This week Apple, in another of the unexpected moves that has made this company famous, bumped up salaries for employees in their retail stores as much as 25 percent. The raises are based on worker performance reviews held earlier this year, and come as no surprise to anyone who has stepped into any of the over 350 Apple stores around the world.
“While our stores are fantastic and our products are amazing, it really is our people who make the difference in creating the best retail experience,” Apple’s new retail chief John Browett declared when he took the stage in April.
It is to those 36,000 employees’ credit that the Apple experience is uniformly high no matter if you step into a store in Munich or Manhattan. Like Apple products, Apple staff are people friendly. They actually know (and care about) what they’re talking about—or they’ll find someone who does. All of which contributes to making Apple’s face-to-face time a largely positive experience, and makes their stores the highest-performing retail spaces in the world.
Congratulations to Browett for taking charge and giving credit—and raises—where they are due.
Dominos, the global pizza chain based in Ann Arbor, has also been making changes since its 2008 brand relaunch. Serving a wildly divergent audience spanning 16 countries and a consumer market aged from 19 to 65, the company realized several years ago that while they were the experts in delivery, their product perception was low, service was low and, since they delivered the pizza to your door, a retail experience was nonexistent.
Time for a change.
“We wanted our brand to stand not just for great delivery, but also for great product,” says spokesperson Chris Brandon. “We did a lot of listening to consumers, a lot of testing.”
Today, about 85% of the pizza chain’s menu consists of new and revamped menu items, and Dominos has evolved to become the number one pizza chain in the USA. That means a lot of people are experiencing Dominos for the first time. And whereas in the old “dial and delivery” days you might not know where your Dominos was located, today about one third of Dominos sales is on-premise. That requires more rethinking.
“We didn’t really have an ambiance in our stores that was customer friendly because we were so focused on delivery,” says Brandon. “Today, more people are interacting with our customers rather than [just] the guy who shows up at your door.”
So the company is looking at customer service as well as new store concepts in places like Las Vegas.
It has been instrumental for Dominos to promote those efforts to franchisees. In May of this year, the company invited 4600 people from 56 markets around the world to rally in Las Vegas for a 3-day meeting to drill their strategy down: better pizza, new menu, and now great experiences.
“One of the things that Dominos does extremely well is create a ‘red thread’—a continuity piece, that brings everyone in the organization together with the brand or experience,” says Scott Cullather, Managing Partner of inVNT, a brand events company that helps the pizza chain. “That red thread carries through from the highest levels of Dominos all the way to the customer. Many organizations fail at getting the entire org aligned.”
This year, intent on improving customer service, the team developed the rallying cry “Creating Smiles”. And Dominos took the theme seriously.
In addition to business updates, Manager Of The Year presentations, and corporate fluff, the first day was devoted to a 4-hour training session that schooled all 4600 attendees on how to create smiles. As attendees shuffled between seventeen rooms for 45-minute hands-on sessions, they realized they were part of the company’s biggest training session ever.
“It all adds up to us creating smiles for our customers,” reiterates Chris Brandon. “What’s cool about our international audience is that they like hearing about what we’re doing in the USA. We all want to be the best product, the best delivery, and the best service. International groups get into it, and see how [what we’re doing] best fits into what they’re doing. We’re a global company, but we keep it pretty simple.”
Another company creating smiles these days is Delta Airlines. Having survived plucking Northwest Airlines out of bankruptcy, Delta today is flying high.
Delta spends hundreds of millions each year across the board to promote online services, decrease the number of lost bags, revitalize its JFK terminal, and stay relevant for today’s traveler.
This week Heardable, the analytics standard for measuring online brand performance, released its Top 10 Airlines in North America report, to announce that Delta beat out rivals United and American for the second year in a row.
"Not only have they finished #1 in two consecutive reports profiling the effectiveness of the airline industry,” says Jon Samsel, co-founder and CEO of Heardable, Inc., “but they've managed to make their brand synonymous with a quality online experience—which requires a spirit of listening and a knack for delivering.”
Delta Airlines is rooted in Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, is continually providing WiFi access on more and more planes in-flight, and is spending $1.2 billion to upgrade its presence at JFK in New York City. Even its online system for buying tickets (and then changing them) is fine-tuned to perfection.
Because that’s what flyers want.
The airline has even set up a social media customer service standard by promising to answer all tweets within 10 minutes on average. Which takes on-time arrivals to a whole new place.
"Delta Air Lines has done a phenomenal job over the last couple of years of bolstering their product and service", says Shashank Nigam, CEO of SimpliFlying, a leading aviation brand strategy firm. "All of their domestic flights now offer wi-fi and they've extended their red coats concierge service to more airports. Moreover, they have set the standard in customer service through their social media on Twitter and elsewhere. Such investment in improving customer experience quality will bring them dividends in good times and bad."
Perhaps best of all, Delta flight attendants have undergone a transformation. Instead of grumpy to downright surly flight attendants, Delta personnel (for the time being anyway) understand that smiles—and saying 'thank you', cost nothing. And while this may be a fleeting pay-it-forward moment, it works.
U.S. traffic for Delta is improving, and the airline announced Tuesday that its passenger revenue increased 8 percent last month.
