Monday, October 06, 2008

Thank You Sir, May I Have Another...Economic Crisis '08 Edition?

At this point, I've got to wonder whether we're psyching ourselves deeper into the hole... I hold as evidence:
"Group-think" is generally regarded as a bad thing but what would happen I wonder if everyone who's in the market just decided "$%#& it!" and "enough is enough" and put $10 back into the market today. With 100 million individual investors in the US, that's $1 billion. Might that end the slide? We can all take a $10 gamble on our futures, right? It's $10 - not that much...2.5 Starbucks lattes or a large pizza from Pizza Hut. Consider it. By the way...DOW at -$414.64 and is under 10,000 for the first time in 4 years (which means all of our gains from the same period are kaput!)... Time to double-down.

Friday, August 08, 2008

The Literal Collision of Politics & Pop Culture

Politics and pop-culture often cross paths, or, when fund-raising is involved, run in similar circles. Rarely though do they collide in a way that affects the trajectory of either. All that changed this past week...when John McCain climbed down from The Straight Talk Express and into the mud and in doing so tempted the wrath...or rather the opportunism of Paris (no need to even mention the surname).

In a television ad that represented a whole new take on "scare tactics" and apparently aiming to provide clarity of choice in this year's Presidential race in terms sure to resonate with ALL Americans of high moral fortitude, the GOP nominee lumped Barack Obama together with Paris and Brittnay. The ad copy - "he's the biggest celebrity in the world but is he ready to lead?" was timed to coincide with Obama's multi-country overseas tour during which he drew adoring crowds in the thousands.

Paris just being Paris, wasted no time in leveraging the pathetic ploy of the "white haired dude" to further perpetuate her status as the preeminent practitioner of "famous for being famous" debuting a response ad online.

Yeah, yeah...entertaining, slightly shameful but I'm curious about what effect any of this had on to involved parties? Looking at the chart above, at least in the blogosphere, SHE saw an ~900% increase in blog post mentions from the time the McCain ad first ran to through when her ad was posted online. Since positive and negative mentions seem to have the same value for Paris, no other analysis is needed. For HIM on the other hand, he saw a 50% increase in blog post mentions from the time his ad first ran to through when Paris's ad was posted online. But unless you're a Hilton, a Spears or a Kayne West, that can't be the whole story - positive and negative effects matter.

If the McCain camp's strategy was to try to contrast him with his opponent in terms of age and experience, looking at the charts below, we see that McCain's effort may have backfired...while blog post mentions including the words "Barack Obama" + "young" increased ~50% during this sideshow, blog post mentions including the words "John McCain" and "old" increased ~86%.

"Old" and "young" do not automatically equate to "bad" and "good" but in the context of Presidential politics, I think we can assume that old = a negative. "Young" on the other hand is more subjective. Without looking at the context for each post, we can't know but for purposes of this analysis, let's consider "young" to be "less than ideal." So the McCain ploy generated an uptick in discourse around Obama's youth but a groundswell of discourse about McCain's oldness. But that's not the whole story either...let's look a little deeper...

If the aim of the McCain team was to increase the regard for McCain's experience and contrast that with Obama's ostensibly problematic inexperience, that doesn't seem to have worked out for them either as the chart below illustrates. During the period from when McCain's ad first ran through when Paris posted hers, there's almost no movement in the % of blog posts mentioning McCain's experience or Obama's inexperience.

At the end of the day, the whole episode, at least as viewed through the lens of the blogosphere seems to have created only negatives for McCain, for Obama, there was little impact and the real winner appears to be Paris. What a shock. Her % of blog mentions, while having subsided in the past couple of days, is still up 350% from before the McCain ad ran. She's got to be grateful to the "wrinkly old guy" for that!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

MarketTrip - VitaminWater Creates Loyalty, Community...and Now Suspicion

There's something fishy going on at least as far as its VitaminWater product lineup goes. Consumers are starting to talk about it and some folks are getting pretty upset.

It seems, at least people are speculating, that Glaceau has been messing around with the formula for "Revive" - its popular Fruit Punch flavor. It looks a little funny (less deep red/purple) and it tastes a little different too...

