Sometimes great minds think alike, don’t you think?

As my clients can attest, I have become obsessed with the story of corporate-marketing-executive-turned entrepreneur Susan Nethero.

During her years working at Xerox, Time Inc. and other companies, Nethero grew tired of the fact that a product she absolutely needed – a product that manufacturers knew she needed and would pay (a lot) for – was never available with the characteristics and benefits she wanted.  That product was the bra, and Nethero eventually became dependent on European offerings because they came in more sizes.

But then she did the magic trick of turning observation into insight, realizing that millions of other women must be as frustrated as she was. Nethero’s chain of Intimacy stores opened in 1992 and, today, she has 15 stores and $36 million in annual revenue.  

Because many women walk around in the wrong size bra (like Nethero had), the key to the entire Intimacy experience
is the professional bra fitting required in all the stores. Why is it not optional? Because the right fit is the brand’s vital differentiator… allowing Nethero, among other things, to charge $90 when the typical department store bra is around $45.

If that sounds like a lot, it’s not.  Any woman will tell you that – compared to working out or plastic surgery – it’s a small price to pay to look younger and 10 pounds lighter. “There is no way that a brand can easily compete in the high-end market without something uniquely special,” says Marshal Cohen.   “With intimates, comfort and fit are way up high in the chart, and price is a lot less sensitive.  In other words, you want to remove price from the equation.” When Nethero went on Oprah – who promptly instructed her fans to get professional bra fittings in 2005 – Intimacy’s business exploded.

So what if a newbie tries to screw up that equation by turning down a fitting?  What happens, you ask?  What happened was that Nethero took the locks off the dressing room doors.

She took the locks off the doors!

This blew me away. Think about it.  Nethero overruled a customer’s express wish, because Nethero knew something that a prospect doesn’t know yet: that a fitter will make her look and feel fantastic.

I guess they don’t call her the “bra whisperer” for nothing.

How many marketers have you known who had such confidence in their brands’ ability to deliver that they would go up against a customer in order to do so?  What would our bosses say about that? Isn’t the customer always right??

Not if the marketer has 100% confidence that specific aspects of the brand experience are vital to brand performance and ultimate customer satisfaction.

And just as I was pondering this thought, I discovered two esteemed friends and great marketers doing the same.  In “The Customer Isn’t Always Right,” Steve McKee, president of McKee Wallwork Cleveland, warns that a marketer must listen to the voice of the customer “with discernment” and offers up three instances when “you might want to think twice” about reacting to customer feedback.

The first is the point proven in the Intimacy story:  customers can’t know.  Henry Ford was a big believer in this one.

Second is a situation in which the customer can’t or won’t say what he wants – as in a B2B sales scenario where a prospect plays coy.  And the third is when a customer won’t stop asking.  McKee is sure that Target’s management firmly believes in the chain’s slogan, “Expect More. Pay Less” – up to some point before the chain goes out of business.

Similarly, Stephen Denny, author of the new book, Killing Giants, writes in a blog post that “it’s your job to do your job.” In a world where total strangers seek out each other’s opinions online (in reviews that might not even be real), you are still very much responsible for what you do and who you are.  Brand managers at Nike, Apple and others are “pretty firm that their brand is their business – they own it, they manage it daily and they know it’s important work.”

In one week, the three of us were studying the same angle on what makes a brand a great brand: knowing that – sometimes – you as a marketer must have the gut-level knowledge that your choices are the right ones.  After all, consumers voted for New Coke, and those who saw the Sony Walkman didn’t think it had a future.

Think about the brands you manage and those with which you have a personal connection.  Chances are that at least one of them wouldn’t exist if there weren’t people who believed in it, protected it, grew it… and ignored a lot of focus groups along the way.

P.S. CTPB = Contrary to popular belief.

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A version of this post was originally published on the Marketing Executives Network Group blog, MENGBlend.

