Green is woke.

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The most influential customer segment in the history of commerce is about to make itself known. This looming audience is bigger than any single buying category in the history of commerce. It’s not a single demographic, an economic stratum, a regional bias, or a trend. As a group it runs across every stratum imaginable. It hasn’t arrived yet, but the scale is tipping and when it does it behooves smart businesses to be prepared.

Ignoring the obvious is never healthy. According to the best minds in the business our planet is doomed. The sixth extinction is well into its early stages and Homo sapiens are on the watch list. As the global population comes to understand this reality our motivation as a mass buying population will change from demanding convenience, style, and price to a different set of criteria, those things that will keep us alive. Elizabeth Sturcken, managing director of the EDF+Business program at the Environmental Defense Fund, in an interview with The Daily Beast, notes:

There is immense business value creation in sustainability… Companies aren’t waiting for government action. Companies are driven by data, by science. Truth matters. And the only conclusion you can come to, if your company is looking toward the horizon and you want your business to grow, is to be pro-active on these issues.

The ensuing demand for “good” is a behavioral shift of the masses that is happening in small increments now. Don’t confuse this with the affluent, educated, liberal, agnostic, coastal dwelling conscious consumerism that floated Whole Foods’ boat. This is altogether a different beast, one being born of necessity transcending class distinctions. Sturcken again underscores the coming wave, “The planetary imperative is that we need change faster and at scale… The place you see the real impact, is that sustainability is baked into everyday products that consumers who are middle-class can afford… Companies are saying that the challenges and opportunities go beyond their four walls to consumers they touch. If [companies are] thinking ahead, they’re thinking of opportunities and seeing customers demand good corporate citizenship.”

Extending the appeal of your brand, product, or service to this larger population of buyers moving into behavior ‘demanding good’ is a matter of understanding how they acquire knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, cultural influences, family dynamics, and raw sensory input. Learning how to activate them within your sphere of influence, and to understand their motivations and cognitive processes is the first step in acquiring the buying power of this audience. The market share opportunity is vast. Yes, there is Latent Demand for Good. And, learning how it operates and who is already demanding good and who will be demanding good is the next most influential battle ground in the market place and likely to be the final battle ground. 

Apology.

We humans as a collective seem to be a hard working lot, generally trying to do the right thing, taking care of our families, contributing to our communities, and along the way producing remarkable art, music, architecture, and technology, but in spite it all we are lazy in our query. We are inherently selfish in pursuit of the obvious. Maybe it’s the dichotomy of western and eastern philosophy that we of the western perspective are born and bred to be individualistic, maybe we’ve all been convinced by madmen that we are each special, deserving more than our allotted 15 minutes of fame. Whatever the cause the result is a naval gazing and aggrandizing culture that prioritizes self-congratulatory story over the consideration of the greater good. This bleeds over into how we go to market in business as well. In fact, if business were the litmus test of our lazy thinking, branding and marketing are the worst. Steve Jobs and Apple famously enticed us to “think different.” Unfortunately, outside of academia and the sciences, we don’t query, examine, question, or spend time in discourse regarding the fundamental questions of our time.  We especially don’t spend time in consideration of how we might serve the greater good.

My work, by its nature, forces me to ask questions. Simply by observing and thinking about what it is I see and learn through my everyday work I've concluded, possibly harshly, that we as a society are erring gravely by overemphasizing the value of celebrating our selves.

Case in point… UConn's Head Women's Basketball Coach Geno Auriemma.

Here's another, maybe more graphic, depiction of self-worshipping above all else.

This behavior isn’t isolated to sport, youth sport, or entertainment. Look at who was elected POTUS and how. It’s fait accompli we are operating at a grand scale now as narcissists, and in fact we hold the most accomplished narcissists in the greatest regard. Winning is not enough. We have to humiliate and degrade our opponents. There’s no longer a shared camaraderie in competition. Simply vanquish. As if there weren’t enough for everyone, we are on a quest to own it all. We live by pirate code, “Take what you can. Give nothing back.”

