Saturday, March 31, 2012

Voyage de la Vie - Singapore's First Theatrical Circus

Thanks to Resorts World Sentosa, I was recently given a pair of tickets to their ongoing "rock circus" performance Voyage de la Vie as part of their Date Night, as well as a complimentary bottle of sparkling wine. As my wife has seen the show previously, I decided to bring my boy Ethan along.

Helmed by former MediaCorp Executive Producer Andrea Teo, who is now the Vice-President of Entertainment at Resorts Wrold Sentosa, Voyage de la Vie features the talents of creative producer Mark Fisher (chief designer of 2008 Beijing Olympics' opening and closing ceremonies), Michael LaFleur - a previous imagineer with the Walt Disney Company, Philip Wm McKinley of "Ringling Bros and Barun and Bailey's The Greatest Show on Earth" fame, set designer Ray Winkler (who worked on tours for U2, Generis and the Rolling Stones), and composer and former Singapore Idol runner-up Jonathan Lim.

Featuring a multi-national cast from all over the world, Voyage de la Vie is part circus, part musical fantasy and part theatre. Fans of Cirque du Soleil productions would be familiar with the way in which elaborate oriental-inspired sets, musical scores, athletic circus performers and a touch of drama fuse together in this theatrical production.

The basic story behind the show is one where an office worker escapes a humdrum and meaningless existence (sounds familiar?) to enter a magical fantasy land where the impossible happens.

Quoting from the programme booklet as follows:

"Trapped in a dreary existence, a young man's desire to find meaning and fulfilment in this life leads him to set out on a magical journey of fantasy and imagination in a world beyond ours. Here, he will meet extraordinary characters undergoing breathtaking feats of skill and daring. Through their trials and adventures, the boundaries are blurred between conflict vs resolution, reality vs illusion, temptation vs desire, and imagination vs true love. At the end of his wondrous quest, the young man finally realises his true destiny... To appreciate life, he has to first understand himself."

Like the Cirque du Soleil theatrical circus performances, the show featured pre-performance comedians who in this case came disguised as a pair of bumbling husband and wife tourists. Interacting and teasing the audience together with a stern-looking "security guard" they provided light-hearted entertainment to usher in the mood.

In my opinion, the main show itself scored several hits and misses. The overall choreography was pretty slick and one scene flowed seamlessly into the next without any jarring shocks.

Most of the cast members are highly proficient performers, wowing the audience with their sense of rhythm, athletic grace and military-like precision. I found the performance by the two ladies swinging up on the trapeze heart-stopping, while my son enjoyed the juggler's eye-popping skill in tossing 7 balls up in the air. The archery act with a William Tell inspired shoot-the-apple-above-one's-head act was also impressive.

The sets and costumes are also wonderfully created, transporting one effectively from one scene to the next, with a weird mix between exotic orientalism, nostalgia, punk rock, and a dystopian future. While the contexts of Western-performers dressed as oriental soldiers seemed a little amusing, I liked how the various visual and audio elements fused together.

What could have been improved is the coherence of the script and the role of the main singing character himself. The act of "discovering himself" doesn't really come across very strongly and most of the time, the character appears to be more like a bewildered spectator (like the rest of us) rather than an active participant in the unfurling story. I would also have liked it better if Singapore's cultural context could have been integrated into the overall narrative.

Having said that, I still found Voyage de la Vie highly entertaining. One should view it as a human circus that is infused with a musical score to enjoy what it provides. As the first such performance coming from our shores, we should certainly have something to be proud of.

For more details on Voyage de la Vie, check out the website here. Tickets are available from $48 to $188 from all SISTIC Outlets islandwide.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

How Small Businesses Can Pack More Punch

Small businesses need to learn to be like David when fighting against Goliath (source of image)

What can Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and independent free lancers do to build their reputations, enhance their businesses, and strengthen their reach? With limited resources and finances, how can these entities carve a space for themselves in an increasingly crowded market with competitors possessing deeper pockets, greater resources and fuller teams?

To stand a chance of winning the hearts and minds of consumers, small businesses need to take advantage of their nimbleness, flexibility and agility to outwit and outmaneuver the bigger boys. Competing along the same dimensions will only result in a sorry ending.

Here are some ideas for start-ups and SMEs to consider:

1) Weave a compelling story about BOTH your business and yourself. In a world flooded with ads, collaterals and spam on virtually any product and service that you can think of, people yearn for a human and personal touch. Often it isn't just your product and services alone that will interest people, but what goes behind them. For small businesses, the entrepreneur is sometimes the product too.

2) Differentiate differentiate DIFFERENTIATE! What works for large businesses become even more pertinent for resource poor start ups that do not have the scale to compete on volume or price. Choose a point of uniqueness or many points of originality that your customers value and focus on them.

