Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mischief in the Museum

Can we allow 'real life' games in our museums ala Da Vinci Code and the Louvre? (source of image)

Should we allow people to 'play' in the museums? How much leeway should we provide for spontaneous citizen initiated activities and when should we say no?

Nina Simon of Museum 2.0 highlighted recent buzz-worthy examples of unsolicited 'pranks' in two hallowed institutions: The Met and the Smithsonian Institution.

In the first, prank collective Improv Everywhere staged an event at the Metropolitan Museum where an actor posed as King Philip IV of Spain and signed autographs in front of his portrait.

"King Phillip" (Courtesy of Improv Everywhere)

For the second, students Jenny Burrows and Matt Kappler created an unauthorized ad campaign for the Smithsonian as part of a school project. These "historically hardcore" images attracted a lot of attention (positive and negative) on the internet.

An example of a "historically hardcore" fake ad (courtesy of buzzfeed)

Apparently, both endeavours have raised considerable debate and discourse, with some supporting them while others criticising these efforts.

While shock and awe initiatives like the above may raise the ire of some museum professionals, one mustn't be mistaken into thinking that they are fuddy duddy. After all, many major museums have embraced comedy and mainstream appeal in their marketing and programming decisions.

For example, closer to home, the museums under the National Heritage Board have worked with magicians JC Sum and Magic Babe Ning recently for their Explore Singapore! campaign,

Courtesy of Backstage Business

The Smithsonian Institution itself has worked with comedian Steve Martin, and featured many of its museums in the Hollywood blockbuster Night at the Museums II.

Courtesy of Ben Stiller dot Net

I suppose some buzz is good for museums to raise their mindshare and heartshare in an increasingly crowded consumer marketplace, while ensuring that they do not subtract from the equity of their brands. Its important for cultural institutions to have some internal guidelines and policies governing unanticipated "guerrilla" activities.

If the activities are mostly harmless without being damaging to the artworks, artefacts, or sensitivities of persons, one could condone and even support such citizen-centric endeavours. Some may help to generate media attention and public interest - a hard won value that is increasingly elusive these days. It also helps an institution to build fans.

If however there is malice or potential harm in such activitities, it may be prudent for museum officials to keep a watchful eye out for them and to politely say no.

What do you think?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

6 Lessons in Japanese Resilience

Against the cataclysmic forces of Nature, few have responded as well as the Japanese (courtesy of Stars that Shine)

It is often in the worst of times that you see the best in people. Nothing is more true than how the Japanese faced the recent Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami on the Northeast coast of Japan.

According to this wonderful post from Garr Reynolds' of Presentation Zen, there are a few principles at play here:

1) Construction-destruction-construction

In Japanese companies, people are often transferred to different parts of the company with the intention of learning different aspects of the business. This process of tearing down and building again is part and parcel of life in Japan. According to Reynolds, it is also associated with a culture that values personal responsibility, diligence, humility, a sense of belonging, and contributing to a community.

2) Fall down seven times, get up eight (七転び八起き)

According to a Japanese proverb: "Nana korobi ya oki" (literally: seven falls, eight getting up) the Japanese know that no matter how many times you get knocked down, you get up again. This ethic is reinforced in all facets of Japanese culture including education, business, sports, and the martial arts.

3) Never give up!

This is related to the one above and is the spirit of gambaru (頑張る). It deals with the issue of tenacity and sticking persistently and doggedly until a task is done. I like the literal term “gambette” which is like the Chinese saying "jiayou" (加油) which means “fight on!” and “never give up!” In good times or bad, one shouldn't complaint, behave selfishly or do things which don't contribute to the overall good.

Other than the above, I'd like to propose the following points:

4) Being able to remain steadfast despite one's circumstances. Few need to be reminded on how stoic the Japanese have remained in the face of tremendous adversity. From the replies of ordinary Japanese affected by the disaster to the media, to the way they behave in orderly fashion, one can tell that they are a people who can focus on what needs to be done as opposed to what's already being done.

5) Embracing the principles of Zen and mindfulness. Through adopting a meditative attitude full of mindfulness, the Japanese were able to clarify their thoughts and to focus on the task at hand. I guess this also allowed the Japanese to separate themselves from the situation and not be overcome by debilitating grief or utter panic. By tuning out all negative emotions and destructive feelings, they emerge more strongly than before.

6) Finally, it is clear that the spirit of sacrific and the Confucian belief of putting the community before self is imbued in many Japanese. The heroic workers at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant (known as the Fukushima 50) have clearly demonstrated this virtue by being willing to step into eminent danger despite knowing the huge risks they are putting themselves into.

