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What Ship of Theseus teaches us about branding

Ship of Theseus is a complex philosophical question….Ship of Theseus was a successful, sea-faring ship that remained active for hundreds of years because of its constant upkeep, maintenance and replacement of parts.  Plutarch in his book, “Life of Theseus,” raised a question: if every plank of the ship was replaced during its voyage, was it still the same ship? And Thomas Hobbes, built on this (centuries later) by posing another question – if another ship was built out of the discarded parts, was that now the original Ship of Theseus?

“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”

—Plutarch, Theseus[2] 
This question has become a means of debating and exploring the question of one’s identity – is an object more than its part? Are we more than our thoughts?
Lannyland adds another example that makes a similar point:  The little-known story of Steve Jobs and his Mercedes Benz. Steve drove a Mercedes without license plates for years  - thanks to a loop hole in the CA  law.
It turns out there’s a provision in California regulations that give one six months to get license plates for a new car, and Jobs took advantage of it. Yes, he leased a silver Mercedes SL55 AMG, said Callas — and every six months he traded it in for a new one. So to Steve, the car was still The Car of Jobs, but to the Californian DMV, the car was a different one.
I don’t quite know where I’m going with it but I find this thought fascinating. 
We use Ship of Theseus as an example because it was a particularly successful ship. For some reason, it ended up with the best team of sea-farers, the best repairmen, maybe always caught the right currents and avoided the pirates.  For whatever reason, other ships around the same time did not manage to survive long enough to become immortalized in history. I’m assuming they had access to the same resources, the same pool of talent, the same tools for repairs and replacements – but they failed to be as successful as Ship of Theseus. Theseus’ ship was the one that lasted, turning it from  just a ship into an idea to fall in love with, an historical story to respect and pass on.

Abe Lincoln’s axe has also been used in the same argument. His axe was a political and historical legend. Why do we use his axe to illustrate this paradox and not anyone else’s? Lincoln’s axe came not only to symbolize his humble roots but also what he went on to achieve after that, thus immortalizing his humble beginnings and use the axe as a metaphor to signify it.

So perhaps it is not about any object but about certain objects. Not about any individual or company but about certain individuals or companies that transcend their limitations and join history. Make a place in the hearts and minds of the people are more than an object, as a brand.

I can only assume that during its time (or after its time) Ship of Theseus became a brand. A brand that was respected and discussed. And perhaps the public doesn’t let respected brands die so easily.

So, even if another ship is built, plank by plank by the components of the original ship – it is not the Ship of Theseus because it has no history, no story, no brand, becaue it did not hold the same spirit as the original ship. Just as any other axe built from parts of Lincoln’s axe will never be wielded by him and hence will never come Lincoln’s axe.

Ibotta, you gotta.

Android_and_iPhone

Ibotta, one of my favorite shopping apps,  is the 16th most frequently used mobile app in the country right now. (Pintrest is at #15).  I love the idea of savings but hoarding coupons and rebate forms is not my thing. This app rewards me in cash for making certain purchases at certain stores. And all I have to do is “scan” (take a photograph!) of my receipts to get the cash deposited directly into my account.

The American super-markets and grocery stores ring in about $550 billion worth of products every year (for context – that is 3x more than Apple’s global annual revenues and about 8x more than Amazon’s global revenues).  Ibotta has already partnered with over 200 retailers and top CPG brands including Wal-Mart, Target, CVS, Kraft etc to drive in-store sales.  Purchasing is not the only way to earn cash  - brands create “Learn and Earn” experiences that field short polls and survey in exchange for cashback. Additionally, brands can also offer combination offers to encourage cross-selling between their brands – which is genius.

The data though is what will make marketers froth at their mouths. Geo-fencing allows retailers to send notifications when a user is are within 50 meters of a store. The receipt uploads (probably aggregated to maintain privacy) offers incredible insights into the customer’s shopping basket, purchase frequency and competitive behaviors.

Ibotta is still young but one to definitely watch. Plus, the guys that work there are very smart and easy to work with.

Additional reading: A more in-depth feature on Techcrunch

 

Stouffers Local Warming

Screen shot 2013-02-13 at 3.14.20 PMShout-out to Local Warming – a fun 24 hour campaign for Stouffer’s, one of my clients. Our trusty crew are warming up New York’s coldest by bringing steaming servings of Stouffer’s Mac & Cheese to them. The price? A tweet telling Stouffer’s why they are New York’s coldest.

And we’ve had some really cool stories to boot. Follow along here #localwarming

Digital in 2012: The web will make us smarter

The last decade or so were the august years of the Digital web. A sort of industrial revolution that created entirely new types of economies, skill-sets, companies and most importantly behaviors. Led by programmers and tinkerers and computer scientists, this industrial age has been crucial in helping us write our generational history. One of the biggest outputs though of this age has been the birth of a culture were our need for visibility has overtaken our need for privacy. What this has done is created a digital world that is not designed for developing original thought.

There’s nothing wrong with that and ofcourse the onus does not lie on the web. But I believe that anything in excess hurts the society. And all this talk about connectivity has left a few other equally important values for humanity at bay. It’s time to address this excess.

The good news is that a new slew of characters have emerge to balance out the equation. I believe, we are on the fringes of entering a new wave. I’m calling it the age of enlightenment in our digital history. And this age is being lead by a new class of people. These are thinkers, artists and storytellers not programmers and geeks. These are people driven by a vision that’s a bit more individualistic, centers more around exploring the tapestry of human opinions and feelings instead of connecting the world into one large immutable being.

The problem

Sharing has become a thoughtless act: Sharing used to carry weight – it used to be hold more meaning. Now, it’s passive, robot-like. And does not persuade or evoke response. Yet brands and marketers continue to tout the one-to-many function that social networks (and the Internet) has enabled. The web systems we have designed unfortunately haven’t focused on curating for the self but for the echo chamber that each of us is a part of. Some may argue we have become mindless drones, quick to react and retweet, but not *think*

I refuse to buy that a meaningful conversation can happen on channels we currently use: Facebook and Twitter predominantly. Even sites such as Pinterest and Tumblr who I’m a huge fan of, often symbolize nothing more than “inspiration fetishism” (a word coined by Stefan Boublil) What this has resulted into is a culture of people that backslap each other, think like one another and as a result, even act like one another. (I cannot tell you how many times I have heard about checking-in and scoreboards in a boardroom for new products. Which brings me to my next point..)

Value exchange is quantified in terms of likes, friends and followers: Web has become too much of a game. With gamifying the web and making instant gratification an expectation, we are setting ourselves up for failure.  I’ll give that the conversations around gaming are evolving and becoming more substantial but we have been trained to respond to flash sales, group buying and other forms of commercial game-induced behaviors. Gaming will have a larger role to play in the age of enlightenment, but perhaps not so overt. It’s job will and should become about elevating the meaning and importance associated with a like, number of friends and followers etc.

As our social quotient goes up, our intellectual quotient is coming down: The web is not going to disappear – if anything, it will continue to become more important in the next few years and become the entity that our kids will play with and even learn from. But if the growth of the web continues to perpetuate in such a manner – what kind of original thought will our kids will capable of producing?

The Solution?

The web, if designed and engineered differently,  has incredible power to induce substance back into our lives. To teach us how to think and encourage behaviors that aren’t simply reactive or celebratory. Our natural instincts are to shut technology or cut ourselves from it for a few days, to take a sabbatical or a thinking break. But why does it have to be this way? Why aren’t we or why haven’t we discussed the possibility of desgining technology and the Internet to make us smarter? Why don’t we make systems that:

1. Are designed for constructive debate and dialogue by exposing us to different points of views
2. Are designed for quality – not quantity. Where there is less immediate gratification.

In our capacity as marketers and brand stewards, our work is also indirectly shaping the future of education, humanity and intellectual thought. What roles can we play to encourage the evolution of the Web in a direction that’s not stunting our growth, but making us smarter individuals everyday?

The good news is, that I’ve already been seeing whispers of a movement in this direction. As I mentioned earlier, artists and thinkers are the one’s the forefront of this movement right now. Raghava KK, my fellow TED nominator and artist, has recently announced the launch of Shaken Media Collective.

Shaken Media Collective is an initiative brought about by the talents of creative individuals dedicated to forging a new direction of storytelling that raises empathy in readers by shaking up perspectives, and bringing stories to life through a fusion of play, art and technology.

You can see a glimpse of what this means (and its current incarnation) by downloading Raghava’s perspective-shifting PopIT application for the iPad where one shake of the story reveals a completely new perspective.

Another such attempt to bring more substance to the web and to our behaviors on the web is Cowbird. I’ve been lucky enough to be one of the early storytellers on the site. Cowbird, like most of other Jonathan Harris projects furthers how technology can offer new ways Screen shot 2011-12-21 at 6.54.01 PMof looking at the world, and telling stories. A tightly controlled and curated environment, Cowbird, is (in its own words)

trying to preserve and evolve the dying art of storytelling, using technology as friend instead of foe. We believe all people deserve equal access to the best storytelling tools, so the communication of ideas cannot be monopolized. We support the broad empowerment of individuals to voice their honest ideas about life, and we believe they deserve a clean, ad-free, uncluttered environment for sharing personal experience.By encouraging self-reflection and deeper connection, we hope to foster a feeling of empathy among people all over the world, so we can start to see our species — and indeed our planet — as a single living organism.

Regarding it’s whimsical name, it says, “Cowbird combines these two extremes to form a new kind of storytelling medium — mixing the slow, deeply rooted, contemplative idea of a cow with the fast, efficient, playful idea of a bird.”

I don’t know how successful these two initiatives will be, but we’ve entered the age of enlightenment and as the collective consciousness around this grows, more entrepreneurs, artists and thinkers will veer in this direction and build upon each other’s work to create a digital world that balanced. A world that can teach us to think as well as it as taught us to respond. Marketers as a rule respond to the current zeitgeist, and once we create a new habits and behaviors, marketers too, will play their part in accentuating and intensifying them.

This is my sincere hope for the coming year and I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions on this.

Home is where the family is

My mom left for India this Sunday after a two-month long visit. When I tell my American friends this, they give me a look of surprise. Followed by one of awe. And then I go on to explain how it works differently with Indians. And my family. I tell them that if I was still in India and unmarried, I’d be living with my parents. And that if I moved back and lived in the same city as my in-laws, we would live together. This concept is so foreign to most Americans. They only see the width and breadth of my studio and think how can three people live in this space. They think about my social calendar and work obligations and wonder how I would entertain my Mother for so long. I don’t blame them. It’s a cultural thing.

