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Friday, June 17 2011

Connecting With Consumers Via High Tech

I've copied below an excerpt from an interesting article in The New York Times today, penned by John Grossman.  You can read the entire article at this link, but I thought the discussion about Q.R. codes - that is, quick response bar codes, which can be scanned using an iPhone's or Android phone's camera - provided some good insight into how even small businesses can connect with consumers via new technology.  The Q. R. codes rely on an app that translates the code into an advertisement or takes you to a related Web page.  The codes also offer an intriguing channel for getting closer to customers, sharing recipes and coupons, inviting feedback, and so on.  Here's the excerpt:

Nothing is old school about this or a wave of other high-tech customer service initiatives being adopted by a vanguard of small businesses.

In some instances, such as at Zingerman's, a delicatessen, restaurant, mail-order food seller and business seminar host based in Ann Arbor, Mich., the digitally driven service enhancements remain internal and invisible to customers.

For the last dozen years, Zingerman’s has captured customer comments as either code red (complaints) or code green (compliments), but until recently they were captured on paper forms.

Storing comments digitally makes it much easier to analyze them, said Maggie Bayless, managing partner of ZingTrain, the business seminar division.

“We can now sort by types of complaints, customer name or period of time,” Ms. Bayless said. “For example, as we go into the holidays, it’s possible to pull the data for the holiday season a year ago and see what problems we were having and identify: What do we need to remind people to watch for this year?”

By contrast, the highly visible brand of high-tech customer service offered by Culinary Twist is activated by so-called Q.R. codes on its product labels. Short for Quick Response, these bar code cousins, when photographed by an app-enabled smartphone, offer a wealth of service opportunities.

Potential buyers can view a recipe, say, for pork ribs in Baja sauce when they are steps from the meat counter. Soon, Ms. Milos said, they will be able to call up on their hand-held devices a discount coupon that can be scanned at checkout. And with help from OpinionLab’s back-shop capabilities, Ms. Milos can also receive recipe suggestions, insights or even notification of a problem at a particular store — be it a missing favorite or filthy display shelves.

She expects more of the kind of helpful feedback received in an early store demo that led to a relabeling of the Bora Bora sauce.

“We had so many people say they didn’t know what tamarind was, or dates, that we decided to take those words out of the subscript and change it to more about the flavor and how the product was used,” Ms. Milos said. “It now says ‘Sweet Spice Grilling Sauce.’ That’s another piece to the Q.R. code and serving the customer — just listening to them.”

The Q.R. code enhancements to the labels cost about 15 cents a bottle. Rand Nickerson, OpinionLab’s chief executive, puts additional costs for his company’s services at pennies per consumer comment.

“It’s not true anymore that only the Procter & Gambles of the world can afford to do this,” he said. “You don’t have to run a wave of $100,000 focus groups across the country to learn things anymore. The most successful companies in the future, I believe, will be those who become progressively more and more customer-driven.”

Thursday, May 19 2011

Smoke Signals

Wireless connecting is great, I'm lovin' it.  Everything is getting smarter - computers, tablets, phones, cars, refrigerators.  Which isn't to suggest that people are getting any smarter.  Case in point: the e-cigarette.  Pioneered by Blu, electronic cigarettes release a nicotine-laden vapor instead of smoke, and the packs are equipped with sensor devices that emit and receive radio signals that let users know that other e-smokers are nearby.  When an e-smoker gets within 15 meters of another e-smoker, the packs vibrate and flash a blue light.  The packs, which sell for about US$60-$80 for five reusable e-cigarettes, can be set up to exchange information about their owners that can be downloaded onto PCs, like contact information on social networking sites, smoking history, IQ score, favorite Lady Gaga song, whatever.  Even better, the packs vibrate to inform their owners that they are near a retail outlet that sells Blu cigarettes, so that they can blow more of their hard-earned American greenbacks.  Blu researchers have not yet perfected the pack to cough along with the vibration, and I'm not holding my breath.

There you have it, social smoking for the social networking era.  According to Blu founder, Jason Healy, "You'll meet more people than ever, just because of the wow factor."  As in 'Wow, you look so cool puffing on a fake cigarette and blowing out blue vapor!"  The key advantage, and I don't deny it:  they allow users to avoid smoking bans in public places because they release water vapor instead of smoke.  And supposedly they have practically no ill health effects, although the jury is still out on that claim.

Later versions of the e-cigarette promise the possibility of tethering the device to a smartphone through an app, allowing for more real-time communication, and there are plans to develop a monitoring system so that the packs will report back to e-smokers (and perhaps their doctors) about how much they are smoking.

