Thursday, May 31, 2012

Voyaging On Asia's Largest Cruise Ship

Voyager of the Seas
Courtesy of Royal Caribbean International

Launching its maiden voyage from the new Marina Bay Cruise Centre Singapore, Royal Caribbean International's Voyager of the Seas weighs 137,276 tons and can carry a staggering 3,840 guests at full capacity. At 1,020 feet long with 14 passenger decks, the colossal vessel is Asia's largest luxury cruise ship, serviced by an international crew of some 1,176 staff.

Voyager of the Seas Launch

Voyager of the Seas Launch

Voyager of the Seas Launch

The cabins are pretty luxurious by cruise liner standards. A total of 1,557 are available for booking. They range from the luxurious Royal Suites to unique Promenade staterooms overlooking the Royal Promenade. All the rooms we saw seemed pretty decent, complete with private baths, vanity areas, and even a grand piano for the Royal Suite (pianist not included)!

Voyager of the Seas Launch

Voyager of the Seas Launch

Voyager of the Seas Launch

Voyager of the Seas Launch

Those who are raring for action have an unprecedented range of sporting activities and amenities to choose from. They include two swimming pools, a gymnasium, ice-skating rink, a full-sized sports court, rock-climbing wall, 3D movie theatre, in-line skating track, and mini golf.

Voyager of the Seas Launch

Voyager of the Seas Launch

Voyager of the Seas Launch

Voyager of the Seas Launch

Voyager of the Seas Launch

If you prefer more sedate (or sinful) pleasures, you can check out the full serviced spa, try your luck at the casino, or shop till you drop at the numerous specialty retail shops around. You can even get married at a chapel specially created for eloping couples! Whatever happens on Voyager of the Seas stays on Voyager of the Seas?

Voyager of the Seas Launch

Voyager of the Seas Launch

Voyager of the Seas Launch

Voyager of the Seas Launch

Of course, one doesn't forget about the food and entertainment options on board a luxury liner. Here, one can choose from lots of dining options from Italian-style Portofino's to the 50's style diner Johnny Rockets. You can also sway to the sounds of live bands or classical musicians playing at different locations on the ship.

Voyager of the Seas Launch

Voyager of the Seas Launch

Voyager of the Seas Launch

Voyager of the Seas Launch

Decked with lots of family-friendly entertainment options, Voyager of the Seas also boasts of an entertainment programme featuring DreamWorks characters like Shrek, Princess Fiona, Alex of Madagascar, and Po of Kung Fu Panda during parades in the Royal Promenade.

Voyager of the Seas Launch

Voyager of the Seas Launch

Voyager of the Seas Launch

The experience of walking through the spaces somehow made one feel like visiting a "theme park" on the water, complete with thematic shops and cafes. Tell me if the shops below doesn't make you think of Universal Studios, Disneyland or Las Vegas!

Voyager of the Seas Launch

Voyager of the Seas Launch

Voyager of the Seas Launch

To find out more about the cruises running from Singapore (they're going to places like Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Phuket, and Shanghai), you can log on to Royal Caribbean International's website. I hear that the dates for the school holidays are going out fast, so do hurry!

Voyager of the Seas Launch
Bloggers Dawn, Hong Peng and myself striking a pose.

For more photos of the launch event and the ship itself, check out the slideshow below:

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Predictably Irrational: A Book Review

Debunking conventional wisdom that human beings are rational and logical beings, Predictably Irrational by behavioural economist Dan Ariely provides an entertaining and enlightening read in the market-tested tradition of authors like Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (Freakonomics series), Malcolm Gladwell, and Ori and Ron Brafman (Sway). Using the results of empirical research conducted at MIT and other university campuses, Ariely explains why we do the things we do despite their contrary effects on our health, wealth and long-term success.

Written in a light-hearted, jargon-free prose, Predictably Irrational takes us through several themes. They include the fallacy of supply and demand (ie why pricing can be so arbitrary in certain markets), the overwhelming power of FREE, the danger of turning social norms into market norms (or why you shouldn't pay your mother-in-law for cooking a delicious family dinner), the effects of expectations (what you visualise is what you get), and two chapters on honesty and dishonesty in humans, among others.

In a chapter on the effects of relativity, Ariely highlights that we tend to look at our decisions in a relative way and compare them locally to the next available alternative. This is why we will not hesitate to add $200 to upgrade a $5,000 catering bill while clipping coupons to save 25 cents on a one-dollar can of condensed soup. Similarly, consumer marketers know that the middle priced option with moderate features may tend to sell better than the expensive high-end or cheap no-frills versions.

Taking a risque step forward to study the effects of sexual arousal on college age males, Ariely and his compatriots revealed in a separate chapter that our irrational selves (termed the "id" by Sigmund Freud) tends to take over our rational selves (the "superego") when we're angry, hungry, frustrated or aroused. To escape this Jekyll and Hyde (or Incredible Hulk) like influences on our behaviours, we are advised to prepare for them in our cold rational state rather than hope we can act rationally when stimulated.

Two other chapters in the book are worth nothing.  Both deal with the phenomenon of price and ownership.

The first on the high price of ownership explains the chasm between sellers and buyers. In a fascinating experiment involving college basketball game tickets, we learn that those who managed to "win" them after an exhausting few days of queuing were only willing to sell them for about US$2,400 each, while those "lost" that opportunity were only willing to pay US$175 for them.

This strange effect of price is further tackled in a second chapter on the power of price, which describes why a $4,000 couch will feel more comfortable than a $400 couch, or that more highly priced "placebo" drugs actually lead to faster recovery for patients. The overwhelming effect of the mind over body has led to thousands being cured throughout history as they were given the "royal touch" by the Holy Roman emperor from AD 800 all the way to kings in the 1820s!

