Thursday, May 28, 2009

What's the Right Price?

I'm confused.

It seems a lot of the old rules about pricing and value have been thrown out in this distressed economy.

Everything is on sale, and while my pocket book thinks this is great... part of me is severely troubled by this Topsy Turvy world of "recession pricing".

A friend of mine recently walked into a department store in Soho and was discreetly informed by the sales girl that there was a 75% off unadvertised private sale.

That's great. But she couldn't help thinking what if she had been one of the customers that didn't get the secret message?

What was the real value of the clothes? It seemed very arbitrary.

I'm glad to be saving money. But if it's so easy to be making such dramatic cuts, can we ever expect people to ever pay "regular economy" prices again?

In contrast, I was out walking last weekend in Marin County trying to get some steps on my pedometer before breakfast. I walked by a mall parking lot and saw a car for sale with this sign in the window" "$9,000. No Haggling".

I actually found this re-assuring and refreshing.

Now I have no idea of the value of that particular car.

But I got a sense that the owner did. And that was the price they were prepared to accept.

It's not a new approach, Saturn created it's company on "fair price, no haggling".

But now when drastic price cuts are calling into question the value of all things, I felt comforted that someone out there was taking a firm approach and sticking to their guns.

Will that car sell? I don't know.

But it might get more than a second look from people like me who are growing weary of "the price is right" guessing game we seem to be all playing.

That's my point of view. What's your twist?

Are you having trouble determining the value of things?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tell Me a Story

I believe that a great brand is a story well told.

You've probably noticed that people love to tell stories about brands that have delighted them- and often about brands that let have them down.

But I don't think that brands often make it easy for their fans to repeat the positive stories because they don't share them in an accessible way.

Lately it seems like there is a lot of energy spent thinking about the negative potential of all the viral medium and how bad press gets passed along on blogs, FaceBook, Twitter etc.

But are we also doing enough to harness the positive potential of viral word of mouth?

One example of a company that actually has great customer stories to tell AND makes it easy to share is Zappos.

The company website has a robust blog filled with amazing stories like this one about a woman who reached out to Zappos when her friend lost all her belongings in a fire a few days before Christmas. The original request was to send some Ugg's to the daughter in the effected family in a rush delivery in time for the holiday.

But Zappo's went above and beyond and actually sent a complete holiday care package including a game of Monopoly, gift certificates, Zappo's branded t-shirts, water bottles, etc so this family who had lost everything could have a little holiday cheer.

The grateful friend went on to make and post a "thank you" video for helping her friend through a difficult time.

This is a great story. And just one of hundreds like it for this brand. But what's also great is how Zappos makes it easy for fans of the brand (like me) to have their loyalty reinforced and affirmed by making these kind of stories accessible and easy to share.

Are you celebrating the positive stories in your brand? And importantly are you make it easy for your brand fans to crow on your behalf?

Don't look at it as self-promotion. Look at it as a way to help your customers celebrate their relationship with you by passing on the good news.

That's my point of view. What's your twist?

Do your favorite brands make it easy for you to share good stories?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Got any Ideas?

When is the last time you had an original idea?

Not a "honey, let's get Thai tonight instead of sushi" kind of idea.

A genuine, added value thought.

I have been in the ideas business all my life.

First in advertising, then at a branding agency, and now on the client side at Virgin.

I love new ideas, they're are what get me out of bed in the morning and keep me going all day.

But lately, I feel like sometimes I get so caught up in the daily grind, that I forget that I am actually in the ideas business.

Sometimes I feel like I am in the "e-mail sending, project management, meeting organizer and meeting attendee business".

And if I have a little extra time once that's all taken care of - I create an idea.

I am working on turning this around. But it's taking conscious effort.

I have to say to myself in the morning, that at the end of the day I will evaluate my day not on how many emails I got through- but on whether I actually came up with any original thoughts that added value.

This doesn't have to be a new product or service idea. It could be an idea on how to solve the "never enough meeting room space" dilemma in my office.

But it has to be a solution, a new thought, something created and not just communicated or shuffled around.

You don't have to be a marketing or creative type to hold this up as your standard. No matter what your job or industry, idea creation is what keeps things moving forward.

If this problem sounds familiar to you, here's an idea ...when you come back from the long (and hopefully restful weekend)- tax yourself and your team to get back into the ideas business.

If it helps, you could even set a side a day a week- let's pick Wednesday- as idea day.

On that day, don't schedule any meetings, try and establish a no-email for a day policy, and tell everyone to focus uniquely on creating new ideas.

