Recently, I have noticed a trend: I often write about things that help people cheat.

OK not cheat, exactly – it’s more like I often share information on services that allow you to address some sticky or uncomfortable situation that needs fixing but for which there is no obvious solution.  So, really, I like to think that I’m just making a small, humble contribution to the concepts of justice and fairness in this cold world.

Yes, marketers can talk themselves into anything.

goggle-stephanie-fierman.jpgAnyway, it really does look like I have a propensity for this kind of thing. First, I wrote about Google’s Goggle feature. Once activated, Goggle (here at the Gmail Lab) forces you to solve a series of math problems before it allows you to send email. The default settings turn the feature on only on weekend nights – the most likely times, I guess, for drunk emailing – but you can adjust the settings if you find yourself sending imprudent notes to your ex on Wednesday nights.

And there was Slydial – possibly the most brilliant invention since voicemail was created.  So you know all those people you’re supposed to call, but you’d rather stick a hot poker in your eye? Yeah – those. Or maybe you just need to make some calls so you can check them off your list… if only you didn’t actually have to speak to anyone. Enter Slydial (www.slydial.com). Instead of calling the actual person in question, you dial 267-SlyDial and enter the subject’s cell phone number. Slydial then connects you directly to the person’s voicemail so you can leave a message without ever having to speak to the person you’re “calling” (“Oh hey! It’s Stephanie. SO sorry to have missed you…“).

SlyDial is just beautiful. The ultimate antidote for those painful, anti-social moments.

office-kid-stephanie-fierman.jpgThen I wrote about The Office Kid (www.TheOfficeKid.com), a new product for the childfree among us. Anyone who doesn’t have a kid has found herself picking up the slack for a parent who leaves early for a soccer game/recital/school play/whatever tiny people do. So unfair! The Office Kid kit includes fake kid art for your office and your very own kid photo so you too can say that the school called and you must fetch your barfing kid immediately.  The Office Kid: $20. Midday shopping at Saks: priceless.

Today’s addition to this directory of shortcuts, gentle readers, is Expense-A-Steak from the New York steakhouse Maloney & Porcelli. This one is a little different from the others (“different” in that it’s the one most likely to get its creator sued for fraud), so I’m not going to recommend it or go into any detail.  From strictly an advertising point of view, however, this little baby currently produces 1.1 million instances in Google (including an editorial by AdAge‘s Bob Garfield and an entire article in The Wall Street Journal) – and that’s a lot of steaks that may have been served up at M&P.  [See my P.S on this one below]

So there you have it: my ongoing ode to tools and tactics that help you, uh, smooth the rough edges of life. Why do I love them? I think I just have a huge amount of respect for their creators – such ingenuity! My brain just does not work like that.  Good thing I’m smart enough to appreciate the fruits of their labors.

P.S. While wandering the Web for this post, I stumbled on a new Google feature, “Got the Wrong Bob?” Have you ever sent an email, only to receive a reply from a stranger saying that you’ve contacted the wrong person? “Got the Wrong Bob?” scans your Gmail files and tries to identify when you’ve accidentally addressed an email to the wrong person… before it’s too late.

I really seem to have a knack for this stuff.  You can thank (or Slydial) me later.

P.S. To the kids watching at home: when creating a tool like Expense A Steak that could conceivably be misused and abused by some goober -thereby exposing YOU to legal risk – it’s best to add a simple statement like “For Entertainment Use Only.” Your checkbook – and conscience – will thank you.

I am disheartened by GM’s new adverting campaign. And the fact that they even have one.

Oh, you say you didn’t know that GM was advertising again with your money? Exactly.

But putting aside the “taxpayer money” piece… what could the company possibly know yet that’s different from what it’s been saying (not doing, necessarily, but saying) for years? “We’re starting over, we hear you, we’re building ’em small, we’re going green, we’re gonna be competitive on a global scale.”

The company’s been bankrupt for 20 minutes. No one’s ever run or worked for or invested in a bankrupt GM. Why not take a breath and think about the very first words you want the American public to hear from you?

But instead the company moved forward with ads that were obviously made prior to the bankruptcy announcement. They already knew what they were supposed to say (see above rebirth, small, green, etc.), so they put some ads out there and paid Donny Deustch a bunch of money to go on Morning Joe and say great things… just as they might have done for any big new happening.

