Friday, September 30, 2011

Six Pixels of Separation: Book Review

Published in 2009, Mitch Joel's book on business strategy in the age of social media titled Six Pixels of Separation is a laudable effort to tie in the disparate threads of the online world for those keen to experiment in this space.  Covering a broad expanse of concepts and ideas - from crowdsourcing, community building, content creation, to platform specific strategies - the book provides a good introduction to the world of social media and digital engagement.

Quoting liberally from new age thinkers like Seth Godin, James Surowiecki (The Wisdom of Crowds), Malcolm Gladwell and Chris Anderson, the founder of Twist Image offers advice and insights on topics such as starting a blog, developing a community, and extending one's business in the age of "Participation 2.0".  Regular followers of social media gurus will probably be familiar with many of the strategies proposed.

The building of social networks through either major platforms like Facebook or niche ones like Ning came across as a "must do" strategy in the book. Businesses can ill afford to depend on the power of mass media and the old broadcast based model to get their messages out there. Rather, they should cultivate their followings on a variety of platforms and work through consumer advocates and their connections to spread the word. Here, readers are given a short introduction to each of these platforms - Wikipedia, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Ning and so on - and what they can do with them.

A key part of the book talks about the growth of user generated content, and the shift from mass media to mass content. In the age of social media, users are putting up more stuff online - text, audio, images, videos - on a variety of channels. With everybody empowered by the democratisation of media (the whole concept of Web 2.0), companies ought to work with their commmunities to engage them rather than advertise and push products and services.

The rise of personal brands and tribes are the other heavily cited concepts. According to Joel, the age of "Me" Media has given resulted in individuals - employees and consumers alike - becoming more and more empowered. Through blogging, Twittering, Facebooking, and Youtubing, these digital denizens could carve out niches and brand names for themselves.

Of the chapters in the book, I particularly liked the section on the mobile web (Digital Nomad). Here, Joel suggested that building huge feature-rich website with all its bells and whistles may not necessarily work. Instead, businesses venturing into this space should provide utility and simple solutions to consumers navigating a tiny 4 by 6 inch screen. Quoting from Andy Nulman, he cited that Mobile Marketing (not Advertising) is about the acronym N.O.W. ie:

Nearby - customers need to be in your radius, close, local

Only - there has to be a limit [to the offer - only 29 left or the offer is only valid for the next two hours]

Wow - make a compelling offer [50% off everything in the store

Unfortunately, certain concepts may have changed from the time the book was published to this present age. Some of the ideas suggested - like podcasting - may be difficult to implement unless one has the wherewithal to provide stimulating audio content. While the platforms are mostly free in the digital domain, the production of interesting quality content isn't and therein lies the challenge.

The mass adoption of social media channels (almost everybody is now on Facebook) also means that companies and businesses venturing into this space now will find competition a lot steeper. While the concept of finding your own micro-niche and loyal following is a nice novel idea, making it work profitably for you could be a challenge in volume-oriented businesses.

With the strapline "Everyone Is Connected. Connect Your Business to Everyone.", Six Pixels of Separation provides an easily readable introduction to the world of social media marketing. Those who are new to the world of social media and mobile marketing would find it a useful guide.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Dynamic Pricing Secrets from Ticket Scalpers

If only pricing strategies are this simple (courtesy of Zimbio)

In a fascinating podcast with pricing consultant Rafi Mohamed, author of The 1% Windfall: How Successful Companies Use Price to Profit and Grow, Harvard Business Review unveiled some pricing strategies from the grey market resellers of tickets. These ticket scalpers normally sell their wares on eBay, craigslist or other auction platforms, hopefully to generate a profit (or reduce their losses).

The scalping market in the US is huge, generating about US$3 billion of sales a year and resulting in loss of revenue to event organisers. There are four characteristics defining this market:

1) Uncertainty about actual demand results in low Fixed Prices being set for tickets to games, rock concerts and other events. Many sport teams and musicians err on the side of being conservative rather than risk failure at the box office.

2) Fear that setting prices too high may damage goodwill and brand equity for certain entities.

3) Anticipating that demand then to come in waves. There is usually more demand over time.  Whatever is sold in the first five days - doubled - is normally the total number of tickets sold.  Hence ticket scalpers will buy first and hopefully sell them off later for those who will buy at a later date but can't find the tickets they want.

4) Unfortunately, the ticket scalping market will also have to set lower prices when demand is low. This is something that sport teams and musicians are wary of once they set it.  

To circumvent this, Rafi recommends that companies consider Dynamic Pricing as a strategy. This works like airlines and hotels where prices can fluctuate according to demand. Here, excess capacity can be unloaded at the right price with the hope of "stealing" customers from other hotels and airlines.

Of course, this may be easier said than done as musicians and sport teams aren't as easily substitutable as say a flight from Singapore to Bangkok. Going for a Lady Gaga concert isn't quite the same as going for one featuring Tom Jones or Stephanie Sun.

How should one respond then? Rafi suggests these strategies:

1) When demand is high, you should set high prices in the onset and then play with prices later. It is always easier to slash prices rather than increase prices, and this can be dynamically moderated depending on how quickly or slowly things move.

2) When demand is low however, the trick isn't necessarily to make all prices cheaper immediately. Instead companies should do the following:

a) Try to upsell people who already have an interest to buy tickets and convert them to higher priced seats with the right incentives.

b) Let consumers know through a regular practice which communicates when prices are lowered. A good example can be seen in Broadway concerts where the tickets the day before are usually cheaper for shows that cannot move. Bakeries also slash the prices of their products before closing.

