Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Borrowing Your Watch to Tell You the Time

Jack Trout

I am not sure if I have shared this before, but my ultimate career goal is to be a consultant one day. It is my wish to be an advisor to businesses, companies and individuals, assisting them to improve their odds in the finicky arena of the marketplace. Of course, that may be many years in the future or even a retirement job.

Having said that, I am also leery of the kind of advice given by consultants to solve all kinds of managerial maladies. If you browse through the thousands of tomes penned by management "gurus", you will inevitably stumble across some ludicrous ideas that are so far-fetched that they read like fiction (or even fantasy).

Jack Trout would know a thing or two about consulting. Together with Al Ries (another professor turned author turned consultant), he is the father of the Positioning Strategy, which is one of the most important business strategy tools ever conceived in the B school lexicon. Trout is also the founder of his own consulting firm.

In other words, like any consultant, he would "borrow your watch to tell you the time", a saying that I picked up many years ago from a former boss of mine which still rings true.

This makes what he recently shared all the more paradoxical.

In a recent post in Branding Strategy Insider, Trout (almost) totally debunked the myth about management consultants being gurus or offering anything of value to organisations. According to him, the management consulting market is worth more than US$50 billion, and peddles a huge arsenal of different management tools with buzzwords like ABC (Activity Based Costing), Just In Time (JIT), Reengineering, Mass Customisation, Change Management, Gap Analysis, Mission and Vision Statements, Scenario Planning...the list goes on.

I would add a few of my own here: Web 2.0, Grassroots Evangelism, Word Of Mouth, Viral, Social Media Marketing, Influence Marketing, PR 2.0, Blue Ocean Strategy, and maybe even Twitter and Facebook!

Quoting from the book "Dangerous Company: Management Consultants and the Businesses They Save and Ruin" by James O'Shea and Charles Madigan, Trout highlighted that certain companies have found that consultants weren't worth their while. For example, Levi’s spent $850 million on Andersen Consultants to reengineer the company but this ended up going nowhere. AT&T was another corporate victim of similar circumstances, propping up half a billion dollars on consultants from 1989 to 1994 without any significant positive outcomes.

If you want to be a noteworthy consultant who can charge top billing to your clients, here's what you should do (from Dangerous Company):

1. Get an article in the Harvard Business Review.
2. Pump it up into a book.
3. Pray for a best-seller.
4. Hustle the idea for all it’s worth.

(Time for me to create that world beating management strategy and publish it soon!)

Want to hear a sobering statistic? Here's one from Trout: 81% of 5,600 executives surveyed said that tools promised more than they delivered. (That’s a politically correct way of saying, “We blew a lot of money.”)

Trout's thoughtful tirade goes on in the post, which essentially dictates that only organisational leaders know where they are going and what their customers think. You can read more of his other insights and ideas if you wish. I have personally learnt a lot from the man myself.

Are we then saying that consultants should pack up their bags and leave? Is there really no room at the top for a worldly wise consultant to offer sagely wisdom to CEOs and other head honchos?

Personally, I feel that there is a role for consultants. They offer an external perspective which can be valuable for executives that are too caught in the daily grind. They can play "Devil's Advocate" and proffer alternative viewpoints that may evade bottom-of-the-well dwelling managers. They can also provide opportunities for companies to learn from the best practices in other industries.

However, one should use them wisely and parsimoniously. The job of leadership and management still belongs ultimately to executives and managers in an organisation. Ideas are plentiful and cheap, but successful execution is where the rubber meets the road. At the end of the day, it isn't the consultant who answers to the customer, the shareholders and the Board, but you the leader and manager.

What are your views on this?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Beautiful Birds and Beasts of Parndana


On our last day on Kangaroo Island, my family and I decided that we should maximise our remaining hours there by visiting the real stars of the island. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we are talking about the kangaroos that are indigenous to this bucolic paradise. Our craving for comfortable creatures brought us to the Parndana Wildlife Park, an award winning sanctuary for South Australia's macropods (kangaroos, wallabies), cockatoos, koalas, and other beautiful beasts. The animal attraction was charming and unpretentious, allowing us to venture up close and personal with God's wonderful creatures.