You can try some of tricks in my older posts if that helps with stimulating ideas or you could just let people find their own way.

At the end of the day have a cocktail or an ice cream sundae party. Share your ideas. They don't have to be perfect. But they should be celebrated.

Creating a culture of idea generation in today's work environments is critically important to business success and to employee satisfaction.

But it takes work.

That's my point of view. What's your twist?

Are you creating enough new ideas?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Show Some Respect

It blows my mind how rude and oblivious some people are.

I went to my daughter's middle school concert last night, and much to my dismay the woman in front of me (a mother, I presume) was texting on her phone for the better part of an hour and a half show.

What could possibly be so important?

Unless this woman is Jack Bauer about to save the world on 24, a death row lawyer with a client waiting for a reprieve or the head of organ transplants at a local hospital...I honestly can't imagine what can't wait.

Because here's the thing - no matter how discreet you try to be it's annoying and distracting to people around you.

I could see the blue glow from her phone. And I bet some of the kids on stage, who've been working so hard preparing the show, could too.

Let's show some respect for other people's ideas, hard work, and creativity.

It's not just middle school performances where this is happening. It's also in Broadway audiences, and frankly, it's making me think twice lately about going to a show.

The message at the beginning of a stage performance (or movie) to put your cell phones on vibrate is a great start. There's nothing worse than an unwanted ring interrupting a beautiful performance.

But let's not stop there. Let's ban all absolutely non-emergency checking of phones and Blackberry's. I understand the addiction, my thumbs are as itchy and twitchy as the next person's.

But out of respect for the artists, be they 12 years old or 120, let's resist the urge.

Put the device down and put those fingers to better use clapping ecstatically to reward the efforts of the people with enough passion, drive, and courage to be up on the stage (or screen).

That's my point of view. What's your twist?

Is unchecked texting ruining your ability to enjoy a good performance?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Silence is Golden

How much silence do you have in your life?

If you are even a bit like me, silence may not be that "golden" to you.

It might be something that you actively avoid...for fear of boredom, or wasted time, or out of an addiction to constantly checking all the "noisy" connector devices in our lives (e.g. cell phones, Blackberry's Facebook etc).

Well, I am trying to overcome my aversion to silence.

I'm actually trying to embrace it.

Because in my constant need to be in touch and engaged all the time, I am realizing that I am drowning out the sound of my own thoughts. And my own creativity.

I commute every day in and out of Grand Central on a train route that has the most incredible views of the Hudson River.

But rather than enjoying the view and savoring this 35 minutes of "quiet time", I check my email, check my Twitter, check my Facebook updates, read a book, read a magazine, etc. etc.

So I am now on an enforced "silence appreciation" mode. For at least a few times a week, I purposely keep the Blackberry in my purse, I don't stop at Hudson News and buy the latest magazine, I keep my book club book in my briefcase...and I look out the window.

This is actually much more difficult than it sounds.

Especially for the first few minutes. I can literally hear my Blackberry calling out to me, like a Siren.

I purposely don't put on my ipod, because I think that's just substituting one kind of "noise" for another.

But if I can hold out for the first few minutes, and keep my eyes focused out the window- gradually I begin to relax and let my mind wander.

And slowly I find myself listening instead to the voices inside my head. Not the scary Sybil kind. The kind that open up new possibilities. Even new ideas for blog posts (like this one).

Don't assume you are getting enough silence. Try to be more conscious of opportunities to tune out the world and tune in to your own voice.

You might just like what you hear.

That's my point of view. What's your twist?

Are you getting enough quiet time?

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Magic Ingredient

In honor of the World Innovation Forum in NYC last week I was poking around on YouTube and came across this clip from a 2006 Forum session. I hadn't seen it before, and I think it's worth watching.

Andy Cohen, an inspirational speaker, taught the audience a coin trick and gave an important lesson in what we each bring to innovation.

He believes the real magic of innovation, lies not in the ability to master the trick. But rather in what each of us brings to the table. Our uniqueness, makes the solutions unique. It creates the sparkle and the "ahh".

I believe this. I've seen alot of innovation companies who claim to have "proprietary" methodology. But in the end, I think a lot of it (on paper) is the same.

What I think makes the difference between an OK innovation experience or outcome and a truly inspired the people.

It's the brains using the tools. Not the tools themselves.

Maybe that's obvious. But I think it's worth repeating. Watch the video, at the very least it will give you a new way to impress your friends this weekend.