3) Position yourself as a thought leader and a solution provider. Achieve a reputation as a guru, wizard, or fix-it person on social networks and channels. This could be as simple as starting a Facebook fan page, establishing a Twitter account to posting regular photos or videos on photo or video sharing sites. Remember to communicate and help more than to sell!

4) Don't be shy! Be like the chilli padi which may be tinier than ordinary larger-sized chillies but a lot more fiery and spicy! As an entrepreneur, you need to exert an influence that belies your true size. Network profusely with the right people and be bold in accepting any opportunity to showcase your brilliance at seminars, conferences or workshops.

5) To gain the trust of corporate clients, behave like a big boy in the things that matter. Being a small time business dooms you to forever remain in the space. See and learn how MNCs and large local firms present and market themselves and emulate their positive examples. While there are certain things that you should scrimp and save on, marketing collaterals, websites and other symbols of your corporate image should not be compromised on.

How else can small businesses punch above their weights?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Likeable Social Media: A Book Review

With close to 900 million users and an upcoming IPO, Facebook is ruling the web as the social network of choice. Following close behind is Twitter, the 140 character king of microblogging also known as the "SMS of the Internet". LinkedIn, Youtube, Flickr, Foursquare, blogs, and tonnes of other social networks make up the other players of the social web.

Collectively, these social technologies and platforms rule a disproportionate part of our lives as consumers.  This is why companies need to get into the digital act and be "likeable".

With the secondary headline "How to Delight Your Customers, Create an Irresistible Brand, and Be Generally Amazing on Facebook (and Other Social Networks", Likeable Social Media by Dave Kerpen is a highly practical book.  Providing truckloads of tips, hints and useful advice, it shares how companies should behave themselves on social networks and what they can do to build communities, strengthen their reputations, and increase sales.

At the core of the book are 18 cardinal rules of the social web, divided into chapters, which cover the following lessons:

1) Listen First and Never Stop Listening

2) Way Beyond "Women 25 to 54": Define Your Target Audience Better than Ever (it's scary to know that you can pinpoint down to a target audience of one if you know his/her characteristics!)

3) Think - and Act - Like Your Consumer

4) Invite Your Customers to Be Your First Fans

5) Engage: Create True Dialogue with, and Between, Your Customers

6) Respond Quickly to All Bad Comments

7) Respond to the Good Comments, Too

8) Be Authentic

9) Be Honest and Transparent

10) Should You Ask a Lot of Questions?

11) Provide Value (Yes, for Free!)

12) Share Stories (They're Your Social Currency!)

13) Inspire Your Customers to Share Stories

14) Integrate Social Media into the Entire Customer Experience

15) Use Social Network Ads for Greater Impact

16) Admit When You Screw Up, Then Leverage Your Mistakes

17) Consistently Deliver Excitement, Surprise, and Delight

18) Don't Sell! Just Make It Easy and Compelling for Customers to Buy

Some of the points were pretty obvious for heavy users of social networks.  Issues like authenticity, honesty, transparency, responding to comments and creating a dialogue with users are paramount in an age where nobody can hide anything anymore.

Others like the use of questions in one's Facebook status updates, and the uncanny mix between promotional messages and conversation starters, were quite enlightening.

Beyond these areas, Kerpen teaches us the minutiae of using Facebook ads, suggesting that we should zoom in on targeted users, and couple them with free giveaways, contests and sweepstakes to drive up our number of "likes" on corporate facebook pages.  Examples include Neutrogena, which specifically targeted acne-prone teens for its Facebook ads, and Starbucks' highly contextualised ads.

To highlight the point on admitting one's mistakes, Kerpen shared how JetBlue and Domino's Pizza CEOs use 2 to 3 minute Youtube videos to sincerely apologise to customers for their organisation's screw ups. These measures, coupled with the clever use of social media to highlight recovery measures, helped both brands to clamber back to recovery after disastrous outcomes. 

What I especially "like" about the book (quoting the author!) is its liberal use of case studies that bring each lesson to life.  In the section on sharing stories, Kerpen shared how he pitched major brands to create a promotion around his wedding as a "sponsored" event, generating lots of buzz in mainstream and online media while contributing proceeds to a good cause.

Overall, Likeable Social Media is a useful companion for anybody keen to tap on the growing importance of social networks for one's business. 

Special thanks to Geri Kan for loaning me this book. :)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Shoestring Marketing for Small Businesses

Source of Image

What can small businesses, start-ups, free-lancers and other budding entrepreneurs do to build their reach? How can they compete against bigger companies with deeper pockets, greater resources and fuller teams?

In general, the clue is to look at what big conglomerates are doing, and then try to do the opposite - in a customer pleasing fashion of course. Clueless where to start? Well, here are five ideas to begin with.