Seldom does advertising move me the way this ad has. In fact, by the time the ad was over, I was weeping. Remembering all the times I have stood at the airport saying bye or leaving. In fact, I don’t even consider this advertising.  This project aligns well with Coca-Cola’s Happiness Project and its brand idea, but I think it is every single brand’s responsibility to empower people. To celebrate them and bring them joy.

Big, big brownie points to Coca-Cola and McCann Manilla for looking beneath the underbelly of a nation and bringing it to the forefront.

Best Practices: Branded Mobile Applications

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about what makes a branded application worth downloading and interacting with for consumers. I wanted to share some top-level thoughts here and hope that I can build on them in the coming weeks. My goal with this post is to provide you with a framework on how to think about a branded application. The final build and concept will vary from brand to brand but here are some principles and tools to think about how you can make the most of your investment into the mobile app. space.

Entertainment vs. Utility:

My research has led me to believe that branded applications usually fall under one of the two value propositions: Entertainment or Utility. I found an amazing chart compiled by Geoff Northcott, Client Partner at AKQA of publicly available download data for branded applications. Geoff, too, in his post categorized the applications as Entertainment or Utilitarian. Although these download numbers are circa 2010, I re-shuffled this data a little bit to make a point. I divided them into two separate charts: Entertainment vs. Utility and picked the best five branded applications in both sections with the highest download numbers.

Screen shot 2011-03-07 at 4.31.19 PM

The point of doing this was to illustrate some of the key benefits: pros and cons of Entertainment Vs. Utility in branded applications.

Entertainment:

  • PROS: A one-off promotion based approach to mobile applications usually delivers huge spikes in customer engagement and often shows significantly higher download numbers.
  • CONS: Brand recall – a large number of entertainment based mobile applications are game-based and as such, it is difficult to ascertain whether users are even aware of the brand when interacting with these applications. Another major con is sustaining on-going interaction with the brand. Interest wanes as the novelty wears off and often, there is little to no re-usage. In fact, 95% of downloaded applications are not used after 30 days. Under-utilized asset of x many customers that have downloaded the application.

Utility:

  • PRO: Evergreen application; perhaps not very sexy. Has a slower build initially but evolves and grows with the brand and its audiences. Usually also reflects the general brand direction
  • CONS: The biggest challenge with such an application is to continuously evolve the offering and keep it interesting and valuable to the consumers. It needs to strike the perfect balance of entertainment, content and utility

Most brands have taken an either/or approach. While I think it depends on the direction and the strategic needs of the brand, it is worthwhile to consider that it doesn’t always need to be an either/or approach. Entertainment based applications have demonstrated the ability to drive high downloads. Why not consider an “Entertainment” based feature as part of your Launch strategy for your branded application ? Ongoing updates can work on evolving the brand and adding newer features and offerings into the application.

Another point-of-view to consider is simply creating diverse applications for diverse audiences. Lets face it. A deal-hunter will not download a branded application for a highly engaging game. And a gamer will not be very interested in a content-based application. In such cases, it is smart for brands to consider which audiences they want to target and build experiences specifically for those niche audiences. My only caveat is that even as brands build niche experiences, it is crucial to think long-term instead of immediate short-tern return.

Kraft’s iFood Assistant is one of the best branded application case-study that I can think of that has nailed the program vs. platform concept. The application offers up to 2000 recipes, many of them using Kraft products. The application has also in-built shopping lists and deals/ coupon features that incentivize users. It is one of the few applications that has continued to keep its users engaged: It launched in 2008 and to date, about 60% of users that downloaded the application continue to use it. In fact, Kraft charged a cool 99cents per download as well, ensuring an alternative revenue stream and solidifying its value with the users.

Regardless of the route you choose, here are some best practices to keep in mind when designing and building the application:

Best Practices:

Marketing Support: Every successful branded application has had strong marketing support in form of paid media, mobile ads and even online PR. This support gives the initial boost to the application but mostly focuses on generating enough downloads to have the application listed in Apple’s Top 100 applications. Applications featured in the list have a 40% higher chance of being downloaded by other users. Additionally, Star Ratings and Reviews also incredibly important tools towards increasing a brand’s chances towards making it into the Top 100 list. Although this is specifically for iTunes, it is fair to expect similar marketing levers to emerge for the Android Marketplace as well. (Consiering Android is now the number one Smartphone in the word)

Intuitive User Experience: If you are not going to invest the necessary time and resources into building an intuitive and highly capable user experience, you are better off not making a mobile application at all. In a recent study, 13% of users said that  a bad experience with a branded application avoided them from downloading other applications from the brand. Also, users just expect an application to be fun and easy to use. Don’t just try to replicate an existing marketing promotion, elements of your website or an ad campaign on your mobile app. Build for its audience and its eco-system.

Social Sharing: Maximize the capabilities offered by a mobile application. Several applications can “speak” to each other. Also there is no point in reinventing the wheel. So where and when possible; make sure your application is connected to Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare or whatever eco-system your brand lives in.

Customization: Depending on the brand, I believe that simple customization not only helps make an application more interesting but also increases the opportunity for re-use. It’s also highly beneficial for brands from a data-collection perspective to have more granular information about your customers.

I’m sure you’ll want to look at case-studies to build your own argument/ case. I didn’t see any point in re-writing the best ones there are. So here are the links to the best resources on the web. I hope this helps.

Additional Resources:

  1. Mashable’s Top 13 Branded Applications
  2. Best Practices: Mobile Marketing & App. Strategies for Food Brands
  3. Best Practices: Branded Application Design
  4. Geoff Northcott: Branded Apps: Strategies for Success

Why should anyone be led by you

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on leadership lately. For a few reasons, I’m managing more at work now – whether it’s the client, or vendors or inter-office relationships and since I’ve avoided the business school path, I find myself paying extra attention to inspiring individuals around me and watching how they lead. Two days ago, we were in a C-suite meeting with one of the largest Fortune 500 company. The senior-most leader in the meeting is a a well respected business executive and it can be quite intimidating to be in the same room as her. It was very humbling for us to see how well she was listening, asking questions or further clarifications. It is also worth nothing that this leader created a congenial environment for her team by asking them to share more about their initiatives and asking them questions and their opinions on certain issues.

I’ve been reading articles on Harvard Business Review and the one that resonated most strongly with me is called ‘Why Should Anyone be Led by you?” It is co-authored by Robert Goffee (Prof. of Organizational Behavior, London Business School) and Gareth Jones (Dir of Human Resources and Internal Comms. at BBC)

According to their research, inspirational leaders have four unexpected qualities and I do think they are worth sharing here. And I am quoting directly from the article,:

  1. They selectively show their weaknesses – By exposing some vulnerability, they reveal their approachability and humanity
  2. They rely heavily on intuition to gauge the appropriate timing and course of action – Their ability to collect and interpret soft data helps them know just when and how to act
  3. They manage employees with something we call tough empathy – Inspirational leaders empathize passionately and realistically with people, and they care intensely about the work employees too
  4. They reveal their differences – They capitalize on what’s unique about themselves

I think after a point, leadership becomes less about the technical or industry knowledge and more about how a leader is able to empathize with his/her employees and lead them to their best performance. Just my guess..

2010 Social Media Trends: From Enagement to ECommerce

Social media is evolving from an engagement platform to an ecommerce platform.

With the year ending, I’ve been thinking a lot about where I was and what I was doing around this time last year. In December 2008, I was presenting to all my clients a Twitter 101 deck and giving them a practical, logical reasoning of why they should consider jumping on Twitter. Fastforward 12 months and my agency is not only running and growing over 10 Twitter feeds for our clients, but we’ve gathered a rich historical database of our results.

I want to try and imagine now, how the next 12 months are going to surprise me and knock the breath out of me. Social media and it’s evolution excites me. And for 2010, I’m putting my stake in the ground for E-commerce.

We are going to witness a major shift in how we approach social media. 2010 is going to demand stronger measuring tactics and more importantly, tangible results. Brand building, awareness, buzz and fan activation are important goals but clients and agencies alike will now push for more tangible goals: sales. A direct increase in revenue.

Picture 4Dell just announced today that it credits about $6.5 million of its revenues to Twitter. Dell’s aggregate presence on social media (Facebook & Twitter) and its own community sites (Direct2Dell and IdeaStorm) has 3.5 Million + fans and followers that have collectively contributed to the $6.5 Mil rev. achieved.

What’s important to consider is the astounding growth (more than double!) in just three months following Dell’s announcement in June at having reached a 3 Mil revenue mark. Will the numbers reach 12 Million+ by 2010 ?

Granted $6.5 Million is a tiny piece of Dell’s $60 Billion revenues – but the unparalleled (100%+) growth in just three months alone is worth noting.

We are just beginning to see the potential of driving sales through social media.

Another point to consider:

As financial and human-resources investment in social media continues to grow, it will only get more time-intensive and expensive for a brand to push their audiences to three different web-based destinations: 1) It’s own website 2) It’s Facebook profile and 3) It’s Twitter page.

I think by late 2010, it will be fair to expect brands to start prioritizing their investment and efforts, and arguably giving first preference to its social media destinations. I know it sounds far-fetched. The idea that a brand’s website can be completely cannibalized by its social media presences seems preposterous, but it just makes sense to me logically.

If I can grow the impact of my brand and my revenues ten times faster on the social web than via my website – why wouldn’t I just put more resources into my Facebook page?

Also, it is a LOT to ask a customer to fan you, follow you and also sign up for your email newsletter. Ecommerce needs to get streamlined – content needs to get streamlined.

Signs are already pointPicture 3ting in this direction. Earlier this year, 1800-Flowers quietly opened an E-commerce store on its Facebook fan page.

On it Facebook page, 1800 Flowers accepts payments with all major credit cards and will soon implement Facebook’s proprietary payment platform. (Although the company only has about 8000 fans on its page (and not much fan activity – but that you can attribute to the fact that 1800 Flowers it not exactly what you’d call a passion brand.)

A friend of mine who works at a luxury fashion brand informed me that her company is “definitely” selling products on Facebook starting 2010. Facebook is one of their strongest focus for next year.

These are just my top level thoughts on a topic that is going to become very important and talked about next year. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. If you are a brand, I want to know more about how you are looking at measuring success in social media. Let’s keep this discussion going!

Clever newsletter marketing

Picture 7 I’ve been closely following newsletter marketing these days – while it’s tough to find out exact response rates and gauge effectiveness, I try to judge each newsletter from my own lens, or its uniqueness.

I found LifeBooker via a Facebook Ad and signed up for their deals and newsletter. Just today I recieved this email in mail promoting their free $12 gift certificate code.

What’s interesting to me is that LifeBooker shared information on how other customers used to code, thereby, booking massively discounted spa and haircut deals.

While the newsletter could use design more powerfully to convey this information, I thought it was really smart that they shared some ‘voyeristic’ data. That certainly got my attention.

