This site will no longer carry new posts.
This site will no longer carry new posts.
On Monday, Boeing celebrated delivery of its first 787 Dreamliner to a paying client (just think of the sweetheart deal All Nippon Airways got). At a development cost of more than $32 billion spread out over almost a decade, the model encountered every conceivable delay (and many that nobody had imagined), and it might not make any money until the 2020s, if ever. One reporter qualified the accomplishment as "...the pinnacle of achievement...in the life of the program…" There were probably lots of sighs of relief at the employee event.
Enough has been said about Boeing's woes with the 787. The fact that it chose to create an airplane created out of plastic instead of metal is a little weird to begin with, and it foolishly followed all the outsourcing malarky from management consultants and decided to let independent third-parties build pieces of the plane. Of course, nothing quite fit together, and the company had to buy up some of the factories in order to assemble the stuff. On second thought, maybe enough hasn't been written about that failure of the Outsourcing Promise, but whatever.
Now the business of selling airplanes takes center stage. Boeing has been working to write orders for years, and I'm sure the 787 pricetag has taken a hit every time news appeared that, say, the wing wouldn't attach to the fuselage. You can imagine that it already has a glossy branding campaign in the can, showing a plane gliding over puffy clouds toward a perfect sunset or cameos of idealized, surprisingly diverse employees talking about how proud they are of their achievement. No ad or social media campaign is going to influence its potential sales, at least not directly, though I'd say the communications challenge is twofold:
What would you do if you were advising Boeing? Here are three thought-starters:
Or...it's just going to be more of the same corporate nonsense. What do you think?
(Image credit: the plane in question)
The possible discovery of neutrinos that travel faster than the speed of light could not only change a hundred years of physics dogma, but it could make time travel possible...though one scientist comforted the world last week with the qualifier that "...it does not mean we'll be building time-machines anytime soon."
Actually, if the discovery is true, the time travel thing is already a reality, and no machine is required. Here's how: One of those fast little buggers could move not only before you observed it, but before you had reached the point in time when you even thought the thought that it could move, since we're stuck using slower particles for sight and thinking. Its now is always a past then for us, kind of like it's always out of sync with time. So it redefines our basic concepts of reality. Cool stuff that we nonscientists usually stop riffing about when we sober up after college.
So what does it have to do with branding and marketing? Let's indulge in just a few of the implications:
At least two research groups have already announced plans to challenge the findings -- to prove wrong the proof of what’s wrong -- which is a beautiful thing. Ultimately, it doesn't matter if they succeed or not. Someone else will, or somebody will discover something else utterly and mind-bendingly cool.
Light 'em up!
(Image credit: Albert Einstein)
The United States Postal Service is hurting, and will more than likely stop Saturday deliveries, close a few thousand branches, disemploy 120,000 people and, sometime sooner than anyone would like, raise the price of stamps again.
The standard marketer retort to these woes is full of blather about the USPS failing to delight customers and innovate, especially when compared to the ways FedEx and UPS have eaten its lunch. Of course, this is nonsense, but it makes for the self-congratulatory reading that marketers like to share with one another (like this piece at Forbes).
The problem is bigger than that, sadly, and can be summed up in one word: Email. The USPS was created to transmit messages across distances both near and vast, just as postal carriers had done for centuries prior pretty much everywhere else in the world. This business purpose, or strategy, got confused with the tools, or tactics, of message delivery; namely letters and packages. The USPS committed to a medium, and not to the messages that were its true calling.
Sure, it should have figured out that overnight delivery could be a moneymaker (it already had the infrastructure to do it, after all), or come up with better pricing strategies. But it was never in the package business, per se, nor in the speed racket. Postal service was (and is) about regular, reliable transmittal of messages. So faxing, and then Email, would still have emerged as the biggest threats to its business.
But this isn't a story about broken or inefficient government. USPS was expert at doing what it believed it was supposed to do. Therefore, what will save it will require a redefinition of that purpose, and I think all it requires is a reaffirmation of the importance of message over medium, as this blogger suggested.
