Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Greatest Tip in Social Media

Which would you rather be? A marathoner or a 100-metre dasher? (source)

Do you know what the most important tip in social media success is?

Let me give you a few hints.

It isn't about creativity, celebrity or comedy. It isn't about befriending a thousand friends on Facebook, Twitter, or Plurk.

Nor is it about fabulous photographs, wickedly outrageous videos, or prose from paradise.

Give up?

Well, the simple answer is consistency and continuity.

Everybody can start a blog, youtube channel, or flickr page. Putting up a facebook fan page is a breeze, and so are creating short 144 word Twitter or Plurk updates.

However, sustaining them on a regular basis can become a challenge. After a while, writing 100 word posts, editing and selecting photos, and putting up snappy and witty asides on Twitter can become quite a grind. Trying to always be the most comprehensive and updated blogger, twitterer, or video sharer can be a tiring exercise.

Especially when real life (and work) beckons.

How does one maintain an online presence for the long haul then? Here are some rules which I try to follow:

First, be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses. Not everybody can be as funny as Kenny Sia, thought provoking as Seth Godin, or diva-like as Xiaxue. However, you can carve a niche in an area that you're confident in.

Next, be mindful of finding the right rhythm and cadence for yourself. Don't adopt too gruelling a pace and encounter blog burnout. Take it from me. Initially, I tried to be a "post-a-day" blogger, but I found the pace too punishing. I'm now settling for a new post every two to three days, and it seems to be more comfortable.

You should also manage your expectations on what your digital real estate seeks to achieve.

If you're looking to monetize your websites or blogs, be prepared to work hard in getting the right keywords in, follow the latest news, and befriend the greatest number of fans. With a gazillion competitors out there, you have to be relentless and restless.

If however, you just want to a place to share your thoughts and creative outputs, the amount of rigour required would probably be reduced.

Finally, know thyself (as George Lam in a Guiness Stout advert would say).

Are you somebody who has tremendous discipline and are able to stick to a rigid and tight schedule? Or do you prefer to have more flexibility in your life so that you can shoot the breeze when the occasion calls for it?

Establishing a social media presence isn't about a grand beginning or a fabulous finish. It is all about the journey - the steps you take along the route, the friends that you make along the way, and the digital ink that you spill on your virtual canvasses. It is also about balance, moderation and longevity - a marathon if you may as opposed to a sprint.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Has Bali Lost Its Allure?

Ibu Oka's Babi Guling at Ubud

Bali has always held special meaning to me and my wife. It was on this tropical island that we had our honeymoon way back in January 2003. Back then, I was so inspired by the holiday experience and customer encounters that I wrote an article that was published in the Straits Times on the legendary hospitality of Balinese.

Sadly things have changed, even at Ubud (Bali's cultural heart) which is supposedly less mercantilist than Kuta, Uluwatu or the coastal cities. While its verdant and pastoral landscapes have largely remained, the ugly effects of commercialisation and gentrification have left major scars on the island.

For a start, the traffic was horrendous! There are so many cars, coaches, vans and motorcycles - especially motorcycles - crawling around the island that even crossing the tiniest lane can be a hazardous experience. In fact, the gridlock was even worse than Singapore's city centre during our morning rush hour!

With a six-and-a-half year old in tow, my wife and I had to be perpetually watchful of the endless flow of vehicles. Oh, I forgot to add that driving here (like many Asian cities) probably requires one to have a stint in Hollywood as a stunt driver.

I've also noticed how much more mercenary the folks on the island are now. Asking for directions anywhere often result in an instant sales pitch by the person providing the information. Taxi touts are everywhere.

Hailing a cab - licensed or otherwise - now comes with having to endure an almost predictable series of questions from the driver which goes like this:

Driver: "Where do you come from?"

Us: "Singapore"

Driver: "Ahh, Singapore. Beautiful country. How long will you be in Bali?"

Us: "We'll be staying for another two nights in Ubud."

Driver: "Good. Have you been to _____, ______ and _____?"

Us: "Yes, we have. We have also hired a driver for the next few days."

Driver (slightly miffed): "Ohhh." (pauses before continuing) "how much did he charge you?"

