Monday, January 30, 2012

Marketing Greatest Hits: Book Review

With the subtitle "A Masterclass in Modern Marketing Ideas", British marketing consultant Kevin Duncan's Marketing Greatest Hits provides quick summaries of what he considers seminal or interesting titles and their key ideas in marketing. Touted as a "definitive compendium of everything you need to know from the best minds in modern marketing", the book attempts to encapsulate key lessons from the discipline's thought leaders.

Neatly organised into six chapters, Duncan's book systematically dives into the essence of 40 books covering major themes, principles and philosophies, branding, consumer behaviours, creativity and personal organisation. Each section provides a book summary that is further crystallised into an elevator pitch of sorts called a one-sentence summary - the core idea behind a book. Examples of these include the following:

- When considering creative ideas, concentrate on the size of the idea, not the size of the budget (Juicing the Orange by Fallon and Senn)

- There will always be someone who wishes to generate fear and panic, but they are usually biased, ill-informed or just plain wrong (Panicology by Briscoe & Aldersey-Williams)

- Don't fool yourself that your company has modernised just because you are doing something on the Internet - work harder at changing the business itself (Meatball Sundae by Seth Godin)

The book summaries read like blog posts (rather similar to my own book reviews!) and come with their own critiques of the methodologies proposed by the individual authors.  While some of Duncan's analyses are thought provoking, others appear to be more summaries than critical reviews of the key theses proposed by the various books.

To seal in the learning and provide a key overview of the main concepts, Duncan provides two useful annexes.  The first summarises the summaries (yes he has a knack for nutshelling everything!) into 35 points that can be considered part of a "new marketing manifesto".  The second provides one-minute summaries of each title reviewed, highlighting the core essence of each book, what's good about them, and what one has to watch out for.

Coverage-wise, Duncan's selection of marketing titles appear more idiosyncratic than encyclopedic. Renowned "gurus" like Chris Anderson (Long Tail), Seth Godin (Meathball Sundae), Jack Trout (In Search of the Obvious), and John Grant (The New Marketing Manifesto, The Brand Innovation Manifesto) are positioned alongside less renowned names.

While the book paid homage to iconic ideas like the concept of "Marketing as Conversations" by the legendary quartet of Levine, Locke, Searls, and Weinberger in The Cluetrain Manifesto, other important ideas such as Seth Godin's Purple Cow and Berndt Schmitt's Experiential Marketing were sorely missing.

The choice of titles and key concepts in the last section on "Personal Organisation" are also a little miffling - I don't quite see how relevant a title such as High Impact Speeches (by Richard Heller) is to organising one's marketing.

Having said that, I like Duncan's choice of themes which are "off-the-beaten-track" as opposed to including the huge number of social-media-is-everything authors out there. Some of his selected titles like Quirkology (Richard Wiseman), Affluenza (Oliver James), and Flat Earth News (Nick Davies) offered useful insights into the contexts and consumers of the marketing world, providing much food for thought to jaded marketers who may think that they already know everything.

In sum, Marketing Greatest Hits provides a quick and breezy read for those who are time-challenged but keen to know what some of the key ideas and trends in marketing are.  Serving more as an appetiser than a main course - a cheat sheet for marketers if you may - the book provides an introductory springboard to these seminal ideas. To really benefit from the various gurus' words of wisdom, however, it may be better to read the actual books themselves.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

How to Start and Sustain a Movement

Chek Jawa @ Pulau Ubin
Student volunteer guides Jessie and Janet from Naked Hermit Crabs

By now, you've probably heard how social technologies can transform social, political and environmental movements. Globally, one can find numerous examples of causes given an online shot-in-the-arm through Twitter, Facebook, Youtube videos, shared photos, and other platforms. These channels have been further accelerated by the ubiquity of mobile apps on smartphones, tablets and other devices.

While the tools for making a difference have expanded tremendously, the core principles of creating and sustaining a cause are less well understood. Through a recent guided tour of Chek Jawa led by the Naked Hermit Crabs, I had the privilege of speaking to Ms Ria Tan, a passionate nature activist and founder of the Wild Singapore website.  A close associate of my good friend Siva (another legend in nature circles), Ria provided useful insights on her journey.

What are some of these lessons then?

First, one should identify a niche area of focus so that limited resources can be better concentrated and deployed.  Green or environmental management is a huge field that is almost endless in scope.  Thus, Ria and her partners chose to focus on promoting and preserving the coastal and marine ecosystems over other possible causes.

Next, it is important to work the ground consistently to shore up one's knowledge of a specific domain.  As part of Ria's work, she spents over 160 days out of 365 days a year visiting Singapore's coastal habitats and marine ecosystems to investigate, document and monitor their status.  Records on the species mix and available biodiversity are also tracked so that the richness of flora and fauna in these environments are duly captured.

One should also find ways to educate and involve the public (especially the young) through public educational outreach efforts. These can be done through a calendar of activities and events like talks, forums, workshops, tours and more.  A good strategy which Ria herself has pursued is to rope in the schools and teachers, inculcating a love for nature from young.

Reaching and informing the public is also key, and it is only here that online platforms play their role.  Facebook pages, blogs, tweets, Youtube videos, and photographs assist in communicating key updates, events and activities to one's larger community in an inexpensive way.  An important point to note is to be consistent - in the case of Wild Singapore's blog, Ria shares that she minimally provides a weekly update.

Working with a network of passionate believers is also important.  Sustaining and promoting any cause is hard work, and having a band of volunteers help's one to delegate responsibilities.  This can also include other related crusades in a cross-promotional win-win effort that helps one's message go beyond a limited circle.  There are many ways of volunteering on Ria's Wild Singapore website.

Sustaining a movement is also key, and here it is worthwhile to look at succession planning.  To get the younger generation involved in this, Ria recruits student volunteers through the school network, enlisting the help of student leaders who can positively influence their counterparts while planting the seeds in the next generation of leaders.  It is also necessary to delegate responsibilities such that the burden is shared with others as burnout can be a real issue.