Ending his book on a delightful note with "beer and free lunches", Ariely proposes that businesses, governments and social institutions could design products and services that help people to make better decisions. For example, companies could include a "save more tomorrow" programme to encourage their employees to contribute their future salary raises to a savings plan. His idea of a "free lunch" seeks to provide benefits to all parties involved through mechanisms that compel people to be more vigilant and to use technology to overcome their shortcomings.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Benefits of Journalling and Blogging

Courtesy of

Every once in a while, I make it a point to take a step back from what I'm doing and to reflect upon where I'm headed to. This involves asking myself some honest questions such as the following:

Am I progressing in all fronts of my life - work, family, social, physical and spiritual?

Have I grown and developed professionally as an "after office hours" business blogger? Are the quality of my posts improving or regressing?

More importantly, am I en route to achieving my personal goals if I continue along this trajectory?

As I ponder these questions, I find it useful to keep a written record of where I've been and look back to my previous posts/write-ups to gauge how far I have gone in achieving these goals. With a written journal, I am made more aware of what I've accomplished - and what I've not - while calibrating my own expectations for the future.

Keeping a blog is a good way of instilling the discipline of journaling. By capturing my thoughts, views and ideas on marketing, business, events and lifestyle, I am assured that I have a digital archive that can serve as a convenient reference for me should I need to tap onto my own years of experience and expertise.

The other advantage - and a huge one I must add - is that a blog allows me to contribute to the body of wisdom and knowledge that is freely available online for anybody to tap onto. I feel immense satisfaction in empowering my readers with useful information and bits of knowledge that they can use in their professional or personal lives.

Writing a journal also allows us to have a conversation with ourselves (albeit in a sane way) and to embrace an attitude of reflection. We can ask ourselves tough questions, ponder and chew over them for a few days, and revisit the questions again at the appropriate time.

For matters that are less sensitive, we can even "poll" our network of readers, fans and friends online, seeking their views on a decision that is difficult for us to make using our own resources. Their comments and interactions help to make the subject matter come alive.

Keeping an online journal helps us to extend our creative capacity, tapping onto our right brains and compelling us to write in a relatively unbridled fashion. While I do read, write and edit a fair amount of information at work, the style and flow of the writing is radically different from what I do at home on my blog. By combining structured and unstructured writing, we exercise all aspects of our brain and are able to approach an issue or a problem in a more holistic manner.

Finally, maintaining a journal helps us to quieten our hearts and minds, acting as a conduit for us expend our nervous energy. In times of difficulties and trials, your diary/blog can act like a constant companion where you can pour out your frustrations, sadness or fears (of course with the right levels of "protected" access).

Blogging and journalling keeps one sane in this crazy world where change is the only constant. It anchors one's innermost thoughts and emotional life, and is perhaps the only "work" which you do where you have complete control.

If you haven't already started to keep an online journal or blog, I strongly encourage you to start one today. While the initial stages may be tough going, the process will get easier and easier as you ingrain it into a part of your everyday lives.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Why "Repeatable" Business Strategies Work

What is the secret of enduring business success? The answer, according to Bain & Company's Chris Zook and James Allen, is to develop repeatable business models. This is described in Bain's website on Repeatability and highlighted in a recently published book by the authors.

Source of image

In this podcast on HBR Ideacast, Chris shares that businesses which keep changing courses and introduce unnecessary complexity in their systems are actually killing themselves. To cope with a fast changing, highly complex and unpredictable world, businesses shouldn't introduce increasingly convoluted systems that add layers of bureaucratic layers that slow down work processes unnecessarily.

Instead, they should zoom in on two things: focus and simplicity.

Citing examples such as Ikea, Vanguard Financial Group and Nike (versus Reebok), the authors claim that the most enduring businesses are not proponents of radical reinvention. Rather they stick to a tried and tested formula that is easy to execute from the top right down to the frontline which gives the businesses nimbleness and adaptability.

Three principles guide the development of a "Repeatable" business strategy and these are highlighted in the diagram below (courtesy of Bain & Company):

Courtesy of Bain & Company

1) A Well-Differentiated Core 

To succeed in the marketplace, company's must have a distinct point of difference from their competitors which offers them significant competitive advantage. The most successful companies are crystal where this may lie: Walmart in "everyday low prices" and obsessive inventory management, Ikea in flat-pack DIY furniture design, Apple in "insanely great" products.

Business models that are razor sharp in their differentiation do not hover from fad after fad. Rather, they identify where their core is and adapt it to suit changing market or competitive situations. Being authentic and sticking to one's corporate DNA also helps.

2) Clear Nonnegotiables

A successful company needs to have a way of ingraining its core values to each and every staff - from the CEO right down to the frontliners. These ground rules for action should guide behaviours and norms that are explicit about what can or cannot be done, and why they are developed that way. It is also important for the distance between executive leaders and ground staff to be shortened so that information can move either way as quickly as possible with minimal encumbrances.

In an example cited by Bain, Vanguard's activities and decisions are guided by highly consistent 'Simple Truths' such as the statement "Low expense ratios drive high returns." Another more well-known example is the luxury hotel chain Ritz Carlton's Gold Standards which includes its famous motto "We are Ladies and Gentlemen Serving Ladies and Gentlemen".

3) Closed-Loop Learning

Having a repeatable business model doesn't mean sticking to the same product or service year in year out. Instead, the authors feel that these can continually adapt to changing circumstances. I guess the key idea here is to create robust systems that can merge constant feedback from customers and frontline employees to adapt, innovate and improve products and services on the go. Such a quick feedback mechanism also allows businesses to quickly identify potential threats and nip them in the bud.

As an example, the authors cite Liechtenstein-based toolmaker Hilti (they do have very unique case studies!). The company fielded a direct salesforce of more than 12,000 representatives who help to provide feedback on what customers desire as they speak to them each day, and these field insights help the company to understand its customers better.