The practice of defining oneself and celebrating one’s accomplishments is part and parcel what's wrong with brand management in corporate America today. The endless prattle comparing and contrasting features and benefits in order to win advantage is how most CMO’s build their strategies. The tone deafness is overwhelming. It’s all about me. A cultural bias toward narcissism unfettered. Our culture is narcissistic. Our providers of the goods and services we need, require, and desire are narcissistic. And as result so are our “branding” efforts.

Interestingly, because the pendulum has swung so far in this direction, a fortuitous opportunity has presented itself for corporations to lead the way back, back to thinking, and back to thinking about some thing other than self. And, if leadership hesitates just momentarily from the everyday grind of “taking what they can,” and consider who they serve, the opportunity will avail itself.

Here’s where the world is headed. Only 13 companies have outperformed the S&P 500 over the past five years. They've largely done it by turning their attention to the end user. Companies that are winning are doing so racing to the new opportunity serving a constituency based on highly sensitive human behavioral and need markers. Branding, marketing, and product differentiation are largely archaic endeavors in today’s market place. The winners are companies that are building user experiences via deep psychographic understanding, quantitative data, and empathic design.

Branding is dead. The polls got it right this time and the results are streaming in. Brand affinity is waning fast and furiously. 

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“Brand-building” has become less and less relevant because consumers have gained more and more access to services that are constructed specifically to facilitate their needs. Consumers are filtering their preferences based on user experience. Google, Amazon, Trip Advisor, Lyft, are re-defining what consumers expect from their services by designing highly refined use experiences. Brand builders are too self-referenced to recognize they have to tune deeply into their consumer's cognitive processes in order to provide for them an optimum experience. I’m not talking about widgets, bells, or whistles. I’m talking about understanding the user experience that ultimately serves them according to their unique aspirations. Not yours! To succeed in the future, brands must behave selflessly. Anticipating the pendulum is about to swing back in a severe way in terms of selling practices, service and product providers must adopt the newly emerging disciplines of service design and relationship development, along with the ageless and selfless act of service.

Think about it. 

A lesson in planning from the All Blacks.

Years ago I read a study published in the Harvard Business Review contrasting the decision-making efficacy between entrepreneurs and managers. Both groups made good decisions. The difference was entrepreneurs took on average 2-weeks to make major decisions while managers took more than 8-weeks, if memory serves. This phenomenon along with “lean startup” logic somehow has conspired to under value the act of planning. Rather than budget for well-wrought annual strategy development, more and more companies are opting for agile development processes, leaving business plans dusty at best and as a guise to satisfy board members at worst.

I’m a fan of speedy decision-making and agile development, and I appreciate the fact that most businesses are akin to airplanes being rebuilt while in flight—they simply won’t land for the luxury of a refit. However, a good strategy can get a company to function with the efficiency of a living, breathing organism such that each and every moving part is in concert. This is the holy grail of productivity and the result of very good planning, or, to be more accurate, is the result of putting in place very clear principles of action. Ultimately it is principles that allow autonomy, mastery, and independence. And, it is autonomy, mastery and independence that breeds productivity, creativity, and efficiency. These are the things that make speedy decision-making and agile development work.

Arguably the most successful international sport team in history is the New Zealand All Blacks Rugby Team. They win a lot. Their approach and philosophies are recounted as lessons for business leaders in James Kerr’s 2013 book, Legacy. Of interest is the practice of the All Blacks’ coaching staffing providing each new member upon making the team a black leather book, which includes the history, the standards, and the ethos of the team; and markedly, an additional five pages at the conclusion of the booklet that are left blank. It is noted that these pages left blank at the end are for each individual athlete to fill in them selves. The opportunity provided by this omission is for each team member to account for how they might leave their own personal legacy enacting the principles of the organization, shifting responsibility from the leadership and coaches to the players themselves. Imagine this practice in your organization.

Imagine your own strategic planning document penned from the perspective of history, standards, and ethos as a frame work that then enables each and every employee to uniquely contribute to its success in their own way. Agile development… Lean entrepreneurship… Whatever you call it, without clear principles crafted in advance to guide the outcome, your business will look more like a scrum than anything else. 

Probably a good idea to budget for planning next year.