Finally, it is important to work in partnership with key stakeholders on long-term solutions in a 3P approach of Public-Private-People partnership.  Other than the government agencies involved in regulating or promoting a specific area, companies are also important allies in any cause.    An example is HSBC, which has been a long-time supporter of nature causes in Singapore, and has "adopted" Chek Jawa, helping in its upkeep and promotion.  While it is inevitable that there will be differences in opinion and views from time to time, successful campaigns normally work towards a mutually agreeable position which may necessitate certain compromises on both ends.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Poke The Box (Seth Godin): A Book Review

"When was the last time you did something for the first time?"

With a secondary title like that, you can bet that Poke the Box - Seth Godin's first title under The Domino Project - is going to be all provocative and punchy. And boy, the renowned marketing cum motivational blogger sure doesn't disappoint in that department.

Beating all records as Godin's shortest book ever at less than 90 pages, Poke the Box has a simple message: Go and start something now. Billed as a "manifesto", the slim volume is full of catchy one-liners urging one to initiate, instigate and innovate. Some of its quoteworthy phrases include the following:

"Curiosity drives us to the haunted house because the thrills lie in what we don't expect, not in what's safe."

"Art is hard. Selling is hard. Writing is hard. Making a difference is hard."

"The market is obsessed with novelty. So go make some. We're tired of your old stuff."

"Please stop waiting for a map. We reward those who draw maps, not those who follow them."

"Forward motion is a defensible business asset."

And so on.

What I like about the book is that the riffs (and rants) do not just urge you to go Go GO - they actually offer some sensible words of advice too. For example, one shouldn't just be a serial starter (what Seth termed as a "hypergo" person) but end up quitting each enterprise before they could see fruit. Rather, one should aim to finish and ship what's started.

Other than the key message of poking the box (ie starting and shipping), Seth also offers the following vignettes (paraphrased in my own words):

- One should overcome one's "lizard brain" and the fear or laziness which it brings

- One should never stop trying, attempting new stuff, or being wrong.

- Don't settle for a "cog" job, even if you're not an entrepreneur.

- Curiosity doesn't kill the cat. In any case, the cat (or yourself) has nine lives.

- Don't be afraid of getting out of your cage. The boundary is in your head and not in the system.

- Hiding your spark or burying your ideas from your organisation is tantamount to a sin.

As a quick picker-upper, Poke the Box shines with the usual Gordin glisten. Treat it like a shot of expresso through your jaded, work weary system. However, don't expect to receive anything more than an energetic clarion call to start a new venture/project/idea. Like its title suggests, the book is more of a kick in the butt than a business manual.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

How To Stick To Your Resolutions

Peter Bregman (courtesy of Bregman Partners)

As 2012 and the Year of the Dragon dawns upon us, I'm sure some of us would have made new year resolutions. These can be as massive as writing a book or scaling Mount Everest to something more manageable like losing 10 pounds, exercising every week, or having dinner with one's family every fortnight.

Unfortunately, many of us falter along the way. There are just so many distractions, side-tracks and urgent things that need to be done daily, weekly, and monthly that they take us away from these noble goals. In fact, we probably can't remember what resolutions we made in 2011 to begin with!

How does one manage and keep to one's resolutions then?

Peter Bregman, a highly popular columnist on Harvard Business Review, shared some useful tips in a recent HBR ideacast on "How to Keep Your New Years Resolution". The author of "18 Minutes" shared some useful tips on this, and I'll extract the key points below (paraphrased).

The first thing to note is that you shouldn't overdo your lists. Having too many things in your plate will result in you ending up with indigestion or worse - throwing away the half eaten food.  Rather than have a laundry list, focus on only five major accomplishments for the year, and stick to your guns as much as possible to achieve these five items.
Create a 6 box "To Do List" for keeping new year resolutions. One of them would be the other 5% which is the lower priority list.  This is like sugar or candy - stuff that is nice to do, but not critical in your roadmap to sucess.

One of the major stumbling blocks to achieving one's goals is the fear of failure.  This can be proportional to the the size of the enterprise, and the larger and more visible the endeavour, the greater the fear.  To overcome this, there are two tricks that Bregman teaches:

1) Visualise what's the worst thing that can possibly happen.  Would it result in possible death?  Loss of one's livelihood?  Or just a minor embarassment amongst friends and family members?  Often, the worst case scenarios are not as bad as we imagine them to be.

2) Alternatively, learn to do smaller projects that can fail less painfully first and gauge the reactions. Maybe those will show that it isn't that bad after all and strengthen one's resolve to overcome the fear of starting on a larger project.

Keep your list somewhere visible so that you can view it, preferably every day.  This will then serve as a constant reminder of what needs to be done each time, and you can tick them off one by one.

Do a little everyday to build up your respective areas. See if you can work on each area wherever possible rather than attempt to dive too deeply close to the end of the year.  Be relentless too in paring away tasks that fall into the other 5% and leave these luxuries for later.

In a work context, it may be useful to share these priorities between employees and bosses. This helps to ensure that there is common understanding on what should and should not be done while clarifying intents.  It also reduces the possibilities of last minute work being dumped on an employee - although that sometimes may still be inevitable.

Schedule specific times and deadlines for doing things, otherwise they will not be done.  Want to go for a run after work?  Put that in the calendar!  Working on a book?  Include some "writing time" in your calendar which is uninterrupted or distracted.

Clear your emails/facebook messages/tweets at specific period of times in a day, maybe once in the morning, afternoon and evenings? Learn to control your own time and reach an uderstanding with your boss or staff on what works best - and stick to it!

Finallty, be truly present when speaking or being with people like family members, staff etc. Put away those smartphones!  Where possible (and I'm telling myself this), don't be enslaved by that 2 by 2 inch screen at the expense of those whom you love and care about.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

What Dragons May Teach Us

Courtesy of Hong Kong - a Visual Research Blog

As we celebrate the arrival of the Black Water Dragon this Chinese New Year, the fengshui masters and economists have given varying prognoses of what it'll bring for the year.
Taking a different trajectory, I thought it'd be fun to look at the traits of this mythical beast and propose what it could possibly mean for us, with a few lessons by the side.

First, we should know that there are dragons and there are dragons.

