Confusing the offering with the story

We’re typically pretty good at laying out the features and benefits; at explaining all the reasons why our product offering is superior to the competition’s and why it makes perfect sense that you should choose us.

Unfortunately when the consumer is overwhelmed by choice, when it’s hard to get them to even notice us–much less take the time to do the rationale calculation we are depending on–and when all too often price can be the default tie-breaker, all that focus on defining and hyping our offering may not benefit us very much at all.

If you think Apple wins because of its superiority in a head to head features comparison, think again.

If you believe folks pay a huge premium for a Louis Vuitton handbag because of the demonstrably superior raw materials, fabrication and stitching, I’d beg to differ.

The idea that the $250 cream or scent being hawked at the cosmetics counters at your favorite fancy department store “works” meaningfully better than what’s readily available at your local drug store is pure folly.

Unless it’s all about price, people buy the story before they buy the product. We get in trouble when we don’t understand the differences and the priority.

Your mileage will vary

We’re told to pray to the god of omni-channel retail and all will be well. Yet after diving into a world of complexity and huge cash outlays, sales and profits remain lackluster.

We’re advised to study best practices and creatively “steal” the ones that resonate the most. Yet, despite reading all the books and hiring the leading consultants, our customer experience remains far from Apple’s and our culture feels like the anti-Zappos. And nobody’s working a 4 hour work week, I can tell you that!

We’ve built a sexy app. We’ve started an Innovation Lab. We go to all the best conferences. We even know to call it “South By” like the cool kids. We’re on every imaginable social media channel. We chant “seamless customer experience” at our staff meetings, for crying out loud! Why aren’t things going better?

Sadly, even if you do a great job importing what’s working for others, chances are you’re merely keeping pace. Necessary, not sufficient.

Assuming that what works for one brand and their unique customer set is readily transferable to your situation is not almost always wrong, it can be incredibly dangerous.

As the power shifts irretrievably to consumers, as their options for information, access and choice compound exponentially, as it gets harder and harder to command share of attention, your job is not to simply import what’s worked elsewhere and propagate “me-too” solutions.

No, your job is to deeply understand your unique situation, to embrace a treat different customers differently philosophy and to craft an intensely relevant and powerfully remarkable experience.

As tempting as it is to buy the sexiest car in the lot, equipped with the latest technology and anticipate the rush of exhilaration as you step on the gas, the fact is your mileage will vary–perhaps, a lot. The sooner we accept that the better.

And then it’s time to begin the hard, uncomfortable work.

But first you have to believe

I’m all for market studies. And consumer research. And fact-based analysis. I’ve rarely met a 2 x 2 matrix I didn’t like.

I’m all for laying out reasonable hypotheses and putting together a sound testing plan. If I’m honest, I’m pretty solidly in the  “in God we trust, all others must bring data” camp.

But for me there’s no getting around this pesky little slice of reality. More times than not, the truly innovative, the remarkable, the profoundly game-changing, emerges not from an abundance of analysis and left-brain thinking, but from an intuitive commitment to a bold new idea.

More than a decade ago the folks at Nordstrom didn’t have an iron-clad, ROI supported business case when they made the big leap into investing behind channel integration. They believed that putting the customer at the center of what you do is ultimately going to work out.

Steve Jobs eschewed logic and conventional wisdom to pursue Apple’s strategy of “insanely great” products. He believed that leading with design and focusing on ease of use creates breakthrough innovation and customer utility.

Just about every successful entrepreneur adopts a strong and abiding belief in her product or service in the face of facts and history that suggest that, at best, they are wasting their time and money and, at worst, they are simply nuts.

On the other side–with clients and in organizations where I’ve been a leader–a lack of belief that getting closer to the customer is generally a good idea or that it’s okay to fail has resulted in an unwillingness to invest in innovation. Any meaningful action was predicated on a tight business case and, when that was lacking, it was easier to do nothing than to take a chance. All these brands are now struggling to catch up.

Obviously commitment to a belief is not, in and of itself, sufficient. Execution always matters. And there are certainly plenty of strongly held beliefs that are wildly misguided or morally reprehensible.

Yet, when I embrace the notion that just about every great idea starts with a belief not a compelling set of facts–or that often some people see things way before my logical brain can-the field of possibilities expands.

And I believe that sounds like a pretty good thing.



No pottery, no barn, no crates, no barrels

Is Crate & Barrel a good name for an upscale home furnishings store?

Does it bother you that Pottery Barn has no pottery for sale and that their stores look nothing like a barn?

In my experience, one of the most frustrating experiences one can have in business is to go through a naming exercise for a new product or service.

I worked on developing a new specialty store concept several years ago and during the search for its name, our CEO came into my office virtually every day to either throw out some idea he came up with the night before (“what if we call it ‘Cool Stuff’?”) or to get my reaction to some existing store name that baffled him (“what’s up with Banana Republic?”).