Having said the above, it will still take a huge amount of willpower, fortitude, and "can-do" spirit to rebuild Japan after the huge damage inflicted by Mother Nature. Life may never be the same again for many.

However, I am fully confident that our friends from the land of the rising Sun will ascend yet again and be the economic and cultural powerhouse of the East, shaping trends, tastes and technology.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Zooming in on Zappos

Tony Hsieh, CEO and Chief Happiness Officer of (courtesy of Sunni Brown)

Few companies are as zealous as Zappos in ensuring that excellence is ingrained into every single process, person and pore of the organisation. Radical and almost ruthless in their quest for the holy customer grail, Zappos is famous for legendary strategies such as the following:

- Paying brand-new employees US$2,000 to quit if they feel that the job is not right

- Allowing customers to return their goods one full year after their purchase (and paying for all shipping costs too!)

- Surprising customers with free overnight shipping even though the time needed is normally 4 to 5 days

- Making company culture the number one priority of every single person in the organisation

- Creating one of the flattest organisation in history, where employees could tell the CEO what he should do with his money!

Led by web wunderkid Tony Hsieh, who at the age of 24 years sold LinkExchange to Microsoft for US$265 million, Zappos is probably a dream come true for many. Highly social media savvy with a geeky rockstar demeanour, Hsieh (who has some 1.8 million followers on Twitter) is responsible for growing the company from almost nothing to over US$1 billion in gross sales.

More recently, Zappos was sold off to Amazon for a princely sum of US$928 million in total under pressure from its VCs. Fortunately, its charismatic chief Hsieh still helms the ship while Amazon promised that it wouldn't interfere with Zappos in any way.

What are the secrets of success at Zappos? How has it succeeded while many web-based B2C firms have failed (often spectacularly)?

At Zappos, CULTURE is the number one strategy. Employee engagement is way up there on the priority list, and this is why Zappos is considered as one of the best companies in the world to work for.

Adopting the mantra "Your Culture is Your Brand", cultural consciousness is deeply embodied by every single member of the team. It is also encapsulated in its Core Values which are openly shared for all to see. These are namely:

1. Deliver WOW Through Service
2. Embrace and Drive Change
3. Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
5. Pursue Growth and Learning
6. Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
8. Do More With Less
9. Be Passionate and Determined
10. Be Humble

In Delivering Happiness, the title of a semi-autobiographical book by Hsieh, the company has even developed a Happiness Framework that looked like this:

Courtesy of Sunni Brown

Accordingly, if one moves from bottom left to top right, there are 3 types of happiness for anybody working in an organisation in ascending order (akin to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs), from:

Pleasure (Rock Star) - Chasing the next high


Passion (Flow and Engagement) - Time flies

to, finally

Purpose - Being part of something bigger than yourself

While having the right culture doesn't guarantee you success (if you're in the wrong industry to begin with), it does help to raise the chances of success for your business. I, for one, am inspired to see if there is a way for my organisation to emulate Zappos in its trailblazing ways.

PS - Zappos has a communication policy that goes like this "Be Real and Use Your Best Judgement!" How cool is that!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

KLM's Highest Party in the World

Every once in a while, you come across a marketing idea so radical that you simply have to talk about it. That honour today belongs to airline company KLM and its effort in creating the highest party in the world where a DJ gets to spin music 35,000 feet in the air.

What's cool about this effort is that it came about from a bet between KLM and two DJs/creative producers - Sied van Riel and Wilco Jung - to organise a party on board a plane for the very first time. I like how it weaves in online channels (like a blog, website, and online radio station) with a grand idea of a party for those who have the time, money and energy.

So what's the deal like for party-goers cum holidaymakers? Well, first you have to get to Amsterdam in Holland, and board a special KLM flight there. For a fee of EUR 499 (Economy class), here's what they'll get:

* Free stay at Catalina Hotel & Beach club, 21-28 March
* DJ’s performing at Schiphol’s departure hall 3
(11.00-11.45 hrs)
* Party experience on board
* DJ’s will perform live on board
* On air radio by BNN
* Fresh mojitos
* Festival snacks
* Goodiebag with party gear
* Press will be there as well

Sounds good eh? Because of its location, most of the passengers are Dutch as you can see from the list. I'm sure they're having a ball of a time. In fact, the party is still going on judging by the tweets from their account here.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Montages, Mashups and Morality in Music

Source of image

In an attempt to understand what's hot in today's music scene (and chill out after a tough day's work), I've been viewing music videos on Youtube, checked out Billboard's Hot 100, and listened to the most popular hits on MySpace. What I discovered was pretty fascinating - and perhaps a little shocking - for a mountain tortoise cum geek like me.

