New realities of branding
We attended Columbia University's BRITE Conference on branding, innovation and technology last week. Much of the discussion centered on the tech-inspired convergence of product development, brand and customer experience.
Speakers and attendees alike noted how the practice of branding is changing. It's moving from an approach focused on communications channels to one built around things customers are trying to accomplish. One example: getting more out of running with Nike Plus, the convergence of Nike shoes with Apple iPod that allows runners to share favorite jogging routes, measure their performance, and trash talk with their friends.
One of the open questions: How do you define a brand in a way that gets product developers, marketers and those in the field responsible for delivering on the brand promise to create an experience with which customers want to involve themselves?
We were struck by the extent to which the cases covered were examples of adding value through the addition of services to products and vice versa. This is one of the greatest opportunities for differentiation for both manufacturers and services companies. You can see some of our thinking on the topic here, here and here.
Typically a service disruption is bad for business. For example, when an online store goes down it means lost revenue and aggravated customers, right? Well, Apple's turned what might be considered bad service into a marketing tactic. While most companies try to downplay technical difficulties, Apple hypes them. You might've noticed they even highlight their service disruptions with a cute "We'll be back soon" Post-It icon. It's not there to be condescending; it's actually a signal. As the BusinessWeek Apple blog notes, when the Apple Store is down, "that's often an indicator that a new product is about to be announced." Apple has turned an inconvenience into a positive newsworthy event. Now anytime the store is down, the likes of Engadget and Gizmodo, as well as the hundreds of Apple fanboy sites, report it and the speculation begins. When the store's back up what new product will be there? A Mac tablet? An ultraportable Macbook? A pink iPod Nano for Valentine's Day?
It's an unconventional and innovative approach to marketing - it fundamentally transforms a negative into a positive, it creates suspense, and it builds in viral marketing. But it can have its drawbacks. As BusinessWeek points out, that "We'll be back soon" icon doesn't always mean a new product is about to be revealed. Sometimes it means that the site is just down - you know, for maintenance or technical problems or some other nuisance. Has Apple, in using this marketing device, created unrealistic expectations? Probably. But as long as they don't suffer too many unwanted outages and regularly deliver on the promise of innovation, they'll continue to get invaluable free publicity.
Goes to show that virtually anything can be turned into advantage if you apply a little creative thinking.
Mutual of Omaha's Wild Media
In my post yesterday, I mentioned that the writers' strike would give corporations an opportunity to explore alternative advertising approaches. A friend of mine responded to my post wondering if we were going to see a return to "the days of 'Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom'?" Certainly looks that will be one of the models. This article from The Hollywood Reporter article mentions Johnson & Johnson funding an after-school type program for its Accuvue brand. I think you'll see a lot of brands funding entertainment content that is directly targeted to their core audience.
Ultimately, from an entertainment perspective, you can envision a world in which all content is available on-demand (you know, like it is on the Internet), supported by a brief advertisement like this (or something similar). I would hope this has all of the interested parties - the networks, movie studios, and cable providers, to name a few - shaking in their boots and looking for a way to participate in the obvious future, rather than impersonating an ostrich and sticking their head in the ground like the music moguls.
Isn't it inevitable that the television simply becomes akin to an all-you-can eat buffet, pulling content from a million sources, rather than a pre-set menu prepared by the mediocre chefs at NBC Universal, Viacom, and Disney and delivered to your table by those ill-tempered waiters at Time Warner, Cox and Comcast?
Suggests some interesting questions:
How long before cable companies become nothing more than ISPs?
If they can't charge exorbitant fees for access to their slate of channels and to use their inadequate set-top boxes, they become little more than an ISPs with a good set of pipes. Which brings up a corollary question: How long before those pipes become totally unnecessary?
Do the studios have any value beyond the intellectual property they already have?
If the control of content is wrested from the studios, what value do they provide? They've got some big studios they could rent out. And, presumably, a lot of cameras and lighting and what-not. But with production increasingly happening on location and the cost of technical production going down, that's not much value. What they do have is all the stuff they created in the past. In the case of Disney, they have power of their characters, their back catalog, their brands and their creative departments. They've basically got Mickey Mouse, The Little Mermaid, ESPN and Pixar. A lot, to be sure, but it certainly isn't the impenetrable wall they have today.
What happens when that wall comes down?
You can certainly see how some of those media properties become less valuable in the future. What happens when the NFL doesn't need to deal with the cable companies or distribute their product through Disney's ABC Sports and ESPN anymore and simply can instead offer their games (all of them) on a pay-per-view, on-demand basis? Could this be what the NFL is thinking with its much maligned NFL Network? Remember: the NFL didn't get to be the juggernaut it is by playing softball and being stupid. Don't you think the NFL (in this case, the content creator) would jettison these partners immediately if they could charge a small fee to customers to watch the games or keep all of the ad revenue for themselves (or both)?
Play that scenario out with any piece of content. Was that James Dolan that just fainted?
Granted the NFL is the NFL. But what happens when a venture capitalist and a small production group get together and create the next Heroes? Do you think they'll be running to sign a distribution deal with NBC or trusting that the inherently viral nature of the Internet will take care of that pesky issue for them?
Will all of this make search and social networking even more important in the future?
If the TV becomes an empty vessel for endless content, the viewer has to find what they want, right? Google made finding content easy. Apple made finding and acquiring music easy and legal. Facebook and myspace have made internet communications more personal and fun. Won't some combination of this become the new interface for that empty vessel formerly known as the television set?
So much for TV Guide.
UPDATE: Is TiVo making a move?
Employees and the Brand
Flying back home from Chicago last week on American Airlines, I had a really vivid experience of how employees' attitudes about the company they work for are one of the most direct impacts on the way that customers experience the brand.
American, like the rest of the airline industry, has had a rough couple of years. American seems even harder hit though, and you can feel it when you fly them. The mismanagement problems which have plagued the company have created a pretty tangible disgruntlement among the staff. As you sit at the gate, you hear the grumblings and see the eye-rolling. This is a company that has had its culture poisoned and the toxicity is being felt, strongly felt, by the customers.
How do you revitalize a workforce of 96,000 employees who themselves no longer believe in the brand?
Speaking of Coffee
One thing to love about New York as things get dreary: the coffee cart. These small sole proprietorships epitomize the relationship business. All over the city, folks line up at a cart and experience an authentic one-to-one sale.
Our morning coffee dealer is an Afghani Uzbek named Manon. He is a client service inspiration.
More important: coffee comes in “small, medium and large”. No grande in site.
Funny, silly banks
So the other day we were doing a little tour of banks in the neighborhood. Stopped by HSBC to ask about their small business accounts and started chatting with the service rep. Always a good idea.
"So what does HSBC stand for, anyway?" we asked somewhat disingenuously. (Okay, very disingenuously.)
Nothing could have prepared us for her response.
“Happy Satisfied Banking Customers.”
Is that the official line? Apparently.
Now, admittedly, Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation might be a little too exotic for the average American banking customer, but there has to be a better answer than ridiculous dross about happy customers.