Friday, August 31, 2012

A Winning Mix of Hospitality, Heritage and Hope

Sprawled over 1.4 million square feet along Singapore's most scenic waterfront at Marina Bay, The Fullerton Heritage is an integrated dining, hotel and retail development comprising seven heritage and new buildings - The Fullerton Hotel Singapore, The Fullerton Bay Hotel Singapore, The Fullerton Waterboat House, One Fullerton, The Fullerton Pavilion, Clifford Pier and Customs House.

Beginning with the retrofitting of the iconic Fullerton Building in 2001 to become the Fullerton Hotel, the group has given a new lease of life to heritage icons Clifford Pier (built in 1933) and Customs House (built in the 1960s), transforming them into swanky F&B destinations. Collectively, these developments have added vibrancy to the waterfront area and attracted guests both foreign and local.

In recognition of its achievements in heritage preservation, community engagement and environment protection, The Fullerton Heritage won The Hoffen Award at the recent SME One Asia Awards. Established by APF Group Pte Ltd, these Awards recognise and honour the business success and leadership achievements of SMEs in Singapore and Asia.

Meaning "hope" in German, The Hoffen award is given to companies that inspire community renewal and human development. It acknowledges the work which companies do to "revive our loving spaces" and "contribute significantly to improving human lives and their environment".

To find out more, I had the privilege of interviewing Mr Giovanni Viterale, General Manager of The Fullerton Heritage. Here are some highlights of my interview:

How does The Fullerton Heritage differentiate itself from other retail and F&B players around the Marina Bay area?

In addition to featuring some of the best views along Singapore’s waterfront, we hope to create a meaningful experience for both locals and travelers with our unique blend of the historical and the contemporary. We had the well-heeled discerning jetsetters and travellers in mind when we conceptualized The Fullerton Heritage.

The precinct is master-planned to complement the Marina Bay waterfront, as well as the surrounding arts, culture, and financial districts with its mix of hotels, high-end retail, restaurants and bars. Having a right mix provides our guests with an array of lifestyle choices – including upscale accommodation, dining, shopping and entertainment – all within The Fullerton Heritage.

What are the various ways in which the company has woven heritage, art, community and environmental sustainability into its business strategies?

Over the past 10 years, we have successfully restored key iconic landmarks that played significant roles in Singapore’s history. The respect for heritage and the integration of heritage into a lifestyle destination is a unique and distinct element of The Fullerton Heritage precinct.

In July 2010, we launched The Fullerton Heritage Gallery at The Fullerton Hotel to showcase the legacy of the hotel to both locals and travelers from abroad. The 800-square foot gallery features photographs, maps, stamps and philatelic materials that date back to 1932. Many of our guests will visit the Gallery to peruse and admire the displays. In addition, many teachers organize educational tours for their students to our Gallery.

A heritage red pillar post box first used in Singapore in 1873 was brought to The Fullerton Heritage Gallery. Various signs were put up at different levels of the hotel to mark historical points of interest. With the support of NHB’s Heritage Industry Incentive Programme (HI²P), we worked with Singapore Philatelic Museum to develop The Fullerton Heritage Trail map to guide visitors on a walking trail to learn about the rich history and culture of the precinct.

The Fullerton Heritage has also initiated the "Art in the City" programme to infuse local art and culture within the cityscape, showcasing art exhibitions and activities in the Fullerton Heritage precinct. We also work closely with our adopted charities MILK (Mainly I Love Kids) Fund and Beyond Social Services to organise various initiatives and events which allow staff to raise funds and interact with the underprivileged.

On the environmental front, The Fullerton Hotel and The Fullerton Bay Hotel engages in and encourages all staff and guests to adopt green practices such as the reuse of bedlinen and towels. All restaurants and bars at The Fullerton Hotel and The Fullerton Bay Hotel have since removed shark’s fin from their menus, in heeding the call for the conservation of sharks.

How does The Fullerton Heritage feel about winning the award?

We are extremely honoured to be chosen to receive the very first Hoffen Award. We have actively sought to bring new life to these important heritage buildings along Singapore’s waterfront over the past 14 years. As this year marks the completion of The Fullerton Heritage precinct, the Award is a prized recognition of our dedication and efforts.

What were some of the major challenges faced by The Fullerton Heritage over the years? How did the company overcome these challenges?

When we were transforming The Fullerton Building into a hotel in 1998, our challenge was to protect its architectural integrity and to combine its rich history with the highest levels of modern luxury and technology. Similarly, the conservation of Clifford Pier from 2006 to 2008 included extensive restoration works as well as new works such as the installation of glass panels to facilitate the air-conditioning of the building.

With The Fullerton Bay Hotel, it is a much-treasured opportunity to be able to develop it on the site that it rests on – between Clifford Pier which was built in 1933, and the Customs House which was built in the 1960s. Both public buildings had played important roles in the modern history of Singapore. It is with great honour that we can help bring this piece of history to our guests through integrating it into our hospitality experience. This was a new challenge as we had to infuse the theme of heritage into a new building.

Together with our architects and designers, we overcame the challenge by placing the entrance of the hotel at Clifford Pier. Hotel guests will thus experience the transition from the past to the present the moment they step into our hotel. The materials and colours of the new building were also carefully chosen to harmonize with the characteristics of the heritage building. To further impart the historic significance of the site into the hotel, soft furnishings including vintage nautical maps, heritage photos of the locale as well as specially commissioned art pieces that reflect the harmony between old and new Singapore were chosedn for The Fullerton Bay Hotel.

The Fullerton Heritage is part of two large property conglomerates. How has this benefited them?

The Fullerton Heritage precinct is developed by Sino Land Company Limited, a publicly listed arm of Sino Group, which is one of the leading property developers in Hong Kong and the sister company of Singapore’s Far East Organisation. We gleaned much knowledge from the experience that our parent’s company has in property development which greatly helped us in the planning and development of The Fullerton Heritage precinct.

For instance, to facilitate seamless connectivity between the seven properties within The Fullerton Heritage precinct – rather than developing each property independently of each other - we built and are building more public walkways and promenades to connect the properties. This includes a new covered underpass connecting The Fullerton Hotel and The Fullerton Bay Hotel.

Looking ahead, what are the future plans for the property?

We are presently appointing a professional tour guide who will conduct a complimentary tour of The Fullerton Heritage (starting from The Fullerton Hotel) for our guests. This will complement the self-guided Fullerton Heritage Trail Map which we created together with the Singapore Philatelic Museum last year. We're also constantly seeking ways to provide our hotel guests and dining patrons with more enriching experiences when they return to The Fullerton Heritage precinct.

Is there anything else that you'd like to share about the journey towards winning the award?

Amidst Singapore’s rapid progress and transformation, The Fullerton Heritage upholds the history and legacy of the precinct. We wish to bring refreshed and relevant lifestyle choices to Singaporeans and travelers while retaining and educating customers on the historical value of this significant locale.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Rise of Social Businesses

Courtesy of the Big Trend Hunt

Social media marketing is no longer the preserve of the elite few. More and more companies invest in creating their own Facebook fan pages, blogs, forums, Youtube channels and Twitter accounts in a bid to reach out to their customers. The game is no longer about reach and eyeballs alone, but fans, followers and "Likes".