Here are three thought-starter ideas for what I think the USPS needs to do, or at least consider:
OK, I just read my list. It's a long shot, to say the least. But I still think I'm right on the the USPS being in the message business, and not in the business of the media of their delivery, per se. If my ideas won't work, what will?
(Image credit: Neither rain, nor snow, nor poor WiFi reception...)
NASA announced its new heavy-lift booster design last week, called...wait for it...the SLS, for Space Launch System...and explained that it would take astronauts to an asteroid, and then to Mars in 20+ years. Few people cared, and those that did immediately started griping about the cost.
What a missed opportunity, brought to us by a government agency that specializes in removing even the slightest hint of excitement, passion, or meaning from activities that should be brimming over with all of the above. It really takes some skill to turn the Ultimate Adventure into a bureaucratic afterthought.
The problems are strategic -- NASA has no meaningful purpose -- and tactical, in that it couldn’t communicate its way out of a paper bag even if it did have something worth telling us.
Exploration didn't used to be so boring. Monarchs and then consortia of the rich and/or foolhardy commoners put up the money for voyages of discovery starting in the Middle Ages, though by "discovery" they meant discover profits. The New World was thus explored and exploited, as was the westward expansion of the United States. Sure, scientists tagged along on many of the gigs, but the governments involved in exploration were foremost interested in making money (or in getting undesirables off their shores, which also promised a monetary benefit).
Such uniting of individual and national lust for wealth was the engine of exploration for all of history.
NASA was an aberration to this model, created out of a few conflicting government agencies in the late 1950s so the U.S. could catch up with the Soviet space program. For almost the first time ever, exploration was offered as the absolute goal; President Kennedy told us that we had to reach the Moon, well, because. Once we got there, the exploration thing kinda lost its luster, and NASA went about doing what every other government agency does...finding things to do in order to warrant its continued funding.
No vision. No awareness of the role exploration has played in the development of nearly every society throughout history. No utilization of the profit motive as the driver for its efforts (at best it was always an after-thought, like Teflon or Tang).
So now NASA wants to build huge rockets to send probes to asteroids and Mars. Who cares? Maybe some folks in the science communities, and of course space program nutcases like yours truly. But to everyone else it's a distraction, at best, and more like utterly irrelevant. That giant rocket isn't called the New Hope or Andromeda or something catchy, but SLS, which sounds like an acronym buried in a budget (which it is). Or a disease.
NASA needs to utterly reinvent itself as the agency that helps make private individuals take big risks for big payoffs, and do what government have done for all of history: Lead. Without such reinvention, I fear this SLS and its missions will disappear in a few years -- and after billions of dollars have been spent -- in favor of another expenditure, whether in outer space or not. We don’t need NASA as much as NASA needs itself. It’s time to change the model so we can need it, perhaps for the real, first time in its history, to do things like:
Now for the communications tactics. Yuck. That's all I can say. NASA comes up with the successor launch vehicle to the Space Shuttle and the best it can do it prompt a debate about its cost? Landing on an asteroid is potentially wildly cool (if you saw Bruce Willis in Armageddon, you know what I'm talking about). Why are bureaucrats announcing such an adventure? Ditto for the Mars thing. I mean, c'mon, we're talking about generations of curiosity and imagination devoted to the place, and that's not the lead? Don't describe how important it is. Show it. Live it. Help us feel it.
I'm so frustrated by how virtual reality has captured popular attention when the reality of reality is so much cooler, at least when it comes to space adventures. Cook, Darwin, Lewis & Clark, whomever...so much of history was written by the reality of explorers in search of (or in service to) profits, and our space program is being run by bureaucrats who are working overtime to keep their jobs. I'm sure they’re good, sincere, and talented people, but...
...they need a new mission, and a new set of tools with which to communicate it.
(Image credit: If you have to say you’re cool, you’re not)
Early last week, Yahoo fired its CEO, Carol Bartz, who was two-thirds of her way toward her third year running the place. The company’s board has announced that it is putting a priority on "evaluating strategic options" ahead of searching for a permanent replacement for Bartz (who resigned from Yahoo's board last Friday).