1) Weave a compelling story about your business and give the inside scoop of what really happens. In a world flooded with ads, collaterals and spam on virtually any product and service that you can think of, people yearn for authenticity. Often it isn't just your product and services alone that will interest people, but what goes behind the scenes - the spark behind the ideas, the sourcing of ingredients or raw materials, the painstaking process, the art and craftsmanship and so on.

2) Differentiate differentiate DIFFERENTIATE! What works for large businesses become even more pertinent for resource poor start-ups that do not have the scale to compete on volume, selection or price. Choose a point of uniqueness or perhaps many points of originality that your customers value and focus on them.

Daniel Goh, founder of Young Upstarts and boss of The Good Beer Company carved a unique niche for his business by offering exquisite gourmet beers at affordable prices in a hawker centre (courtesy of @danielgoh)

3) Position yourself not only as a retailer or service provider, but a helpful problem solver/advice giver/content guru on social networks and channels. Create a micro niche for yourself. This could be as simple as starting a Facebook fan page, establishing a Twitter account to posting regular photos or videos on photo or video sharing sites. Remember to communicate and help more than to sell!

4) Don't be shy! Rather, be open to showing the world who you are as an entrepreneur, what drives you, and what made you take the road less trodden. In a world full of cold, souless and super-slick corporate brands, having that human face whom people can relate to is critical. Carve a unique brand identity for yourself and adopt a persona that is memorable and distinctive. Of course, this doesn't mean that you should keep tooting your horn incessantly or spamming people continuously about your life.

5) Give the personal touch and show that you care. A major advantage of smaller outfits compared to larger ones are their ability to customise and tailor make each customer engagement and to lavish greater care on them. Of course, one needs to also balance between forging relationships and doing the other work needed in any enterprise - creating, producing, stocking, counting money, and managing staff!

6) Finally, remember to network and build communities. Small business owners need to work harder than anybody else to get themselves known. Other than creating your own fans/followers/friends on social networks, you should try to organise face-to-face gatherings and events, or participate in forums, channels and events where you can meet potential customers, partners or suppliers. These platforms may generate fresh leads and relationships that can help to advance opportunities for your business.

Friday, March 23, 2012

2 Happy Ways to Recycle and Reduce

Courtesy of Coca-Cola Singapore

With Earth Hour around the corner, it is timely for both individuals and companies to consider how they can reduce their environmental impact on our beautiful planet.

Coca-Cola Singapore is certainly taking a proactive role in this area. As part of their effort to instil the habit of recycling in Singapore, they are launching the Recycle Happiness Machine (yes that's its actual name!) which will be popping up at five different locations around the Orchard Road/Dhoby Ghaut area. The machine provides a fun way for members of the public to deposit their used plastic beverage bottles in exchange for a little gift.

Courtesy of Coca-Cola Singapore

Depending on your luck, you may be pleasantly surprised by fresh flowers, 1.5 L bottles of Coca-Cola or even Coca-Cola collectibles like T-shirts, bags and caps made out of recycled plastic bottles!

The locations of the roving Recycling Happiness Machine can be found on their Facebook page, Twitter account as well as website. Do look out for them this weekend!

Supported by the Singapore Environment Council, the recycling initiative by Coca-Cola Singapore is part of their Live Positively movement. Under this banner, the company is committed to make sustainability a part of everything it does and to be a good steward of water - a precious ingredient for life.

Beyond the Recycle Happiness Machine, Coca-Cola is also launching the Live Positively Water Badge together with the PUB and Singapore Scout Association for the 3rd year running. It teaches scouts (like my boy) water conservation methods, how to reach their water meter and water bill, and challenges them to reduce their household's water consumption.

Courtesy of Coca-Cola Singapore

The programme has helped over 400 households save a total of 488,870 litres of water since its launch in 2010, equivalent to 1.5 million cans of Coke. That's a lot of water saved!

For schools interested in the Live Positively Water Programme, email Coca-Cola Singapore here.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

We the Undercover Marketers

The Joneses were portrayed as the ultimate stealth marketers (source of image)

After reading Martin Lindstrom's Brandwashed, my curiosity in the phenomena of stealth marketing was piqued. Also known as undercover marketing, roach baiting and buzz marketing (albeit a darker shade), stealth marketing is a form of guerrilla marketing where "targets" do not realise that they're being marketed to. In other words, the stealth marketer does not inform his or her friend/family member/colleague that he or she is part of a bigger syndicate.

In stealth marketing, ordinary citizens like you and me become pitchers of products and services to our friends, colleagues and family members. We organise parties and invite our neighbours, show off our shiny new objects or dazzling new hairdos/set of gleaming pearlies/lean and toned bodies, and espouse (in a subtle manner) the brand names of these products and services that we endorse. Often, there is some form of incentive for the covert marketer to do so and this varies from case to case.