Increasingly, forward-thinking businesses begin to realise that the principles of social engagement shouldn't just apply to their marketing and PR departments. With almost everybody having an online presence - from the CEO to the office boy - companies can ill afford to ignore the need for the rest of the company (HR, Finance, Procurement, Manufacturing, Logistics etc) to "go social".

Enter the world of Social Businesses. First coined by IBM in 2011, a social business is defined by the Social Business Forum as...

An organization that has put in place the strategies, technologies and processes to systematically engage all the individuals of its ecosystem (employees, customers, partners, suppliers) to maximize the co-created value. 

(Note that this is different from the other more commonly known definition of social businesses by Prof Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank related to social entrepreneurship and charity.)

There are four key trends leading to the growth of social businesses, namely:

1) It is no longer feasible to separate the internal and external environments of a company with a China wall. Information should now flow two-ways - inside-out and outside-in, often in realtime.

2) Key decision making and change management responsibilities should no longer be limited to managers or customers. Rather, organisational changes can be driven by customers, empoyees, partners or suppliers, as the roles of these players take on greater prominence.

3) Engagement supersedes communication as the key approach to making the internal/external flow possible.

4) An organisation exists not just to maximise value for its traditional shareholders, but to optimise the exchanged value for all stakeholders throughout the entire ecosystem.

These characteristics can be represented by two diagrams. The first from Energise 2.0 shows how global trends mandate the need for businesses to relinquish control, encourage pervasive social interaction, and shift from the institution to its communities.

Courtesy of Energise 2.0

The second from Intersection Consulting observes at a more micro-level how different players in a social business ecosystem interact with each other, depicting how information flows both inwards and outwards amongst different players inside and outside an organisation:

Courtesy of Intersection Consulting

In thinking about social businesses, companies should align social media to business strategy and look at building policies, practices and systems that impact the following:

1) Market Engagement - how businesses can better understand market needs and desires, create "spot-on" products and services, create greater brand awareness and affinity, and secure new customers.

2) Customer Engagement - how customer service can be improved to increase satisfaction, grow revenue streams, create loyalty and encourage advocacy.

3) Employee Engagement - how platforms like corporate intranets, forums, blogs and microblogs within organisations can encourage employees to openly share ideas, find answers to befuddling problems, and gain support services.

4) Employee Productivity - how social tools like wikis, collaborative applications, and forums can improve communication, boost weak ties, and foster greater collaboration which enhances efficiency and effectiveness.

To successfully implement "social" in business, IBM suggests that a social business "isn't just a company that has a Facebook page and a Twitter handle". Rather, it is one that "embraces and cultivates a spirit of collaboration and community throughout its organization—both internally and externally."

This can be summarised by three key qualities as defined by IBM:

1) Engaged- connecting people (customers, employees, partners) in productive ways.

2) Transparent- removing boundaries to information, discarding bureaucracies, and ensuring that actions are aligned to results.

3) Nimble— accelerating business with information flows and insight on rapidly evolving opportunities.

Let me end with this video by LeaderLab which outlines quite elegantly the basic tenets of social businesses.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Likeonomics: A Book Review

We're now facing a crisis of believability in marketing. Triggered by the collapse of the financial system in 2008, widespread deceit by big corporate brands and sheer volume of advertising "clutter", consumers distrust big brands, companies and governments more than ever before.

Against such a backdrop, what can one do? The answer, according to Ogilvy's Rohit Bhargava, is to be more likeable.

With the subtitle The Unexpected Truth Behind Earning Trust, Influencing Behavior, And Inspiring Action, Rohit's latest volume Likeonomics proposes that companies should move from analytics to altruism in their bid to win the hearts of their customers. To do so, they should embrace the five principles of Likeonomics, namely Truth, Relevance, Unselfishness, Simplicity, and Timing (ie TRUST).

The first principle Truth comprises the three elements of Unexpected Honesty, Unbiased Fact and Proactive Integrity. With the rather sordid example of how Oprah revealed how she was raped by a relative when she was nine, Rohit shows how being open about an "inconvenient truth" helps one to gain credibility and forge an instant connection with one's customers. Being truthful also requires one to stick to one's guns and live up to high ethical standards when conducting one's business.

The second principle of Relevance is somewhat similar to Stephen Covey's 7 Habit philosophy of "seeking first to understand and then to be understood". In the case of the World Bank, being relevant means deploying its bankers to client economies so that they're closer to the action and the people whom they're helping. Relevance can be dissected into three elements: Active Listening, having a Meaningful Point of View, and knowing the Surrounding Context.

The third principle of Unselfishness debunks the myth proposed by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins that we're all genetically predisposed towards "social Darwinism". Brimming with optimism, Rohit proposes that the rise of "Wikinomics" and a new movement of compassion driven by the three elements of Human Empathy, Giving Freely and Offering Value would help change the world. The story of the incredible altruism of Japnese citizens in the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 drove home this point - amidst the rubble, citizens who found cash returned tens of millions of yen to the government to rebuilt the city rather than pocket them!

The fourth principle, Simplicity, is embodied by this quotation which Rohit uses in the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery - "Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add but when there is nothing left to take away." Both Google and Apple are well documented cases of companies obsessed with keeping things simple. Like the first three points, Simplicity comprises three elements: focusing on a Core Concept, ensuring that ideas are Highly Shareable, and speaking in a Natural Language (I especially love this point!).  

The fifth and final principle of Timeliness is probably the hardest to control. In a time-shifting culture where customers can choose whichever time they wish to conduct their activities and where obvious timings are fiercely competitive (eg selling flowers 2 weeks before Valentine's Day), one needs to go beyond just pure luck. Here Rohit offers three elements to up your timeliness factor - Necessary Urgency (get people to act or pay attention in the moment), Habitual Connection (coinciding your activity with people's habits), and Current Events.

Unfortunately, the final sections of the book were a little skimpy with a couple of "feel good" stories. They include how Bhutan (the "Happiest Place on Earth") chooses to restrict tourism to protect their environment and people's lifestyles, and how Yanik Silver's Maverick1000 network (starring uber CEO Richard Branson) brought value to members. I felt that these examples weren't as strong as those that were woven into the earlier chapters of the book. 

Like his previous book "Personality Not Included", Likeonomics is written in a highly readable and conversational narrative. Its central tenets are somewhat simple, straightforward, and presented in a clever acronym which makes them easy to remember. Naturally, the challenge is in applying these principles, and here, the additional resources from the Likeonomics website should come in helpful.

In conclusion, Likeonomics provides a good guide to businesses keen to earn the trust of their customers and to be more relevant to their lives. Despite being short and succinct, it is loaded with useful ideas and concepts that one can apply immediately wherever one is.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Dîner en Blanc Debacle

Are these foods not "white" enough? (courtesy of Daniel's Food Diary)

When the ingredients to a dish are not properly assembled, the outcome could be a recipe for disaster.