For product-based sales, online retailers could experiment with price differentiation at different times of the day to different customers. is a good example of a company that employs this practice, although it isn't necessarily embraced by all its customers.

How about brick and mortar businesses?

One good strategy to find out if you're pricing too high or too low is to ask your frontliners. They're probably more aware of whether a customer is willing to pay more for a product ("Oh that's really cheap"), or if a price is set too high (customer picks up a product, looks at the price tag, and puts it back).

Will Dynamic Pricing result in eroding prices and bottomlines?  

We're already seeing this with online deals (Groupon, Last Minute Deals, etc) offering time-sensitive deals of anything from travel packages, spa treatments, restaurant meals to electronic products.  Savvy consumers may wait for the right one to pop along before making his or her purchase.

On the flip side, however, I believe that these dynamic prices help to activate a latent group of customers who wouldn't otherwise have purchased a product or service.  By making it compelling, these deals help to reach first timers and could perhaps act as "loss leaders" where subsequent products or services could be upsold to customers for a profit.

What are your thoughts on the issue of Static versus Dynamic Pricing?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

10 Truths Behind Tourists and Technology

Trail Kilkenny's smartphone app is really smart - it doesn't impose roaming costs to tourists

Recently, I participated in a briefing comprising Singapore's attractions industry and technology companies. The idea was for these IT and web solution providers to develop industry-wide initiatives that can boost productivity, marketing and visitor experience for museums, zoos, theme parks, aquariums, and other attractions.

As the session went on, I realised that there is a gap between what technology vendors wanted to pitch for and what tourists may be willing to embrace. The differences can be rather shocking at times.

Being a frequent leisure traveller and observer of tourist behaviours, I'd like to share the following rather commonsensical truths about travelling and technology:

1) It is STILL ridiculously expensive to log on to ANY foreign cellular network for data. Try watching a Youtube video for 10 minutes in any foreign land using data roaming and see how much it BLEEDS.

2) Location based apps with all that augmented reality layering is cool. However, don't go OVERBOARD with trying to layer over every street corner/bus stop/lamp post.

3) Speaking of which, there is NOTHING quite like enjoying the actual Eiffel Tower/Mona Lisa/Merlion with all its sights, sounds and scents in REAL 3D.

4) Sure, we wouldn't mind a little PUSH email/facebook message/tweet now and then from our loved ones back home. However, not every friggin' 20 minutes for the whole day.

5) Peering continuously at a tiny 4 by 2 inch smartphone throughout one's holiday ISN'T a restful vacation.

6) Scheduling one's itinerary is important (we're great believers in that). However, having a mobile device beep you EVERY HOUR OR SO ("Time for Lunch!", "20% discounts NOW!", "FREE Concert in 10 minutes") when you're cruising down Singapore River or admiring a Terracotta Warrior isn't so.

7) Technology should ASSIST travellers in a foreign land rather than ADVERTISE your wares endlessly. While an occasional location/activity specific deal would be much appreciated, care must be taken not to overwhelm/irritate our guests.

8) Free WiFi is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT to travellers with smartphones or laptops. Deploy it at strategic locations and gathering places and make sure that they know all about it.

9) Old school paper brochures are STILL vital, even if you allow a tourist to download everything free of charge into his/her smartphone. They are easier to read, virus/trojan free, and do not come with pesky pop-ups.

10) Finally, consider the HUMAN FACTORS (also called ergonomics) involved in deploying technology. Understand how people use technology and what their behaviours are like when smitten by wanderlust in a foreign land.

Friday, September 23, 2011

How Far Can You Stretch Your Brand?

Not everybody can brand it like Bieber (courtesy of Entertainment Earth)

Brand extensions and brand stretching are commonly used by companies wanting to expand into new product categories. According to this source, they are defined as follows:

"Brand extensions refers to the use of a successful brand name to launch new or modified products in a same broad market" while "brand stretching refers to the use of an established brand name for products in unrelated markets".

There are many examples of both in the consumer world.

Celebrities like Justin Bieber and Donald Trump have employed the strategy of brand extension fairly successfully.  Bieber has released his own line of headphones, nail polish, and even scented dog tags, while Trump's name appears on vodka, health products, mattresses, furniture, cuff links, shirts, ties, and a seminar company.

The most famous example of brand stretching is the Virgin group started by Richard Branson, which ventured from music to airlines, bridal businesses, soft drinks, telecommunications, and more. While some of its forays like Virgin Atlantic have succeeded, others like Virgin Cola haven't done as well (remember Virgin Mobile's quick death in Singapore?).

Hybrids of brand extension and stretching also exist.  An example is NTUC Fairprice, which have created its own housebrands of household products and food items.  While the business of manufacturing is quite different from supermarket retail, their general customer groups are similar. 

Cheap and good is what NTUC stands for (courtesy of Manali Pattnaik)

Why are certain brands more elastic, stretching to totally unrelated categories, while others are less flexible? Branding Strategy Insider provides a good insight to this question:

"Before one extends a brand into a new product or service category, one must be clear on what the brand stands for, what people associate it with and what its personality is. Then, one must assess if these qualities will be beneficial (and not problematic) in the new product or service category. Conversely, one must determine what entering the new product or service category will do for (or to) the brand. Ideally, it will enhance its perception and broaden its appeal, not damage its perception or limit its appeal."

Beyond consumer perceptions, one should also examine existing strengths or weaknesses in areas like logistics, distribution channels, and merchandising.