Listening to what consumers want rather than relying only on what you can provide is, of course, the core of consumer marketing and design thinking. Rather than hunkering down, spread the joy. Improve not only services, but consumer experiences and provide a continuity thread of corporate purpose that attracts every employee to the higher mission. Banish lackluster drone-like behavior—in today's online world, face time with brand enthusiasts is good as gold. Do not squander it. Rewarding employees for exemplary participation in that mission—as Apple demonstrated this week, is also key. After all, making more money in the face of a stumbling economy is what everyone is looking for.
Last week at Wired magazine’s "Disruptive By Design" conference, Sir James Dyson responded to the question, Does product make the brand, or does brand make the product? by declaring that the word “Brand” was the only word banned at the Dyson Company.
"We're only as good as our latest product,” explained Sir James. “I don't believe in brand at all."
A remarkable comment from someone who has stood in front of a camera for the last decade or more on behalf of creating his own eponymous brand of vacuum cleaners, and spending millions in the process.
Perhaps Sir Dyson is confused about what “brand” or “branding” really means, the term being a dumping ground for so many things: corporate identity programs, tricky advertising, the nexus of corporate manipulation and so on.
But brands are really communities of people who share approximately the same values and like to feel they belong together. These are the so-called affinity brands. Who are they? All those people who line up on the street to buy the latest iPhone (or line up online for the new iPad). Mini Cooper drivers who nod to one another at stoplights. Starbucks drinkers who stop each other on the sidewalk to ask where is the nearest Starbucks. Toyota off-road enthusiasts who blog each other about the best off-road trails, Nike runners who seek the best running routes from their hotel, designers who meet at design conferences. And so forth.
People like brands and like the feeling of being part of a collective experience, even if they don’t think of it as such. This sense of belonging is what successful brands are all about. And brands that people care about have a collection of elements that help drive that brand experience.
So perhaps Sir James’s confusion stems from the fact he doesn’t think his products add up to a brand that people care about. Let’s check off the boxes.
As many already know, powerful brands have a story about their origin. In Dyson’s case, the story is not about two guys working in a garage like Apple, but it’s close. Dyson visited a local sawmill and noticed how large cyclones removed sawdust from the air. He has even memorialized the event in film. So, check.
Powerful brands have icons. Dyson vacuums have that iconic yellow color that makes them look childishly simple. Some have a roller ball to help them work corners more easily. They have transparent plastic holding cells that do not conceal the yucky dirt they remove. Instead, they celebrate their hard work, and show us how much dirt we’ve been living in, reminding how much they benefit us. Even Dyson himself has become an icon, as he stands face toward camera in television commercial after television commercial accenting his ingenuity and common sense engineering--reasons why we should pay hundreds of dollars more for his products.
Powerful brands have rituals. Much as Starbucks changed how we have coffee in the morning, and Ikea has changed how we interact with newly-purchased furniture, Dyson has changed the ritual of how we interact with our vacuum by handing us one that can be snapped together (or unsnapped) much like Lego blocks. The rollerball changes the way we move across the floor. The quick-open canister lets us dump right into the garbage can, rather than unleashing those nasty vacuum bags. And if you really want to get into it, there's the ritual of innovation--and creating 5,127 prototypes, and more innovation.
Rituals? Dyson has them.
Powerful brands also have their own lexicon. That’s not a coffee, it’s an iced grande skinny decaf latte. There's the Dyson cyclone, cylinder ball, radial root cyclone technology, triggerhead floor tool, turbine tool, Airmuscle™, Ball™ technology, Musclehead™, airblade technology. Words.
Power brands also have a group that is their opposite: the nonbelievers. Think burger wars, cola wars, Republicans versus Democrats. Mac vs. PC. Dyson himself has told us who they are. They are the old, annoying ways of doing things with vacuums, hand dryers, and so forth. Okay, check.
Brands also have a creed. Not a mission statement, but a snappy few words that tell us what they're about. Dyson is horribly straightforward on this. Lines like, “The vacuum that doesn’t lose suction”, “Designed to move”, and “No clogging. No loss of suction.” Are hardly on par with “Think different.” or “Just do it.” So only a half check here.
Finally, powerful brands have a leader who set out against all odds to recreate the world according to their own vision and superior way of doing things. Sound familiar? Check.
So Dyson has all the makings of a brand. In fact, even very conservative estimates show that Sir James has spent over $20 million in television advertising alone trying to create that brand.
Brands are powerful things. When they work correctly, brands create trust, empathy, advocacy, zealotry. They create community and people feel they belong within that community. And there's nothing like someone from the other side telling you you're wrong to harden your beliefs (remember, it's election year). Best of all, your advocates stick with you through bad times.
This is one of the most powerful aspects of having a brand. When my FedEx package doesn’t arrive when I thought it should, I don’t immediately blame FedEx. Instead, I wonder, Did I make out the FedEx slip correctly? Did I check the right box? That’s because, as a member of that brand community, I trust FedEx to do what they have accepted as their charge: to deliver my package on time, as promised. All relationships are fallible elastic things, and so are brand relationships.
As a Dyson owner, I feel that I belong in the Dyson community of people who like to buy well-designed functional objects that might change the world, even if it’s only one carpet at a time. I even pay a little more to revel in that community. But here's the thing. Have I myself been fooled by branding? Some people in our family complain the Dyson doesn’t work right, or doesn’t clean as well as the old vacuum. I get defensive and say they must be doing something wrong. And even in those between times when I roll out the Dyson for myself and see it’s not sucking up cat hair the way our old vacuum seemed to without hesitation, well, I think I must be doing something wrong. After all, it has great design. And it costs so much, it must be better. 5,127 prototypes can't be wrong.
