Friday, March 24, 2017

Virgin America Ends. When Brand Love Isn't Enough.

Fly Virgin America as much as you can and revel in an experience that is memorable. Soon you won’t be able to make new ones. The Virgin America brand will be phased out over the next two years and disappear for good. Hopes it would survive the merger with Alaska Airlines were raised by its own marketing: Different Works was launched as the spirit uniting both brands for their shared journey ahead.

As such a storied and successful brand it seems odd that Virgin America should end. It is a classic example of a challenger brand, required study in many college marketing courses today. Virgin American is a brand that is loved. It inspires ardent fans and admirers. It got 5.8 million people to watch a safety video without stepping on a plane. Unthinkable before this brand did it. (Digital Synopsis)

Why did this happen? There is a lesson in every failure; what we understand we can avoid. A few thoughts on why love wasn’t enough:
Brand love is in vogue but it can be a trap. For marketers brand love suggests its customers have passion, preference, advocacy and loyalty. It may be true. But brand love can be a trap when it masks a deeper issue and encourages complacency with the status quo. Brand love measures are misleading when they don’t connect to consumption.

People's standards for love have changed, too. Social media has profoundly changed people’s relationship to many things including brands. Though different from the 1960’s era of ‘free love’, declarations of brand love today have become easy for people to make when they live only in social media and do not come with commitment. These expression of love are genuine acts but when they remain inside the social media bubble their value is unreliable.

How brand love is valued needs to be rethought. Love expressed in social media needs to be understood separately from ‘transactional love’ - the decision to buy that is driven by brand love over other elements (price, convenience, etc). And of course marketers should be exploring the relationship and dynamics between the two. 

True brand leadership means taking on business responsibility. While working to inspire a strong bond with its customers, brand strategists need to take into account the operational realities of the business they are supporting. Though flying Virgin America was awesome something was clearly misaligned if the cost to deliver the experience couldn’t be supported by the price the market would bear. While classic brand stewardship focuses on defining the core idea, shared values, character/tone and collective expression through experience, stewardship needs to have business accountability by being connected to value. One way to assess brand value is from the premium that customers are prepared to pay over alternatives. The bigger the margin, the greater the love. Price threshold research can be useful here. Understanding the levels of switching that different price points trigger can give a financially grounded sense of how much people really love a brand.

Though sad, the demise of this widely admired and once pioneering brand is a timely reminder. Just because a brand is loved doesn’t mean it is enough: it has to translate into an active commitment and be scaled sufficiently to support the margin needed to remain financially viable. Without it, a brand will disappear from view however much it might be loved. Richard Branson’s euology.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Brand FOMO: the risks and remedies that come from the fear of missing out.

The fear of missing out - 'FOMO' - is one we all had as teenagers, wondering if a great  experience was happening that we were not a part of.  Today those most suffering from FOMO are brands. Brands and those that care for them fear not being a part of the right cultural moments. The speed with which cultural moments evolve today heightens this fear of missing out.
But, there are serious consequences for brands that react because of a FOMO when they act the wrong way. Saying or doing the wrong thing in the vast social sphere does more than fragment a brand or squander a budget. The downside of FOMO and knee-jerk reaction has the potential to alienate fans and even create a backlash.
The Drum published 6 principles I've identified that give marketers a way to approach cultural moments and choose the ones best for the brand, while steering clear of the risks. Full article here.  
1. Don't believe the brand radicalization hype
2. Begin with an assessment of brand fit
3. Money doesn’t buy authenticity
4. Use culture for strategic as well as short-term goals
5. When it’s cause related, actions speak louder than words
6. Lead, fast-follow or don’t bother