In Eastern traditions, the dragon is a noble beast associated with heaven, the emperor, long life, and power. Full of masculine or "yang" energy, the oriental dragon is a chimera - a beast composed of different body parts of animals - and the most magnificent creature in the oriental heavenlies. Symbols of the dragon are commonly used in artworks and designs on ceramics, clothing, wall murals, furniture, architecture, and practically any decorated surfaces.

In Western and Middle Eastern traditions, however, the dragon has a sinister significance. According to the Bible, the dragon is used to describe the Satan or the devil - the age-old nemesis of Christians around the world. Dragons are often depicted as fearsome, loathsome beasts that breathe fire and devour hapless villagers in legends and stories.

Hollywood has of course portrayed the dragon as the ultimate bad "boss" monster which the hero (St George or his derivatives) should slay before rescuing the fair damsel in distress. Of course, there are also cute and cuddly ones featured in animated movies like "How To Train Your Dragon", Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" and Disney's "Pete's Dragon".

Love them or loathe them, dragons are majestic creatures. They are usually at the top of the pecking order - be it good or bad - and are usually seen as the leaders with authority in some way or other. In the hierarchy of monsters, nothing strikes fear or admiration as much as the dragon.

In the same manner, we can perhaps embody the quality of leadership in whatever we do, whether at the office, home, church or other social setting. Like the dragon, we should not be afraid of being focused on Of course, we shouldn't go around devouring other people, but instead, focus our leadership qualities on positive pursuits.

There is also something mystical and mysterious about dragons. Nobody (well almost nobody) has seen a real life fire breathing dragon, yet they have triggered countless stories, legends, and myths told from generation to generation.

Mystique is certainly something that we can try to weave in our work and our lives. Instead of giving the entire game away and aiming for the lowest common denominator, let us weave in little teases, secrets, clues and trails, enchanting our customers/friends and family members every step of the way.

According to legend, dragons are also highly intelligent and wise creatures. In movies like Dragonheart and books like "The Hobbit" (with an upcoming movie), dragons are depicted as sophisticated, witty, and all-seeing beasts.

While we need not speak in riddles or oracles, we could boost our knowledge of whatever we do or tap wisdom of experienced elders who've eaten more salt than we've eaten rice. Learn to identify where our intellectual gaps and weaknesses are, and seek to strengthen them through books, discussions with the learned, or just simple observation.

Finally, dragons are magical monsters. Other than their well known fire breathing qualities, dragons are often seen as beings possessing tremendous strength, long or immortal lives, and are able to fly all the way to heaven (or hell).

In a similar vein, we could perhaps inject a little magic into whatever we're doing in a positive sense. See if we can bring a smile on our customer's face by going beyond their expectations, do a good deed to help that person needing assistance every morning at the bus stop, or maybe bake a delicious cake for a loved one.

Here's wishing all of you a Happy and Properous Chinese New Year! Or in Mandarin: 恭喜发财,万事如意, 新春愉快!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Parable of the Pump

Zig Ziglar (courtesy of Decisive Minds)

Zig Ziglar (Hilary Hinton) may be 85 years of age, but he sure packs a lot of punch. A highly respected motivational speaker grounded in Christian values, Zig is known for his fiery workshops and power-packed programmes focused on motivation, success and salesmanship.

In a recent podcast I listened to, Zig spoke about the story of the pump. Here's the man himself speaking to a life audience for your viewing and listening pleasure:

What are the key lessons from the story of the pump?

First, you've got to prime the pump. In pumpspeak, this means you need to pour some water in first before the pump can continue to suck water out from a well.

In any endeavour in life, work, school or other circles, you need to put something in first before you can get anything out. Contribute your fair share of effort, especially during the initial stages, before expecting any reward.

Second, you've got to sweat at it and pump away for some time before the water will flow. This means putting in enough hard work pumping away until the water comes all the way up to the top and beyond when it cascades from the tap to the pail.

Similarly, if you work hard enough, long enough and enthusiastically enough, rewards may flow (however, make sure you choose the right pump in the first place). Perseverance and determination are timeless virtues that relevant in any age - 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 or beyond.

Finally, once you've managed to get the water to flow, it will continue to flow on its own, allowing the pump to supply the sweet nectar of life for some time. That source of water would help to quench parched throats, energise exhausted horses, or refresh dirty bodies.

What do you think of this little anecdote? Does it get your blood "pumping"? :)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Marketing Metaphoria: Book Review

Metaphors and analogies form an integral part of our everyday lives. They form an integral part of our "mindscape" and help us to describe what we think, hear, say and do in a deeper fashion. Metaphors also help to drive human behaviours and add colour to our world.

Tapping the fields of consumer psychology and research, Marketing Metaphoria by Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay Zaltman describes how "deep metaphors" can help marketers better understand their customers. The highly readable book cites that these "human universals" are found in virtually every society. Deep metaphors (eg resource) are expressed through themes (eg money is like liquid) and surface metaphors (eg "I am drowning in debt", "Don't pour your money down the drain.").

Citing the problem of depth deficit amongst managers - "never confuse working hard with thinking hard" - the Zaltman's basic premise is that discovering similarities in consumer behaviours may be more fruitful than focusing on their differences. In other words, age-old techniques in segmentation are moot. By probing more deeply into the emotional and subconscious drivers of consumer behaviours, marketers are able to better understand how their products and brands are viewed through consumer lenses.

What are these deep metaphors then? There are seven main ones and as follows:

Balance: This covers ideas of harmony, equilibrium, adjustment and the maintenance and offsetting of forces. Examples cover physical, moral, social, aesthetic and social balance.

Transformation: This involves a changing state or status, eg "turning over a new leaf", children putting on makeup to play adult roles. They can be both positive (marriage) or negative (death).

Journey: As the saying goes, life is a journey. Confucius has famously said that "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Journeys can be both predictable and unpredictable, can be fast or flow ("time flies"), and both uphill and downhill.

Container: This metaphor looks at either keeping things in or keepting them out, becoming a form of protection or trap. We can be in a good or bad mood, stuck in a rut, store up our money, energy, and goodwill. Memories form one of the most vital containers for many of us.