Do you agree that the most successful companies have a "repeatable" business model?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

How C. Wonder Pampers Its Customers

Source of image

Leading investor and serial entrepreneur J. Christopher Burch has more than 30 years of experience in various technology and luxury brands, including Aliph (Jawbone), NextJump, and Tory Burch. At a talk given at the Asia Fashion Summit recently, he shared about his experience with C. Wonder – a fast growing apparel, accessories and home d├ęcor retailer, and how he built a strong retail brand focused heavily on delighting customers and meeting their lifestyle needs.

Predicated on the concept of the customer being “our girl”, the customer experience in C. Wonder stores are predicated on “service credos” such as the following:
- We Our Girl… She Comes First
- We want to make her feel good
- We want to do special things to celebrate her
- We want her to feel welcome and appreciated
- We want to provide a comfortable environment – from the fitting rooms to the rest rooms
- We want to surprise her
- We want to make her feel loved
- We want her to know that we’ll do anything to make her feel comfortable

With the comfort and welfare of the customer firmly in the centre of the brand, C. Wonder aspires to build “the most beautiful bathrooms in the world”. J. Christopher shared that this was important as the bathrooms often exert a significant influence on a customer’s impression of a store. Adequate seats complete with free WIFI are also provided so that men accompanying their girlfriends or wives can sit around and play their iPads while waiting.

Through beautifully designed spacious stores that feature specially selected music and the serving of cookies and lemonade to customers, C. Wonder makes it a point to make customers feel right at home. In some of their stores, they even have staff dancing to the music with their customers, to the music of professional DJs being hired to create the right mood.

Source of image

In J. Christopher’s own words, C. Wonder is about “fun, excitement and great value”.

To ensure that the needs of consumers are adequately met, C. Wonder makes it a point to involve their sales staff in the design of stores as they are most intimately engaged with consumers on a daily basis. Tapping onto their deep knowledge of consumer preferences is key as the brand seeks to shift its focus from retailing products to selling a lifestyle.

C. Wonder’s obsession with customer service is so extreme that sales personnel are compensated based on the level of customer service and happiness provided as opposed to the sales generated. In fact, they “don’t want customers to buy too much or to go into credit card debt” as this would mean that they failed to care for their customers (aka “our girl”).

On the road ahead, J. Christopher shared that retail brands in the future need to ensure that they leverage on the following elements in building a successful business:

1) Integrating their brands into reality shows or other elements of brand exposure.

2) Leveraging extensively on media relations and targeted advertising tailored to their customers. This would increasingly include social media channels.

3) Designing stores that are warm and interesting, with music and other elements of comfort.

4) Having good sourcing channels that can help them enjoy the right margins in the hyper-competitive retail market.

5) Identifying with the lifestyle of the customer – from the moment she wakes to the point she falls asleep

It is interesting to learn how J. Christopher built C. Wonder into a premium lifestyle retail brand that sells a lifestyle experience as opposed to mere products. The store's emphasis on pampering service and customer oriented design can be seen in all the little touches which showed that it cared for its customers.

I would be delighted if retailers in Singapore would one day embrace this notion of truly caring for their customers beyond just making a quick sale or two.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The 5 Cs of Great Social Media Properties

The platforms are free but the time and effort producing them isn't (courtesy of zenfolio)

Let's face it. We are swamped by content.

What used to be physical has now invaded our virtual and mobile spaces. With a gazillion blogs, videos, photos, podcasts, slide presentations, and so on, consumers are literally "consumed" by data.

Knowledge is no longer the preserve of the privileged few. Rather, anybody with a web-enabled mobile phone can now harness the genius of generations. Without paying a single cent (except for data charges).

In an online universe with hundreds of thousands of business, marketing, food, fashion, travel, movie, and hobby blogs, Youtube Channels, Facebook pages, and podcasts, how do you make yours stand out?

The honest truth is that there isn't any one secret ingredient. Instead, it is a combination of various factors. Let me label these the 5 Cs of being outstanding:


The first thing you need to do is to focus on what you're good at. Take a good hard look at yourself. What are you most familiar with? Where does your years of experience and expertise bring you?

Focusing on where your strengths lie is always preferred to randomly riding the latest consumer trends without understanding how you can deliver value to these trends.


Any form of user generated content requires work. Writing, producing a video, or editing a photo requires discipline and concentration. To carry yourself through the sh*tty days (stranger yelled at you, deadlines at work, kids didn't complete homework), you need to have deep passion, interest and motivation in your subject matter.


From a gang of 5 to a garrison of 1000, any social media content producer needs a following. Shooting that video and uploading it on Youtube becomes a lot more fun and meaningful when people comment and interact with it. The exchange of ideas, views and thoughts help to expand your horizons, create new opportunities and provide that warm, fuzzy feeling in your heart.


Don't start what you cannot finish. In the brutal world of online content generation, being a "survivor" does require one to "outwit, outplay, and outlast" other players in the field. Try to maintain a certain cadence in how you roll out content - once a week, once every 2 or 3 days, or even (gasp) daily? Maintain that schedule come hell or highwater because you need to pump in fresh content to keep them reading, viewing and listening.


The final "C" in our toolbox is a vital ingredient if you want to keep your producing fresh, interesting and fun content. A good way to write good content is to read good content. Expose yourself to videos, books, audio books, seminars, or events where you can plug yourself into what's new and news in your world. Keep yourself updated and share that knowledge with your followers.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Reaching the Consumer of the Future

What are some of the big issues facing the consumer of tomorrow? How should retailers, lifestyle businesses and fashion brands equip themselves to reach these customers?