Internet, Shimternet

June 14th, 2011

Do you ever feel like your head might just explode if you have to shove one more new business term in there? Or perhaps you’re simply in the mood for a friendly game of buzzword bingo. I have some extra cards right here…

Who could blame you? I mean, I think I actually met with the guys in this VIDEO just last week:



There isn’t room to list all the new words, terms and acronyms we’ve learned in the last few years:  moblog, m-commerce, phishing, NFC, PPC, CPA, CPO, CPS, DSP, skyscraper, pure play, Splinternet, semantic Web, SMS, TCP/IP, VOIP, XML, RSS, API, CSS, SMM, SMO, black hat (and white hat – I mean, duh) SEO, cybersquatting, adware, P2P, spider, favicon, mousetrapping, greenwashing, augmented reality, branded entertainment, geotargeting, behavioral targeting, network effect, SERP, cloud, triple play, (Web) abandonment, (Web) arbitrage, bot, deep linking, delist, linkbait, spyware, widget, maybe a million others… and certainly dinner isn’t dinner without a good forking.   Or something like that.

But there’s a new new term whose fear factor I want to eliminate right away: agile commerce. As defined by Forrester in its March 2011 paper, Welcome to the Era of Agile Commerce, agile commerce is “an approach to commerce that enables businesses to optimize their people, processes and technology to serve customers across all touchpoints.”

There are 15 pages of text and charts delineating the difference between multichannel and agile commerce, and the analyst also penned a Forbes article titled “Why Multichannel Retail is Obsolete.” “Agile commerce is a metamorphosis,” he says. “It is time for organizations to leave their channel-oriented ways behind.”

The problem is that all this relies on what I consider to be a seriously antiquated view of multi-channel operations.

The definition of multichannel commerce upon which the new agile commerce movement depends is a way of doing business that leaves customer touchpoints and transactions in silos: potentially envisioned, designed, managed and measured independently from one another.  It assumes that prospects/customers probably use one channel but not another (e.g. Jack’s a “store person,” Jill’s a “Web person,”), that user expectations in each of these channels do not overlap, that content, design, functionality, payment options, etc. etc. all differ from one channel to another and that it doesn’t matter because consumers don’t really see all the channels anyway.

What contemporary marketer believes this anymore?

Is there a digital-savvy executive alive who doesn’t know all the stats about connectivity exploding, and audience fragmentation, and the accelerating evolution of technologies, and the emergence of smartphones and tablets and ebooks (oh my)?  Is it news that TV watchers also like being online, or that newspaper readership is sliding around? And yet these are the metrics and conversation points that the paper uses to announce that it’s a new world and that ecommerce players better get with it.

For any marketer trained to start with the customer, the revelation that we must strive to deliver a 100% (a girl can dream) seamless experience from one channel to the next and that our business eco-system must be woven together and able to learn so that a user’s behavior is reflected and rewarded as she wanders from one touchpoint to another… well that’s no revelation at all.

Good marketers recognized and began turning their organizations toward this vision many moons ago.  The consumer is where everything begins and ends.  In the future, channels will be like lights in a galaxy that deliver a seamless, 24 hour brand experience.  Rather than you having to travel to the brand (e.g., you drive to the store), all the access points will do the virtual traveling instead.  With you in the center, the brand will constantly update its customized knowledge of and relationship with you, in all directions and in nearly all applications.  A little like “Minority Report” but in a good way – and without having to remove your eyeballs.  [And yes, I wrote this paragraph while entirely sober.]

Now don’t get me wrong here; I doubt there is an organization on the planet that feels fantastic about where it is on this trip we’re all taking together.  Forget even the fantasy of walking into a physical location and having a person (or digital display) interact with you in a way that reflects a 360° level of knowledge of my relationship: I’d be excited just to talk to a call center rep who can see me transacting on his company’s own website in real time and help me out in a normal, knowledgeable manner.

We have a long long (long) way to go.  But this post is my way of saying that no one should be discouraged, or privately assume that keeping up is impossible.  The  next time you see or hear a new Internet/marketing/digital business buzzword, it may be just that: a new arrangement of letters describing a principle you already understand (perhaps better than those making up some of these new terms in the first place) and live by.