Connection: Another universal deep metaphor, one which looks at feelings of belonging or exclusion. One can be connected to friends through social networks, and feel disconnection when losing a job, sending kids to college and so on.

Resource: Other than the more obvious food, water, money and fuel, resources can be freinds or family members - Simon and Garfunkel's "bridge over troubled waters", and the expression "a friend in need is a friend indeed". One can be a "walking encyclopedia" or "Mr Fixit".

Control: This doesn't just apply to those in power and authority but to everyone of us. When people succumb to a disease, they feel "powerless". Social norms may also dictate how people should behave, and losing control often denotes having a meltdown, throwing a tantrum or blowing our stack.

Other than the seven metaphors (kind of like Seven Giants or the Seven Dwarves in Snow White), other deep metaphors include Movement/Motion, Force, Nature, and System. These metaphors, like the ones above, are discerned through deep questioning and interview methods, involving trained facilitators who are able to use visual aids to paint vivid pictures and descriptions of consumer's thoughts, feelings and perspectives on various consumption scenarios.

To leverage on deep metaphors in consumer insight reports, marketing communication materials, products/services, and brands, the Zaltmans propose that one could adopt a strategy for "workable wondering". In order to meet the customer's personal values and life goals, marketers should develop product attributes that have functional and emotional consequences (psychological and social) that are seen to be aligned to those metaphors.

Like any other competitive strategy, the authors have also proposed that companies should focus on deep metaphors that are not already "owned" by a competitor. Focus is also a key virtue here, and firms should not go overboard in trying to be all things to all men in their use of metaphoric language and approaches.

Overall, I found the book an enjoyable and enlightening read, albeit a little short on implementation details. I guess Marketing Metaphoria probably works better as a primer to spur change in marketing research more rather than a textbook telling you how to do it. If you're jaded by the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of existing techniques in consumer research, deep metaphors may be a good weapon to add to your arsenal.

This advertisement uses the deep metaphors of resource and container (Courtesy of Meghan's Blog)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Interviewing Crystal Jade's Chairman Ip Yiu Tung

Crystal Jade Golden Palace
Crystal Jade Golden Palace in The Paragon (courtesy of Crystal Jade)

In the restaurant-eat-restaurant world of F&B, few local brands have stood up as clearly as Crystal Jade, one of the market leaders in Singapore. Celebrating its 20th anniversary last year with a refreshing of its identity that involves extensive refurbishments at its restaurants, Crystal Jade enjoyed a turnover of S$240 million in 2010.

Over the last three years, it has expanded aggressively, investing $25 million (together with partners) to open 39 new outlets across Asia. This year, the F&B group will sink in a further $17 million to open 17 new outlets across 8 cities. These efforts helped it to achieve a targeted 10% to 15% yearly growth in sales.

Beginning from a single outlet in Cairnhill in 1991 - which was closed and reopened with a Kitchen outlet in Shaw Plaza and a Palace outlet in Ngee Ann City - the group now has more than 100 outlets sprawled across 18 cities in 9 countries. Half of these are in Singapore while the other 50 are in China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and more.

To find out more about Crystal Jade's longevity in the hypercompetitive F&B market, I had the pleasure of speaking to Mr Ip Yiu Tung, its Group Chairman and CEO. Joining the group in 1992, he was responsible for the group's sterling performance in the last two decades. With a passion for pianos, the former engineer by training is surprisingly soft spoken with a gentle demeanour despite being the chieftain of such a large enterprise.

Crystal Jade Golden Palace
Courtesy of Crystal Jade

Three Keys to Success

Keeping things simple and straightforward, Mr Ip's business philosophy is embodied in three basic principles:

1) Offering great food;

2) Providing attractive service; and

3) Caring about the dining ambience.

While innovation is part and parcel of Crystal Jade's strategy, the group has not veered away from its core competence in traditional Chinese and East Asian cuisine. To ensure that every dimension of the business runs like clockwork, Mr Ip travels extensively to his outlets around the region. He also has his pulse on the business, knowing the ins-and-outs of the business down to its nitty gritty details.

Crystal Jade Golden Palace
Courtesy of Crystal Jade

Sourcing and Buying Fresh

Sacrificing profitability for customer experience, Crystal Jade spares no expense in sourcing for quality ingredients in its dishes. Mr Ip shared that its restaurants actually imported higher quality soya sauce from Singapore (which costed about 23 RMB per bottle) rather than buy cheaper alternatives costing 4 RMB in China. They also use hazelnut oil sourced from the UK for their Hearty Five Treasures Yu Sheng, giving it a greater fragrance compared to competitors who use the cheaper peanut oil.

Known for its roast meats, Crystal Jade also purchases 49 day old ducks from a farm in Ipoh. Unlike the more conventional 40 day old birds that other restaurants may purchase, a 49 day old bird is lighter and leaner with more muscle mass and less fat. Pound for pound, Crystal Jade is willing to pay more to ensure that customers enjoy a premium dining experience.

Innovating to Please the Customer

To understand what its increasingly demanding customers desire, the Group conducts regular surveys to gain their inputs. These insights help to spark new menu ideas or service improvements. It also operates a full-time customer care team since 2005 with a hotline and email for customers to contact them during retail hours. A service call bell is also installed at the tables of new restaurants like Scott's Square.

While the group is focused on traditional Chinese cuisine, it hasn't stopped inventing new ways of serving its customers. The group was one of the first to offer takeaway Yusheng back in the old days, and has recently pioneered a new dish called the Pagoda of Eight Treasures. Every quarter, its menu would have a new chef's special, and seasonal promotions help to keep its customers coming back.

Responding to feedback from business customers, Crystal Jade has recently launched a new Nourishing Treats menu that combines fresh, high quality ingredients with taste, texture and health. I had a chance to sample some of these dishes and thoroughly enjoyed myself without feeling the typical guilt accompanying Chinese restaurants.

Recruiting, Retaining and Motivating Staff

People are the most important resource in the manpower intensive restaurant business. Running the Crystal Group chain of restaurants is an army of more than 4,000 chefs, waiters, operations, and office staff. To keep its staff happy, Mr Ip adopts a simple management mantra of giving them respect and allowing them the freedom to innovate. Believing in the staff empowerment, managers are free to handle their subordinates.