If you've watched the movie "The Joneses" (released in 2009), you probably would have seen the more negative side to this. Here's the trailer for those of you interested to learn more:

The truth, however, is that stealth marketing is fairly commonplace in the US. Huge conglomerates like P&G, Sony Ericsson and Starbucks practices it. In P&G's case, some 225,000 teens are members of "Tremor" while about 600,000 mums were enlisted for its "Vocalpoint" programme. While these members are not paid a commission, they enjoy free products and samples in return for participating in the programme.

What's the chief difference between stealth marketing and network marketing, direct selling or Multi-Level-Marketing (MLM)? After all, isn't Word-Of-Mouth (WOM) the chief reason why people buy these days?

The main reason why stealth marketing is more contentious than the other two is the degree of disclosure. In the case of Tupperware parties, Avon or Nu Skin seminars, it is often quite clear that participants go into these with their eyes open. While some may not agree to their methods, direct distribution is a huge business worldwide, and it does help people with limited means to make a decent living for themselves.

On the other hand, the hidden and opaque nature of stealth marketing makes it appear to be less ethical. In the case of the Joneses (from the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses"), the movie revealed that the true identities of these stealth marketers were hidden from their friends and neighbours as they moved from upscale neighbourhood to upscale neighbourhood, spreading their "love" for brands.

As marketers and consumers, how do we get around this issue then? Does it mean that the promise of "citizen marketing" is no longer viable?

I suppose this ultimately lies in the extent of one's disclosure. If you're an agent of company ABC for product XYZ, make it known to those whom you are presenting the product to. A good example is BzzAgent in the US, a company which matches consumers to products of their interest. In their website, they state the following tips for their agents:

"Get people talking by sharing your honest opinion through face-to-face conversations and online via sites including Facebook, Twitter and blogs. Remember to always disclose that you’re a BzzAgent and to keep the spam in the can...."

Of course, if you're a true fan who will not be receiving any form of benefit, the issue of stealth marketing no longer applies to you!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Brewing a Good Story @ Social Media Breakfast

Daniel Goh of The Good Beer Company

Thanks to Daryl Tay, I had the chance to attend Social Media Breakfast recently. Held at The Loft in Chinatown, it was great listening to my buddy Daniel Goh of The Good Beer Company speak about his experience in setting up a craft beer stall in a hawker centre in Chinatown. Readers may know that I first wrote about the stall when it opened back in Oct 2011.

Before he ventured into being a specialty beer seller, Daniel was a PR professional who worked in diverse companies (including mine) as well as MNCs like Samsung and Blizzard Entertainment before he ditched his corporate togs for a hawker's apron. He also manages (and still does) a pretty solid business and entrepreneurship blog called Young Upstarts (I'm a proud contributor).

Daniel's entry into the world of beers isn't accidental. He spent a good 5 to 6 years studying, researching and drinking (but of course) many hand crafted independent brews before combining passion and profession as a beer hawker.

So what are some of the lessons that he has learnt as a beer entrepreneur?

Identifying Your Unique Stories

First, it isn't about being present in all the social media platforms out there like Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, Plurk, Pinterest, Flickr, Youtube, and so on.

Rather, the most important thing is to have a good story, albeit one that is distinctive and which can resonate with one's target audiences. Only after you've done that should you look at the channels open to you.

In Daniel's case, there are two story themes that stood out:

1) The product itself. Here, the Good Beer Company focuses rare gourmet craft beers that you can't easily find anywhere in pubs, hawker centres or even supermarkets. By offering these finely brewed alcoholic beverages in Chinatown's famous hawker centre at Smith Street, Daniel created what is called a "Zag" - a radical differential turned into a unique business advantage.

2) The human angle. Here, Daniel chose to tell his own story as a guy in his late 30s suffering from mid life crisis, who chose to exit from a well paying corporate job and use his severance package to do something more closely associated with the elderly.

Beyond his own beer-fueled epiphany, Daniel chose to highlight the plight and difficulties of mostly aging hawkers and the situation in Chinatown. Here, he helps to raise society's consciousness of these important purveyors of economical but tasty food and drinks.

Naturally, Daniel's experience in PR helped him in spinning stories which could resonate with his audiences.

Social Media Engagement

Prior to media selection, Daniel shared that one should develop one's message and determine who one's target audiences are first. While he is pretty active on social media, he finds that business comes from a  50/50 mix of publicity on social media and the mainstream press.

Social media networks primarily work as platforms encouraging word of mouth amongst friends and friends of friends. Through Facebook (a "no-brainer"), Twitter (because he enjoys it), and more recently Tumblr and Pinterest (good for product showcases), Daniel manages to get many of his friends to patronise his outlet. While some have visited it out of novelty, others pop by on a regular basis to chill out after work.

To date, Good Beer has registered more than 800 likes on Facebook and 300 followers on Twitter. The numbers may not be huge, but the quality of his engagement and interactions are higher than most corporate pages judging by the interactions and interests shown in his posts.