Either way – as long as we keep our heads – it makes for a good game.  And, hey! I’ve got Bingo!!!
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A version of this post was originally published on the Marketing Executive Network Group‘s blog, MENGBlend.

Beyaz Weird As Possible

June 6th, 2011

Birth control ads are strange. Exhibit A: the Nuvaring ad (see HERE) where the gals take off their clothes and climb into a hot tub with their yellow bathing suits on. Each woman has a… each has a number… and… and one has a bathing cap… and then the hot tub spins like a ride at Disneyland… and then there’s a song that makes me hear Satan’s voice urging me to kill (Mommy!).

I don’t know what’s going on, other than understanding that I better use Nuvaring because remembering to take a pill every day is simply too much for me. At least I think that’s what is says.

So in a land of weird, one must rise extra high to be noticed – and I think Beyaz overshot by a mile. Check out the ad (see below or HERE):



The “it’s good to have choices” positioning is fine, but to put women in a shopping setting, where they can simply choose the men, educations, homes and discretionary incomes of their dreams off a shelf at any time – with as much thought and planning as picking a bottle of ketchup – is offensive. And what was the general idea here: that because women understand shopping the best, we can make birth control a section of a department store to help the message hit home?

Then there are the choices themselves. The home the female shopper chooses is a sweet little purple house, with a car out front that looks like it’s from the 50s. Is that where women belong, or when women were “best” – in the 50s? Have we already failed if we don’t want the picket fence?

And the stork: the only “selection” that tries to literally follow the woman once it is rejected (a stalking stork, if you will). All the women in this ad are still in their 20s: are young women supposed to have babies… or else? Note there are no “and” equations in this ad. It’s all about the “or,” as in grad school or a baby. None of the shoppers leave with more than one item.

or me, though, the most disappointing episode takes place over in the Significant Other section of the store. First of all, the store only carries men in inventory. Being homosexual is not a choice in this retail establishment. Then comes the best part: a woman standing in front of a man (under glass…), only to have another female come along with a smirk on her face and snatch the man off the shelf.

That’s nasty and cruel. And pits women against one another.

The site TresSugar.com does a great job breaking down the ad, scene by scene, object by object. Take a look if you get the chance.

Even in the fantasy world of flying snacks, sodas that never make you fat and perfect hair, I think this ad is over the top in its disdain for women.

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This is an encore presentation of a blog post originally published on Stephanie Fierman: Marketing Daily.

That’s a trick question.

Check out my second blog for the new post, “BEYAZ CREEPY AS POSSIBLE.”

And thanks.


In December 2007, I went to a breakfast about women and financial services and wrote the post you see below as a result.

Flash forward to February 2011, and Wells Fargo launches a new Web destination for women thinking about retirement, backed by the results of a new study on the same topic. 

As I surfed over to Beyond Today, I was optimistic.  Unfortunately, I found more of the same.

Really happy older couple

Why why why must we continue to alienate big blocks of women? 51 million women in the United States are single and I’d wager that a lot of them, like me, don’t cook.  To start a blog post about investment allocation with “Pasta, pot roast, peas… ever get in a rut with your menus?” is just old school. Not to mention the shot of the hysterically-delighted older couple (maybe he’s on Viagra) on the home page while 40-50% of marriages end up in divorce, 32 million people live alone, women live considerably longer than men, etc.  Or the primary involvement of Jean Chatzky: an expert I like, but one who is frequently seen in other venues (like The Today Show and Oprah).

In other words, there’s no new news here – still Version 1.0.  I guess I expect more.  Maybe the thrashing is because gender is no longer (or shouldn’t be) a primary segmentation characteristic in the first place.

Women And Financial Services
December 2007

I attended a breakfast last week entitled “Marketing to the Female Investor.”  I was pretty jazzed about this because, in addition to a pretty good expert panel, the core of the event was a review of fresh research on the topic and I was looking forward to getting a sophisticated update on my own experienced-but-possibly rusty notions.

That’s not exactly what the audience got.