To ensure that it recruits the most talented chefs - considered the lifeblood of the F&B business - Crystal Jade gives aspiring joinees a cooking test. In a manner reminiscent of Iron Chef, candidates must cook in front of a committee and pass the taste and food presentation test. Once they join the group, however, all chefs follow a strict training programme to ensure that they could meet the high quality and standards needed by the Group.

The Road Ahead

For the journey ahead, Crystal Jade is paying particular focus on marketing strategies that help it to draw closer to its customers. Other than refreshing its logo and restaurant designs, the group will continue to engage both traditional and social media channels, working with journalists and bloggers alike to get the word out. Future innovations include the refreshing of its website and the introduction of a customer loyalty programme to allow priority queueing for members.

Crystal Jade Golden Palace
Courtesy of Crystal Jade

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Fearing versus Failing

Lucy wouldn't have discovered Narnia if she didn't open that wardrobe (courtesy of WikiNarnia)

As humans gripped by our lizard brain (aka the amygdala), our automatic reflex is to freeze in our tracks when encountering any of the following:

1) A potentially great product or service which does not have any known markets

2) A potentially lucrative client who is widely known to chew poorly prepared account managers for breakfast

3) A potentially profitable project which costs a couple of million bucks (or more)

While the rewards of such situations may be high, they also carry with them the potential to hurt us - physically, emotionally, psychologically and perhaps even spiritually - if we fail. And of course, the sheer amount of effort needed to scale these everyday "Everests" can be rather off putting - conducting primary market research, preparing a rock solid sales presentation, and pitching for those elusive corporate funds.

Sometimes, the fear can be so strong that it maims us, preventing us from crossing the Tipping Point. Those giants in Canaan sure looked formidable, occupying the land of milk and honey.

However, if we don't try, we wouldn't really know if we could succeed, would we?

If Edison hasn't failed a couple of thousand times, he wouldn't have invented the light bulb. If JK Rowling hasn't persisted in submitting her early literary works to agents and publishers - it took 7 years for her first book to be published after numerous rejections - we wouldn't have Harry Potter. If former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and our founding fathers hadn't persisted in building a new nation against the odds, we wouldn't have Singapore.

As the chinese saying goes, "失败是成功之母", ie "Failure is the Mother of Success". You've probably heard it a thousand times, but let me repeat it again that it is better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all. With persistence, with determination, with resilience (and a twinkle in our eye), we would be able to smile at any storm.

How can we "arrest the amygdala" so that we can transform inaction to action then?

First, focus completely on the task at hand rather than its anticipated consequences. Don't worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself.

Next, practice deep breathing and meditation so that you can dissociate your sense of self worth from the outcome of the activity. Develop an impervious hide - like Captain Jack Sparrow - that can withstand the arrows of critics and sceptics. Quell those ghosts lurking in your mind.

Thirdly, form a support group of like-minded believers who can join you in your quest. There will be tough and rough times in your voyage to victory, and your ship may even sink along the way. This is where sponsors, family, friends and colleagues come in to encourage, to prod, and to re-energise.

Finally, embrace every learning opportunity that you may have from the experience. Often, failure helps one to learn a lot more than succeeding.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Three Ways to be Truly Great

Can you compete with the above brands on scale, distribution and price? (image source)

In the world of consumer businesses, there are probably three main ways to differentiate yourself from the hoi polloi.

The first way is to level your competition by beating them on price, variety, convenience, and distribution. And while you're at it, look at meeting the lowest common denominators in consumer needs and wants. Huge consumer retailing outfits like Walmart, Target, 7-Eleven, Amazon and Carrefour are examples of companies adhering to this strategy, and so are major FMCG manufacturers like P&G, Unilever and Nestle.

Here, access, affordability and range are the trump cards. These conglomerates and businesses flatten everybody else by their sheer "superlative-ness" - having the greatest range of products and services, at the most affordable prices, and making it available whenever and wherever you want it.  I term this as the Massively Mass strategy.

The second way is to remove as many elements of pain as you can from the purchase and consumption process. What are the things that irk your customers in their dealings with your competitors, for instance? How can you take away the grouses commonly heard about your product or service? This requires a deeper and more introspective research into what makes a customer tick, and how one can "massage" away the pain points.

Zappos and Virgin Airlines are great examples of businesses in this arena. The former offers a no questions asked policy for refunds of unsuitable merchandise (even providing a package with postage to do so), while the latter dispenses with the usual dreary experience of riding on commercial airlines.  This approach is christened the Positively Painless strategy.

The third and final way is to invent an "insanely great" product or service, borrowing a phrase from Steve Jobs. This would be your "Purple Cow", a remarkable item that is peerless and stands out from the crowd - so much so that it motivates its customers to talk about it through their own networks. Examples include Hayao Miyazaki's movies like "Spirited Away" and "The Secret World of Arrietty", and Disney or Universal Studios theme parks.

Here, we're looking at transcending the usual barometers of preference like convenience, affordability and features to include stronger measurements like love, trust, belief, and commitment. Where its no longer an expense but an investment - of money, time, and emotional energy - in a relationship between buyer and seller. Those who succeed in this game could even create "Lovemarks", which are brands that reach deep into the emotional lives of its customers.  Really Remarkable is what I would call this final group.

This can perhaps be summarised in a simple diagram below:

Of course, many great companies or businesses are able to weave all three elements into their strategy. Apple, for example, has managed to solve much of the pain involved in navigating PCs and smartphones while creating a "ding in the universe" with products that are attractively designed and easy to use.

However, being all things to all men isn't easy. Start-ups without access to huge pools of funds, talents or networks may be wise to instead focus their attention on one strategy at a time, at least from the onset of their business.

Monday, January 09, 2012

The Wal-Mart Effect: Book Review

What secrets does mega-retailer Walmart hold? Is low-price retailing always good for the customer or does it exert other insidious impacts on one's lifestyles?

The answer to those questions and more are answered in the bestselling book "The Wal-Mart Effect" authored by award winning editor of Fast Company Charles Fishman. Leaving no stone unturned, Fishman's highly readable volume dived deeply into the massive impact exerted by Walmart, and paints a sobering and sordid picture of its true influence.