In the example of Bic's doomed foray into disposable women's underwear, their existing sales force, distribution channels and production technology weren't suited for lingerie.

Meanwhile, Virgin Cola's inability to gain a foothold in the soft drinks market in the UK was due to Coca Cola and Pepsi blocking Virgin from getting crucial shelf space.  This happened despite Virgin Cola's huge PR blitz featuring its celebrity larger-than-life boss Richard Branson.

Branson's PR stunt failed to bring down beverage giants Coke and Pepsi (Source)

This can perhaps be boiled down into two areas, namely "Fit" and "Leverage" as defined by Brand Extension Research:

Fit: What categories consumers will accept from a brand. A brand’s stretch-ability or boundaries.

Leverage: Distinctive properties a brand “owns” that provide a competitive advantage to the brand extension in its new category.

The moral of the brand extension and stretching story?

Trying to forcefeed a square brand into a round hole isn't going to work for you, unless your brand can pass the tests of believability and complementarity. And as any experienced marketer would tell you, branding is a lot more than just advertising and PR.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Lessons from The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari

Part self help book, part fable, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by leadership guru Robin Sharma is a slim volume that packs powerful life and leadership lessons in the form of a novel. Written in a semi-autobiographical manner - Sharma himself was a hotshot lawyer before he switched paths - the book borrowed ideas from various thinkers that are woven into a spiritual tale.

In The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, we hear about the story of superstar lawyer Julian Mantle collapsing from a heart attack on the courtroom floor and how that experience precipitated a complete change in his life. From overworked and highly paid legal eagle, Mantle transformed into a sagely monk schooled in the Himalayas by the "Sages of Sivana" and transmits their life lessons to his apprentice John.

Shrouded in Eastern mysticism, its lessons are embodied by the "7 Timeless Virtues of Enlightened Living". These are conveyed in a rather whimsical fashion by a tale involving a beautiful garden, a towering lighthouse, a path of diamonds and a sumo wrestler, amongst others. They are:

1) Master Your Mind - The first life lesson is to cultivate one's mind to focus and meditate, develop "opposition thinking" (ie replacing a negative thought with a positive one), wipe out one's worries and embrace a spirit of mindfulness.

2) Follow Your Purpose - The key idea here is to live a life of purpose and meaning by establishing clearly defined personal, professional and spiritual goals, and having the courage to act on them. Here, one should concentrate one's mind on one's ultimate goals.

3) Practice Kaizen - Borrowing from the Japanese concept of continuous improvement, here we're taught to do the things we fear, and to practice the 10 ancient rituals for radiant living, namely solitude, physicality, live nourishment, abundant knowledge, personal reflection, early awakening, music, the spoken word (mantras), congruent character, and simplicity.

4) Live With Discipline - Represented by a pink wire coil, the notion of discipline entreats one to consistently perform small acts of courage, strengthen one's will power, and develop the strength of self discipline.

5) Respect Your Time - Here, the concept of time as a precious commodity is emphasised. One is told to focus on one's priorities and to simplify one's life by embracing the Pareto principle (80/20 rule), have the courage to say "NO" and to live as if everyday is your last.

6) Selflessly Serve Others - Giving to the greater good is elaborated here, whereby the quality of one's life is determined by the quality of one's contributions. One should practice daily acts of kindness, give generously, and focus on one's relationships.

7) Embrace the Present - Perhaps the most memorable of the 7 lessons, the idea here is to savour the gift of the present and not to sacrifice happiness for achievement. The 3 techniques here include living one's children's childhood, practicing gratitude and growing one's destiny.

To strengthen these lessons, Sharma shared lots of little anecdotes to drive home certain points. These are heavily peppered with quotable quotes such as Mahatma Gandhi's famous "You must be the change you wish to see in the world" and the author's own "The mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master".

Personally, I found the book highly refreshing and inspirational. Although it was published way back in 1997, its lessons still ring true in this day and age, especially with its global uncertainties and the frantic pace of a continually connected existence. Robin Sharma is still rather active in the leadership and motivation circuit, and you can follow his teachings on his blog. I have already started practicing some of its principles and hope to embrace more of its tenets on living (and working) more effectively.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Transmedia Storytelling & Game Mechanics at the Libraries

Game of Thrones

While borrowing a book recently at the Central Public Library (basement of the National Library), I came across this neat display tying in the bestselling A Song of Ice and Fire book series by author George R.R. Martin with the acclaimed HBO TV series Game of Thrones.  Its nice to see our libraries transforming into experience rich learning zones with elements of Transmedia Storytelling to promote reading and literacy.

While dovetailing with a popular TV series is a good way to drive adult reading interests, incorporating a gaming challenge helps to pique the interest of kids or tweens. Here, the library has created a B.C.A. (Books Come Alive!) Sleuth Academy where "young detectives" are tasked to solve "mysteries" and uncover clues in their local community library.

Quoting from the library's "Books Come Alive" website:

As a cadet, you will attend special training sessions (see Highlights), conduct experiments, learn about forensic science, crack secret codes, and discover the mysteries of ancient civilisations. Witness a crime as it unfolds and pit your analytical skills against other aspiring sleuths in Follow the Evidence. Can you solve it?

Other than the above, the library has encouraged young borrowers/readers to submit consolidated library receipts to amass Quest collectible cards. Part manga, part fantasy, and part gaming, Quest has reached some 29,000 children aged 7 to 12 years old with 550,000 collectible cards fully redeemed, and it helped to generate a 30% increase in loans in June and July 2009 compared to the same period in 2008.