It all started rather innocently and positively. Pitched as part of a global initiative, Dîner en Blanc is the world's first viral event premised on the concept of a "très chic picnic" imported from Paris. According to its website, this mass gastronomic extravanganza have taken place in outdoor public spaces in 20 cities across 5 continents this year, from Barcelona to New York City, from Montreal to Sydney.

On 30 August, Singapore will be the first Asian country to host this colossal chi chi culinary affair. Like other cities in the Western world, this "hush-hush" viral party involves getting everybody to wear white, bring white food, cutlery, tables and chairs, and rendezvous to a secret location. This exclusive ivory-hued event is only available "by invitation" and limited to a select crowd of 1,000.

As you may expect, the effect could be quite magical. Quoting from the elegantly written prose of the event website:

"White-swathed tables appear in orderly rows, white balloons drift lazily skyward as gleeful attendees, dressed head to toe in the color du jour, unwrap their summer's eve repast. The backdrop of the secret location add the only splash of color to the monochromatic celebration...."

All the elements of a great campaign were there: mystery, intrigue, exclusivity, visual spectacle, "pop-up" and secretiveness. As the saga unfolds, however, empathy and cultural sensitivity appear to be sorely missing.

Things started to go down hill when the PR company hired by the organisers told food blogger Daniel Ang that "local delicacies were not in line with the image of the picnic". In his earlier post, he creatively recommended 12 local "white" cuisines to complement the occasion. These were tau hway, teochew pau, cheese raisin buns, xiao long bao, chee chiong fun, fishballs, Hainanese chicken rice, white bee hoon, chwee kueh, kueh tu tu, soon kueh and popiah.

Apparently, these humble entrées were not considered appropriate as they are not "formal" enough. The premise behind this decision is that these "fast foods" were inappropriate for the gastronomic affair which comprise "one first course, one cold main course, one cheese and/or one dessert, and one bread".

To rub white salt to the wound, Daniel was informed the next day to take down his blog post on the event. According to him, there was no request to modify or edit his post.

Things went really sour (and I'm not talking about yogurt) when a later decision was made to uninvite all bloggers. This really drove the stake deep into the hearts of social media producers of all stripes, and triggered a backlash that spread far and white via Facebook and Twitter. Bloggers who weighted in include mrbrown, Moonberry, DK, Darren Ang and many others.

According to Moonberry, the reason given was that there was "little value in inviting bloggers because they do not regard social media influencers to be that influential anyway". I can imagine how this would be taken by bloggers of any affiliation.

Wait there is more. The organisers has now announced that local food can be brought into the event according to their Facebook page. Quoting from their post:

"Diner en Blanc is a celebration of food culture whereby local food should be included; what is not encouraged is "fast food" which goes against the multiple course meal concept of the event. The 3 hour duration of the event allows for guests to invest their time into preparing a 3 course meal."

The latest is that the mainstream media has also caught on to the culinary controversy

From a PR perspective, Dîner en Blanc in Singapore could have avoided this case of "food poisoning" by doing the following:

1) Communicating clearly and unequivocally on the onset what the event can and cannot permit. If participants are expected to bring their own home-cooked cuisines rather than to "tar pao" (takeaway) food items from a hawker centre, this ought to be known from the beginning. Omitting this detail would naturally leave people guessing.

2) Understanding that local food resonates very deeply in the hearts of Singaporeans who grew up with them. We mustn't forget that these seemingly humble hawker fare form the very essence of the Singaporean identity. Any form of poo-pooing, regardless of how unintentional they may be, will be regarded with outrage.

3) Remembering PR 101, ie that nobody should ask a member of the media - mainstream, alternative or citizen - to take down a story already published. While there may be occasions for PR folks to help to "squash" emerging negative stories (something always unpleasant for both publicist and media), doing so for one already online or printed is anathema to good sense. You not only irritate the blogger/journo, but may inadvertently trigger even greater interest in the snafu. Remember that forbidden fruit always tastes better!

4) Having the sense not to invite and later univite guests to an event. This is basic human courtesy regardless of culture. The organisers ought to have anticipated that there could be capacity issues and to come up with a Plan B or even Plan C. Uninviting people after you've first courted them to a privileged event reeks of poor planning and disrespect.

5) Ensuring integrity, coherence and consistency in one's messages. Don't try to change your stance mid-way through a campaign with clarifications that are not in sync with what's earlier communicated.

6) Learning to admit one's mistakes and saying sorry. We're all human. We all make mistakes and screw up. There is nothing wrong in admitting to one's former folly and to seek ways to sincerely address those issues in whatever way one can.

One thing's for sure. This major meal has gone massively viral, albeit in a wrong way. It is going to take a massive effort to "white wash" over the bitter taste of this white pill.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Mapping Singapore's Infocomm Future

IDA's CTO Leong Mun Yuen shares Singapore's IT Roadmap

As one of the world's most IT savvy and digitally-connected economies, Singapore places a premium on developments in Information and Communications Technology (ICT). Almost every aspect of our lives - work, education, socialisation, recreation and increasingly even religion - are dependent on ICT. Just look around you, wherever you are, and you'll see somebody tethered to either a smartphone, tablet, laptop or related device.

To forecast future trends and chart a path for the future, the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) has shared its Infocomm Technology Roadmap (ITR) 2012. Aiming to be as comprehensive as possible, ITR 2012 proposes nine key themes in which technology will develop over the next 5 to 6 years. A summary of these themes and their components can be seen in the chart below (click for larger version).

Courtesy of IDA Singapore

What do each of these nine themes mean? Let me cover each in turn:

1) Big Data

With the massive increase in people and devices connected to the Internet, our collective data needs are growing at an unprecedented rate. The amassed data pool provides useful insights for governments and companies to understand public and customer behaviours, opinions, and views. These can be harvested through various analytics and sentiment seiving tools. However, these have to be balanced against the growing concerns over data privacy and security.

2) Cloud Computing

To park everything in the "Cloud", a considerable amount of work is needed to make computing a "public utility". This include the establishing of standards covering areas such as security and interoperability. Web browsers also need to be enahnced to tap on the elasticity of the Cloud and its ability to improve efficiency, encourage experimentation, and improve turnaround time.

3) User Interface

Increasingly, devices play a vital role in determining how users interact with data, systems and the environment in which we work, live and play. Beyond tablets, smartphones and ultrabooks, we're now developing more multi-sensorial interfaces involving augmented reality, eye tracking, haptics, electronic paper, and computer-brain interfaces.

4) Comms of the Future

The rise in converging technology devices makes it necessary to grow our communications backbone, pipes and spectrums such that it can accommodate the tsunami of data. Communications networks cannot just sit still as users will demand faster access to a plethora of content being streamed to their mobile devices.

5) Cyber Security

With great access to data comes great responsibility. As global crime syndicates shift their action to the web, cyber attacks would become better orchestrated and increasingly sophisticated. These threats need to be addressed critically through better means of data, device and network protection.

6) Social Media

As even grandpa and grandma hops onto the social media bandwagon, technologists must reach ahead to understand the tremendous potential of the social web. Social media's rise has made it important for companies to identify their influencers, develop ways to manage their reputations online, as well as to measure and manage their growth on social platforms.