The research’s executive summary declares that “single women are on the rise” (is this the 70′s?) and the study confirms that women are living longer, marrying later, get 58% of all undergrad degrees awarded in the US and are opening businesses at 2x the rate of men.  Speakers presenting the research still referred to this as the “women’s market” – despite the fact that 52% of all US citizens are female – and declared that members of this group have “special needs.”  The research itself, as in years past, said that 71% believe that financial services marketing is targeted to men, and fewer women then men say they understand financial services products well or extremely well (e.g. mutual funds, stocks, IRAs, trusts).  A nervous presenter inadvertently plunged me into a moment of despair when she explained that, while the female respondents may not have an equal understanding of said products, “they are still intelligent.”

Good grief.  Had nothing changed in 15 years?

When the morning (mourning?) turned to the panel, however, the tone began to change for the better.  Most of the panelists’ real-life priorities and programs focused on women’s changing roles in society, and how these role changes are increasingly non-linear:   that women, more so than men, may move back and forth between the core roles of provider and caregiver… and may, as a result, be more or less educated about financial services, may be shopping for products at different times, etc.

So is there a primary segmentation scheme more relevant than gender?  Is it more valuable to target based on whether a person of either gender is home taking care of a child or aging parent vs. bringing home the bacon?  With roles, education levels and life span all changing, is gender becoming a secondary variable, rather than a primary one?

I sketched out the following during the session (and since I can’t draw in 3D, I just inserted the “Decision Maker” axis in here so I wouldn’t forget about it…):

There’s no question that, when observed in as close to real circumstances as possible, men and women tend to have different ways of consuming information, choosing financial advisors and so on.  But, right or wrong, “women’s marketing” has frequently been housed in retail bank groups focused on special niche populations – and this has not served to create a breakthrough positioning for, well, anyone.

Maybe we’ve reached a critical mass at which point it’s not whether one is female or male that should drive marketing communications and sales process design, but rather the role a person plays that dictates her – or his – financial needs, habits and buying behaviors.

It was my pleasure to be interviewed by Peppers & Rogers1to1 Magazine for a story on the evolution of branding.  My responses were folded into the article “Hasbro Gives Control of Its Brand to Customers” HERE

Below is an expanded version of my answers.  It’s a topic that’s at the very core of how I think about brands, communications and the marketplace.  I would welcome your thoughts.

I’m doing a story about the evolution of branding: particularly the growing influence of the customer experience in branding strategy.  How is branding strategy different now than it used to be?
The biggest difference is that a “brand” is something that marketers and companies are accustomed to controlling. In the past, a company sent all of the brand messages that general audiences heard.  Brands pulled the strings – they had all the information that was to be had, and so were able to manage consumer expectations and impressions. In that kind of world, an unhappy customer or supplier – or a disgruntled employee or competitor – could only reach as many people as were in his or her own circle of friends and associates.

Today, any individual can reach literally millions of people in real-time.  The message is whatever each person wishes it to be.  Even if that message is inaccurate or unflattering, its reach is almost limitless.  And a message someone posts can grow in influence as others pick it up and begin circulating it to ever larger circles – that’s how something becomes “viral” – which means that marketers have to be as viral as their customers, ever- vigilant and ready to address whatever comes their way from any corner of the world.

A quick example is Motrin. Motrin created an ad in 2008 that used an irreverent tone in an effort to sympathize with moms who have sore backs from carrying their infants.  This offended some moms,  Had this happened in 1988, you probably would not have heard about it unless you were personally close to one of these women.  Today, moms created and posted angry videos of their own online, the Motrin ad was viewed 400,000 times on YouTube and thousands of comments were posted on Twitter alone.  And this happened on a Saturday, by the way: we’re on consumer time now, not brand time.  So same reaction, perhaps, as many might have had 20 years ago, but much bigger megaphone.

This is something that companies and marketing teams are not organized to address – and it exposes all elements of a brand, warts and all, 24/7.  Brands are no longer the shouters: they’ve got to be the listeners. For brands that embrace a conversational relationship with the market, this can be an exciting experience that ultimately creates even more respect and love for a brand.  But for marketers who are accustomed to maintaining a tight rein, there are fundamental challenges ahead.