These elements of transmedia storytelling and game mechanics help to drive public interest in our libraries.  By going beyond the borrowing and reading of books, they are able to expand the public's psyche on what the library experience is like.

Of course, our libraries could have perhaps gone the whole Hogwart's in future (with movie, book, game, website, toys, and theme park thrown in), but then again, that isn't its core purpose.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Book Review: Small is the New Big

Are you feeling the entrepreneurial (or intrapreneurial) itch lately? If so, Small is the New Big may be the right up your alley.

With 184 "riffs, rants, and remarkable business ideas", Small is the New Big by uber marketing blogger Seth Godin is a collection of management mantras for entrepreneurs. Written in his usual snappy style, the book isn't organised into sequential chapters. Instead, entries are written in an alphabetical manner without following any particular logic.

Reading like a series of blog posts, with more than a few longer several page articles, Small is the New Big is a compilation of "fireworks" by Seth Godin. Many of the sections follow a common theme of thrashing mediocrity, upsetting the status quo, eliminating poor customer service, and embracing change. In a section on socks, for instance, Godin praises a website for daring to sell mismatched socks.

Like most of his other volumes, the book apppears dead set against the "evil" big corporation. Godin takes great pleasure in disembowelling big business, calling the manipulative Scion campaign nothing more than prostituion and advising companies not to "grow unless it gives you joy". Oh yes, managers, especially incompetent ones, also get short shrift from Godin.

With relish - or so it reads - Godin also dishes out advice using catchy headlines like "Yak Shaving", "Soda (They Even Make Mashed-Potato Flavor)", "Free Prize" and more. Being irreverent seems far better than being irrelevant, at least in his rules of the game.

As I was reading through the book halfway, I decided to skip around to the sections which caught my eye. Admittedly, some of the sections are better than others, and certain belaboured points (like bad service) does get a little weary after a while. Those unused to Godin's style may even find it jarring to hop from one section to another.

Fortunately, Godin writes well and wields a wicked pen. The fast pace of the prose, peppered with witty anecdotes, helps one to move quickly from one idea to another.

If you're looking for a "How To" book, this isn't quite the volume for you. If however, you're thirsting for some inspiration, stimulation and food to feed your entrepreneurial DNA, Small is the New Big might just be the right book for you.

Seth Godin (source of image)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

McDonald's Reveals Its Restaurant Secrets

McDonald's Open Doors

Considered the world's largest restaurant chain serving 64 million customers daily, McDonald's is probably the most pervasive fast food chain on the globe. Founded by Ray Kroc in 1955, McDonald's worldwide generates some US$24 billion in annual revenue from more than 32,000 outlets (mostly franchisee and affiliate run restaurants). Famed for its superior supply chain management, ultra-efficient service quality, lightning speed kitchens, and franchise business model, its ubiquitous golden arches is probably the most instantly recognisable brand symbol in the world.

Here in Singapore, McDonald's serves some five million customers a month from over 115 restaurants islandwide. First established in 1979 with an outlet in Liat Towers (once the world's best performing McDonald's restaurant), the hamburger chain is encouraging members of the public to participate in its "Open Doors" global initiative. Since 2009, over 5,000 customers have participated in this programme, inclusive of a guided kitchen tour. I suppose this is a good initiative to combat some of the controversies surrounding the burger behemoth.

Thanks to the good folks at, I had the chance to tour McDonald's restaurant kitchen at its King Albert restaurant as part of the Open Doors initiative. It was quite an eye-opener and I encourage those interested to know more to sign up for this.

McDonald's Open Doors
McDonald's staff called "ambassadors" help to lead its restaurant and kitchen tours.

McDonald's Open Doors
To keep things moving quickly on the frontline, ordering and fulfillment functions are kept separate, with staff working in a duo.

McDonald's Open Doors
The world famous fries (crispy on the outside and fluffy inside) are deep fried in 100% vegetable oil with zero cholesterol.  I found out that the oil is sometimes kept for 2 or 3 days - not exactly the freshest perhaps?

McDonald's Open Doors
Frozen breaded meat (fish or chicken?) taken out to be deep fried and served.

McDonald's Open Doors
This sign tells the crew the intensity of the crowd, from low, medium, high to ultra-high.  Its a good way to gear kitchen hands on the speed/volume of production needed.

McDonald's Open Doors
With explicit instructions like these, you shouldn't have an excuse for layering your sandwich wrongly!

McDonald's Open Doors
Beef patties and chicken patties are cooked on separate griddles (beef left and chicken right) to cater to customers' religious sensitivities.  And yes, all McDonald outlets are Halal since 1982.

McDonald's Open Doors
Our tour leader showing how a raw quarter pounder beef patty looks like before it is...

McDonald's Open Doors
...placed on the griddle and cooked.  This is precisely timed - about 18 seconds I believe.

McDonald's Open Doors
These trays contain the key meat items that will be assembled into burgers and other items on the fly.  By doing away with food warmers (like in the past), McDonald's can ensure that their burgers do not sit for too long.

McDonald's Open Doors
Just in time "Made-For-You" sandwich assembly ensures that food stays hot and fresh when served to customers.

McDonald's Open Doors
Orders are conveyed on a screen like this to notify crew members on what's needed.

McDonald's Open Doors
Shelf lives of vegetables and toppings are monitored to ensure freshness.

McDonald's Open Doors
Lots and lots of buns in the house.

McDonald's Open Doors
A butt-freezing -19 deg Celcius is maintained in its huge freezer.

McDonald's Open Doors
This helps ensures that beef, chicken, fish and other food items are kept hygienic.