These tall and shady Eucalyptus trees provided a nice natural look to the park. However, they are also...

...homes to koalas! Like this one over here. More on these furry bear-like marsupials later.

First, a customary visit to the retail cum ticketing shop to get our tickets and animal food.

What are in those steel cages?

Parakeets, lorikeets, cockatoos and other members of the parrot family. Like this pretty yellow lory here.

And this pair of green coloured parakeets.

We next spotted a couple of emus and kangaroos living harmoniously together.

We ventured into one of the enclosures, and Tina quickly posed for a nice group photo. These kangaroos are native to this island, and are in fact called Kangaroo Island kangaroos!

Here's a close-up shot of one of the cute brown and furry 'roos.

Naturally, Ethan quickly "activated" his "magic" bag of feed.

"He ain't heavy.... his my son..." What are they strenously looking at?

Well, its a spiny little echidna ambling about.

"Hello Koala! How do you do?"

Notice how the same Koala maintains that sagely and placid pose for us, as the camera clicked.

Ever wondered how Koalas feed? Here's a video to demonstrate its dining habits.

Other beasts in this menagerie included a black pig muddying itself.

A couple of ducks quacking about.

A pair of pelicans looking serious, framed by the "No Entry" sign.

And two cuddly Kangaroo Island wallabies, one albino white and one brown.

Well, not all animals here are cute though. While this crocodile was lethargic...

...this noble looking eagle was feeding on its hapless prey!

Food, glorious food! First were these baa baa white sheep...

...followed by a plump and furry white pony.

Next was this huge water buffalo. Notice how the size of its head compares to my son!

Finally, a rather emancipated looking white baby llama.

Friday, September 25, 2009

6 Ways to Make it Worth Their Time

Customers should feel as relaxed as spending a day at the beach

While browsing various blogs, websites and news feeds today, I was suddenly hit by a thought. What if we make it more enjoyable for our customers to transact and purchase from us? In other words, improve the quality of their time spent with us.

As many would have heard, time is often more precious than money. You can't buy a day, an hour or even the second that has slipped by. As the saying goes "Carpe Diem!" or "Seize the Day!" goes, one doesn't want to waste precious discretionary time doing something utterly boring, meaningless or frustrating. The best way to avoid the ravages of time - at least to your consumer - is to offer an experience that is so compelling and "magical" that they no longer remember that they are spending their precious days of leave spending hard earned cash on you.

Here are 6 ideas (maybe counter-intuitive to some) that may help convince your customers to want to spend the better part of their days (and nights) with you:

1) Whisk them away to an enchanting world which offers a chance for escapism. The way to do this is to involve them in active manner. Disneyland does this beautifully - the moment you step into a Disney park, time just flies by without you knowing it as you venture on ride after ride, watch 3D movies, purchase the latest Lion King watch, or savour "mouse-flavoured" popcorn. Disconnect them from the world, and don't offer WiFi access!

2) Hide all clocks (well unless you are a watch retailer), and take away any signs time-oriented signages if you can. Do we really need to remind customers that you are "closing down" or that they must "Hurry! While Stocks Last!" Certainly, a nudge in the right direction would help in closing the deal, but studies have shown that the longer customers linger in your shop, the better the likelihood of a bigger purchase.

3) Make it easy and convenient for them when doing the "nasties". Offer as many different modes of payment as possible, and delivery service to their homes if the items are heavy or bulky. As far as possible, look at ways to eliminate queues at the checkout counters because waiting to pay is the worst possible way for one to spend one's time.

4) Invest in creating a physical ambience that is timeless. What this means is to imbue the retail or consumption experience with signals and cues that depart from mediocre mundanity. An example could be using decor which suggests a more romantic era if you operate a restaurant (eg a ship's deck, or a futuristic spaceship), or have your staff dress up like comic book characters. The whole atmosphere has to be choreographed and curated to reflect that sensibility.

5) Ensure that every staff member is a performer in every sense of the word. To capture the imagination of your customers, workers should help to feed into the fantasy of timelessness. They should play their part as fellow orchestrators of the experience, interacting and chatting with customers as if they are long-time friends (but doing it sincerely), and adding to the moment.