7) ICT and Sustainability

Yes, the world is heating up and ICT has often been blamed for this scourge. To ensure that ICT helps rather than hinders the green cause, innovations such as smart buildings, green data centres, and new standards in energy efficiency needs to be developed.

8) Internet of Things

I love this concept although it does have an Orwellian (1984) shadow. As things start to blur between what's physical and what's virtual, almost everything we use from refrigerators to televisions to cars to bicycles could be hooked to the web. With miniscule chips and ambient devices, these objects could be continually connnected and made more intelligent, improving their abilities to serve us in a more predictive fashion.

9) New Digital Economy

Finally, it is clear that technology will change trade and commerce. Mobile devices may rise to become handheld "shopping centres" and online payments will be made more smoothly while assuaging consumer fears of security. Retail, entertainment and learning will be transformed as bits and bytes overtake atoms as the new currency of lives.

A more detailed "mind map" of the nine themes above can be seen below (click for larger version).

Courtesy of IDA Singapore

For the complete document, check out this link here.

In the spirit of crowdsourcing and collaboration, IDA is seeking inputs from the public to "co-create the future". Yes, this is a chance for you to help shape Singapore's technological destiny. You can either write your views and comments in writing (both hard or soft copies) to IDA or email them ( by 30 Sep 2012. More details can be found here.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Why Customers Really Buy: Book Review

How do you find out what truly makes your customers tick? Can you understand what your customer REALLY wants through surveys, focus groups, and structured interviews?

The answer, according to Linda Goodman and Michelle Helin, is "No". Debunking traditional research predicated on the above yardsticks, the authors of "Why Customers Really Buy - Uncovering the Emotional Triggers that Drive Sales" claim that true insight can only be achieved through conducting emotional-trigger research.

These seek to answer the following questions:

1) What factors influence the decision-making process
2) What causes specific actions or inspires strongly held convictions
3) What values and beliefs exist within a particular customer group
4) How the values and beliefs of a particular customer group connect, or fail to connect, with internally held opinions

Using a range of case studies from their own practice, the authors demonstrate that provocative open-ended questions, insightful listening, one-on-one conversations, and hour-long sessions may be more effective in drawing forth deep, emotionally-rooted responses.  By investigating the experiences, feelings, needs, beliefs, values, patterns of behaviour, narratives and passions of one's stakeholders, emotional-trigger research helps to discern the truth - as opposed to the facts - behind the answers given.

In "digging for the truth", the book urges us to only use methods such as surveys, focus groups or structured interviews (ie with a set of fixed questions) when we want very specific and targeted responses. This could be in validating objective data, comparing benchmarks, or getting specific feedback on a product feature.

Emotional-trigger research, on the other hand, involves a more open-ended interview technique which encourages customers to speak in narratives.  Obviously, you can't just get a student or temp to conduct such studies as they require hard-edged business experience to unearth the true feelings of interviewees, dissect complex issues, and develop deep probing insights that can help in generating real solutions. One also needs to also be able to dig beneath superficial "politically correct" responses to explore how one's customers feel about a particular situation.

The main part of the book is centred around 12 case studies, ranging from selling private label tires to customers, recruiting top graduates to a manufacturing company, a mid-sized moving company competing against a national giant, to a specialty marketing agency determining why its customers are defecting. They include key lessons (sort of like quotable quotes) which cover different aspects of customer/stakeholder relations, namely:

1) The context in which information is received drives opinions and actions.
2) Focus on what the customer wants, not what you want them to want.
3) One company's problem is another company's opportunity.
4) Market your company as more than a job. Market it as a balance life experience.

1) Regardless of how you segment them, customers are self-defining.
2) Don't be intimidated. Bigger isn't always better.
3) If the competition threatens your market share, redefine your market.
4) Humanising the pitch touches the heart and opens the wallet.
5) Control your message before your competition does it for you.

1) Personal dynamics do not equal a solid business relationship.
2) Trust is not an expendable commodity.
3) Even when you don't have to, act like a partner.

Overall, the book does provide an important point about how companies should go beyond superficial "numbers driven" research to truly understand the emotions and motivations behind customer actions.  By embracing the tools of ethnographic research and going deep, emotional-trigger research allows one to gain a better understanding of one's customers.  The question would then shift from "How can we sell more of our product or service?" to "What product or service does my customer want or need?"

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The 4-Hour Workweek: Book Review

To many of us, Timothy Ferriss is living the dream life. Touting himself as a "serial entrepreneur" and "ultra-vagabond", the author of the uber bestseller "The 4-Hour Workweek" works from anywhere around the world, pursuing activities as varied as skiing in the Andes, tango dancing in Buenos Aires, or racing motorcycles in Europe.

How does he do it?

The secret, according to The 4-Hour Workweek, is that he embraces the lifestyle design of the New Rich (NR) which is represented by the acronym DEAL:

Definition - Turning conventional wisdom upside down by introducing new rules and concepts such as relative wealth and eustress (positive stress). Examples include the notion that less is not laziness, asking for forgiveness rather than permission, and relative income being more important than absolute income. One is also taught how to conquer the fear of venturing into the unknown and to create a "Dreamline" outlining one's Targeted Monthly Income (TMI) to realise those dreams and definitive steps.

Elimination - Here, one is urged to get rid of the obsolete option of time management and to find ways of increasing one's productivity by cultivating selective ignorance, developing a low information diet (especially relevant in the age of social-overwhelming-clutter-media), interrupting interruptions (eg getting your colleagues to email rather than chat with you), and batching work to improve efficiency and effectiveness.  The goal is to strive towards a 2 hour work day by learning how to deftly parry off all time wasters (bosses and customers included).

Automation - In this step, Ferriss provides lots of useful tips on how to outsource life working with virtual assistants from India or Philippines and create what's called our "muse" - a business that can generate a decent income that fits our TMI. We're also educated on how to autopilot our income through online products/services that serve a specific target audience, is priced between US$50-US$200, is aligned with our expertise/knowledge, and can be manufactured and shipped quickly.  The tricks of testing web advertisements, web hosting, customer service, and building automated systems are highlighted.

Liberation - Finally, the book provides a blow-by-blow account of how one can escape from one's office (if one is an employee) with the establishment of the right systems and practices, quit (with reasons why the world wouldn't collapse), go for mini-retirements, travel (a big thing in Ferriss' agenda), and do stuff which adds "meaning" to one's life - for 3, 6, 9 months or longer at a time.

Throughout the book, one finds useful tips and references in the section "Questions and Actions", as well as "Comfort Challenges" which stretches one to do something extraordinary and different from what one would normally do. Examples include saying "no" to all requests, relaxing for 10 seconds in a crowded place (lying down in a busy train station floor), and asking strangers for phone numbers.

Borrowing ideas such as the Pareto's Principle (80/20 rule) and seasoned with quotes from thinkers such as Warren Buffett and Mohandas Gandhi ("There is more to life than increasing its speed."), The 4-Hour Workweek provides both the rhetoric and the tools to help one achieve this dream. Naturally, it probably isn't as easy as it looks (just look at the number of online businesses which have failed).  Having said that, the notions proposed are worthwhile to consider.