McDonald's Open Doors
The huge storage area in the restaurant contained all the different dry and freeze-dried items used.  Yes, fast food restaurants do need prodigious supplies of disposables to keep the grill running.

McDonald's Open Doors
My favourite part of the visit was the staff quarters.  Here, off shift crew are munching away on their free meals of burgers, frieds, shakes and more (what else do you expect?).

McDonald's Open Doors
The crew noticeboard provides a wealth of information on daily procedures, best practices, learning points and more.

McDonald's Open Doors
The 3 Service Hallmarks of a McDonald's restaurant staff.  Surprisingly simple but highly commonsensical.

McDonald's Open Doors
Yes, incentives are the way to go in propelling a world class service culture.

McDonald's Open Doors
The 10 cardinal rules of Customer Service Opportunity (CSO) in McDonald's.

McDonald's Open Doors
I like this "Enthusiasm Calendar" - a good way to boost staff morale and bonding through events and activities that drive team spirit, learning, and recreation.

McDonald's Open Doors
At the end of our tour, we were treated to chicken wings, nuggets, fries, Horlicks McFlurries and more...

McDonald's Open Doors
Here's famous food blogger Catherine of Camemberu showing us how to make the "Cheezels" tasting fries.

For more information on McDonald's food quality and safety issues, do check out the FAQs here.  More photos of my tour are appended below for your viewing pleasure.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Lenovo Ups the Ante in Brand Marketing

Courtesy of Lenovo

Anybody following the global technology market would know how brutal it is. Battles for distribution channels, platform acceptance, supply chain efficiencies, and brand leadership have led to the spilling of blood on both Wall Street and Main Street. This has led to companies merging, being acquired, ousting their CEOs, or stopping their product lines altogether in desperate bids to survive and thrive.

Against such a backdrop, PC companies can ill afford to focus purely on features and benefits when marketing their electronic wares. They need to connect more deeply and resonate emotionally with their target audiences. Cool designs, functional specifications, and state-of-the-art features can be so easily copied that PC makers need to dig deeper.

In their latest bid to conquer the global PC market, China-based Lenovo (famous for acquiring IBM's PC business in 2005) is placing its bets on an action-oriented new brand campaign. Called “For Those Who Do”, it revolves around the concept that it is a "Do" company focused on action, creating tools for "Doers". These are people who use technology as a tool to help them achieve their goals, and not just a badge to some cool club.

Rolling out in emerging markets like Indonesia, India, Mexico and Russia, the campaign covers the whole spectrum of brand-led integrated marcoms - advertising, product packaging, web, retail, billboards, banners, TVCs, Search Engine Marketing and more. To understand the essence of the campaign, check out their TVC below:

To tell us more about Lenovo's campaign, I email interviewed Howie Lau, Lenovo’s VP of Marketing for EMG to catch some of his thoughts on this.

1. How does Lenovo position its brands vis a vis the global competition? What makes it different from say HP, Dell, Asus and other leading PC brands?

Lenovo recently rolled out a new brand campaign and positioning called “For Those Who Do”. It revolves around the concept that we are a Do company that is focused on action. We feel that “For Those Who Do” is an authentic position for Lenovo because it specifically defines who we are as a company. Lenovo at its core is a company focused on action. As Lenovo employees, we do what we say, and we own what we do.

Lenovo is a global company powered by innovators and inventors who are obsessed with making perfect tools for Do-ers – people who see technology as an integral part of their lives. Lenovo’s products appeal to the people who get out there and make things happen – people with the Do mindset. Our products are rock-solid, highly functional tools that allow people to accomplish more, with tangible achievement.

2. What is the unique differentiating factor for Lenovo beyond price and design?

Lenovo places utmost focus on the quality of innovation to achieve competitive differentiation. Our innovation strategy is based on a two-tiered approach to solving real-world customer problems – the first is to focus the majority of development on ideas that can be brought to market within 24 months, and the second is to invest long term in research, targeting ‘game changing’ big plays.

Some examples of our truly innovative products:

- Our Lenovo ThinkPads are the only laptops to be used by NASA in space. Lenovo’s ThinkPads have met a barrage of military specifications tests, which were passed with flying colours. These tests are testament to Lenovo’s commitment to quality and reliability. It has been described as the “real co-pilot” by Pasquale Scaturro, a geophysicist, explorer and expedition leader who travels frequently to places with drastic weather conditions. According to Scaturro, “It has withstood every imaginable environment on Earth and is still performing without missing a beat.”

- Lenovo also provided over 50 desktops, laptops and workstations to the Centre for Severe Weather Research (CSWR), to aid these “storm chasers” in crunching, tabulating, and organizing the gigabytes of data collected from each storm. Some of these products are outfitted in mobile Dopplers on Wheels (DOW), where mobile RADAR vehicles will image the storms with more accuracy and detail than is possible with fixed RADAR installations. It is also worth noting that these were not specially customised for CSWR, and were deployed right out of the box.

3. I read that Lenovo has done some market research prior to the launch of the campaign. What were some of its findings, especially for the targeted youth market?