Branding used to be a way to gain awareness to a mass audience. But tools like social media, more robust customer data, and increased online activity in general seem to be pushing branding toward more personal engagement. What are your thoughts?
I don’t think it’s an either/or: each makes the other better.  Better data helps companies spend their mass advertising budgets more effectively and more precisely, which in turn provides air cover for more personal, individual efforts on the ground.  But there’s no question that it’s always been somewhat difficult to measure the effect of many forms of mass media, and – as other customizable channels become even sharper – there will be even more pressure on companies and their media partners to “prove” value from TV and other big efforts.

Personal engagement has another effect, as well: it raises consumer expectations.  How many times have you heard a frustrated person say “but they know me!” in response to an email addressed in the wrong language, or to the opposite gender? Consumers now know that companies have all this data, and they expect to benefit from it.  How well this data is, in fact, applied may then have an impact on whether the market listens to any messages a brand might send in any channel.

How do trust and credibility play a role in branding strategy these days, and how is it different than before?
Everything’s laid bare now.  There is virtually no nugget of information that isn’t available with a quick Google search.  An employee can create a pseudonym, for example, and tell the world how things “really” work, or that a company is being misleading or untruthful.  There’s no way to hold things back, or sweep something under the rug anymore. 

This puts intense pressure on brands to be more authentic and more worthy of consumers’ trust.  Let’s say a company manufactures merchandise overseas in unacceptable or even illegal conditions: in the past it could continue to do so for years, if not forever.  Now that people walk the globe with high-speed Internet access and cell phones that capture video, those times are over.  And if a company does get “caught” doing something today, these dynamics make the blast exponentially more damaging.

Where do you see the future of branding headed?
I’m hopeful about the future. My own professional community is full of marketers who understand that a brand is no longer corporate IP that needs to be policed and protected: it’s the beating heart of the enterprise. Instead of being talked at, consumers want to talk with a brand, and see the very human passion behind what you sell.  That can be scary, but it’s also pretty darn exciting.

What’s the biggest challenge to getting there?
One of the most difficult challenges is the uneven level of understanding and expectations of those who surround the marketer: the CEO, the CFO, the pressured head of sales and the Board, to name a few.  Executives already know what television advertising or print is, no explanation needed.  There’s comfort in that.  There’s going to be a lot of uncertainty and skepticism about dipping into a world that looks a little crazy, to do something a brand’s never done before.  And the road won’t be smooth: it’s already difficult to explain why something “negative” that’s said online is par for the course and why the brand must continue to engage, not back away.  I am very empathetic to the people on both sides of that table.

Any other thoughts?
For those who already know that good ideas rarely come from sitting behind a desk and who get charged up by listening to product users, prospects and partners, this is a great world.  Assuming a brand is being authentic, there is no real “bad” feedback – there are only lessons that help make you better and better.  There’s going to be plenty of trial and error, but this is all about getting closer to your customer, and that’s a great thing.

 

In A Fog

September 1st, 2010

by Stephanie Fierman

There’s been a bit of a scramble among brands seeking to leverage AMC’s popular series, Mad Men. BMW is one of the largest and most frequent sponsors, prompting an auto site to gush, “BMW’s underwriting for Mad Men is mad marvelous.”

Maybe so. After all, the series is about an advertising agency and the supposed glamour of the post-War period, all glowy and wistful. It’s an unusual opportunity to create a fresh and fun message… IF it makes sense for the brand.

BMW did two things right. First it aligned itself with the overall je ne sais quoi of the show: the ambience, the characters, their lifestyles, their appearance, their tastes, the physical environment. That provides a very broad base upon which to construct an association. BMW is already an upscale, luxury brand, so this association is more of a positive reinforcement than a flat-out creation.

Second, this attachment is even further strengthened because BMW’s ads run during the episodes themselves. As the show transitions almost seamlessly from content, to commercial, and back again, the company and its cars place themselves directly alongside the target of their (and your) dreams. The viewer sees both in the same sitting; the brain experiences both in the same moment. The connection is made in real time.

London Fog‘s new Mad Men-related ads, on the other hand, miss on both these counts.