Us: "....."

While most Balinese are warm and friendly, F&B service levels have largely stagnated - even at the leading/award winning restaurants in Ubud where we dined!

On a few occasions, the waiters and waitresses forgot to set the table for my son (probably because we did not order a main for him) and had to be gently reminded. They also lack initiative in providing us with extra sets of bowls or plates even after knowing that we intend to share our food.

Perhaps the most glaring incident occurred at the Tsavo Lion's Cafe in Bali Safari Park. My son Ethan was feeling a little unwell (probably carsick) during dinner and ended up vomiting. Being quick thinking parents (who learnt from painful experience), my wife and I shoved an empty plate under him so that he can regurgitate with minimal "collateral damage".

When we asked the waitresses for help, the expressions on their faces were ones of disgust and distaste. One of them even tried to shove a plastic bag to us (probably with the assumption that we will bag the mess ourselves). I insisted that they should clear the plate of unmentionables and they did so rather begrudgingly. It was only a few minutes later that a male waiter came to ask how our son was.

Finally, pollution appears to be the order of the day. The endless streams of motor vehicles result in permanent fumes cloying one's nostrils. Littering is also fairly rampant, even in rice fields and farms, and cigarette butts are strewn everywhere.

Having said all the above, Bali does have its saving graces. Much of its cultural heritage, artisanal traditions and warm hospitality has remained. The island also possesses breathtaking natural and rural environments that are largely pristine.

Unfortunately, crass commercialisation has reduced the natural charm of the island and its inhabitants. Many things are tagged with a dollar - or rupiah - sign. While its tourism infrastructure has modernised and improved, service standards have unfortunately not progressed at the same pace.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Off to Undulating Ubud


To recharge, refresh, and relax, my family and I are heading off to Ubud this afternoon for a short break. Considered one of the more scenic and rustic spots in Bali, Ubud is the cultural centre of the island dotted with numerous art galleries, craft markets, museums and temples. From what I've seen and read, the Ubud region is full of picturesque scenes - rustic rice terraces, swaying coconut palms, charming temples, and healing resorts.

Of course, we will also be travelling to other parts of the island like Kuta Beach, Tanalok, and the Mara River (we'll be staying a night at the Mara River Safari Lodge to experience lions upclose and personal). Hopefully, we'll be able to catch a procession or two - those are quite spectacular from what I've seen and heard.

Do take care during the interim and see you all next week!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

NTUC Income Scores with Flooding Ad

This morning, I was alerted to this full page advertisement in The Straits Times by Tessa Wong, one of its journalists on her Twitter account. Created by NTUC Income, a leading general insurer in Singapore, it caught the eye of many on Twitter who retweeted it to their friends and followers.

I applaud NTUC Income for scoring several goals (this being World Cup season) with this:

1) Taking advantage of a hot and very current issue at the top of everybody's minds.

2) Linking it creatively to it's products and services, without having to say too much.

3) Using a very powerful visual (a flooded car) and giving it due acknowledgement in the credit line for the photograph.

4) Writing a strong headline that is closely associated with the photograph with a nicely crafted double entendre woven into its meaning.

5) Being nimble enough to pull off such an advertising stunt despite being one of the largest insurance companies in Singapore.

The best thing about this advertisement is that it is eye-catching without being offensive to anybody. Well done NTUC Income!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Digging Deeper To Find Gold

Finding treasure requires a lot of investigating and digging. Just ask Indiana Jones! (source)

In any successful marketing endeavour, one must be willing to think, live and breathe like one's potential customer. This also means that preconceived notions and prejudices must be tested and thrown out the window if they are proven untrue.

What are some of these common misconceptions and myths? Let me offer some examples.

1) The clubbing and pubbing scene in Singapore is only full of young adults who love to party, drink till they drop and camwhore.

The truth is that young adults don't drink alcohol that much, preferring instead to sip their capuccinos and frapuccinos in cafes. On the contrary, there are lots of older adults who pub and club.

2) Orchard Road shopping centres are always crowded and hence should be avoided. Neighbourhood HDB malls (in public/subsidised housing estates) are usually less hip and happening.

