Hello? Hello? Hello?
Is there anybody in there?
Just nod if you can hear me.
Is there anyone at home?
It can’t be easy being Jeff Bezos. Yes I know it’s difficult to sympathize with the CEO of Amazon.com, directly or indirectly employing 100,000 people, and billions of dollars in revenues, while ranking as one of the world’s most popular online retail destinations. But in today’s consumer electronic driven society, the need to guarantee perfection through the launch of CE products can undermine an entire company’s product strategy. While Amazon’s Fire Line of tablets provided much more compelling competition to the iPad than the MS Surface, the Fire Phone was an abysmal failure. As hundreds of millions of dollars are being poured into research and development, Amazon the hardware brand struggles to gain not only relevance, but recognition as a consistent, serious competitor to Apple and Google.
Take the recent introduction of Amazon Echo. Leveraging natural language processing in a similar fashion to Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Now, Echo takes the personal assistant out of the phone and into a cylindrical device for the home. Using voice recognition, there is no button to push, no hands to wave, just a simple acknowledgement of it with the waking word “Alexa”.
Alexa is Bluetooth enabled can answer a number of questions and commands:
- News, Weather and Information
- Alarms, Timers and Lists
- Questions & Answers via Wikipedia
- Other updates via the cloud
Launched last week, Echo’s value proposition fell kind of…flat. In comparison to Apple’s organic, live events where design takes the forefront and a spectacle is created through the adoration of their fanatics (I’m one of them), Amazon non-nonchalantly used Amazon.com to surprise the world with a poorly received product video for a service/device nobody has asked for…yet.
On the surface, it seems Amazon rolls products out in what Dustin Curtis accurately describes as a (pun intended) echo chamber:
“With Amazon.com, it can heavily and successfully promote and sell its products, giving it false indicators of success. It’s an echo chamber. They make a product, they market the product on Amazon.com, they sell the product to Amazon.com customers, they get a false sense of success, the customer puts the product in a drawer and never uses it, and then Amazon moves on to the next product.”
But in the case of the Echo, did Amazon really miss the boat?
Short answer is yes. Absolutely did. They invented a product nobody asked for that solved absolutely nothing one couldn’t through their smart device. The question becomes, when did they begin the product cycle and why did they make it?
I’m no Amazon insider, but while a few ideas popped into my head, I kept coming back to the Internet of Things. It’s nice that Echo can dictate shopping lists, but wouldn’t it be nicer if Echo connected with your smart fridge to determine what ingredients you may be missing? And wouldn’t it be nicer if Echo synced your recipe you’re making with not only your lack of ingredients based on a scan of what’s in your refrigerator, but with Amazon Fresh for grocery delivery?
What about when listening to the latest and greatest album from your favorite musical artist? Echo recognizes frequency of play and uses the cloud to determine when that artist will be performing in your area. Using the cloud, it can fulfill tickets digitally to your smart device or laptop/pc.
I’ll go one fictional scenario further. What if Echo was incorporated into your vehicle like Ford SYNC, Chevy MyLink and Chrysler’s UConnect are today. Echo could geolocate your whereabouts, determine your proximity to your home and preheat your oven, turn on your lights, set your temperature and welcome with your favorite song.
Whether you sit on the fence of this being utopian or dystopian depending on your appetite for technology, the future could be brighter as long as Amazon is committed to an agile plan towards perfecting their product and understanding what consumers want out of the technology they build. While they can be mocked for selling products in a petri dish of customers who never wander farther than their patented 1-click service Amazon provides, Amazon could truly create the connected tissue of the web. As long as they stay committed and break out of the echo chamber.
This is a notice for Metro Detroit.
In the past I’ve spoken at length on the topic of Social Purpose. This program we’ve undertaken follows suit.
Our SapientNitro Detroit office is launching a new community service initiative on Saturday, called RhinoCoders! Staff in the office will be offering FREE coding classes to kids in the community.
Learn more about RhinoCoders here: http://rhinocoders.com/
WHAT: FREE coding courses that run in a ’series’ (3-4 classes each). Each series will consist of all the important and necessary language topics need to learn how to code (html, css, js etc.). Students will be provided a PC to work on in the class and be given a branded ‘Rhino Coders’ T-shirt when complete.