Monday, January 2, 2017

What An Era of Post-Truth Portends For Strategy

We are in the midst of a maelstrom whose end is nowhere in sight. The term ‘post truth era' was recently coined to describe a cultural shift that became particularly topical during the 2016 US Presidential campaign, in which the integrity of 'facts' were rivaled by opinions unsupported by the rigor of proof. This cultural shift exceeds far beyond the political economy origins and mass media popularization from which it began. The impact of this shift on strategy is as yet unknown but its implications are worthy of being explored given the considerable effect it could have on the quality of strategic activities and outcomes.
The roles of intuition vs analysis in shaping and making decisions is a long-fermenting debate in leadership fields and strategy in particular, one that is likely to be shaped by the post-truth shift. Intuition and analysis are not alternatives: any tenure in a senior position inevitably requires the right blend of both. The issue is the balance of the two and the degree of trust in each. As with complex topics there are pros and cons to each side. Proponents of analysis typically have the consistency (and comfort therein) of an observable, repeatable process but its form can seriously limit the scope and richness of findings and therefore its value. Proponents of intuition assert its value when informed by deep experience. Its lack of observable origin - the result of ‘system 1’ type activity in Kahneman terms - is a limitation that leaves some audiences unable to trust it. At the very least they struggle to reliably differentiate between real insight and biased opinion.
The impact of a post-truth culture will sharpen the burden of proof required of seasoned strategy professionals as a reaction against the ambiguous trustworthiness of opinion and feeling-based claims in pop culture and mass media. Clients will demand more tangible proof and origin for the strategy work they buy. This is not a bad thing. Strategy is not an improv sport but it's become somewhat fashionable of late for it to behave this way. Under unmanaged conditions, opinions and even conjecture become easily merged and adopted as fact. In a work setting anecdotes of personal experience assume a currency whose perceived value rivals independent sources. The ripples from a post-truth culture will challenge intuition as a legitimate source of strategic activity as well as the easy confidence that often accompanies it (intuition after all is often presumed to be right). Overall, the lower standard of truth 'proof' in wider culture won't lower the standard in the strategy world. On the contrary, it will raise it.
Post-truth culture will raise another bar for the business world, for marketers rather than strategists. Brands and their marketing claims will be more scrutinized as the result of swirling ambiguity people increasingly come to expect everywhere else. A crisis of trust is itself not new (see The Crisis of Trust in A Social Age, 2011) but the nature and magnitude of its impact is. Where there is challenge there is opportunity. Brands that provide useful transparency and deliver consistency in terms and claims across their service and product ecosystems stand to do much better than those who do not.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Breaking Bad: How Freeing Us From Bias Will Spark A Revolution

We've all experienced it. Exploring hotel rooms or airline prices online a pop-up will tell us of how many people are looking at the same options right now.  Or the number of people who've been looking in the past 24 or fewer hours. Heightening scarcity preys on an unconscious mechanism in the mind, a primitive force that triggers us to act out of fear. 
The fear is the loss of a outcome we want - a hotel we like, an airline price we like. Unfortunately for homo sapiens our attachment to the option to buy something is as strong as the desire for the thing itself. It might seem odd but the logic is simple: if you lose the opportunity to buy something then what is being sought is lost too. It's a vulnerability called loss aversion - and accomplished behavioral economists like Dan Ariely have been researching it (Keeping Doors Open) and writing about it (Predictably Irrational) for some time. 
Like confirmation bias, loss aversion is an easy target for marketers to zero in on as a basis to exploit. It's refreshing to find a company rejecting this marketing ethos and giving its customers a freedom from fear rather than fueling it.  It's what Options Away is introducing to revolutionize the airline and travel space
Airline and hotel pricing are governed by the algorithm: prices are subject to fluctuate wildly based on a host of factors invisible to average buyer.  Airlines and travel aggregators typically force prospects to buy at the price prevailing at that moment and be unable to change it - unless shoppers pay a significant premium for a fully refundable booking. Taking a page out of the financial services book, Options Away is introducing the equivalent of a derivative for shopping for airfares and hotels. Options Away sells customers the option to buy at a certain price for 48 hours (or longer depending on the option). It offers freedom rather than lock-in. So while buyers might feel a scarcity pressure to buy when inventory is limited or when other people at the same time are reviewing a hotel or airfare Options Away sells an antidote to loss aversion through its option-to-buy product. 
It's smart marketing because freeing people from acting out of fear makes them far more likely act. A much bigger market exists for people wanting to reserve the right for a future outcome rather than being forced to commit with an irreversible risk.  Forty airlines have signed up with Options Away as well as Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, Hipmunk and Kayak. This is a change in the travel industry you are going to notice.
Hats off to the behavioral science community for continuing to shed light on unconscious mechanisms of the mind that govern our waking hours from which we are better freed.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Listen To The Data. Literally, Advice to Heed.