Several trends seem to be prevalent in contemporary pop music culture (at least in the US):

1) Hip Hop is HUGE and almost overwhelming not only in America, but every continent around the world, including Asia. Almost every popular artiste would have done something with a rap or R&B rhythm infused into their song. Here's American Asian group Far East Movement and their current hot favourite "Rocketeer".

2) Partnerships between big name artistes are very common - something practically unheard of a couple of years ago. Some of the collaborations are rather unusual (eg Justin Bieber Feat Ludacris for "Baby") while others appear more natural (eg B.O.B. Feat Bruno Mars for "Nothin' On You").

3) The fusion of musical styles appear to be pretty prevalent too, especially between vocals and rap, rock and rap, country pop, and other forms. All the above examples possess such combinations of music. While such mashups have always occurred over the decades, its probably never as prevalent as this day and age. Here's another example of a collaboration between Taio Cruz and Travis McCoy for "Higher" with vocals and rap.

And mega successful artiste Rihanna with rap artiste Drake.

4) There is always a dirty version full of sex and expletives, not only amongst hip hop artists, but more mainstream acts like Enrique Iglesias and P!nk. Because this blog is rated "G", I will not embed the video here, but you can check out these links here and here.

5) Cover versions and remixes by amateur musicians and singers are now fairly de rigueur in the world of Web 2.0 and mashups. Some of them are pretty good and in fact, I would dare say, even better than the original artistes. Don't believe me? Just compare this version of "Just a Dream" by Kelly:

...with this remixed version by a couple of kids from school (namely Kurt Schneider, Sam Tsui and Christina Grimmie)...

(Of course everybody is entitled to his or her opinion, but those kids are good, no?)

Friday, March 18, 2011

How to be an Indispensable Linchpin

"You are not a faceless cog in the machinery of capitalism..." In fact, according to Seth Godin's latest book Linchpin, you are an "artist who can give good gifts". Best of all, you don't need a canvas, a stage, nor a musical instrument to create art.

Beginning with such a delightful premise, Linchpin tackles the age-old issue of career motivation. What's interesting is that Godin doesn't just promote entrepreneurialism but rather, a form of intrapreneurialism - one where you as a worker in any circumstance or situation can "make magic".

Becoming a linchpin (an indispensable widget that fastens the "corporate wheel" together) requires one to invest emotional labour in one's job, putting one's heart, passion and enthusiasm into it. It means going above and beyond the call of duty and giving it all you've got, and then some more.

To illustrate his point that linchpins can be found everywhere, Godin cited cases of such "indispensable" workers from the C-suite (Tony Hsieh of, Richard Branson of Virgin, and Steve Jobs of Apple) to the shopfloor. They include Mr Jason Zimdar, a graphic designer who got his dream job at 37signals without a resume, and a David, a waiter at the Dean and Deluca coffeeshop at New York who made every interaction an opportunity to connect and delight.

Godin embellishes his book with Eastern philosophies like prajna which means "wisdom and discernment" in Buddhism, and shenpa which denote a kind of reflex action "scratching the itch". He also quotes from studies on the lizard brain (also known as the amygdala), and how we should override its propensity to drive us towards reactive and unproductive behaviours that can sabotage our success.

So what are the qualities of a linchpin?

There are 7 according to Godin, and they are:

1) Providing a unique interface between members of the organisation

2) Delivering unique creativity

3) Managing a situation or organisation of great complexity

4) Leading customers

5) Inspiring staff

6) Providing deep domain knowledge

7) Possessing a unique talent

Overall, I found the book rather positive, uplifting and motivational. Unfortunately, some of its points tend to be rather belaboured. Much of the content is written in short blog-post like snippets which read like mantras as opposed to an instruction manual, and Godin makes no apologies about that.

It was also evident that Godin's own propensity for digital content and online publishing came across rather strongly in many of the examples cited such as and the Huffington Post.

Despite its shortcomings, Linchpin is a strongly recommended for those who are searching for meaning and direction in what they do. I like the fact that it doesn't just ask you to throw everything away and start afresh, but instead, to re-examine how you - the individual - can make a meaningful impact wherever you are.