That's my point of view. What's your twist?

What tricks do you have up your sleeve?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Do No Harm?

Someone said to me recently (only half jokingly) that the definition of “great service” is when nothing goes wrong.

I chuckled along at the time but then I though…wait a minute…

Have we really reached a point of such low expectations that the absence of a negative experience actually counts as a positive one?

I hope not.

Sure "do no harm" might be OK in certain situations, like surgery, where a good outcome is no complications.

But when it comes to brands I think we need to set the bar a little higher.

It made me think of an experience I had not that long ago with Enterprise
Rent-A-Car - where my very low expectations were unexpectedly and stunningly surpassed.

I was returning my car in Florida near the airport. To save money, I had chosen the cheapest option where you return the car with a full tank.

But I was running late and couldn’t find a gas station en route to the car return. I was worried about missing my plane, so I decided to suck it up and return the car half full and pay the exorbitant car rental gas prices.

During my return processing I complained to the Enterprise employee that all the gas stations seemed to be on the wrong side of a particularly hard to navigate divided highway.

I didn’t really expect him to doing anything. I was just blowing off steam.

After all the contract option I had agreed to was “return full”. It was all there in black and white and I was clearly at fault.

To my surprise he offered to waive the extra gas charge.

Then, without me asking, he gave me an extra discount waiving some other fee and decreasing my bill even further then I expected.

He then made sure I had all my belongings and got me on to the shuttle bus and off to meet my plane on time.

I didn’t know what to say.

I stood there with my jaw dropped and continued with this puzzled expression all the way to the boarding gate.

Not only did he not give me a hard time about the gas, he actually went on to delight me with an added benefit of unanticipated savings.

That definitely wasn’t the absence of a negative, it was a plus side experience. One I remember vividly and repeat often.

When you are evaluating your own customer experiences, take a moment to make sure you are not falling in the mediocrity trap.

Are you counting “nothing going wrong” as successful service?

Or are you actually challenging yourself and your team to go to a plus side model, where the standard is surprise and delight?

Take a moment to brainstorm service elements that would catch your customers off a positive way.

Perhaps even the opposite of what a customer is expecting walking in to a situation.

You might just find that the extra step is worth miles in terms of good will and creating fans, not just customers, for your brand.

That’s my point of view. What’s your twist?

What brands do you think go the extra mile to surprise and delight?

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Best Defense

Defending and championing ideas is healthy right? You might say it's part of our jobs as Brand Passionistas.

But when does defending go too far?

Perhaps when you are so bent on selling your idea that you fail to hear the constructive criticism that could actually help make it better.

It's the fine line between commitment and falling in love with the sound of your own voice.

Sound familiar? If not, maybe you are one of the rare few who can keep their objectivity and who welcomes dissenting opinions.

Or maybe you just aren't being truthful.

A friend of mine once gave a really impassioned speech in defense of a project in a budget approval meeting. Not surprisingly, since funding was involved, our senior management began asking some questions to make sure all angles had been considered.

Instead of taking the comments to heart and really thinking them through, he turned up his passion a few notches and ended up steam-rolling the meeting with an Oscar-worthy performance that was so full of faith and brimstone that it (temporarily) allayed the manager's concerns.

Walking out of the meeting with him I commented on how sure he had seemed and asked him if he really believed everything he just said. He pointed to the newly empty conference room and said, "Well, to tell you the truth I am not 100% sure. But I did believe it in there."

Eventually the concerns were raised again and he had a lot more due diligence to do before moving forward. While he initially got kudos for his passion, over time he got a reputation for being a bit of a drama queen. As a result there was often a higher level of skepticism around his ideas- whether he deserved it or not.

As part of the World Innovation Forum in NYC last week, I got the chance to meet with some people in the Soho Apple store. They talked a lot about how the store is designed to be constantly changed and improved. To accommodate new products, but also to change things around when something is not working.

One example they gave of this is the ipod bar. Sounded like a good idea when it first came up, lots of smart people at Apple were excited about it. But it turned out the customers didn't feel a need for a separate ipod bar. So the folks at Apple changed course.

They folded the ipod bar into the general Genius bar and re-configured the liberated space to accommodate a new "Studio" where for a modest yearly fee you can spend one hour a week one on one with an Apple specialist. This has become a key draw in the stores. They didn't defend their original idea to the death. They listened, learned and moved on to a new and better idea.

Take a step back and think about some ideas that you are championing right now. Has your passion for them gotten so deep that you are actually blind to different opinions? Even those that have some validity and with a proper analysis could actually make your idea stronger?