WHO: Youth 7-17. There is room for a max of 22 students per class.
WHEN: Starting the 27th, every Saturday morning from 9:30-11:30am. Swap cartoons for coding!
WHERE: SapientNitro Detroit office – 135 N Old Woodward Ave, Birmingham, MI
I don’t think I need to offer a preamble, but I wanted to publish my thoughts so bear with me. Like many others, I rushed to purchase the iPhone 6, checking in via Swarm, tweeting my purchase and all-in-all genuinely excited at the prospects of upgrading my current device to all that the 4.7″ 6 had to offer. My Verizon salesman high fived me on my way out the door, reminding me to come back on the 19th to pick up my new smartphone.
And then I canceled the order. Because, humanity.
Yesterday a smattering of reports out of China told of a cluster of young Foxconn workers – the factory where the millions of iPhone 6’s are made – all dying from leukemia. All working in the same factory. Coincidence? Their families and labor welfare groups believe the leukemia was caused by exposure to the potentially toxic chemicals, benzene and n-hexane in the final assembly of iPhones and iPads where they where used to clean electrical panels. Apple announced it was banning the chemicals last month though the plant insists they haven’t been used for years.
According to a report from Daily Mail, the young workers who fell sick were “dismissed and denied continuing medical coverage, bankrupting families as they desperately pay for treatment.” Sadly this isn’t the first offense for Foxconn. It’s one of many that have been reported over the last seven years. From poor working conditions to forced labors to worker suicides, the list of violations would leave even the worst American corporations blushing.
And that’s where it ends. I can’t in good conscience purchase a product that is manufactured in a way that spits in the face of human rights. I love Apple. I loved the event last week, including the awkward Chinese voice over and the challenges they had live streaming it. It was almost endearing to know that not everything produced in Cupertino had to be perfect.
To err is to be human, a trait met with compassion by many. So it troubles me that a company that prides itself on connecting humans through technology treats those who build their products less than human. There are options that I’ll research,
but the excellent MotoX is made in America and costs approximately $4.00 more per device than a phone made overseas, in plants that respect their workers. I’m not shutting the door on Apple. But in the near future, I won’t support their products until concerted efforts are taken to change.
Apple taught us to think different. Today I decided to act different instead.
I’ve referred to Detroiters as masochists. We’ve seen our industries collapse bankrupting our city in the process, with widespread corruption inside our local government to boot. We’ve been a national punchline for Congressmen and comedians alike. Yet there’s a certain je ne sais quioi in terms of Detroit’s public image and designer turned entrepreneur Tommey Walker perspicaciously capitalized on the very undefinable elements that make his label DETROIT VS EVERYBODY one of the hottest
national global clothing brands of the year.
So as marketers, what can we learn from Tommey Walker? Well for one, he created a movement that every company, from clothing goods to electronics and automobiles should be envious of. While putting on my best Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point hat, I’ll attempt to explain how celebrities from Ricky Ross to Stephen Colbert to Keith Urban brought national attention to a fledgling clothing company with a small storefront in the heart of Detroit.
The Three Laws For Creating a Tipping Point-Like Movement
Law 1. Invoke Intimacy Through The Law of the Few
When Walker decided to open a storefront in Greektown, a historic commercial and entertainment district in Detroit, he did so in a small space on the third floor of a mixed retail/commercial building. His actual location was nondescript in every sense of the way, where if patrons weren’t huddled in to find a shirt in their size, you’d probably think you were in the wrong location. The message on his apparel was so powerful, and resonated with so many Detroiters, that it created the equivalence of a hipster scavenger hunt. You weren’t going to find DETROIT VS. EVERYBODY hoodies in your suburban Urban Outfitters store. No, you had to work to be a part of this inclusive movement. His customers didn’t mind however, and considered it a right of passage to joining the cause Tommey Walker had created.
Gladwell refers to this as “The Law of the Few”. About.com’s Ashley Crossman explains that “Gladwell argues that the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts. This is the Law of the Few.”
The three types of people who fit this description? They’re referred to as Mavens, Connectors, and Salesmen.
- Mavens are individuals who spread influence by sharing their knowledge with friends and family. Their adoption of ideas and products are respected by peers as informed decisions and so those peers are highly likely to listen and adopt the same opinions.
