey is a far more established brand than Ferrero, especially in the US. Let me illustrate:

Ferrero owns Nutella, Rocher, Kinder and Tic-Tac.

Hershey owns… well, all of the Hershey bars, Hershey syrup, Hershey’s Kisses, Twizzlers, Reese’s, Kit-Kat, Almond Joy, Mounds and Ice-Breakers mints.

When was the last time you bought or enjoyed a Hershey product?

When was the last time you bought or enjoyed a Ferrero product?

What does this illustrate? An enormous gap in market penetration and market maturity between Hershey and Ferrero, at least in the US. As an established brand, Hershey’s market is relatively saturated. People already buy Hershey products regularly. EVERYONE has heard of and tried Reese’s, Kit-Kats and Hershey’s Kisses. How do you squeeze 20% growth out of a fully penetrated, mature market? With a lot of ingenuity. (Probably more emphasis on Frequency and Yield than customer acquisition.)  I am amazed (as in impressed) that Hershey still manages to score 7% YoY growth, honestly. Someone over there deserves to be paid some big bucks.

Ferrero, on the other hand doesn’t have Hershey’s problem: Nutella, Rocher and Kinder are outliers in the US market. They haven’t really been discovered or adopted by the average American. Only Tic-Tac has seen real penetration. Ferrero still hasn’t connected with that market. Unlike Hershey, which finds itself forced to focus more on influencing buy rate and yield, Ferrero can focus on not only buy rate and yield but good old customer acquisition. The market is wide open for its products to be discovered, adopted and shared by delighted consumers. Once customer acquisition is in full swing,  it becomes a question of positioning products so consumers buy more of them and more often. Addressing the 6 mistakes outlined in this post would certainly be a good way to get things back on track.

If Hershey can manage 7% YoY growth with virtually no new markets to conquer or customers to acquire, surely Ferrero should be able to see double-digit growth in markets where most consumers are not yet their customers.

4.3% growth is indicative of one thing: A company running out of ideas and losing touch with its market. Time for a reboot.

PS: Start with the basics.

Here’s a little bit of analyst insight – based on the numbers rather than internal “brand-driven” assumptions – that Ferrero needs to pay attention to:

“Despite economic woes, Hershey sustained its top-line momentum with consumers preferring moderately priced candies compared to premium ones.” (source)

Ferrero, here’s hoping that you will start turning it around in 2012.

All the best,

A  fan.

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Can Apple survive without Steve Jobs? Will Apple’s stock bounce back? Is this the end of innovation and genius at Apple?

Who gives a shit. Companies come and go. Innovation still happens. If Apple falls apart a decade from now (and it would take at least that long for that to happen), another company will take its place. Maybe a Sony. Maybe an LG. Maybe a company some kid working out of his parents’ garage half a world away will start a year from now with some friends. And maybe in twenty years, Apple will still be the innovation juggernaut it is today, the game-changer, the company that year after year, manages to both redefine and advance the way human beings interface with technology.

So who gives a shit. Really. There’s something bigger here than the race to predict Apple’s future and write this week’s definitive article on Steve Jobs, and it’s this: Steve Jobs. The human being. The husband. The father. The friend.

Maybe you’re worried iPhone 5 and iPad 3 won’t come as fast or be designed as well as their predecessors. Well, maybe it isn’t really about you and that fancy little piece of technology that you think makes you the coolest kid in the coffee shop. Maybe there is more to Steve Jobs than being CEO of Apple. Maybe this is really just about a guy fighting for his life.

If Steve were my son, my father, my brother, my best friend, I would trade Apple and all of its success and revenue a thousand times over if it meant saving his life. No hesitation. Not even a hint of it. You can always rebuild a business, start over, change the world again. People though, when they’re gone, they’re gone.

So can Apple survive without Steve Jobs? Who gives a shit. It’s a selfish question. Get over it. The baker is dying and we’re sitting around wondering if his apprentice’s croissants will be as delicious? Seriously? Forgive me, but that seems a little cold, doesn’t it? We can do better.

So today, this week, next month, I won’t sit here and add to the fray of discussions and opinion pieces regarding Apple, the future of the company or the evolution of the brand post-Steve Jobs. There’s no need, and I don’t need the traffic that badly. Will I write about Apple again? You bet. Will I dig into Apple’s universe for insights into brand management, the importance of design, leadership lessons, the importance of vision and a million other topics? Of course. I just won’t do it now. Not under these circumstances.

Mr. Jobs, sending good vibes your way, sir. Beat this thing.

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If, like me, you are watching Google+ fever spread across the twitternets with a mixture of bemused fascination and eye-rolling annoyance, read on.

If, however, you have jumped heart and soul onto the Google+ bandwagon, gorged yourself on its koolaid with such gusto that your sweat now tastes Googlicious, and think Google+ would make a fine spouse were you able to marry a digital platform… read on.