Specialty Retail 2016

My first response, Duh. The fact that specialty retail is reeling and brands and specialty retailers don’t necessarily have a solution other than optimizing platforms as Mr. Galloway suggests is not a big surprise. Why? Look at their organizational structure. Most big brands have a VP of Sales, VP of Marketing, VP of Brand/or Creative Director, VP of eCom/or Direct Sales, and a CFO and COO. They are all measured on unique metrics and measured on channel sales and success. Resources are doled out based on which channel has the best ROI, business plan, or argument based not on their consumer’s end user experience, but on industry trends and big data market movement metrics. If you’re watching L2 to know what’s coming next, good on ya, but it’s looking in the rearview mirror as far as your own customer’s user experience is concerned.

Brands and retailers that structure their organization around the idea of facilitating their collective customers’ task list are the eventual winners. Meaning, companies focusing on “Service Design” are standing out. The two winners according to Galloway are Amazon and Sephora. It’s easy to see why. Their end user experiences are steeped in optimal user experience design based on the respective tasks at hand. Amazon serves the get in, get out buyer better than anyone. Sephora is servicing its customers’ tasks via contextual content. Everything you need to know when you need it in platform-relevant user interface design. The mobile experience is unique to the desktop experience because… well, because they are different. Both companies are working from an outside in perspective on how they uniquely facilitate their customer’s needs.

Take a look at your own organization and ask yourself, is my customer's experience a reflection of my customer’s needs or is my customer’s user experience a reflection of how we are organized internally? If your answer is the latter you won’t be featured as a winner on L2 any time soon.

Purpose driven.

Conventional wisdom says that the right product at the right time in the right market will succeed; that product is the path to realizing market opportunity. No doubt this is true, but the inroad of a compelling product doesn’t necessarily dictate a long-term win. Product alone does not dictate sustainable sales growth because the eventuality is that all products become commoditized over time with the onslaught of competition. Unless there is further context surrounding the product to add value beyond features, benefits, and price, there is inherent risk. The observation of this notion is subtle. It’s the subtlety that brand managers miss and often times stand dumbfounded when their product falters.

The value that distinguishes one product from the next, one brand from the next, is born in the character of the organization and the people behind the scene. When the end product and brand experiences manifest the values of the organization then there is a basis for connection, a basis for relationship. The realization of shared values happens through tangible experiences and authentic storytelling. When there is no direct to consumer connection, there is less relationship. When there is limited storytelling ability, there is less relationship. When there is no purpose, there is no reason for loyalty: Less connection, less relationship, less loyalty, less growth—A painful daisy chain of affect. 

Building a meaningful direct connection with your customer is the most fruitful path to growth. It’s about transparency and authenticity… doing the right thing according to your values and making doing the right thing the basis for success rather than duping customers with superficial imagery or selling hyperbole.

There is profit to be had by engaging audiences in purpose.

Forgiving Volkswagen.

Loyal customers are a forgiving lot. Whether enthusiasts of Fahrvergnügen will forgive or no will require VW’s leadership to fully understand how the emissions standards scandal undermines their longstanding relationship.

Falling in love is an action. It takes place in a stepwise fashion moving from a first impression to a test and validation of those first impressions to a deep dive into potential shared values and beliefs. All told, all confirmed, the relationship between an individual and an organization, a customer and a company, is consummated by long-term purchasing. Once this level of understanding and commitment is established, it’s very hard to break. VW is taking a good, healthy swing at disrupting that trust right now, but will the relationship truly be severed?

My conclusion is no. Here are the three reasons:

  1. Everything else is still intact: fun, reliable cars, engineered to perform.
  2. The scandal will be managed by highly paid crisis advisors that will coach the company to be demonstrative in their response, step one having taken place swiftly with the resignation of Martin Winterkorn and the appointment of Matthias Muller, head of the Porsche division, as the new chief executive. Step two is in motion as leadership isolates the improprieties. And step three will follow shortly as the organization assumes full responsibility while demonstrating the remainder of the organization is operating in full integrity.
  3. The fallout will take time, will linger in the headlines, and cost dearly, but the one thing VW has on its side is a loyal following, a following that wants VW in their lives.