For more tips, tools and lots of luscious case studies, check out Ferriss' website here.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

10 Mega Trends for the Next Decade

The Internet of Things is a Mega Trend for the next Decade (courtesy of Take Me To Your Leader)

If we can gaze into the crystal ball, what would the future behold? How would the next 10 years be like in terms of business, society and culture?

Thanks to an invitation from the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), I discovered these answers in a talk given by Manoj Menon, Managing Director APAC of Frost & Sullivan at the recent PATA Hub City Forum 2012.

Looking back at the last 10 years, Manoj shared that there were 5 Mega Trends that took place, namely:

1) Globalisation;
2) Rise of Internet/Online Businesses;
3) New Business Models (Low Cost, Outsourcing);
4) Rise of Emerging Markets (particularly Brazil, Russia, India and China or BRIC);
5) Convergence of industries (eg music and internet).

Riding on these trends, companies like GE, Huawei, Samsung, TATA, Apple and Singapore (OK, we're a country!) succeeded, while others like Borders, General Motors, Polaroid, McGraw Hill, and Tower Records failed to take advantage of these new realities.

For the road ahead, Manoj postulated the following 10 Mega Trends:

1) Urbanisation - With 3.2 billion people in cities and a massive migration of about 600 million folks from rural to urban communities (particularly in China and India), the world will see more and more mega cities, mega regions, mega corridors and mega slums. Richard Florida alluded heavily to these trends in his book "Who's Your City".

2) Rise of the Asian Gen Y - By 2020, about 2.56 billion of the global population will be 15-34 years of age. Out of this number, 61% will hail from Asia alone, with India, China and Indonesia accounting for 1 billion Gen Ys and Millenials.

These youngsters have a different set of values, beliefs, interests and lifestyles from their predecessors. They value personalisation and individualisation, are highly techno-savvy and connected 24/7, and have a greater civic and environmental consciousness.

3) New Economic Powerhouses - Other than the BRIC nations, emerging growth areas include economies like Thailand, Vietnam, Poland, South Africa, and many of the younger states around the world. This change in the balance of power will also shift consumption patterns.

4) Smart is the New Green - Increasingly, smart technology, infrastructure, energy, mobility, buildings, materials, and meters would change our lives. Through embedding nano-chips and the deployment of artificial intelligent systems, everything could be automated and made more environmentally friendly/resource efficient. Over 40 global cities are positioning themselves to be smart and sustainable cities with the majority in Europe, North America, China and India.

5) Ubiquitous Connectivity and Convergence - Through the omnipresence of the "Internet of things", there could be some 80 billion connected devices in 2020 compared to the 5 to 6 billion around today. Every household would have 10 connected devices - mobiles, laptops, tablets, watches, athletic shoes, television sets, you name it. In fact, there could be a staggering 500 devices with unique digital IDs for every square kilometre!

6) "Zero Concept" World in 2020 - With every process becoming more productive, environmentally efficient and sustainable due to technology, the world could optimistically trend towards zero wastages, zero security issues, zero starvation (hopefully), and zero strife/war. Personally, I'm a little sceptical about this, but I guess its always good to be utopian in outlook.

7) New Business Models: Value for Money - As the Internet and technology reduces the cost of transaction, new business models tailored towards the preferences and needs of the future consumer emerge. Here, concepts may include the following:

- Pay as you go products/services which are utilitarian and on demand. An example is a tire manufacturer which allows customers to pay for tires as they use them on a per mile basis, using technology to improve their resilience and quality.

- Co-creation of value where customers help to jointly develop and produce products or services. Facebook, blogs and Youtube channels are examples of these in the online world, while sites such as allows people to customise their clothing.

- N = 1, R = G, where N means the business could serve a customer of 1 and where the revenue (R) or Resource (R) can be found globally (G).

8) Growth of Holistic Health (Body, Mind and Soul) - With the heightened stresses of an ever-connected world, people will veer towards activities that contribute to their health, wellness and well being. These will enhance their moods, reduce stress levels, improve mental health, boost optimism and heighten security.

9) High Speed Rail - The world's current supply of about 15,000 km of high speed rail would increase to 50,000 km in the next 8 years.  Happening predominantly in Asia, this trend may connect continents and not just cities. (I just hope that these networks would be resilient to breakdowns!)

10) Rapidly Increasing Span of Influence - Finally, the time needed to reach an audience of 50 million has dropped precipitously through the advent of broadcast technologies from the radio to television to instantaneously "viral" platforms like Facebook and Twitter. This democratisation of influence makes it easier than ever for consumers to make their voice known, bringing down companies and even countries!

Against this backdrop, what can companies do?  According to Manoj, they should first identify and select the mega-trends through macro economic analysis, build scenarios of what these mega-trends are likely to be, analyse their impacts on the industry, and finally analyse the impact on the company as well as its products and services. Through such analyses, strategic maneuvers could then take place.

Finally, for the tourism and travel trade, it was predicted that trends such as sustainability, niche tourism (medical tourism, eco tourism, sustainable tourism), "smart" hospitality, seamless and multi-modal travel, and social media networks would impact how people travel. New business models (eg create-your-own-itinerary) and alternate travel hubs (secondary cities with airports) would also result in the growth of nascent destinations that are off-the-beaten-track.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Inside-Out Versus Outside-In

Courtesy of Bright Hub

There are two ways to look at one's business: "inside-out" or "outside-in". Let me go through each in turn.

The first approach starts with what one first possesses before looking at anything else. It raises questions such as what one's organisation has in terms of capital, equipment, core competencies, human resources, customer relationships and distribution networks and how these could be leveraged upon.

Typically, an inside-out organisation asks itself questions such as the following:

- What are we good at? Conversely, where do we suck?

- How have we progressed or regressed over the last few years?

- Which division or function should we channel our resources to?

- How do we leverage our strengths and compensate or eliminate our weaknesses?

Such an organisation often embraces a more reflexive form of management. It is mindful of its own history, aware of its growth trajectory over the years, and has its pulse on internal benchmarks and milestones. An inside-out organisation is also finely attuned to what its team of managers and staff are capable of doing, as well as its organisational climate.

Organisations embracing the second "outside-in" approach shift their focus outwards. Unlike the first, their primary concerns deal with factors such as the shifts in their operating environments, customer preferences, suppliers and competitors. Often more entrepreneurial than the first, these organisations are usually more excited about opportunities which lie outside the box rather than introspect about internal dynamics.

Typically, an outside-in organisation questions itself on the following:

- Where are the growth markets available for our business?

- How can we tap on a nascent opportunity that is available?

- What are the prevailing trends in consumer tastes and how should we meet them?

- How can we better serve the needs of the market?

With its eye firmly trained on externalities, such an organisation is less mindful of its limitations compared to the first. It puts a premium on customer care and excellent service, ensuring that no stone is turned to be the best that it can be in the business. Often, it is heavily directed in a top-down manner to seize opportunities quickly.

Of course, the real world isn't that simple. Most organisations will fall somewhere in between the continuum of inside-out and outside-in thinking.

