Push “blend”

It wasn’t very long ago that engaging with most brands meant dealing with their disparate pieces. One 800 number for order status, a different one for delivery. Websites and physical stores that often bore only a passing resemblance to each other. Getting bounced from one department to the next to resolve a customer service issue or get a question answered. And then needing to start over again with each person with whom we spoke.

Then–slowly at first–some companies began to realize that customers didn’t care how we were organized. Customers didn’t want to hear about the limitations of our “legacy systems.”  We may talk about channels, but customers don’t even know what that means. And they don’t care.

Upstart brands challenged the incumbents by attacking the friction in consumers’ path to purchase. Companies as diverse as Nordstrom, Amazon, Bonobos and Warby Parker made it their job to integrate the critical pieces of the shopping experience on behalf of the customer. They challenged the traditional verticality in retail and embraced the notion that brands are horizontal.

They assembled great ingredients and then they pushed “blend.”

As retailers we may be organized by the parts and the pieces. We may make decisions on discrete components. We may measure and tweak each variable in the equation.

But at the moment of truth, when the customer decides to enter our store, click on an ad, put another item in their cart or recommend us to a friend, she’s thinking about the whole blended concoction.



All in

There is no shortage of business bestsellers, insightful white-papers and Harvard Business Review articles regaling us with multi-point programs to drive successful growth strategies. Consultants abound–including this guy–pushing clever frameworks to guide your brand to the corporate promised land.

Best demonstrated practices. Core capabilities. Disruptive innovation. Business process re-engineering. We’ve heard it all.

Yet despite an abundance of knowing, there is a paucity of doing. The same companies with the same access to the same information–employing high quality, well-intentioned  executives–get widely (and sometimes wildly) different results.

Having spent more than a decade working in omni-channel retail driving customer-centric growth initiatives, I’m often asked which company is the leader in this space. I usually say Nordstrom.

I led strategy and multi-channel marketing at Neiman Marcus during the time Nordstrom began investing in customer-centricity and cross-channel integration. So I can spout chapter and verse about the differences between our approaches and all the opportunities we missed. But with Neiman’s announcement this week of their new customer-centric organization (better late than never!) there are a few key things to point out:

  • Neiman’s has a lot of catching up to do
  • We knew the same things Nordstrom knew when they aggressively committed to their strategy nearly a decade ago
  • Nordstrom acted, we (mostly) watched.

We can quibble about some of the facts and the differences in our relative situations, but when it comes down to why they are the leader and Neiman’s–and plenty of others–are playing catching up, it comes down to this:

  • Nordstrom had a CEO who fundamentally believed in the vision and who committed to going beyond short-term pressures and strict ROI calculations
  • They went all in.

In a world that moves faster and faster all the time, organizations are really left with two core strategic options: Wait and see or go all in. Most choose the former and end up going out of business or stuck in the muddling middle.

Going all in doesn’t mean investing with reckless abandon or rolling the dice. Most all in companies do plenty of testing and learning. But testing with a view toward scaling up or moving on is a sign of commitment and strength not uncertainty and weakness.

Going all in must start at the top, with an executive who is wired to say yes. An all in strategy is fraught with risk. Mistakes will be made. You need a boss who has your back.

Going all in necessarily requires a supportive culture, but without complete organizational commitment it’s not nearly enough.

Going all in doesn’t pre-suppose a journey without bumps in the road. All in companies know how to fail better.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast?

Commitment eats strategy for lunch, dinner and a late night snack.


January Christmas lights

I bet you know at least one family who leaves their Christmas decorations up way past the end of the holiday season.

Those of us who think we know the appropriate time to take things down, box them up and move on, roll our eyes or derisively mock our neighbor who just doesn’t get it. “What’s the deal with these people?” we wonder every time we walk or drive past their place.

Of course, the “guilty party” is oblivious to our judgment–or simply doesn’t care.

Of course, all of our consternation won’t change anything.

Of course, none of this is very important anyway.

