Friday, October 30, 2009

The power of touch.

We’re supposed to be hurtling toward an age where all business is done through ones and zeros, with sales and service more efficiently handled online.

To be sure, we see many examples where this is producing a better outcome for marketers and their customers. Witness iTunes vs. Tower Records, Netflix vs. Blockbuster, Amazon vs. Barnes & Noble or Expedia vs. your neighborhood travel agent.

But this rush to virtual selling is not a one-size-fits-all strategy for all categories and marketers. Some recent examples illuminate our desire to see, touch and feel products, and how the best service is often carried out face to face.

What got me thinking about this is Microsoft’s announcement that it is opening retail stores, with the first launching in Scottsdale and Orange County. Like Apple stores, these outlets will sell hardware and software and offer technical support for people who are proud to be a “PC.”

And speaking of Apple, reports suggest that its stores generate more revenue per square foot than any retailer in the country. What more need be said about the power of a strong retail concept?

Recently, General Motors took the bold step in California to sell its cars on eBay. Great idea, lousy results. Turns out people prefer coming into the dealership to haggle. (I’ve witnessed this dynamic before in automotive research. Customers say they hate haggling but don't want to accept a fixed pricing model.)

Best Buy, a client of BD’M, has a strong online sales channel but knows that its key source of differentiation and repeat business is the knowledge and objectivity of its “blue shirts” working the store aisles.

Jyske Bank, Denmark's third largest bank, represents one of the most famous case studies on the power of a unique retail experience. Jyske re-imagined their savings and checking services as physical "products" to make them tangible and clear and evoke an emotional connection. They created that special "third place" -- a haven that is neither home or work -- that has been the secret sauce behind Starbucks' success. The result? Ad Age reported that Jyske Bank doubled its customer base in one year by improving loyalty while attracting new customers.

I am fortunate enough to have earned United’s double-secret “Global Services” status from our client. The aspect of the service I value most (other than the really cool black card!) is the GS hotline where the phone is answered by a real, empowered person before I even hear the first ring. While not an example of brick and mortar, it is another way to give customers the satisfaction of real and helpful interaction, not automated voice prompts.

The lesson to be learned may be that we are a prisoner of our vocabulary. Brick and mortar. Click and mortar. Retailing vs. e-tailing. Perhaps it's simply about the reassurance customers get from real live human interactions. That can happen in a store. That can also happen online via “click to chat.” Either way, it has to happen. I think we’re starving for true contact.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Read this today while supplies last.

Advertising has long relied on the straightforward call-to-action to prompt consumers to act now. It's been a simple tactic that never required much more thought than how loud to shout or how bold to make the type.

However, today's media environment challenges us to imagine new ways to invite a response from customers. Mobile, search and social media create smarter and more specific opportunities to prompt an immediate action.

I began thinking about this when I saw an ad for Sony Pictures' new release, "2012." The billboard said, "Search 2012." This call-to-action is brilliant in its simplicity. It recognizes that people are increasingly dialing up brands through search, not by typing in a brand's URL. The volume of Google searches prompted by this call-to-action results in a wall of search hits that makes 2012 seem like a pop culture buzz machine. Moreover, the simple request to "search" may even inspire more curiosity about what one will find.

I've long advocated that we view mobile phones as a response device, not as an advertising platform. I think we can agree that everyone we know carries a mobile phone. And smartphone penetration is around 20% and climbing. (Presumably much higher among the business crowd.) For example, including an SMS call-to-action in a magazine ad transforms an offline message into an interactive message. The exponential increase in iPhone apps is creating new ways for consumers to shop as soon as they see a brand's commercial. In fact, Pizza Hut now ends its commercials with an invitation to order via iPhone.

Social media offers an entirely different call-to-action. For example, Prius asks people on Facebook to share "Random acts of Prius" -- small gestures that can help your friends make the next 24 hours better than the previous. (Props to my former colleagues at Saatchi.)

So next time we're writing a brief, or thinking about writing a throw-away final line of copy, take a few minutes to think through a more interesting way to compel customers to interact with the brand.

But do so today!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Designers invade the executive suite.

Last year Advertising Age published an article I wrote about the lessons car companies can learn from the iPhone. One of the suggestions I made was to elevate designers to a greater leadership role.

Two reasons why I wrote this: First, car companies are industrial design firms at their core. Second, design-led thinking is a business strategy, not simply an exercise in visual packaging. Design-led thinking forces a company to have a more intimate understanding of their customers and their interactions with the brand, and then be very reductive in creating a more valuable experience.

I didn't think it would ever happen. But it has. Twice. In Detroit.

Last month General Motors promoted designer Bryan Nesbitt to be General Manager of its Cadillac Division. That's unheard of. Until, of course, this week when Chrysler promoted Ralph Gilles to be President of its Dodge Car unit. This is a bold and long-overdue move. I'm eager to see what unfolds.

The clearest perspective on design as a business strategy comes from David Butler, Coke's VP of Global Design. "Here, it's about creating more value. How do we sell more of something? How do we improve the experience to make more money and create a sustainable planet? We're leveraging design to drive innovation and win at the point of sale...full stop." His profile in October's Fast Company is an instructive read.