Through Good Beer's Facebook fan page, Daniel can gauge the anticipated demand for new brands based on the number of likes of upcoming beers, working with the brewery and distributor thereafter.

However, can a business survive on friendship alone?

Daniel's answer is that "Facebook to form communities alone is just bulls**t and isn't realistic. Sales is necessary especially for small business owners to survive."

Harnessing the Mainstream Press

Daniel's PR prowess can be seen in the significant amount of media coverage he has garnered. To date, Good Beer has appeared in Lianhe Zaobao, Time Out magazine, and more recently the Straits Times Sunday Plus (below):

Thus far, his best business driver was a huge spread in Lianhe Zaobao's lifestyle pages. Through the article, new beer aficionados made their way to the outlet, with some regulars buying a case of beers every week.

Daniel was particularly touched by 3 customers who came all the way to his outlet to patronise him after reading the Zaobao article. One was an elderly lady who told her younger family members to support Daniel because she knew how hard it was as a hawker, being one herself. That really moved him.

Good Beer's highlight in Time Out Singapore was another important channel as it helped the beer hawker to reach new markets of tourists and expatriates.

Keeping the Beers - and Interest - Fresh

Daniel commented that he gets almost zero walk in crowds beyond the occasional tourist who don't tend to buy. These travellers often prefer a local Tiger rather than a foreign exotic beer. In general, his customer base tend to be those who value premium beers due to their interest in the product.

To keep his customers thirsting for more, Daniel makes it a point to rotate his beers. With more than 50 unique beers hailing from countries like the UK, US, Belgium, Germany, Japan, Taiwan, New Zealand and more, patrons to Good Beer like the surprise factor which the modest outlet offers.

To reward high volume customers, Daniel works around his tight budget by giving away occasional bottles of beer that are very difficult to find in the market. These limited edition brews are highly valued by these connoiseurs.

Being very nice to distributors also helps Daniel to receive special favours. One way to do so is to pay them cash in full upfront rather than drag payments - a practice which differs from others in the industry. Through this, Daniel is "rewarded" with goodwill gifts like light boxes, glasses, coasters and other collectors item which he in turn gives away to valued customers.

Issues and Challenges

Being a seasonal business, Friday nights are almost always maxed out, with crowds on Saturdays, while Sundays to Thursdays tend to be quieter. At times, this meant working extremely hard during that one night with barely a pause.

Daniel says that he will not opt for "Happy Hour" or discounted prices for his offpeak days as he doesn't want to dilute his core customers. Margins are already pretty low for his products. Besides, it doesn't make sense for a premium craft product to be cheapened.

As Daniel himself shared, "who has ever heard of a happy hour at a hawker centre?"

Beyond the Friday madness, Daniel is thankful that business is mostly smooth flowing except for the odd occasions where older uncles try to "get fresh" with his female customers. To cool their passions, Daniel would speak politely but firmly to these gentlemen.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for Daniel is staffing. Operating the stall with his 63 year old uncle alone may not be sustainable for business expansion over the long-term. However, it is difficult to find people who love the product, have the same level of commitment as he does, and is willing to work in the F&B environment.

Building Communities

Relying heavily on word of mouth and relationship marketing to spark his business, Daniel works with his distributors on their Facebook pages to promote the business both ways. Doing so helps to drive crowds to his outlet while actively promoting their beer brands.

The key here is to look out for partners with similar objectives and share the same messages so they can join one's community.

To keep his community of beer lovers alive, Daniel frequently shares beer related information on Facebook or Twitter. Anecdotes such as why the Hobgoblin beer needs to be served at 15 deg C helps to stir interest while educating consumers on the art and science of tasting and appreciating craft beers. Indeed, Daniel's deep interest and knowledge of beers makes his act a difficult one to replicate.

Interestingly, Good Beer attracts many home brewers. They visit him to share information and trade tips on brewing while quaffing down a couple of bottles.

Daniel also makes it a point to listen to his customers, specially bringing in beers that are tailored to his customer's requirements. An example would be gluten free products that cater to their allergies.

Future Plans

After 5 months in the business, The Good Beer Company is already in the black. This is possible partly because Daniel keeps his costs low, spending only $338 on marketing thus far.

For the road ahead, Daniel is looking at expanding to a new space to cater to the limitations of space, capacity, temperature, and other issues in a hawker stall. He is confident that his community of beer fans would follow him wherever he goes.

The straight talking beer entrepreneur is also considering launching a beer trail with a card programme and explore merchandising as the next step. Thus far, he has benefited from the gifts from his distributors. However, having his own branded products could provide a good direct marketing tool down the road.