And there’s the rub. This advertising – who knows, maybe any advertising right now – IMHO says “business as usual” for this car company. With a tinge of humility (see hockey player land on his face), it’s all good feelings and autos and rah-rah.

In World War II, auto plants retooled to make planes, tanks and munitions. Michael Moore has said that “the only way to save GM is to kill GM” and that the U.S. must seize this moment in history to re-envision the corporation on nearly the same scale.

Whatever one thinks of Michael Moore, I believe we can all agree that radical change is in order. And maybe GM will shine once again in some new incarnation. I hope so. But by instantly and reflexively pushing out the standard flag-waving, sun-rising, children-playing advertising, GM has sent that first all-important signal to the marketplace: and it looks eerily like the old one.

Have you ever had anything in your life that you really liked – loved, even – and so when it went bad you raged, you beat your fists, you cried out in angst?!?

Then at some point, finally, you had to accept that whatever was to be, would be. As with the 7 stages of mourning, you had no choice but to find acceptance?

Well that it what I am trying to do, as a coffee-drinker and long-time sales and marketing executive, with respect to:

stephanie-fierman-schultz-starbucks1.jpgSTARBUCKS.

Yes, Starbucks. I give up. I do. Seriously. I started writing about Starbuck’s travails on a whole other blog, for cryin’ out loud, and things have only deteriorated.

Yes yes, I can hear you counter with a reminder that I like the Pike Place and the oatmeal, or that maybe the $4 breakfast combo isn’t too bad. Neither could balance a series of seemingly endless missteps that I did not think could get any worse. Then Howard Schultz rode back into town on his “You ‘executives’ need help; I’m back to bring this place back to its roots” horse and the place went entirely over the edge.

Seriously – I am like this because I love Starbucks coffee.

The problem with Schultz’s naked arrogance is that the world around this company has changed forever. The “roots” from which this company originally drew sustenance are long gone. We can all see that the company over-extended itself with respect to both its geographic footprint and prices… but where is the leadership?? Schultz has been back in that seat for nearly 2 years.

Just as I can’t blame Obama for AIG’s 2008 bonuses, I’m not going to pin firings and store closings on Schultz. He had to clean up a mess that he found upon his return. But beyond that… he spent part of his comeback interview in last July’s Portfolio magazine lavishing praise on a “magical” blended drink from Italy that was “going to be the next Frappuccino.”

Meanwhile, I can’t get a cup of coffee in under 15 minutes in the morning and have to wait for the milk to be refilled.

Since the Portfolio interview last summer, the company’s made a number of “puzzling” moves, including:stephanie-fierman-costco-starbucks.jpg
– launching the new Vivanno (starting at $2.79)
– reversing its decision to kill the breakfast sandwiches that were difficult for staff and smelly for customers
– maintaining prices despite the worst recession in living memory
laying off staff with no accompanying attempts to address the stores’ painfully long lines
– creating a new rewards program that was minimally rewarding (Costco had a better deal)
– promising to eliminate the music program that remains in full swing in New York (where the music rack is often neater and more stocked than the condiments counter)
– announcing a new instant coffee

Earlier this week, I cut to the middle of a WSJ article about Starbucks in which I spotted a quote from Schultz: “The issue at hand… is the cost of losing your core customer. It’s very hard to get them back.” I saw a spark of hope – at last, maybe the chain was going back the basics. Was it possible??

Nope.  Instead, the article says that Frappuccinos will come off the menu boards altogether, only to be hand-sold by a salesperson in what will undoubtedly be a lengthier, more harried transaction.  And in a world headed toward greater transparency, where restaurants are being forced to post calorie counts on their menu boards, Starbucks is headed in the other direction with a plan to remove prices (prices!) from their menu boards.  If you want to know what your order actually costs, a staff member will have to stock and point you to a new paper menu somewhere on the jammed counter next to the CDs. 

Ironically, Schultz’s response to all this is to start running a new ad campaign that counters the “myth” (his word) that Starbucks coffee is too expensive.  Unfortunately, nothing reinforces an existing impression that your products are probably too expensive than you deciding to hide your prices from me.

But, hey: new, “more sophisticated” test stores will have wood decor and a big wood table.