One part of ‘Big’ in Big Data refers to the size of the opportunity: it represents a new frontier for accelerated progress that will leave few areas of human endeavor untouched.

The other part of ‘Big’ is the challenge. Beyond the digital dexterity required to conquer unprecedented data complexity through modeling and algorithms there’s a harder, human hurdle that must be surmounted for the promise of Big Data to be realized: the physiological limits of a human’s visual system to process input, whether data or information. Visual analysis of data still dominates the business and scientific fields but we can’t handle the visual complexity from Big Data.  The emergence of infographics and performance dashboards do little to overcome the challenge.

‘Listen to the data’ may be a familiar refrain in business – an appeal to be guided by numbers not subjective whim – but an emerging field of scientific inquiry suggests taking this advice literally can generate breakthroughs not possible through a sight-based approach. Sonification is the field of turning data into sound. Multidimensional in nature, hearing presents a different set of strengths from that of vision: the fidelity of time sensitivity is 100 times greater for hearing than for sight.  

This creates huge potential for marketing whose transformative impact has yet to be explored.  Imagine the application of sonification to cross-channel customer journey assessment. The ability to convert into sound and review customer-set level interaction data across touchpoints and time can help identify meaningful moments along with their contextual influencers, from changes in auditory patters.

Sounds promising.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Don't Hack Life - Hack Yourself

As a cultural trend, hacking has evolved dramatically since it's inception. The latest exciting developments, however, exploit an approach that is centuries old.

The term hacking took off in the digital realm, the result of much publicized efforts by programmers trying to break into systems to steal their contents (a sabotage that continues to grab headlines today). Now hacking has expanded to include any activity that adapts existing methods, resources and tools, fusing them with new thinking that invents or reinvents.  It's become as much a physical world phenomenon as a digital one, and far more versatile and advanced than The A Team exploits that introduced a generation hungry for resourceful improvisation three decades ago.

Today hacking is a mindset, a way of looking at and adapting the world around us (whether analog or digital) so that it works better for us.  It's a mainstream orientation for Gen Y (Millennials) who have the ambition for life to work better and smarter to serve what they want. It's a noble aspiration indeed.

The latest frontier in hacking may not be to adapt the world around us, but rather to hack ourselves. It could be far simpler (and cheaper) to adapt our sensory response to external elements than adapt those objects or conditions that surround us.

Here's a fascinating perspective on how this might play out in the food category: Food Hacking: Electric Fork It might revolutionize dieting. Imagine if a healthy but bland tasting food could be experienced as enticing and flavorful?

As with much technology what is considered an innovation is not itself new; rather it is treading an existing path, leveraging an 'old' idea but applying it in a new medium or a new way. The forerunner to hacking one's self for food is with medicine.  Philosophically, that is what the science of pharmacology does: it adapts the body's physical, emotional or mental state not just to an inner condition but to respond to outside, exogenous ones. We've been benefiting from it for centuries.  It will be fascinating to see where hacking our response to food leads us.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

More Than Salutation, Brands Must Change How They See People To Stay In-Sync

On many levels identity is undergoing significant transformation in our culture, reflected in the zeitgeist of increased empowerment, personalized choice and self-expression. Lately there’s been renewed media attention upon the revolution in gender identity. The binary, male vs female way to identify ourselves has given way to a multiplicity of new concepts reflected in the emergence of a whole new language of pronouns and prefixes.  The development and popularity of the Furries subculture reflects not just identity fluidity but expansion, anthropomorphically.

Arguable there are few things more fundamental to how we define ourselves than our gender. For brands who want to demonstrate they understand us and respect us, how they approach us is key to getting that right.