So why do we care? Why can we not resist pointing the finger at the guy down the street?

I wonder whether deep down we all know that we are holding on to ideas, beliefs, practices and resentments that no longer serve us. And it is so much easier to shine the light on what YOU should dismantle or let go of, than for me to cast aside or put away MY things that are well past their expiration date.

I wonder how many things all of us–and our organizations–cling to when it is well past the time to move on.

And I wonder how many people are able to see my metaphorical list of January Christmas lights and think “what’s the deal with this guy?”







Big picture before big data

So-called big data analytics has, without question, enormous potential. More and more, if you aren’t competing on analytics you aren’t competing. If you aren’t working to make your customer experience more personalized and relevant, you are on your way to becoming irrelevant.

Yet many, if not most, companies are not making good use of small data. If you haven’t figured out how to glean useful insight from what you already have, piling on more data is not only unlikely to help, it’s bound to smother and confuse your efforts.

So what to do?

For most brands the place to start is with a few big picture questions:

  • What are our most important customer segments and how are we doing against our desired outcomes?
  • What are the key drivers of performance for each segment? How are these drivers changing?
  • How to we stack up against our current and emerging competition? Where are we most vulnerable?
  • Where are the greatest opportunities right now to improve on the highest leverage drivers of customer profitability, loyalty and remarkability?

This relatively quick and easy exercise should yield a roadmap for where you need to go next in your customer insight journey. Generate a manageable set of hypotheses or options to guide your action plan. If a lot more data will help, fantastic. Get on it.

Many times you have plenty of data. What you need is more insight and more action. And if you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.


Who’s it for? What’s it for?

When you’ve been in business as long as I have–and believe me it’s really not the years, it’s the mileage–it’s fair to say that I’ve reviewed a lot of business plans. Some very compelling, most not so much.

The less than great ones are typically chock full of details on every imaginable component of the product or service. They are packaged in a beautiful PowerPoint deck. And there is a spreadsheet laying out the explosive growth that’s inevitably just around the corner.

It often looks very impressive. But, sadly, it is also completely irrelevant if there are not clear and crisp answers to two core questions: Who’s it for? What’s it for?

It’s simply not good enough to describe your target customer group by high level demographics (or as Seth says anyone who pays us money). Can you describe them in distinct, addressable segments? What are your plans to treat different customers differently? Why will they substitute your product for their current preferred solution? What will it take for them to become regular customers and, ideally, brand advocates in the face of current and emergent competition?

Once you’ve painted the picture on the customers you’ve chosen, now tell me exactly what your product and service does for them. Not features and benefits, but solutions, outcomes. Can you articulate what current customer compromise you are alleviating? I want to hear about the hole, not the drill.

Whether we like it or not, in more cases than not, persuading potential customers to shift their attitudes and behaviors–for reasons other than price–is harder than we’d like to believe. Before the explosion of digital commerce, when the cost of procuring information was typically high and consumers’ choices were often limited by how far they were willing to drive, an entrepreneur could often get away with poorly defined customer selection and a less than remarkable value proposition. Today, it’s a huge challenge to even get noticed, much less drive trial and frequent, profitable repeat business.

So before you gather aggregate market statistics and craft your hockey stick financial projections and fiddle with the font size of your pitch deck, get hyper-focused on the two key questions that ultimately separate the winners from the losers.

Customer Soar Points

Perhaps you’ve figured out that it’s harder and harder to differentiate your product or service in a world of seemingly endless choice and constant change. Perhaps you realize that even if your product IS better, commanding share of attention in an ever noisier world can be extraordinarily challenging.

The traditional approach to innovation is to assess customer dissatisfaction with current offerings and to then engineer a new and improved solution. If we address the sore points of the customer experience, the theory goes, incremental market share will come our way. Of course many have understood the limitations in this process, going back to Henry Ford’s apocryphal quotation about the customer’s ignorant desire for a faster horse.