The ability to passionately champion your ideas can be a strength. But letting this over-ride the ability to hear and consider any criticism from others is a weakness. And this might just be the soft spot that over time gets you knocked out.

That's my point of view. What's your twist?

Have you ever gone too far in defending an idea?

Friday, May 8, 2009

Best of Both Worlds

My son Sacha came home the other day all excited about "half and half" day at his school.

At lunch, instead of having to make the difficult choice between pizza and chicken nuggets - on this special "half and half" day he was able to have... BOTH!

Albeit slightly smaller portions of each.

I started thinking, wouldn't life be better if we had more "half and half" days?

There's so much choice in brands today, and while sometimes I appreciate this, often it just feels like too much.

Sometimes I don't want to waste my time with these small but agonizing decisions. I want freedom from choice. I want to find a way to have both.

To be clear, I am not talking about products that combine two benefits in one like a 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner. These are great and have their place. (I spent many years working on Pantene Pro-V 2-in-1, and I'm a fan of that brand).

I'm talking about products and services that say "can't decide? OK, here have both". In one simple purchase. Decision made. Go ahead consumer get on with the rest of your day...or in the case of my son, go join your friends at the lunch table and get on with your fun.

A great example I saw of this recently is Turkey Hill Dynamic Duos ice cream. It offers a 1.5 quart of ice cream split down the middle between two incredible flavors. This isn't your plain old vanilla/chocolate swirl. They've got flavors like Movie Night which offers half Popcorn flavor (popcorn flavored ice cream with pralines) and half Vanilla Twist (Vanilla ice-cream twisted with caramel).

These are two tempting flavors in their own right, with different flavor profiles. Now you can get them in on package. Mixing them if you are so inclined into one bowl or just digging in to different sides of the carton on different nights.

Take a look at your products and services. Are there any areas where consumers are having trouble choosing? If so, think about experimenting with giving them both.

A "half and half" approach might lead you to a "whole" lot of excited customers.

That's my point of view. What's your twist?

What are your favorite "half and half" ideas?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Turn, Turn, Click!

My friend Jane is an amazing problem solver. She's a Creative Director extraordinaire at an agency with a large and demanding cosmetics brand as her client.

She is constantly producing a high volume of work and wrestling with multiple projects. She needs to be able to quickly evaluate different options, find an inspired solution, and move on to the next challenge.

What's so neat about Jane is that although she started her career as a copywriter, subsequent job opportunities allowed her to develop the parts of her brain that dwell in visual language.

So now when she has a problem to tackle, she actually visualizes it.

She recently described her process to me as similar to picturing an imaginary Rubik's cube and turning it around and around, exploring all the facets of the challenge, until all the pieces click into place...and voila the colors are aligned!

It got me thinking that problem visualization could be an interesting technique to try.

Particularly for people like me who are much more comfortable with words. But sometimes reasoning things out on paper only gives the illusion of problem solving. But in our cut and paste culture, it can be just moving our thoughts around but not actually driving them towards any cohesive conclusion.

I like Jane's approach because you can't complete a puzzle (or a Rubik's cube) until all the pieces fit together in an order that makes sense and ultimately represents a sum that's bigger than the whole of the parts.

So here's a trick to try. Next time you are struggling with a strategic or creative challenge, leave the memos and the power points aside. Instead, create some sort of visualization of the pieces you are working with.

Perhaps draw a symbol for each of the components (e.g. a stick figure for your consumer, a sledge hammer for that threatening competitor, etc). Then create a visualization that helps you work it out.

This could be a puzzle, a picture book, a board game, even a 3-d diorama.

The important thing is that you demonstrate the issue in a way that's visual and where you can physically move the pieces around as you problem solve.

Invite others to play along with you and maybe a little creative visualization will be just the trick to help the solution click into place.

That's my point of view. What's your twist?

What's your Rubik's cube?

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Scarlet P

I was walking up Park Avenue from Soho the other night with a plastic bag of groceries. Suddenly I felt incredibly negatively conspicuous toting my plastic sack.

I was getting dirty looks from everyone I passed. (I'm pretty sure it was not my imagination). It was as if there was a huge scarlet “P” for "Plastic User" seared into my forehead.

In my defense, this blatant "plastic toting" is no longer my standard behavior. Thanks to pressure from my daughter, I now bring the canvas sacks to Stop & Shop on the weekends. I just happened to be doing some spontaneous lunchtime shopping near my office and didn't have my canvas tote with me. (I swear your honor).