Or maybe the Dyson vacuum just isn't better after all. Perhaps it's simply the illusion of paying for an expensively designed vacuum that makes it seem better.
If others feel the way I do, Sir James had better hope that, despite the fact that "brand" is the only word outlawed in his company, that the millions he's spent effectively creating a brand will save him.
As for myself, I'll think about it some more. Probably the next time I go shopping for a new vacuum.
Two videos seen this week for marketers Coca-Cola and Target have kicked the concept of corporate transparency to the next level.
Having spent the last decade and more shopping for designers like Philippe Starck and Michael Graves, the new Target video reveals the company has gone micro-niche, picking up edgy trendsmart shops from Miami to SF—and plugging these mini boxes inside the larger Target retail box.
The video gives us snapshots of Target store’s new “The Shops” boutique concept, and features The Webster from Miami, The Privet House from Warren, Connecticut, Boston’s Polka Dog Bakery, the candy store from SF, and cosmetics boutique The Cos Bar from Charleston, South Carolina. Sound bites of plucky entrepreneurs reveal their dreamsoul and how Target is now bringing “a piece of the boutique experience to Target.”
Despite touting newness, Target is uncharacteristically behind the curve on this concept, which commercial real estate developers have already seized upon to counter shopping mall blandness. Look at Boston’s Newbury Street, Chelsea Market in Manhattan and Santa Monica Place in California.
Nevertheless, Target knows how to do it right. If the concept takes off with consumers, we can look forward to more boutiques, more categories, and more accent in Tar-zhay. It’s also likely that we’ll see less successful boutiques rotating on and off Target retail floors faster than last season’s garments.
As The Privet House’s Suzanne declares in the video, “Watch what you ask for when you want your hobby to become your living!”
The Coke videos (there are two of them: Video One and Video Two) which can be seen on YouTube reveal Coke’s new comprehensive “liquid” marketing strategy. With splashes of Henry Jenkins’ spreadable media concept, experiential marketing, Sir Ken Robinson’s whiteboard execution and Coke’s sophisticated marketing aplomb, the videos take us on a discovery that is as startling as it is revelatory.
While other companies are covering off on some (or much) of the thinking Coke lays out for viewers, Coke shows what happens when—with one of the world’s largest marketing budgets—you can do it all.
What is most surprising during the nearly eighteen viewing minutes is how willfully the soft drink marketer peels back the layers of their organization to reveal what’s been working and what hasn’t. As Jonathan Mildenhall, Vice-President, Global Advertising Strategy and Creative Excellence at The Coca-Cola Company exclaims how the soft drink marketer will transform “one-way storytelling into dynamic storytelling” and “from consumer insights to provocations” thus potentially adding value and significance to people’s lives, he also reveals the positioning architecture for all products and other information that (even in our WikiLeaks world) is usually left behind the corporate firewall. Suddenly, it’s all chunked down for everyone to see, including consumers.
What is most resonant about these videos is how both Target and Coke have once more claimed innovative category leadership—a challenge both companies always rise to. And the see-thru character of their narratives demonstrates just how far storytelling can go.
In today’s head-spinning flat transmedia world, consumers can Friend, Like, Link, chat, review, tweet, download, play, ping, poke, yak, Yelp and otherwise connect with brands and each other any way they choose. And somewhere along the way (marketers hope) people find time to buy.
As we hear ad nauseum, the citizen is in control. Well, perhaps not so much not so much in control, as they are immersed in a digital downpour splintered across hundreds of different channels, drenched in a media bombardment that demands constant oversight. (Watch this. No, this! Did you read my tweet? You have to see this!!) In a media environment that seems to be refreshed every six weeks, changes abound. Angry Birds has been replaced by (or supplemented with) WordsWithFriends. Kony2012 became contagious within hours (what, you mean haven’t seen it!??). Smartphones make awareness, decision-making and purchase intent simultaneous right in the store aisle.
One need only remember that while movies were invented in the 1890s, it took until 1927 for “The Jazz Singer” to link film and sound (and another dozen years for color), to get a parallel sense of what our journey may be like moving forward through the datacloud.
The need for expertly integrated marketing is greater than ever, as marketers challenge themselves with creating a social imprint. When the social citizen is open and available 24/7/365 you’re either there, or you risk falling short of today’s expectations of what it means to be a brand in our all antennae-up bitstreaming world.
Push media is still needed to create brand awareness and purchase intent—but media agencies are finding it harder to achieve reach from one program (or even one platform) alone. Pull media like advertising is still critical to tell your brand story the way you want it told. Becoming a portal through owned media is also not a standalone solution.
So all the tubes must be open to provide push and pull and portal. Media drives social, and social drives media.
“This is just where the business is headed,” reports Claudia Cahill chief content officer of Content Collective, part of Omnicom’s OMD Group. The business unit is about custom media and content deals.
“There is tremendous opportunity and learning trying to figure out what makes sense for brands,” says Cahill. “We have moved from a one-way conversation to a two-way dialogue. It’s an amorphous, complicated space right now,” she admits. “Because there are so many ways to think about it.”
It doesn’t take Aristotle to understand that dialogue offers the opportunity to persuade. And the way in, is content. Done smartly, brand communications are no longer an interruption. Instead, your brand becomes the content.
