Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A goldmine in plain sight

The standards of service at many mass market retail outlets has fallen to an astonishing low point. It is a huge opportunity for the right minded marketer to capitalize upon, even in circumstances in which they are selling a commodity offering, or in situations in which the normal consumers freedoms are not in place.

Take two shops literally opposite each other on a particular concourse at San Francisco airport. Both sell largely the same items. When encountered yesterday, both were ineptly run. Long lines snaked through and out of the stores because counter staff moved slowly, thought slowly and reacted slowly. Even an activity as simple as handling payment and operating a till became an unnecessarily time-wasting undertaking.

Friends have remarked that there is no value to making either of these operations more efficient. The consumer is a captive one: their choice is confined. There is literally nowhere else to go other than a place selling the same stuff at the same inept service. The friends are also quick to mention that it's not possible to get better employee contributions and commitments when paying minimum wage.

They miss the point in dramatic fashion:

1. Where products are commodities - even of basic staples - service is the opportunity to be a differentiator.

2. Doing so can sustain a modest price premium, one which (presuming the consumer notices) he is probably prepared to pay if he understands that speedy efficient service is part of the transaction beyond the actual item being purchased.

3. It makes sound economic sense to pay employees MORE for retail positions in which higher productivity translates directly into a greater volume of customer processing and therefore sales (to expect minimum wage earners to perform higher is unrealistic)

4. The fact that the consumer is captive - and does not have the typical freedom of choice to exercise - does not mean she or he does not still want better service.

5. The economic benefit for the shop delivering faster, more efficient retail service is to have a greater share of customers. It would require disrupting an existing consumer belief and behavior. Most people don't ever stop to consider where else to buy what they're after: they presume product prices and service are identical in an airport.

6. Promoting the service advantage where and when it matters - before prospects have wandered into a store - enables them to be conscious of a service that may be very much needed and preferred over an unknown alternative, even if that alternative is just a few yards away. This is not unlike the pitches that stall owners colorfully deliver against competing vendors in a marketplace, bringing awareness of something special to attract greater than fair share of traffic.

It is hard for any one who has been on the receiving end of retail service in an airport recently not to come away without being painfully aware of how much room for improvement there is. And where glaring potential for improvement lies, gold is often to be found.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The paradox of luxury

Luxury marketers face a difficult challenge. They want to grow their revenue and profits, but one of the major strategies for doing so - growing the basic size of the franchise - risks undermining the brand if not done correctly.

Luxury brands are after all a privileged club in which access and membership are obtained from ownership of a product or consumption of an experiences. Therein lies the rub. The reason most luxury consumers are drawn to such possessions and experiences is because of exclusivity: it makes them feel special or important precisely because so many people can't afford to buy them and therefore are denied access to members' elite inner circle.

In the pursuit of growing the franchise, lowering price - the single greatest hurdle to membership for most people - will directly make access to luxury easier and thus dramtically lower aspirational and ostentatious appeal, which as noted above are the key ownership drivers among luxury good consumers.

This is not a danger inherent to a product portfolio strategy but one that occurs when it is focused in the wrong way. Automotive brands such as Mercedes and BMW have chosen to offer entry price points as low as $30K. This allows all sorts of people to get behind the wheel of these cars that do not represent the desired character of the brand and therefore dilute the brands's integrity and appeal.

(Though not a luxury brand per se, Apple is a great example of premium brand that has approached portfolio management the right way, to maintain premium pricing while opening up access. By introducing product varaints of the high-priced iPod, the Nano and Shuffle at much lower price price points, Apple enabled people to join the franchise without eroding appeal of more expensive, higher status offerings that better define the brand.

So what's a luxury brand to do? Or rather a luxury brand manager? The answer lies in a combination of activities. The first act is to price the entry point, and subsequent price points of portfolio offerings, at levels that will not undermine the luxury connotations that buyers (and existing owners) already seek). This is only possible as a result of second act which is by far the harder of the two: create a brand allure that has the potency to sustain a higher price points than competitors will no doubt be offering in the marketplace (in an attempt to win greater market share). It is only possible if the true luxury mindset of the category consumer is understood, and product and service elements are carfefully crafted to deliver a richer luxury offering than alternatives.

Nordstrom is a great example of a high end retail brand that can do just this. Its prices may be higher for even identical items sold at other outlets. But it has sustained its mythical reputation for service which fuels its luxury brand credentials, representing a powerful yet intangible yet tangiential element to the core products being bought at the store. Harrods is a worthy example from the UK. Beyond the obvious quallity of store fixtures and general showroom service, it is possible to buy anything from Harrods, even if they do not sell it, such is the commitment and resourcesfulness of this luxury retail brand. It's not a point of difference that the store publicizes through mass communication. But it is part of the culture and knowledge of it is disseminated through the approach channels so that it is acts as part of the brand lore and affirms the luxury character accordingly.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

When an alliterative approach is a false friend

The article in this Sunday’s San Francisco chronicle focused on how statistics of Iraq war injuries and fatalities are being kept under wraps by the current administration. But it was one of the ways these casualties of warfare were described that particularly stood out. Friendly fire.