Saving core customers, making a store feel “more like a coffeehouse” – these are worthy ideas rooted in the company’s past that should remain. The thing is, a brand must sometimes re-envision its execution of such fundamental values based on the contemporary circumstances surrounding it.  Let’s say Ford had “Get a customer safely from here to there” as one of its original tenets.  Back then, that might have involved horses and buggy whips.  Today? Same concept, updated execution.

Starbucks is unquestionably struggling to see its external circumstances in a clear and honest light.  If it did, it would understand that it has so weakened its own brand that it must re-earn its customers’ trust by truly going back to square one: a good cup of coffee, at a decent price, delivered in a timely fashion. Hold the wood table. Period. The company must remind us that it is first capable of delivering on this primal promise before it can have our psychic “permission” to explore any of these pet projects (e.g. fruit drinks made from powder).

Until then, all these Vivanno-like moves will not only deepen the company’s failure, they’ll also remind us every day that the company cares more about itself than it does about its customers.

As for the 7 stages of mourning, I am trying to get my head around the possibility of reaching the final stage – Acceptance – while standing in a Dunkin Donuts, holding a latte.

As I was scanning the paper and my online newsletters recently, a couple of unrelated news bits suddenly coalesced around 3 concepts that have served me well as I’ve sought to help companies grow lo these many years.

dunkin.jpgFirst, it was the Wall Street Journal with a story about Starbucks introducing new breakfast combo pricing.  Talk about being a follower:  this has been McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts turf for some time.  But while McDonald’s responded by saying the same old thing – that it’s confident consumers know where to go for value, blah blah – Dunkin Donuts quietly introduced a new consumer benefit that rose above the existing melee over pricing.  A Dunkin marketer said, “We believe we are the faster and more affordable alternative” to Starbucks.”

Faster?  Faster!  Where did come from??  Curses!  And what can Starbucks say, given that they’re firing baristas left and right and were painfully slow even before that?

Dunkin moved the game into open territory.  Let everyone else try to out-price each other:  we’ll just introduce an entirely new thought that matters to customers.  This reminded me of Life Concept #1:  Wayne Gretzky‘s famous line, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”  I honestly use this thought frequently, when I am thinking about how to build a winning strategy.  Don’t just whack each other with sticks and tear up the ice: take the game into new territory where one of your own assets can be truly superior.stephanie-fierman-success-sign.jpg

Define the field:  don’t let it define you.

Next was a recent blip in the ongoing rift between Barron’s and CNBC’s Jim Cramer.  Apparently, Barron’s doesn’t like Cramer all that much and says (repeatedly, to anyone who will listen) that Cramer’s stock picks don’t live up to the size of his personality. 

Whatever.  A big part of Cramer’s whole shtick is that he’s tough, he’s outspoken, he’s gonna do what he wants and say what he wants.  CNBC should have brushed this off.  Instead, the network took the bait and issued what I thought was quite a surprising “let’s take this outside!” response:

You wrote a premeditated hatchet job to curry favor with your new bosses at News Corp.,” said CNBC’s [spokesman Brian] Steel. “[Cramer] doesn’t consider you a journalist.”

Yikes! So, wait: if CNBC actually cares enough about Barron’s commentary to issue this statement, maybe there is something to worry about here and I should pay a little more attention to Cramer’s recommendations… thinketh the consumer.  Apparently this spat has gone public before, with CNBC responding with lawyers, calls to Dow Jones execs and other temper tantrum-like behaviors.

Silicon Alley Reporter‘s Henry Blodget hit the nail on the head: CNBC played Barron’s game, instead of its own.  Jim Cramer’s entertainment value makes huge money for the network.  So why stoop to play Barron’s level? 

If I were in charge of CNBC’s brand and communications I would simply say (to my angry bosses, probably), “Who cares?  Who cares what Barron’s thinks?  Why are we giving Barron’s the time of day? Let’s issue a statement that says ‘We love Jim Cramer and his fans do, too,’ and that’s it.”  Over and out.   

Which brings me to Life Concepts #2 and #3…

lighthouse-stephanie-fierman.jpg#2 is an old Chiat|Day planning concept: you want to be a lighthouse brand.  You want to be the brand on the hill, whose certain features/benefits/emotional connections others can’t touch.  You want everyone looking up the hill at you.  Dunkin Donuts understood this with just one tiny statement and CNBC should have, as well.  Cramer is entertaining and fun.  Is Barron’s fun and exciting?  No?  Then use that.  Too much obsessing about the competition can cripple innovative thinking if it gets you all tangled in the other guy’s rules. 