“Smart companies understand today that good content—with an editorially-driven mindset, can be effective for driving positive customer engagements,” says Steve Rubel, executive vice president of global strategy and insights at Edelman Public Relations.
“The opportunity today is a media cloverleaf that spans tablets, cell phones, computers and televisions,” reports Rubel, and planning your narrative across different media channels is key. According to Edelman global research, 63% of people need to hear things three to five times across different media channels before it sinks in and overcomes skepticism. (In Singapore, that figure is higher at 70%—it’s even higher in Japan, at 82%.)
“You have to think about how a story unfolds with enough repetition to stick into people’s minds,” says Rubel. “Content is a key way to do that and both brands and agencies are now putting money behind it.”
The line between hard content and straight entertainment is softening. Communications (a.k.a advertising) used to be laden with hardboiled features and benefits, humor used to be acceptable only for unserious products like chips, beer, pizza, and (somehow) FedEx spots. But rarely elsewhere.
“Today there’s a blurring line between entertainment and news. Conservative companies need to understand that,” says Rubel.
If our transmedia world demands that we be present in all media 24/7/365, it goes without saying that you cannot submit your socialized consumers to a stentorian drone of product/service features and benefits. The mashup of consumer touchpoints across the media cloverleaf and beyond (including out of home media, traditional print, packaging, brand experiences, and more) dictates that you hit and low together, but in different media.
What holds it all together is a carefully thought out strategy for your narrative. “You need to have a larger brand narrative than just about what you’re trying to sell,” counsels Rubel. “You must have a higher order thing to talk about.”
How do you find your narrative? Remember that your brand is really a community of people who share your brand values. They believe what you believe. And because they believe, advocates share a communal sense of belonging. Your brand becomes a source of content for that community (and for potential zealots wanting to join your community).
“It’s the consumer’s choice how and when to seek out a brand,” says Joel Rubinson, former head of research at the Advertising Research Foundation and president of Rubinson Partners, Inc. “They do so only if you stand for values and lifestyle choices that transcend your [product’s] molecules. Starbucks isn’t just coffee, it’s the third place. Whole Foods isn’t just a grocery store, it is the supply point for a wellness lifestyle. Brand as portal is the heart of contemporary marketing. If they lose this, they lose everything.”
Marketers need to connect to values that transcend functional aspects (better, faster, cheaper, more powerful) and connect to the popular zeitgeist. This doesn’t mean rushing to the latest/greatest social media tweak. Your real social imprint creates a high order strategic link between corporate values (and the products or services you have to offer) and socialized consumer desires.
Quick examples. Beinggirl.com from Tampax answers the overarching challenges of a girl becoming a woman. Weightwatchers is a community of strength to help manage weight and its forum helps peers guide one another through this shared challenge. Threadless serves up crowd-generated designer streetwear with a heavy backdrop of social values.
The emotive touchpoints for these very different ideals are delivered through retail experiences, social media, websites, as well as blogs, tweets, and other output from their advocates’ mediastream. The community of people who agree, admire and share those values turn to the brand portal for ideas, positive reinforcement and to connect with others who share their attitudes and beliefs.
Your brand becomes a portal that generates content that helps celebrate your ideal, and becomes a destination. Those who share your values and belong to your brand community also buy products along the way.
And as Tampax and Weightwatchers suggest, you don’t have to be a 21st century start-up company to participate.
Kraftrecipes.com is a longstanding concept that has moved successfully to social media. Their eponymous site enjoys over 12 million visits per month, and they report over 800,000 fans on Facebook (Kraft individual brands mentioned in recipes also have tens of millions of fans on their respective Facebook pages). The Kraftrecipes.com strategy has been to maintain platforms and marketing channels they know drive engagement through content.
“We’ve been creating amazing content for the last 15 years,” says Jennifer Feeley, associate director of consumer relationship marketing at Kraft. “It has always been deeply important for us to provide consumers with food solutions they feel good about. What is changing are the technologies—the platforms, the greater connectivity and consumer empowerment.”
Recipes inherently include Kraft brand names so they become a form of advertorial—which has always been about content first, advertising second. Back in the stamp and postcard era, women (mostly) sent their family recipes to Kraft. “Consumer recipes used to go into a file,” laments Feeley. “Now they can share their voice and give recommendations. We curate that over earned and borrowed channels, and provide a consistent consumer experience.” The key in content marketing is to understand what consumers truly want, what their needs are, and deliver it in the time and place of their choice.
“We use data a lot better these days,” asserts Feeley. “To understand consumer needs, what their behaviors are, how to deliver great content and connective media. Having the data drive the technology enables us to deliver better content and communications. I would also say that our capabilities have deepened in order to prove out ROI on what we do,” she adds.
To that end, Kraft uses Neilsen, Google data, Cannondale shopper data, as well as their own deep consumer database to understand what people are clicking, where they engage in a time-spent perspective, meshed with learning derived from other platforms (e.g. Kraft sponsored magazines, traditional advertising stats, and other sources).
“We capitalize on the borrowed platforms that others are creating, interface with popular bloggers, and make sure that our content through all borrowed and earned marketing channels have that ongoing consumer and marketing relationship,” says Feeley.
The content has been re-framed and socialized in the minds of consumers so that it is more than a recipe share-out—it is a celebration point for members of the Kraft community. If the website was just a catalog of Kraft products, it would not attract over 12 million visits per month.