Unlike BMW, London Fog’s owner, Iconix, chose to bet all its chips on one single character, Joan Holloway (aka Christina Hendricks). This demands a plausible or at least believable connection between what the product and the individual represent, which is not present here.

Today, London Fog is generally utilitarian, functional, male (androgynous?), classic (tired?) and generally unremarkable, while Hendrick’s Joan is nearly the polar opposite: voluptuous, sexy, powerful, womanly, stimulating. She’s brightly-colored cotton candy in a dress. When you watch the show, her sexual presence makes her nearly every man’s fantasy at one point or another. She’s unattainable, like a rare luxury item.

London Fog is the opposite. By its own admission, the brand has far-flung distribution and high consumer awareness: it holds little mystery, no magic, no unattainability. Mad Men‘s Joan would not wear a London Fog, and no woman (consciously or unconsciously) believes that she will be “more Joan” by wearing the brand. The effect is double-whammy, given that the clothes (which might look fine on “normal” people) appear boring, dull and awkward draped on Hendrick’s frame. The two zeitgeists are just too far apart.

Iconix may have thought that Joan’s essence would rub off on the product. And, prior to Hendricks, Iconix enlisted Eva Longoria and Giselle Bunchen for its ads, presumably with the same objective. The problem is that consumers cannot make brand connections that aren’t there or – worse – pulling in opposite directions.

Forcing an otherwise adequate brand into an environment that makes it appear inadequate is sad and unnecessary: an embarrassing kind of brand dissonance that can do the brand more harm than good.

Lastly, the Joan ads do not have the benefit of being absorbed in the same moment as the story itself. The connection failure is particularly dramatic when experienced in the middle of a fashion magazine, surrounded by circa 2010 fashions, photos and messaging.

Managing a brand – particularly one trying to meld a perhaps very different past with the present – is a fine art. The brand steward must have an unblinking grasp on what the brand is and is not, what it might become, how fast such a change in direction might be made and how to begin. If that direction is wrong, or the speed too fast, the desired messaging won’t find its target and you may needlessely displace the neutral-to-positive feelings most people have about the brand in favor of all the characteristics the brand does not possess. It’s work grounded in an almost DNA-level of understanding of brands, consumer desire and human behavior.

Most brands have positive if not wonderful attributes to emphasize. Show yours in its best light. Avoid whatever might be hot right this second if it just doesn’t fit, and create an environment in which the product can truly shine.

Is Santa the best marketer ever?

Think about it:

Long-term reputation management: No Tiger Woods problems here. Ever.  Do you think that Coca-Cola worries that it might go to sleep one night and wake up to find a sex tape of Santa on the Web? Have you ever noticed that the whole “Mommy kissing Santa Claus” business never seems to go past a certain point (paging Charlie Sheen…)?  Nope, not gonna happen.  Santa is one reliable dude.

Brand promise and channel integration: No matter where you go, you receive the same disciplined message.  Movies, television, email, radio, social media, Web, snail mail, music, retail… You get the same message everywhere and each channel builds upon and reinforces the others.  He’s big, he’s fat, he wears a red suit and he gives you what you ask for on Christmas Eve. Not December 23. Not December 25. It’s December 24. Every year. The end.

Never any hidden charges:  There are no Congressional committees convening to discuss whether Santa is taking advantage of consumers.  There is no small print.  You are not likely to be subscribed “accidentally” to a magazine simply by unwrapping a gift beneath the tree.  Santa’s pricing appears to be entirely above board. And somehow, shipping is always free.

mom-reading-santa-stephanie-fierman.jpgBrand advocacy: Think of all the parents who read stories about Santa, take their children to see Santa, tuck said children into bed on Christmas Eve with the promise that Santa will soon arrive with presents… Santa has a virtual army of adults carrying his message each and every year, in the exact way that will have the greatest positive impact on each individual child.  Wow!