- Connectors know a lot of people. They gain their influence not through expertise, but by their position as highly connected to various social networks. These are popular individuals whom people cluster around and have a viral capacity to showcase and advocate new ideas, products, etc.
- Salesmen are individuals who naturally possess the power of persuasion. They are naturally charismatic and their enthusiasm rubs off on those around them.
Mavens include Detroit Free Press editor Stephen Henderson, who joined Colbert on the air to defend Detroit, presenting him with mainstream America’s first look at a DETROIT VS. EVERYBODY hoodie to open their conversation. Walker has been quoted on record saying the hoodie on Colbert was a watershed moment for the brand, increasing sales significantly online thereafter.
Connectors include rappers Eminem and Big Sean who took the clothing label and brought it to the forefront of society’s conscience in their own unique way, including limited edition SHADY VS. EVERYBODY apparel.
Salesmen include the DJ’s, musicians, athletes, and local celebrities who turned a t-shirt slogan into a rallying cry.
Law 2. The Stickiness Factor
Gladwell refers to the stickiness factor as a unique quality that causes the phenomenon to “stick” in the minds of the public and influence their behavior. Taking the concept of the stickiness factor further, Dan and Chip Heath wrote an entire book on the concept called Made to Stick. In the book, the Heath brothers create an acronym that best defines how one creates a sticky idea:
- Simple — find the core of any idea
- Unexpected — grab people’s attention by surprising them
- Concrete — make sure an idea can be grasped and remembered later
- Credible — give an idea believability
- Emotional — help people see the importance of an idea
- Stories — empower people to use an idea through narrative
It goes without saying that Tommey Walker’s clothing label successfully indexes high on the stickiness factor.
Law 3. The Power Of Context
In previous interviews Walker mentioned that in his travels, he personally observed a lack of respect for Detroit. At one point in his life, he helped define Detroit rapper and fellow Cass Tech high school alumni Big Sean’s fashion style, only to see other musicians copy him without paying homage. The perpetual feeling of Detroit constantly having its back against the wall was easy to manifest into a mission statement. If I were to take a stab at it, I’d probably go with something like this:
By creating a brand that reinforces the spirit of Detroit: an attitude that conveys feelings of accomplishment, regardless of the objects that stand in the way of achieving one’s goals.
Gladwell refers to The Power of Context as the environment or historical moment in which the trend is introduced. If the context is not right, it is not likely that the tipping point will take place. When taking the bankruptcy, the political upheaval, the nation’s disparaging comments about the city and its people, there may have been no better time to turn a statement based on defiance into a national rallying cry.
It’s a million dollar question. Walker’s sales continue to grow stronger, with recent expansions outside of his Greektown store, into the posh suburbs of Detroit. Tommey Walker is the type of entrepreneur Detroit rallies around. He has created a tipping point with DETROIT VS. EVERYBODY, developing a social purpose through The Power of Context, creating a social movement grounded in The Law of the Few, and embraced social outcomes through The Stickiness Factor of his messaging. It’s my opinion Walker is here to stay, and I can’t wait to see what he thinks of next.
In the meantime, you can count me in to represent my city:
I have mixed feelings on the parody ad. Yes it’s brilliant and Team Detroit, Pashon Murray and Ford deserve a fist bump for capitalizing on a lightning rod of Rogue’s Cadillac ELR commercial. Your father’s Oreo’s Superbowl content marketing strategy is in the rear view mirror after this one…
But I was taught some pretty valuable lessons working for the Blue Oval with the first being don’t get into street fights with the competition and the second being don’t get into street fights with the competition.
Counterpoint, counterpunch, however you want to defend it, Ford knows Cadillac won’t acknowledge them in response – what a nightmare if they did! Besides, you can count on Fox News picking up the baton and turning this into a class warfare story soon enough, and maybe that’s the point. Ford, the people’s champ vs. Cadillac, chariot of the elite. I just hope they realize that the MSRP on a Ford CMAX Energi is just about equal to that of a Cadillac ATS. Let the Bourgeoisie bourgeois!
So what do I know? I know karma kind of sucks. Just ask Hyundai how that Save the Asterisks campaign came back to bite them in the butt. Yes it’s fun to tease every now and then, but you better be prepared for the consequences if you do.