“[Media] has evolved from being advertising that pushes awareness of your brand,” adds Feeley. “Or pulling consumers into the store for promotions and point of purchase and tasting events. We try to deliver the right message at the right time in the right way. You really need all three to be compelling and differentiated.”
“Our clients see things now from a much more holistic perspective,” adds OMD’s Cahill. “It’s not media alone, it’s very strategy driven. It’s creative thinking that then drives the [media] transaction—today it’s ideation first, transaction second.”
Cahill points to their expansive Pepsi X-Factor project, which served up a 360-degree communications chart that drove everything from real-time red carpet glam-cam, to Times Square events, Facebook, a Super Bowl spot (and more). But at the heart of it was Pepsi’s mission to recreate and entrench their position as pop star. Along the way, everything they did (in some way) answered the question, What can Pepsi do to enhance the audience experience? Creating messages that actually entertain—beyond simple product placement, is new to most marketers. And despite Pepsi’s incredible success, weaving media across channels can be a challenge.
“You might spend a lot of money on an effort and it may not pay out,” warns Edelman’s Steve Rubel. “You want an Avatar, not an Ishtar.”
Every brand’s opportunity today is not only to win the purchase moment, but to widen and deepen the relationship with millions of social citizens across time and circumstance. This means mastering not only your brand’s narrative strategy, but levers of push, pull, and portal when (and if) the brand is clever enough to do so. Our new transmedia channels allow you to steer the dialogue toward your differentiated reason for being, why your company started, your brand icons, the rites of use for your product or service —and the opportunity to weave in new consumer benefits, include new promotions, line extensions, brand experiences and other efforts.
Learning your 3Ps and turning brand into content may one of the most exciting opportunities leaning toward the 21st century.
At the end of last year, Sears announced a closeout on over one hundred of its Sears and Kmart stores. Despite an increase in sales, Best Buy intends to cut some of its 1100 U.S. stores. Nordstrom’s announces that it’s moving more and more efforts online. Meanwhile, commercial developers are filling old Blockbuster, Circuit City and other dead zones with Chipotles, Paneras, and Smashburgers.
This is the changing scape of retail, as shoppers drift online seeking bargains and lower prices, especially along the commoditized aisles of consumer electronics, footwear and appliances.
Quantity, quality, and low prices have been the raison d’etre for modern retailers—features nulled by the Internet’s own ubiquity and easy parking via Barcalounger.
But the Internet isn’t the total future. “Sometimes I just have to get out of the house!” wails one Chicagoland woman.
But “getting out” in itself isn’t enough for today’s shopper, and the death rattle at Sears should shake up any retailer. Malls used to be fat, drippy cultures featuring all that was sparkly, good and exciting in the world. Aisles were soaked in dopamine wonder and mall rats scurried from store to store, leaving only when security guards booted them out. Today, those vast hallways have become skinny monocultures with equal doses of DSW, H&M, Victoria Secret, Lucky Jeans, Zara and Sbarro from Ocean City to Oceanside.
Numbed by the mega square-footage of “big box” stores and sales staffs resigned to uncaring, shoppers today are seeking more dynamic experiences.
Property developer Jamestown, based in Atlanta, understands that it’s not just plug and play anymore. “Malls have become a uniform experience,” explains Michael Phillips, chief operating officer of Jamestown, a developer based in Atlanta, Georgia. Jamestown boasts dynamic retail concepts like Chelsea Market in Manhattan and Boston’s Newbury Street, among others. “The successes will be those who deconstruct that model.”
Reshaping shopping experiences is important because, as consumers, we have been reshaped. Today, we experience high-end design at both ends of the retail chain (from Tiffany to Target), so we demand more unique products and experiences. “The woman who shops at Saks shops at Target,” says Phillips. “They shop high and low together.”
Jamestown’s strategy is to be locally focused and nationally anchored. “For consumers to be compelled to come more often, you need to provide them with a dimensional shopping environment,” advises Phillips. “It’s essential to have the artist and start-up retailer next to the highly polished national retailer.”
As retailers try to dodge the consumer death ray of indifference and zipped pocketbooks, they’re trying new things.
Walgreen’s new flagship store on its original 1926 site at the corner of State and Randolph in downtown Chicago, does for drugstores what “Star Wars” did for movies.
In a blockbuster effort to restyle their approach, Walgreen’s has abandoned
the dumbed-down esthetics of floor-to-ceiling merchandise or furniture barn glare, and uses a variety of lighting styles to signal to shoppers that they are entering new experiences.
Packaged goods are enhanced by lumens designed into the underside of store shelves. Lighting in the Nail Spa has all the allure of a Sephora. Gone are the days of the overhead uniglow.
The Virtual Makeover video kiosk lets women try on cosmetics (without the trial of messy “used” cosmetics) and a Nail Bar goes even further to promote Walgreens’ cosmetics cred.
As merchants and developers try to chop away messy bits of retail gangrene, it’s good to remind ourselves that times have changed since Moms and Dads stared with glossy-eyed wonder at rows of TVs, washing machines and Tide at bargain prices.
In today’s times, plenitude and pricing alone grow wearisome, and conjure up no more excitement than the name Wannamaker might. We can shuffle through the aisles of amazon.com, Tar-zhay, and a streaming river of other stores both real and virtual. It’s not just about products or prices or experiences alone in the real world. It’s about the kismet of brain-smacking “stand in place” WTF transformations.