What do you think? Have you seen other clever and unique newsletter marketing techniques?

How do you decide whether an MBA is for you?

The last few months were torturous in terms of the internal conflict I battled regarding the next eveutal question people my age consider: grad school/ MBA. The best advice I recieved was that I should consider MBA only if: 1) I wanted to change industries 2) If I felt that I had reached a glass ceiling in terms of promotion/ pay raise.

In my case it is niether. I love the digital domain and thankfully, the last few years of agency/ consulting experience has given me the ability to transfer the skill-set to any other industry. Regarding promotion/ pay raise, I don’t beleive that I have reached a glass ceiling in terms of that and from my understanding of the digial industry, I don’t think I will be there anytime soon.

So based on that filter, I should have easily been able to weed out MBA. But the other benefits of an MBA niggled me. Most important, the high-worth business network that I’d have an opportunity to cultivate (considering I got into a top B-school) On the other hand, a $120K debt + 2 years of no money coming in is a huge set-back. Back to square one.

I spoke to a dozen incredibly smart and successful MBA’s and non-MBA friends and the feedback was always mixed. MBA’s highly valued the network and the credibility the label lent them. Most of them however maintained that their learning was limited. But almost all of them considered that their MBA was a good decision. The non-MBA’s I spoke to were not faring far behind in terms of jobs, salaries or credibility.

My mentor (mid to late 30s)  offered me an interesting insight as well. He said that most likely people his age or just a little bit older is the generation that is going to move up to becoming my generation’s boss’s. And his generation, doesn’t care about an MBA. The way they evaluate a candidate is very different. They still respect and look for a mix of creative and analytical skills, but what they value more is the ability to think unconventionally.

After taking into account all these conversations and ‘research,’ – I was able to decide a few things for myself.

1. I do value the network and credibility an MBA from a top school brings you. But I haven’t yet been denied or lost an opportunity because of either.

2. I am still learning and growing tremendously as a professional from my job, my mentors and the people I surround myself with. There is a new learning curve to overcome (whether in strategy, operations or leadership) every few months that I thrive on. Also, as a personality – I grow and learn better by doing.

3. Financially and in my personal life (my wedding, my fiance’s grad. school etc), I have a few other things that need to be a top priority right now. The incurred debt from an MBA is not a problem as I am confident that I can get rid of it in a few months. But right now, we need  (me) to have a stable salary to be able to support us. This, I realize, is an important factor. With all the research I did, I was also sure to ask talk about how grad school can impact a new marriage. This is largely a personal choice but for me, it was a no-brainer.

So what’s the verdict? I haven’t dismissed the possibility of an MBA. I am certain though, that I am not ready for it right now and probably need another year or two. And lastly, I may have to consider exploring evening-MBA option simply because I cannot imagine being out of the workforce for two years. I love working wayy too much to do that.

Seems so simple! But it took me six months to decide upon this. Whew.

So what’s the verdict?

Training to be an entrepreneur

Because of the instant-nature of my job, I often don’t find time to sit down, reflect and compute the bytes of information that I feed into my head daily via Twitter, Facebook and a number of other networks. I try not to lose focus of my personal goals as I gain more work experience and become more confident and self-assured daily.

I consider my current phase of life as a “training” period for my next phase of life, which is running my own business. I think a lot about how I want my life to make a difference, the impact I want to make. I will be honest – my primary goal is to build a highly profitable and financially successful business and I don’t harbor false notions about my capitalistic desires. However, I also want to be a strong leader and I want to create a business that will impact more than a handful of lives. An honorable business that will create jobs and hopefully, contribute to the general well-being of society. There is a lot of work that needs to be done, but for now I am also sub-consciously training myself to be a leader, to understand how to run a business and to learn from both the good habits and the bad habits of entrepreneurs. I’ve picked up a few ideas and values that I want to build my business around. I just wanted to put them down on paper, so here:

1) Execute quickly and efficiently: This is the most important thing I have learned and it is the single most common factor all entrepreneurial minded have in common. I must have heard, ‘better to ask for forgiveness than permission’ about 10 times from all different people. It is branded in my head now. It is important to think things through and be doggedly focused on the end goal. It is equally important to not gloss over the details in the beginning, because it is not a pleasant situation to deal with midway down the road. But the point is – do your homework fast and just execute. Start making, building, selling – whatever it is your idea is. But just start it.

2) Cut a good deal, but provide equal value: I don’t like asking for or doing free work unless it is a fair barter. When doing a free project for an author, he asked me “How can I make this worth your while?” I had never been asked that question before. It showed me integrity. It showed me that I was dealing with a fair businessman who was also looking out for my best interests. Not everyone in the business world is going to look out for my best interests, but those who do – I know I want to hang on to them.
This is a principle I want to live by and do business by. So when the time comes for me to start pulling in favors, I want to know that I have earned those favors or that I will pay for them. Yes – there are no free lunches.

3) Brilliance shines effortlessly: Some entrepreneurs or wanna-be entrepreneurs feel a strong need to constantly talk about how smart they are, how connected they are and how cool they are. And it gets frankly annoying after a while. The leaders I admire are the ones who know when to talk, when to namedrop and when to shut up. And that is the kind of leader I aspire to be everyday.

4) Inspire loyalty: The founder/ public face of a huge non-profit never thanked his volunteers or even bothered to find out their names when he flew into Philly for a conference organized and managed by the volunteers. Three months later, every single volunteer had quit or moved on. A small gesture of appreciation would have avoided this situation and kept the volunteer roster loyal and motivated. Instead, the non-profit had to struggle for another few months before they could build a sound volunteer board again. Lesson: No employee is too lowly. Don’t gush, but certainly don’t ignore anyone’s contribution. I admire companies and entrepreneurs who are able to retain employees long-term. To me, it says a lot about the company.

5) Give control: I read these stories about how once you are an entrepreneur you cease having a life. No vacations, no time-off. But I have met an equal number of amazing entrepreneurs who build their business around the idea that it will survive and run smoothly without their continued presence. And that happens upon relinquishing control and trusting the right person to take care of the business in your absence.

So that’s what has been on my mind so far. Would love to hear your thoughts and your ideas on what you think makes a good entrepreneur/ leader.

Twitter – The end of the begining ?

Ben Malbon and team of BBH Labs has an amazing, thought-provoking discussion on Twitter and the future of it.

Here is the comment I posted on the blog: (Read the main post first!)

I think there are two lenses to have this conversation from: a personal lens and a business lens.

On the personal front, I think Maria phrased it the best. Curiosity and Credibility -also lets not forget instant gratification that this medium allows us. From a theoretical POV, I can also argue, vanity and a kind of cultural megalomania (look how funny my tweets are, or how cool the links I share are)
Whatever the reasons, they pander to the very basic human instinct and we respond to them. I think these responses are also quite evident on Facebook (rememeber how everyone had the ‘Places I have visited’ and the ‘Books I have read’ applications installed when the aps first premiered? ) However, on Twitter – the gratification is on steroids! The speed, the quickness, the instant-ness…
I think what Twitter has done, is made us as human beings incredibly self-aware. We have come to realize the power of our words, our curatorial abilities and our personalities – and because it is so easily manifested on Twitter, I think this is just the beginning. As Twitter evolves, we too, will evolve how we use it.

On the business front, I personally think the answer has never been clearer or simpler. I believe that brands and entrepreneurs are coming to accept that perhaps, the only value with investing time and resources on Twitter is that of a direct connection with the customers. Cliched, but I cannot think of a single social technology that has made customer service so incredibly simple or relevant.

As a collective Twitter community, we have also evolved from the obsessive need to gain ‘followers’ and ‘follow’ people back. Infact, now if I see someone following everyone that follows them – they lose a little bit of credibility with me. It goes to show that they are not curating the information they receive – only paying attention to the information they send out.

It is OK for brands to follow / harness only their audiences. They don’t and shouldn’t feel obligated anymore to follow everyone back. The barriers to entry on Twitter are only diminishing – So in that respect – I believe for brands and businesses, this is just the beginning.

No. I don’t think this is the end of the beginning. Early-adopters such as ourselves may move on to some other technology, but that does not mean Twitter has peaked. We early adopters moved on from Hi5 and Friendster – but those networks continue to thrive. Albeit, with a different audience, but they are successful.

Early adopters like us are never the sole/ target audience of any new technology. Also, any new technology takes atleast a few years before it finds who the ‘monetiziable’ audience is and eventually, it evolves into pandering to that audience. More often than not, early adopters are not that audience.

About monetizing Twitter itself – that’s a question I think everyone is interested in watching how and when that will happen.

Agencies in the market for work

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This is where the recession has its upside. Its pushing everyone out of their comfort zones.
DDB West created a snazzy, clever website for a new project “The Rebound Project” positioning themselves as an agency ready for a gaming project. In another instance, this months’ Fast Company issue carries a full-page advertisement (yes print!) by innovation consultancy Fahrenheit 212 making an open bid for interesting projects to work on for free*.

I don’t know if its working for either of them, but I have to applaud their efforts :)

Highlights from the PSFK Conference 2009

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I am a few days late but I wanted to compute and think through what I learned at the conference. Once again, thank you to Anjali Ramchandran who very graciously donated me her PSFK Conference ticket. I couldn’t believe my luck and her kindness. Anjali – thank you very much again!

The day kicked off with an amazing panel on Rethinking healthcare. My most important learning from this panel? Simplify complex problems using design and information. I wrote in more detail about this particular panel here.

The next talk, Ghosts in the Darkness, by Celestine Arnold, was perhaps my favorite and the most illuminating talk of the day. Celestine chose a very interesting topic – the representation of minorities in video games, social networks and virtual worlds. Throughout her talk, I wished I had a tape-recorder because I wanted to remember everything she was saying. Her talk centered around how most video-games are created for and cater to a very white market and about the stereotypical representation of minorities in the games. Her deck is not yet online but I’ll be sure to share it.

Next up was Kevin Slavin of Area/Code: Best quote of the day came from him, “Mobile is an ecosystem that cell phones happen to be a part of”
Slavin made some incredibly thought provoking comments about the relationship we have with inanimate objects. ‘All objects are living things and have a sou. We are headed into a world where entities have a physical presence and a digital presence.”