To conclude, let me leave you with these parting words from Daniel:

"It is easy to spot ideas but difficult to execute. What's important after all is the experience. Being authentic allows one's brand story to be authentic. You cannot be what you're not. Follow your passion. In my case, that passion is beer."

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Uniqlo's Unique Advertisement


As I was flipping through the newspapers one morning, my wife pointed out that the advertisement which Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo placed (above) was different from most other clothing retailers.

First, it focused on a single product category and showcases the range of colours and styles available. Uniqlo is clearly targeting those looking for sweat shirts with hoodies. This singular focus will appeal to customers in this category.

Often, garment retailers tend to "maximise" expensive real estate on a full page full colour newspaper press advertisement with as many products as possible. By doing so, they hope to attract a wider range of customers looking for different ranges of apparel to mix and match their wardrobe. However, this may end up confusing customers or make their adverts too cluttered to capture readers' attention.

Second, it is clearly "on-brand" by featuring models of different ethnicities (with a slight Euro-centricism favoured by Japanese tastes), all of whom are young and attractive. The way the shoot is art-directed clearly follows a certain brand sensibility, with the models looking directly at the camera (and at you), instead of each other.

Third, the value proposition is clearly communicated with the expiry date of the offer in place. There is no store-wide sale nor multiple discounts for different credit card holders. Instead, in an almost Zen-like simplicity, customers can enjoy a significant offer for that product being showcased, available in the range of colours and styles as depicted.

While the price of the hoodies are remarkably affordable at S$29.90, one doesn't get the feeling that these are "cheap" items by the way the advertisement is presented. Marrying strong design aesthetics with a value-for-money price, it is little wonder that Uniqlo is growing so rapidly around the world, giving other fashion brands like Zara a run for its money.

Are there other lessons that we can learn from Uniqlo?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

How to Stop Procrastinating and Start Producing

Can we really find more time to do the things that truly matter? How can we devote our energies to what's truly important?

In a bid to further optimise my life, I recently started to listen to an audio recording by self-help and motivational guru Anthony Robbins called The Time of Your Life. Robbins spoke passionately about the need to determine what one's life purpose was, focus on the things which truly matter, and develop an action plan to achieve it.

One of the areas which struck me most was the issue of time management. To be effective and efficient in the limited hours and days of our lives, we should manage our time proactively so that we ultimately spend most of it on what's important and not urgent, ie the Zone. This is the sweet spot and target right in the middle of our life's dart board.

What are these dimensions then?

First, there is the Dimension of Distraction, whatever's Not Important And Not Urgent in the outer ring of the dart board.  These are all the frivolous things that you do when you're feeling bored or stressed like surfing the web, checking out your Facebook page (repeatedly), playing games on your smartphone, watching TV, or snacking unhealthily.  This is what Robbins calls the "No Man's Land" - nothing really achieved or gained.

The next concentric circle is the Dimension of Delusion.  These are stuff that are Urgent But Not Important.  They are normally the numerous interruptions that you may face from friends, colleagues, associates or telemarketers who call, text, message or email you over something fairly innocuous (eg watching a movie, going for a shopping trip).  Those of us who spend a lot of time on social networks need to be careful here.  We can spend all our time going for all the events, errands, meet-ups and what have you that we neglect what's important for ourselves. 

The third ring, which is probably the most stressful one, is the Dimension of Demand which covers whatever's Urgent And Important. These are things such as a fire which broke out in your home, the sickness of a colleague, death of a loved one, or an irate client who called and threatened you.  Handling these items require expediency due to their urgency.  To resolve these, you should try to plan ahead as much as possible to anticipate them.

Finally, the bull's eye in the target board is The ZONE (aka the Dimension of Fulfillment) which covers stuff that are Very Important, But Not Urgent.  To succeed and be a winner, your primary area of focus should be in doing things in the Zone, because these are things that truly matter to you.  However, you need to find ways to manage all the other activities in the other circles such that they don't crowd out your time.  What are some of these items?  They may include spending time with your family over dinner, writing your book (or blog post), or going for a regular run or walk.

How does one spend more time in the Zone then?

First, you should try to eliminate all the distractions and take them out of your life.  Change your life habits and convert your time to something more meaningful.

Choose what you want to respond to rather than be obligated to accede to every request which comes your way.  Learn to say "NO" and let others know that your time is valuable to you.

Find a way to spend more time on stuff that you can control even if you cannot truly influence their outcomes.  These are things that help to build up your knowledge, your relationships, and your personal power.

Finally, it is very important to manage your emotions.  Don't sweat the small stuff or let gossips, rumours and slanders influence the state of your heart.  Focus your energies on positive rather than negative stuff, while of course not being totally oblivious to what's happening.