An American retail icon, Walmart is the world's largest company by revenue (it raked in US$422 billion in 2010) and the largest private employer with some 2 million staff on its payroll. The ubiquitous buying behemoth operates 8,500 stores in 15 countries under 55 different names. Serving some 100 million customers a week (nearly a third of the entire US population), Walmart is founded in 1962 by the legendary Sam Walton who passed away in 1992.

Offering "Every Low Prices", Walmart is discount retailing at its best. According to Fishman, the super-efficient retailer is a paragon of productivity and zero waste. With its sheer colossal size (its Supercentres can be more than 24,000 sq m in size), and extensive range of merchandise, Walmart and its affiliated stores squeeze prices as low as possible for the benefit of its shoppers.

Blazing a trail in efficiency and taking an active role in how its suppliers operate, Walmart has raised the bar not just in retailing but in distribution, logistics, manufacturing and sourcing of raw materials. In the book, this virtuous cycle has an anti-inflationary effect, helping to moderate prices of almost every product available on the shelves - from toothpaste to tyres, lawnmowers to lingerie.

The positive impact of Walmart and its virtuous beginnings is elaborated in stories like a "Wal-Mart Fairy Tale". The chapter illustrates how the mega corporation helped "Makin Bacon" founder George Fleck's business of bacon cooking microwaveable dish take off. In various sections of the book, Fishman also wrote about Sam Walton's legacy and how the business grew over the years, often with the best intents in mind.

Unfortunately, Walmart's colossal size and obsession with low prices have exerted an almost "godlike" control over its suppliers - sometimes with a death inducing vice-like grip. Citing various examples of suppliers from Salmon fisheries in Chile, sweatshop factories in Bangladesh, to the ill-fated Vlasic (maker's of a gallon of pickles which sold for US$2.97 in Walmart stores), Fishman paints a vivid account of its seemingly disastrous impact on small town economies and jobs.

By lowering prices year after year by "pennies at a time", The Wal-Mart Effect cited that Walmart's business practices have resulted in American jobs being lost to cheaper manufacturers overseas. This account is most heartwrenchingly painted in a section interviewing five ladies who used to work at Nelson - a maker of lawn sprinklers compelled to ship jobs overseas in a bid to satisfy Walmart's seemingly insatiable demand for low prices.

Apparently, Walmart's social ills do not end there. The most staggering impact is the way it treats its country-sized workforce who are portrayed in the book as often being lowly paid ("twice the pay of minimum wage standards"), discriminated (especially women), and occasionally made to work overtime without pay. With an "austere" average take home pay of US$1,280 a month, the book described that many Walmart employees are in fact on government assistance programmes - 10,261 children enrolled in the state of Georgia's insurance programme for poor kids had a parent who worked in Walmart.

Compellingly written with well-placed stories and statistics that hit where they hurt most, The Wal-Mart Effect is investigative journalism and anti-corporate storytelling at its best. One can't help but feel the pain of those afflicted by the "Wal-Mart Effect" after reading the no-holds-barred accounts of companies which have shuttered their operations after going on a negative cost death spiral.

Fortunately, there is a glimmer of hope offered towards the end of the book.  It sagely advised that the company can redeem itself - and all Americans as willing consumers - by balancing a relentless drive towards low prices with responsible actions on the economy, the environment and society at large. 

Will the conglomerate adhere to these words?  Only time will tell.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Fantabulous Fun at Phuket FantaSea

Phuket FantaSea
The beautifully designed Palace of the Elephants Theatre at Phuket FantaSea

Claimed to be the "Ultimate Nighttime Cultural Theme Park", Phuket FantaSea is Thailand's first cultural theme park located close to Kamala Beach on Phuket island. Focusing on a motley mix of "Myth, Mystery and Magic", Phuket FantaSea blends Thailand's exotic heritage with a carnivalesque Mardi Gras like feel that is more Vegas than Vegas itself.

Occupying a sprawling 140 acres (or approximately 57 hectares), it features the "Fantasy of a Kingdom" show in the 3,000 seat "Palace of the Elephants" theatre, a huge cavernous 4,000 seat restaurant (Golden Kinnaree Buffet Resataurant), a Tiger Jungle Adventure, the Similan Entertainment Centre featuring carnival games, and a Carnival Village offering lots of specialty retail outlets.

Built at a cost of about US$100 billion (3,500 million Baht), the nocturnal attraction is staffed by a heavily costumed cast of street entertainers, dancers, greeters, retail assistants, waiters and waitresses, and theatre performers. With a nightly fireworks extravaganza (Iyara Spectacular), elephant riding, carp feeding, animatronics, themed restaurants, carnival games, live bands, parades and more, the island-based theme park appears to be all out to dazzle. You can also shop till you drop at more than 15 shops offering leathers, crystal, soft toys, clothes, stationery, bags, and other consumer goods.

Join us on a tour of Thailand's largest nighttime attraction and judge for yourself if Phuket FantaSea is truly what it claims to be.

Phuket FantaSea
The fun begins at the entrance with Siamese mermaids beckoning you with their charms.

Phuket FantaSea
Everything is larger than life here - even the real life koi in their feeding frenzy.

Phuket FantaSea
Costumed cast members guide you in your journey through the theme park.

Phuket FantaSea
Doesn't this remind you of Disney theme parks?

Phuket FantaSea
Almost every shop front offered photo opportunities, providing a mix of mysticism with the macabre.

Phuket FantaSea
Believe it or not, famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng are now theme park characters!

Phuket FantaSea
Yes, nothing is too colourful or luminous here.

Phuket FantaSea
One of the centrepieces in the park, the Golden Kinnaree Buffet restaurant is a sight to behold.

Phuket FantaSea
Doesn't the cavernous dining hall remind you of heaven, with its clouds and angelic beings?

Phuket FantaSea
Yes, gold is the auspicious and aesthetic colour of choice here.  Now if only I can have some...

Phuket FantaSea
The Similan Entertainment Centre was decked in gaudy, psychedelic, glowing colours.  Again, I thought this seem to replicate the Little Mermaid exhibit in Disneyland...