It got me thinking...when did scorning plastic bags go from a marginal "greenie" behavior to such a mainstream one?

The speed in which new consumer behaviors are taking root is dizzying. Some of these new behaviors are motivated by concern for the environment, others are a response to the recession. But what seems really clear (and a bit frightening) is the way that people behave is changing...and changing fast.

What other behaviors driven by the environment, the recession or both are rapidly taking hold?

One macro-trend that keeps coming up in the conferences I've been attending is "Fashionable Frugality". The idea that saving money, and flaunting those savings is suddenly super chic.

Here are a few examples of this:

Buying at thrift stores...and telling everyone about it
Shopping our own closets and even hiring consultants to help us do this
Holding "swap" parties which address both the environment and the recession
"No gifts please" birthday parties, weddings, bat mitzvahs etc.

It makes me wonder what's the next "new world" behavior (or "Scarlet P") and how as marketers can we make sure we are prepared for these rapidly shifting trends?

Perhaps one way to be prepared is to do a "scarlet P" audit.

Take a look at our brands through the lens of wanton wastefulness- both in terms of literal environmental waste (e.g packaging, renewable materials, energy sources etc.) and perceived financial wastefulness (e.g. how does usage of this product or service appear to others in a more frugally chic world?).

This requires objectivity and also a bit of forward projection. You need to imagine that current trends will be exaggerated and that seemingly benign products and services may soon be under scrutiny.

Better to take inventory now and get ahead of the curve.

One result of this kind of audit is to re-engineer products and services.

Although I would be careful that your claims are genuine and don't appear like a marketing gimmick. The recently launched Ziploc evolve sandwich bags struck a sour note with me. They're made with less plastic, wind power, and come in bio-degradable packaging. But some how it feels off. (Maybe it's the lower case "e" in the evolve name). Rather than launching a separate SKU, I think Ziploc's efforts would feel more authentic if they just made this change automatically on all their products because it's the right thing to do. Not because green is suddenly chic.

I know it's a tough one to call. Sometimes you are damned if you do and damned if you don't. Hmm...that makes me think of Hester Prynne and that other scarlet letter.

That’s my point of view. What’s your twist?

What's the next "Scarlet P"?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Brand Passionistas Unite!

I was introducing myself the other day to potential investors for one of my projects at work. To keep things fresh, I was trying to avoid the same old description of who I am and what I do...blah, blah, blah...when this new word popped out of my mouth ..."Passionista".

"Brand Passionista"! Eureka! Fits like a glove. Or a Jimmy Choo shoe. I got so excited by this new expression that I almost ditched the meeting to run to my computer and begin blogging about this inspiration.

All this excitement about a word? If you can't tell by now, I am somewhat of a "wordie" - the literary equivalent of a foodie.

I love words, their power, their nuance. Their ability to produce physical sensations. One of my favorite words is gelato. Just saying it evokes a smooth creamy sensation. I am immediately transported to a sultry summer day in Rome, watching the beautiful Italians stroll by, while enjoying a cooling spray from the Trevi fountain.

But I digress...back to Brand Passionista.

Branding is tough, especially these days when there is so much turmoil and uncertainty. But if you're a real Brand Passionista you are not deterred. In fact, like me, you might be inspired.

There's so many new things to get excited about: trends, behaviors, technologies etc.

And there's never before been so much focus on brand. Even my kids can have a credible discussion about brand. For example they bring a level of commercial savvy and insight to discussions about Hannah Montana- that I never possessed at their age. They can speak passionately and credibly about her seamless crossover from TV, to music, to movies, to fashion and back again. They can talk about her as a brand. They are budding Brand Passionistas.

Of course, there is a fair amount of negative energy and cynicism out there around brand. This seems particularly rampant in the blogosphere.

Sure there's also a lot going on with brands that can make your blood boil: green washing, twitter-mania, too many brands trying too hard to be my friend etc.

But I think it's all good. Passion is the secret to great branding. You have to always be unsatisfied, wanting more..asking "what if" and "what else" and "what the ???".

And branding is art, it is fashion. It's hot and trendy and crave-worthy when you see something you must have or someone you envy.

So I think we should all embrace our inner Passionistas and revel in the obsessive, crazy world of brand that we're lucky enough to be a part of.

OK, I am getting off my soap box now...stepping off very carefully in my fabulously impractical but drop-dead gorgeous high heel shoes.

That's my point of view. What's your twist?

Are you a Brand Passionista too?