The panel on sustainability with Sarah Beatty (Green Depot) Simon Collins (Parsons) Ryan Jacoby (IDEO) and Matthew Lusk (Hecho Inc) highlighted how the conversation around sustainability has evolved. Collins summed it up in the very beginning of the discussion, Sustainability is not a destination, it is a journey. What I took away from this panel was that sustainability comes down to intelligent design (designers) and intelligent choices (consumers)

The most fun I had was at the Open to Change panel with panelists John Geraci (outside.in) Scott Heiferman (Meetup.com) Avner Ronen (boxee.tv) and Domenico Vitale (www.pic-nyc.com)
This panel focused on how creators and the community come together to develop new thinking and make ideas happen. Nothing new learned, but just re-affirmed my own believes and faith in the power of the community. It’s fantastic to see entrepreneurs like Avner Ronen spending much of his time building the community around Boxee. I particularly enjoyed an anecdote he shared: Boxee has a wiki set up and Avner made a note on the wiki about an upcoming pitch with Hulu and its content partners. In no time, Boxee fans and its community had written and provided insights into the pitch document that Avner later took to Hulu. Hail the community!!

The only drawback of this panel was that instead of allowing the panelists to speak, the moderator answered the audience questions! Also, he talked more than any of the panelists. :S

And as a delicious finish – Wooster Collective‘s, Marc (also my boss!) and Sara Schiller, talked about street art and basically, why tweaking the public space is so infectious. They shared a terrific compendium of public art photographs from their own archives. “We used the internet to celebrate an art form that was only being discussed as vandalism by traditional media.”
So why is tweaking the public space so infections? Marc says, “It is site-specific, allows the city to become a collaborator, adds context and meaning and most importantly – becomes personal and intimate.” The ephemeral quality of street art is what makes its impact so profound.

Piers and team – congratulations on an amazing job with the conference!

Re-inventing Healthcare

The PSFK Conference yesterday was kicked off by a very interesting panel on re-inventing healthcare and innovations in the industry. I have many thoughts on what I learned at the conference and so I’m breaking it up in several posts so that I can focus and collate my thoughts on each of the big ideas and not just regurgitate it.

Richard Fine of Help Remedies has a very interesting idea. Help Remedies products are stripping apart the frills of medicine packaging and bringing it down to its purest levels. Fine made some good points about the packaging, the upselling and the choices that pharmaceutical companies package up to gain a larger market share on simple products like acetaminophen and band-aids. Now, you cannot not love the packaging and presentation of the Help Remedies products – it stands apart and it makes a point.

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But what disappointed me was the total lack of dialog or questions around the bottom-line and the business model. Innovation in design is not the answer to curing the health industry of its woes. It is a part of the answer. Help Remedies sells its 12 tablets of simple acetaminophen for $6. And they sell 8 surgical band-aids for $6. As compared to a Rite-Aid tablet pack that sells 100 tablets for $5.95 or 80 band-aids for $3.99.

Now the obvious question is, do I simply want to look cool by buying a better packaged drug or do I want value for my money? And I think the answer to this is also very obvious. Screw the packaging, give me more value for my money.

At the presentation, Fine mentioned that their products are currently being sold at top hotels (Mondrian) museums and elite boutiques. See the full list of venues here.

My contention with this idea is not that their products are sold and currently cater to an obviously design-conscious, upper strata of the society. It is OK that this is their business model. But my problem is with the idea that when presenting to a creative crowd, do not just highlight the creative/ differentiation and the positioning. The panel was about altering the way we think about medicine -and the way we think about heatlhcare or medicine or anything for that matter cannot be divorced from the business of it.

Perhaps the responsibility of illuminating both sides of the coin lies more with the moderator of the panel than the actual speakers.

Now I don’t own a business or have never run one. So I am sure that there is a reason why a simple product like theirs is not competitively priced. Manufacturing, Distribution, Formulations – perhaps Help Remedies CANNOT afford to sell their products for a more competitive price, but the point is – talk about it! Don’t underestimate the intelligence of a creative community by not addressing the business implications and challenges of actually trying to change how we view an industry.

Just my opinion.

Reinventing & Reinnovating B-School programs

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With the current state of the economy, I find it very interesting that we are taking stock and questioning everything from consumption and , morality to education and ethics. This article in NYT questions whether the time is now to retrain MBA programs.

Since I don’t have an MBA, my opinions are slightly skewed. So forgive me. But I was in B-school as an undergrad and quit in favor of a more liberal arts oriented Communications major. I don’t think that communications is necessarily divorced from business  – you need business skills even as a communications professional. However, what I valued most about the Comms. school was the priority and focus on ethics, standards and morality that were ingrained into the students as part of journalism school training.

And that is exactly what the critics of the current b-School programs purport:

…..that they graduate with a focus on maximizing shareholder value and only a limited understanding of ethical and social considerations essential to business leadership.

I have said this before because I truly believe in this. This recession is a boon in a way – because it has stopped the self-perpetrating cycle of greed and consumption and is forcing individuals, communities, charities and even organizations to stop and reflect. In the 1950s, this introspection resulted in an increased focus on vigorous quant and analytical skills from MBA schools. This time, it will result in a stronger focus on  corporate, social and ethical responsibility AND creativity.  Because, the bottomline is never the only ultimate deciding factor.

Why this should be the future of beauty

I’ve been aware of this nifty little tool (Thanks to Jazmin) for some time now and everyday, I think – today, is the day when one of the massive beauty companies (read: L’oreal, Estee Lauder, P&G, LVMH) are going to license this technology and build it into their website. Why wouldn’t a color cosmetics company jump on this technology and install it on their own website and give women the ability and the freedom to sample the different colors?

Color cosmetics, like food, are products that people (read: women) need to touch, feel and sample. God knows, how many shades of blushes and lipstick I’ve had to try on my face before I found the one that looked good. And the funny part is that the one I end up buying was the one recommended by the MAC makeup specialist. I would have never thought that the color she recommended would look good on me. The point is, this tool would be a life-savior.

Sometimes I think that, while the social web is about connections, relationships and conversations – technology that enhances my experience with a brand will connect me better to it,  definitely earn my loyalty and you know me – I will gloat about them :) The future of marketing cosmetics and beauty is not just about a facebook fan page and some blogger buzz – it is about actually using technology to solve the challenges of your business while making the end-experience a hundred fold more beneficial for your customers.

Btw, I am also surprised that taaz.com only has about 15.2K visitors/month. (Quantcast) Is it because not many women know about it? Is it because while women CAN experiment with the products and try on makeovers, they actually CANNOT buy the products that work directly from teh site?

I’d love to hear your thoughts – and what you think about taaz.com.

* Taaz.com is developed by a San Diego based  photo enhancement company called, Photometria Inc.

UPDATE: Deepu John, VP of Marketing at Taaz.com was kind enough to reach out to me upon reading this article and further clarify some of the points I made above.

I thought I should answer your question about TAAZ from my perspective. In reality TAAZ has had Millions of women try the experience since we launched. Taaz.com has indeed received millions of site visitors. Taaz.com has also partnered with instyle.com to power their Hollywood Hair Makeover (http://www.instyle.com/instyle/makeover). They also worked with Sephora and powered the makeover aspect of Sephora’s 2008 Holiday Ecard, “Mistletoe Makeover” at http://mistletoemakeover.com

He was also kind enough to point to me a selection of press releases about taaz.com -  http://www.newspad.com/all?q=taaz&hitsPerPage=20

I have reached out to him with additional questions and will update as I receive them.

What makes people creative?

As someone who works in the ‘creative’ industries, I find the word “creative” far too limiting in its scope. I am uncomfortable being termed a creative. In New York speak and in agency speak, a creative is someone who designs or someone who makes things. Graphic designers, fashion designers, product designers, sculptors, artists is the general nomenclature that I and most other people associate immediately with the word, ‘creative.’

Funnily enough, I don’t immediately think of dancers or actors as creative in the first minute. Is it because I think of their talent/ skill as a craft? Do you think of them as creative immediately when you hear the word?

Why?  I’ve often asked myself this.

Most intelligent people on giving this question more thought will say, but creative is not limited to the artitic – being creative is being a good problem-solver. Then whether you are an enginner, a coder, or even an event planner. But I find that the word “creative” alienates people instead of making them feel comfortable. The word in a sense is more isolating than embracing.

Just something that bothers me a little when I let it :)

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Managing oneself

So my last plea for some advice didn’t yeild much :P

But I found this amazing Harvard Business Review article penned by management guru Peter Drucker. The article is called, Managing oneself. I read it at a bookstore but upon googling, I found a pdf online.

Drucker essentially laid out the framework in my head very simply on paper, giving my head a little structure to think through. I very strongly recommend that you read this article, but if not – atleast think through this brief outline of his framework that I am about to provide. I suppose this is more so for me than for the benefit of my readers, as I have realized that I learn and I perform better from doing any given task once.

Framework:

What are my strengths? Drucker suggests a simple method called, The Feedback Analysis” – as the surefire way to understand one’s strengths. The feedback analysis tool essentially asks me to write down what I expect will happen nine or 12 months since whenever I am about to make a key decision. ( Since I am not in a managerial role yet, most of my projects have shorter life-spans. So I have adapted this method for myself.)  And once you do this, compare the actual results with the expectations you set for yourself prior to starting the task. I haven’t tried it long enough to swear by it, but it seems a logical enough tool that will be helpful for sure.

How do I perform? This was a really strong insight for me. “Like one’s strengths, how one performs is unique.” And the first step to understanding how you perform is to understand whether you are a reader or a listener or how do I learn? This is an area I have been thinking about for  some time.. the idea of how I learn. Drucker gives great examples of how some people learn from reading, listening, talking to self, talking it out to others etc. I learn by asking questons and filling in the blanks in my head. When I hear a problem – it immediately forms itself as a fill-in-the-blanks equation in my head and I need to ask questions until all those blanks are fulfilled. Once I feel equipped with that information, I try to figure out how to solve it. But also when it comes to solving, I learn by doing it and talking out loud to myself.

Once I figured this out, it has been easy for me to watch other people and try to figure out how they learn which in turn, determines how they perform. Again, its too early for me to say that I’ve seen a difference in the way I perform, but having this framework is immensely helpful and it makes me a better performer.

What are my values? This is a really important tool. My values dictate that I do not bullshit my client and I tell them what I think and not what is in the interest of the agency. Prior to my current job, I was freelancing at a place where my values did not align with the agency’s. And I was unhappy. My current place holds similar values as I do and I find myself much happier here.  I think this is will bear more importance further down my career as I move up the ladder.

Where do I belong? Now, this answer is in two parts or rather a different post by itself. Over the last few months, I’ve been deeply immersed in understanding “creativity” and “creative people.” My exposure to creative people and companies centered around creative people sparked off this interest. So this question will be better answered in the next post, but for the sake of this article, I cannot stress the importance of this particular question. I’ve worked at start-ups, large companies, small ones, publicly traded ones etc. And it took me some 3.5 years to realize where I feel belonged. And thank god, Drucker agrees. “Most people, especially highly gifted people, do not really know where they belong until they are well past their mid-twenties.” I’m still learning as I go but for a 25-year old working professional like me, it was very very important that I find a mentor at my job. And part of my search for the right job was fueled by this search for a mentor, who would take a strong interest in me and my career and be instrumental in molding me, while giving me the freedom and the flexibility to make mistakes, but expect me to learn from them. That aspect is incredibly important to me right now. Will it be important five years down the road? Maybe not. Maybe my thirst for mentorship will be satisfied, but for now, I know I want that.