The iPod was not invented because research unlocked consumer complaints that they had no way to carry around their vast music collection in their pocket. No focus group was held where those eagerly listening behind the glass heard a participant say “if I could only have instant access to every album I ever bought wherever I wanted. And oh, by the way, it’d be cool if it had a phone too.” There was no obvious customer sore point to be soothed.

What Steve Jobs “insanely great” design ethos brought to Apple was a focus on customer soar points. Completely new to the world approaches. Step functions in new utility. Products that were cool. Stuff that we wanted to talk about. Incremental improvement was not the goal.

For most brands this requires a fundamental re-think of what passes for innovation. For years, Apple was the outlier and it was easy to say that what they did was only appropriate for their segment–or that it was just too hard to replicate in other cultures. Ironically, today Apple has shifted its attention toward addressing customer sore points–battery life, screen size–and away from places where they can truly soar above the competition.

The world is becoming less of a place where an innovation strategy oriented toward rooting out customer annoyances or tweaking the design–going from 10 to the proverbial 11–can work. More and more, the emphasis needs to be on the remarkable, the unexpected, finding the place where the customer experience is truly elevated, not just enhanced.

Because when your customer soars, chances are your brand will follow.

It must be the suit

“The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem.”

- Jack Sparrow

If you follow the Winter Olympics you know there has been a controversy surrounding the US speed skaters’ new high-tech racing suits.

After a disappointing performance last week, the team blamed the outfits. Under Armour, the suits’ designer, went into damage control mode, defending their state of the art creation. Eventually they agreed to made adjustments so as to give the athletes “improved confidence.” Ultimately the team decided to ditch the new suits in favor of the ones they’d been using all year. And guess what happened in the next round? Same underwhelming result.

Now, I’m certainly no expert on aerodynamic sports apparel, so whether the outfits actually made one bit of difference in the outcome is beyond my normally powerful gift of prophecy.

I do know, however, that I have blamed my golf clubs on a poor shot as well as named the faulty string tension on my tennis racket for my inability to get my first serve in.

I also know that I’ve procrastinated on work I need to–or tell myself I want to–do because the circumstances weren’t quite right. Tomorrow will be better I’ll say. And I’ll start on that book when my office is finally renovated, or tackle that important problem once I clean out my emails or see what’s happening on Twitter.

Maybe if you are an Olympic athlete and success or failure can be determined by a difference of a tenth or even one hundredth of a second, the focus on the equipment is warranted. For the rest of us it’s very rarely the equipment or conditions that keeps us from doing our best work.

It’s easy to blame the timing or the lighting or the lack of the perfect accoutrements when we fail to face our demons and do the hard, uncomfortable work. But more times that not we already have exactly what we need.

So stop blaming the suit.

Passionate bystanders

Social media has done a lot of things, much of it positive and profound.

As social media has accelerated the dissemination of information, connected people across the globe in previously unimagined ways and  literally fomented revolutions, it’s also provided a dramatically amplified megaphone for the critic, the judge, the troll and those long on opinion and short on facts.

If you have a reasonable number of “friends” on Facebook, or follow even a moderately curated set of folks on Twitter, you regularly encounter people who are outraged at some situation in the world or take to bashing a hapless politician’s most recent gaffe. And if you are anything like me, you frequently “like” numerous do-gooder causes and retweet items that coincide with my strongly held beliefs and values.

It’s not hard to sense the strength of our convictions. Our passion is evident. Often, our world is clearly drawn in good or evil, black or white.

But so what?

Just as we’d never directly confront that “idiot” driver who cut us off–but have absolutely no problem cursing them from the safety our car’s interior–we find it to be so very easy to be the voice of moral authority from the protective cocoon of our social media account.

Teddy Roosevelt famously reminds us that “it is not the critic who counts”, that the credit belongs to those that actually do something. Passion is nice, action makes the difference.

Having tools like social media to express our displeasure to more and more people and to relentlessly hone the image of who we hope to be in the world ultimately means very little.