Based on some of the questions I have been asked repeatedly these last few weeks, here are 8+ things you probably should know about Google+:

1. Will Google+ change the world or the internet?

No. Google+ will not change the world. Or the internet. But if it scales, it might help Google buy a lot of really big yachts, really fast private jets, small countries whose names end with “-Stan,” and install a few hundred thousand solid gold toilets in its offices and server farms around the world.

2. Will Google+ kill Facebook?

No one really knows. I suppose it could, but the odds are not in Google+ killing anything anytime soon. If it does, it will be to some degree related to Facebook’s inability to compete both as a social network and as viable revenue model and not because Google+ is particularly awesome or groundbreaking.

Pros:

_ Facebook needs to stop antagonizing people (privacy concerns are still a major Achilles’ heel for Facebook, for starters). Love = loyalty. No love = well, you know.

_ Facebook’s functionality is still very limited. It doesn’t really plug into productivity and collaboration tools, and this is a problem as users (consumers) increasingly look for seamless integration of word processors, email, video conferencing, VOIP, calendars, mobility, spreadsheets with their social platforms.  The simplicity of Facebook’s design and the limited amount of customizability that helped it compete against MySpace (and win) may also bring about its own undoing now that digital platforms have matured.

_ Facebook lives in a fairly closed and limited search ecosystem. What this means is that its advertising revenue model is also rather limited compared to what Google is trying to build. Facebook has kind of backed itself in a corner with its model while Google has a lot of breathing room. That gives Google an enormous strategic advantage. (It does not, however, mean it will succeed in doing anything with it.)

_ Speaking of search, it is a lot easier for Google to build and scale a social network than it is for Facebook to build and scale a search engine. And moving forward, you kind of need both to win. (Or at least a model that incorporates rich, real-time consumer data and massive reach.)

_ Facebook is the biggest fish in the pond because it is pretty much the only fish in the pond. It’s the default winner. That isn’t a good long term survival strategy. After all, what is the cost of jumping ship? $0. These platforms are free. Social equity can be both moved and rebuilt pretty easily. Can Facebook stand up to a better, cooler alternative?

So basically, Facebook needs to adapt very quickly in order to stay relevant. Size alone won’t carry its dominance forever.

Cons:

_ Facebook is huge. HUGE. As a social platform, Google+ has an enormous challenge in scaling to size. It has to do it, and it has to do it fast unless it wants to become the Yahoo of social networks. Without scale, Google+ is just a nice little productivity interface, and the only company it will be competing against is Microsoft, not Facebook.

_ Google+ isn’t sexy. Sorry Google+, but you kind of look like crap. Remember that you aren’t just after middle-aged computer nerds, bloggers, social media “gurus” and… well, yeah, what I said: computer nerds. The rest of the world has to want to use you too.

_ Google+ isn’t compelling enough for most people outside of the nerdy middle to want to bother with it yet. Facebook may be annoying, but it’s familiar, everyone is already there, and the effort of having to leave it and start over isn’t being driven by excitement or necessity. (It has to be one or the other in order to enjoy any kind of velocity.) What’s missing in Google+ right now is a compelling reason for people to want to make the effort (and take the risk) of making the switch. For most people around the world, it is missing the compelling “why.” (“It’s new” won’t ever be enough. After 5 months, when the tech bloggers get bored of talking about it and move on to the next Quora or Empire Avenue or Spotify, what will drive an accelerated adoption?)

_ Google Wave and Google Buzz were going to revolutionize the interwebs too. Ooops. Sure, Google does search VERY well, but that doesn’t mean it will do anything else well, even in the pursuit of taking search to the next level.

_ Google and Plus will have to deal with the same privacy concerns Facebook did. Perhaps more so. You don’t have to be the most trustworthy company to win. You just need to be less shady and risky than everyone else. If Google finds itself at the center of enough privacy concern discussions, Facebook might come out the lesser of the two evils. “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” is a pretty important element when dealing with an adoption campaign. If Facebook begins to feel threatened, expect this topic to magically surface at regular intervals.

In other words, it could go either way. Facebook and Google+ have their own sets of strengths and weaknesses.

3. Is Google+ really the “Blue Ocean” product some tech writers claim it is?

No. Google+ is simply Google building a better data acquisition mousetrap and advertising delivery pipeline. It is Google’s natural evolution. Let’s quickly look at that in more detail.

Data acquisition: Seeing the majority of search queries isn’t enough. Google also wants to be able to see what Facebook sees, what Twitter sees, what Foursquare sees. Not only that, but it wants to own that data. It wants to be able to understand and profile consumers better based not only on their searches and the content of their emails, but also on the types of conversations they have, on the content they share, who they share it with, where they hang out, etc. This paints a far more granular (see “complete”) model for consumer tastes and behaviors, which allows Google to better target them with ads.

And yes, selling ads is how Google makes a chunk of its money.

Advertising pipeline: In the same light, Google has looked at how much time people spend on Facebook and did the math. If they can build a platform that will attract as many eyeballs as Facebook and for as many minutes (even hours) per day, it will be able to sell a lot more ads.

This isn’t “Blue Ocean.” It’s just the evolution of an existing model.

And yes, if it pulls it off, Google will pretty much own the web.