What have you got that they don’t?

And finally, Concept #3 comes from the world of media training, and anyone who has trained (me) or been trained (by me) knows this critical rule:  regardless of what you might be asked, make sure you say what you came to say.  You are there to communicate certain points and you will do that regardless of whether it fits the other person’s/group’s agenda or not.  Have you noticed how well politicians do this?  Have you ever watched the Sunday morning news shows and thought that maybe you just missed something, because a commentator asked a question and the guest answered an entirely different question?  A new friend from Thomson Reuters just reminded me that Reagan was the master of this at press conferences.  You ask about the Middle East and – if he’s there to talk about the economy – that’s what you got.

Don’t let anyone else make you fuzzy, or pull you off course.

These concepts and their application are a big part of my passion for making brands, and businesses, and YOU a success.  They are timeless and true.  Whether you are a one-man shop or one of a zillion employees, change your thinking.  Be the lighthouse.  Set the agenda.  See what happens.  No one can respond to something you uniquely own.
So own it.

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If you’d like to see more of Stephanie Fierman (and, really, who wouldn’t?), please check out my second (and more frequently updated) blog, Stephanie Fierman Marketing Daily.  Thank you.

As my readers know, I’ve been fixated on the concept of value for quite some time. Any random post may not seem to fit this theme, but just about all of them do: turning store returns into a great shopping experience; Visa offering upscale bathrooms to attendees at a festival; a company that lets you leave a voicemail for a person without running the risk of actually having to speak to the person (eww!).  All of these are examples of real, observable value.

money-tree.jpgFor all intents and purposes, this is my first post on the general state of marketing since the US economy imploded. I haven’t said a whole lot because I’m still forming my own opinion on what brands need to do to survive and maintain consumer loyalty. What I am ready to say is that the key is value.

I believe the key distinction now, however, is between real and perceived value. Perceived value is what I talked about when I happily acknowledge(d) buying $250 Gucci sunglasses. I am fully aware that I could derive the same amount of real value from $10 shades bought on Canal Street.  Shield eyes from sun? Check.  but I saw a level of psychic value in the brand for which I was willing to pay an enormous premium. I measured that psychic value by how the world around me recognized that value. Looking at myself in the mirror wearing Gucci sunglasses gets old quickly. But having people reinforce my purchase – every day – as I walk around the city? Priceless. Value has two ingredients: (1) the real value that delivers functionality, and (2) the “psychic premium” I’m willing to pile on top so that the world sees me (and I see myself) in a certain way.

It turns out that it is not just beauty – but also value – that is in the eye of the beholder.

This is why even people “with money” have slowed their spending… why even luxury goods are seeing a decline in sales. It’s no longer fashionable to display the same brand names that only months ago were a mark of prosperity. Those marks are now seen as an indication of greed, of phony superiority, of foolishness. It’s not cool to show you have lots of discretionary income when everyone else is suffering. That’s why Mrs. Dick Fuld is still shopping at Hermes but now demands the store place her purchases in a plain white bag. It’s why Danny Meyer says his restaurants are actually selling the same amount of wine (as before the crash) but fewer bottles, his supposition being that people have decided that a bottle sitting on the table is an unwanted signal of wealth. It’s why DeBeers’ new ad campaign attempts to position diamonds as something to be kept forever in a world filled with “disposable distractions.”cutting-credit-card-debt.jpg

Don’t get me wrong: there will always be rich people who wear big big diamonds in environments where everyone else is doing the same. That’s not going to change, but that’s also not what fueled the success of Coach and Vuitton and even Starbucks in the US: what did was millions more not-so-rich people over-extending themselves to buy that Vuitton bag (or Gucci sunglasses) because they liked the world’s reaction. These behaviors are at the heart of the “trading up” phenomenon in America. Take away both (a) the people who couldn’t afford their purchases in the first place, and (b) those who can afford expensive things but who will no longer get the thrill of everyone else’s desire, and you’ve got major, major problems. Products and services that run on perceived value need to make a new plan, Stan, and fast.

This will not happen overnight. As I said, some people who can still afford to buy status-driven things will continue to do so. Others will wean themselves off instead of going cold turkey. Read the Wall Street Journal editorial, “I Once was Chic, But Now I’m Cheap,” written by an Apple buyer who vows that his family’s next computer purchases will be PCs. The piece reads like a therapy session. The writer’s preparing for the DT’s.