Just visit Tampines Mall or Jurong Point on a weekend to see the truth for yourself!

3) Seniors are normally tea-imbibing, chinese chess playing, tai-chi practising folks who have all the time in the world.

With the rise of dual-income households, who actually takes care of the babies in your home? The family dog?

4) Museums and art galleries are dull, intellectual and quiet places. Nobody goes there except school kids.

On the contrary, some 2.8 million visitors visited NHB's museums last year.

5) Social networking channels are full of dangerous digital denizens who are ready to spam, flame, or troll your organisation when given the opportunity.

They are also be full of people who are civic-minded, community-oriented and likely to support a worthy cause. Just check out the 16,150 members (and growing) in the Singapore Police Force's Facebook page.

Conventional wisdom may sometimes be fraught with folly. Smart marketers know that the truth isn't always found in stark contrasts of black and white. Rather, it is painted in various shades of grey.

The worst thing one can do is to launch a new business, product or service based entirely on hearsay. Similarly, holding back on an opportunity just because most people are afraid or wary of doing so limits the ponds and rivers where you can fish in.

To understand how your targeted customers truly behave, spend time talking and interacting with as many of them as possible and observe what they do. Spending time walking the talk, going down to the shops and observing actual consumer behaviours are critical in preventing mis-alignments of strategy with reality.

The next time somebody offers an excuse why a particular product or service is destined to succeed/fail, don't just go with his or her opinion. Dig deeper and harder to unearth the nuggets of truth. They can mean the difference between striking gold and hitting a granite wall.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Ritz Carlton's Legendary Service

The Right People and Processes makes Ritz Carlton the epitome of guest luxury and experience (source)

At the kind invitation of the Singapore Tourism Board, I had the privilege of learning all about Ritz Carlton's famed service strategies from Diana Oreck, its Vice President of Global Learning & Leadership Centre. A two-time winner of the Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award, Ritz Carlton manages 77 hotels in 24 countries, employs some 35,000 staff, and generates some US$3.2 billion in annual sales.

In the words of Oreck, Ritz Carlton's business practices are not rocket science. What's difficult though is staying the course and ensuring that its service is consistent. Embracing the notion of customers for life, the hotel chain considers its 'Ladies and Gentlemen' to be the most important resource in its commitment to guests. Its strong emphasis on staff development has led to a low employee turnover rate - from a mid 50% (1991) to a low 20% (2009).

With its legendary Gold Standards of service, Ritz Carlton provides all employees with a credo card emblazoned with its world famous motto: "We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen". In Oreck's words, "You cannot control how a customer behaves, but you can teach your employees how a lady and gentlemen behaves". This emphasis on its employees can also be seen in the hotel chain's Employee Promise which goes like this:

"At The Ritz-Carlton, our Ladies and Gentlemen are the most important resource in our service commitment to our guests. By applying the principles of trust, honesty, respect, integrity and commitment, we nurture and maximize talent to the benefit of each individual and the company. The Ritz-Carlton fosters a work environment where diversity is valued, quality of life is enhanced, individual aspirations are fulfilled, and The Ritz-Carlton Mystique is strengthened."

With a near obsession to understand both the expressed and unexpressed needs of guests, Ritz Carlton has Three Steps of Service:

1) A warm and sincere greeting. Use the guest's names.

2) Anticipation and fulfillment of each guests' needs.

3) Fond farewell. Give a warm good-bye and use the guest's name.

These basic behaviours are critical as a person only has 7 seconds to make a good impression in person, and only 2 seconds on the phone to do so.

Ritz Carlton also has a set of 12 Service Values (which are pretty self explanatory). These are grouped according to three categories:


1) I build strong relationships and create Ritz-Carlton guests for life.

2) I am always responsive to the expressed and unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests.

3) I am empowered to create unique, memorable and personal experiences for our guests.

Emotional Engagement

4) I understand my role in achieving the Key Success Factors, embracing Community Footprints and creating The Ritz-Carlton Mystique.

5) I continuously seek opportunities to innovate and improve The Ritz-Carlton experience.