What should I contribute: This particular question is perhaps the one which will continue to push me to get better at my job. Drucker essentially says that some people are better as subordinates, some as decision-makers, some as team-mates and some as loners.

I am a little confused about this right now because in certain areas of work and life, I find that I am better as a decision-maker and in certain other areas I find that I am better as a team-mate/ subordinate. And yet again, in certain other areas, I perform the best as a loner. So I am not sure I think people fit within any of those categories because I certainly don’t. But what I would like to be able to do is transfer some of my faith and confidence from one area of my life and work to another and vice versa. But this is good food for thought.

Bottom line: Once you understand this framework, you should be able to evaluate each project with this type of thinking, “Given my strengths, my way of performing and my values, how can I make the greatest contribution to what needs to be done? And finally, what results have to be achieved to make a difference.”

These were perhaps the most important take-aways for twenty-something people like me. If you are mid-career, I suggest you read the entire article as I am sure you will find more relevant learnings.

What do you think? Do you think this framework helps you?

The Body Shop needs better customer service training

I had a terrible and almost terrifying experience at The Body Shop store today. I love their products but after this incident, I am probably never stepping foot in their stores ever again.

Taking advantage of their annual sale, I shopped for a bunch of products. A few hours later, back in the car, I realized that I had paid for 5 products but received only 4. I assumed that the employee who rang me must have forgotten to give me my 5th item. I went back to the store and told the manager what had happened.
The manager rudely replied back saying he cannot give me a free product and that I would have to come back the next day to talk to the employee who rang my sale.

I politely explained I wasn’t asking for a free product but just the product that I had paid for and not received. I also told him how I don’t live in the vicinity and it is going to cost me more to return to the shop the next day than the price of the product.

At this point, the manager should have simply told me that he is sorry for my inconvenience but he would be glad to give me a call tomorrow when the employee gets in and have me come in and take my product. Instead of executing his customer service duties, he said to me, are you sure you didn’t just drop it or leave the product somewhere? This enraged me. I asked the manager directly if he was insinuating me of trying to cheat the store.
I have worked in retail before. Usually, when an employee forgets to give the customer all the products, they always account for it and let their managers know. This particular employee had not done that.

I further asked the manager, what if this employee quits tomorrow? Does that mean I am going to be stiffed of my money? And the manager said, yes. It is his word against yours.

I told the manager that I had worked in retail before and I know they keep employee phone numbers on file. I asked him if he’d mind calling the said employee and asking him about it. The manager again, in a very uncooperative manner said that he would do no such thing. And then, he asked me to leave his store. He threatened to call the security on me.

So I asked him to ahead and call the security. I said I needed to speak to someone higher than him anyways. He made the call. While I waited at the counter for the security to arrive, the manager disappeared in the Body Shop store room. He emerged two minutes later, came up to me, picked up a product and threw it in my bag. For a second I didn’t understand what just happened. And I asked him that. He said that he had called the said employee who was responsible for my sale and the employee confirmed that he had indeed forgotten to give me my product. And so the manager, THREW the product in my bag.

I just didn’t know how to respond. I was so taken aback by this manager’s behavior that I walked out of the store without glancing back at him. But then I remembered that the security was on their way. So I returned back to the store to meet the security. I lodged a complain with them and I intend to take this matter up with The Body Shop.

First, the manager accuses me of lying. Then, instead of calling the said employee when I requested him to, he absolutely refused to help me out. Lastly, when he realized that I was right and was indeed stiffed of a product I had paid for, he THREW the product in my bag and didn’t even apologize!

I’m not stupid. I understand retail. I understand he had to confirm with his employee but shouldn’t a retail chain like The Body Shop have a better system in place? What if the employee had forgotten or denied having forgotten to give me my product? It would be his word against mine and ultimately, I’d be stiffed of my money.

This entire ordeal cost me 45 minutes of my time and not to mention, the distress ever since. I keep playing the scene again and again in my head. How could he threaten to call security on me?! On a customer that his store had cheated by not giving all the products in first place?

I have always loved The Body Shop but this experience had left just such a bad taste in my mouth. It’s 3am and I am still so upset. I am writing it here because I don’t know how else The Body Shop will hear about this. Oh btw, when I returned to ask the store manager his name so that I could lodge my complain, he asked me to get out of his store and he refused to give me his name.

Companies that don’t understand customer service shouldn’t be in the business of retail at all. I used to work for Bath & Body Works and their products may not be of the same quality as The Body Shop, but atleast they understand how to treat customers.

FYI – The value of the product I had returned to collect was $5. And the only reason I had returned to collect the product was because they don’t make it anymore and I was lucky to have found it in a sale.

**Update:  The Body Shop got back to me immediately this morning. They tweeted me and asked for my phone number. An hour late, Director of Customer Service called me and spoke to me for 20 minutes. She listened to my ordeal patiently and was just as surprised and shocked by my experience. I told her that I love The Body Shop and I understand that this experience was probably an anamoly but nonetheless, I had to inform The Body Shop because I don’t want anyone else being treated this way. She was amazing about the whole thing – she took down the location, date and time of the incident and told me as next steps, she will be getting in touch with the District Manager and through him to the Manager who treated me this way. She said, this will absolutely be addressed.

I didn’t and will not reveal the store location here. My intention is not to get the Manager fired or have him lose his job. But my intention is for him to acknowledge and realize that he was very unprofessional and disturbingly unpleasant with me. This is a tough ecoonomy and we are all doing our best to hang on to our jobs. I work in the client-servicing business too and I know that now, more than ever is the time to notch up on customer service. I just don’t want any other customer to be treated this way by that Manager.

Anyways, I am glad that The Body Shop listened and took the time to call me and placate my distress. I love the company and will continue to support their products. So Body Shop  – thank you once again, for listening.

Thinking Art and Commerce

For a project at work, I’ve been thinking and re-thinking the notion of art, culture and commerce and what it means for corporations. I could swear I’ve fried my brain cells in thinking about this, but I may be finally getting somewhere… hear me out.

I was pretty ecstatic when I learned that Paris’s famous Colette is coming to New York. Alas, I was mis-informed. Colette is not coming to New York. Instead, Colette has partnered with GAP, ColettexGAP, to bring a selection of curated items to NYC. GAP is desperate for any ingredient brand to help pull itself out of the trenches, but Colette was coveted and special. Of all possible partnerships of creative brand ideas Colette could have executed in New York, a brand alignment with GAP is unimaginative and quite distasteful. And frankly, these sort of relationships and limited edition products/ pop-up stores concepts are now overused and rusty.

Colette, a purely commercial enterprise and the brain-child of Sarah Lerfel has exuded and has been perceived to be more of a cultural curator, a salon, a library of diversity and cultural relics, rather than a retail experience. Colette blurred the boundaries between commercial, artistic and cultural interests and although I have never been there in person, I couldn’t be more off the target when I say that Colette has successfully managed to give each of the three dimensions equal priority.

Anyways, it got me thinking about this whole merging art, culture and commerce, but I’ve come to realize that to succeed and have longevity now (by now I mean, in a world rocked by changing media and economic landscapes), an enterprise simply cannot afford to think of art and culture as disparate elements, as something you pick and choose in measures when the enterprise needs a boost or some fresh PR. I have come to believe that a cultural and artistic sensibility has to be in the DNA of a commercial entity. Just the way the commercial DNA was/is in-built in the works of Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Takashi Murakami.

We have moved beyond philanthropic sponsorships of art and cultural events to a more inherent embrace of arts and culture. The one strongest benefit of this rocky economy and associated budget cuts organization-wise is that business managers are being forced to consider carefully how to make the most intelligent and creative use of their budgets, while still meeting the bottom line.

I might have been too quick in doling out my judgment for the GAP+Colette partnership without having experiencing it in person. To watch a brand I have no respect for (GAP), enter into a synergistic relationship with a brand I absolutely adore (Colette) bought out a visceral reaction. I may change my opinion if this experience transforms my opinion of GAP. Let us wait and watch.

Irrespective, maybe its time GAP began to rely on itself and stopped creating these short-term ingredient brand relationships to raise their bar.

Again, I apologize – my thoughts are pretty scattered. Its like my brain has been short-circuited! LOL. But I’d love to hear your thoughts, if any on this matter.

PSFK Evening with Rob Walker

Last Friday I attended a PSFK hosted book-reading and Q/A with journalist Rob Walker -and now author of a new book titled, "Buying In." He also writes the popular Consumed column for The New York Times, Murketing for Fast Company magazine and his own blog at murketing.com

It was a fun event – and I got the opportunity to meet several planners/ strategist with whom I had previously only communicated via email, AIM or facebook. The Q/A was hosted by Danielle Sacks,a Fast Company journalist who covers the advertising and marketing industries for the magazine. It was a chill evening spent in the company of inspiring peers and idols! Kudos to PSFK for continuing to act as our curator! 

Here are some photos picked from Dave Pinter’s flickr group. Enjoy! (The girl in blue/black is your’s truly btw. And no I don’t like the taste of fizzy drinks (soda, beer, fizzy water..) so I finished several bottles of water instead.)
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Q/A with Rohit Bhargava

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Since May-June of last year, I have been assisting Rohit Bhargava with research and marketing for his very first book, Personality Not Included. The process was intense, fun and an amazing learning experience. Rohit is not just a fantastic writer and a brilliant visionary, but also an compassionate and generous mentor. Sometimes though, I cannot help but think that he lives multiple lives! I don’t know how he wrote the book in less than 10 months, managed his blog and grew it to be one of the top read marketing blogs and continues to succeed at his full time job as SVP of Digital Marketing at Ogilvy PR!

As part of the marketing promotion for the book, Rohit issued an open call on his blog where he offered to answer 5 questions from any blogger about the book. Here are the few questions I asked but click on the graphic alongside to read all the other interviews. Enjoy!

1) How long has the ‘Personality Matters’ idea been brewing in your head?

Since
I realized I couldn’t use the title of the book for the marketing!
Actually, the reason I called the marketing campaign for the book
"personality matters" and will be using it as the title for the book
blog is because if I use "personality not included" then I need to also
have the subtitle, otherwise it doesn’t make sense.  Why is personality
not included?  Where is it?  Etc.  So "personality matters" became the
tagline …

2) And what/ which incident first inspired that idea?