Without putting ourselves out there, doing the work, we’re all just a bunch of passionate bystanders.

Let’s connect in the arena, rather than on the screen.


In search of relevance

Excellence used to be the Holy Grail. Develop extreme competence in cost position or product innovation–or some other key element of the so-called value chain–and you were rewarded with strong market share and a high earnings multiple.

Today, not so much.

In an increasingly digitally driven world, advantages that used to endure for years, or even decades, can be supplanted in weeks or months.

In the sharing economy, capabilities that once created insurmountable barriers are suddenly the price of entry.

At a time when the long tail is the norm, and consumers can easily be overwhelmed by choice, share of attention becomes the scarce commodity. Your ability to break through the noise, to earn permission, to be seen and truly appreciated because of the consistent, deeply relevant consumer value you deliver, is now the essence of competitive advantage.

When you accept that most of what the consumer encounters everyday is, at worst totally irrelevant and at best mildly entertaining or a source of mindless distraction, than you embrace the quest for the remarkable and the intensely relevant.

And, by the way, you’re going to need a bigger boat.


Dead brand walking

The business graveyard is filled with brands that have gone from the lofty heights of recognition, stature and profitability to flagging relevance and, ultimately, complete extinction. For every long-standing, legacy brand that continues to thrive (think Kraft or Coca-Cola) there is a former high flier that is now gone (think Borders or Oldsmobile).

Sometimes companies are hit by a largely unexpected exogenous force that sends them reeling. More often than not, the company’s ultimate demise surprises no one.

For some of us–investors or potential employees, for example–the key is to separate out the walking dead from the exciting turnaround story or the metaphorical Phoenix.

For business leaders, the obvious implication is to become aware of the early warning signs of decreasing brand relevance, accept the need to change and take the requisite actions. The obvious question, of course, is why are there so very many strategy meltdowns?

In my experience, brands go from healthy to critical in one or more of three ways.

First, you can’t fix a problem you aren’t aware you have. Many dead or dying brands lacked a fundamental level of customer insight. So not only did they not appreciate their vulnerability early enough, they didn’t focus on the important things quickly enough.

Second, just because you know something, doesn’t mean you accept it as the new reality. When I was a senior executive at Sears–the poster child for dead brands walking–we had tons of evidence that clearly showed our weakening relevance and declining profitability in our core home improvement and appliance businesses. Did those that could have changed Sears’ destiny truly accept that without aggressively attacking these issues it would eventually be game over? Sadly, then, as it is now, the answer is “no.”

More recently, when I ran strategy and multi-channel marketing at Neiman Marcus, we had plenty of customer research and analytics that our strategy of narrowing our assortments and pushing prices ever higher was losing us valuable customers to Nordstrom (among others). Did we accept that it constrained our growth and made us increasingly vulnerable in an economic downturn? Fortunately the harsh lesson of the recent recession–and a new CEO–”forced” Neiman’s to address these problems before they became crippling.

Lastly, even with keen awareness and complete acceptance of new realities, we regularly fail to take the (often radical) action needed. This is mostly about fear. Fear of being wrong. Fear of looking stupid. Fear of getting fired. Fear of risking one’s legacy or resume value.

In fact, history teaches us that it’s far more common to see executives holding on to a mediocre status quo rather than risk competing with one’s self or making a big bet on that new technology or innovative business model that is ultimately used against them by an upstart competitor.

Frankly, if your inability or unwillingness to act on saving your brand is rooted in fear, don’t hire McKinsey or Bain (or me for that matter) to help you with your strategy. My advice would be to get yourself a new management team and/or go see a therapist. It’s far cheaper and more likely to work. And do this before your Board figures it out.

Dead brands almost never die by accident. They die by leaders failing to see the signs of terminal illness while there’s still time to save them. And they die by management teams’ inability or unwillingness to take the necessary and decisive action before it’s too late.

Hopefully dead brands walking can be a lesson to us all.