I guess what bugs me, is that we have enough good things to discuss in our industry that we don’t need to throw dirt (even if it’s Detroit Dirt) on our competition. As auto OEM’s and agencies, we’re living in unprecedented times. Our cars are that GOOD today! It’s easy to take a swipe at the ELR spot. Ford’s spin was creative and disruptive and deserves admiration for putting Pashon Murray front and center. There’s no buy behind it (yet) and it’s making its way through online blogs, news destinations and message boards. KPI wise it will be reported as a success.
But I don’t know how it aligns with Ford’s mission statement and values. The one I held pretty close to my heart from the day I joined to the day I left:
Enjoy the journey and each other; have fun – never at others’ expense.
*Note: This was originally posted on my facebook page. I decided after a myriad of conversations over the last 24 hours, to paste it onto my blog for further discussion beyond the walls of my social network.
Imagine a world where Steve Jobs announced the first iteration of the iPod and never evolved the product any further.
Imagine if Amazon stopped innovating after 1-click ordering.
Imagine Nike capping its success with the Air Jordan line of sneakers and never produced another line beyond the originals.
As preposterous as these examples sound, this is the conundrum facing some of the largest retailers in the world today. Somewhere in the planning process they closed their eyes, resulting in consumer indifference and a correlated sharp decline in revenue. Can these big box retailers be rescued or is the evolution of shopping forcing them to extinction?
Paradise Lost in a Parking Lot
There may not be a brand in graver danger today than Sears. Yesterday, they announced they were closing their flagship Chicago location in April. A multitude of experts – from marketers to financial analysts have opined on the 120-year-old brand’s woes. From the shuttering of stores to being cited for urban blight, Sears didn’t move with enough agility when marketing trends shifted and they’re paying for it, literally. According to Mamta Badkar of Business Insider, for the full year ending February 1, 2014, Sears managements expects a net loss between $1.3 billion and $1.4 billion.
It’s gotten so bad that independent retail analyst Brian Sozzi all but closed the doors on the brand when he published a recent article that Sears exerts an extremely low retail capital expenditure of 0.9% (In contrast to Macy’s ratio of 3.4% in 2012.), complete with empty store shelves, randomly placed sales items without context, and mannequins wearing drab outfits that seemed to convey a feeling of submission to good fashion.
Sozzi’s drive to paint a dreadfully bland picture of the retailer may have stemmed from the company disputing his 2011 proclamation that, “There’s no reason to go to Sears. It offers a depressing shopping experience and uncompetitive prices.”
Sadly, Brian Sozzi is right.
Despite the company taking exception to finger pointing, offering a rebuttal that included listing assets such as inventory, real estate and “valuable proprietary brands such as Kenmore and Craftsman”, consumers have failed to connect with a brand that once proclaimed that it “serves as a mirror of our times, recording for future historians today’s desires, habits, customs, and mode of living.”
As Sozzi points out through editorial and photographs, a brand can be quickly undermined with a series of negative occurrences.
Substantiating this point, Scott Deming explores the concept of defining a brand n his book “The Brand Who Cried Wolf” through aggregated experiences – the collected impressions of a number of experiences. One bad experience can do more damage than a series of good ones. As Deming explains “After all, our ability to survive is connected not just to learning over time what’s good for us, but more important, to learn very quickly what to avoid.”
Despite a mountain of negativity, the retailer is attempting to reverse the shopper Diaspora with a creative way of both poking fun of itself while hoping to entice shoppers to once more give Sears a chance through an ad that made light of the ample parking available in the empty lots that surround their stores. The ad is memorable but quite possibly for all the wrong reasons. Highlighting the Kardashians line of fashion, one has to ask, is their declining star power a contributing factor for the lack of shopper’s attention? Their merchandise isn’t moving, leading to steep price cuts and further placing the brand out-of-touch with today’s shoppers. Why dress like Kim when you can wear Peter Pilotto and Christopher De Vos via Target’s collection?
I’m not exclusive to opining on the topic of Sears. As marketer Valeria Maltoni references in her blog post on the topic, when prompted with the question would you miss Sears? I can only assume most would shrug their shoulders and move on to the next retailer.