Speaking at the recent Asia Fashion Summit, Ruth Marshall-Johnson, Senior Editor of Think Tank at WGSN, highlighted that consumer businesses need to consider five key trends and suggested how these should be addressed as follows:

1) Ever Faster Changing Lifestyles ie How to Respond Effectively to the Speed of Change?

To keep pace with the breathless change in consumer lifestyles, businesses should shift from product design as king to service design as king. Provide the appropriate filters to your business such that you only provide the stuff which your customer truly values. This could include the design of comfortable fitting rooms, sharing of your brand's look and feel on Facebook and Twitter, to one-on-one personalisation to fit customer preferences.

As an example, Gap in the US is redesigning its stores to lend greater focus on the brand's core values while considering customer needs. It is also redesigning its digital presence, working with influential bloggers to provide community features that invite customers to participate in these platforms.

2) Bored and Overstimulated Consumers ie How to Create Psychological Hooks?

With a deluge of information and data, businesses need to market deeply into their consumer's lives. This entail allowing them to intuitively discover your brand (as opposed to pushing it in front of their noses), and to help them to be seen and heard.  Increasingly, brands need to explore their consumers' brand identities, develop apps that provide an extension of one's minds and brains, and leverage on artificial intelligence that enhances who their consumers are.

Friendster, the beleaguered social networking platform, has recently reinvented itself as a social discovery and gaming platform. This is part of its goal to make itself more relevant to its users. Leading sports brand Nike goes one better as featured in the film "Fan Culture - The Evolution of Influence". Here, Nike creates a platform that plays into the lives of its consumers and encourage its fans to talk to each other.

3) Too Many Digital Tools ie Which Digital Retail Development to Invest in Now?

To avoid being overwhelmed by the plethora of platforms, businesses should look at digital developments from a human behavioural standpoint. Invest in digital tools that imbed themselves into everyday lives and can create USEFULNESS for consumers. This could be tools that help to enhance creativity, or come with personalised offers.

Increasingly digital tools are also available on mobile devices that can help to provide the physical experience of being in a retail store, complete with music and media. Mobiles can also function as payment devices. The trick is to look at consumer behaviours outside of the retail environment and to see how apps or channels can be blended with these preferences. An example is - a huge Brazilian social media fashion portal which weaves itself into its users' lifestyles.

4) Balance Between Wonder and Reality ie How to be Useful and Exciting?

To succeed here, brands should collaborate with consumers and be consistent across multiple platforms. If possible, create great experiences in real time while striking the balance between art and commerce. The next steps in retail storytelling is to bring the old ways to new platforms while avoiding being repetitive, blending humanity with technology.

A key idea here is one of consumer curation, whereby customers get a chance to create and produce something which matters to them. An example is Jimmy Choo's Choo 24:7 website which is an interactive fan-based website, and addidas Originals White Space Project which encourage women to re-imagine themselves.

5) Is the Concept of Luxury Still Important? ie What does Luxury Mean Today?

Here, the key is to treat one's customer like a luxury customer regardless of one's price point - a rather tall order I must say! To do so, we're encouraged to create an experience that goes beyond our product and to move from a task driven enabler to a service driven expert guide.

Several examples are applicable here. They include Taiwan's launch of Burberry World Live which includes a 360 degree cinematic experience complete with a digital weather simulation, which allows customers to experience the aesthetics of its stores, and Sneakerpedia by Nike which talks to sneaker fans in their own lingo. Yes, pampering and immersing your customer in your brand is what matters here.

Key Takeaways

Summing up the presentation, Ruth shared that the key takeaways are that companies should find and develop the best real estate as "store" returns, expand locally, regionally and internationally while growing their creativity and customer orientation, provide shoppers with social experiences in physical retail spaces, collaborate with both employees and customers to innovate for one's brand, and understand that small, useful innovations can result in huge, game changing behaviours. The key is to develop richer human engagement as a priority.

Let me end with a concluding quote from the presentation:

"Today's consumers don't need to be near a store to morph into shoppers. They're just in 'sleep mode' and the right idea can make them buy anywhere."

Special thanks to Geri Kan of Linea Communications for extending the invite to me!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Uprising: A Book Review

Courtesy of Scoot Goodson's Cultural Movement Blog

In a "hyperconnected, ultra-competitive, and supercluttered marketplace", doing more of the same big idea advertising on mostly mainstream media channels isn't going to work anymore. Consumers are getting jaded and overloaded with information - much of which has little or no relevance to their lives nor their interests.

To win over increasingly cynical consumers who expects nothing less than total transparency (fueled by the openness of the social web), what should companies and businesses do?

Enter "movement marketing".

Written in a highly persuasive prose, Scott Goodson's book Uprising: How to Build a Brand and Change the World by Sparking Cultural Movements argues that the future of business is seeded in revolutions both big and small. From the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, hand-crafted bamboo bikes to Pepsi's "Refresh" Project, Goodson explains that citizens and companies alike are leveraging on the ease of starting any movement big or small through a mix of online social networks and offline gatherings.

Hand-crafted bamboo bicycles are a movement both literal and figurative! (source of image)

With this fundamental shift, businesses need to change their entire marketing model. Instead of persuading individuals to buy products or services, they should understand what consumers truly care about and find ways to align themselves in a meaningful (as opposed to a pretentious) manner. This could take place via the five phases of movement marketing:

1) Strategy - Developing a strategy for movement marketing by understanding the insights and motivations behind them.

2) Declare - Having a platform to declate the movement, manifest it both internally within the company and externally with its stakeholders.

3) Unite - Finding a way to unite the provocateurs, launch the movement, test it and adapt it along the way.

4) Scale - Employing the tools of communication (eg social media channels like Facebook, blogs, Twitter, Foursquare, Youtube, as well as mainstream media interest) to go massive and to build the infrastructure.