Long-term view of the customer relationship: Santa is committed to NPV, and everyone’s NPV is BIG.  If you’re a  kid, he wants you to tell other kids what he gave you.  He wants you to talk to your parents and grandparents about what you want.  He wants you to bring your friends to meet him.  And when you grow up, he encourages you to invite him into your home and buy extravagant gifts in his name.  Santa: the ultimate “cycle of life” promoter.

Customer targeting and personalization: If you ask Santa for a bicycle, you’re going to get a bicycle.  You might also get socks, but if a bike is your preferred method of transportation, you won’t get a wagon by mistake. Further, Santa is very likely to build the bike in the exact color you specify. 

A message of “giving back” that’s attainable and not too sanctimonious:  Be nice, get your gift.  Be naughty, and you’re on your own.  No chest-beating, no lectures, no threatening.  Everyone knows the rules, and the rules don’t change.believe-in-santa-stephanie-fierman.jpg
 
Attributes powerful enough to overcome controversy: Santa has a problem that I don’t think any other brand has ever experienced – that is, some people don’t even believe he exists! You may not like a brand like Reebok, or Microsoft, or Hanes, or whatever, but you wouldn’t think of denying their very existence on the planet. And yet, the core attributes represented by Santa transcend even this existential challenge. Even those who “know” he doesn’t exist still enjoy the gestalt of the brand.  Name me a pizza chain or a department store or TV manufacturer who can say the same.

I could go on (ultimate loyalty program, no channel conflict, efficient manufacturing, distribution and customer service support…), but you get the idea.

Though another Christmas has past, perhaps we should all look to Santa for guidance in 2010.  After all, his operation is well-loved, profitable, always in growth mode and he never loses customers.  I’d be happy with that.

For more marketing thoughts and ideas, check out my second blog at Marketing Observations Grown Daily.

gucci-sunglasses-stephanie-fierman.jpgA recent article made me think back to a post I wrote last summer titled “Stephanie Fierman Likes Plastic Gucci Sunglasses – And Is OK With It.” The post says that experts who say that not-rich consumers are essentially duped into buying luxury goods are missing a large swath of buyers who know exactly what they’re doing: that is, buying fun, knowing full well that they could buy functionality at a far lower price. Hence, Gucci vs. $10 plastic sunglasses I can buy on the street. Plastic is plastic. But that dopey logo represents an indulgence a reward – for which I am sometimes willing to pay full freight.street-vendor-stephanie-fierman.jpg

BusinessWeek outlines the efforts of Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist and author of the book Predictably Irrational, who has spent the past year trying to figure out the forces that drive people to cheat (paging Bernie Madoff…)

Ariely’s very very boiled down conclusion is that individuals who are not directly faced with evidence or reminders that what they are doing is wrong are more likely to plow ahead and conversely, those who are reminded are less likely to do so. He describes a couple of experiments he used to try to measure “deception’s slippery slope.”
* Subjects who knowingly wore faux designer sunglasses later cheated twice as often on an unrelated task than those wearing authentic goods – take the first step and it’s that much easier to take the second.
* Get an auto insurance applicant to sign his name on the top of the application rather than the bottom, and he will be more honest about his driving habits – put the consequences right in someone’s face and you’re likely to get “better” behavior.

Here’s a TED video of Ariely talking about why people think it’s ok to cheat:

This has extreme ramifications and potential opportunities for luxury goods manufacturers like LVMH who spend a lot of money and time drawing attention to the costs of counterfeit goods.

Part of the problem is the arguments these companies use. Does the average woman – out with her friends to have a little fun on a Saturday afternoon without a lot of money – have any sympathy when the luxury companies are described as the chief victims of counterfeit buying? I don’t think so.

But what if these manufactures took a different tack, promoting the fact that buying faux fuels organized crime and following it through with stories of what these same criminals did with the $30 I paid for a fake Chloe bag? It certainly wouldn’t be possible in all venues, but could some of these firms visit places like Canal Street in New York and engage directly with potential buyers about the consequences of buying fakes? I don’t think I’ve ever seen this happen. I’ve seen local TV and newspaper stories about how a luxury company has done a raid with local law enforcement… but never a company interacting directly with consumers at the street-level point of purchase.