By living a life of purpose and focusing on the things that are important and not urgent, we're able to reduce our stress levels, improve our personal effectiveness, and be well on the road to success.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Brandwashed by Martin Lindstrom: A Book Review

Have you wondered why you're perpetually tethered to your smartphone? Or why you cannot stop eating that packet of potato chips until its all gone? Perhaps you've got a 10 year old boy who has nagged you incessantly about getting him that latest Play Station Portable (PSP) which all his friends in school have.

Well, apparently, you've been "brandwashed", at least according to renowned marketer turned consumer lobbyist Martin Lindstrom. From cradle to grave, at the workplace, in your daily commute or in the palm of your hands, companies are finding insidiously clever ways to worm their brands into your lives.

Their ultimate goal? To get you to buy, buy, buy. And perhaps tell a friend (or 100) about it.

Pushing the frontiers of consumer psychology with state-of-the-art fMRI brain scans and neuromarketing, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy is witty, well researched and illuminating. Touting himself as a marketing consultant turned consumer advocate, Lindstrom reveals in chapter after chapter the strategies that companies use to entice, enchant and ensnare us into opening our wallets.

In the book, the key components of this grand scheme of psychological "manipulation" includes the following main themes:

1) How companies start marketing to us from the womb using research which showed the huge effect which mothers have on their unborn kids, the influence of media, the pushing of tween girls towards precocious sexualisation, and of course, how Apple's iPhone "becomes the most effective tool in human history to mollify a fussy toddller".

2) The marketing of fear - from pharmaceutical companies capitalising on epidemics and pandemics like H1N1 and SARS to insurance companies producing tear jerking commercials (like this one by Thai Life Insurace). And interestingly, fear does give us a kick by activating our adrenaline and epinephrine hormones.

3) Addictions and how companies deploy various ways to get us hooked. From the shot of dopamine we all get from an email/Facebook message/Twitter response on our smartphones, to the habit forming chemicals in the food we eat, to the advent of gaming - not just for teenaged boys, but adults (especially with e-coupons like Groupon).

4) Sex sells, and don't companies know it. Other than the overtly sexual advertising that penetrates our public and private spaces, marketing psychologists have done complex psycho-behavioural segmentation for Axe clients and deployed homoerotic ads (those famous Abercrombine and Fitch ones) to target both males and females.

5) The pernicious power of peers, particularly kids, tweens and teens. By triggering social contagion, Cepia managed to make its Zhu Zhu pets a huge hit, while retail websites from to Apple's iTune shop use the power of their Top 10 lists, recommendations (What others are reading), and "New and Noteworthy" to engineer collective consumption.

6) Oldies are not spared, with the huge push towards nostalgia and authenticity as a marketing tool. Retro-iconic brands like Heinz ("Beans Meanz Heinz"), Hershey's, and Coca-Cola deploy 70s or 80s tunes in their advertising or even resurrect favourite commercials, while Whole Foods deck their entire store in an "authentic" looking natural decor, down to "imperfect" fruits that look au naturel.

7) Celebrities are in on the act too, with a huge multi-billion dollar endorsements of everything under the sun - from shampoos, cars, iPods, clothes to drinks. Product placements featuring Hollywood stars, politicians, sportsmen and even preachers have influenced our decisions to buy as we pretend to assume their alter-ego when using these products. Oh, and do check out Morgan Spurlock's movie on this too.

8) Spirituality, healing and health also comes to the fore, as marketers sell us "anti-cancer" goji (wolfberry) juice purportedly harvested from the Himalayas (when in actual fact, they were farmed in the US), P&G's well conceived "Loads of Hope" campaign, and how even religions are getting in on the act with Megachurches and the sale of holy relics.

9) Perhaps the most scary chapter is the one on data mining, and how every single move we make from doing a search on google, downloading an App on our smartphones, to making a purchase with our loyalty cards at the supermarket, can be traced and tracked. Armed with a complex consumer intelligence system that rivals the CIA, companies can determine one's likes, dislikes and demographic details so precisely that we're perhaps now living in a "post privacy society". Of course, Facebook plays a huge part in that.

Lindstrom ends the book by describing an US$3 million social experiment which he conducted by implanting a real family called the Morgenson's in an upscale California neighbourhood and getting them to subtly push brands over a period of a month (see trailer below). The outcomes of the research (with fancy brain scans and all) show that we (ie consumers) are the greatest brandwashers of all.

As a marketer, a use of brands and a consumer myself, I found Brandwashed rather educational. Although Lindstrom's chief intent is to help consumers make better choices for themselves, the book has many lessons for marketers too. While we cannot avoid deploying some of these "tricks" to reach our targeted customers, what we can do is perhaps to be more transparent and honest rather than covert with these tactics. Truth be told, however, that this may be more easily said than done.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Transformers Cybertron Con - a Toy Boy's Fantasy

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Lovers of the hugely popular Transformers franchise have more reasons to smile this March school holidays with the launch of the first Transformers Cybertron Con in Southeast Asia. The event kicked off with speeches by dignitaries from Hasbro (Singapore) and Resorts World Sentosa, followed by a precision drill display by some talented secondary school boys.