5) Sustain - Maintaining the momentum, continually providing content (either from within or preferably crowdsourced from supporters) and measuring its success.

Lance Armstrong partners Nike for Livestrong (source of image)

With numerous examples and case studies from the worlds of charity (Charity:Water), politics (No Labels by Mark McKinnon), health and sports (LIVESTRONG by Nike and Lance Armstrong), craft (Handmade Nation's Faythe Levine), and organisations themselves ("Rise" by the Mahindra Group), the book highlights how "ideas on the rise" can be tapped on to start a marketing movement.

Instead of asking "how can we get more people to buy this product? What is the unique selling proposition of this new service?", companies should instead find out what's going on in the world, what people care about, and what's culturally relevant. By keeping their ear on the ground and taking a stand on a cause that their consumers are fired about, companies can better ride the wave of uprisings while being seen to contribute to their communities.

To ensure that companies are not seen as exploitative, Goodson suggests that they should look deep within the DNA of their organisations and spark the change from an inside-out manner. They should leverage on their expertise and knowledge to share useful information to their followers, create platforms to connect them, provide useful content in an ongoing (as opposed to short burst) manner, equip stakeholders with tools that they can use, and create events that rally the community and generate enthusiasm.

From his company StrawberryFrog, Goodson proposes that effective communication of a movement idea should take place through the following practical steps:

- Align with a powerful idea on the rise to define a culture.
- Create content/actions/tools/events/communities to draw people to this idea.
- Start in places where conversations are already happening.
- Recruit your most outspoken advocates.
- Use mass communications to amplify to a wider audience.
- Curate the idea by suring search engine optimisation.
- Activate word of mouth with PR, social media, and content placement.
- Invent ownable media in online and offline channels to continue the conversation. Movement "swags" like flags, banners, T-shirts, wristbands and the like are useful examples of these.
- Use direct marketing and promotions to encourage purchase.

Rooted in passion, deep-seated emotion and a propensity for righteous (or otherwise) action, movements will increasingly be a way of life for many. To ride this new wave, companies should examine how their missions and visions can achieve synergy with the greater good of society. While newer companies like and TOMS are exemplars of this new sensibility, older companies such as Coke ("Live Positively"), Unilever (Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty") and Levi's ("Go Forth" as shown below) are also embracing the new movement towards movement.

However, it isn't always a bed of roses. Swallowing the "movement" pill requires companies to be a lot more open, transparent and responsive to their stakeholders. Anything which reeks of insincerity or superficialness will result in scathing backlash. To play in this new arena of marketing, companies must be prepared to say they're sorry, correct any missteps quickly and take affirmative actions to regain the trust of the public.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Role of Semiotics in Marketing

Of course one needn't be too explicit with signs... (source of image)

Semiotics is a branch of cultural anthropology which looks at the use of signs and symbols as means of communicating and conveying meaning. According to, there are two inter-related definitions, namely:

1) the study of signs and symbols as elements of communicative behavior; the analysis of systems of communication, as language, gestures, or clothing.

2) a general theory of signs and symbolism, usually divided into the branches of pragmatics, semantics, and syntactics.

To understand what pragmatics, semantics and syntactics mean, let's go to Wikipedia:

Semantics: Relation between signs and the things to which they refer, ie their meaning

Syntactics: Relations among signs in formal structures

Pragmatics: Relation between signs and the effects they have on the people who use them

In marketing and branding, semiotics play a key role in determining the success or failure of any endeavour. Through the effective deployment of verbal, visual and performative (ie actions by the consumer) elements, companies can strengthen their reach to their customers. These elements may include logos, rituals, iconic individuals, text, advertisements, websites, physical environments, hospitality and service, tag lines and other "touch points".

Wait a minute. Isn't branding all about influencing these elements anyway? What's the difference then?

In this well-written article by Laura Oswald of Marketing Semiotics Inc, she explains that "Semiotic theories and methods can be used to identify trends in popular culture, understand how consumer attitudes and behavior are formed in relation to popular culture, including brands, and how marketing and advertising programmes can best meet the needs of consumers by improving communication with the end user."

The article goes on to explain that it involves the "collection and analysis of data drawn from communication of all kinds - artistic or everyday, in all kinds of media including verbal, visual, and olfactory" and is useful for "clarifying brand equities in the brand audit, then tracking the implementation of these equities across all elements of the marketing mix."

What this tells us is that implementing a comprehensive brand communications programme alone isn't enough. Rather, one should adopt a holistic and harmonious approach which involves studying cultural trends, understanding behavioural norms, and determining how various sensory and emotional stimuli of a brand interact before rolling them out. Doing so allows us to better determine and control how consumers would respond to a brand given their current contexts.

The next time you think about rolling out a fancy brand name, logo, renovated shop front or new product feature, consider what your total package of signs and symbols mean to your consumers before doing so.

Is there synergy between what you're trying to convey and what your staff are saying on the shopfront? Are you giving the wrong impression with that bright fluorescent pink packaging that you're investing in?

By embracing the tenets of semiotic analysis, our chances of making a real impact on our consumer's lives - and our bottomlines - may improve significantly.

Friday, May 11, 2012

7 Trends for the Museum of the Future

Maritime Experiential Museum
Interactive and educational gaming at the Maritime Experiential Museum & Aquarium

I've just read very quickly the Center for the Future of Museums (an arm of the American Association of Museums) well written report called TrendsWatch 2012 which outlined key trends in the development of museums. With lots of links to examples and highlights of cutting edge ideas in American museums, the report provides lots of food for thought for museum and attraction professionals.

Let me highlight the seven trends that they have identified and provide a local context to them.