Being acknowledged as a brand that is relevant to consumers is crucial for any technology product, and to build a consumer brand it’s important to be relevant to the youth market. To this end, Lenovo conducted the following research to better understand our key demographics, of which youth are an important segment:

- Desk research (Nielsen, Mintel, eMarketer, Euromonitor, Hoover’s, MRI, Consumer Reports, Analyst Reports)
- Market Research (Saatchi Global Gen Y Study, Trend Forecasters, Youth Connection, Retail Store Visits, Naïve Experts, Global Ethnography)
- Active Listening (Communispace, Online Panel)
- Trip to Raleigh (Visit to Lenovo headquarters, employee interviews)
- Local Conversations (Regional Office Outreach to Local Millennials)

What emerged is that youths see technology as an integral part of themselves and their lives. And many of them see technology as a tool that helps them achieve something rather than a badge to some cool club. The keywords that emerged consistently across the research include: walk the walk, want it now, doing, make it better, commit, integrity, ambition, obsession, imagination, ingenuity, positivity, optimism, purpose.

4. Isn't the "For Those Who Do" campaign very similar sounding to Nike's "Just Do It" several generations ago? How does a propensity for action translate into actual product features or benefits?

The difference between campaign messages and slogans ultimately boils down to authenticity and distinction. We believe “For Those Who Do” is an authentic and distinct position for Lenovo because it specifically defines who we are as a company. This idea is the essence of what personal technology should be: Tools that ignite human accomplishment. Not just potential, but real action and tangible achievement.

Lenovo at its core is a company focused on action. Our global culture, called “The Lenovo Way”, is predicated on the fact that Lenovo employees do what we say (delivery), and own what we do (accountability). Lenovo is a company powered by innovators and inventors who are obsessed with making Do machines – rock-solid, highly functional tools that ignite human accomplishment.

Lenovo’s products appeal to the people who get out there and make things happen – people with the Do mindset. For these people, technology is not a badge to some cool club but a tool to help them achieve their goals.

5. What is Lenovo's market share in the world and in Asia? What about Singapore? How many units of computers does it move each year?

Lenovo has been achieving stellar growth -- outperforming the worldwide PC industry for eight quarters and rose to become the world’s third-largest PC vendor with 12% market share (according to preliminary second quarter 2011 data released by research firm IDC). With record revenue of over US$21 billion, Lenovo recently returned to the Fortune Global 500 list, ranked at a record high number 450.

In the Emerging Markets, Lenovo achieved a #1 position with a record year-ending markets share of 10.2%. Lenovo’s PC shipments grew 31.5% year-over-year during the fourth fiscal quarter, more than twice as fast as the industry growth rate in the emerging markets. ASEAN was one of the strongest performers for Lenovo in the region, with a 43% increase in PC sales in the fourth fiscal quarter.

6. Highlight the key driving factors underpinning the "For Those Who Do" campaign.

Lenovo’s brand campaign builds upon the company’s position as the world’s third largest PC company, and the fastest growing PC company in the industry for eight quarters in a row. Although very well-known in China, we believe that this new brand campaign will help carry Lenovo’s story as a global technology leader to a worldwide audience.

This campaign also aims to strengthen Lenovo’s brand perception as it expands beyond its PC leadership to roll out its range of tablets, smartphones, smart TV and digital home products. Being acknowledged as a brand that is relevant to consumers is crucial for any technology product, and one of the key ways to build a consumer brand is to be relevant to the youth market. In that regard, Lenovo is placing particular emphasis on building brand consideration and preference with the younger generation of decision-makers (18-24 year olds).

7. Is there anything new or special about the campaign which other PC makers haven't pursued yet?

Our ad campaign communicates the essence of what personal technology should be, and depict a mix of aspirational and realistic scenarios of how ordinary people do extraordinary things. The tone of our ads will convey the Do spirit of Lenovo, our products, and our audiences – optimistic, authentic, deliberate, into it, and understatedly cool.

For example, we have a female DJ in Singapore who uses a Lenovo ThinkPad as her tool to spin music at clubs. We are also sponsoring the annual Girl DJ Bootcamp this year, where the 12 aspiring DJs will each receive a Lenovo laptop to experiment and practice during the bootcamp.

In Latin America, we are producing a five-part web series, titled “Los Doers”, which will showcase four “DO-ers” across Latin America. These “DO-ers” will be selected through a series of challenges, and will be the first ever interactive web reality show to be transmitted only through social media channels.

8. Finally, how does Lenovo hope to break the Apple juggernaut?

This is a big market and there is room for different players. At Lenovo, we have continually focused on differentiation through innovation and on building great machines for the Do-ers of this world.

We have also executed consistently and successfully against our "Protect and Attack" strategy, and our performance validates this. Lenovo has outperformed the worldwide PC industry for eight quarters in a row, and has grown faster than the top PC makers for six quarters in a row. As a result, Lenovo has taken market share and moved up in rankings to become the 3rd largest PC vendor in the world.

Howie Lau (source of image)

Friday, September 09, 2011

The Truth About Ikea: Book Review

Ikea has always been one of the companies which I respect tremendously. Much of the furnishings in my home come from the privately held Scandinavian giant, which has some 313 stores in 38 countries. Its legendary founder Ingvar Kamprad, known for his extreme miserly manner, is one of the richest persons in the world.I

Having heard so much about the Swedish furniture conglomerate, I couldn't resisting borrowing the book The Truth About Ikea: The Secret behind the World's Fifth Richest Man and the Swedish Flatpack Giant from our library. Authored by 20 year Ikea veteran Johan Stenebo, it provided a fascinating insight into what "really" happened behind its hallowed blue and yellow walls.

An insider who was once Managing Director of Ikea Greentech AB, Stenebo writes with strong conviction. The book is divided into three main sections - Ingvar Kamprad, The Company, and The Future. In the chapters on the founder, Stenebo's perspective as a former assistant of the company chief gave him a unique perspective into his leadership style. One gets the impression that a highly driven, intelligent and cunning corporate leader lie beneath the public facade of Kamprad as a bumbling old gentleman who is always smiling, "alcoholic", and extremely stingy.