Phuket FantaSea
Ethan had some fun with the carnival games, like fishing for that elusive red fish with a magnetic pole.

Phuket FantaSea
With some assistance from the assistant, he managed to pop in some balls here too.

Phuket FantaSea
Going on an elephant ride is also par for the course, with a souvenir photo to seal in the mammalian memories.

Phuket FantaSea
The crown jewel of the cultural theme park is the Elephant Palace theatre, decked with beautifully carved elephants and Siamese palatial architecture.  The show itself was more Moscow Circus with acrobats and animals than Cirque du Soleil - I lost the plot after 10 minutes into the 90 minute show!

Phuket FantaSea
Ethan brought home two soft toys from his wins - a fitting end to a fabulous night.

View our complete set of photographs here:

Thursday, January 05, 2012

When Does It Pay to Quit?

Source of image

Believe it or not, quitting isn't necessarily the mark of a loser. There is a time and place for giving up, just as there is a time and place for digging one's heels in and staying on.

Does that mean then that Napoleon Hill's saying "a quitter never wins and a winner never quits" is moot?

According to a podcast by Stephen J. Dubner on, there are upsides to quitting - if you do it for the right reasons. Other than the often cited career changing quits, one may quit a band, a bad habit, a sports team, a community and even a religion.

In evaluating the dilemma between staying or going, a common consideration is the balance between sunk costs and opportunity costs. This a trade-off between what you've spent (time, money, energy) in any endeavour, and what you're foregoing if you do choose to continue in that trajectory.

Often, people end up sticking to what they're doing because of the blood, sweat and tears that they've already invested in any activity. Indeed, Dubner shared that humans are psychologically wired to avoid waste, and quitting would seem counter-intuitive.

However, failing to recognise that one is on wrong path may sometimes be an emotionally and psychologically damaging exercise if one recognises, many years later, that one has been flogging the wrong horse. By then, it may be too late to unravel the years of lost youth and opportunity.

This problem is further compounded by the issue of knowing when to quit. According to Seth Godin's book "The Dip", one shouldn't simply bail out at the lowest point of one's career/relationship/project/whatever if pushing it for that much longer will yield the results that one desire.

In other words, don't quit when you're feeling down, crappy, or embattled. Instead, quit when you're clear that you're running the wrong race, headed to a destination that is uncertain to bring forth personal fulfillment.

Of course, the question is further worsened by the difficulty in measuring success and failure.

Does rising to the top of the organisational food chain constitute self actualisation? Is material achievement the only yardstick? On the flipside, is success measured only by your own happiness as opposed to your influence on the lives of others?

In the arena of one's mind, played between one's dreams, goals and ideals, one also needs to consider the harsh realities of life. Repeated quitting may give one a temporary psychological boost, but does nothing for one's financial situation.  And we all know that inflation isn't going to go away anytime soon in a growing economy.

As we consider once again this age-old question, let me leave you with a song that perhaps best characterise the issue of whether one should stay or one should go:

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing (Book Review)

Every now and then, you pick up a book which offer such a compelling new idea that you simply cannot put down. The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing by Lisa Gansky is one such title.

In an increasingly crowded, economically uncertain, and enviromentally damaged world, people are becoming increasingly wary about the financial and personal burden of buying and owning stuff. Aided by social media, wireless networks and data crunched from every available source, people are moving towards sharing goods and services at the point of need.

The rule of thumb? Ownership is out. Access is in.

These form the precepts behind the futuristic sounding principles of "The Mesh", which is characterised by:

1) Having a core offering that can be shared within a community, market or value chain.  These include products, services or raw materials.

2) Using advanced web and mobile data networks to track goods, aggregate usage, customer and product information, and strengthen customer intelligence.

3) Sharing physical goods (including materials used and services procured), which focuses on the local and efficient delivery of services and products.

4) Having offers, news, and recommendations transmitted primarily through the power of Word of Mouth, augmented by social networking services.

With a background in entrepreneurship and investment in social ventures, Gansky obviously knows her stuff. This is evident in the book's narrative which intersperses numerous case studies, personal anecdotes and prevailing trends to support it's main thesis.

Some of these examples include Roomorama, a peer-to-peer platform for making one's home a short-stay time-share, and Netflix, an innovative social network based business of sharing and listening to one's customers that overcame video giant Blockbuster.

A central premise in the book is the concept of making products more resilient so that they could last longer after multiple uses by different members or users.  By collecting customer data and preferences, "Mesh" entrepreneurs can also "define, refine, and scale" their businesses accordingly, improving each step of the way. This approach allows users to embrace the "Mesh ecosystem" - an interconnected web linking suppliers, partners and distributors of Mesh products and services.  These intermediaries can now leverage on the collective wisdom of the social network and its ability to offer real-time user intelligence.

On the issue of customer relationship, Gansky advises that businesses should win back the trust that customers have lost in big business - an unfortunate aftermath of the great financial crisis. To do so, they should embrace the following:

1) Say what they do - manage expectations and revisit them frequently

2) Use trials

3) Do what they say

4) Perpetually delight customers

5) Embrace social networks and go deep

6) Value transparency, but protect privacy

7) Deal with negative publicity and feedback promptly and skillfully

So what should entrepreneurs do if they're keen to tap on the opportunities available in "the Mesh". Gansky proposes five ways to forge a competitive advantage in this arena, namely:

1) Providing services or platforms that enable and encourage Mesh businesses, eg Amazon Web Services, PayPal, FedEx, iTunes, LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

2) Leveraging physical assets, both products and materials, as share platforms.

3) Engaging partners by mutually sharing resources and information - including customer feedback and preference - so that products and services could be better designed, more timely and more relevant.

4) Integrating the supply chain both forwards and reverse. Key examples here are Walmart, which has introduced a "reverse supply chain" for the recycling and upcycling of products, and Patagonia, a green oriented supplier of outdoor gear.

5) Extending the Mesh ecosystem to include related products and services. Hotels can work with car and bike sharing services, wguke childcare services can be integrated with clothing exchanges and enrichment programmes. An example is Zipcar (a car sharing service) partnering with Kimpton Hotels and Six Flags amusement parks to reach common markets.