Don't shed tears for Bartz, though. She's likely to walk away with $14 million, and that's on top of the $12 million she was earning annually (and the oodles of cash she pocketed for running Autodesk, one of my favorite companies of all time, for so many years). She's not the only one who is, or will, get rich off of Yahoo's slow demise. There's a better than even chance that Yahoo will merge with another company with a tenuous business proposition, like AOL or MySpace (or both), or get bought by a larger, suffering fish, like Microsoft (?). Any of these actions will throw off lots of money for the execs, board members, investment bankers, and largest shareholders.
None of these companies will exist a few years from now (Microsoft will, of course, but more through inertia than anything else), and Bartz et al will be laughing from the beaches on their private islands, or whatever. If we common folk needed yet another reason to sharpen our pitchforks and stand up to this rapacious abuse of employees, markets, and our society at large, this is it. But nobody seems to care -- it's OK for the rich to get richer, however they do it, because somehow their wealth will help the rest of us -- and I can't for the life of me figure out what to do about it.
So I'm going to presume that Yahoo actually wants to stay in business by doing things that are relevant to the marketplace and might enable it to earn some money. It’s hard to talk about such things without using meaningless buzzwords like platforms and optimization and user experience, but here are three thought-starters on what Yahoo could do to reattach a business to its brand:
I dunno, is any of this even possible, let alone likely? The Yahoo drama looks too much like so many others, so the book on it coming out any differently could pay a lot. Does the board have the guts to truly lead?
What do you think?
(Image credit: great logo, but what does it mean?)
For every argument that brand value matters (or that brands even exist as logical constructs of any kind whatsoever), there's a simple, stunningly shocking riposte: people don't remember much, and what they do remember doesn’t necessarily affect their behaviors as consumers.
If they did:
Nobody would waste another penny on hopes that the stock market will make them rich. Wacky exercise machines wouldn't sell on late night TV. Poor saps like yours truly would stop rooting for the Chicago Cubs. As citizens, we'd vote differently, since remembering what happened a year prior (or only a few months ago) would affect our decisions today more so than our imagined ideals or values. Cause and effect would factor more centrally to what we thought, as well.
Conversely, good news would be good business. Pepsi would sell more cola because it gave money away to good causes, and we'd buy more hamburgers at McDonald's because it was a sponsor of the Olympics. Dove soap would be more popular because of its widely recognized campaign to celebrate real women. Wal-Mart's customers would shop there more often because of the company's huge commitment to sourcing green, responsible product choices.
Oh, you think those good things work? They're vague, qualitative brand attributes usually discoverable only when you go looking for them (and ask leading questions to find them). There's no causal connection between good news and any long-term business metric that is objectively verifiable, other than that companies that consistently make money are recognized as companies that consistently make money. That's not branding, per se. It's reality.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not celebrating this fact. I believe that companies, politicians, and sports teams should get rewarded or penalized over time for how they operate. We should care and hold them more accountable, only we don't, and there's enough blame to go around for why:
There are exceptions, of course, both from businesses that make money doing the right thing, and consumers who are willing to pay more for products that are responsibly manufactured (or penalize businesses that perform irresponsibly, even if it costs them more).
But the overall picture isn’t terribly encouraging. People are fickle, which keeps us imprisoned in an ongoing now that limits our ability to make, or stick with, reasoned decisions over time.
I think we, our technology, and our businesses are capable of better, only I'm already onto my next topic.
(Image credit: less parade, more action)
When I came up with the idea of writing a Bright Lights essay about stock markets, I was really thinking about brainstorming how retail financial services brands could better address the current gaping void between what's happening in the markets, and the needs of individual investors for meaningful and reliable information about it.
I was wrong. The gap is factual, not perceptual. There's no good way for marketing to explain it, at least not convincingly, and certainly not in any way that would inspire more investment. This is why I think we're seeing nothing but the same old pablum on TV and the web. There are three pretty generic messages from which most firms choose:
Of course, these messages are not only outdated but irrelevant if not mostly wrong.