In the age of democratised influence facilitated by social media, museum visitors are no longer content being passive "gazers". Rather, they want to be more involved in the process of curation, interpretation and education, becoming collaborators rather than just consumers of culture. The role of curators - the traditional keepers of knowledge and culture - would change to be facilitators and quality controllers when managing crowdsourced citizen generated content.

While progress has been made in a few museums involve the public in co-curating exhibitions and programmes, the bulk still practice a "monologue" as opposed to a "dialogue" with their audience. There is much room to grow in this area in order for our museums and attractions to be "participatory" institutions.

New Models in Social Entrepreneurship

Unlike the US where nonprofits are facing the squeeze with a tightening of regulations on them, the situation here is pretty different. Perhaps what is needed is not so much a change in legal status of museums here but an exploration of different business models to generate greater revenue. This may go beyond the traditional routes of ticketing, tenancies, facility sales, and merchandising.

Many Western museums in cultural capitals like London, Paris and New York are already doing so with the decreasing of government support triggered by the financial crisis. They sign deals which involve not only the loaning of artworks/artefacts or travelling of shows, but the licensing of their brand names in affiliate institutions in the Middle East.

Mobile, Distributive Experiences

Through mobile phones, tablet devices, laptops and other devices, almost anybody can carry a "virtual museum" in their pocket, perusing its galleries, learning about its artworks/artefacts, and viewing educational content from its hallowed halls. "Pop-up" museums have also brought art, heritage and science to the communities, with mobile exhibitions, displays and curated corners away from the city centre. Trailers (called RVs in the west) have also been fitted out to become travelling museums.

In Singapore, the concept of travelling exhibitions is already fairly tried and tested, helping to reach millions of Singaporeans and visitors who may otherwise not have stepped into museums. Increasingly, community curated and co-presented spaces are also the trend here, in line with the desire to bring culture into every household. We also have our versions of travelling mobile museums moving from neighbourhood to neighbourhood.

New Forms of Funding

To seek more sources of funds, museums in the West are turning the age-old idea of cultural philanthropy on its head. The trend is now to seek small amounts through social-networking tools like Google Wallet or Paypal in a term known as crowdfunding. Mobile devices can also be used for such micro-donations through SMSes or other means. Such approaches have already been embraced successfully through microloan platforms like

Creative Aging

In any developed city around the world, the issue of an aging population loom large, and it becomes increasingly important to find meaningful engagement for seniors. Museums in Western cities find that most of their visitors tend to be young (this observation is mirrored here in Singapore), and efforts are made to draw an increasingly mobile, well-heeled, and educated silver haired community into their walls.

A great way to work with retirees and seniors is to involve them as museum volunteers in various aspects of its operations. With their wealth of knowledge and life encounters, docents with decades of experience can spin a rich narrative that enhances the museum visits.

Augmented Reality

As rich experiential zones, museums present excellent bases upon which to deploy the latest technologies in 3D visualisation, allowing guests to relive a bygone era in vivid detail. Beyond the cinematic shows in 4D theatres, museums can also encourage visitors to download apps that allow them to view "invisible" objects in a museum or compare what a place used to look like in the past and the present.

Such technologies have already been employed in Singapore with the Asian Civilisation Museum's iPhone app for the Terracotta Warriors exhibition. However, there is certainly room for more innovative future uses melding gaming, reality and virtual encounters. For example, historic scenes from the past (eg the Battle of Pasir Panjang) could perhaps come alive through a short video clip by just pointing your mobile devices in the right direction.

Shifts in Education

Finally, the evolution of learning away from classroom based rote learning to a more experiential do-it-yourself model has also influenced museum educational programmes. By working with schools more closely, museums can blend the learning experience both formal and informal using the latest approaches in pedagogy, encouraging project-based approaches where kids can create stuff in the context of a museum.

Such approaches have been done successfully in our local museums (most notably the wonderful "Art Garden" that is part of the Singapore Art Museum's Children's Season) through fun-filled environments where kids can immerse themselves in mindful play while learning about art, history, science or culture.

For more, do check out the TrendsWatch 2012 report here.

Are there other ideas or trends that museums can embrace in the future? I'd be happy to hear your thoughts.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Extreme Focus: A Book Review

How does one truly achieve one's dreams? What are the secrets behind ultra-successful folks who make a "dent in the Universe"?

The answer according to NBA Orlando Magic's Senior Vice President Pat Williams and author Jim Denney is "Extreme Focus".

With the subtitle "Harnessing the Life-Changing Power to Achieve Your Dreams", Extreme Focus provides an inspirational and informative read to anybody keen to make a difference in their professional and personal lives. With numerous quotable quotes such as "Goals are Dreams with Deadlines", the book spurs one to take firm and daily action in order to attain remarkable results in one's career and life.

Peppered with numerous examples from sports, entertainment and business including basketballer Michael Jordan, hotelier Conrad Hilton, Starbucks head honcho Howard Schultz and Olympic runner Sir Roger Bannister (the guy who first broke the 4-minute mile in 1954), Extreme Focus urges you to throw yourself wholeheartedly into the profession of your passion.

With words that literally jump out of its pages - like a mentor or coach speaking directly at you - the book provides a persuasive case for the virtue of unwavering focus.

The core of Extreme Focus is a 10 Key strategy to achieving one's dreams, which are as follows:

1) Extreme Focus is the Key to Achieving Your Dreams

In the words of Nike, "Just Do It!" By achieving extreme focus, one can enjoy peak performance while learning to screen out distractions, doubts and fears. It involves both thinking the right thoughts and eliminating the wrong thoughts.

2) Focus on Your Passion in Life

Here, we're taught to "focus on the one thing in life that you are truly passionate about - then pursue it with all your might" and to be a "doer, not a dabbler".

3) Focus on Tomorrow

Fail to plan and plan to fail. Set short-range, medium-range and long-range goals and put them up somewhere where you can see them daily and be inspired.