6) I own and immediately resolve guest problems.

7) I create a work environment of teamwork and lateral service so that the needs of our guests and each other are met.

8) I have the opportunity to continuously learn and grow.

9) I am involved in the planning of the work that affects me.

Functional Values

10) I am proud of my professional appearance, language and behavior.

11) I protect the privacy and security of our guests, my fellow employees and the company's confidential information and assets.

12) I am responsible for uncompromising levels of cleanliness and creating a safe and accident-free environment.

According to Oreck, the golden nugget in personal service is to ensure that one doesn't overshadow the customer (its theatrical and performative in a way). She also shared about how each staff is empowered with a budget of $2,000 to make it right for guests - provided of course they are bona fide (they have ways to tell scammers from genuine ones).

Other than its array of measuring tools like mystery shopping and customer surveys, Ritz Carlton's famous Daily Line-up, which is like a team huddle every morning for 15 minutes amongst employees in each department. This process provides a "teachable moment" for supervisors to train their team members.

Finally, it became evident that Ritz Carlton's success lies in implementation. My two most important takeaways from the session were that the "flawless execution of the basics" is key to any service endeavour, coupled with the need to ensure that the strong belief that culture is not just part of the game, but the game itself.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Collecting versus Creating - A Digital Dilemma?

Don't just collect tonnes of digital crap! (source)

Beyond the curation of online information (text, photos, videos, games etc), social media strategists should also learn how to be judicious in the art and science of collection. However, just like working in a museum, collecting digital "treasures" need to be done purposefully.

Frequent online users collect (and consume) a lot of things.

We collect email addresses, mobile phone numbers, and MSN nicks.

We collect fans, friends, followers and commenters on social networks like blogs, Hardwarezone, forums, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Youtube.

We collect news and updates from an entire range of aggregators like Digg, Channelnewsasia.com, Huffington Post, Tomorrow.sg, Ping.sg and more.

We collect RSS feeds, blog posts, links, retweets, shared photos and videos, graphs, charts, slideshare slides and the like.

Admittedly, we also collect lots of digital drivel - celebrity slip-ups, social shenanigans, camwhore photos, and political skeletons in the closet. We also collect lots of irrelevant and irreverent information - tweets on that cute girl in the bus, Facebook grunts and grumbles, and the cries of despair in 140 characters or less.

(Of course, the fact that almost all online applications are FREE doesn't help, but I digress)

If we are not careful, we may end up collecting and re-spewing so much third party data and information that we become postboxes. With everything served in bite-sizes, one can easily over-indulge on digital candy and become bloated with (mis)information.

Perhaps it is time to apply the axe more frequently. Cut down on the streams of information coming your way. Be purposeful and selective in what you read, share, monitor and write. Separate the wheat from the chaff.

Instead of just being a passive collector and a disseminator, be a creator and a curator. Divide your time between reading/skimming other people's content, and rolling up your sleeves to create something meaningful and worthwhile of your own.

These can be in the form of blog posts, Facebook notes, Youtube videos, Flickr photos, an audio recording of your thoughts, or anything else that adds to the body of knowledge.

Of course, not everybody can write, tweet or produce an online episode as well as the kings and queens of social networks like Xiaxue, Seth Godin, Natalie Tran or Danny Choo. However, I firmly believe that original and real insights are sometimes more valuable than repurposed content.

Life is short. Don't just be a digital drifter or a real-time recycler. Let others hear your voice and know who you are. More importantly, do it for yourself and invest in the future.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Don't Lose the Long Form!

The greatest literary works Like "War and Peace" are not puny (source)

As more and more people consume information in byte-sized pieces, and veer towards Twitter, Facebook and other social networking platforms, it appears that we are losing the benefits of length.

Wait, hang on a minute. Am I telling you to be verbose and long-winded while beating about the bush? Isn't instant, real-time and succinct responses the beauty of the age of digitisation?

Well, before we get all fired up in a 140 character frenzy, consider this:

* The greatest works of literature on the planet are not thin. Think the Bible, Koran and J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

* Getting a PhD - the crowning glory of education (to some) - often requires one to write a pretty voluminous 100 page (or more) dissertation (of 100,000 words or more).