The secret that VW needs to pay close attention to is the key lesson we all as service providers need to remember, that earned loyalty doesn’t disappear in an instant, but it can’t be taken for granted either. There is a forgiving nature to loyalty. The reason being, once love is realized, it’s immensely difficult to replicate. VW enthusiasts don’t want to go through the effort of finding a replacement. They can’t simply move laterally to another provider that provides for their needs in the unique ways VW does without a tremendous effort on their part. And, even if they do they’ll miss what they originally fell for, the history and experience of Fahrvergnügen. It’s “what makes a car a Volkswagen,” and it’s a unique identifier that VW has nurtured for decades. In essence it’s exactly the basis of the scandal itself. VW couldn’t make a low performing, low emissions diesel automobile and put it on the market as a Volkswagen. That would be blasphemous. The fact they manipulated the system to do so is reprehensible, but from the early days of the Beetle to the Vanagon to the Golf and even in its line of diesels Volkswagen has delivered an experience that is distinctly Volkswagen.

Taking advantage of that loyalty was the mistake. Leveraging the forgiveness of that same loyalty is Volkswagen’s only hope. They can do this by intimately understanding their customer’s experience right now. Understanding how this affects their perceptions about the brand and about how the brand now fits into their lives. Crisis management aside, this is the only way Volkswagen can deftly manage their way back into good stead with a fan base that doesn’t want them to fail.

The lesson for the rest of us? Spend all of your time and money understanding intimately why your customers love you and be true that in every instance.

Choosing good.

I've said it before and I'll likely just keep saying it until the vast population of companies catch on, doing good is a profit strategy. 

In a world of choice, the reasons we purchase one product over another can be driven by a multitude of factors. A recent Nielsen global online survey found that consumers are increasingly willing to pay more for socially responsible products. In fact, 66% of respondents say they’re willing to pay more for products and services that come from companies who are committed to positive social and environmental impact, up from 55% in 2014 and 50% in 2013.  — The Nielsen Company

Read the report here.

A rose by any other name...

Well, a brand by any other tagline I suppose. I attended Interbike, the cycling industry's annual trade show, last week to visit a few clients. A unique sequestering of the entire industry in one space. Each brand putting their goods on display, directly contrasting with the competition.

The primary focus for these brands is to sell their new product lines direct to their wholesale dealers. The emphasis on minute product detail, features and functions. This coupled with price points and terms rounding out the common sell in strategy. 

For me, it's much more about looking at how these brands present their unique point of view, the character of their organizations. What's their story? Unfortunately, there is very little effort that goes into telling an authentic story beyond the cliche' of the tagline and booth design. I don't mean to be dismissive, but taglines are bullshit.   

"The greatest stories are lived, not told." — I don't think this is true. The greatest experiences are lived, but the best stories are absolutely and by definition, told. Regardless, what does this mean about Scott. Why are they interested in stories, why are stories important, how do stories influence the creation of their products and/or services? I'm not sure and not necessarily truly curious.

"Through this ride, freedom." — A bicycle represents freedom... I guess. Do Simcoe's bikes represent greater freedom than all the other bike manufacturers? This is a bike trade show. Las Vegas' Mandalay Bay convention center's worth of bicycles, all, I suppose, vehicles of human powered freedom. Does Simcoe's tagline express a unique love of that type of freedom? 

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"Adventure begins here." — Similar theme as Scott and Simcoe's taglines, that somehow the bicycle represents stories, freedom, or adventure. Yep. I suppose they are correct. I still can't tell one brand from another given these communications.

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"Think asymmetric." — I love Pinarello bikes, if only because of its heritage and its origin, but I'm left confused about what thinking asymmetrically means... right and left brain? Nope. On their website they put forth an explanation of the forces at work that are unique to bicycles. I'd never thought of that. It's interesting. I'm not sure it summarizes the entire essence of this brand however. Feels like a good thing to talk about when delving into technology and materials. Pinarello is about much, much more having sustained relevance for nigh on 70 years.

Refined simplicity. The truth is on the trail. 

Refined simplicity. The truth is on the trail. 

Freedom unfolds.

Freedom unfolds.

More of the same...

And finally, this from "Fabric" a new brand innovating on old things in the cycling world. This is not romantic. It's not a tagline. They don't have one. They just had a nice, simple display of a few of their new gadgets that make the cycling lifestyle a bit more simple. I like simple. Lots of people do. Fabric's ideas work. They are driven by this principle. They win. No taglines. A straightforward design principle. Making my life as a cycling enthusiast better. 