If you want to see a Blu e-cigarette in action, check out Matt's You Tube video.

I don't know, try as I might, I just can't identify with Matt.  Is this the typical e-smoker profile: young, impressionable, male, and a marketer's wet dream: "I got sucked into marketing...look at this [package], how beautiful it is"?

I can understand how a product like this might be appealing to those trying to kick the real thing, but I just don't get the social connection element.  And apparently I'm not the only one.  Forrester analyst Charles S. Golvin, who has studied connected devices, such as Nintendo's new hand-held 3DS gaming devices that communicate with each other when brought into close proximity, believes that the Blu idea reveals how digital connections can get ahead of the reasons for connecting:

The way that groups of affinity are conferred just by physical proximity makes a bit of sense.  If someone walks by with a Nintendo, great, I share a common interest.  The fact that I walk by a smoker?  Seems like a weak link."

Adam Alfandary, a 24-year-old tech start-up employee also was skeptical about the e-cigarette, suggesting that the reason he lights up the real thing in the first place had to do with its social aspects. Mr. Alfandary scoffed at the idea that a cigarette device would do the social connecting for him: "I think that's the dumbest thing I've ever heard in my life.  And I'm saying that in full acknowledgment that smoking is one of the dumbest things I can do." 

I think e-cigarettes are just the beginning.  Imagine the possibilities - e-ankle bracelets, so that people under house arrest can connect with other people under house arrest.  Dominique Strauss-Kahn would never be bored again!  And what about e-umbilical cords, so that newborn babies can connect with other newborns sharing their birthday?  The possibilities are endless.

Source:  Joshua Brustein, The New York Times, 10 May 2011.

Wednesday, May 4 2011

Connecting With the Crowd

In my book, Connecting With Consumers  I discussed two of the iconic examples of crowdsourcing, as employed by Dell (Ideastorm) and Starbucks (My Starbucks Idea).  Crowdsourcing, is the term that most commonly refers to mass collaboration - in essence, the outsourcing of tasks traditionally performed by employees or contracters to consumers through an open call or challenge.  Incorporating consumers' ideas into product or service design promotes the feeling among customers, followers, and fans that they have a vested interest in the offering's success and are thus more willing to support it.Slide 97

Take PlayStation.  If you check out the enormously popular (at least with gamers) PlayStation Blog, you'll find a link in the upper left corner to PS.Blog.Share, where fans can share their ideas with the company.

Has this program effectively engaged PlayStation gamers?  The numbers speak for themselves:  to date, PlayStation has received 5,371 ideas submitted by the community.  Those ideas have generated 77,773 comments and prompted 1,694,413 total votes.  PlayStation has put 62 community-generated ideas into action.

A couple more recent and noteworthy variations on crowdsourcing, this time coming out of Europe, are described at Real  The summaries below are largely lifted from that site:

  • the online furniture business is stripping out the middlemen and connecting its customers with the furniture makers directly to cut the cost to the consumer by 50 - 80 per cent. The company’s product range is determined by a customer voting system to identify “favorites”. With a 10 day countdown period for orders where customers commit to pay upfront, only orders the exact number required from the manufacturers, avoiding the need for a warehouse as orders are delivered direct to customers’ homes.
  • Naked Wines strips out the middlemen.  According to Naked Wines CEO Rowan Gormley, “Historically most winemakers had to spend more time and money selling wine rather than making it. Bonkers! Good winemakers want to invest in quality – they don't want to waste their funds on slick marketing campaigns."  To get around this, Gormley has rapidly built a customer base now numbering ~100,000, of whom a large proportion are “angels” investing £20 a month in advance for their wines. This creates a virtuous circle where the wines selected are the ones the angel community identifies as their “favorites”, orders are aggregated in advance and “the winemakers get to know their wine is sold before they've even grown the grapes... so they can spend all their time in the vineyard crafting delicious wines, and give you the money they would have wasted on selling!”

Active on Facebook and Twitter, eliminating the middle man and passing on savings to its customers, Naked Wines is all about connecting with consumers. 

Monday, May 2 2011

The Mobile Movement

Thanks to my ESCP student, Jalita Aspelin, who is Assistant Product Manager at Agence France-Presse (check out her New Trends website) for this link to a video promotion for Google mobile ads:

As is typically the case with these sorts of pithy videos on social media and new technologies, the video is replete with phantom percentages, source and method unidentified.  Nonetheless, the basic points of the video can't be denied - smartphones are indeed serving to make consumers smarter shoppers and are facilitating the shopping process, usurping many of the functions of traditional media and computers.  Is it just me, or does it seem that in the near future, the desktop computer is going to look as much as an antique as the typewriter?