But it shouldn’t be this way.
A History of Greatness
To the surprise of a generation of shoppers, Sears was great once. Renowned for recording the changing scene in America through its catalogs, Sears was a pioneer upon its inception. Scoff if you like, but there would be no Jeff Bezos if not for Sears. Amazon may have caused a stir by delivering a Nissan recently, but the concept of buying anything through a catalog including automobiles started with Sears, Roebuck and Company. Between 1908 – 1912, Lincoln provided vehicles under the name “Sears Motor Buggy” for delivery via railroad. And in 1953, Sears offered a badge engineered Kaiser – Frazer sedan called the Allstate to its customers.
Sadly, that spirit of the entrepreneur has long been forgotten, replaced by an expectation that relevancy be based on their long historical relationship with consumers. However, the competitive nature of today’s retail environment casts a perception of lumbering old brick and mortar where nimble, insight driven online savvy shopping sites can flank anchor stores through hyper-aggressive pricing, instant rewards, and social shopping experiences.
In order for Sears to have a fighting chance at survival, they must think differently.
Reinvention or Reclamation?
CEO Edward Lampert has nothing to lose. With shareholders and media/analysts targeting his company’s demise, it’s time to take a radically new approach and part ways from decades past. I’m a firm believer that the best ideas come out of the most desperate of times and Sears should challenge the very conventions of the shopper experience today.
My goal is to extrapolate the great ideas I’ve discovered during my due diligence on the topic of saving this once iconic brand.
Introduce a Culture Shift
I’ve admittedly never worked for Sears so I can’t comment on direct experiences as an employee of the company. I can however use social networks such as Glass Door to gain insights into the mindsets of those who have. Currently based on input from Sears employees, both current and former, Edward Lampert has an approval rating of 17% with just 31% of Sears employees willing to recommend Sears to a friend.
Conversely, Macy’s CEO Terry J. Lundgren has a 65% approval rating on Glass Door. Target’s CEO Gregg W. Steinhafel? A 72% approval rating.
Thomson Dawson pointed out in his piece on the retailer that “Retail knowledge is not the core problem for Sears – it’s the investment banker management culture that has over time sucked the value out of these brands. Profit has been placed above serving people with experiences they care about.”
This may sound familiar. In the early 2000’s, Six Sigma CEO practitioner Bob Nardelli led Home Depot down the long road to eliminate the company’s most valuable capital: its orange-apron employees. Empty aisles, deplete of passionate subject matter experts removed the one variable that drove Home Depot’s revenues for so long: trust. Trust equaled revenue and it was an unaccounted for, unpredictable asset that was quickly replenished once Frank Blake took the company over.
As Business Insider’s Paula Rosenblum explains in her article Home Depot’s Resurrection: How One Retailer Made Its Own Home Improvements, the home improvement retailer used the recession to retool its business, paying close attention to economic trends – targeting women more frequently verses contractors of past, and understanding the projects that most home owners were undertaking during hard economic times. Most importantly, they put a focus on helping people, going so far as sales associates assisting a customer through the purchase process all the way to the cash register. Is it laborious? Yes. Does it impact positive brand affinity? Absolutely so!
It’s been noted that the parts may be more valuable than the whole at Sears. Brands such as Kenmore Appliances, Craftsman tools, and Lands End apparel have stronger brand equity in the eyes of consumers than the parent company. Sears needs to consider this a significant competitive advantage and reinvent itself through those three core brands. Focus efforts on areas of strength and diligently work to converting brand apologists into brand advocates. While it’s difficult to change the mentality of a part-time, sometimes transient workforce, the example to serve customers should be embraced top-down.
Take Craftsman tools as an example. With a reputation for being some of the best in the industry, Sears should take a page out of Home Depot’s playbook and offer how-to instructionals on the weekends. Consumers are keeping their cars an average of 11 years, and as such, are starting to find ways to keep their cars on the road while undertaking basic automotive maintenance work in their own garages. Sears has the opportunity to sell product (Craftsman tools), service (Sears Auto Center) and advocacy (Sears taught me how to change my oil). Lowes and Home Depot haven’t infiltrated the automotive space yet. Sears still owns it and can continue to own it by making subtle shifts in their approach while putting their product, people and presence in the community front and center.