Good story.

The end of the world as we know it.

If you've got a 401k, a pension fund, a mutual fund, or your money is in any way managed by a financial advisor, probably a good idea to pay close attention to the following quote...

If you’ve got fossil fuel stocks in your retirement account – and most of us do, whether we know it or not – you could be in for a bumpy ride.

This from the description of "The Carbon Bubble" part of a speaker series hosted by Climate One. Fascinating to listen to investors talk about climate change and global warming. It's not a environmental issue. Not even necessarily a moral issue. It's a financial one. More from the introduction from Climate One...

England’s Central Bank has said that coal, oil and natural gas reserves that determine the future earnings of those companies, and therefore their stock prices, may be overvalued.  And as supply grows and global demand decreases, oil prices are dropping by the barrelful.   

This is essentially why companies need to learn, and learn quickly, how to have a relationship with their customers in regards to their sustainability practices. Not because it's becoming popular to greenwash, but because we are in the midst of a reality that doing good is good business and if you as a business owner, manager, CEO, founder, etc. don't have a brand strategy that is cognizant of the impact these issues are having on your market you'll go the way of the original fossil fuels themselves, the dinosaurs. 

The intersection of brand identity, loyalty, and sustainability practices is becoming all the more important. And, understanding how to navigate both the practices and the communications associated with them can be tricky. Savvy customers see right through superficial practices and hyperbole, while truly ethical brands tend to overemphasize those same practices while underestimating the remaining needs for quality and service.   

The answer to getting the communication correct is in the detail of execution. It comes in parts: 

  1. Setting your own reality; i.e. where are you on the spectrum of good versus not good.
  2. Do you have a strategy to be good?
  3. Can you articulate that strategy, share it with your customers, and express it appropriately so they understand where you are in the continuum. 

Not everybody is perfect, in fact, no one is... But, getting on a path is going to be a requirement for success sooner than most suspect.

To listen and read the full program "The Carbon Bubble" visit ClimateOne.org

So, you want to build a website.

Understand your most loyal customers first. As an agency we get a fair number of RFP’s across our desks from well-meaning brand managers desiring a new web presence. The RFP’s typically request best of breed features and functions, brand essence look and feel captured, multi-channel capabilities, etc. etc. The best sites and the best projects all begin with one question, “who are you serving and what do they need?” It sounds overly simple, but if RFP’s were written with only the answer to this question there would be many more successful web development projects in the world. Unfortunately, the fact is most sites are developed from the same set of business rules and features and functions lists with little concern about who it is that is using the site and/or why they are using the site. Sure, agencies write personas and speak about users, but the reality is those are demographic, not psychographic underpinnings. Every brand truly is different and consumers come to sites with very particular needs. If we all developed sites from the very particular point of view of the user we would see a myriad of unique websites functioning optimally for their core audience. Unfortunately, pretty much all ecommerce sites are the same: Landing page > collections > detail page > checkout… It’s interesting brand managers and ecommerce managers are still paying premium prices for these development efforts because if you observe closely the backbone of the Information Architecture is all the same and only minimal differences in the brand content and look and feel distinguish one site from the next. In many terms the world of ecommerce has been commoditized, not because of a lack of ingenuity, but because of a lack of focus on the end user’s needs.

Service Design

Clever, but is there more?

Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch is the title of a 2012 article by Shawn Parr, Guvner & CEO of Bulldog Drummond. The gist is culture is in many ways more powerful than branding and marketing. That culture is ultimately what attracts customers and aligns strategy, product and service. And in fact, it’s culture that drives brand identity and marketing messaging. Agreed.

Knowing this, now what?

How do you go from knowing culture is all powerful to creating yours? Or better yet, how do you manifest your unique culture into every nuance of your organization and customer experience?

Map it.

Take a trip through each and every shopping pathway and customer experience and map every experience. If you have a defined culture, a set of values and beliefs by which your organization thrives, make certain it manifests at the far reaches of your customer’s experience. If it lives there, it will live throughout your company.