Sunday, January 2 2011

Are Brands Relevant Anymore?

Interesting Q&A installment in the Dec. 30th New York Times' with Yves Béhar, founder of the San Francisco design firm Fuseproject - a good way to usher out 2010 and think about what this '10's decade really holds in store for us. And beyond that, whither the brand in an age of consumer-generated content and the desire for the big R, ''relevance''?

When asked what he thinks design will be all about in 2011, Béhar's response really gives pause for thought:

"To me, this year is the promised year.  We spent 40 or 50 years subservient to marketing and advertising, but I think the Internet and social network revolution have really brought a much more direct level of communication.  Rather than succumbing to the brand message, people are very centered on the product and their expectations of what the product should deliver as far as relevance, technology, simplicity, sustainability, and health."

And this, on the role of social activism:

"There's a little brand that we built that's doing incredibly well - the Pact underwear line.  I felt that nothing new had come about in the last 25 years in the underwear business, since Calvin Klein with the big elastic band, big logo and sexy ads. Does that still inspire twenty somethings? Or is that just the way things are done?

What we found is that by bringing together the notions of sustainability and doing good — every six weeks, we do a new collection with a nonprofit and give back 10 percent of our sales to that nonprofit — we created a whole different reason for people to be purchasing and wearing a product, rather than hollow advertising messages. Advertising is the price companies pay for being unoriginal."


Béhar makes some good points - take a look at a CK ad and ask yourself, 'how is that relevant?'  'what does it mean to me?'  Brands can continue to be meaningful in the coming years, but they must have meaning beyond the name and logo and profitability for the brand owner.  Brands must connect with consumers, but in a relevant way if they don't want to be left in the dust of 2011 and beyond.

Where does relevance come from?   Here's a start (from

  • Content: is at the center of developing and expressing quality and purpose of brands
  •  Interaction: Developing a message of value that clients and customers can identify with and share. Getting involved with your clients online is key.
  • Identity: to create a clear message that clients are able to place personal value to. What do they get from you logo?  Copy?  Promotional material?  Would you purchase the services?
  • Practical: Focusing on a solution based branding message.

It's important to add, that it's not all about relevance - as Béhar reminds us, technology, sustainability, and other important elements that increasingly matter to consumers, such as simplicity and health.

Here are some of Béhar's designs:

1.  The Learning shoe - with data chip that creates a personalized fit.

2.  The Leaf lamp and Sayl chair - she the photo of at the top Béhar at the top.

3.  One Laptop Per Child Generation 3


Tuesday, November 9 2010

Consumers Connecting With Halloween

It was only a matter of time before social media and Halloween got together, and this generic Facebook profile costume deserves some kind of award for creativity, absurdity, or as suggested over at the Advertising Lab, the world's most postmodern Halloween costume.  Here it is, compliments of the aptly named WTF Costumes site.

Friday, October 15 2010

One Forty Plus

It was inevitable that once Twitter became famously established as the '140 characters or less' social media format, somebody would come along and - unless you are a stickler for concise and pithy updates - offer something better: 'one forty plus.' Welcome Tumblr (, Posterous (, and whoever else just added another innovation to the social web that I've missed in the last 10 minutes.  As it happens, these new social web innovations are different concepts from Twitter, which is still the leading real-time conversational channel on the web - at least, for now.

In short, the fledgling Tumblr and Posterous are extremely user-friendly blog creating/following sites that facilitate not only the sharing of user-generated content, but even more so, any sort of online content that you want to share with others (photos, articles, etc.).  As for the user-friendly aspect, I can personally vouch for that in the case of Tumblr, having set up my 'Connecting With Consumers' blog last night in about two minutes (  As for Posterous, we'll have to take the New York Times' word on that one.  What is particularly interesting about Posterous is that you can literally phone it in - that is, you can add content to your blog via an email from your smartphone.  Just shoot some snapshots at a concert you're attending?  You can have them posted on your Posterous blog in nearly real time.  Sounds pretty cool.  Here's the screenshot from Posterous:

Here's what the Tumblr dashboard looks like.  Looks familiar doesn't it?  Just click on one of the icons (text, photo, etc.) to upload content.

In fact, although not mentioned in the NY Times piece, it appears to be possible to upload content as easily as with Posterous.  Here's the welcome email I received after
setting up the CWC blog:

As for my CWC Tumbler blog, I intend to use it as a place to upload photos that I've taken (and as those I've found elsewhere that I deem worthy of sharing), as well as to quickly post shorter installments than what might be found at this website - something intriguing that I've seen online that is in one way or another linked to my book, Connecting With Consumers.