It's just a hunch...based on people's observations and recollections of taste but VitaminWater devotees tend to know their water well so they're probably on to something. So what's the deal if it's true?

We can only speculate (the company hasn't made any announcements) but speculate we shall...

In the past 12 months, the VitaminWater offering has grown from 6 or so flavors to a veritable rainbow spectrum of 16 flavors/colors. New flavors/colors include "Defense" (Cran-Apple) in burgundy, "Endurance" (Peach-Mango) in...well, peach and "Charge" (Lemon-Lime) in a greenish-yellow hue. This brand expansion has highlighted, from a marketing perspective, just how tied to color the VitaminWater flavors are. Flavor colors key to label colors...yellow to yellow, pink to pink, etc...(except for Lemonade which has a blue label).

But it's in the purple shades that the lineup has grown most conspicuously...there are now three purple flavors (the original "Revive," "Formula 50"- grape, and "XXX" - Acai-blueberry-pomegranate).

I'm speculating that it got to be a bit too crowded in the purples for the marketing folks when they realized that really all that differentiated "Revive" and "XXX" visually was the label on the bottle (XXX got a black label). Their solution (perhaps) was to lighten "Revive" so that it more neatly fills the middle ground between "Formula 50" (pale purple) and "XXX"... Perhaps this change in hue had a subtle effect on taste.

Ok. So it was a marketing decision...only problem is that people noticed and most questioned in my totally unscientific poll don't really like the result. They used words like "betrayed" and "wronged" to describe their feelings... Now, this isn't on the same level as Coca-Cola's New Coke fiasco*...more like the Old Becky/New Becky switcheroo on Rosanne or Dick York in place of Dick Sargent on Bewitched. It's unsettling and largely inexplicable but something people know they'll get used to and then not think much about moving forward.

People will get over it and VitaminWater likely won't really lose any drinkers...but since it involves something as choice-critical as flavor which in the beverage biz is the very heart of consumer loyalty (much more so than giveaways or points programs), if true, it seems like a really risky move on Glaceaus' part.

*or brilliant move. Some view Coke's switch as a well conceived marketing ploy. I don't buy it...

Thursday, September 06, 2007

It Really is all About the Benjamins: RIP Business 2.0

We were reminded today that what really drives the media is money - not the sharing of ideas, a duty to report or society's need for journalism as a means of enlightenment of the masses. Time Inc. announced that after 9 years on newsstands, Business 2.o will bite the dust. The culprit is shrinking ad revenue in the form of ad pages per issue.

Seems that with issue sales of under a million copies, readers weren't massive enough for the magazine's publisher to deem it "essential."

This is not some pollyanna post bemoaning BIG media or a plea to save a favorite publication (which it was for me and the rest of the 608,237 paid subscribers)...we're smart people us Business 2.0 readers - we know how the world works. Although it is heartening to learn that someone created a Facebook group called "I read Business 2.0...and I want to keep reading!" and 2,300 people signed up.

This post is purely cathartic. I'm acknowledging that I have joined (or rejoined as it is - I "lost" Industry Standard back in 2003...but made my peace with that long ago) that club of widowed readers of REALLY well done magazines...with friends who read the likes of Jane, Brill's Content and Ray Gun.

Kinda makes you wonder about the future of what the publishing industry refers to as "niche content," doesn't it? If so and you're like me, you're not alone. You can engage in macabre speculation (or just read about it) at

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

It's Good to Be the King

Hiring a crony who'll cow tow to your every whim - $250,000 (per year; to the American people)

Having someone do your administration's dirty work - $2.8 million (cost to investigate/prosecute; to the American people)

Commuting your crony's sentence to keep the base loyal and reassure the next one that you'll protect him too - Priceless

It's good to be a President without morals.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

MarketTrip - The REAL iPod Challenge (and Why the Business Press Has it All Wrong)

A couple of years ago, I spoke at a business conference on the topic of “How to build a brand through advertising” and to introduce the discussion, I presented the top 5 truisms of advertising as I defined them. My number one truism was and still is to remember that advertising can’t make you something that your not. The same thing can be said about products. In both cases, and interpreted another way, it's to remember your core business and especially if you've been successful, respect why you are who you are.