Developers and retailers like Sears, Best Buy, and JCPenney must remember not only Target’s internal mantra that Speed is life. But also that, while we are counseled to fit in, we celebrate those who stand out.
Walk into any corporate headquarters these days and you’ll find either a parking lot of empty cubicles or, more happily, a busy office hive filled with temporary hires contracted to work on time/task specific projects may work for days, weeks, or months, depending upon what they have been hired to do.
Whereas taking a short-term gig may have been viewed as a sideways or even downward move once upon a time, today many professionals—and the companies who hire them—are seeing the advantages of an untethered work force that buzzes in and out of companies, moving from project to project, cross-pollinating ideas (and companies) as they go. As a result, this new breed of “pollinators” has become one of the most dynamic and innovative segments of our workforce.
“Companies are either culturally for using external consultants,” says Nicole Ertas, a pollinator living in the Seattle area. “Or they feel it’s demoralizing for their internal culture and prefer to have everything happen internally.”
Like Ertas, Pollinators may have been in “Top 40 Under 40” lists, or recently moved to a new city. They may be young college graduates trying to eke out their place in corporate America. Or they may be experienced mid-level practitioners desiring to opt out of corporate cube culture. Whether their background is in fashion, beverage, health and wellness, financial, consumer packaged goods, manufacturing, sales, technology or elsewhere, they’re carrying a bigger basket of experience in their backpack wherever they go.
“Being an independent consultant allows us invaluable experience,” says Denmark Francisco, a 28-year old in interactive media and digital marketing strategy. Francisco moved recently from Manhattan to Hong Kong for a project, and claims that moving from project to project builds an experience and knowledge base he would not get at a single job. “I get a chance to see what really works in the market,” says Francisco. “There may be variables in a situation,” he adds, “but there are also similarities. We transfer what we know has worked.”
As companies run pell-mell to find innovative ideas for new products, services, and new ways of doing business. Within the bounds of nondisclosure agreements, these Pollinators are helping make organizations use external talent intelligently to be more innovative, more competitive, and less stuck in "this is how we do it here" silos.
“You can’t use external talent to do something an employee is supposed to be doing,” advises Ertas, who has worked on- and off-staff at big brands like S.C. Johnson, Jim Beam, Wrigley, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, and others. “Instead, companies hire us short term to solve the problem and then get out.”
Pollinating is a platform that allows people to share and let everybody grow, while extracting the golden honey called ideas.
Does it work?
“Absolutely,” says Mitra Best, who is pioneering innovation as US innovation leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers. The firm does not have an exact number for outside hires, but the impact is significant. “We bring in catalyst hires to bolster thinking in an area.” One of those hires founded their Health Information Technology practice. “He brought in ways of solving problems that were very different,” says Best.
Being different is not always good for its own sake, but being different can send the rockets of innovation soaring.
“If you put people who think similarly together, the chance of coming up with new ideas keeps diminishing,” says Best. “If you want to accelerate new thinking, you put people from different perspectives together. Apply different filters to the same problem, and you get huge results.”
“The experience is exponential,” agrees pollinator Ertas. “The more brands and situations you’re challenged with, the more you’re going to have in your arsenal on how to handle challenges and opportunities. Unless you have people who have exposure to that breadth, you’re going to be limited in what you consider for innovation. You might be considering line extension, when you should be doing a channel overhaul.”
Pollinators can also help spread the love. Externals are often allowed access to other business units and upper management that regular staffers don’t get, due to internal hierarchies. “We talk to everybody in the company, from to lowest to highest,” says Francisco. “So it helps us understand the various perspectives within the organization. Staffers don’t get that opportunity because they’re stuck in their role or cube all day.” For example, most places treat analytics and creativity separately, marketing is doing one thing and IT is doing another. “We can help bring those disciplines together,” says Francisco.
Another perspective is that brand managers are so immersed in their brand, they see everything through that lens. Pollinators, however, see the world through the lens of the consumer. That consumer has a multitude of needs beyond a single brand: food and beverage needs, fashion, health care and financial problems. When the brand manager is looking through the eyes of the brand, they may get to solutions, but they may not get there as quickly or take that left turn that creates dramatic results.
From outside to inside to outside and back again creates a boisterous dynamic.
Situations, projects, categories, companies, challenges and opportunities are all different. People who are working cross-functionally are going to be accelerators of innovation, thanks to their spectrum of experience. “Whereas the traditional manager may work on three brands over a couple years,” agrees Ertas, “the cross-pollinator works on a dozen or more categories, products, or channels and is exposed to so many challenges, categories, brands/products in different life stages, different channels—sometimes at the same time.”
A Pollinator who has worked both sides of the fence adds, “If a company wants to get best of breed from concept to market, they can bring in a fabulous innovator, then contract a fabulous executor. Then, finally, someone who is very smart about market tactics and commercialization. Traditionally, companies try to get brand managers to engage in all three functions but, in reality, these are all very different practices.”
But being a Pollinator is not all blue skies. Although they are noticeable (or just notorious) in their luxe eyeglass frames, Starbucks and backpacks, Pollinators are brought in to work quickly. It is a concentrated blend of hard work, long hours, and ultimately high risk. “You’re usually working for C-suite clients,” says a Pollinator. “And at that level, they just want to get the work done.” If you fail, you fail completely.