It remains to be seen how successful these new blog-generating entities will become, and how people will choose to use them - do we really need more blogs in the already bloated blogosphere?  Ultimately, it will be users who shape and sharpen the uses of the Tumblrs out there.  As I mentioned in my book, who knows what the social media landscape will look like in the very near future?  Well, we're finding out, every day. 

Wednesday, September 8 2010

Marketing Make Believe: Turning Consumers on to Virtual Goods

It's not enough that consumers often purchase products they don't need or will never use - just look at my wardrobe - now, an increasing number of buyers are spending their hard earned cash for products that don't even exist. Followers of the rising and falling trajectory of Second Life are well aware that this is nothing new, but a September 7th article in The New York Times ("Marketing Fanciful Items in the Lands of Make Believe" by Elizabeth Olson) sheds new light on the growing trend for brands to offer pretend merchandise in efforts to boost awareness and hone customer loyalty.  I just wonder how effective these tactics are in endearing consumers to brands that tell them, 'give us your money and we will give you . . . nothing.'

As highlighted in the Times piece, Volvo (N. America), H&M, and MTV Networks are representative of the companies now promoting virtual goods to connected consumers, via social networking games like FarmVille and Mafia Wars (two Zynga creations), smartphone apps, and fantasy Internet sites such as the eponymous Second Life and IMVU.  The logic of this trend was succinctly summed up by NPD Group's chief retail analyst Marshal Cohen:

"It's all about constant connectivity.  People live in real time, and established brands have to find ways to keep in touch.  Brands are beginning to dabble in reaching out, especially to the under-40 crowd--many still can make discretionary spends."

True, people live in real time, but do they live in the real world?  As I watch the multitudes riding the Paris metro, who isn't fully immersed in their portable devices anymore, happily reading or sending text messages, searching their music directories, playing video games, reading pulp fiction - completely devoid of their real world physical surroundings?  So it doesn't surprise me that we are moving in the direction of fake world consuming.  And what are those make-believe discretionary spends Cohen alludes to actually spent on?  Well, hip hop artist Snoop Dogg has been selling items like virtual Dobermans, exploiting the maniacal fancies of teenagers who are drawn to the branded goods of music performers.  For $1 to $3, Zynga offer users of FarmVille and Mafia Wars the opportunity to give a virtual gift (e.g., flowers) or build a virtual collection of items.  Although this might seem like chump change, in fact, in the grand scheme of things it is big business:

  • ThinkEquity estimates that virtual purchases will amount to $2 billion by the end of 2010, rising to $2.6 billion in 2011.
  • Zynga claims to have made $100 million last year, largely from sales of its virtual goods and game currency
  • online fantasy worlds generate nearly $1 billion annually from purchases of virtual items like furniture, homes, clothing, and accessories for their avatars
  • Snoop Dogg has earned $250,000 since mid-2008 selling virtual items (and I still don't want to listen to his music)

MTV and H&M, among other companies, are increasingly active in the virtual game, in different ways and for different reasons.  MTV is striving to capture viewers for its 2010 Video Music Awards broadcast next week by drawing visitors to its site so as to obtain virtual replicas of celebrity accessories and fashion items - Beyonce's diamond ring on Mall World, for example.  H&M, on the other hand, has tried to lure enthusiasts of MyTown (a GPS location-based game that involves buying and owning your favorite local shops, restaurants, and hangouts on your iPhone) to various locations near H&M stores to earn points that could be used to purchase H&M branded products.  Why am I not excited about the prospects of these sorts of campaigns?  In my view, they amount to not much more than putting the company first and dangling the appropriate carrots to lure consumers to their brands. As far as I'm concerned, that's not connecting with consumers, that's capturing sales (or viewership, in the MTV case).

Other companies have begun to offer virtual giveaways, not to chase revenues, but to attract and develop consumer loyalty.  Last December, McDonald's glommed on to the real-world success of James Cameron's Avatar not only by giving out Avatar-themed toys in their Happy Meals, but by developing an augmented reality-based virtual world, enabling kids to interact with the movie's characters.  US purchasers of a Big Mac received packaging with one of 8 different Avatar 'Thrill Cards" attached.  When a card was placed in front of a Web cam, participants were able to use McD Vision augmented reality software to interact with the jungle landscapes created for the movie.

