Winning through subtraction

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.”  

- Lao Tzu

When it seems hard enough to get anything meaningful done; when we push ourselves in a futile quest for perfection, the answer is not to add to our to-do list or to beat ourselves up for falling short of our self-inflicted impossible goals.

When the world is already overflowing with choices; when just about anything we might conceivably want is available to us anytime, anywhere, anyway, we don’t need to check out more websites or click-through every page on our Google search.

When the folks we engage with–customers, family members, social groups and more–are deluged with messages imploring that we pay attention to them; when they are already struggling to separate the signal from the noise, more or louder doesn’t help.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not lacking in things to keep me busy. I receive more than enough emails. I have plenty of stuff. And shout-out to Bono for reminding me that the God I believe in isn’t short on cash.

Much of the time we delude ourselves into thinking that we don’t have enough; that we’d be better off with more information, more activity, more choices, more things.

Yet what is truly scarce is focus, meaning, connection, attention, relevance. And the abundance that matters is not achieved by piling more on or by merely throwing things against the wall to see what sticks.

If our hope is to breakthrough, to unclutter our minds as well as our homes, to lift up the significant out of the morass, we need to edit, curate, prune and customize.

Enough with the addition. Let’s celebrate and embrace subtraction.

HT to Matthew E. May and John Maeda

Batch, blast and hope

No, batch, blast and hope is not the name of a personal injury law firm. It is, however, a realistic description of all too many marketing campaigns these days.

Despite all the talk about deep customer engagement, increased relevance and enhanced personalization, the sad reality is a huge percentage of direct mail and email marketing is still mostly one-size-fits-all (save for perhaps a few tweaks).

It’s not hard to understand why.

Large scale blasts are easy to execute. They reach a lot of people. They’re cheaper than mass customization or true one-to-one marketing campaigns. And it’s pretty simple to measure incremental ROI and generate comparisons to what we’ve always done.

Of course, many of us know that opt-out rates are climbing while click-through and conversion rates are sinking. But when email is “free” and direct mail is dirt cheap why not keep the execution straightforward and the spigots open?

Well, maybe because what used to count as “working” is just as irrelevant as most of our messages?

Maybe because one-size-fits-all just adds to the noise that consumers are increasingly tuning out?

Maybe because in a slow growth world if you aren’t commanding greater share of attention you have little chance of gaining share of wallet.

Batch, blast and hope may be an amusing name for a fictional law firm, but it sure isn’t a marketing strategy for future success. Mostly it’s a prescription for failure.

Stories that lead to a brand

Don’t get me wrong, it helps to start with a plan.

And as someone who helps organizations accelerate their growth, I’d definitely encourage you to work hard to define your brand promise and nail your positioning.

But despite your well intended efforts to envision your desired outcomes and strategize the building blocks of your glorious marketing triumph, you can’t just action plan your way into creating something relevant and remarkable in the consumer’s mind.

It’s the experiences and memories customers hold in their hearts–and generously share with their friends–that create compelling brands. That takes time. And there is an organic element to how it all evolves that sometimes challenges our logic and fights with our best laid plans.

Ultimately, great stories lead to great brands, not the other way around.


HT to Bernadette Jiwa for the continual reminders about brands and great story telling.

My most popular blog posts for 2014

As has become an annual tradition, I am recapping some of my most popular blog posts for 2014:

Omni-channel’s Migration Dilemma

5 Reasons Sears Should Liquidate ASAP

Dead Brand Walking

Different Not Dead: The Future of Brick & Mortar Retail

Wall St’s Simple, Surefire–And Mostly Wrong–Strategy to Fix Retail

Sears to Convert Most Stores Into Indoor Waterparks

Shrinking to Prosperity: The Store Closing Delusion

Oh, They’re Not a Competitor

Retail’s Zero-Sum Game

Zombie Retailers

The Future of Omni-channel Will Not Be Evenly Distributed

Plus here are a few more that I feel were a bit under-appreciated:

Do Not Cross This Line

The Obsessive Core

Unleash The Demo’s

Hanging Around the Edge of the Pool

I’m grateful for all the support, comments and new subscribers during this past year. I hope everyone’s New Year is off to a great start.