There’s also the soft tissue stuff about being a stranger in a strange land. “Not every place is fun to work,” says one person who remains anonymous. “The management, the structure, sometimes the culture is not a good fit for your mindset.”
Outsiders can unwittingly step on toes. “We’re not trained on processes inside the company itself, which can be super challenging,” says one expert. “Sometimes it’s just the paperwork to get things done—estimates and invoicing. How do you fit into their established practices? We don’t have to play the politics.”
Pollinators can also be local. Case in point Ted Souder, head of industry and part of the retail pod at Google. Souder was sent from his Chicago base to Paris, where he gained experience in new markets including Africa and the Middle East. “Paris was extra exciting,” says Souder, “because I didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak French—which is as outside the comfort zone as you can get.”
As a catalyst for global diversity, innovation and community, Google has innovated a program for people to take on new roles in other geographies, so they can expand their skills and bring back ideas from other parts of the world. (In other words, pollinators.)
“I spent a year in Europe and the Middle East and I switched verticals,” says Souder. “That gives me a whole new perspective that others at my level don’t necessarily have. The opportunity now is to bring back what I saw people doing in Europe. I think it’s going make our U.S. team more effective.”
Example? “In the U.S. we tend to be a bit more forward in our approach about selling—more pushy,” says Souder. “In Europe it’s more about developing relationships—people buy because of the relationship they have with their partner. We can learn from that.”
“Right now we’re in the midst of the acceleration of everything,” says Google retail industry director Julie Krueger. “We have a globally diverse audience, so we need an internal culture that is constantly innovating, learning, sharing. At Google, we are vertically structured into travel, retail, finance, health care. What happens over time is that you can get stuck in your vertical.
“But that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn from someone in finance or health. They might have come up with a phenomenal solution—and if everyone doesn’t hear about it, that’s a problem. We have to share best practices internally between geographies. Even with over thirty thousand employees, we’ll eventually become a smaller company because of the relationships that are being developed.”
This, of course, is why we hire new people in ordinary times: to extract their fresh thinking before they get mired in office dogma. But in extraordinary times such as these, the old mantra, “we hire geniuses and fire fools” wears thin. Big can become bland and sometimes it needs a poke.
Mitra Best at PwC agrees. “We have so many areas of expertise, it is very possible that you can come in and not touch any other part of the company,” she says. “One of our missions is to develop initiatives that bring together people from different areas of the firm so they can cross-pollinate.”
When PwC recently acquired two strong consulting firms, instead of allowing headhunters to come pick off their best people in the change cycle, PwC worked hard to integrate the two cultures. “Blending those diverse cultures has made us a more fertile environment,” says Best. “And [adds] more value to our clients.” Which is why they merged in the first place.
The downside of the recent economic layoffs is that that well-trained, experienced individuals have been let loose into the workforce. The upside is that these people are buzzing with knowledge and experience now available to everyone. Their influx is forming a dynamic that is accelerating rapid, positive change. “This is a very volatile time,” says PwC’s Mitra Best. “You can only meet the challenges if you are innovating,”
“If you’re not in it, you’re just reading about it,” concludes Ertas. “You really have to be in it.”
Just when you thought the world was divided between the opposing forces of Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, new ventures have perked things up again in the coffee category. With the purpose of depositioning the blue mermaid.
This year, for example, a man named Pete Licata was named best barista in the country at this year’s United States Barista Championship in Houston. Licata is not a Starbucks barista, but hails from the Honolulu Coffee Co. group in Hawaii. Licata then went on to international competition in Bogota, Colombia where he placed second (numero uno barista on the planet is an El Salvadorian named Alejandro Mendez).
Today Starbucks finds itself being challenged and repositioned on every front. And the notion that’s brewing is that there’s more to coffee today than just the mermaid.
America’s (and the world’s) coffee palate has changed, evolved, and the new coffee culture finds itself sitting in cafes discussing the arcane attributes of Kenyan Peaberry, Brazilian Serra Negra, and Grand Cru. Restaurant menus respond to the new coffee connoisseurship by describing coffees the way others describe wines. Example: “…medium-bodied, smooth, with hints of cacao”. Some menus even mention coffee growers like Chuck Boerner in Kona. Artisan coffeeshops like Blue Bottle, Brooklyn Roasting Company, Dunn Brothers in Minneapolis, and Ninth Street Espresso in Chelsea Market present thicker, chewier lattes and more robust morning roast, focused on what they claim Starbucks started but did not finish.
Ed Schultz, founder of Honolulu Coffee Co. (where barista Pete Licata brews his best), puts it this way. “A company with 13,000 stores [like Starbucks] cannot see themselves as a boutique brand. There are people who want a pure coffee experience, rather than being in [Starbucks’] ‘third place’.” Rather than spewing out cups of grande egg nog lattes from super automatic espresso machines, Schultz and others pay attention to the coffee, from seed to cup.
“There’s a quite large percentage of people who are quite happy with going to Starbucks and don’t want what we do at all,” says Blue Bottle Coffee’s James Freeman. “Shops like ours are a little less customer focused. We only have six drinks, we don’t have sizes or flavors. We have less people, less stuff, smaller drinks.”