It was essentially driven by my desire to have a strong
"elevator pitch" for the book.  Personality matters pretty much summed
it up, and if I can convince readers and others that it does matter,
then getting the book is the natural next step to find out why and how
to have one.

3) How are you using this big idea in your professional life?

 

The
most interesting thing about writing a book on personality is the
pressure that it puts on you to always have a personality!  Seriously,
it has actually encouraged me to think more about how I portray myself
and how I write online.  I used to think that using "I" was a big no-no
because it was egotistical, and then I realized that writing in the
first person was the most personal way that I could portray my ideas
online

4) How can I apply this idea to make my own personality stronger/ better?

 

Great question – there is a definite relationship
between creating a personality for an organization and using it as part
of your own personal brand.  Sorry that I have to be cryptic to answer
this one, but check my blog next week and you’ll find a pretty
comprehensive answer to this question … :-

5) Lastly, what is going to be the extension (the idea of your next book!!) of this book?
I was thinking about writing a dating book about
how to use marketing principles if you are single to attract the
perfect mate.   Everything from writing a great profile on an online
dating site to making sure you "give good google" so when they look you
up you will have positive stuff out there.  Basically I want my next
book to be something that could actually get me on Oprah!

 

CaseStudy of a misguided brand – American Apparel

Last week, a bunch of us here at POKE, had a very interesting experience. We routinely hold chat sessions to just talk to regular folks and understand their tech habits. On Friday, we had a bunch of guys come in for one such routine session. One of them was the Crazy James.

His story paraphrased,  — He is trying to spread peace and love in the world that is consumed by materialistic desires and he will bike around the world for just $100. We checked out the above video on his myspace site. And we totally admit that this kid’s got balls. But once you get over that – it’s a load of bullshit that irresponsible brands contribute to and perpetuate. Let’s examine this a little more closely.

Crazy James, harped on about living how brands and advertisers were messing around with people, offering them too many messages, compelling them to buy stuff they didn’t need and in the end, contributing to this materialistic economy we live in.

Further in the conversation, when we asked him how did he decide on his idea, we learned that one night he was out drinking with American Apparel folks on the West Coast and the next morning, they bought him a bike and  offered to sponsor all his clothes. He also mentioned that everytime he is ready to leave a city and bike to a new one, American Apparel issues a press release for him. He supposedly got his airflights sponsored by Virgin Air and when he met with us, he was living with an editor at Elle Magazine.

When he pointed out the glaring contradictions in what his is preaching and what he practices, he didn’t have a suitable response for us. We pointed out that for his rants against materialism, he was the ultimate poster child hawking a clothing brand, a bike brand, an airline and probably other brands we didn’t know about.
Again, no convincing argument on his end.

Finally, he did mention that he worked for his food. Why, we asked. Why not get that for free as well? No, he persisted because that’s a story for me and then I share it with my readers on my blog.
His website has no blog. And his myspace blog has a few entries and was last updated on Nov 5. Maybe he hasn’t eaten since and has no stories?

Our craigslist ad that he responded to had asked for 18 – 21 year olds. It was only after he left and we checked out his myspace page that we realized he was 23. Not that it matters. He did say that he picked up odd jobs to make some cash on the side and our little chat was gonna earn him $20.

Also as he was leaving he invited us to go visit him and his biker buddies in Central Park the next Sunday where they will all be parading around half-naked and clothed only in American Apparel underwear. Is American Apparel paying you to do that for them, we asked. And again, he fumbled really not knowing how to be his own PR agent.

Crazy crazy…James, the poor poster child for misguided brands. If you see as his video ends, he has several other sponsors and from the looks of it, it is a part of some virtual reality show. But if you ask me, it is a virtual show that’s already gone very wrong. And I pity the brands associated with it.

Especially American Apparel. I did think AA was one of the leading brands who had a vision and stuck to it. But after this experience, I get it — I get that AA is just another brand trying just too hard to be cool.

Homeless Man Brand

Robertson1
WSJ has a great article yesterday about the fashionable re-branding of the ‘Homeless’ brand. A bunch of Beverly Hills kids created a fashion label inspired by a West L.A homeless dude who has been nicknamed "The Crazy Robertson."

The clothing brand is sold in high-end boutiques like Kitson with the Crazy Robertson hoodies selling for as much as $98. John Jermyn aka Crazy Robertson gets 5% of net profits although he  refused to accept cash and instead asked to be paid in food, liquer and paper for his art projects.

I’m not sure where I stand on this particular brand building endeavor. The entrepreneurial kids also set up a MySpace page complete with videos of Jermyn saying, "My name is John Jermyn. Welcome to my myspace.com website."

The whole venture strikes me as funny. But it is fantastic microscopic vignette of the various forms boredom takes and the various solutions we come up with to continue to keep ourselves fascinated.

Bollywood marketing uses twitter

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I had a weird notification on twitter today.

“Saawariya” is following you.

Saawariya is a movie. :-|

As a marketer, twitter marketing is one of the recommendations we often use for clients but I didn’t expect bollywood movie markters to be so savvy.

Only, I quit twitter because of such marketing campaigns destroying the network’s social stock.

Sigh.

Using traditional media to advertise an online brand

At the recent Temple Ad-Club speech, one of the students asked us about using traditional media to advertise online/ digital brands. I think it’s a brilliant and ironic question by itself. Because you see, you have a whole host of digital media practionners who still write and publish books and then you have a host of online brands that advertise on TV. Even though audiences that consume traditional media are fragmented and perhaps traditional advertising doesn’t have as many eye-balls anymore — it is certainly not dead. And here are two brands that I think are doing it right. chemistry.com and ask.com

I’m not a fan of comemercials that take potshots at their competitors on-air. I think its highly unoriginal and barely creative to do so. But the recent chemistry.com commercials perhaps may change my opinion. Have you seen them?

I’ve never used dating websites so I don’t know if eharmony really rejects people on those grounds. I thought there was a match for everyone… But then, take a look here. Apparently eharmony.com does reject people on unclear grounds. Their reasoning might be very valid – maybe they just don’t have the match for them. But chemistry.com — a new player in the online dating industry, used this criticism of eharmony.com to their advantage. By the way, chemistry.com is owned by match.com – the industry leader in online dating.

I don’t know if it is brilliant or sad – but these ads worked for me. I remembered the new brand, I remembered the commercials (because they are so damn good) and I correctly relayed this to the students 2 weeks after I had seen this ad. This, I think, is a great example of how to use traditional advertising to market to market an online entity.

The goal of sych advertising should be tri-fold:

  • Good enough that people remember the brand name/ the dot.com URL
  • They remember what the ad was about/ what the brand is about.
  • Correctly able to recall the brand and talk to friends about it.

I doubt there is magic formula or the right recipie to achieve all the goals above, BUT —

I think a few elements to doing this teh right way are:

  • Establish the sole distinguishing factor from competitor -(without really ridiculing the competitor please- that’s just something I am not cool with and would have no respect for a brand that did that.)
  • Give audiences the "OMG!" moment. (OMG – taht’s funny, OMG – that’s cool.. whatever your OMG is) Have you seen the ask.com commericals? My reaction was "OMG – those features are so cool" And I did log on the site to check them out.
  • Can you add to this? What other elements worked for you that you think will work for online brands taht want to use traditional media for advertising?

PS – I’m referring to the new ask.com commericals – where all you see are the website features. No annyong man singing and no references to alogorithins or complicated concepts. Just the website – and what it can do for you. I’ll post them here when I find them – right now, youtube.com has the old ones.

What to do if you suddenly run out of fancy paper bags

It’s good news when Victoria’s Secret Beauty has a 50% – 75% off sale.

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But really bad news when the store runs out of their fancy-schmancy paper bags and begins using these ‘Thank you for shopping’ polythene bags.

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How could a gignormous retail giant like Victoria’s Secret run out of paper bags during a sale? And how could they not have a PLAN B in place? If using polythene bags was indeed PLAN B — perhaps the company needs to consider hiring someone who understands brand touchpoints.

Literally every woman in that Santa Clara, CA Victoria’s Secret store was a little perplexed at the idea of carrying their goodies (beauty supplies and undergarments) in flimsy grocery store bags. When I asked the cashier about the state of the bags, she replied, “We’ve run out our bags for like.. forever.”

It probably was an honest mistake and the store thought that was their best solution, but perhaps this is a good opportunity for the store to realize that they need an actual plan in place to conitnue to maintain their terrific brand integrity and image.


Here are some ideas for retail giants that suddenly realize they are out of bags:

1) Run to the nearest dollar store and buy every single paper bag available there. Or Have store printed stickers handy to paste on every bag so atleast the customer knows where the bag came from.

2) If you must use plastic bags (god forbid) – get a little creative. Use ribbons, bows or make creative use of left-over props from past store displays.

3) Create a temp-sign on your window that says the store won’t be using any bags that day as the store’s contribution to saving trees and promoting a green earth. (With the curent bro-ha-ha about going green — this is a very smart strategy when you think about it) Customers can bring their own bags.

More on this.. later. (Off to dinner now!)

Nightclub marketing

PolaroidsCabclub

Studio 54 days may never return, but innovative nightclub owners and promotion companies are inventing their own recipes to drive traffic and create that unique buzz around their club. Here are some rather interesting tactics I learned about recently, 

  1. Polaroids: A close friend in Australia runs a promotion and marketing firm. He alerted me to a cool idea he recently introduced to clubs in Melbourne  – taking Polaroids at nightclubs and selling them in club branded inlets for $5. What a brilliant way to market the club and add that extra pizzaz? Digital and phone cameras have wiped off the old-world charm of polaroids, but like the photo-booth that is climbing up the popularity charts again, the polaroid is back into fashion. An impulsive moment captured on film when surrounded by foot-tapping music, fun-loving people and a couple drinks !
  2. Digital downloads: Another club in London actually has it’s own crowd take random photographs of the crowd on a digital camera that are later uploaded to a site. If you were at the club the night before, you are welcome to download your photos (if any!) from the site for free!
  3. Invisible stamps: The same friend who is now in Australia pioneered a new way to issue an invisible ‘entry stamp’ on nightclub crowds, who he noticed were always grumbling about the permanence of the stamp. Now clubs use a special ink that is visible only under a green laser light. (That also keeps unsuspecting parents from thinking about their daughter’s whereabouts in Indian households!)
  4. Commercialized Stamps: A club in Mumbai actually came up with this innovative stamp that said, "Don’t Drink & Drive. Call a cab" and then provided the preferred cab-company’s phone number. Very innovative: conscious capitalism!
  5. SMS Marketing – Send special entry passwords and drink coupons via SMS to preferred guests .