For what it represents, this phrase is an offensive descriptor. Many people have commented that there is nothing friendly about fire of any kind (artillery or combustive).

So why has it become an accepted phrase? Why has it stuck in pop culture consciousness? Perhaps there is some aspect to alliteration that makes it easy for the brain to store and the mind remember. If there is a neurologist, or neurolinguistic expert able to weigh in (Mr Pinker?) OFD would certainly like to hear your perspective on how physical, cognitive and language development might work together to explain this tendency.

As a linguistic construct, alliteration abounds in everyday life. World wide web. Frequent flier. One imagines several brands are using this device as a way to aid retention in people’s mind. Best Buy. Jamba Juice. Bed Bath and Beyond. Some make sense. But there are those examples in which communication clarity – and meaning – are subservient to the form.

Take American Advantage. As one of a countless number of frequent flier programs, it is really not clear there is any advantage to this brand’s offering at all. And then of course there’s accidental assassination amidst armed assault. Surely, it is time for the idea and the meaning it carries to triumph beyond the convenience of form, as is sadly the case with Friendly fire.

It is a point that educators in England would do well to note. An actual lesson plan which pays homage to alliteration is scary enough. We should be careful not to raise an entire generation of people who are more enamored with the form rather than the content. This is perhaps only to be expected. We live in an age in which content is so often relegated in importance to appearance; in which what's immediately discernible on the outside and requires no effort to understand is prized at the expense of any deeper engagement. The best alliteration requires no effort yet maintains clarity of meaning. Lazy alliteration, however memorable, forces a compromise not worth taking.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

A perspective with the power to change the world

It was a simple act completed countless times before. Staring at the breakfast tray resting on my knees delivered to the room moments earlier, none of the items surveyed were either unfamiliar or would give the average person grounds to pause for thought. Coffee carafe, side of milk, glass of orange juice, fruit plate. It was the danish pastry that caused the melee. It looked enticing, the jam center glistening, the pastry flaky but heavily laden with butter or shortening. But in that moment it was clear that this dessert represented an interaction of unequal proportion. While the effort involved in consuming it was negligible, the effort required to deplete the calories it had added was considerable.

Pulling back the curtain as the sun broke a distant horizon, this humble pastry was looked at in a different light. Contemplating the time, exertion and sweat on a stair master to eradicate the efforts of this consumptive act rendered the pastry no longer appetizing.

The epiphany: what if mankind could be confronted with the knowledge of the consequences of every act before the action that would precipitate it. It surely would have a dramatic effect not on intensions but on desire for follow-through. A person falling on trash thrown from a car window, the senseless violence acted out by child after being scolded too harshly by a parent, the deep angst felt by a woman cheated upon at the hands of a female co-worker.

It is the separation of an act from its consequences that prevents it from being a behavioral modifier. It becomes too easy for the protagonist to rationalize away the notion of harm or the personal responsibility for it.

If only it were as simple as connecting the consequence to an act before it is enacted. For every person and every act. We’d end up with a better world or a society of psychopaths.

Friday, February 16, 2007

How much does an apology cost?

Companies could do well to employ a simple, well executed tactic when an adverse customer experience risks turning a valuable relationship sour. Say you're sorry. It may be small but this vastly over-looked gesture has the potential to help retain many customers that otherwise abandon a brand after a distasteful event.

Not all acts of apology are created equal, and the potency of a particular form lies which its significance in human relationships. Saying "I'm sorry" suggests the company understands the signficance of the error, respects that it has taken away from the life of the person and expresses regret. In short, it says a company cares.

Of course, the value of the apology lies in its perceived sincerity, both in tone and spontaneity This is not the province of a carelessly implmented corporate mandate to 'apologize by the playbook'.

It remains such a simple gesture of humility, acknowledgement and compassion that it is surprising how infrequently companies - through their employee frontline - do it.
Today's USA TODAY article highlights the appalling conditions air travelers faced recently in a recent storm-related delays when many were forced to wait up to eight hours on tarmacs within sight of the gate. Jet blue was particularly aggregious in this episode. Yet the CEO did not say he was sorry once (it's hard to imagine why the reported would have omitted it). Using language like "unacceptable" is fighting corporate speak and that's precisely the problem. Adopting a more human character would serve companies bettter.