Branding, Loyalty Marketing, Service Design

Brand strategy is...

howies logo

Branding is defining the business model that reflects and captures the values held by the founder(s) or founding principle, idea, or spark. UK based clothing brand Howies serves as an ideal example. This month Howies celebrates their 20th anniversary, and because of their purpose oriented brand strategy they'll likely celebrate a 100th year anniversary 80 years hence.

Everything they do, the product, how it’s made, where it’s sourced, the photography they choose, where they live, who they distribute to, the kind of activities they make product for, and the stuff they talk about is all authentic and rooted in their values.

Nothing is staged. It all emanates from purpose.

Doesn’t mean they’re perfect. It means they have a brand strategy.

Customer Experience, Service Design

Beyond Blink

It’s just a moment, a first impression. Malcolm Gladwell made the concept not only famous, but validated the marketing profession’s obsession with the 3-second rule, that is, “you have 3 seconds to attract a new customer’s attention.” It actually may be worse than this. We customers are exposed to 3,000 marketing messages daily. However, we have the capacity to connect, register, and remember less than 100 of those messages. In the end your first impression had better be a good one.

But what happens after that first impression? The assumption marketers make is that they should treat all of their customers as if this rule always applies, even to their loyal customers. That’s not the case. Once the first impression is made for the positive, and an actual connection is made, customers then tend to dive in. First at a product level, they browse, shop, look at details of features and functions and maybe even make a purchase.

And soon after that first purchase customers afford themselves some time. Customers having had that first positive product experience have narrowed the field. They are no longer looking across the vast landscape of competitive options. They are in relationship. They want to know more. They will now read, ponder, entertain a catalog, browse your website, watch a video, and maybe even venture into a store. This is a deep dive.

But what do marketers do? Keep sticking to the 3-second rule, providing only high-level sound bites. The opportunity at your fingertips is far more interesting. Build pathways into more meaningful content, invite customers into little hallways and rooms to learn more about why your brand exists in the first place, show the inspiration of the design, and demonstrate the values that define your company. Customers are people, and they crave deep relationships with other people, with organizations, and even with brands that sell them stuff. So, don’t get stuck in the 3-second rule. Once you’ve got a customer, invite them over for some tea.

Branding, Loyalty Marketing

An overlooked truth

It turns out we customers want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, to help achieve something that we can’t necessarily achieve on our own. When we find this relationship with a brand we move beyond being casual customers and become avid supporters, shoppers, recommenders, and even activists.

In other words, loyalty is a result of a connection with purpose.

Service Design

Who is your next customer?

To predict who your next customer will be, know your existing customer first.

You want a new website? First, understand your advocates, how they become advocates, then
build the site that provides that process.

You want a social media presence? First, understand your advocates, how they become advocates and then put the social mechanisms in place that help that process.

You want to sell direct to your consumer? First, understand your advocates, how they become advocates and build a business model (retail, web, catalog, wholesale environment) that allows that to happen.

You want to grow? First, understand your advocates, how they become advocates and put the right message in the right place at the right time to nurture existing customers and convert new ones.

Seth Godin says it maybe a touch more succinctly, “Start with [knowing your customer] before you spend time on tactics, technology or scalability.”

Good washing

It’s the difference between doing good and talking about doing good.

Customers have been voting with their dollars based on a company’s impact on social good since early in this millennium. It’s becoming more and more the norm, especially for global brands, that consumers expect brands to act responsibly for “society’s well-being.” This ethical consumerism is a point of loyalty, and savvy marketers know it. As result, good, is the new green, and lots of companies are jumping on the bandwagon.

Unfortunately, talking about it and actually owning up to the responsibility are two different things. Enter the B-Corporation.

“This new class of corporation is a milestone for two reasons,” says Kyle Westaway, a lawyer who studies corporate forms and represented Launcht, the first company to file and officially become a Benefit Corporation in Vermont. The law, he says, “broadens the goals of the corporation from [just] profit to: profit, people and planet. Secondly, the Benefit Corporation increases transparency and accountability, by using an independent third party to verify that a business is acting in a socially and environmentally conscious fashion.” 
— Good.Is, Business

Now law in 31 states with bills pending in 9 more.