The challenge for marketers is that culture is in flux. It’ll be a while before the dizzying gender alternatives in circulation will thin out and stabilize.  No one can predict where it will land.  Facebook can get away with it because as the social platform for the planet a huge part of its concept is rooted in connection across people’s individually created profiles so there’s implicitly a greater understanding of and receptiveness to the organic nature of how we define ourselves through culture. For other brands moving early risks a misstep, which could temporarily make the brand look foolish or worse evoke a backlash.

The opportunity for a brand in embracing an emerging cultural theme is that gives it a modern, progressive character.  The brand is not just of the ‘now’ it is leading the times as a social innovator.  It’s incredibly hard for brands to stand out and apart from their competition today so making this kind of move can deliver distinctiveness that is meaningful – because there are few things more personal than identity.

Trip Advisor conveys its modern recognition for gender choice by offering “Another gender identity.’ rather than only the male or female option.  It enables people to express what they don’t identify with without having to convey what they do associate with.  It avoids a rush to categorize alternatives that might leave some options unrepresented which might invoke a backlash.

Caremark, a medication fulfillment company for BCBS, have also stepped up. Inquiring about the primary insured, they asked whether it was me, my spouse, my wife or husband.  These choices do not presuppose any specific kind of orientation and signals not just a recognition but an embrace of a more open, less assumptive approach to a circumstance.

A move by a brand towards gender sensitivity might seem small but there are few things as great as gender in how we see ourselves. Brands that show they understand us by how they greet us will inspire empathy and will stand apart from those who don’t.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Elevating Value Through Values

The opportunity might have easily been overlooked. The no-charge for bag check or ticket change could have been merchandised as just that: individual product features. It would have still delivered value to consumers. But by uniting it with values the brand holds -  transparency, predictability, doing right by the customer - they enjoy greater value. The no-charge feature now embodies principles the customer believes in (or at the very least feels good about) and triggers a human connection shared with the company they are about to entrust their life to (it is air travel after all).

This is smart marketing. Giving what could otherwise have been only a rational benefit some emotional appeal makes it not only more compelling, it elevates the value consumers get by aligning with their personal values - at no cost to the company.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The ultimate hotel UX fail.

Traveling is stressful and unpredictable, disruptive to our home life and circadian rhythms at the best of times.  Helping to minimize these effects is a key part of any hotel's value in its service of its guests. Sleep in particular is the primary purpose of any stay so anything that disrupts it is very bad for business.

Designing a hotel door hanger separately from the handle it goes on has just this kind of unintended consequence. Nothing wrong with having 'Do Not Disturb' printed on the reverse side of 'Clean' - as long as there is no ambiguity in which message is the guest's intention.  It's why a holistic approach to UX is so crucial to serving up choices and interactions that achieve the desired outcome. 

Snickers hits the sweet spot, serendipitously.

Playful product messaging is a relatively new marketing development. In these evermore casual times, brands have learned that not taking themselves too seriously and having some fun can resonate better in today's culture. Brands that are playful demonstrate that they have the confidence to do so. 

Coca Cola has recently departed from years of stringent protectionism for its classic packaging design and begun to use it as a canvas for sentiment that could be expressed by someone sharing happiness.

Other brands have followed. The relaunch of Old Spice has included a similar technique.  Its deodorant stick humor gives a wink to how long the brand has been around, yet gives is an edgy, modern sensibility. 

Snickers playful approach is a relatively new direction for the brand, complementing the tv campaign 'Who are you when you're hungry?' that dramatized how different a person's character is when blood sugar is low.

Most likely the brand didn't intentionally seek to exploit the massive Netflix hit House of Cards.  Nonetheless 'Spacey' conjures up the Presidential character of that series, whose mood is so perpetually angry it is relate-able as an altered-state mood of someone incredibly hungry.  It raises the question of an interesting twist in playful packaging: referencing characters in entertainment culture.  Who's next perhaps? Bates the psycho character in Misery? Trump the Real Estate mogul-turned-angry-populist-political-campaigner? Or Oscar the trashcan grouch from Sesame street?