Can you think of any other cool ideas?

Grocery chain goes high-tech

A friend passed me on a link to this — I suppose that would make Whole Foods the first grocery store to air it’s own podcast shows!
(PS- Whole Foods CEO John Mackey writes his own blog on the company site. Is that cool or what?!)

The monthly podcasts on WF site feature interviews with experts in diverse fields and share product information and recipies with the readers. I think it’s a fantastic way to get the word across about WF products. But surprisingly there was no information/ posters about the podcasts in the store – and I live right next to one.

Big words do not charm – Part 2

I was browsing through a few new sites and was compelled to create this post (with examples this time) Check this out, The first few lines from the About US page of two companies:

net-linx offers software designed to foster growth, while solving the publishing challenges of today, reducing Total Cost of Ownership.

net-linx solutions are intended to reduce the complexity of the publishing process. Our solutions create immediate business value for media publishers by streamlining their production processes, whether it is ad sales, ad production or the creation and publishing of editorial content.

Sophisticated, cross platform solutions will automate much, if not all, of your processes, reducing labor and technology costs. Staff gains access to well thought out tools that let them focus on their core competencies, thus improving productivity. With modern technology, backed by a complete range of services and worldwide support, publishers can reduce their overall technology expenditures. (from net-linx) (and it’s not even over yet!)

AND

NewEra Strategies (NES) is a boutique consulting firm focused on enhancing revenue performance and the end user experience primarily for Directory Publishers and Directory Assistance providers.

NES has been a trusted advisor to the Yellow Pages directory publishing, directory assistance, newspaper, wireless directory and magazine communities for over 20 years. We provide independent industry analysis, strategic business planning, technology solutions and custom publishing products that add value to print, online and wireless markets. – From NES

Why don’t you take a few minutes to decide which one of these descriptions works for you ? It doesn’t matter if the business/ company is of interest to you. What matters is – from reading this About US description, do you:

  • Understand what the company does?
  • It’s target audience?
  • What it can do you for you?
  • And lastly, if you had to tell your boss what the company does in one sentence, which website/company is going to give you more trouble coming up with that sentence?

My comments are after the jump.

Continue Reading →

Big words do not charm

They don’t. Really. I am sick of reading on the About Us section of most new companies words like, "We provide…solutions..integrated… ignite your brand….revolutionary…embracing…platforms.. etc etc"

No. You do not do that to poor unassuming visitors who are just on your website to learn more about you or to understand what it is you really do. All that ‘slapped to impressed’ jargon only ends up confusing highly ordinary folks like me who do not care if you are revolutionary or not. (because frankly if you were, you wouldn’t try so hard to impress your visitors)

I especially detest it when new companies have short abbreviated terms for their supposedly-groundbreaking solution-oriented systems, or whatever the heck that is. Why not use plain, simple, layman’s english to convey what it is that you exactly do?

I’ve helped many friends write copy for their websites or brochures – but my explanation that people want simplicity and not difficult, intelligent-sounding words has fallen on deaf ears. "It looks professional," is the repsonse I always end up getting.

Ofcourse. Time-tested formulas that have somehow become the norm are now lumped into the professional category. What is professional, in my opinion, is you making it easy for your potential customer to understand what you do, what you offer.

For example, if you are a marketing company- My only interest is in knowing that your methods will increase my sales. I do not care about the copyrighted, patented formula or your solution-oriented ideology. It hurts my head to read information that takes the highway instead of the shortcut to doing it’s job.

This approach of simplicity works best with the recent flux of internet sites in the social media area that have created a major traffic jam on the internet. Cool technologies are awesome, but when it takes you more than 3 lines to explain what it is, there is something inherently wrong with either your technology or your portrayal of it.

I’d love to give you examples but if you read my blog, you already have come across such websites and are nodding your head in approval as you read this.

Smart Tip of the Day # If you are starting your own company or a website or anything else — keep your copy succint, short and simple. Instill humor, when you can or atleast warmth. Everyone knows robots don’t write.

Let it out- Food for thought

I love arriving early at movie-theaters. What’s a movie without previews and some good big-screen commercials? I saw this ad at the Regal Cinema’s last night and I had to share it.

Definitely one of the best commericals I’ve seen. With most ads, I know I’m just being sold to. I love Kleenex for doing this.

Search Lists.

I tried a few new search engines today. I just googled, "new search engines." Ironic, no?

  • Chacha, a new search engine based on a human-assisted search model. My take? Cool feature. I did manage to get an accurate result albeit it was not Google-quick. But in an age when we are expecting technology to simplify online search, will we end up relying on humans?
  • MsDewey, was my amusement toy for a while. But I quickly outgrew her. Search be simple – not annoying.
  • Quintura, still in beta, but I quite liked it. I’m so used to scrolling down a couple links on Google search results that I was slightly surprised when Quintura nailed down my search with it’s first response. Give it a try. The interface is simple, no gimmicks. Plain old search. How will it compare with google?
  • SingingFish, an audio/video search engine. Too many of those out there now.
  • Tiltomo, visual search. Again.

Yet another look at what the coming year will bring in terms of innovation in technology. Wikipedia’s next big innovation is apparently in improvising search technology. Sometimes the number of technology companies that launch everyday make my head buzz.

A hundred itsy-bitsy pieces and widgets on my desktop, a few add-ons on my browser and a couple other things on my computer– this should all make my life easier. Instead, it only gets complicated. So distracting. And half of these cool tools are plain useless. Web 2.0 – a bubble or the myth of the bubble?

The second gold rush.

  • Big 5 accounting firm Ernst & Young purchased a sponsored Facebook page to recruit potential new hires.
  • P&G launched Capessa, a health-oriented social site on Yahoo!. The site, branded, ‘collective wisdom for women,’ is a story based site including videos where women are invited to share their health-related stories.
  • Coutorture, a social networking site for fashion and beauty bloggers launched by two twenty somethings.
  • American Cancer Society and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are experimenting with Second Life to determine the right match to foster communities in virtual worlds.
  • Conde Nast’s newest kid on the block: flip.com
  • Littlefishbigriver.com launched to celerbate random acts of kindness.
  • IMeem, claims to be the best of social media.

This just a slice of what 2007 will offer. Whew.

It’s the faith…brands are more about relationship than gimmicks

1358820867_m Atoosa Rubenstein’s (Editor-in-Chief of Seventeen magazine)recent resignation has caused quite a stir in the media industry. At age 26, she was the founding editor of CosmoGirl. After bringing the infant magazine to new heights (in advertising and revenue) Hearst moved her to reinvigorate the flailing Seventeen magazine. The first issue that was released under Atoosa’s editorial direction revived the magazine’s 5 year slump in sales and since then, Seventeen’s ad sales and circulation has dwarfed all other teen titles.

In my opinion, the reason Seventeen survived and ruled this multi-million dollar market was for two reasons 1) It’s historical association with teenage girls 2) Atoosa Rubenstein. Atoosa crafted the book to speak to the language of the audience it caters to. Atoosa of Iranian descent made sure Seventeen presented a diverse look and represented all skin colors and body-types. This distinction alone won many accolades. In another timely move, Atoosa did away with the monthly Editors Letter and chose to instead speak with her audiences via a MySpace blog. She struck a chord with these girls by often putting herself in the lien of fire by introducing a dialogue on religion in the magazine’s pages. She also endeared herself to her girls, (as she calls them) by including them in her personal moments, by sharing photographs from her vacation, photographs from when she was a not-so-pretty teenager and even photos from when she had put on weight. She also made the magazine incredibly price-friendly — because she understood teenage girls don’t buy $400 shoes and $1100 dresses. The success of Seventeen magazine, in my opinion, was largely because of the relationship Atoosa cultivated with her audience. Ofcourse but even magazines are a business and leaders often make bad decisions. In Atoosa’s case, the terrible Ms. Seventeen reality show, a la Trump’s Apprentice.

Irrespective of the hits and misses, Atoosa’s declaration to step down to start her own website for teens, youth consultancy and a book is a definitive nail in the coffin of teen magazines as we know it. It takes years to cultivate a real relationship with teenage girls — even if the Atoosa’s successor employs similar tactics, the teen girls will have moved on to digital zines leaving no time for the successor to forge a relationship with them. I think the first issue under the new editor’s leadership will speak to my claims.

With the close of Elle Girl and Teen People, this year has been somewhat tumultous and defining for the teen magazine industry. Both magazines have shifted online in an effort to speak with their audiences via a medium most comfortable to them. CondeNast is secretly working on it’s little teen empire. Atoosa is starting her own — and I think just because of the level of trust and the open relationship she shares with this fickle demographic, her website might just be the best. CondeNast, can do all they want, but unless they bring a real personality and a relationship to the mix, teenagers will view them as just another corporate site.

You could have it all — the jazziest site, expensive rewards, the works, but unless you take the time to know your customers and forge a relationship with them you’ll never earn their trust.

Honestly, sometimes I think people give too much importance to phrases and complex theroies on branding and marketing. I don’t think there’s a simpler science than marketing. You can give it as many fancy names as you want, but it comes down to really knowing your customers and pleasing them not your advertisers or your investors. Granted, this is a simplistic statement, but the essence of it cannot be diminished or argued upon. Building a relationship, that’s what its all about. And with the launch of Atoosa’s mega teen website and her youth consultancy, we’ll see just how right or wrong I am.

Update: Engaging the olfactory sense

Reflecting on my older post about Olfactory branding– I’ve been following this trend with great interest. Check out other recent developements:

PSFK mentions Fuwarinka Gum that upon chewing, gives your skin a mild sweet scent. And then there was the Five Hotel in Paris that diffuses scents to match your moods. I also read about a particular perfumier who was commissioned to create a signature scent for a major luxury retail chain store. Stores like Wal-Mart and Krogers are also jumping into teh game as are candy giants like Mars. According to Ad Age, Mars recently employed the use of scent technology at its M&M world retail stores and Pepsi published its black-cherry vanilla scent in an ad. in People Magazine recently.

How long before scent-technology overpowers the other points of appeal?

Madonna + H&M ??

Handm_official_picture2Handm_official_picture3_2  Yesterday while browsing through Elle magazine at Barnes and Nobles, I was amused by this 4-pages advertisement in the issue for H&M. Madonna and her troupe wear H&M trackpants and such to pose for this campaign.

Honestly, I liked it better when H&M hired Karl Lagerfield to design an affordable collection. Not sure where they are doing with Madonna…. She maybe older than their target audience, but she definitely is an icon. Or not?

(Pics from Product Shop NYC)

Olfactory branding

Anyone afflicted with a bout of nostalgia will tell you how certain smells push them in the long forgotten worlds of past memories- some happy, some sad. Fresh rain on the asphalt reminds me of my adolescent monsoons in Bombay and a pomogrante scented candle from Henri Bendel reminds me of a particularly happy time in my life that is only a faint, hazy memory that I try recalling everytime I light that candle.