Instead of being a nameless, faceless worker in a factory in any industry, we now have the power to choose to make art wherever we are. That is a powerful message indeed.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Contrarian Competitive Strategies

Source of image

Have you noticed how businesses, like humans, tend to adopt a herd mentality? Some examples:

- Opening and closing hours of retail shops (normally 10 am to 10 pm, with extended hours only during festive breaks)

- Provision of banking services, which tend to aggregate towards rigid operating hours, e-banking, ATMs and automated payment kiosks

- Taxi operators bunching towards a cost per distance model, with all the relevant surcharges imposed

- Credit cards and loyalty programmes trending towards a mixture of discounts, rebates, redemptions and points

Against such a backdrop, new businesses may find that they are constrained by the prevailing status quo to try anything new. After all, what would the market think? How would your customers behave?

Is there a way to escape from the vicious negative spiral of uniformity, commoditisation and plain ole 'blah'ness?

Here's a thought.

Consider introducing new parameters that shift the game in favour of your customers. Remove the obstacles to consumption nirvana and they would reward you for it.

Some immediate examples I can think of:

- Assisting customers to fill in their particulars automatically by investing in an ID scanning machine. No more hassle with pen and paper!

- Cleaning your premises only during the offpeak periods so that visitors do not trample all over your wet toilets and leave unsightly footprints all over.

- Focusing your attention not just on the paying adults who visit your restaurant but their kids and elderly parents. Trust me when I say that the surest way to a customer's heart is through their kids or their beloved seniors.

- Tuning the radio in your taxi to the station of your customer's preference, or asking him or her what he or she wishes to listen to.

To succeed in a hyper competitive market, you cannot just keep up with the Joneses. Instead, reinvent the rules in your customers' favour, and focus in particular on the oft-neglected pain points of your customers.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Deceptive Advertising that's Totally Rubbish


If you're staying in a government built flat and receive the above letter, what would your first reaction be?

A) Oh no, I've obviously screwed up and have to pay a fine.

B) There is something wrong with my rubbish chute and the Town Council needs to replace them, at a subsidised price of only S$150.

C) I obviously need to contact the authoritative person in charge named Tony to handle my garbage disposal issue.

On closer inspection however, I noticed that there isn't any official letterhead from either my town council, nor the Housing Development Board (HDB). There isn't any company logos or symbols on this letter, which was slipped under my door.

If there's one thing I truly detest, it is deceitful advertising that sets itself out to cheat, to mislead, and to deceive. This isn't the first time we've received "official" looking "notices" imploring us to change our grill, upgrade our locks, transform our toilets, and now beautify our bins.

I just hope that such shameful shenanigans will come to a stop soon.

UPDATE: HDB posts a notice by the lift warning residents that the "notice" is a hoax. Good work and fast response guys!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Giving and Getting the Right Signals

Reading the right diving signals can save your life (courtesy of A Nice Gesture)

What's the similarity between body language, hour of the day, voice level, "weather", and tone of email? Give up?

Well, they provide perceptual cues on how somebody is feeling and are useful in determining whether you should "go for the kill", wait for another opportune moment, or adopt a different strategy altogether.

Reading signals is an understated but critically important skill in the working world. That subtle glint in the eye, sweeping hand gesture, or somewhat terse sounding note conveys depths of meaning that cannot be easily discerned by mere words alone.

If you get it right and move along to the right tempo and flow of the moment, your likelihood of success will be high. If however you fail to anticipate these little gestures and plough on ahead while disregarding them, hitting a wall is almost imminent.

In a similar fashion, one should also be mindful about conveying the right message to another party. Avoid misleading others with wrong impressions due to an exaggerated motion, or carelessly crafted SMS. Do also be sensitive enough to discern the difference between Yes-es, Nos and Maybes.

The art (and science) of reading and conveying slight hints and signals can be learnt, often from bitter experience. While psychologists are masters at this game, I believe that we can all improve our SQ or "Signalling Quotient" by doing the following:

1) Speak to other more experienced (and friendly) colleagues, especially "survivors" who have been around and are successful in what they do. They may know things that you don't. Examples include the best way to communicate to another party (face-to-face, email, phone, SMS, IM?), the best time to do so, and the levels of preparation required.

2) Pick up a good book or read all about body language. There are some good references here, here and here.

3) Watch and learn from others, paying attention to both the nonverbal and verbal cues in which they adopt. See how the "corporate dance" is played, and focus in particular on the winners in this performance.

4) Learn from your own experience and refrain from making the same mistakes twice. Keep an internal journal in your mind (or write if you can't remember) so that you don't read or emit the wrong signals.