Stock investing is not a force of nature. Few generations have ever even contemplated it, and when they did it was more like gambling than anything else. Joint stock companies were anointed by kings and queens to fund high risk/high return endeavors, like discovering gold or growing tobacco in the New World, and only aristocrats and the wealthy could participate. We common folk got into the occasional deal when they were too "big" to keep us out -- think tulip bulbs -- and our capacity for throwing good money after bad helped inspire Charles Mackay to write Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds in 1841 (he felt crowds tended to reduce their collective I.Q to something close to zero).
Americans were skeptical of investing in stocks through most of our history, both due to the expense and risk of doing so...and when we did, we suffered the same fate as our deluded ancestors (can anybody say "Crash of 1929?"). The vast majority of households had nothing to do with stocks until the latter half of the last century, when innovations like mutual funds, 401(k) programs, and a dissatisfaction with the effects of inflation changed they way stock markets were perceived. Now, a slew of Boomers have their life savings stuck in stocks, and many twentysomethings+ believe that making money from stock investing is like putting a can out in the rain and collecting water. The disconnects are shocking, yet financial services firms tolerate them, if not encourage them.
Ultimately, it turns out consumer skepticism was warranted, and my gut tells me that they're figuring that out. Nobody has to invest in stocks, and there are qualities about today's markets that defy explanation or, better put, defy translation into a cogent argument for why any individual should risk a penny doing so. So why couldn’t retail financial services firms try to change the game by changing their actions, not just their communications, with ideas like:
Naw. We won't see any of this. The ground is shifting but most financial services firms are too wedded to old ways of doing business. And there's truly a sucker born every minute, so the blowback from disgruntled investors will grow, but it'll grow slowly. There’s still lots of money to be made the old fashioned way...promising things people don't really need, avoiding telling them what could actually help, and then walking away with profits before the gig falls apart completely.
What do you think?
(Image credit: What, me worry?)
Customer Relationship Management, or "CRM," is a broad idea that was successfully marketed starting at the turn of the century...and then fell far short of everyone's expectations. It’s useful now, but not in the ways any of its evangelists had hoped, and I wonder if business use of social media technologies will follow a somewhat similar path.
The idea of using technology to track customers is as old as the first bird feather dipped in ink to make lasting scratches on a vellum or parchment ledger. Automating it usually meant outsourcing the effort to someone other than yourself, and the collecting and integration of the information was solely decided by the individual upon whom such inglorious responsibility had been bestowed. It was considered bookkeeping for much of history and, as such, it was an activity that trailed the proactive efforts of operations and selling. A necessary cost of doing business.
The promise of CRM was to flip this model and use technology to literally manage customer relationships and thereby make money, often in real-time.
It was an abysmal failure. A variety of companies started aggressively selling lots of CRM products in the late 1990s, aided in part by widespread fear of Y2K (and thus perhaps the first layperson awareness of how important computer software could be?). More than $1 billion of it sat unused as of 2003, according to one report; another study said that less than 40% of participating companies had satisfactory end-user adoption rates. The adoption issue lingers, ranking first in a 2007 study of usage in the UK as the primary obstacle to implementation according to four-fifths of execs.
Duh. It turns out that the technology solution was easy, and it looked obviously so in the PowerPoint presentations that sold it. But the people issue -- who would use it, why, how often, and with what obvious benefit to them -- was all but ignored, mostly because the technologists selling the stuff could tell the difference between a real person and a character from an episode of Star Trek. They gave medical doctors with bad bedside manners a good name. I worked at a systems integrator during the CRM sell-in frenzy and I remember the "change management" portions of the software implementations that accounted for getting staff into a room to "train" them on how to live their lives according to a flowchart on a PowerPoint slide.
Worse, most clients balked at the training sessions anyway, as if they believed that buying CRM software was like installing a light switch that would magically work the moment it was flipped. Not.