If was looking at a table full of fake Tiffany merchandise and given proof of the spot that my money goes to fund terrorist groups, what would I do? Would I stand there and think of the two friends I lost on American Airlines Flight 11? I believe I would – and I think I’d walk away from the table, and tell my friends about the experience.

The Guccis and Tod’s and Burberrys of the world need to find a way to debunk the idea that buying fakes is a victimless crime, and they need to do it as close to the moment of impact – the moment I’m about to buy that fake Cartier watch as possible.

Pity the poor retailer.

stephanie-fierman-grocery-shopping.jpgVandalism.  Gobs of costly employees. Shoplifting. Huge shipping costs. Rent, utilities and facilities expenses. Oh yes, and sales stink.

So the last thing the modern proprietor needs is to be compared to a storeeee innnn spaceeee… But Brandweek did just that when it published  “Why Can’t Shopping Be More Like Online Shopping?” (or “Why Retailers Should Be Acting More Webby” online*) a full-page editorial lamenting why oh why “regular” stores can’t be more like online ones.  Why bricks and mortar establishments aren’t taking “advantage” of all the stuff that “online competitors have been perfecting” for years.

Hmm.  Stores are far from perfect (my grocery store was renovated recently, and now I can’t find a darn thing) but come on.

Let’s take the points raised in this article one by one and give a quick, incomplete-but-adequate response regarding the practicality/reasonableness of each:

* Product reviews.  Where would a retailer put product reviews in a store where everyone would see them?  Who would be responsible for keeping them current? Who would be responsible for mending/replacing them if they were damaged or defaced? How could a chain retailer ensure 100% compliance across its network?

* Bestsellers. Pretty much “ditto” to the above.stephanie-fierman-online-shopping.jpg

* Search.  This one’s just mean. Stores have been experimenting with kiosks for years with mixed results.  Brands that want to experiment with shelf displays typically need to send their own people in to do it (expensive, time-consuming). The writer refers to a test that Campbell’s tried years ago. It alphabetized its soups in-store.  Result? They sold less soup.  And store maps? Who can read one of those and where the heck is it?

* Affinity. Since 10 out of 10 shoppers who walk through the door are looking for different items and would be lost if some products where re-grouped with others just because someone thought it should be that way. And if we’re talking about posting suggestions near products, see above for Reviews and Bestsellers.

* Brevity. The writer wishes there was a “convenience aisle” for check-out.  There is (15 items or less please). But when a store’s busy, you’re going to wait behind a bunch of people.  When was the last time you had to wait behind a bunch of people while checking out online?

And with this last point, I tip my hand: the presence and need for multiple (indeed, masses of) human shoppers and workers to make a store location on dry land work is the reason that my local grocer will never be like FreshDirect.  It’s not just money and profits that keep live retailers from taking on characteristics of Web shopping, as the article hypothesizes.  Some things, for all intents and purposes, are simply not able to be done well in the real world.

But if we ask why online shopping isn’t more like regular shopping, the good reason is also human interaction: a person that helps you figure out whether that sweater is black or navy. A greeter at the door who says “Hello” and thanks you for coming. A saleswoman who knows just by looking at you what size will work, and will give you an opinion on an outfit if you ask. A butcher who will tell you which cut of meat to buy when two choices look exactly alike.  A person who will give you a smile (or more) on a crummy day.  Oh, and I can go out and be home in less than an hour with the stuff I need.

Are there cranky and/or incompetent salespeople in stores?  You bet.  And websites malfunction, are often inscrutable and crash once in awhile.  Nobody’s perfect (not even technology).

So there you have it:  in real life, it takes a village to sell merchandise that one or two people can sell online – and that’s always going to be messy/ier.  Life’s not always pretty.  Cut your favorite store some slack.  Use channels and experiences for what each is good for and don’t bother wondering why reading online (or on a Kindle) can’t be more like holding a real book or vice versa.  There’s room in the universe for both.

* Dear Brandweek: You gave the article I tore out of my subscription copy an entirely different title on your website, thereby making it easier for me to find in the physical world than the online one.  Go figure.