* Even advertising is going towards the long form with the phenomenon of branded entertainment, and this is further evidenced by the rise of Transmedia Storytelling.

* If you think about, sustaining a blog over a long haul is a form of long form writing, broken into multiple short chapters. However, most blog posts are short excerpts rather than thoughtfully articulated and nuanced pieces.

One of the greatest dangers arising from the ubiquity of weapons of mass distraction is that it reduces our ability to focus and concentrate.

Think about it. When was the last time you went to a meeting without stopping at least once, twice or more to glance at your mobile?

The frequent breaks in attention may also affect our ability to write and analyse critically. Strategic plans, business analysis, competitive intelligence, and market research all requires long, hard and drawn-out study and interpretation.

In fact, one of the greatest dangers of veering towards short methods of presenting (like powerpoint) is that it can make you stupid. Just ask the US Army about the folly of digital versus real bullets.

What can one do about this?

First, take a deep breath and try to clear yourself of all distractions. Switch off the mobile, turn off the blackberry, and log out of MSN, Facebook, and Twitter.

Next, try to read a book with at least 300 pages or more every day. It doesn't matter what your progress is like, so long as you chisel away at the tome, bit by bit. Subscribing and reading the quality press - Business Week, The Economist, and Financial Times - may also help you to digest more complex information and to reproduce them when needed.

You can also try to keep a blog, a paper diary, or a wiki of your life, and force yourself to pen some words or phrases regularly. Use this platform to engage in analytical exercises and stretch yourself intellectually and linguistically.

Finally, one should embrace the concept of lifelong learning and be willing to learn newer and more complex concepts, theories and ideas. A good habit is to write down and reproduce what you have learnt at conferences and workshops.

PS - For those of you who hanker to read longer and more well-developed articles, check out this great resource.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Eye Power versus i-Power


In the age of digital dominance and wicked widgets, one tends to lose the use of one's primary senses. Lulled by the comforts of computers, one can become oblivious to one's immediate surroundings and end up relying more on secondary rather than primary data.

By inadvertently shutting ourselves to the real world and gluing our eyes (and fingers) on our mobile computing devices, we may then rely on third party "gurus" and "experts". We put our trust on the charts, trends, data, and analytics churned out by researchers who are often located half a world away.

This may have grave consequences for marketers. Let me explain why.

For a start, different markets have vastly different characteristics. People living in a tight, tiny, and highly connected urban environment like Singapore has very different geographic, socio-demographic and psychographic characteristics from a city in the United States, Europe or Australia.

Most homes here are also small public apartments, and are inevitably more claustrophobic than sprawling suburban houses in the West. This means that people here tend to go out of their homes a lot more than their Western counterparts. Again, this affects buying behaviours.

Asian traditions and its emphasis on frugality also exert a critical difference in our purchasing behaviours. We are value shoppers and often wait for discounts, promotions and freebies before opening our wallets. The impact of group dynamics is also stronger in Asian societies - we are a lot more communal than individualistic here and this shows in our purchase habits.

What this means is that we shouldn't just rely wholly on digital analytics. One should be careful about confusing Facebook behaviours with face-to-face ones.

If you want to know how people are truly interacting with your product or service, go down to the shopfloor and study how they really behave. Listen to those conversations between potential customers and retail assistants. Use your eyes to see what customers actually do before opening their wallets (eg do they look at the price tag first, or the logo, or the features on the box?).

Such offline observations can also occur at the homes, offices, schools, and other places where people hang out. Eavesdrop (without appearing too rude!) if you can on what people are discussing, especially when it comes to lifestyle choices (shopping, movies, museum visits, picnics). Sense their body language and what seems to attract them more than others.

There is a time and place for secondary data and statistics. They form a useful base for us to launch new marketing efforts.

However, do not just trust in them alone. Instead use your eyes (and ears, noses, mouths and hands) to see what people are really doing instead of what they say they are doing. You may be surprised at the difference.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Singapore's Pavilion @ Shanghai World Expo

At the Shanghai World Expo 2010, the country pavilions are especially significant as they are iconic representations of what each country has to offer. After visiting those from Europe and the Americas, as well as those closer to home in China, Australia and Southeast Asia, how does Singapore's Pavilion compare?