If.

Everything else you hear about how awesome and cool and functional Google+ is, is basically window dressing. If you want to get to the heart of what Google+ is really about, this is it: Data, eyeballs, behavioral modeling, better targeting, ownership of advertising revenue on the web.

4. What about Microsoft?

Google+ seems to me a bigger threat to Microsoft than to Facebook right now. Think about how Google has gone after Microsoft Office and Outlook. Think about what Chrome is doing to Explorer. Now bring the Google+ interface into the mix and see how Google’s productivity tools offer a compelling, very well integrated alternative to Microsoft’s aging core products. If you have been paying attention these last few years, you have probably watched as Google has been systematically working to erode Microsoft’s market share, one product at a time. Now Google+ promises to give collaboration and productivity a forward boost. What is Microsoft’s answer?

Here’s the irony though: Microsoft’s R&D people are 5-10 years ahead of everyone else in their ideation and prototyping, but the company still refuses to bring its coolest product ideas to market. Google and Apple are where they are today in great part because Microsoft chose to pass on projects it figured it could always get back to someday. Its weakness has never been technical. It also hasn’t been due to a lack of imagination or access to talent. It is purely cultural. If Microsoft is going to be a contender in anything except gaming (XBox) five years from now, the aging giant needs to change its approach to product development, product diversification, and it needs to work faster. And for that, it has to step away from itself and realize that not fully understanding who you are as a brand, as a company – in other words, having a static vision of yourself – kind of gets in the way of being a market leader. I am rooting for Microsoft, but something has to change. Microsoft simply has to start thinking bigger. In a way, Microsoft has to unMicrosoft itself in order to move forward.

5. What about Twitter?

What about Twitter? It is still evolving and growing. Unless Google builds a solid substitute for Twitter that plugs into its little universe and it all scales really well, Twitter will be fine for a little while longer.

6. What about Amazon?

Amazon has a history of partnering with Google (1)(2)(3) and it makes a lot of cash. Amazon is fine with or without Google+, but yeah, if Google+ scales, Amazon won’t be hurting for chewing gum money.

7. What about LinkedIn?

If Facebook didn’t kill LinkedIn, chances are that Google+ won’t either, even if it becomes the Goliath of the interwebs.

8. What else should we know?

For starters, you should know how to get started with Google+. Whether Google+ is the next big thing or the next big flop, these handy videos by Chris Brogan will help you get started with the new platform and find out for yourself what the big deal is about. And if that isn’t enough, check out Mashable’s complete (and very handy) guide. If you love Google+, great. If you don’t like it, great. The world spins on either way.

Beyond that, I caution you against drinking anyone’s koolaid. Shiny object syndrome is a major source of noise on the web these days. Tech bloggers make a good living creating content on their blogs with the purpose of attracting as much traffic as possible in order to make as much advertising revenue as possible (and catch the eye of larger media outlets like Mashable, CNN, etc.) So every tech story they can get their hands on has the potential of earning them stacks of cash. The incentive then isn’t to truly analyze or report (or even wait and see), but to sensationalize every new platform release, from Quora to Google Buzz. There is nothing wrong with it, but just be aware of how the web “thought leadership” and content curation bubbles work. A lot of noise doesn’t mean a whole lot except a feeding frenzy of web traffic and incremental revenue. Right now, Google+ is the big story. A while ago, Google Wave was too. Don’t fall for the link-bait.

No one can predict the success of a digital platform. No one. Google+ could be the coolest thing in the world and yet never go anywhere.

Apps moving the the cloud is nothing new. SaaS (Software as a Service) is nothing new. Digital social networking platforms are nothing new. Integration of productivity and collaboration tools is nothing new. Will Google+ do it better? Maybe. Maybe not. We’ll see. maybe all Google+ will manage to do is inspire another company to build something that blows everyone out of the water and truly revolutionizes the web and computing. Google+ may simply be a milestone in a fast and long technical evolution. A footnote. A catalyst. No matter what happens, Google+ will be replaced by something else eventually. Maybe in 6 months, maybe in 6 years, but this is inevitable. So stay adaptable and flexible, and don’t get too attached.

If you want to leave Facebook and put all of your eggs in the Google+ basket, that’s fine. No one says you can’t try out Google+ and stay on Facebook as well. There is no need to take sides. You can own a Mac and a PC too without tearing a hole into the space-time continuum. You can like tea and coffee, paper and plastic, surf and turf, Lady Gaga and Mozart. Don’t make Google+ (or any social or digital platform) into a religion. Do you think the first people who tasted Pizza stopped eating spaghetti? Did headlines in the newspapers read “Pizza: The Spaghetti killer?” Did people wear buttons on their lapels at social events reading “I’ve switched to Pizza?” A little perspective goes a long way.

If you want to wait 3 or 6 or 12 months before jumping into the Google+ universe, nothing says you can’t. There’s no rush. Ease into it at your own pace. In the meantime, people will still be able to reach you by email, through Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn, or even by sending you good old hand-written postcards – you know, with stamps.

I hope this helped. Cheers.

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