Fronting that you're something else - either through your products or your advertising just makes you look at best, clueless and at worst, it can alienate your bread-and-butter customers and isolate your core business. Boardroom coups are characterized by the ouster of execs who tried to be broad without remaining focused on being deep.

This week, Apple reached the milestone of 100 million iPods sold. And once again, as happens with the tic-toc of clockwork every couple of months, the business press is abuzz with stories about what competitive offering, if any, can dethrone iPod as king of the personal music player space. It's a familiar story line but these days, if you read between the printed lines and examine what competitors are putting out there, it seems to have a new twist.

Their focus seems to have changed from “dethroning” to “dislodging” iPod from it ~75% market share. Competitors seem to have acknowledged that iPod is the 800 lb gorilla and iTunes is the archetypal interface for distribution. Look closely and what you'll see is that everyone in the marketspace is clamoring to offer up not an "iPod killer" but an equally compelling (and perhaps stealthily superior) combo of product and service with hopes of chipping away at iPod/iTunes share.

They'd like to do what the Japanese automakers have done to GM (and in a larger sense, Detroit) over the past 30 years.

Competitors clearly believe that “better” technology is the best possible way to weaken Apple's full-nelson on the market. And it's logical to assume that offering "better" technology (read: more bells and whistles) is a way to achieve this. It's a premise time-tested and proven in the technology world…digital cameras, flat screen TVs, notebook computers are just a few examples.

The business press mistakenly assumes that "better" technology is aimed at the old goal of annihilation...perhaps because failure or conflict makes for a better story. Or perhaps because they assume that the digital music landscape is governed by the same black+white, quantitative, specifications-based decision-making that drives the PC business.

Unfortunately for Apple's competitors, music players and distribution (unlike cameras, TVs and computers) have not yet achieved commodity status. And as such, from a brand perspective, they're not interchangeable. Why? Because music (and in modernity, the means to play it), anthropologically, has always been highly personal and basely emotional. In short, there's more to consumers' decision about which player to buy and music service to use than technology or pennies on the dollar.

Microsoft’s Zune bested the iPod with a bigger (and bi-directional) screen and the ability to wirelessly share songs between Zunes. And now the latest heir to the title “potential iPod killer” is SanDisk’s Connect player which pairs with Yahoo’s music service to offer wireless downloads of songs at any hotspot. On paper, all three technologies seem "covetable" and appear to put iPod at a disadvantage. But Zune flopped by almost all market definitions. Will the Connect suffer the same fate?

Only time will tell but I'll go out on a limb here and say that it will... And why am I willing to say this now, having never touched our used the Connect (or Zune)? Because it's made by SanDisk.

Is this brand prejudice? Am I exhibiting product snobbery? Am I being paid by Apple? The answer is "no-way-Jose" to all. What I believe is that Connect will fail where Zune did and several iterations of Sony's Digital Walkman before that because sometimes, in some product categories, consumers DO buy the brand as much as they buy the product. That doesn't mean brand is more important than the product just means sometimes they're darn near (gasp!) equal.

And when consumers do buy the brand, the brand they buy is the brand they best associate with the role they expect it to play in their lives. Apple is music. SanDisk is memory (boring). And Microsoft is…well just about everything unglamorous about computing. Sony is...who knows, these days? But it's not personal, portable audio...which is ironic since they invented the market with the original Walkman back in 1979.

"Life role" is largly a factor of people's perception about how they will use something. Where one brand gains an advantage over another is where the perceived motivations of the maker seem to elevate a brand and the assocatied product. People develop relationships with some types of and cars are two of the most personal pruchases because both speak volumes about the owner. It's why people carry their "iPod" and not their "music player"...or drive their "Mini" and not their "car."

Apple makes money hand over fist from the iPod and iTunes…but it doesn't feel like dollars and cents is their motivation or the reason for iPod/iTune’s existence. We can picture Steve Jobs playing air guitar to Steppenwolf...try that with Bill Gates and it makes your head hurt! Apple as a brand is all about the emotional and tactile experience and hundreds of millions of consumers believe that if you want a pure music experience (just like if you want a pure computing experience*) Apple has the edge over everyone else.