Join me for an in-depth tour of the Singapore Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo.

Designed by architect Tan Kay Ngee, the Singapore Pavilion's theme is Urban Symphony. Evoking images of a music box, it "forms an orchestra of elements and a symphony for the senses – from the choreography of the plaza’s water fountain, the rhythm of fenestrations on the façade, the interplay of sounds and visuals, to the mélange of flora on the roof garden."

After getting around the rather long and and snaky queue, we saw videos of expatriate families who became permanent residents and loved it there. They include this cute caucasian girl who spoke brilliant Chinese.

We're one of the few pavilions with a fan as a gift to all visitors, shaped like an artist's palatte.

There were a total of four interactive stations on level one, which had trampolines for people to jump on. The pattern in the middle shaped from kwalis (or woks) was supposed to react to these actions.

Unfortunately, most of them weren't working due to wear and tear. :(

Displays like this helped to showcase the city's urban skyscraping splendour. Notice the prominent Far East Organisation logo in the exhibit - one of the pavilion's major sponsors.

These colourfully dressed performers were certainly a sight for sore eyes and provided an attractive visual break.

More queues, this time going up and around the pavilion to the second section (or movement).

Hmmm.... what are these unusual looking blotches on the wall? Let's look closer at the texts.

Ahhh.... these are vital statistics and figures of all the important things that we Singaporeans measure. One could consider them as a giant KPI board.

More performers greeted us with pleasant smiles along the way, this time decked in chilli-red fusion Malay costumes.

After at least 15 minutes or so, we finally got into the experiential theatre, which was phase 2 (2nd Movement) of the pavilion.

Inside, we watched a rather stirring music video on the pavilion's theme song called "Every Touching Moment". It starred Stephanie Sun, Tanya Chua, JJ Lin, and A-Do. I thought it was quite well made and perhaps the high point of the pavilion.

You can join me in experiencing the sensation by watching the video extracted above from Youtube for your viewing pleasure.

Finally, we clambered all the way to the open-air "3rd Movement" of the pavilion.

Here we were greeted by an array of tropical plants like orchids, palms, ferns and other indigenous Singapore flora. It also offered excellent vantage points for views of the neighbouring pavilions.

A close-up view of the plants which helped to portray our claim to fame as a Garden City (or a city in a garden).

On the ground floor of the Pavilion, we spotted some uniquely Singaporean food like laksa, satay and chicken rice (catered by Kriston), as well as a souvenir shop featuring the mascot of Singapore's Pavilion called Liu Lian Xiao Xing (榴莲小星). Here's Alvin and I striking a pose after our trip around the pavillion.

Acknowledgements: This tour of Shanghai World Expo was made possible by Coca-Cola as part of their recent blogger's tour to the Shanghai World Expo for APAC bloggers.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Your Most Important Customers

With courtesy from Starfleetyachts.com

Who should you pay the most attention to in your organisation?

A) The guy or girl who makes a purchase of your product or service.

B) The shareholders of your firm, watching over its profit margins with eagle eyes.

C) The sales assistant working hard to seal that transaction.

D) The CEO of the company, issuing orders and barking edicts to ensure everything is in order.

E) The storeman, ensuring that the goods are delivered on time.

F) The finance manager, helping to keep track of expenses and revenue for the organisation.

Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, most of us would probably mouth off the most politically correct term, ie A), the actual paying customer himself or perhaps B), the shareholders providing much-needed capital injection. After all, without their cash, the rest could call it quits, pack their bags and go home.

The truth however isn't as straightforward as it seems. Often, C) to F), ie one's colleagues, bosses, and direct reports, play a critical role in the execution of any strategy. Without their belief, support, and enthusiasm, the best laid plans of mice and men WILL go awry.

Getting internal buy-in is one of the most important tasks in management and leadership. Traditionally, those in higher positions of power have an easier task than those occupying the lower rungs of the corporate ladder. However, this needn't always be the case - one can exert positive influence through one's own knowledge, networks, and areas of specialisation.