6) Don't forget about the "befores" and "afters". As I highlighted earlier, create anticipation for your customers before the actual visit and purchase. However, don't neglect the post sales experience when your customer is back at home using your product or recalling his or her memories of a visiting or dining experience. Employ subtle cues that help to prolong the memories - a little card that offers a discount for the next purchase, a birthday greeting that comes with a free gift, or a website/blog which chronicles the experience further. These help to prolong the journey further and make it longer lasting.

In a time-starved world, the common adage is to increase productivity as much as possible so that customers can just transact and go. Too many businesses are running the race of trying to beat the clock, faster and faster, without any care for personalised service.

If one can turn the tables upside down and ditch any chronological cues, it may help one's guests and customers to better cherish their consumption experience with less worry. It will be like having a holiday each time they visit you, albeit in smaller bite-sized chunks.

What do you think?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Why Less is Often More - The Power of Focus

Should we strive to be all things to all men in marketing? Or would it be better to focus on a few products and zoom in on specific areas of strengths?

From what I have read lately, being narrow-minded may be preferred to being broad-minded. Well at least when you are pitting yourself against goliath.

To understand this issue better, let us first look at the phenomenon of creating brand halos, a term coined by Al Ries. Also known as the father of the positioning strategy in marketing together with Jack Trout, Ries explains how the discipline of psychology can be applied to marketing. According to him, "...If psychology is the systematic study of human behavior, then marketing is the systematic study of human behavior in the marketplace."

By focusing on creating singularly spectacular products and highlighting them to the world, companies like Apple achieved major breakthroughs with hits like its iPod MP3 players. Apple blew the iPod up with its huge advertising blitzkrieg, even though it only accounted for 39% of Apple's gross sales. This resulted in a huge dominance of the marketplace where Apple's share of of the digital music market is a whopping 73.9%. In fact, "the iPod brand is so dominant that almost nobody knows which brand is in second place. (For the record, it’s iRiver with a minuscule 4.8 percent share.)"

Courtesy of Branding Strategy Insider

So what's the moral of this story?

Well, the positive spillover effects of a brand halo can lift consumer perceptions of all the other product brands in a company's stable. Instead of diluting one's marketing and advertising spend over a whole basket of brands - dogs, cash cows, stars or question marks - one could focus on promoting and publicising the number one and two product that you want to emblazon on people's hearts and minds. Achieving such market dominance will make it easier for you to bring on a second or third brand in future, just like how iPod did it with the equally phenomenal iPhone.

In a related fashion, Seth Godin shared that it may be better to focus on one thing and do it well rather than try to juggle too many different products. He cited the well-loved example of the chai wallah, an ubiquitous provider of the much loved spiced tea which fueling India's workforce. By focusing on being good at one thing, chai wallahs have thrived over the years despite the onslaught of foreign competition.

The singular product focused world of Chai Wallahs (courtesy of Chai Pilgrimage)

Our final blog post comes from Michel Fortin, who proposed that focusing on niche marketing may be better than competing on price.

Fortin sensibly advised that trying to compete against the behemoths like Walmart, Target and eBay is like "fishing in a larger body of water where there are more fish, the fish are more spread out, and there are more competitors going after the same fish you are."

Going against the big guys is also an exercise in futility, as the "sheer size of such big box Goliaths gives them a sizeable competitive advantage — particularly purchasing power, both in terms of products sold and advertising dollars."

Nobody does price or selection better than Walmart (Courtesy of galaygobi)

What should one do then? The key is to focus on the value that is perceived by one's customers and to be as unique and differentiated in one's offerings as much as possible.

In his words, "The more unique you are, the less competition you will have. The less competition you have, the less substitutable you are. And the less substitutable you are, the less impor­tant price becomes." By exploiting niches - which may not just be niche markets per se but "holes" in current mainstream markets that are not filled - companies are able to offer compelling products that can meet a latent need, want or desire.