To reiterate, service is the differentiator – just look at Nordstroms, Zappos or Starbucks. In fact, preserving a culture meant so much to Starbucks that when Howard Schultz returned as CEO, he shut all of his stores down for three days to retrain his baristas and thus, through his employees, convey his commitment to the quality and consistency Starbucks built its reputation on.
I should walk into a Sears and be met consistently with the most knowledgeable, passionate experts in each respective department. That tone is set at the top but executed flawlessly at a local level.
Let Data Be Your Guide
It’s no secret Sears is transitioning from physical stores to online retail. That shouldn’t deter the brand from leveraging its stores in ways online-exclusive competitors can’t.
British design firm FITCH has gone through a reinvention of sorts itself over the last few years to adjust for what they refer to as a SPLINTERED customer purchase journey. By dividing the consumer experience into three areas: Locating, Exploring and Dreaming, they have identified a way to unify the customer experience.
This means assuring that marketing, retail and real estate teams work collectively rather than in isolation, or worse still, in competition with each other.
For example, I think we’d all be in agreement that today’s consumer is ‘always on’. The discovery of a new outfit no longer takes place in-store. In fact it may not transpire on a PC or laptop. It’s more likely to take place on a mobile device. In a cohesive SEAMLESS experience, a customer may begin their journey browsing their favorite fashion blog on their iPhone while on a commute. Through contextually placed content, Sears uses relevant cues (geographical, cultural, emotional, etc.) to entice our customer to click on a promotion for a new outfit. Based on geotargeting, we discover the outfit is on sale and in stock at a local location, which is five minutes and one bus stop away. Our customer is presented with an option of placing the outfit on hold and as an added incentive, is provided an offer for a percentage off if purchased within the hour.
Entering our local Sears, our customer sees a radically different yet intuitive layout in a store with a much smaller footprint. As they enter, iBeacon recognizes our shopper using micro-location context, welcoming and informing them as to where in-store they can pick up their outfit. Unbeknownst to our customer, she discovers an up-and-coming local designer designed the outfit with roots in their hometown. The sterile mannequins Brian Sozzi shot photos of have been replaced with brand based installations that offer to share the story of our designer and the impetus behind their collection. There’s even a barcode scan option to share the video with friends. All of this is designed to establish a direct relationship with the customer.
Prior to purchase, our sales associate is informed of our customer’s check-in and is prepared to offer accessories that compliment the outfit through an e-commerce suggestion engine such as Aggregate Knowledge, which compiles aggregate consumer data to analyze consumer e-commerce purchases.
Post-purchase, Sears social media CSR’s monitor for positive posts on popular social networks, prepared to share with the broader Sears online community. As a thank you for posting a photo of the outfit on Instagram tagged #SearsFashion, our customer receives a bogo coupon for their next purchase.
Believe it or not, this is not a pie in the sky approach. Marketing and advertising executives have been chiming in on the flat retail experience, voicing for a change in thinking. Lee Carpenter, CEO of Interbrand North America was quoted as saying, ”E-commerce brands use data to create a one-on-one relationship with shoppers that can scale through technology. This model must translate to physical stores, and blend together into an omnichannel experience with the brand as the consistent thread.”
It’s no longer about online verses offline shopping, it’s just shopping and Sears should be at the forefront of this amalgamation.
Conclusion – Be More Like Lewis & Clark
Large anchor stores like Sears are not and should not go extinct, but the business model that sustained them is out-dated. Today’s retail customer wants to be stimulated. They need retailers to offer them the breadcrumbs necessary to spark constant reinvention. Macy’s would call this “Magic”, Lowe’s would call it “Never Stop Improving”. Sears needs to reach deep down and decide how it wants to communicate its values to its customers. This should be a time of rebirth for Sears and that means a deep dive into exploration – new consumer targeting models, new store layouts, new ways of achieving customer satisfaction. It’s never easy to evolve, and in the past Sears has opted to buy verses build, first attempting to acquire Home Depot in the early 1980’s and most recently an attempt to purchase Restoration Hardware in 2007.
After decades of remaining stagnant, we’re now at a cross section of DIY culture meets Americana. It should be cool to shop at Sears. They just have to give us a reason to do so.