To show that there are numerous possibilities out there, the book includes a very useful Mesh Directory (also found here) which showcases a whole range of Mesh businesses.  These hail from industries as diverse as books, writing, energy, home exchange, entertainment, travel, kids stuff, home appliances and much more. From the obvious to the obscure, they range from Groupon to Get Satisfaction, thredUP to TechForward and more.

If you're keen to find out what the future of consumption and business beholds, The Mesh may just provide a glimpse into that elusive crystal ball. Highly recommended for entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, and anybody with a desire to change the world for the better, with a better way to utilise our fast diminishing resources.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Highlights of 2011 with 3 Wishes for 2012

Happy New Year!
Courtesy of MarvinTM

2011 has certainly been an impactful year, both literally and metaphorically.

On the international front, environmental disasters like the devastating Tohoku Earthquake and  Tsunami and Fukushima Nuclear Plant Fallout has horrified many around the world.  The flailing economies of Western nations continues, perpetuated by the EuroZone Debt Crisis while a flicker of hope arises with rising job growth in the US. Major political upheavals have also taken place, with the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and other Mid-East regimes, Myanmar's longstanding opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi getting back into politics, and election of former Thai Premier Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra as the kingdom's first female prime minister.

While major tectonic shifts have taken place, the year has also seen some significant deaths with the demise of terrorism kingpin Osama bin Laden, beloved digital demi-god Steve Jobs, Hollywood screen goddess Elizabeth Taylor, and dear North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (with the mantle of power bequeathed to his baby-faced son Kim Jong Un).

The Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton have captured the imaginations of many around the world, aided by social media networks on an unprecedented scale. Of course, nobody would forget that 2011 has also seen more hopping on board the tablet bandwagon, aided by the competing titans of tech: Apple's iOS on iPads and Google's Android on numerous other devices.  Everybody's also shifting their applications, storage and transactions into the Cloud.

Locally, 2011 has seen several major events, with the biggest being the Singapore General Elections, followed by the Presidential Elections, both of which have seen generational shifts in the composition of our leaders. Citizens have worked closely with the authorities to find solutions to preserve the green/rail corridor, while the Tanjong Pagar and Bukit Timah Railway Stations were gazetted as national monuments and conservation buildings respectively. Discussions are now ongoing to determine the right balance between preservation and development surrounding the Bukit Brown cemetery.

More young Singaporeans are speaking out on issues which concern them, while more Ministers and government agencies have extended their influence through social media channels.  Unfortunately, climate changes and freak weather conditions have resulted in flash floods in 2011, while the recent incidents involving SMRT train stoppages have triggered strong public reactions.  Both events have spurred significant reviews of our drainage platforms and rail networks.

On the recreational front, the grand opening of Resort World Sentosa's Universal Studios and its various rides have created waves of excitement, while the opening of Marina Bay Sands and Disney's Lion King brought broadway glitz to Singapore. The sneak previews of Gardens by the Bay and its Flower Dome has created lots of buzz amongst nature lovers. Meanwhile, museums like the National Museum, Asian Civilisations Museum, ArtScience Museum and Maritime Experiential Museum and Aquarium (MEMA) provide intellectual thrills with quality shows like Dreams and Reality, Terracotta Warriors and Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition.

As we embrace the dawn of a New Year, made somewhat foreboding by the predictions of the Mayans, I thought that it would be useful to borrow a phrase from Aladdin and make three wishes for the year.

Courtesy of Three Things

Wish 1: More Stepping Forward to Save Wildlife and Protect Earth

It was heart wrenching to read that 2011 has seen the most number of African elephants (2,500) killed in 23 years for their ivory, that East Asians are still eating shark's fin soup, and that the African Western Black Rhino is now extinct. Closer to home, we flinched at reports on the increase in animal cruelty of the most intolerable and inhumane variety. Meanwhile, the price of oil continue to skyrocket, while mankind's negative impact on the environmental crisis loomed larger than ever.

My wish for the year ahead is for lovers of nature, animals and wildlife to do more. In an age of 24/7 mobile social networks, ubiquitous smart phones and instant connectivity, we can help to champion causes that we believe in. 

Let us lend our hand to the preservation of threatened and endangered species of animals, birds, fishes, reptiles, and amphibians. Let us also do what we can to reduce our carbon footprint by eating more vegetables (and less meat), use canvas bags, reduce as much waste as possible, and recycle plastics, paper and metal whenever we can.

Wish 2: People Shifting from Gut Reactions to Thoughtful Actions

My second wish is for more people to translate restless energy and pent-up frustrations into meaningful and affirmative actions. It is great to see the rise of civil society in Singapore but there is a lot more that we can do to translate words into action. I myself have been guilty of being an armchair theorist at times, and I resolve to make a difference in an area that I care about.

For the year ahead, I'd love to see more people coming together in concerted ways to make a positive change in their lives. This should go beyond lobbying companies and authorities to building organisations, initiating platforms and seeding programmes that help to ignite that latent essence in those who feel for the cause.  Some good examples of citizen initiated approaches can be found here and here.

Working cohesively in partnership with governments, businesses, and non-profits, everyone of us can make a distinct difference in our lives, our workplaces, our neighbourhoods, and our society.

Wish 3: More Businesses Embracing Impactful Innovations

My final wish is for businesses to be more creative, bold and willing to do things differently to improve productivity, strengthen customer experiences and build robust corporate cultures. There are numerous tips and techniques out there authored by hundreds of authors for one to refer to.

For the year ahead, let us take care of those long running consumer complaints and focus ceaselessly on their needs, wants and desires. Let us look deep within our companies and pay attention to what our customers, supporters, and colleagues (especially front-liners) are telling us. Let us find ways to make life easier for our customers, distributors, suppliers and partners, and surprise them in the most delightful way.  Let us build stronger and more cohesive organisations with robust cultures.

With everybody continuously streaming their lives on Facebook, Twitter, Plurk, Path, WhatsApp and other platforms, companies need to be plugged into the socio-sphere. Ignorance is not only unblissful - it can actually be rather deadly.