Something bigger to believe in

You’ve got hand it to Santa’s marketing team. Kudos to his agency as well. And the chubby fella is totally killing it on social media.

Now, to be fair, his whole back story is more than just a little suspect. EVERY home in the world in just one night? Flying reindeers? What if I don’t have a chimney? And how exactly does he know if I’ve been naughty or nice? The big guy must have legions of ex-CIA and NSA’ers working for him. That sounds expensive. Just what IS his revenue model anyway?

Notwithstanding an often shaky narrative, and more than a few holes in the story, the mythology of St. Nick lives on and on. Santa abides. And why?

To be sure, there is a great deal of history and habit. But stripped of all the hyper-commercialism, the Santa story elevates us, provides hope, delivers joy and takes us outside of ourselves. It’s not merely about the pros and cons, comparing features and benefits, getting the lowest price.

The Santa story works because it gives us something bigger to believe in.

Kind of like any great brand.


Whatever holiday you celebrate (or don’t), I hope you experience the peace and joy of the season, and join me in extending compassion to those less fortunate than we are.

As the channels evaporate . . .

By now, it should be readily apparent that a very large–and growing–percentage of customers bounce back and forth between digital and physical channels when shopping.

By now, it’s obvious that the exploding usage of mobile devices is blurring the distinction between e-commerce and bricks & mortar.

By now, we should understand that, in fact, it’s only retailers that talk about channels. You never hear customers speak in that way.

And yet…

And yet, we obsess over same-same stores sales, rather than same-market or same-customer segment performance.

We close under-performing stores in a quest to boost profitability, only to discover that we’ve often made matters worse.

We organize our teams, metrics and incentives around sales channels instead of customers, and wonder why we struggle with consumer relevance and engagement.

As the channels evaporate in the minds of our customers, the only two questions for us are: do we accept this reality and are we ready to act accordingly?

Oh, and one more: just what the heck are we waiting for?



Zombie retailers

As we enter the home-stretch of the holiday shopping season, the winners and losers grow more obvious by the day.

Also increasingly obvious is a sub-category of retail brands that can best be labeled “zombies.”  This sad lot includes brands that may appear to be alive, but for all intents and purposes are already dead. Radio Shack and Sears find themselves at the top of this list, but they are hardly alone.

The retail graveyard is filled with well-known and formerly sizable brands that once had customers beating a path to their doors. Borders, Linens & Things, Blockbuster, CompUSA, just to name a few, have all disappeared in recent years. Coldwater Creek and Delia’s are two once successful companies that have initiated liquidation procedures just in the last six months. The new year will surely bring a raft of store closings and bankruptcy filings.

Much more recently founded pure-play e-commerce sites aren’t immune from this phenomenon either. Many once seemingly promising ventures have gone under or seen their valuations pummeled (I’m looking at you and Ideel). Many more are struggling mightily to find a pathway to profitability and are starting to see their venture capital sugar daddies lose patience. As it turns out, selling at a loss and trying to make it up on volume doesn’t work on the internet either. Their “zombie-ness” may not yet be apparent, but it’s there.

The seismic changes affecting the entire retail world are so profound and, in many cases, have come on so quickly, that it has been impossible for even the leaders to respond effectively. Yet, the brands that have gone under, and those that are not far behind, have all made a few common mistakes:

  • They either lacked deep customer insight or were unwilling to act on what that insight told them
  • They were afraid to compete with themselves by aggressively embracing (organically or through acquisitions) new formats and concepts that were gobbling up market share
  • They became overly focused on cost-cutting and store closings as the path to prosperity rather than doubling-down on customer engagement and growth
  • They protected their older, core customers while failing to acquire a sufficient number of new customers
  • They often chased revenue without an eye on profitability
  • They didn’t realize that customers buy experiences and solutions, not just the products that comprise them.

I suspect that when the post-mortem is done on next year’s zombies that transcend to the great beyond our autopsy will reveal similar patterns.

Clearly–and sadly–many retail brands are now beyond repair. For those that are struggling but still have hope, the real question is how many of these very familiar mistakes they will keep making.