Being Remarkable · Branding · Innovation · Leadership

This is not for you

I recently received a comment from a reader of this blog that said “if this is going to get political, I’m moving on.” He was apparently referring to a shot I took at Trump supporters in one of my posts which, I’ll now admit, I regret. I regret it not because it was off point or untrue, but because it was far too easy and obvious.

To be fair, while this blog is mostly about retail innovation, strategy and marketing, I often drift into my broader world view of leadership and spirituality. Regardless of where my musing takes me, it’s always been my goal to be authentic and to speak to issues I care about. It’s never been my goal to appeal to everyone. And, frankly, I don’t do some of the things that would grow a larger but decidedly less engaged audience.

When I ask myself “who is this blog for?” I’m comfortable with the answer that comes back. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. In fact I’ve decided that it won’t be. And if it’s not for you, that’s okay. So happy trails, my friend.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do for our brands –personal and otherwise–is to get crystal clear on who/what we are and who/what we are not. By doing so we make an intentional choice to not cast a wide net, to deliberately chase some people off, to cause some folks to say “I don’t get it.” There is great power in our confidently owning our “this is not for you” position.

Consider for a moment that restaurant that started out as Greek or Chinese or maybe only serving breakfast, but when business gets soft, they start adding things to appeal to a wider audience. Any chance they had to be unique and remarkable slowly gets diluted. Before long, they stand for absolutely noting. Before long their fate is sealed.

Rarely have the greatest artists quickly garnered wide followings. Many never did. Their relevance and importance remains undiminished. Few people “got” Picasso or Pollock early on. Upon hearing Coltrane or Mingus for the first time, most folks thought they were either weird or profoundly untalented.

Of course these eventual legends could have strived to broaden their appeal, they could have worked to smooth out the edges or stay in the realm of the more familiar. Thankfully they proudly stated “this is not for you” and forged ahead, working to deepen their craft.

It’s worth remembering that when we try to serve everything, we end up serving nothing.

When we try to please everybody, we end serving no one.




Branding · Leadership

Pander express

Are we experiencing a pander epidemic?

By now, we’re used to marketers preying on our insecurities and making promises that we will be thinner, smarter, more attractive to the opposite sex or whatever it is we don’t like about ourselves. Yet the gap between the hype and the reality seems to be growing.

By now, we’ve come to expect most brands to attempt to seduce us with deep discounts or some sort of special offer. But frequently the invitation is better than the party. Often when the hot deal goes away so does our business. And, despite many of these offers being fundamentally uneconomic, companies go back to the well over and over, more and more.

By now, we are quite familiar with politicians trying to appeal to our basest instincts. But the antics of Donald Trump have certainly taken us to new depths. Regardless of the growing chorus of outrage, the rhetoric only seems to get dialed up to 11.

Of course, people and organizations pander because it works. That is, until it inevitably doesn’t.

There is no doubt that more than a handle of people are comfortable staying in their cocoon of ignorance. There clearly are folks who have little or no ability to get beyond their most primal and visceral impulses (my best guess–based upon the most recent polls–is that it’s about 35% of Republicans. But I digress).

Fortunately, most people only get fooled once or twice before recalibrating. Most of us eventually see past the fascade. Few of us confuse bribery with loyalty for very long.

But in an ever noisier and more confusing world it seems like the tendency is to lay on the hype. To shout louder. To desperately chase the promiscuous shopper. To pander more.

But if we know that authenticity will ultimately shine through, that the truth eventually wins out, that buying business has a relatively short shelf life, why not eschew pandering right from the start? And if we find ourselves engaged in a bit of pandering right now, why not stop?

h/t to Stephen Colbert for the title inspiration.





Being Remarkable · Brand Marketing · Branding · Customer Growth Strategy · Frictionless commerce

The road to your brand

When the customers you wish to acquire and grow think about your brand is there a closeness and connection that instantly arises, or do they see it as far off with the road to relevance marred by potholes and other sources of friction?