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Held at Resorts World Sentosa's Convention Centre from now until 14 March, the convention brings together exhibits, activities, toys, video games, and more from the sci-fi world of changeable alien robots.  Tickets are priced at S$12 for a Day Pass and S$68 for a four-day VIP Pass, with special bundled packages with hotel stays and Universal Studios Singapore entry.

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Appearing at the convention is a museum-like display of toys, cartoons and artworks from the 27 year history of the Transformers brand. 

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

They range from the from the classic "Generation 1" era, originals from Takara Tomy, the famous "Beast Wars" series, right up to the most recent blockbuster movies and the current "Transformers Prime" animated series.

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Other than the toy displays, an extensive gallery of works by street artists and dioramas can be found in the convention. Here, various fighting scenes and specially "modified" robots are proudly displayed by modelling enthusiasts for your viewing pleasure.

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

The centrepiece of event must be the 22-foot tall Optimus Prime character statue - one of the tallest ever made. For $20, you can take a photograph with the character from a nice vantage point as a souvenir to bring home.

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Other highlights include drawing classes by top Hasbro artists (for the die-hard fan artists!), a 3D mini theatre, panel sessions with the original creator of the robot series back in Japan - Mr Hideaki Yoke, and a national 'fastest fingers first' challenge to see which convention visitors can 'transform' an action figure from "robot" to "vehicle" mode in double-quick time.

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Talk about hardcore! Wait, there're more great stuff rolling into the convention.

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Younger robot fans can fix their own Transformers figures with the Kre-O workshop, or they can "dance" with Bumblebee in a Kre-O Augmented Reality Interactive Zone. That looks pretty fun for the young 'uns.

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you can bring home a Transformer robot or 2 or 10 at the huge merchandise zone. I heard that there are some new recently minted toys that are launched just for the occasion, so don't miss out on this opportunity all ye Transformer toy boys (and girls).

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Oh, and if you're lucky, you can get them autographed by Mr Hideaki Yoke too!

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

For more details of the Transformers Cybertron Con 2012, check out this link here.  Are you ready to "transform" yet?

Cybertron Con @ Resorts World Sentosa

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Create Your Own Marketing Rites and Rituals

Highlights of CNY Eve - 2012

What do cultural festivals, anniversaries, and special days (Mother's Day, Teacher's Day) have in common?

Well, beyond the festive buzz, there will always be a certain annual rhythm in how things build up to a crescendo, infused with traditions, rituals and customs that date back to time immemorial. These beloved practices are often part and parcel of our collective heritage, bonding us and helping to shape our individual and collective identities.

Naturally, festive occasions also present widespread opportunities for marketing - especially after the year-end bonus period! 

Beyond embracing the usual norms that accompany each occasion, inventive companies should also create their own rites and rituals of purchase and consumption. Some of these have become so ingrained in our society that we have embraced them as part and parcel of our own heritage and culture.

Examples of such rites - both large and small - include the following:

- Presenting flowers and chocolates to a loved one (or a romantic target) during Valentine's Day.

- Popping of champagne to celebrate a joyous occasion - from the birth of a child, marriage of two sweethearts, to the arrival of a much awaited job promotion.

- Singing "Happy Birthday to You!" and blowing out the candles on a birthday cake (probably the most common ritual in the world).

- Adding a slice of lime to a bottle of Corona beer and drinking it straight from the bottle without a glass.

- Giving a household item to a friend/family member/colleague for his or her housewarming party.

- Licking of the cream from an Oreo's biscuit before eating the rest of the biscuit.

- Drinking an ice-cold Milo after a strenuous and sweaty sporting event.

- Queueing up overnight to purchase the new iPhone/iPad/insert Apple device.

- Presenting an invaluable item of gold jewellery (often a key for its symbolism) to one's daughter on her 21st birthday.

Rites and rituals offer a certain warmth and stability to our lives in a fast moving world where change is the only constant. The advent of hyper-connectivity fostered by social technologies and the mobile web gives the illusion of time speeding up faster than ever, leaving many us stressed and breathless in trying to catch up with the Joneses (or Tans or Muhammads or Muthusamys).

In the world of marketing, rites and rituals play a critical role in fostering demand for one's goods and services. The best companies not only ride the waves generated by major festive occasions and celebrations - they create their own rites and ingrain them to be part of a society's cultural consciousness.

Of course, it isn't easy to transcend the hordes of competitors to "own" a rite or ritual. One must ensure that one's product and service offering is remarkable enough to gain social traction amongst one's target groups before engineering such a tradition. A keen understanding of one's consumers is also necessary, to ensure that such a practice can fit nicely into their psychological and social frameworks.