Tapping into cultural themes or memes gives brands a very valuable wavelength to resonate with people, whether deliberate or not.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Wise words for Planners.

Planners have to be artful storytellers.  We need to help creatives develop stories for brands and to sell our own ideas to challenging audiences (the internal clients are often harder than the ones outside). 

In telling a compelling tale our words must be human in their connection yet precise in its expression.  What we say comes from how we say it. To connect with meaning words matter far more than most people realize. In makes all the difference to how people feel and to how they act. And as this charming story shows it's not just words that matter, it's the insight behind them that give them power.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Simple Drama of a Product Truth

It's rare these days that a single feature is enough to drive brand preference. Especially with technology like mobile phones which come armed with a supply of apps that stretches utility to an almost inexhaustible limits.

But the appetite for video consumption generally and TV everywhere (TVE) in particular is so prolific among the Gen Y and Z cohorts that download speeds can be a very big deal and disruptor. So universal is the pain of seeing action frozen seemingly for an eternity that it's enough to cause most of us to abort the attempt. (The bounce time from a stalled internet search is on average about 6 seconds - no wonder major retailers like Walmart and Target watch response time performance like a hawk.)

BGH takes this familiar experience and use it to differentiate the brand, hitting us where we know it hurts the most (second perhaps to being unable to make a call when we want).

The beauty is in the suspense and of ultimately making the audience feel the situation.  After all, if we feel then we understand, and do so more convincingly than any rational attempt to persuade might achieve. This has long been the war between client and agency, certain as each party is to the most effective mechanism for unlocking belief.  

Thankfully on this occasion, the right path was taken by both.  Judge for yourself.  Would a factual approach have had more impact, and been more memorable?

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Science Discovers the Place For Space in the Human Brain

Many congratulations to neuroscientists May-Britt and Edvard Moser and John O’Keefe for their seminal work defining the brain's GPS system. They've found the place that gives us our sense of place. 
Winners of the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physiology their discoveries represent the physiological basis for the mental mapping and spatial wayfaring ideas that were at the heart of my 2012 SXSW presentation 'How digital maps navigate the human condition. It’s arguably one of the most important areas of human cognitive activity. Their work is an exciting starting point for so much further progress in this field.

Check out the pioneering work that won them the 2014 Nobel Prize. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Color distracts when products have little to add.

You'd expect two of the world's powerhouse brands to be more imaginative when it comes to product extensions.  But within a month of each other Nike's Fuelband SE and Apple's iPhone 5C depended on the same cosmetic element to try to fan the flames of consumer demand: color.

Both companies have fallen flat.  Partly they're victims of their own success.  We expect so much from these brands because they've trained us to expect greatness.  Separately Nike and Apple have an enviable repeated history for innovating in their respective categories.  They even have achieved it in partnership, through Nike +. Which is why their recent introductions are disappointing.  The accompanying functionality tweaks were exactly that: incremental and more focused on correcting earlier issues than deepening experience value.

Gizmodo review: Nike Fuel SE

In the case of the iPhone 5C, the tightly controlled approach to product design that Apple is known for is extended to color.  A narrow range of options seems positively out-of-step with the times.  Contrast it with the vitality from Motorola moto phone whose customization options for both handset and earphones are a celebration of expression and individuality.

Beyond the tactic of using color to jazz up a product with no more news the marketing too falls flat. The device of a colored phone on a colored background is shockingly lacking in imagination. Compare this with the bold iconic silhouettes of iPhone advertising that launched the product.  This is a pale and far poorer attempt.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Online Dating Invokes the Lord's Blessing

Really, it's a bit cheeky but certainly on brand.

If you're a Christian, then you want nothing more than to believe your romantic partner has been ordained by none other than the holiness himself/herself.

So it a wry move on the part of Christian Mingle to invoke the Lord's endorsement...or at least the imply that matches at its site are nothing short of just that.

Why look anywhere else?  You'd just be searching for something that's against the Lord's wishes.  And that could have Old Testament consequences.  (Better play it safe.)