Are they moving closer or drifting farther away? Do you even know?

In an attempt to draw distant consumers closer we are often tempted to create an express lane paved with discounts and other give-aways. While this serves the purpose of shortening their journey (and goosing our top-line) this frequently proves to be uneconomic and unsustainable.

As we craft a more compelling customer growth strategy a few things are worth pondering, I think.

How far is the distance to our brand?

Are there customers that are simply too far away and should be ignored?

For each of the segments we desire to grow, what does the road to our brand look like?

What can we do to smooth the journey?

Once they arrive, what can we do to make them feel especially welcome?

And what can we do that is so remarkable that they will want to invite their friends?

Being Remarkable · Branding · Digital

Creating meaning at scale

In case you haven’t noticed, there is a whole lot of bifurcation going on. And in many markets, the middle is all but collapsing.


At one end are the Walmart’s, the Home Depot’s, the Amazon’s–the low price, vast assortment guys. Their pitch is easy to understand. We have just about everything you could possibly want, virtually anytime you want it, at the low, low price. Operationally this is incredibly difficult to scale. But from the customer’s perspective, it couldn’t be more simple to grasp. Dominance and value (defined by price) creates meaning.

At the other end of the spectrum are the brands built around market niches, product differentiation and the somewhat intangible “brand personality.” What defines meaningfulness here is built on deep customer insight, emotional connection and, more and more, the ability to treat different customers differently.

Historically, luxury brands thrived by merchandising exclusive products in spectacular settings delivered face-to-face by well-trained sales associates. To the extent companies could replicate this model as they added stores, they could continue to create meaning and deliver it at scale. Yet, as all things digital become increasingly important, the notion of what constitutes a meaningful one-to-one “luxury” relationship is being challenged.

The best specialty stores have succeeded by curating merchandise for a particular “lifestyle” and presenting it in a distinctive environment that reinforced a unique brand image. These companies created a business model that was simple to replicate and led to the ubiquity of many of these brands in affluent malls and upscale shopping areas of most major cities. Now, with product choice and availability exploding and new micro-niche brands emerging online, the concept of “specialty” is being redefined.

The hyper-growth, venture-backed “pure-play” brands that have launched over the past few years–think Gilt, Bonobos, Warby Parker–found it comparatively easy to scale at first. They exploited many of the advantages of a direct-to-consumer model and employed low-cost acquisition techniques to build an initial base of customers–what I like to call the obsessive core.

But it turns out that creating meaning at the scale that will lead to profitability isn’t so easy (or economically viable). Too many newer customers of these high-flying brands have started to equate meaning with discounts. Others, it turns out rather predictably, need the meaning that comes from a physical presence to derive theirs. Many see this hybrid-model as an exciting new area of growth. Others see it as clear evidence that most e-commerce only brands are finding it very difficult to deliver meaning at scale.

In an anything, anytime, anywhere, anyway world, it’s getting harder and harder to break through the clutter, to win the battle for share of attention, to create the all essential meaning that matters for customers.

If you seem to be stuck in a sea of sameness, selling average products to average people, relentlessly promoting just to stay even, it’s time to get off the bridge. The collapse is near.

If your customer is choosing you mostly on price, you had better be the low-cost provider. Otherwise you will lose the inevitable race to the bottom.

If you believe you have the ability to be meaningful to a well-defined set of customers who choose you over the competition for specific, sustainable reasons, good on you.

Just remember, as Bernadette reminds us, it’s not so easy to create meaning at scale, particularly if you need that scale to stay in business.

Branding · Customer-centric · Marketing

The ecosystem of connection

We probably all realize that we are going through a connection revolution.

For many of us, scarcity of information, choice and access has given way to an abundance of stuff. The connection economy means we live in an era where we are literally one or two clicks away from nearly everything and everyone almost anytime we want. Relationships–with people, brands, causes, ideas–that were impossible just a few years ago are increasingly taken for granted.