Stories of Kamprad's miserliness seem to be mostly true (according to Stenebo), and company executives are forced to ride economy on long flights and stay in cheaper hotels worldwide. Kamprad himself lives rather squalidly for a man of his means, and the story of him driving a beat up Volvo prevails. The founder's management savvy could also be seen through how he manages meetings, allowing senior managers to say their piece before making the final decisions.

I found the section on the company itself the most interesting. Here, one could learn how supply chain management and consumer oriented design and production of furniture ranges play pivotal roles. While most of us are familiar with the retail shopfronts of Ikea with its characteristic flatpack and DIY style furniture, it is the extreme efficiency of its raw material sourcing, production, logistics, and purchasing machinery which helped the retail megastore to achieve success.

Stenebo also writes about Ikea's winning culture which is supposedly embodied in the surprisingly simple theses of its Testament of a Furniture Dealer as follows:
1) The Product Range - Our Identity
2) The IKEA spirit - a strong and living reality
3) Profit Gives Us Resources
4) Reaching Good Results with Small Means
5) Simplicity is a Virtue
6) Doing it a Different Way
7) Concentration - Important to Our Success
8) Taking Responsibility - A Privilege
9) Most Things Still Remain to Be Done

Perhaps the juiciest part of Stenebo's Swedish accented narrative (admittedly, his English took some getting used to) was the final chapter on how the company is heading towards uncertain time.  Here - and perhaps throughout much of the book - Stenebo writes about the different characters in the "Kamprad-Sphere" and appears downright pessimistic about Peter, Jonas and Matthias Kamprad.  These heirs to the Ikea empire are painted as highly incompetent managers who lived forever under their father's huge shadow.

The final chapters also illustrated how Ingvar Kamprad disguised his wealth through complex company structures formed in different countries with the aim of avoiding taxes.  It also shared candidly what being environmentally friendly truly meant for Ikea, and how it used donations to NGOs and clever public relations to appear more sustainable than it truly is. 

Swinging between admiration and criticism, it seemed clear that Stenebo has a love-hate relationship with his former employer. While the book is generally quite readable, once you get used to its writing style, it appears at time to employ heavy rhetoric in getting a point across while making mountains out of molehills.  Despite its cover, I didn't really find it that sensational.  However, it does help me to understand the human dimension of managing a large MNC and the issues that are faced by huge retailers like Ikea.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

How to Effectively Manage Business Costs

Courtesy of Fair Loan Rate

There is an old management adage which says that "you cannot manage what you cannot measure". This saying may be true in all parts of a company, but is especially pertinent in finance.

We've read so much about companies and businesses going under due to poor financial management. By chasing after relentless growth - at all costs - they have gone beyond their abilities to pay spiralling bills to suppliers, employees, and financiers. Other than indiscriminate borrowing, the other "sins" of the leadership and boards of these firms are their failure to respond to the true financial picture of their organisations.

How can one manage one's business costs better?

First, it is important for all managers to gain some degree of financial literacy. Understand what the difference between profit & loss, cashflow and balance sheet statements are. This should apply not only to senior managers but line managers too.

Second, incorporate reporting processes that mandate not only a reporting of sales and profits but the costs of achieving them. These costs shouldn't just be the cost of goods sold but should include operating expenses and overheads like utilities, office/shop rentals, salaries, and so on.

A good way of measuring the wider costs incurred in each transaction can be found in Activity-Based Costing (ABC), which is defined by Wikipedia as follows:

Activity-based costing (ABC) is a special costing model that identifies activities in an organization and assigns the cost of each activity with resources to all products and services according to the actual consumption by each. This model assigns more indirect costs (overhead) into direct costs compared to conventional costing models.

Third, invest in business software and systems that helps you to capture costs at various stages. These can range from off-the-shelf small business offerings from Peachtree or MYOB to more complex applications from Oracle and SAP. The important thing is to have a system that can generate a regular cost profile for you as frequently as you need it.

Fourth, aggregate functions and processes within your organisation to reduce inefficiencies as much as possible.  These could be as simple as bulk purchases, sharing of administrative staff, and using common IT systems and platforms.

Fifth, ensure that team members are sensitive to the total costs of each transaction. Other than direct costs that goes to suppliers and service providers, indirect costs like time, opportunity costs, and others should also be considered. Reward staff not only for achieving sales or performance targets, but for doing so with the least amount of costs.

Sixth, adopt productive business practices wherever possible. There are a whole range of tools out there depending on your individual circumstances.  They include measuring one's Cost Of Quality (COQ), reducing shopfloor waste through the application of the 7 Wastes/ and 5S, applying Business Process Reengineering (BPR), Economic Value Added (EVA), and more.

Seventh, examine your entire business process and how the costs can be managed for link in the chain.  These can cover a wide span of activities - from sourcing of raw materials, manufacturing, logistics, packaging, delivery, sales, customer service, to all administrative and office costs.  See if you can finetune the system such that costs can be optimised along the entire stretch.

Finally, improve your sales forecasting methods as much as possible.  Now this is probably the hardest to achieve, but some semblance of a pro forma model can be derived by looking at historical records, competitors, and industry averages. 

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Marketing to Misers

Ebenezer Scrooge may have more company this Christmas (image source)

Penny pinchers. Value-for-money shoppers. Bargain bin hunters.