With Microsoft for sure and SanDisk by extrapolation, the motivation for their attempt to crack the music player market feels motivated purely by business. Everyone knows that Microsoft’s MO is to come in and overtake the innovator through unabashed emulation and market presence. Consumers don’t like that. It feels evil and dirty. Evil and dirty clash fundamentally with music...we feel good vibes from and attached to our music collections (even if the music is Marilyn Manson!).

The same can be said for SanDisk…they’re a memory and storage media company…what could they possibly know about music and hope to get from entering the market…other than an uptick in their bottom line. Maybe they do know something about music but the average consumer doesn't think so...

Unfair characterizations? Most likely...but consumer belief trumps corporate line any day of the week and twice on Sunday. And consumer belief is only influenced by advertising so far. iPod ads grew out of Apple's own exuberance for the music. Not to seem "cool" or as a ploy to tap the collective yearning for commercials you can jam to!

One of the cold, hard truths of business is that you are who you are. And that’s followed closely by the fact that it’s damn near impossible to change how you’re perceived after years of business. I challenge you to name two brands who’ve radically reinvented themselves to the extent that they can lead in a whole new market?

My point? Microsoft, SanDisk, Sony and everyone else including Creative, Samsung, etc...can and should continue to work in this space. Innovation lifts all boats...and if they really do understand that they're unlikely to defeat iPod/iTunes, the evolution of the technology and increased choice will be great for consumers. But for the business press, get over iPod and iTune's dominance...seems like everyone else has. The true challenge for companies and the real story for the press will be whether the new technologies that manufacturers roll out resonate and if, how and why (or why not) they're adopted by consumers.

*Disclaimer: I own an iPod but I'm a PC guy.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Brief History of Negligence?

You can experience the wonders of weightlessness riding the same kind of "Vomit Comet" that NASA uses for astronaut training with scientific legend Dr. Stephen Hawking. eBay is auctioning off this experience... the winner will join Hawking on a 90 minute flight during which you'll experience several periods of near or total weightlessness.

This, for me, raises two big questions.

First, does it make sense for someone in Hawking's physical state (he has ALS, better known as "Lou Gherig's disease and is confined to a wheelchair) to be careening around an airplane fuselage pulling zero Gs? I don't want to be one to limit someone's autonomy or quash a dream but just look at the promotional image at above! And we've all seen the archival footage of astronauts in training in their blue jumpsuits tumbling about, bumping off walls and generally having a grand 'ol time. But they have full control of their extremities which they can use to steer themselves and limit their movements.

Second, one has to wonder, (and I'm not trying to be funny about this) if his wheelchair will be making the trip too and what kind of added element of risk to him and to the winner does that pose? Does eBay assume the liability if you're injured by Hawking's wheelchair?

100% of the proceeds (bidding stood at $16,500 at time of writing) go to charity so I guess the risks to the participants are a small price to pay for the good that can be done. That is, unless this ends in litigation.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Me & Dan Dan Guitar Man (Down by the Train Yard)

Thanks Dan...Thanks Dan
Dan Dan Guitar Man
For putting a big-ol smile on my face at the end of the day
Your stummin' makes the stress and the shit on my mind just melt away

Electric blues, funk and jazz flowin' melodically from your amp
You rock Back Bay Station from the Track 3/4 (stairwell) ramp.

I wish I had the time to linger longer
Doing so would make my appreciation for your sound no doubt even stronger
But I got a train to catch Dan
Like Elton sang I'm a rocket man

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Evil or Genius or Evil Genius?

Usually, the descriptors "evil" or "genius" are reserved for extremes and those people or things designated as such by popular culture (or at least your side of the Culture War) are pretty much generally accepted to be true. A few examples:

Hitler = evil
Einstein = genius

Taxes = evil
The PC = genius

But every so often, in the course of our daily travels, we come across something that confounds us because its root seems to potentially be either (or both). I've been wrestling with this question as I flip-flop on the decision about whether to give myself over to a Crack-berry device.

This quickly-approaching superfluous set up is meant only to provide some kind of pseudo-theoretical context for mention of a product which, for me at least, falls squarely in the sights of the gray mushy area that separates clearly evil from clear-cut genius...