While outward facing functions like marketing, sales, business development, and visitor services would need to adopt outside-in thinking, management roles like HR, finance, planning and operations would need to consider both inside-out and outside-in strategies.

Any organisation which spends too much time navel-gazing will sooner or later sound its own death knell in a hyper-competitive marketplace. At the same time, organisations which do not understand their limitations while opting to pursue pretty rainbows may also fall flat on their faces.

The best organisations skillfully employ both approaches. They are mindful of where their strengths and gaps are while honing their organisational "radars" to detect impending opportunities or threats. Such organisations know that the most effective business strategies need to consider both internal practicalities and external shifts in the same breadth.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Crowning Your Content as King

Courtesy of Let's Build Websites

You've probably heard a million times that content is king. In an age of ubiquitous social networks, everybody is consuming billions of bits and bytes of information across multiple streams - Facebook pages, blog posts, Tweets, videos, podcasts, photos and so on - whenever and wherever they are.

There is a problem, however. With such an overwhelming amount of company and user generated content in the social webs, consumers are screening what they are seeing, hearing and viewing. Increasingly, many are even putting aside their mobiles, tablets and laptops to declare "unplugged" days (such as yours truly).

Against this ocean of competition and rising consumer backlash, how can your company hope to stand out?

Here's what I think.

First, understand who your targeted customers are. What are their areas of interest and concerns? How would they be living a typical day in their lives? If possible, conduct in-depth interviews or visualise what a day could possibly be like for Mr X, Miss Y or Family Z.

Next, discern what their information consumption patterns are likely to be. Where would they go to find out which special offers are available at the supermarket, which jobs are available, or how they can fix their broken washing machine? What magazines or online websites do they visit to get their latest news, gossips, or useful information on business or lifestyle?

Thereafter, identify where the gaps in the information market are. Is there a niche which is unfilled by current information providers on blogs, forums, Facebook or other social networking platforms? Where does the opportunity lie?

More importantly, how can you differentiate your content offering from the rest of the competition?

Any casual surfer would have noticed the plethora of food, fashion, classifieds, housing, job and travel websites and blogs. Many are run by huge media companies. Competing against them would be like running against the wall. What you can do, however, is to focus on niche areas (eg vegan cooking, foldable biking, single malt whiskey tasting) that may be underserved yet represent a sizable and growing special interest group.

Once you've identified where your opportunity lies, focus your energies on creating and curating the best content that you can manage in that field. Here are some tips that you can consider:

1) KISS - Keep It Simple, Stupid! All you've got is literally a split second or less before a user switches platform at the swipe of a screen.

2) headlines, Headlines, HEADLINES - Yes, you need to grab their attention in that infinitesimal bit of time. Clever headlines work in drawing readers and viewers. However, don't resort to trickery.

3) A picture or video paints a thousand words - Use photographs and videos to draw your reader's attention. If you're photogenic or telegenic, use yourself as the model!

4) Be relevant and useful - To draw repeat visitors, you need to provide content that meets their needs, interests and desires. Instead of trying to sell, aim to educate instead.

5) Be genuine and authentic - Yes, everybody can smell a rat, even if they're hundreds of thousands of miles away. Any wrongdoing and deception will be met with instant scorn and transmitted to thousands in a millisecond.

After you've got your formula right - and it'd take a while - you need to stick to your guns and be patient. Cultivating online communities and followers takes time and patience. Be consistent and regular in putting up fresh content, and aim to be creative in how you write, produce your video, or shoot your photos.

The key here is to balance the 3Fs: Familiarity, Functionality and Freshness. While you should focus on a niche area that you're au fait with and adhere to it, you should also try to provide significant utility to your readers/viewers/listeners. You should also be unafraid of developing unique writing/video/podcast producing styles. monitor their outcomes and determine which work best.

Remember that any content marketing effort takes a while to realise its potential. Develop an original point of view, provide useful and updated information, and seek to be consistent and dependable come hell or highwater. Hopefully, over time, you will be able to anchor your business in great content that helps to generate positive business outcomes.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Talent is Overrated: Book Review

With an eye-catching title and an alluring subtitle - "What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else" - Fortune editor-at-large Geoff Colvin's book "Talent is Overrated" provides excellent food for thought in today's knowledge economy. Debunking age-old notions that nature matter a lot more than nurture, the book proposes that prodigious amounts of deliberate practice is the key to success in multiple fields.

Citing examples from the worlds of music, sport and business like Mozart, Tiger Woods, and Jack Welch, Colvin's central thesis is that top performers are not born but made. While genetics may play a role in determining superstardom, empirical evidence suggests otherwise. However, this isn't just about putting in "10,000 hours" of hard work per se but about deliberate practice, ie:

1) Doing activities designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher, mentor or coach's help;

2) Doing activities that can be repeated alot, often ad nauseum and beyond;

3) Receiving feedback on results so that one can sharpen one's skills and hone one's craft;

4) Practice that is highly demanding mentally, be it intellectual (chess), business-related (strategy), or physical like sports;

5) Activities that ain't much fun.

In the book, highly accomplished performers in any field tend to perceive more, know more, and remember more than most average people in their specific areas of specialisation and expertise. They understand the significance of indicators that lesser mortals fail to notice, look further ahead, and make finer discriminations. Using mental models developed over time, they can also organise information in an exceptional manner.

To embrace the principles of deliberate and well-structured practice, there are three models to choose from:

1) Music model - Here, the practice comprises going through a fixed "script" and finding ways and means to deliver well on that specific area of performance. In the business world, it can include speeches and presentations where one rehearses a specific pitch until perfection, often with the help of coaches or videos of oneself performing. One can also adopt the habits of best practices in this field.

2) Chess model - In a manner reminiscent of war strategy (think Sun Tzu's "Art of War"), the chess model entails studying positions from real games between top-level players and choosing the best moves. Such an approach has been well-documented in the business world, and it can be used to focus on specific skills that need improvement. Here, case studies and "gaming" would be useful.

3) Sports model - The final model has two key concepts. The first involve the conditioning and building of strengths in specific areas most useful for a sport (eg hand-eye coordination for baseball), while the other is to work on specific critical skills (eg kicking a football). In the business world, such conditioning can be applied to improving on fundamental skills (eg financial analysis) through practice and honing of one's cognitive abilities.

On an organisational level, the principles of deliberate practice can be applied by understanding how each person should be stretched and developed, finding ways to develop leaders within their jobs, encouraging staff to be active in their communities, identifying good performers early, inspiring these talents, and investing time, money and energy in people development. Culture is also key, and here teamwork should be emphasised over prima-donna-ship.

Perhaps the most meaningful and inspirational lesson I learnt was that anybody can be a top performer so long as he or she is willing to do what it takes. If you're willing to apply the principles deliberately and purposefully, you can be better at whatever you're doing. It is important, however, to have passion for what you do, and while extrinsic motivators may play a role, elite performers are often intrisically motivated.