Call them what you may, thrifty consumers have been around since time immemorial. The recent economic onslaught and accompanying rise in inflation will likely increase this group of discount shoppers. In a cash and job strapped situation, everybody - rich and poor alike - will pay more attention to their wallets.

Against such a backdrop, how should one adapt one's marketing strategies? Here are some thoughts for consideration:

1) Improve consumer perceptions of your product/service value relative to price. This could be done by communicating dimensions that convey durability, quality, savings (eg utility bills), warranties or other similar benefits.

2) Match and mix complementary products/services while offering attractive discounts. This is especially useful when hot selling items are paired with slower movers. The more they buy, the more they can save!

3) Offer discounts but be selective in doing so. Focus on those that are more likely to be selected by consumers in a slower economy, eg your lower/medium range of products and services rather than premiumly priced items.

4) Provide options for service or product delivery that may sacrifice convenience for price. For example, customers willing to travel to a warehouse away from the city centre can pick up a product with a cheaper price.

5) Help customers to gain more bang for the buck. Other than offering your goods or services at a "value" pricing, look into your customer's processes and see how using your product could reduce their costs.

6) Reward loyal customers even more when the going gets tough. This can be in the form of a wide range of specials: fire sales, hot deals, exclusive "members only" sales, discounts over discounts, and so on. Which bring me to my last point...

7) Aggressively recruit members when times are hard. To do so, reduce your cost of membership and make it even more attractive for customers to sign up (for instance, by offering an immediate discount on a product/service that they are already procuring). Use this window of opportunity to build long-term relationships that are win-win both for your customers and your business.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Bangkok - Haven of Hedonism, Holiness and Health

Bangkok In Transit - Tuk Tuk, Boat, Train, Foot, Car

There is nothing quite like a trip to Bangkok to revive, refresh and rejuvenate one's jaded senses. From ultra-modern shopping malls, colourful street markets, health giving spas, larger-than-life shows to fabulous culinary delights, one is never spoilt for choice. Indulgence became our middle names as we soaked in the Sun - and rain - splashed pleasures of Asia's "Sin City" during a short 3 Day 2 Night trip there.

What can one do in this city that never sleeps? Plenty of course! Let me count the ways...

Shop Till You Drop

Shopping Centres in Bangkok

Few cities (except maybe Hong Kong and Tokyo) can match Bangkok's variety of buying options. Designer brands wrestle for attention along with traditional Thai products in a variety of shopping outlets. Huge sprawling shopping malls like Central World, Siam Paragon, Platinum Mall, and the older MBK are pipped against a seemingly endless array of streetside hawkers peddling their wares. Those who love the hustle can bargain and negotiate with stall holders, while the more serene can opt for the fixed prices of larger shops.

Shopping Centres in Bangkok

Shopping Centres in Bangkok

Shopping Centres in Bangkok

Eat Till You Pop

Bangkok - Food & Lodging

Considered by some to be a gastronomic paradise, Bangkok offers a wide variety of dining options from traditional Thai cuisine, Western delights and Asian cuisine of every flavour. The best thing is that most meal options are highly affordable - even in restaurants - and you can easily find something to munch any way you turn with numerous roadside hawker stalls.

Bangkok - Food & Lodging

Bangkok - Food & Lodging

Bangkok - Food & Lodging

Travel in Style (or Otherwise)

Bangkok In Transit - Tuk Tuk, Boat, Train, Foot, Car

As the saying goes, it is the journey rather than the destination which matters. In Bangkok, transportation comes in the form of thrilling Tuk Tuks, taxis, the light rail (BTS), a long-tailed boat, a Chao Phraya river ferry, tourist vans, and of course on foot. With so much to see, it'll be a waste to fall asleep on your commute. Of course, just be careful not to get stuck in their horrendous traffic jams!

Bangkok In Transit - Tuk Tuk, Boat, Train, Foot, Car

Bangkok In Transit - Tuk Tuk, Boat, Train, Foot, Car

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market

Ssssssh.... Its Showtime!

Man catches 3 snakes

OK, we didn't really go for the much talked about Tiger Shows or Tiffany's Show this time around. Rather, our "poison" of choice was the Thailand Cobra Show located somewhere near Damnoen Saduak a distance away from Bangkok. While I don't subscribe to how they're treating reptiles there, it was... well... entertaining (kinda).

Thailand Cobra Show - Bangkok

Thailand Cobra Show - Bangkok

Thailand Cobra Show - Bangkok

The Fabulous Damnoen Saduk Floating Market

Check out this auntie cooking noodles on a boat!

Naturally, being tourists (as opposed to serial shoppers), one should also explore the sights and sounds of Bangkok. Here, both thumbs up for the Damnoen Saduk Floating Market which offered a wonderful array of colourful souvenirs, clothes, fruits, and cooked food on water. Shutter bugs will have a field day here!

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market

Awed by Edifices of Human and Divine Splendour

Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace

To balance all that feasting and shopping in Bangkok, one should visit its wonderful "Wats" or temples. Two of the most famous are the Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) next to the Grand Palace, and Wat Pho with Thailand's largest reclining Buddha statue. Adorned with golden stupas, ornate chedis and exquisite pagodas, the religious complexes were teeming with worshippers both local and foreign.

Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace

Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace

Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace

Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace

Wat Pho

Wat Pho

Wat Pho

Wat Pho

Recuperate with an Energising Massage

Finally, after all that walking, shopping, eating and temple hopping, one needs to unwind and refresh one's tired muscles. What better way to do this than to have a massage at one of the many fine spas in Bangkok?

Hapa Spa Bangkok