Westinwhitetea I read this fantastic article in BrandChannel today about brands learning to incorporate an olfactory element in their overall experience. Remember those Westin Hotel advertisements promoting their White Tea scent? Even Anthropologie stores have a french chatlet-like feel to it, complete with the music and the amalgamated scent of the soaps, candles and perfumes.

Another example are magazines — esp. fashion mags. I typically relate my copy of Vogue to rich, expensive perfume (even though the strips are only advertisements) I’ve already written about scented credit cards and scented cell-phones in the past, it will be interesting to see how brands, both physical and virtual experiment with this emerging technology.

This also reminds me of a lovely short story I read aeons ago. The story is set in a little town of Europe. Mr. Thimble owned a flailing hotel that losing all it’s customers to his competitor’s hotel that was right down the road. So in an effort to lure back his customers, Mr. Thimble hired the best chef in the country and decided to rename his restaurant to "The Seven Bells," But he asked the painter to draw only six silver bells below the name. When the hotel reopened the next day, people were puzzled about the new name and the bells. Invariably, some would walk inside the hotel to point out that there were only six bells painted and the seventh bell was missing. Once inside the hotel, the delicious smell  from the chef’s kitchen had them extend their stay to lunch or dinner and if they were tourists, they often ended up staying at the hotel. Slowly, the word spread about the food and Mr. Thimble’s six bells became the pride of the town!

You get the idea? (yea, he also went on to live a happy life )

Philips Simplicity campaign

We live in interesting times. Phillips Electronics paid Hearst magazines $2 Million dollars to remove subscription cards from Hearst magazines 4 titles, Redbook, O at home, Weekend and House Beautiful. Instead a two-page ad will read, "Simplicity is not having subscription cards fall out of your magazine."

While I read none of these magazines, I am curious to witness the experience of reading a consumer magazine without any insert cards. Apparently, Phillips had also bought all available national time for one episode of 60 minutes last fall only to give back some of the time so the show had fewer ad breaks and longer segments. Again, to align with it’s simplicity campaign.

I like what Phillips is doing. And while I am no expert on products and speak strictly from experience: unless they revamp their product line and provide me with products that last longer, are designed better and have better quality, I could give a damn about Phillips’s efforts to simplify my life.

Living product placement?

A few months back, Sprint sent me a phone to use free for 6 months. Sprint encouraged me to experiment with all features (downloading ringtones, watching movie trailers, downloading music, texting, etc) and asked that I fill in a survey although it wasn’t mandatory.

I am enjoying the service very much. I recently switched from Verizon to T-Mobile. And I only did it because I prefer SIM cards to CDMA systems. If Sprint was SIM card enabled network — I would have no qualms switching again. (Sprint sent phones to other bloggers as well)

That aside, I just read about Jaguar’s new attempt at marketing/ product placement. Sprint approached the bloggers and Jaguar approached 27 year old Nico Bossi, one of NY’s most beautiful (and wealthy, I suppose) people. Bossi dines at NY’s A-list restaurants, even the ones that have a secret phone number and those that require reservations months in advance. He dons expensive clothes and shops at Bergdorf and the likes.

Jaguar gave Bossi a XK model to use for free, obviously, hoping that Bossi would wave his magic wand and his friends, colleagues and others that come in close contact with him, buy the same car or a different model from Jaguar. As Bossi controls the NY empire, 30-year old Reese Forbes plays his toy in the LA scene.

Both agents have the right lifestyles to fit into this campaign. They mingle with the glamorous, fabulous, people of NY and LA, effectively planting the right words at the right places.

If you think about it, it’s a brillaint idea: reality TV meets billboard campaign. It is innovative and authentic, because although Bossi and Forbes snagged the car, they aren’t paid anything. They even have to pay for their parking tickets from their own pockets.

If you are anything like Bossi and Forbes, maybe Jaguar will pick you next. Otherwise, there are always the Sprints!

Cool Findings

Apologies for the long silence. In other news, I’ve tons of new coolspots to share with you and get your creative juices flowing. 

Logopico Stumbled on this cool site while on a recent web-crawl and am very pleased with the service. PicoStation allows you to directly post photographs, vidoes and audio files from your cell phones on the internet. It’s still a growing community but I like the concept. There will always be concerns: mobile porn? privacy? spam? But for now, let’s wait and watch where this goes.

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Ihultrasound2 Babies are a multi-million dollar business.A recent WSJ article suggested-  Very soon- your inbox is going to contain video files of your friend’s fetus and her ultra-sound. So instead of looking at photos of the new borns in the family/ friend circle – you’ll witness all the stages of the baby’s development  on your screen. Companies like Womb’s Window offer pregnant ladies ultra-sound  photo-packages of her fetus that includes videos in different formats and still shots of the baby-in-progress. I really don’t know how I’d feel about recieving the video to a friends fetus, but it’s no more a possiblity- it is an eventuality.

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Homebowl Now this isn’t a really *new* finding. I was watching Will Smith’s Hitch a few days ago and noticed the scene where Eva Mendes and her friend are snacking on amazing rice delicacies at a hip bar in NY. I remember passing the place once — Rice to Riches is a cutesy rice pudding store located in Nolita, New York. It offers inventive rice pudding conctions : rice pudding with oven roasted fresh fruits, with jelly… with nuts.. with toasted coconut.. are only a handful of the sampling. Rice pudding on a wholly wholesome level- can’t beat that now, can you?

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Of Bollywood stars and Compaq

200602262We saw Shahrukh Khan doling out emails on a sexy Powerbook in Main Hoon Na. And we swooned. First over the Khan, then the MAC. Did it compel anyone into buying the computers though? I have no idea.
Yeah, so Khan wasn’t blantantly promoting the brand but to have watched him use a brand I am loyal to made me smug. Ahh.. he’s cool too, I thought.

Last week, Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan was signed
by Hewlett Packard to endorse the Compaq Presario computers. In the
history of computers, Indian advertising and Bollywood stars, no actor
has ever endorsed a computer before. This might as well be the first of
manys.

Computers become a household item in India
Ravi Swaminathan, Vice President, HP India was quoted saying they have
been trying to position computers as a must-have durable product in
India.
Of the 1 billion plus population in India, only 15 million computers are in use. But lets look at some facts before analyzing this further:

Microsoft annoucned an added investment of $1.7 Billion in India to create a total of 7000 jobs.
Cisco is throwing in another $1.1Billion in the next three years in software centers in India. Add to that the 5000 jobs Dell is creating and the additional $1 billion investment by Intel and you have basically passed computer science a mandatory subject in primary schools.

An early January BBC report mentioned that sales of personal computers in India have increased a whopping 36% since September alone. Prices for a standard computer have been slashed down to as low as $250 (10,000 rupees) and are made available on installment plans. PC sales are expected to touch 4.7 Million this year, a significant rise from the 1.7million last year.

The time is ripe. The potential is severely untapped. And HP is stepping in at the right moment to ensure atleast a prime chunk of the market.

So will star-power drive extra sales?

Shahrukh Khan, a brand by himself, already has an impressive (?!)
portfolio of endorsements, each netting anywhere between $1M to $5M.
Soft-drinks, cars, cell-phone service, health paste and soaps — you
know name it, the superstar has endorsed it. But does all this
star-appeal really work? Especially when it comes to a computer?

Vivek Shrivastva, executive director of Triton Communications, India admits that there is no sufficient data that substantiates increase in sales because of star-endorements.
In this article, he woefully admits to having subscribed to the star-endorsement idea while planning a relaunch of Panasonic. The company signed on Bipasha Basu, current Indian heart-throb, ex-model and Bollywod actress, to promote the Panasonic brand to its targetted demographic: the youth.
The campaign managed to hold audiences attention for a while but failed to generate any sales or subsequent interest in the product.

Star-Power brings attention …but
But brand managers and ad-directors agree that stars manage to bring consumers attention to the brand. Hemant Sachdev of Bharti-Tele ventures sums it up, "The advertising will work only if there is a perfect
match between the core values of the product and the values that the star
personifies."

Shahrukh Khan is already India’s favorite. The classic rags-to-riches story, the perfect husband, the perfect father and the perfect friend- Khan’s values reverbate with the Indian sensibilities. But he is already a super-star and has endorsed too many brands to count. Leveraging Khan’s stardom to promote computers may end up diluting the brand message and is  very likely to fail to strike a chord between the products core consumers and the bollywood icon. Audiences can get confused with too many endorements from the same person, and this may also dilute the desired effect.

Compaq will benefit in one way though– the major recognition Khan’s name will give the brand more recall and generate awareness. People are likely to walk into stores asking for the "computer jo Shahrukh ke ad. me tha." (the computer that Shahrukh advertised) But by signing Khan, Compaq doesn’t clearly identify its audience. Khan doesn’t quite fit in any mold-  he’s too old to play ambassador to the youth and too young to influence the older audiences.

So maybe signing on stars isn’ t all that its hyped about. Shahrukh may act as a catalyst in helping launch the brand, but will he drive sales? We’ll only know once the advertisements release.

 

A click ahead

Videoipod

Seshu Badrinath, a wedding and events photographer, gifts his clients an Apple Video Ipod with their wedding photographs on it! Smart, eh. He approaches wedding photography like a photo-essay — none of those “say cheese- look at the camera” kinds. And no, I’m not thinking of my own wedding, I just happened to drop by his site. Sheesh!

Trends are so old-school

Trendspotting has become so passe that firms no longer need to hire outdoor agencies to do this job. Thanks to online behemoths like PSFK and TrendWatching, emerging trends and signs are available to anyone who seeks. Every once in a while a major newspaper will do an article covering new trends in trendspotting and try to appear news-breaking. A couple months back I expressed disappointment on seeing the same names appear in every trendspotting article. This time, its no different. Instead of talking about Jane Buckingham and Irma Zandl, this NYT article reports on ad-agency DDB’s trend-spotting unit.

Every marketer wants to stay at the top of the game and yet they lack the one necessary skill: the skill to observe and listen. Dropping fancy names for trends has become akin to dropping brand names at a Fifth Avenue penthouse party. PSFK predicted the death of trend-spotting way back in  January 2005 and the exit door has already opened. Trendwatching.com’s (free) December newsletter outlines super-obvious methods to spot trends -browsing on flickr.com, street-walking and visiting random culture-specific websites. Both have been constantly reinforcing the idea that trends and signs are available for free to those who seek!

(BTW, focus groups have never predicted trends. They are so outdated that I’m surprised some big ad-agencies till use them!)