As consumers, movements and things become more connected, many organizations that exist in their service aren’t keeping pace. Sure, plenty of brands have strong social media presence. Of course, monitoring online consumer sentiment is helpful. And yes, making it easy to share among peer-to-peer networks is a good idea.

Yet, far too many organizations remain internally disconnected in their data, information systems, marketing campaigns, processes, metrics and on and on. As Kevin points out, many brands still measure the success of customer contacts in isolation, not as part of a diet of interactions. But of course, it goes way beyond merely calculating marketing ROI.

Meaningful connection happens within an ecosystem. Seemingly disparate pieces weave together to become whole. Inter-relationships collide in both predictable and unanticipated ways. Relationships and trust build through cumulative effect.

As the pace of change accelerates, as consumers try to make sense of it all in an ever noisier world, brands that don’t line up their messages and capabilities to sync with the ecosystem of connection are falling further and further behind.

And once disconnected, once the customer sees your brand as a disjointed mess of disparate pieces, any hope for relevance is gone, perhaps never to be regained.

Being Remarkable · Branding

Sorry, no carnitas

Due to a shortage of “responsibly raised” pork, many Chipotle restaurants have been out of carnitas for quite some time. In fact, at their location near me, they have a sign prominently displayed on the outside door that reads “sorry, no carnitas.”

Now in the scheme of world problems this is hardly a crisis. And because I wasn’t in fact coming for the carnitas (what can I say, I was in more of a barbacoa mood that day) this had no direct effect on me.

But I thought about all those times I’ve stood in long lines at various establishments, or waited interminably for a salesperson to free up, only to eventually learn that they didn’t have what I’d come for. Sorry, you’ll have to choose something else. Or maybe you just want to come back? We’re expecting a new shipment on Tuesday.

And we’ve all been to the restaurant that is out of the menu item you just ordered from the waiter. Yes, we ARE known for our short-ribs, but the quinoa salad IS excellent tonight.

How about those times we queue up at some government office and when we finally reach the clerk we’re told we were in the wrong line to begin with? I’m sorry sir, but the line YOU want is over there.

Or all those instances we navigate our way through multiple levels of automated customer service only to discover there is no selection for the problem we are trying to solve and it’s impossible to get to a live agent. Press 5 for just shoot me.

Customer experience leaders, the brands that matter and endure, anticipate problems and try to resolve issues upstream. They head off disappointment at the pass.

Of course, they could take the attitude of simply getting you through the door and in the queue and then try to sell you on a compromise once they’ve sucked you in. But the smart one’s build trust by treating you with respect, valuing your time, giving you options and enabling a better choice.

That doesn’t always result in making a sale today. But I’m willing to bet it results in more sales over the long haul.

Being Remarkable · Branding · Marketing

Confusing the facts with the story

Perhaps you believe that people are rational and that when faced with compelling data, logically presented, they will inevitably move toward your way of thinking.

Perhaps you think that facts are all that should matter, that facts magically rise above mere opinion or prevailing sentiment, that facts are morally superior to emotion.

Perhaps when your argument isn’t carrying the day, when your marketing isn’t getting the traction you want, your default is to pile on more data and shout it a bit louder–and, ideally, PowerPoint would be involved.

But as noted marketing strategist David Byrne reminds us

Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts don’t do what I want them to.

Of course it’s important to have facts, logic and integrity on our side.

But as long as we’re trying to persuade actual human beings, it’s the story that gets our attention, that trumps the details.

Ultimately, it’s the story that we remember, that evokes our feelings, that connects us and moves us toward action.

Brand Marketing · Branding

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.

Brand Marketing · Branding · Winning on Experience

You can’t own ‘discount’

As we enter the holiday season, retailers are already guns ablazin’ with sales and promotions. Like all price wars, this will end badly for just about everybody. Spoiler alert: if you don’t have the lowest cost position you can’t win a price war.