In this day and age where social media channels and digital platforms provide instant ideas at the click of a mouse, the most difficult task isn't in thinking about what to do. Understanding customers, reaching them through superior audience analytics, and pinpointing their likes and dislikes is now run-of-the-mill. Almost everybody would have read a Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell, Mitch Joel or Clay Shirky book.

Rather, the greatest impetus should lie in getting the people involved in the actual jobs of delivering value to the customer (and shareholder) to do so, while being centrally aligned to corporate goals and ideals. Without the buy-in, support, and more often than not, friendship of internal customers, the greatest strategies will come to nought.

PS - Check out this brilliant internal customer mapping tool from Johnson Controls which is available free:

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Promise and Peril of Starbucks

Taylor Clark doesn't like Starbucks. However, he does patronise its outlets. Apparently he is not alone, as there are many who publicly profess their distaste for Starbucks' "almost burnt" brew while still swarming towards their outlet.

That in a nutshell is the premise behind the book "Starbucked" authored by Clark, a Portland-based journalist who appears to have more than a little caffeinated chip on his shoulder while appearing to be balanced in his authorship. Unlike the more glowing titles featuring the world's most famous purveyor of coffee as experience, Clark squarely places both the pros and the cons of the cafe behemoth in his book.

In case you don't already know, Starbucks rules. With more than 17,100 stores in almost 50 countries around the world, it is the largest coffeehouse company globally. Unlike McDonald's however, each store is owned by the company itself, which makes the chain even more impressive asset-wise.

Starbucks around the world (courtesy of Wikimedia commons)

Unlike a typical business book, "Starbucked" doesn't just share the secret formula behind Howard Schultz's meteoric success as the CEO and Chairman of the chain. You get truckloads of trivia about the history of the bean, its ascendance to the throne in traditionally tea-drinking countries, as well as the moral dilemmas created by superstar coffeehouses charging US$4 per cappuccino when only 5 percent of that cost ($0.20) comes from the roasted coffee beans themselves (the raw product from farmers costs even less).

For sure, one can pick up tips about Starbucks stellar success from its corporate heritage (its first outlet was opened at the Pike Place Market in Seattle in 1971 by Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl, and Gordon Bowker), its razor-sharp real estate strategies, its spot-on modular store design and renovation processes, its incessant emphasis on productivity, as well as its emphasis on coffee as theatre.

Readers can also learn about how Schultz's romantic obsession with experience led to him purveying the word third place (first coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg). While the use of the term is contested by Oldenburg himself, it is hard to imagine a more apt description of a Starbucks store - from Seattle to Singapore to Seoul.

While its omnipresence and ubiquity appear to be fairly welcomed around the world, Starbucks has also raised the ire of many tradition loving stimulant sippers. In Clark's book, the following transgressions were claimed:

-Killing the character of neighbourhoods and employing predatory tactics to take out locally owned coffeehouses.

-Causing the suffering of millions of Third World coffee farmers by paying unfair prices for beans.

-Pedding a product that is harmful to our health (and to our delicate palates).

-Exploiting its employees and cruching their attempts to unionise.

-Homogenising the planet and destroying cultural diversity by saturating the world with its stores.

In a chapter called "The Seattle Colonies", Clark chronicled how Starbucks' globe-conquering ways encountered resistance in regions like the Middle East and Beijing (which was later soothed by the engagement of superstar Zhang Ziyi), while being warmly embraced practically everywhere else. Its troubles with unions appear to be a long-running feud, although the short employment terms of most its staff make any industrial actions difficult to sustain.

Engaging Zhang Ziyi as a spokesperson helped Starbucks swell in China (source)

Overall, the book is well-written in an often witty and sometimes caustic fashion. While Clark makes no bones about detesting Starbuck's erosion of indigeneity, he also admits that it does have its virtues. Be emphasising uniformity and quality (albeit at a rather steep price), Starbucks helps to bring forth a calming and reassuring presence in an increasingly unstable corporate world. And that perhaps is the true "Holy Grail" in its caffeinated offerings to the world.