This writer believes there are cultural factors in play that prevents company's front line representative from engaging in this simple, very human act. Beyond the obvious legal one - the fear that saying sorry admits guilt and culpabilty and therefore financial responsibility - people have been conditioned not to say sorry because it means they are wrong. Being wrong makes people feel bad, very bad indeed. This is a winning culture, a culture in which success and its trapppings are prized, in which being right is good and being wrong is bad. The motive to avoid what hurts us is classic avoidance behavior.

As a repair tool to mend damaged relationships, a heart-felt apology can be easily delivered in a way that avoids the personal cost to an employee in facing an angry individual or group: say "We're sorry". It gives the employee a way to avoid feeling 'wrong' but it is undeniably less personal, which is why care must be taken in the delivery.

Companies would do well to educate and coach customer-facing employees - including the CEO - in the simple practice of apologizing well. The benefits of doing so - retaining the lifetime value of the customer - vastly outweight the cost.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Be careful what you look for. You just may find it.

It is often the case that one sees what one is trying to find. It's a common but dangerous tendency. Belief is, after all, merely a matter of perspective.

Lambasting current TV programming as a scourge is a popular pastime, criticized for its influence upon the younger generation's values and responsible for the decline in moral fabric of this country. One writer suggests that Sweet Sixteen is a case in point, in that it violates the principles upon which this country is built: "the idea of being a do-it-yourself, hard working, striving individual, who fights to achieve success and prosperity for themselves"

There's plenty of programming out there that upholds these qualities directly if you look at them in an open-minded way. Take I LOVE NEW YORK on VH1. A collection of men compete for the affection of a sultry woman (and one presumes more than that..) and in so doing demonstrate the qualities needed to pursue the American Dream. Survivor is another. Project Runway, The Apprentice. In fact, much of the reality TV genre could be seen to support the American Dream in a significant way.

Don't get be wrong, I LOVE NEW YORK is in my view terrible, terrible entertainment but that is besides the point: in its content it upholds the priorities on which this country was built. It is also good to see some contemporary role reversal, with men subjugating themselves to women and pandering to their arbitrary whims instead of the other way around.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Form is sometimes shaped more by space

The dynamic relationship between form and space is present across a number of different fields. In architecture, it is often how space is purposefully crafted that gives greater emphasis and poignancy to the solid form. In music, it has been said that we perceive music less by the inherent quality of the pitch or length of the notes themselves than by the character of the spaces between them. And so today walking along a ordinary San Francisco street the lesson was extended into the field of typography, or more specifically, kerning.

The Institute of Art on 3rd street took on altogether different and unintended meaning because of a lack of attention to the simple space-form interplay and in particular the failure to maintain a critical space between key letters. Had there been more space between the conjunction and school's core focus - the 'f' in 'of' and the 'A' in 'Art' - no abberation would have occured. As it stands, it humbles the respected field of arts, and leaves the viewer with the impression that something altogether different is a mission of this school, enough to leave a smirk on the face of the most hardened adult.

Tattoo Etiquette

Almost seems like an oxymoron.
Tattoo conjures up something counter culture, grunge, possibly subversive while etiquette conotes its spectrum opposite: refined, elitist, priviledged. But there is such a thing as good form even when engaging in conversation about indelible body marking.
How many times have you over-heard this exchange:

"You have a tattoo?"
"Yeah? Where?"

The fact that a tattoo is not visible should tell the inquirer that there is good reason this is so. It's much like an expensive boutique that does not display prices, in which any question about the cost of any item is quite simply out of place (a rule of etiquette). And so it is with tattoos. Why it is that the curiousity minded questioner must fill the dead air following confirmation of its existence and ask about specific location is merely evidence that a basic rule of etiquette is not being observed. But then the tattos artifact is one with a host of prejeudice and judgment attached to it, so this perhaps is less than surprising.
Why not allow the owner a modicum of respect, and allow her or him to volunteer this information instead? Perhaps somethings are left better to the imagination anyhow.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Whoever knows for certain what lurks within?

Most people may be able to tell you what the last film they saw was. Or what soap or shampoo brand they use in the bathroom (even what graveyard of half-empty bottles lurk under the sink). But few can reliably recount the contents of their fridge. Though we see them several times a day either in the morning or the evening, we don't retain the details, passed the obvious ones like orange juice, milk, soda, eggs. Then it becomes sketchy. It's always a surprise of sorts. And then of course the discovery of things having been shuffled to the back which resurface.

And that's the point of this blog. Open the fridge door is an invitation to make some discoveries of your own from the random, aracane postings that appear here intermittently. Next time you're looking for a different perspective, something a little off the ordinary track, don't be uninspired. Open the fridge door.