4) Focus on Today

Carpe Diem! Seize the Day. Here, we're taught to use the Grab 15 Principle (dedicate 15 minutes every day to do the important long-term stuff), and to be so focused that we get "in the zone". Meditate on positive beliefs, and overcome self-doubt, self-limiting assumptions, fear or laziness.

5) Focus on Self-Discipline

Learn to commit yourself to positive habits and diligence, and strive for quality. Adopt a disciplined work ethic and embrace it as a lifestyle.

6) Focus on Things You Can Control - and Let Go of Everything Else

The Serenity Prayer is a good example for us to follow here. Instead of being a control freak, we should focus on the stuff that we can control and release the rest.

7) Focus on Your Courage and Confidence

Shine the spotlight on your courage - not your fears. Be bold, take calculated risks and ignore what others think when what you do is right. Be a player and not a spectator.

8) Focus on Commitment

When you affix a certain goal in your heart and mind, stick to it and prevail over obstacles and opposition. Develop mental resilience and never give up or give in.

9) Focus on Leadership and Influence

Think teamwork and how you can influence others in a positive manner to achieve bigger dreams. The seven disciplines of leadership are: vision, communication skills, people skills, character, competence, boldness, and servanthood.

10) Focus - and Finish Strong!

Just like Randy Pausch of the "Last Lecture" has shared, brick walls are there to stop other people - not you. To win the race, you need to stay focused, persevere and keep fighting the good fight.

If you're looking for inspiration, motivation and perhaps that little "kick in the butt", Extreme Focus is the book for you. Let me end with a paragraph from the final chapter of the book as a word of encouragement:

"What is your dream? What is the passion that drives you and motivates you and won't let you go?..... Believe in your dreams. Don't let anyone take it from you. Follow it with an intense passion. Pursue it with relentless focus. Never give up. Never let go. Never stop fighting for the things that truly matter."

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Marketing - Fact, Fantasy or Fallacy?

Too bad marketers don't have growing noses like Pinnochio! (source of image)

In the world of marketing, there are three schools of thought.

The first is the school of facts. Proponents of this idea hinge much of their marketing on bread and butter issues, focusing on very tangible aspects of their products or services such as cost, value, features, utility, convenience and savings.

Subscribers of "factual" marketing deploy discounts, sales and "one-for-one" deals in an almost unabashed fashion, aided by channels such as Groupon, eBay, Amazon, and other price-oriented retailers. Here, total transparency is valued and you're even dared to ask for a refund if you can find the item being sold cheaper anywhere else.

The second is the school of fantasy. Unlike the first, the main drivers here are often more aspirational, escapist, sensorial and emotional. The main draw of your product or service is the experience that you'll enjoy, the prestige that you'll be cloaked with, or the triggering of your imagination.

Subscribers of "fantasy" marketing create perfect utopian settings that are often a far cry from the humdrum of reality. Picture yourself all masculine/feminine and oozing sexuality, flashing a brilliant set of pearlies, and driving that red hot Ferrari into a beachfront villa. Or perhaps you're a dark elf carrying a potion of unfathomable might, waiting to unleash your final fatal blow on a nightmarish foe.

The third, and perhaps the most insidious, is the school of fallacy. Believers of this ideal (can it be called that?) have little ethics or morals, choosing to spin untruths, half-lies, and deceptive marketing messages in a bid to sell, sell, sell. Fine-print terms and conditions, and overtly clever headlines (and copy) are the tools of this trade.

Subscribers of "fallacy" marketing spend a lot of time on the web, prancing and prowling for unwitting victims. They are the sellers of social media snake oil, who promise you that you need not work another day in your life in you create this godawesome website which will earn you a million bucks a year. Oh, and while you're at it, you should also recommend another 10/100/1000 friends to earn "bonus" bucks.

Can all marketers be honest and truthful or will there always be an element of spin woven into every marketing message?  Which school do you belong to and why?

Friday, May 04, 2012

Mickey's 10 Commandments for Theme Parks

Disneyland provides lots of photo opportunities for kids!

Thanks to Bob Rogers, I recently learnt about the 10 rules of theme park design which were created by Disney legend Marty Sklar, Vice Chairman and Principal Creative Executive of Walt Disney Imagineering. These rules are designed to help anybody developing or designing a theme park to create memorable experiences for their guests.

So what are these precepts modelled after the "happiest place on Earth"?

1) Know Your Audience

This is probably the most straightforward commandment. Indeed, it is important for one to know exactly who one is gunning for, and to be as precise as possible in reaching this target.

2) Wear Your Guest's Shoes

Pick a crowded weekend, park along with everybody else, buy your own ticket using your own money, stand in the queues, and eat your own park's food. This will give you a deep insight into what your customers face, and how you can improve things for them.

3) Organise the Flow of People and Ideas

Look into the way people move around and what they encounter from point to point. Make it meaningful for them.

4) Create a Weenie (a Visual Icon... not what you're thinking of!)

Try to minimise the use of arrows if you can as every arrow is a failure in design. Instead deploy visual icons to move people from space to space.

5) Communicate with a Visual Literacy

Use good design elements like font, icons, colour and shapes to get your message across.

6) Create Turn-ons but Avoid Overload

Find ways to stimulate your visitors at various junctures in the park, but avoid overkill with too many things to look at or do.

7) Tell One Story at a Time

As Rogers has shared, Stephen Spielberg was famous for saying "one shot one idea". Similarly, one could limit it to "one room one idea" or "one ride one idea", avoiding the cacophony of different messages.

8) Avoid Contradictions

Consistency is key in good thematic design.

9) An Ounce of Treatment, a Tonne of Treat

Occasionally, make your visitors work hard through a particular experience and reward them with a treat at the end which makes it all worth it while juicing up their endorphins.