As a parent of an eight-year-old, I'm heartened to note that success is a life-long venture that can be groomed. While it is true that certain violin virtuosos started when they were 2 years old, many of the top artistes playing in major symphonies started at a later age. What's undeniable, however, is that the top performers almost always put in more hours of hard deliberate practice.

To start our kids off on the right footing, parents need to provide the right home environment of focused stimulation, discipline and inculcation without overdoing it. Eventually, this blend of extrinsic factors could hopefully spark off our children's intrinsic motivation, fuelling the journey towards eventual greatness. Of course, luck or God's will also has a role to play in that, but I'll reserve that discussion for another day. :)

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

How to Write a Social Media Brief

Courtesy of Tom Fishburne

We've all heard by now about the importance of having a digital engagement strategy to complement one's marketing communications plan. In an age where virtually everybody is on either Facebook, Twitter, Google +, LinkedIn, forums, or blogs, it is important for companies to have a useful presence on these social spaces.

To do so, one could consider two possible options.

The first approach is to Do It Yourself (DIY). With practically all the tools available for free, what you simply need to do is to devote time, energy and lots of creative juices to generate oodles of great content while cultivating awesome relationships. After all, aren't membership to all of these wonderful social networks mostly free?

Of course, that probably sounds easier than it really is. Trust me, I've been in this space long enough to understand how difficult it is.

The second and perhaps more practical approach for most organisations is to partner an agency to conceptualise, develop and implement its social media strategy. Hopefully, along the way, your team members can learn from the experts on the dos and don'ts of digital influence, and eventually do it themselves. Of course, you can also work on a long-term retainer if you find an agency/consultant whom you can trust and rely on.

Before you engage any firm, however, it is probably important to explicitly state what you wish the agency to achieve for you. As a general guide, such a brief could contain the following:

1) Background of the Organisation

This covers your vision, mission, values, primary activities, company history and so on. What is your unique value proposition? How do you differentiate yourself from others in the field?

It is also useful to outline what the current brand identity of the organisation is like. Are there any personality attributes to be considered? What about its overall look and feel? These help your agency to develop campaigns that are coherent with your brand.

2) Current Status of Online/Social Media Efforts

Describe your existing online properties (eg websites, blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, Youtube channels etc) and the current activities undertaken (types of campaigns, levels of intensity, frequency, and so on). Where possible, be candid about your previous successes and failures. These help your agency to understand the road you have taken thus far and to be more precise moving forward.

3) Target Audiences

If they are PMETs (ie Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians), which subset within this huge group are you pinpointing at? Are you able to paint a brief profile picture of who these folks are? Some demographic/behavioural information may be useful.

4) Objectives/Targets of Social Media Engagement

What is the overall goal of your programme? Here, it pays to be as specific as possible.

A good way to do this is to break it down into specific Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and targets. For example, number of Likes on Facebook, number of followers on Twitter, recruitment of ____ online influencers/ambassadors, number of positive comments on social networks, number of Shares, or ranking on Klout or Alexa. 

If possible, include both qualitative and quantitative indicators of success, bearing in mind the principle that sometimes less is more.

5) Job Specifications

This is where it can get a little tedious. While one can write a blank cheque and hope for the best, it may be fairer to both parties if the expectations for the job are clearly defined. 

These could include the following:

a) Create and design or refresh social media properties. This can include your web portal, blog, Facebook page, Twitter page, LinkedIn profile, Youtube channel and so on.

b) Content Management on Website, Blog, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc. This can either be highly specific or be left open so that they are measured principally on outcomes as opposed to outputs.

c) Social Media Engagement activities on social networks. This can include the organising of blogger cultivation activities, one-to-one interviews, blogger functions, contests, and the establishing of brand communities on forums and networks.

d) Development and Maintenance of a Blog/Facebook fan page/LinkedIn profile for your organisation. This includes design, booking of domain names (URL), writing and editorial work, photographs, videos and all other related work.

e) User training and equipping. This is extremely important as your ultimate goal should be to build internal capabilities such that you can eventually handle your own social media activities.

If you're "kiasu", you could craft the above to be as specific as possible (eg two blog posts every week, daily updates on Facebook). However, bear in mind that the more you ringfence the tasks, the lower the flexibility for the social media agency.

6) Profile/Curriculum Vitae of Agency/Consultant

With so many "gurus" out there claiming to be social media experts, one would be hard-pressed to select an appropriate partner without screening these candidates. Here, you may wish to specify the following:

a) Background and resumes of the team handling the project
b) Client list of agency/consultancy
c) Case studies/examples of campaign successes achieved by the consultancy
d) Other information (eg date of establishment, number of staff, paid-up capital of firm, agency website etc)

7) Technical Specifications (consult your IT department)

Don't go into any new web or digital platform without ensuring that your IT Department has got your back covered (unless of course, they're absolutely unhelpful). Consider the following:

a) Types of platforms and languages used (eg open-source, PHP, etc). You can also specify (if you're up to it) what preferred platform your blog should be on, eg Wordpress, for instance
b) Hosting and domain name registration (if necessary)
c) Compatibility and inter-operability issues
d) Maintenance and service expectations (eg reponse times to "downtime", service recovery measures)
e) Security requirements

8) Deliverables and Reports

Unless you plan to track your social media influence on your own, it is useful to plan what your agency can deliver to you in terms of reports and updates. Weave in the following:

a) Submission formats and dates
b) Weekly/monthly/quarterly/? reports to be submitted
c) Format of reports and types of information captured
d) Other forms of updates needed (eg number of "attacks" from Internet trolls, incidences)

9) Duration and Timeframes

Be clear about the extent of your engagement as it extends to the following:

a) Start and end dates of engagement
b) Operating hours (eg for manning of hotlines or response times and whether they include after office hours and weekends)
c) Options for renewal

10) All the Remaining Legalese

Finally, ensure that your contract with the agency minimally covers the following:

a) Intellectual property ownership/copyrights (all designs, templates, campaign materials, etc should belong to your company wherever possible)
b) Termination and liquidated damages clauses
c) Non-disclosure and confidentiality clauses
d) Other legal terms and conditions (eg abiding by the laws of the land, privacy of customer information, etc)

Naturally, the above simply serves as a guide. What's most important is to tailor your brief to suit the specific needs of your organisation.

While it can be painful (trust me, I've been there), taking the time to list down what you're looking for helps a great deal. By doing so, you not only reduce the ambiguity of the relationship between the client and the agency but help to cement it into a mutually beneficial win-win partnership.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Do Your Customers Own Your Brands?

Let your customers "own" your brand (courtesy of Thaeger)

In a world overflowing with "me-too" goods and services, consumers are seeking ways to assert their individuality. In an overcrowded marketplace teaming with repetition and homogeneity, they crave personalised products and experiences that reflect their individual identities.

This phenomenon of personal expression is catalysed by the rise of social technologies and networks such as blogs, forums, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and other community channels.

In other words, I'm no longer just a nameless, faceless and clueless consumer.

What does this mean for companies and their relationships with their consumers?

Several things.

First, the traditional value of brands as corporate or commercial icons no longer exist. Consumers aren't as enamoured by your brand promise as they are with how your product or service helps to fit into THEIR brand story.  In other words, you've got to see how you can play a part in writing at least some of the chapters in their book of life.