5) Finally, don't hesitate to ask the right questions and confirm your hunches - when the timing and environment is right. Confronting a boss after a tension-filled meeting and asking him or her about your raise is a huge no-no. Similarly, one shouldn't waste time with hours of superfluous conversations with a sales person if one doesn't have any interest in his or her products (unless of course, the interest is in the person himself/herself).

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Marketing with a Social Message


As I was walking back to work this afternoon, I saw the above bus stop poster by NTUC Income. What's interesting about the advertisement was that it sought to imbue a social element to an otherwise commercial marketing platform. I suppose its also topical since the opening of the two Integrated Resorts in Singapore last year, and I like how it fused clever copywriting with the main visual.

This isn't the first time that NTUC Income has rode on the wave of public interest, if you can recall their opportunistic flooding advertisement last June.

What do you think of the above strategy? Would such social messages work for a financial services company?

Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Premium on Corporate Coherence

I was listening to HBR's Ideacast recently and came across an interesting idea by Booz & Company's Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi urging companies to "have the discipline to focus intensely on what they do best". Titled the "Coherence Premium", the central thesis of Leinwand and Mainardi is that "sustainable, superior returns accrue to companies that focus on what they do best".

Gaining the Coherence Premium can be done if a company aligns and interlocks internal capabilities (or core competencies ala Hamel and Prahalad) with the right external market position. This can be graphically represented as follows:

Image source

According to the authors, the way to win in this game is by aligning:

The Way to Play - executives, managers, and employees at every level should understand the way the company creates value for its customers (ie its market positioning).

- Are we clear about how we choose to create value in the marketplace?

- Are we investing in the capabilities that really matter to our way to play?

Capabilities System - the engine of value creation is the system of three to six capabilities that allow the comapnies to deliver their core value proposition (ie its core competencies).

- Can we articulate the three to six capabilities that describe what we do uniquely better than anyone else? Have we defined how they work together in a system?

- Do all our businesses draw on this superior capabilities system? Do our organisational structure and operating model support and exploit it? Does our performance management system reinforce it?

Product & Service Fit - all products and services should leverage the same capabilities system (ie how systems, processes, policies and personnel fit together)

- Have we specified our product and service "sweet spot" (aka USP)? Do we understand how to leverage the capabilities system in new or unexpected areas?

- Do most of the products and services we sell fit with our capabilities system? Are new products and acquisitions evaluated on the basis of their fit with the way to play and capabilities system?

Examples of market leaders which has leveraged on the coherence premium include Coca-Cola, which stood out because of its intense focus on beverage creation, brand proposition and global consumer insight. Wal-Mart's superiority in retail was also attributed to its sheer focus on four capabilities: aggressive vendor management, expert point-of-sale data analytics, superior logistics, and rigorous working-capital management.

On the other hand, ConAgra Foods created incoherence by wrongly acquiring companies that do not fit into its capability sets and this resulted in poor corporate performance from 2002 to 2007. A similar fate befell Anheuser-Busch when they launched Eagle Snacks, assuming that both beer and snacks are complementary to each other. Unfortunately, these adjacent products rely heavily on very different distribution capabilities, and Anheuser-Busch does not have the right strengths or networks to compete in the latter market.

The concept of alignment and focus isn't brand new, and has in fact been around for a long time. Numerous business gurus have spoken about being focused, concentrating on your strengths, and aligning your enterprise in a singular direction. Sometimes, we're told that we should zoom in on building on our strengths rather than to patch up our weaknesses.

What's interesting about Booz & Co's idea, however, is the insistence that a company should look deeper within to align every aspect of their organisation - marketing, HR and organisation, manufacturing, distribution, and so on - with what their inherent capabilities are. In other words, companies that seek to succeed must be somewhat ruthless in ensuring that every fibre of their organisation is aligned and coherent. It should be an integration of both inside-out and outside-in strategies as detailed below.

Courtesy of Anand's Blog

While I do agree with the general approach embraced by both authors, the devil in discerning what forms one's core capabilities (versus something periphery) is in the details. Understanding what makes an organisation succeed in a marketplace requires a fair amount of investigation, intuition and insight. These often go beyond just a cursory look at why its succeeding and what its key capabilities leading to such wins were.

I'm also wary of business strategies that proposes too much "inward lookingness" and introspection. For sure, organisations should be careful about what they acquire or what business they go into so that they do not bite off more than they can chew. However, focusing too much on finding one's own internal holy grail may result in one discarding fresh opportunities that are ready to be seized.