10) Keep It Up and Maintain It

An attraction with fading paint, litter, or broken rides, is a bad attraction.

Oh wait, Rogers added one more bonus commandment (number 11) of his own creation, which says...

11) Give People a Photo Op

A photograph of a wonderful time at a themed attraction speaks far more than a 1,000 words. Create as many opportunities for your guests to take great photos and they'll remember and love you for it.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Steve Jobs: Lessons from a Legend

Everybody knows Steve Jobs. Icon, innovator, brilliant entrepreneur and creator of "insanely great" products, Jobs was the founder and CEO of Apple. He created fantastic products like the Macintosh computer, iPod, iTunes Store, iPhone and iPad, founded Disney beating Pixar Animations, and opened the much lauded Apple Store. Jobs' death on 5 Oct 2011 at the age of 56 due to pancreatic cancer has been one of the most talked about death in recent history.

Written as a biography yet offering lots of business and life lessons, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson is a masterful work by the former Chairman and CEO of CNN. The only writer anointed to do the biography by Jobs himself, Isaacson paints an unadulterated portrait of who the visionary leader was from his early beginnings as an adopted kid to his last days stricken with cancer.

As I listened to hour after hour of the recording read in the clear and authoritative voice of Dylan Baker, several themes jumped out at me:

1) Steve Jobs was intensely obsessed about almost every aspect of his life. This can be seen from his vegan fruitarian diet habits, passion for all things Zen-like with simple clean designs, down to his extreme perfectionism in seeing to the minute details of every product which rolled off the Apple production line. Leaving nothing to chance, Jobs doesn't compromise in what be believed in, sometimes to the chagrin of those who loved and cared for him.

2) Steve Jobs had an uncanny ability to influence people to do the impossible, through what is called his "reality distortion field". Through charm, wit, compulsion, charisma, and sheer force of personality, Jobs was able to make many of his associates achieve seemingly unrealistic deadlines and scale new heights of achievement.

3) Steve Jobs was also an a**hole, especially in the way he treated others. He doesn't mince his words and frequently used expletives in conveying his displeasure at a less than perfectly designed computer, smartphone or animated film (during his stint at Pixar). Often, it was either his way or the highway.

4) Steve Jobs' insistence on perfection made him run contrary to many of his peers. With a defiant and petulant attitude, he insisted on Apple owning the hardware, software and services platforms, providing a seamless end-to-end solution despite this being contrary to the gargantuan open-source, transparent and platform neutral movement in the IT industry. In his own words, Jobs "screwed" players like Google and Microsoft whom he considered as being too promiscuous in allowing other manufacturers to use their software and applications.

Beyond his manic emotions and quirky character traits, Jobs provides a good study for managers and leaders alike. In a recent article on Harvard Business Review, Isaacson shared what he considered to be the real leadership lessons of Steve Jobs. These are worth nothing, and are summarised as follows:

1) Focus - Jobs' ability to whittle down a large array of products into four SKUs which sat squarely in the quadrants of "Consumer", "Pro", "Desktop" and "Portable" is an epitome to how razor sharp he was in focusing on the core.

2) Simplify - This Zen-like ability stemmed from his beliefs in Eastern mysticism and spiritism, with Apple's brochure declaring that "simplicity is the ultimate sophistication".

3) Take Responsibility End to End - Here Jobs makes it his lifelong mission to take responsibility for the user experience, from the moment they purchase an Apple product at the store, opened the beautiful packaging, to plugging in the device and activating it.

4) When Behind, Leapfrog - Jobs doesn't play catch up. Instead of making a better, faster or cheaper device to burn CDs or DVDs, he built an integrated system of iTunes store, iTunes and iPods which revolutionised the music industry.

5) Put Products before Profits - In the biography, Jobs wistfully regretted that he allowed a previous CEO John Sculley to milk Apple's profits without injecting fresh innovation. When Jobs returned after being ousted, he made it his priority to shine the spotlight back on product innovation.

6) Don't Be a Slave to Focus Groups - It has been said that Jobs doesn't believe in any market research, quoting the famous saying from Henry Ford: "If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’”

7) Bend Reality - I've highlighted this earlier in describing Jobs' reality distortion field.

8) Impute - This lesson was one which Jobs picked up from Mark Markkula. It directed the need for subtle semiotic features like the recessed handle in iMacs which conveyed a playful and portable sensibility rather than real utility. Similarly, when you “open the box of an iPhone or iPad, we want that tactile experience to set the tone for how you perceive the product,” Jobs said.

9) Push for Perfection - I think this lesson is quite clearly conveyed in his endless need to ensure that everything falls into place.

10) Tolerate only "A" Players - Steve Jobs only wanted top grade players and would not tolerate having any "bozos" on the team. This tough love meant that you either win over his affection or was fired due to incompetence - there was no two ways about it.

11) Engage Face-to-Face - Despite running one of the world's most valuable technology company, Jobs believed in physically meeting people and talking to them shunning the interactions on online platforms like email or an "iChat".

12) Know Both the Big Picture and Details - This ability to zoom in and zoom out makes Jobs attentive to both the grand dream as well as the nuts and screws that held each product together.

13) Combine the Humanities to the Sciences - With a poetic and artistic soul and a technologist's fascination with science, Jobs was atypical in his field. His ability to merge both disciplines made Apple succeed beyond what its competitors were capable of doing.

14) Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish - This famous saying that Jobs appropriated reflected his own mantra as a counter-culture rebel with an anti-authoritarian streak. Unlike many of his peers, Jobs did not subscribe to the status quo, believing that he was still a hacker and a hippie at heart even when Apple was a multi-billion dollar company.

Let me end by paying homage to Steve Jobs' marketing genius as seen from the text which he wrote for a "Think Different" ad:

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”