Second, custom made products and services take on greater and greater prominence, especially when one's customers are involved in the process. The more "work" your customers put into developing and shaping a product, service or experience, the greater their sense of individual ownership, affection, and love.

Third, market research in the traditional sense of surveys, focus groups and "heat maps" alone may no longer be sufficient. What's needed instead is to dive deep into the world of your customers. Live a week in their shoes by actually walking the talk. Better yet if you can literally stay with them to observe what they do.

Fourth, you need to involve your most ardent believers in the conceptualisation, development and distribution of your product or service. Identify who your most important advocates are and invite them to your research laboratory or factory floor. Actively seek their inputs as early as possible. Let them dabble their hand in creating what they perceive as the ideal product for their use.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, embrace your customers in your integrated marketing strategies. This could be as fundamental as product packaging and brand identity all the way to generating word-of-mouth amongst their peers.

Hopefully, at this stage, you would have already gained so much of their involvement, engagement and trust that what's yours truly become theirs. 

Of course, there are companies that do not involve their customers at virtually any stage of the process yet do amazingly well. A prime example is Apple. However, I doubt that many of us have as keen an insight into human oriented design and consumer preferences as Steve Jobs did.

Catering to a world where everybody is potentially a "market of one" means that it may be better to remodel your business processes to involve your customers - from research, manufacturing, distribution to marketing.

Do you agree with this idea? Is it realistic for companies to build their brands entirely around their customers?

Friday, August 03, 2012

An Innocent Story: Book Review

Written by writer and brand consultant John Simmons, Innocent narrates the brand story of how Cambridge graduates Jon Wright, Adam Balon and Richard Reed built a "tasty little juice company" with a unique culture founded on strong values.  Embodying the informal, casual wit of the company, the founding of Innocent is summarised on their website in the form of a charming story as follows:

"We started innocent in 1999 after selling our smoothies at a music festival. We put up a big sign asking people if they thought we should give up our jobs to make smoothies, and put a bin saying 'Yes' and a bin saying 'No" in front of the stall. Then we got people to vote with their empties. At the end of the weekend, the 'Yes' bin was full, so we resigned from our jobs the next day and got cracking."

Known for their "100% pure fruit" smoothies, juices and more recently vegetable pots, Innocent grew rapidly from a humble annual turnover of £400,000 in 1999 to become Europe's leading natural smoothie company in 2010 with annual sales of £130 million.  The firm was recently acquired by global beverage giant Coca-Cola who owned a 58% share of the company while allowing the three founding partners to retain full control.

With quirky features such as a "banana" phone for customer complaints/queries, cute job titles such as "Chief Squeeze" and "Juice Press", wickedly witty bottle labels, and a "grass" covered delivery van, Innocent isn't any ordinary company.  In fact, the company was awarded the "Top Employer of the Year" in 2005 - not bad for a small niche business dealing in natural beverages.  

An Innocent Grass Van (source of image)

According to Simmons, Innocent's success is embodied in the following elegantly and simply written "Innocent" company values, which I reproduce below as follows:

Be Natural - Keep it human, put people first.  Make 100% natural, delicious, healthy stuff, 100% of the time. Treat others, especially our drinkers, as we want to be treated.

Be Entrepreneurial - Chase opportunities and be responsive. Be creative and challenge the status quo. Do it better than anyone else, and have fun doing it.

Be Generous - When offering praise to others. With our time when coaching others. With rewards when people deliver. With charitable support.

Be Commercial - Create growth and profit for us and our customers. Be tough, but fair. Think clearly, act decisively, and keep the main thing, the main thing.

Be Responsible - Be true to our principles, and do what we believe is right. To be conscious of the consequences of our actions in both the short and long term. To leave things a little better than we find them, and to encourage others to join us too.

From the organisation of mass appeal events like "Fruitstock" and Village Fetes, scheduling of staff retreats at skiing resorts, to generous donation of 10% of profits to worthwhile causes, everything about Innocent seemed to be "100% healthy goodness".  The sourcing of the best ingredients (eg Indian Alphonso mangoes for its mango and passionfruit smoothie), use of 50% to 100% recycled plastic bottles, and establishment of the Innocent Foundation (for charitable giving) further establishes Innocent as an icon for ethical and sustainable business.

Source of image

Perhaps the most outstanding aspect of Innocent is the use of wit and humour in advertising. Wielding a wicked copywriter's pen and charming design, most aspects of its product design, packaging, posters, advertisements and banners are done inhouse. An example of its zany bottle label copy is highlighted below:

"We found all of these after our Fruitstock Festival in August - a set of house keys, a pair of reading specs, a few pairs of sunglasses and a pretty dress.  If any of them belong to you, please ring the banana phone on 020 8600 3939 as soon as possible, as all of it technically becomes ours in 3 months' time and Jon is really looking forward to getting his hands on the dress."

Source of image

Overall, Innocent is a fascinating story of a great "pure" brand that sticks to its guns despite facing challenges in the hypercompetitive beverage market. By challenging conventional wisdom, Innocent shows that companies can build great brands by adhering firmly to what they believe in while ensuring that the numbers match - what the author calls "Hippies with calculators".

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Deference versus Defiance

Scene from Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor" (image source)

There are two schools of thought in life, business and work.

The first is the school of deference. Adherents to this approach believe that obedience, allegiance, faith and subservience are virtues to be embraced. The entire Confucian philosophy commands one to put nation before organisation, organisation before family and family before self. Communal interests precede individual ones.

Asians like us are often ardent adherents to this belief. We're brought up from young to obey our parents, respect our elders, pay our taxes, cross the road when the light turns green, study hard at school and to serve our nation. In a traditional Asian-run business, the boss always have the last word in any discussion.

Rank has its privileges. And then some.

"Liberty leading the People" by Eugène Delacroix (source of image)

The second is the school of defiance. Subscribers to this approach have a more individualistic, "got to be real" philosophy. Non-conformists and rebels, their mantra in life and work is to "screw the status quo" and to do things their way while kicking ass, often yelling and screaming along the way.

Some would associate the West with a more liberal, individual-oriented philosophy. I dare say that the younger generations of global citizens born anywhere in the world - from Beijing to Boston to Burundi - are increasing embracing this philosophy too, albeit in a step-wise fashion.

Rebellion, revolution and originality rules.

Naturally, we all fall somewhere along the spectrum. Often this depends on our unique circumstances and situations.

In a corporate setting, it may often be better for one to don the apparel of a minion rather than a megastar. Unless perhaps we're the CEOs of our organisations (even then humility in leadership isn't necessarily a bad thing).

When situations require consensus and unity, pushing ourselves into the background for the common good can be a plus point. In such cases, teamwork is the key to success and prima donnas need to be ushered off the stage.

Occasionally, however, there will be times when one needs to speak one's mind out. This doesn't mean being controversial for its own sake. Rather, it entails believing that sometimes, the only way to make a mark in the world is to have a point of view that can be radically different from the status quo.

Can servile subservience and rock-star rebellion co-exist as bedfellows? When should we play which role and why?