I’m also not particularly convinced that this is some sort of seismic global shift in values; the current economic situation may simply repress luxury consumption for awhile. But until that happens, consumers will either live without or discover products and services that deliver more real value: and once a shopper discovers that a store brand whitens his teeth as well as your brand, he may never come back.

stephanie-fierman-treat-customers-right1.jpgDraw your loyal customers closer, now.  Add value, if you can.  Remind your customers why they buy from you.  Get them to tell others, and you may just be able to stay flat (which is, after all, the new up).  The water level is going down, gentle readers, and all that’s underneath are the brands that deliver enough usefulness to hang tough until the next tide comes in. And that could take quite some time.

Have you heard of a fellow named Tommy Habeeb? Mr. Habeeb has created a new product called the BabySport Water Bottle Nipple Adaptor, a little plastic nipple gizmo that screws on to the top of a regular water bottle so that a baby can drink it. It’s summer, it’s hot, these things are selling like hotcakes and everyone’s happy.

I thought of this guy when I saw MSNBC’s report this week on Starbucks’ plans to develop products specifically intended for the kids who frequent the company’s stores. My only thought was, “Genius, as usual.” But MSNBC’s spin would have made a viewer think that the evil Starbucks intended to use Habeeb’s invention to nurse infants with 670-calorie coffee drinks* – and more than once a day. Actually, the kid in this picture does seem to be struggling with the adult lid a bit… I’m kidding, I’m kidding!

stephanie_fierman_kid-at-starbucks.jpg

MSNBC leveraged Starbucks’ announcement to write the company into the fast-food child obesity epidemic trend story that has garnered so much attention in the last couple years. I think that’s over the top. Granted, this is not an altruistic move by Starbucks, but then again no one’s ever claimed that Starbucks is a not-for-profit. While active in many social areas, the company sees a new opportunity and it’s going to pursue it. Likewise, these corporate baristas are savvy enough to assume that perhaps it was just a matter of time before the food police would turn their attention to after-school frappuccinos with whipped cream, so the company proactively moved to position itself in a more positive light. They make more money, we think of them as offering healthy (healthier?) choices, everybody wins.

*Yawn*

It’s far more compelling to package this non-event as Motley Fool has, sounding the alarm by warning that “heavy-handed marketing to kids can open up an ugly can of worms” with the example of what happened to Reynolds Tobacco when it got caught promoting Camel cigarettes to children. Comparing Starbucks (with hot chocolate, juices, waters, etc. already available) to cigarettes? For Starbucks’ marketers and product folks, talk about “no good deed goes unpunished…”

I’ll end with some of MSNBC’s own viewers’ representative comments on the network’s website. They are hilarious and spot-on (I’ve edited for length and grammar):
mel-wags22: My boys will often get up early on a Saturday morning and we’ll go, get drinks and spend an hour just sitting in the store talking about our week. It’s good family time. If some moron wants to feed their 4 year old, double shot lattes, that’s their problem! 3Under3: As an occasional part of the late-morning stay-at-home-mom rush, I don’t have a problem with the basic kids’ drink menu of steamed milk, hot chocolate or steamed cider, and the bottled drinks, like the organic milk are good… A child who is getting a good diet at home, should be able to handle a treat sometimes without risking obesity. sweetshoppelover: This has become another non-issue perpetrated by the food police. Who are these people? My age group remembers going to the neighborhood candy store, by ourselves, to get malted milks or ice cream sodas. As for over-caffeinated teens – as I remember, that was one of the safer dumb things to do as a teenager!GreginTexas: We all know that the next step, if we allow children to overrun Starbucks, is kids in strip clubs and kids at adult book stores and kids buying alcoholic beverages at 7-11 for their kindergarten class pre-nap breaks. WHEN does this insanity end?
Agree, disagree? How much responsibility does a marketer like Starbucks – who certainly began by selling an adult drink to adult customers – have for protecting kids, beyond what they are doing today? Let me know what you think.

* Note: A vente-sized, double chocolate chip blended crème frappuccino with whipped cream contains 670 calories, including 200 fat calories and 12g of saturated fat. I picked it for effect as the wackiest gut-buster on Starbucks’ website I could find.