Of course the issue is that so often we become obsessed with the name, rather than focusing our attention on building a brand. A name without a relevant, differentiated and compelling set of experiences, delivered consistently, over time, risks becoming just a meaningless description.

Now, experts in branding will tell you that there are qualities that make for better names–things like being unique, memorable, easy to pronounce, evocative, supportive of your positioning and the like. And, I certainly recommend that you incorporate this advice into your naming process. By now it’s clear that BlackBerry was a better choice than sticking with the product’s original more literal name PocketLink.

So go spend some time on finding a “good” name. But spend far more time and effort on creating and executing a great brand.

And if you need some inspiration, go do a Google search on your Apple.







Earlier this week I needed to call Apple support to get help with my iCloud account.  I was bounced to three different customer service folks over an hour or so before I finally got to Craig (who ultimately did a great job of handling my issues).

Most of the hour plus that I was on the phone I was on hold and had to listen to loud, tinny and static-filled bad 90’s music (I know that’s redundant).

I was struck by how incongruous this all was.  Apple stands for an easy customer experience, yet they could not manage to come close to being “one and done” in resolving my customer service issue.  Apple is the paragon of innovation, yet their hold music sound quality was an abomination.  Apple stands for hip and cool, yet their music offering was anything but.

Apple is hardly alone in delivering an incongruent brand experience.  As the distinctions blur between channels and touch-points, far too many brands still fail to create a seamlessly integrated experience regardless of how the customer chooses to engage and shop.

In a world of ever-expanding choices–where, increasingly, the consumer holds most of the power–your brand is only as good as your weakest link.

Incongruous may make you superfluous.

8 things that are wrong with your omni-channel strategy

Read anything about retail, attend a conference, get pitched by a consultant, evaluate a new software product, and chances are you hear “omni-channel” mentioned early and often.

So with geniuses like me throwing the term around ad nauseam, let’s get specific about what is probably wrong with your current strategy and what you need to do to go from meaningless words to remarkable action.

  1. Focusing on semantics rather than strategy. I’m often asked what’s the difference between “multi-channel” and “omni-channel” and my answer is typically: “Not much and who cares.” The point is having a strategy that reflects how customers shop today. The point is designing a value proposition that fights and wins in an increasingly blurred channel world. The point is delivering a compelling customer experience day in and day out. Call it whatever the hell you want. It’s what you do that matters.
  2. An appalling lack of customer insight. If you are blessed with a killer offering and virtually no competition, go straight to #3. But if you don’t work at Apple or Google, chances are you need an actionable customer segmentation. Chances are you need far better insight around consumer behavior. Chances are you need to be able to differentiate your target customers by needs and value. If you don’t have the data to treat different customers differently, you are at a huge disadvantage.
  3. Your mileage may vary. On one side, you have pundits screaming that if you aren’t “omni-channel” today you will be out of business tomorrow. On the other side, there are those that find that sentiment preposterous; just look at Amazon, they don’t have retail stores and they are doing fine. The truth is that every brand’s situation is different. An omni-channel strategy as an abstract concept is useless. An omni-channel strategy that reflects the reality of YOUR consumers, YOUR competition and YOUR current and future capabilities is all that matters. You aren’t Amazon. You aren’t Nordstrom. You aren’t Macy’s. Take what you like from some of the leaders and leave the rest.
  4. Screwed up metrics. Ask a retailer about their  “same store sales” and “gross margin rates” and “sales per square foot” and the growth in their brick and mortar stores compared with e-commerce sales and you are inundated with data and commentary. Ask them about growth in key customer segments, segment profitability, traffic conversion or retention rates, cross-channel browsing behavior and the like, and you are probably met with silence or meaningless babble. What gets measured gets done. But if you are focused on the wrong data you are going to do the wrong things.
  5. A dumb organization structure with dopey incentives. Most of the time I was at Neiman Marcus our then CEO would get on analyst calls and talk about our “compelling multi-channel strategy.” We included similar words in our annual reports and investor presentations. In reality, we were organized by channel, had no meaningful truly customer-centric efforts and all the top executives had incentives to maximize their own fiefdoms. Silos belong on farms. If are serious about “omni-channel’ you need to set a structure that reflects customers first, and channels and/or products, second. You need to pay your people on those things that truly advance key customer segment growth, engagement, loyalty and advocacy over the long-term.
  6. Confusing the vehicle with the destination. Yes, the web can be a sales channel, but for most retailers it is mostly a tool. Having a social media or mobile strategy is critical, but only as a means to your customer growth strategy ends. If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.
  7. Failure to ship. The era of months of intensive market planning, controlled testing and the big reveal are over. In case you haven’t noticed, things move a lot faster today, communication channels are increasingly blurred, and customer desires are far less predictable. Trial and error works far better than spectacular planning and flawless execution. Better to ship often and fix it in the mix.
  8. Neglecting relevance. Retailers are great at talking to themselves. And passing to where the receiver used to be. And wallowing in me-too-ism. And going big and easy, rather than small and challenging. Treat different customers differently. Make it relevant. Extra points for remarkable.