While Starbucks has captured the comfy social experience of the European café, others are championing the taste experience. While this may have been what Starbucks had going in its early days, it is where people like Honolulu’s Ed Schultz suggest they are failing today. “You cannot be that big and pretend to put out artisan coffee,” says Schultz. “Inside European cafes, you find one person creating the coffee, using a very manual method.”
“We have more manual preparation,” agrees Blue Bottle’s Freeman. “Fewer push button operations. Fewer words. We spend more time making each drink.”
It seems that as Starbucks educated us on what coffee could taste like, they also created coffee aspirations. Just as we traded up from bottles of Mateus and Liebfraumilch to Napa Valley wines years ago, so, too, we aspire to better things in coffee today.
And while this depositioning might relegate Starbucks solely to the experience level, the company is having pressures on that front, too.
In addition to the thousands of local coffee shops that now flaunt leather chairs and faux library settings, there is Nespresso. Owned by Nestle, Nespresso’s ornately designed boutiques and $400 Nespresso machines make it the Louis Vuitton of coffee experiences. Not to mush metaphors, but the stores look like they might have been created by Porsche Design.
Positioning themselves as the worldwide pioneer and market leader in highest-quality premium portioned coffee, Nespresso’s ultimate coffee experiences are not only savoured at home, but also at upscale restaurants, hotels, luxury outlets and at offices. Nespresso has artfully provided a stylish alternative to the omnipresent Uggness of Starbucks. And sales prove it. The brand touts “an organic growth rate of over twenty percent during the first nine months of 2010” in a recent news release.
Twenty or so years ago, New Yorkers found themselves walking down the avenues wondering what was up with all the near-empty Chock Full O’Nuts shops located on Manhattan streets. Popular in the 1940s, by the 1980s the retail fronts were no longer relevant. Starbucks arrived to rekindle our coffee palate. But if the mermaid wants to survive, it needs to ignore Dunkin’ Donuts as their major competitor, and focus on the quality coffee and store experiences that made them special.
One coffee consumer in a recent research study outlined the cadence of public popularity, “You start out being new and different and special,” she declared. “Then you become popular and mainstream. Next, you become ordinary and boring.” Bam.
If you think the rebirthing of artisan coffee is small beans, you just don’t now what’s brewing. Honolulu Coffee Co. is opening a new shop in Taipei. Blue Bottle Coffee is launching new shops in Rockefeller Center and Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Tokyo may even be a possibility. “I love Japan!” says Freeman. “The coffee culture there is very inspiring to me.” And Nestle now has TV ads touting its sleek round new Dolce Gusto machines in China, to the tune of James Brown’s tune “Sex Machine”.
Sex. Coffee. Two things we can’t seem to live without.
People look at Facebook “likes” today much the same way we used to look at the McDonald’s highway sign that once declared “Over 20 million sold”. Today, in a similar way, social media numbers appear to be both a popularity contest and approval score.
But it’s time to do some basic accounting. Dissect the over 20 million people “liking” your site (if you’re as popular as Starbucks), and you might find that less than 10% of them are spending anything more than a few seconds in your backyard.
While millions seem to be “liking” you, it’s not love. In fact, the vast majority are usually just casual acquaintances, clicking through on their way to a more serious relationship. (Sure, just like the old 20/80 rule: twenty percent of your customers provide the majority of your business. But that’s not the news here.)
The wonderful news is that the 10 percent who linger on your site are staying for three minutes or more (that’s eons in Internet time). Calculating the numbers from the 20 million mark, that’s approximately 2 million who are hanging out, getting to know you, and starting to really care about your brand.
Know who these people are? They’re your brand zealots. Your advocates. The people with the buzz muscle to help turn potential zealots on to your brand.
Your new objective? Think of your brand as a network. Use as many social media tools as budgets allow: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, and apps, to develop a brand narrative that moves social citizens to your site.
Be exciting. Be interesting. Be entertaining. Match crazy YouTube videos with wild postings and events and other ‘traditional’ paid media that move social citizens from their backyard to your backyard: your (paid) site. Find ways to engage and re-engage zealots every time they come to you. (But please, no more coupons.)
Example. Best Buy Mobile created a mobile app called “Excuse Clock” that sets the time forward if you’re stuck in a boring meeting. (“Oh! Look at the time! Gotta run!”) Perfect for today’s young mobile-savvy audience.
Starbucks just introduced a gifting app that lets you sit in Manhattan and buy friends in L.A. an iced grande skim latte. Nicely tuned to the trends of random giving and mobile networking
Nike+ offers up not just gear, but running routes posted by social citizens in their local community, music to run to, and more.
Help zealots advocate you and your brand values. Smart companies today understand that there is no dividing line between traditional and social media. They are all vehicles for distributing meaningful content that needs to be mashed, focused, and driven by a strategic brand narrative. Importantly, these are opportunities to create, rather than simply react, Mix up new media with traditional media by using digital outdoor boards where people can read tweets and Facebook posts in real time. Conan O’Brien posted real-time tweets on digital outdoor boards with real-time success. Miller Brewing has done the same. Domino’s new TV spots flash supposed posts in Times Square.
Once you get your zealots excited and talking, social network theory and the subsequent effects of contagion suggest that they can in turn influence as many as 100 other social citizens.
Now do the math again. Ten percent of your 20 million “likes” equals 2 million brand zealots. If they influence just 10 potential zealots, suddenly you’re back up to 20 million. But these people aren’t just clicking through. Now they’re your zealots, your brand lovers.
And we love that.