In the three examples seen here, it is clear that focus is the key - be it in brand advertising and marketing, product selection, or market selection. Small businesses in particular should heed this advice as their lack of resources make it difficult to employ a price or selection based strategy. It may thus augur businesses well to do just one or two things well and channel their energies in communicating those areas, just as Al Ries, Seth Godin and Michel Fortin have advised.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Fragility and Fury of Pompeii

After waiting for the (non-volcanic) dust to settle from my assignments, readings and thesis writing, I took some time off today to visit the exhibition "A Day in Pompeii" that is now showing at the Melbourne Museum till the end of October. I have a personal interest to view this blockbuster exhibition as I have visited the site some 15 years ago in 1994 when I toured Europe as an undergraduate. If you wish, you can actually experience Pompeii online with this wonderful virtual walk through that allows you to see what is available in each gallery. Of course, nothing beats the real thing!

Nestled in what is now close to modern day Naples in Italy, the ancient city of Pompeii lived under the ominous shadow of the volcanic Mount Vesuvius. Citizens and residents of that town-city were used to the occasional rumblings of the dormant volcano, and took it quite matter of factly. It became a part and parcel of life, according to famed Roman lawyer and magistrate Pliny the Younger. Nobody could have suspected that a disaster of cataclysmic proportions was about to occur.

As I walked through the galleries of the exhibition, it dawned on me that life in the heydays of the mighty Roman Empire was one of hedonistic pleasure and abundance. I could imagine myself as an ordinary Roman, engaging in commerce using the Roman coins (inscribed with the image of Caesar), conversing with friends in the village square, soaking in the cool waters of the public baths, indulging in feasts like fresh bread, cheese and fish, washed down with fine wine. If I felt bored, I could book a place at the coliseum to watch strapping young gladiators sparring with each other or fighting against lions and other wild beasts.

All that changed on the fateful day and night of 24 August AD 79.

What started out as a murmur grew bigger and more violent as the day passed, hour by hour, minute by minute. Volcanic ash and rocks like pumice and sandstone were strewn high into the air, cascading down upon neighbouring towns like Herculaneum and Pompeii. As the rumblings grew stronger and more violent, roof tiles fell from houses and residents, and ordinary Pompeii-ans fled if they could.

As the mountain of fire grew taller and spewed a vertical cloud of hot ash and stone that reached 30 km into the sky and was superheated up to close to 1000 Deg Celcius. The Sun was obscured and hidden by the thick smoke and ash, enshrouding the region in a deadly darkness. As the hellish rain of ash, rock and smoke plummeted down upon the Earth, it killed anything that it came into contact with.

Unfortunately, many were caught in the hail of brimstone and fire. An estimated 10,000 to 25,000 from Herculaneum and Pompeii perished virtually overnight. What's especially chilling to note is that Mount Vesuvius is still active and considered one of the world's most dangerous volcano. Its last eruption was in 1944.

The plaster-casts of humans trying to escape were horrifying and life-changing reminders of the extent of Mother Nature's wrath. A man and a woman embraced their last, while a young woman shielded her face with her robe in the midst of the deadly rain. A prisoner chained to his cell still bore the iron shackles which held him to his painful death, unable to escape the tragedy of his transgressions. Especially poignant was the cast of a dog, its bronze collar displaying shades of green around its neck, a victim of its master's negligence.

Naturally, the aftermath of Mount Vesuvius' fury is well-documented and studied. In fact, Pompeii is considered to be the most well known archaeological site in the world and purported to be the catalyst for archaeology. To date, about two-thirds of the site has been unearthed, while historians, scientists and archaeologists slowly uncover more and more of this buried city, ever conscious of the need to preserve its integrity as much as possible.

What's especially significant about my visit was the reflection of how fragile life can be in the wake of Nature's all consuming power. Man in all his glory and might is but a puny living thing at the mercy of God. The edifices of civilisation and achievements of culture are but a mere scratch on the Earth's surface compared to epic scale and scope of physical and natural forces. Pompeii is a sobering reminder for us to pay our respects to the land, sea and mountains where we draw sustenance from and to stop our destructive practices and habits.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Which Comes First? The Picture or the Word?

On the world of advertising, three posts in particular hit me recently. All three looked at the various visual and verbal effects of advertisements and their relative impacts on a consumer's response.