Where CRM is making its comeback now is via people using its constituent parts to do better jobs at what they were already doing, and not learning entirely new ways to do the same old things. Production management. Workgroup collaboration. Behavioral analytics. Better forward-looking estimates. Even "social CRM," which is a high-falutin way to saying that early awareness activities like funny YouTube videos should have some connection to sales down the road, and that it's OK to track those connections. CRM involves lots of great tools that can help companies save money as well as make it.
But we know now that CRM could never "manage" customer relationships any more than roads "dictate" how you drive your car. It was and is glorified bookkeeping, which is saying a lot, actually, because there’s a lot of knowledge to be gained from knowing what you're throwing at customers, when you throw it, and what they subsequently do with it. It's just not a stand-in for the strategy and creativity required to populate those boxes on the process slide. And you can't make people behave differently unless you give them really good reasons to do so. We know now that CRM stands for "Can't Replace Marketing."
I wonder if the future of social media looks somewhat similar? The differences are as striking as the similarities, of course, but you could say that we’re just finishing the frenetic sell-in phase, so consider this:
So perhaps what comes next are more limited, focused uses for social technologies -- applied to various places within the brand-customer spectrum -- where people need to talk to other people. All the magicspeak of Conversation as something new might dissolve, and get replaced by technologies that enhance and improve all the old practices of conversation that have existed since that first lonely bookkeeper entered an order for a suit of armor on his parchment ledger.
Again, lots of differences. But this technology adoption racket isn't a new idea, any more than CRM or social media are. And if there's on certain forecast, it's that the future for social media won't look anything like what we think it will look like. People will still be doing the same old things they've always done.
(Image credit: yeah, right)
(Full disclosure: I worked for Apple on the original iMac launch, I have friends there whom I like and respect, and I am a customer. My observations aren't based on any insider knowledge, but rather constitute the musings of an old friend).
No matter what you read, Apple is in trouble. Big trouble, at least on the branding and marketing fronts.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that Steve Jobs is a genius, and that he was singlehandedly responsible for Apple's second coming. He is living refutation of all the nonsense we've been told about management, innovation, and the elasticity of consumer branding. Jobs proved it all wrong; while his competitors zig-zagged their way through mergers, acquisitions, and wasted billions trying to tell consumers what it all meant, Apple focused on making cool computers...which meant delivering services as well as products that were uniquely different and functionally pleasing.
The Conventional Wisdom crowd always finds things to gripe about -- denigrating Jobs' ability to sell an idea by calling it a "reality distortion field," complaining that the products didn't perform, or suggesting that the company will ultimately fail because it doesn't squander money on social media like its competitors -- but the ultimate proof of Apple's success was always in how many products it sold, and how it has led most of the recent and best developments in consumer electronics.
Notice that all smartphones pretty much look like iPhones, or that the tablet PC market is really the iPad market trailed by a lot of wanna-bes? Its iTunes/iPod hold on digital entertainment content is somewhat battered but is still unbeaten. Windows still looks like an awful Mac OS knock-off, just like Dell and HP's insistence on putting colorful lids on their laptops were in deference to Apple's industrial design leadership. Its marketing also commanded its competitors to follow suit, moving Microsoft to even adopt Apple's creative for its own campaign.
So all the talk about the strong team Steve built around him neglects to mention that he was always in the middle, and that he drove the brand and marketing. There was no team without Steve; or, better put, it's a different team without him. They’re all likely smart and good people, but they're not Jobs, and it was Jobs who ran the show. This real story -- how his success blows up all the slides, flowcharts, and binders from Harvard or your management consulting firm of choice -- is going to be hard for the business establishment to swallow. They might deny it, or brush it off as an anomaly, but don't miss the point yourself.
Jobs was singlehandedly responsible for Apple's success, and that's why the company is in a lot of trouble from now on, at least on the communications front.
My guess is that the company’s inclination is going to be to try to tell the “Apple after Jobs” story, whether out of a sense of obligation, or an interest in stepping up to its own defense (or both), but I think that would be a branding mistake. Apple risks becoming just another consumer electronics company, so it needs to keep doing things different.
What would you tell it to do? Here are three thought-starters:
What do you think?
(Image credit: the logo certainly stays the same)