Now don’t get me wrong, I get that promotional marketing is part and parcel of most retailers’ business models. I’ve been around the block a time or two (or three). You may recall that I was in that Johnson guy’s face big time for pulling the plug on discounts at JC Penney. Sales and promotions aren’t going away any time soon, nor should they.

And I certainly understand that retail competitive dynamics are such that if you aren’t aggressive early and often you risk losing out on market share, which is critical in a largely fixed cost business where slow-moving inventory may start to lose value rapidly.

Yet if you look at most retail marketing–particularly during the holidays–you’d think that % off was the entire basis for competition.

The simple fact is that very few players can successfully build their brand positioning around having the lowest prices or the most aggressive sales. Very few.

If you aren’t in this elite group, the bottom line is that you can’t own discount. And chance are you’re just chasing your tail when, instead, you should be laser focused on other dimensions where you have the potential be relevant and remarkable and to build a differentiated, defensible position.

No you can’t own discount. But discount can sure own you.

Branding · Retail · Strategy

Sears: It’s even worse than you think

The only thing worse than witnessing someone fail, is hearing the denial that pervades their explanations of why things are going to be so much better in the future.

With Sears Holding’s most recent earnings announcement we get yet another quarter of abysmal results and yet another  round of “trust me honey, I can change” assertions from management. Don’t buy it.

Sears was struggling mightily with relevance and profitability when I was still in senior management there more than a decade ago. In the intervening years–despite a merger with Kmart and numerous revitalization experiments–the company has moved from mediocre to bad to just plain sad. Unfortunately, we must now conclude that Sears has zero chance of surviving in anything resembling its current state and size. Given this tragic reality, I recently called for the company to stop the insanity and liquidate ASAP.

While my post was deliberately provocative–and more than a bit hyperbolic–it illustrated two fundamental and important points. The first, that Sears cannot and will not be turned around and therefore the highest value for shareholders is through an orderly liquidation. The second, more urgently, is that the underlying assets continue to decline in value and the sooner their break-up value can be realized, the better.

Last week’s earnings announcement only amplifies my argument–and suggests that things are even worse than most people think. Here are a few points to ponder.

  • Traffic continues to wane at malls and department stores as shoppers increasingly favor online shopping. This trend is sure to continue in the aggregate and bodes poorly for the underlying value of Sears real estate.
  • While they are still far from turned around, JC Penney is on a strong trajectory and beginning to win back customers lost during the Ron Johnson era. A resurgent Penney’s is a growing problem for Sears efforts to improve its soft-lines business.
  • Sears’ much vaunted “Shop Your Way” is clearly making things worse. Sears has flogged this very mediocre rewards program as a transformative strategy. While it’s theoretically helpful in building a customer data asset and enhanced personalization capabilities, all it’s done in practice is give a growing majority of customers an extra layer of discount, without moving the dial on retention or share of wallet. The more people who join, the worse margins get. With its cash balances dwindling, Sears simply cannot afford to keep buying sales.
  • The value of Sears major private brand assets (Kenmore, Craftsman, DieHard) is intrinsically linked to their channel performance, which continues to deteriorate. These brands are also much stronger with an older customer. Here too, Sears does not have time on its side.
  • Lack of investment and a shrinking store base is making things worse. Sears abject failure to invest in their stores to retain any measure of competitiveness has accelerated Sears decline. While some store closings and realignment of space is necessary for virtually any retailer, Sears aggressive down-sizing points to a value proposition problem, not a fundamental real estate issue. Dramatic further shrinking risks de-leveraging the expense structure, losing the support of key vendors and ultimately makes it harder to be top-of-mind with consumers.
  • They’ve yet to find a buyer for Sears Canada. Why? Potential investors see it as a real estate play, not as a going-concern. Bottom line, Sears is very unlikely to get close to their asking price.

Dead brand walking.



Full disclosure: I have a long, albeit modest, position in JC Penney.