The first is by Vivienne of Versa Creations, who shared about Ikea's latest advertisement which apparently confuses more than it convinces with poorly taken pictures. Have a look at the advertisement below to see what I mean:

Courtesy of Versa Creations

Being a great fan of Ikea's advertisements, I was rather disappointed by this latest incarnation. In Vivienne's own words,

"I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw this ad.
Poor choreography.
Ironically, the headline said '… it’s more about creativity and coordination'."

Apparently, Ikea's troubles are not merely limited to its photographs but its typography too. Kevin Roberts of Saatchi & Saatchi shared that the company's change of fonts have resulted in an uproar amongst its many fans. Have a look at the new Ikea catalogue below and the change in the fonts used:

Courtesy of idsgn

Seems to be just a small matter right? Wrong. By switching from Futura to Verdana, Ikea has alienated its global design fans. This has even resulted in an online petition (now 6,387 signatures) created to protest against this decision. Kevin hit the nail on the head by sharing that "Brands are not owned by management. They are owned by the people. Designers have been vocal advocates for Ikea’s stylish yet budget-friendly products. And now they feel betrayed."

While the picture may paint a thousand words, it is often the copy in ads and their relationship to a powerful visual which leads to success. This is the point of a second post from Branding Insider by marketing guru Al Ries. In it, Al explains that the visual is the "hammer" while the words are the "nails" in an advertisement. To succeed in leaving a significant impact in the hearts and minds of consumers, both graphic designers and copywriters must work together. In his own words,

"...a visual alone is not enough. You need to connect the visual to a powerful verbal statement. When the two work together, when you have an exceptionally powerful hammer and an exceptionally sharp nail, the results can be astounding."

Citing the example of BMW, Al declares that the use of the tagline "Ultimate Driving Machine", great copy and strong and stirring visuals helped propel the German carmaker to outsell Mercedes globally. While Mercedes uses the tri-star logotype as its main brand visual, BMW deftly combines both image and text to move the hearts and pockets of its prestige conscious customer. An example can be seen below:

Courtesy of Branding Strategy Insider.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

On a Cold, Dark and Still Night...

After a fun-filled day of climbing windy cliffs, gawking at gaping pelicans, and strolling amongst slippery sea lions, we made our way back to our resort at American River of Kangaroo Island. The night was cold, very dark (street lights are infrequent on Kangaroo Island) and extremely quiet. Not a soul was stirring as our rented car trundled past the dirt path nearing our residence at Casuarina Suites.


Until suddenly, I thought I spotted something with two bright shining eyes staring right at me beside the fence on the road.


Yes, ladies and gentlemen! Our first kangaroo at Kangaroo Isl.... Ummm wait kangaroos aren't that small right? As we steered the car and slowed down to a crawl amidst the trees and bushes framing the night sky...


Behold! We spotted not just one but a few of them... wallabies (yes that's what they were). Kangaroo Island wallabies just outside our holiday home. Here's one of them:


And another one of them little furry marsupials...


Boy, were we excited and happy that night! Nothing beats hunting for wallabies in your own (holiday) backyard.

After having a good night's rest, it was time for us to leave our temporary home. You can see Ethan looking quite sad and morose at that prospect...


Or was he really that despondent? Look again.


I took some shots of the serene, rustic and scenic surroundings, like this post office here (which also functioned quaintly as the front office of our accommodation).


And a nearby church for the tiny congregation on the island.


Further down the road, I stopped to fill up the gas tank of the car at this place, which also doubled up as a convenience store.


We took the opportunity to admire the river-side landscape and environment. First was Ethan and Tina.


Followed by Ethan and myself. Notice how our son is always one step ahead of us!


Like in almost all stopovers, Ethan spent some time in the playground here...


During this time, we decided to spend some time bird-watching. The first water fowl we encountered though didn't appear very happy or active.


Fortunately, the rest were quite happily doing what birds of the same feather do, besides flocking together of course. Pelicans and seagulls were resting in the grass patch in the sun.


Ibises were wading in the water and looking for some tasty marine morsel of crustacean or fish.


While black swans were swimming gracefully in the still water.


It was literally and figuratively a picture of peace and placidity, calming and soothing for the mind, body and soul.

Will we finally get to see some REAL kangaroos here? The answer can be found in my next post...

NB - No animals, birds or humans were harmed in the making of this post.