It's called SeasonShot and it's a shotgun projectile made up of food seasonings formed into pellets and tightly packed into a shotgun shell casing that is itself a foodstuff. The way it works is that upon impact with say a duck, the shell contents disperse into the duck's body thereby infusing said game with, for example, Teryiaki or lemon pepper. Oh, and killing it too.

The two primary benefits according to the manufacturer are that the seasoning is evenly distributed from within (no "cuts" with only surface flavoring) and that there's no buck shot left in the kill (so no messy cleaning). For ethical (I think) reasons, I'm not providing a link to the site in this can Google it on your own.

Now to the philosophical wranglings (prepare fore some circular logic!)...

I'm not a hunter but I'm a carnivore. I don't ever want to hunt because the thought of killing an animal sickens me but I'm a realist - I know that the meat I buy at the grocery wrapped in cellophane was once breathing. I'm a bit of a foodie and love flavorful food in all its forms but I read the health news so I know that poultry skin is way high in cholesterol.

So where does that leave me on the issue of SeasonShot? Evil or genius? I have this strange appreciation for the ingenuity of the product and since I'm not a vegetarian, I guess I'm pro-killing of animals for I can't condemn one of the means to the tasty end. SO I guess that that leaves me only one choice and that's to regard this product as "evil genius."

Friday, December 29, 2006

MarketTrip: Perpetual Product Optimism

I have a 2 year old iPod. I have a 6 month old Motorola Razr. I have a 27 inch flat screen CRTV. All work flawlessly, look good, totally fit my lifestyle and are paid for. And yet I want to replace all three.

As such, I habitually read the Sunday circulars from Best Buy, Circuit City, CompUSA...grabbing them first as I sip my coffee. As a new dad with precious little "me time," I know that this is unwise. I should spend my quiet time with World News, Living/Arts, Ideas or even the Magazine...but I don't, I can't.

Frustrated, a bit ashamed and eager for an answer that indemnified me of my own behavior, I came up with the following:

Humans are, I believe, more optimistic than pessimistic, which makes us really truly want to believe that this product is exponentially better than that product. Combine that mindset with mankind's innate belief in compounding betterment and you've got what I call "perpetual product optimism" (d. unending assumption that newer gadget = better gadget). It's "assumed obsolescence" and it's the yang to the yin of "planned obsolescence"...the human nature flip side to corporate retail strategy (and it's the 93 octane that fuels our economy).

It's what causes me (and my brethren*) to incessantly read the Sunday circulars, wander around Best Buy for hours and plot our next technology purchase over the course of many, many months.

So, using the classic "it's human nature" argument, mission accomplished. I'd successfully applied this new consumer psychological concept - perpetual product optimism - to my life and simultaneously a) eradicated my feelings of guilt associated with coveting gadgets I know I don't need and b) excused my newspaper reading habits.

And in doing so, I've aptly demonstrated another impressive aspect of human nature - the power of rationalization!

* men aren't alone, women demonstrate similar behavior with handbags and shoes.


Thinking about this a bit more...

From a marketing perspective, that this mindset exists in the modern marketplace should come as no surprise. And yet desire based on PPO is something that any marketer would be hard-pressed to manufacture for a given product. Consumer desire is elusive…and you can’t force people to want something.

In fact, there’s ample (although not conclusive) evidence of an inverse relationship between corporate hype and consumer interest. Palm’s Folio is one of the most recent examples. Classically hyped technology offerings that failed to captivate consumers include WebTV, the DiVX movie rental service, Apple’s Newton, email appliances, Iridium…etc.

So what then? How can marketers leverage PPO? How can they position their product as the antidote to consumers “assumed obsolescence?” Most likely they can’t. “This is better than that” arguments don’t really gain much traction in the marketplace these days…consumers have learned to mistrust corporate lines when it comes to technology.

Really, the best approach seems to be to ignore (or avoid addressing directly) the competition or even your prior products and to make your play either on an emotional level (like Apple with iPod) or on straight features/benefits (like Blackberry). With fickle, web-savvy consumers, you really have to hope your product development team got it right and hope that consumers assign the kind of value to what you’re selling that will make your launch a success!