Like H&M, Volvo chose to participate in the virtual marketing arena through MyTown - by having people check into a location such as a garage or auto dealership and opt to receive a virtual sedan, a Volvo steering weel, tire or Volvo iron mark - its logo. According to Emily Garvey, brand manager of Volv's digital media agency Media Contacts, the campaign's objective is to capture the attention of auto enthusiasts for its new midsize sports sedan, the 'All New 2011 Naughty Volvo S60 Sedan,' in order "to get people excited and change brand perception so people think of it as a sporty, fun and good-looking car."

It remains to be seen what the impact of virtual merchandising is on brand awareness, image, and sales.  And there were some important caveats in the Times article that marketers need to strongly consider before engaging in this approach.  Ravi Mehta, from the social gaming platform provider Viximo, offered this key to success:  "Branded virtual goods have to be identifiable and have a real world relevance.  They are driven by the relevance to the purchaser.  Paris Hilton has people who buy her virtual goods because they are fans and want to identify with her, her hair, her place in pop culture." (Poor people.)  And Chris Cunningham, from Appsavvy, reminds us about the importance of fit: "A game that appeals to females isn't the right place for ads aimed at men.  Or a site where people try on clothing, that's not for a car company."

A couple of recent studies indirectly attest to the potential success of these virtual marketing campaigns.  An ExactTarget analysis reported today at eMarketer ('The Thin Line Between Liking a Brand and Liking Its Social Marketing') clearly shows that social brand followers are clearly motivated by promotions, freebies, fun and entertainment, and exclusive content.  But equally important, and a point that shouldn't be ignored, is that there are other more personal motives underlying fans' attractions to brands, such as showing off the brands and products they support to their Facebook friends.  I imagine this won't go unnoticed by virtual brand marketers, and efforts will be made to somehow integrate their virtual goods promotions within Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and other social networking sites.

Finally, researchers at the University of Barcelona are experimenting with ways of further integrating virtual and real worlds.  Christoph Groenegress and his team have developed a system that enables people to unconsciously relate more intensely with virtual characters, through the use of sensors and wireless devices that convey real-time physiological measures, perspiration, etc.  Groenegress explains, ""We maintain that the linking of subjective corporal states to a virtual reality can improve the sensation of realism that a person has of this reality and, eventually, create a stronger link between humans and this virtual reality."  Read more about this brave new world here.

Back on planet Earth, I think virtual marketing holds some interesting potential for marketers, especially when the attractions from the consumer point of view are added value, brand prestige, and the opportunity to gain further intimacy and connectedness with the brand.  In practical terms, I like this summary statement from the MobileMarketingWatch blog:

"It’s a perfect example of the power of location, mobile and highly relevant offers to engage users on a whole new level.  The monetization models are still very much evolving on LBS apps like MyTown, but the future looks bright if brands and the apps themselves harness the power at hand effectively."

Definitely.  Just keep it free.  If a firm wants me to buy a virtual product, my response is simply, "The check is in the (virtual) mail."

Tuesday, August 31 2010

Designing Product Packaging With the Consumer in Mind

Scavenging cyberspace - shouldn't there be a word for this, like 'gleaning,' for those gypsies (the one or two left in France after the recent Sarko purge) who go through supermarket dumpsters, pulling out enough edible food items (albeit, past their expiry date) for a week's in-home dining? 'Cybergleaning' will have to do until someone informs me what the no doubt already coined term in current use is. At any rate, today I came across a couple examples of innovative product packages, designed with the consumer in mind. I think it's easy to lose track of the myriad ways that marketers, consumer goods manufacturers, and advertisers can connect with consumers. In other words, it's not always about social media and the Internet. Packaging and product design can and should emerge from a careful analysis of consumers' needs and interests.

In the first example, British design students were challenged to rethink and rebrand sanitary towels and tampons - the so-called 'sanitary protection product category' or 'Sanpros' (how's that for a marketing euphemysm?). Specifically, their task was to create environmentally-friendly tampon packaging that reduces embarrassment and contributes to the buyer's confidence. Kyle Tolley & Sarah Graves came up with this elegantly simple solution.

I guess it goes without saying that it's a good thing the project's designers weren't inspired by this Kleenex campaign, which was intended to spur summer sales.

Which brings us to the second example, a shopping bag distributed for free to buyers of GNC diet pills in the Philippines to illustrate the supplement's calorie-burning attributes.  Good idea, although not entirely original (see the examples that follow) and the execution was just a bit bizarre.  As noted at, 'We suspect the blood-red top is to demonstrate the dangers of mixing the pills with pop rocks and coke.'  Can you say 'body bag'?

Here's an earlier example of the incredibly shrinking bag concept:

And a couple more noteworthy examples: