Photograph of Kay Plantes

Kay Plantes is an MIT-trained economist, business strategy consultant, columnist and author. Business model innovation, strategic leadership and smart economic policies are her professional passions. A former Madison, WI resident, Kay now resides in San Diego, CA. The views on her blog are not those of her employer, IBM.

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January 28, 2015, 4:46 pm

The Law of Unintended Consequences

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The Law of Unintended Consequences often starts with a smug attitude.

The terrorists who attacked the Paris satirical media organization Charlie Hebdo hoped to silence its voice. Instead, 3 million issues were printed following the attack, compared to 60,000 before the attack. Welcome to the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Is this law a reflection of human nature or economics? Is there a mystical comic figure guiding our planet? Or, more likely, do unintended consequences emerge from the reality that every action in a system sets in motion a reaction? What I grasp from observation is that when you push something too far you always generate an unintended and undesired response.

A former Oscar Mayer executive told me that the company’s manufacturing leaders, in trying to pull cost out of its ham deli products, created luncheon meat that tasted more like water than ham. When sales plunged, the product managers regained their power in the corporate hierarchy over product decisions.

In response to a seemingly endless number of ads on TV shows, we now record the shows to avoid the ads.

To attract and retain fans, the national football league created rules and a culture that led to player brain injuries. Today, many rational parents no longer want their children to play football.

Political advertising has become so caustic and uncivil that young people drop out of mid-term voting; few people find the ads believable anymore.

The National Rifle Association protects the right of individuals to own the types of guns whose only purpose is military warfare, creating a backlash against an organization that used to be about protecting hunters’ rights. Protecting abortion rights resulted in Planned Parenthood supporting very late-term abortions. This action reduced support for its cause.

Arkansas’ efforts to lower the cost of Medicaid harmed children’s health and lowered their future earning potential and contribution to Arkansas tax revenues. Unhealthy children also drive up healthcare costs.

Moving to the right to win the GOP primary ensured Romney would not beat Obama.

In designing a healthcare bill that handled every single potential consideration and in believing the public sector could do everything better than the private sector, then First Lady Hillary Clinton created a monstrosity that went nowhere.

As to the future?

Wall Street’s efforts to castrate Dodd-Frank (yes, I do think that is the right verb) may give rise to Elizabeth Warren’s presidency, if not in 2016, then 2020.

Efforts by the Koch brothers and other lobbyists to keep climate change legislation from being enacted will lead to future laws with larger adverse impacts on those fighting climate change solutions today.

And the list can go on and on.

As you contemplate actions in 2015, think more carefully about the consequences. Are you pushing for more market share than is healthy for your industry’s margins? Are you squeezing your people at the expense of their loyalty, engagement and tenure? Have you voted for representatives who are so politically polarized that their legislative body can no longer effectively govern? There are many issues – adequate public infrastructure investment and lowering prison costs and recidivism rates among them – that demand an effective legislative body.

Talented leaders stop pushing before a backlash, or they pick a better strategy for achieving their aim, one with fewer unintended consequences. Below are some tools that will prove helpful for assessing your decisions.


Tools to help avoid unintended consequences

  • Scenario-based planning in which you create three different scenarios of the future based on multiple known and unknown future events that will impact whether your planned action works out well or not. Examine the decision in each scenario.
  • “And-then” improvisational storytelling starts with one person stating the planned action. Then each person (in turn) adds to the sequence of events to create an unfolding story. Each “and then” must be a logical reaction, but not necessarily the intended reaction to an action.
  • Imagine the worst possible outcome of an action and conduct a post mortem of how this outcome came about.
  • Experiment before committing in one direction.
  • Identify all the assumptions you have made — explicitly and implicitly — in deciding your chosen path. Also, list all the “facts” supporting the decision. Invite an outsider into your group to decide if your “facts” are actually assumptions. Test the most critical assumptions.

© Mary Kay Plantes, 2015

January 21, 2015, 2:03 pm

Does the breadth of your offering create or steal customer value?

Do the elements of your offering fit together in a way that creates customer value?

Do the elements of your offering fit together in a way that creates customer value?

I just spent 10 minutes thinking unkind things about Eddie Bauer. I even shouted an anguished swear word, piercing the silence of my otherwise quiet home. My husband Nick had an overnight guest – our toddler grandson – while I was away and had forgotten to fold up the Eddie Bauer portable crib. Trying to be serious in my home office with a baby crib in my eye’s sight was not working for me, so I decided to take on Nick’s assigned chore and put the crib away.

The task should be straightforward I thought. (It’s not IKEA furniture after all with one page of instruction containing no words.) It seemed like I should have been able to unlock the crib’s sides by squeezing plastic handles to collapse the unit, and then put the far-more-compact unit into its zippered case. But as I started, Rube Goldberg came to mind.

Not one of the switches (hidden in the handles) that unlock the structure worked completely, which I didn’t realize until the zippered case appeared too narrow to hold the folded crib. Should I have pressed the plastic buttons at each corner while simultaneous pressing the handles? Or did I not press the handles correctly? Unsure, I tried many combinations until I finally got the crib to a far more compact size. (The buttons, by the way, turn out to be decorative.)

Then I realized the fabric storage holder has two compartments and the one I was trying to fit the crib into was for the mattress, not the crib. It took me another 5 minutes to secure the crib and then its mattress in the right compartments and with the right angle, so I could wheel the unit into our storage closet.

I get that companies want to expand their offering. I often suggest “moving up the food chain” to clients whose solution set is too narrow to solve pressing customer problems.  Robert Finfrock moved from selling precast – prestressed concrete building components to constructing entire buildings. His is an American success story at its finest.

Also, the most profitable growth strategies often involve selling more to the same customer, as customer acquisition costs can be high.  Amazon’s “Prime” shipping subscription and Walgreen’s move into stocking frequently purchased groceries reflect this strategy.

Finally, customers value one-stop shopping. In an era of entirely too much choice, consumers are drawn to brands whose product design or merchandising skills they trust.  We want someone to simplify our choice set, as too much choice paralyzes us. It adds frustration, not delight. Target took market share from Walmart using this principle. And Madison Wisconsin’s SubZero moved from providing high-end refrigerators to being a high-end kitchen brand by acquiring Wolf ovens and adding a German dishwasher to its offerings.

But Eddie Bauer’s move from clothing to baby gear is moving out, not up, and into a category that has nothing to do with casual outdoor clothing. (The fact that Spiegel, the now defunct catalog company that competed with the once mighty Sears catalog, owned Eddie Bauer from 1988 to 1993 may explain the diversion.) I would trust Eddie Bower’s design choices for flannel shirts for my husband.  But trust Eddie Bauer for baby gear? Or home soft goods like comforters and sheets? Is this breadth why the company can’t hold a candle to Patagonia and North Face, despite trying?

Of course, the retailer likely outsourced design and manufacturing of the crib. But what gives Eddie Bauer’s merchandisers the ability to source the right crib, one that makes a visit from a child effortless at both bedtime and clean up the next morning? A poorly chosen crib won’t ruin a grandchild’s visit, but it does detract from the crib’s brand.

The lesson: As you enter the New Year and think about how to grow, be careful in how you add to your offering. Lean more towards moving up one food chain—customer needs that are related in some way—versus moving out by tacking on unrelated products and services. Coach was smart to acquire Stuart Weitzman shoes as it tries to become a more upscale design brand. Duluth Trading’s “workshop” items enhance its brand. But categories like Eddie Bauer’s baby crib that have no intersection with competencies or other offerings bring incremental revenue at the cost of operational complexity and brand image.

Does your offering make sense? Does its breadth create customer value or merely confuse? Would a new customer identify a guiding principle – a brand promise – running as a nerve center through your offering? Or would your line look like a hodgepodge result of managers seeking growth from anywhere and anyone?

© Plantes Company, LLC


January 12, 2015, 8:34 pm

Wayfinding: Still a Great Business Model Opportunity

Wayfinding delivers value to mass and niche markets.

Wayfinding delivers value to mass and niche markets.

When I hike a mountain with many paths, I need a map, signposts, or, even better, a guide.  Surrounded by too many choices, many leading in the wrong direction, I easily get lost. I need what my talented friend Cricket Redman of Cricket Design Works calls “wayfinding.” Wayfinding solutions like signposts not only help me get to my destination quickly but also avoid all the distractions of paths I don’t want to take. Companies that can help with wayfinding in different areas of our lives are becoming increasingly valuable.

All of us, for example, have wasted uncountable time going down digital paths and the opportunities for getting lost grow each second as digital data explodes. It’s no surprise that wayfinding companies like Amazon, Expedia, Netflix and Google have thrived in the digital world. They pull together options and serve as the curator for our search or, with Google maps, our step-by-step directional guide.  The innovative platforms creating new markets, like Uber (independent car service) and Airbnb (rooms for rent), also act as wayfinders. Spotify and Pandora provide better wayfinding than iTunes by guiding us to new music based on examples of musical tracks we appreciate and enjoy.

These companies exemplify wayfinding solutions for the mass market. Companies with a ubiquitous technology often focus on the needs of the “average” customer who comprise the mass of a market. But one look at any mature market and you discover that mass markets typically splinter into niches.  New companies target customers whose needs are not well served by mass-market approaches, and then established players try to catch up. Wayfinding companies had best understand this process.

For example, early in my career I watched a start-up Acuson (an ultrasound medical imaging company now owned by Siemens) take significant market share from industry leaders. It accomplished this by specializing sales and marketing and designing user features and interfaces for the cardiology, obstetrics and radiology markets, the specialties fighting to own hospital ultrasound imaging. Wayfinding companies can learn from what Acuson did—pay attention to the social influences and needs of different segments of the market.

Google’s platform shows some understanding of the niche process. It created a niche of its services, Google Scholar, by recognizing a set of unique needs. A scientist searching for scholarly articles on diabetes should never use standard Google for searching. I made the mistake of doing this for a project for Medtronics. Two years later I still get emails and Facebook posts about diabetes solutions for which I have no need.

A fresh example of a niche wayfinding platform is a home exchange website called Behomm, profiled recently in a NYT piece. The exchange serves the travel needs of a niche audiene – designers and creative artists. To become a member, you must work in one of the 90 careers, such as a graphic designer, interior designer, architect, creative director, landscape artist, hat maker, or fashion stylist. For all these types, visual sensibility often counts more than the location of a vacation property. Behomm members trust that a home of an artistic-type will be a more memorable spot for a holiday than options on a mass market site populated by suburbanite accountants, lawyers and professors.

With today’s proliferating options, it’s easy to feel the wayfinding markets are locked up. But entrepreneurs, who sniff out unique needs, could have a field day disrupting platform leaders.  For example, the pages and pages of choices on Amazon exhaust me. I find I go to Amazon when I know the brand I want, and my Prime free-shipping program will lower my shipping costs. Other online retailers should offer a better wayfinding experience and free shipping (or perhaps a credit equal in value to shipping costs on my next order) to keep me, and others, from clicking on Amazon.

Even Google could be disrupted. Marissa Mayer’s biggest mistake in trying to “fix” Yahoo rests I think in not recognizing the importance of niche markets. She could better serve search customers (and beat Google) by segmenting the market on search situation and taste. And advertisers, who meet the unique needs of each searching group, would have higher click-through rates, raising Yahoo’s ad margins. Without this kind of strategy, Yahoo will remain a less attractive and complete tool than Google.

What wayfinding do your customers need? How can you help? Or, where do you get lost of frustrated? What could you do about it as an entrepreneur?

© 2014 Plantes Company, LLC


December 22, 2014, 1:37 pm

The public goods nature of cyber-security


There are dangers, not just pleasures, in our digital world.

There are dangers, not just pleasures, in our digital world.

That word was my conclusion leaving a recent San Diego event on cyber-security. My city is exceptionally well organized around this topic, which makes my feeling all the more compelling. We have a non-profit to advance awareness, education, and preparation. A collaborative center for researchers exists. An economic cluster for cyber-security and the Internet of Things has been organized to attract money, established companies and talent to San Diego to further strengthen our security. And still another group is solving the workplace shortage of security experts. We are building a community more secure from a cyber attack of significant impact than most other cities.

But listening to the speakers at the symposium, I observed a passionate group of do-gooders holding their fingers in an increasingly fragile dike. One speaker captured our reality in a single sentence, “It will take one huge crisis – like an attack on our all our water districts” to wake people up.

If the Sony hacking did not scare us enough, what will?  The FBI told the CEO of Sony Entertainment that Sony had excellent cyber-security. Specifically, 90% of companies in the US would have fallen victim to a similar attack.

Cyber-security presents a classic public goods problem.  The more secure you are, the more secure I am to the extent our on-line lives intersect. But none of us acknowledge our cyber interdependency when we make decisions personally and organizationally about how much to invest in digital security. Our value calculation only incorporates how we directly benefit versus what we pay, not how others will benefit from our added security. As a result, we collectively under invest in digital protection relative to the level in society’s best interests.

One critical role of government is to catalyze an adequate provision of vital public goods, like cyber security. Investments in research, education, and solutions are government’s levers. Another tool is regulations that make it far more costly for suppliers, buyers and users of digital devices to ignore security. Fortunately, there’s some movement along all fronts.

The military has increased its spending on cyber security. Publicly owned companies must report on the risks they face from cyber-security issues and how they are minimizing them. And there is talk of holding C-Suite executives personally liable for privacy breaches of their employees or customers. (But how much do you want to bet that won’t pass?) And venture capitalists and start-ups, as well as giant tech companies like IBM, see the business opportunity in security, which will advance needed innovations.

But is it enough? We are becoming ever more dependent on digital communications and devices. Security experts must be right 100% of the time. Hackers only need to win the lottery once. And as our military might and those around the globe who hate us grow, we are likely to be attacked at our most vulnerable spots. Yesterday an airplane and buildings. Tomorrow, air traffic control by hacking the GPS system.

Cyber security is a surmountable problem. But it requires a long-term perspective. That is why I feel doomed. Politicians lack a long-term perspective. How else do you explain a Congress funding equipment the Defense Department does not want, rather than spending more money on cyber-security research? Corporations care more about this quarter’s bottom line and stock price than a vague risk somewhere in the future. And most of us know too little about security for our identity protection. Kids, work, fun, and sleep take priority.

One of the speakers suggested we all create a C-bag. It contains an electronic record of every important document we have – birth certificates, our marriage certificate, title deeds, settled and current mortgages, account numbers, passwords, etc.  Keep it in a safe place, she argued, outside your house. It struck me that what I need as well are paper copies of valuable documents. There will likely be a time when access to computers will not be available.

Tomorrow, as you go about your life, become aware of how much you and we rely on technology. You’ll start your bag.  You might also have a different stance on government regulation. Sometimes, it’s exactly what the public commons needs.

Copyright, 2014 Kay Plantes

December 4, 2014, 6:15 pm

Profiting From Free

A free offering can build an abundance of income.

A free offering can build an abundance of income.

Can a free offering and a financially sustainable business model co-exist?

Look at the evidence. Wikipedia. National Public Radio. Mozilla’s Firefox browser and the LINUX operating system. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Gawker. The Moodle software platform for on-line educational experiences. All free and all appear to be financially sustainable.

A free offering and financial success succeed when leadership is thoughtful about how it monetizes the free offering. Let’s explore why an organization may want a free offering and then how the organization can make money in other ways.

Why free?

First, your target market may not be able to afford to purchase what you want to offer them, the case for most non-profits. UNICEF serves truly poor children around the world.

Or you may want to build volume to gain network or economies of scale effects. It is doubtful that Facebook would have taken off without being free. Its large user base makes it hard for new social media platforms to succeed unless they are entirely different, like Twitter’s messaging and Instagram’s enhanced photos.

Third, a non-proprietary offering invites others to improve it, which is the reason open-source software platforms exist. Better programming ideas, enhanced features, better monitoring for glitches, more rapid prototyping, broader adoption, meritocracy, and community building are among the many advantages of open source versus proprietary platforms.

Free and open source offerings are also transparent, which enhances their brand image.  GreenScreen® for Safer Chemicals is an open-source method for assessing and benchmarking chemical hazards. It’s become a reference standard (e.g., in LEED certifications) because users know what’s behind GreenScreen benchmarks; they do not sit in a “black box.” (Disclosure: I work with GS.)

Finally, free encourages customers to try your offering. Luminosity, which offers on-line brain enhancing games, provides a set of tests and assessment of mental skills. Had I scored lower I might have subscribed. Maybe next birthday!

There are many strategies for monetizing free offerings.

Subscription services for support, training, and integration support is one. Redhat built a successful business on the free LINUX computer operating system used by HP, Google’s Android, and others.

Using the platform to sell advertising and ads-in-disguise as content is a common monetization strategy. Google, Facebook, Twitter…we all know this drill. Google’s revenue rose as newspapers’ advertising revenue fell as advertisers substituted digital ads for more expensive print ads.

Spotify and Pandora, both music platforms, built their revenue through advertising. They also offer ad-free premium subscriptions. Corporations, job seekers and talent placement agencies use LinkedIn premium subscriptions to gain faster and better access to talent and jobs.

Licensing is another opportunity for revenue. Moodle partners pay 10% of their revenue to Moodle to support its development and maintenance. The partners host applications, offer security solutions, install, set up and customize Moodle and train users. They also offer support and help desks to organizations using Moodle for their educational offerings.

Individual donors and foundations fund many free offerings.  The Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders come to mind in light of the Ebola crisis in Africa. The problem with this model is non-profit leaders must spend valuable time raising funds. They feel diverted from their real mission – solving a social or environmental problem.

Earned income streams can lighten the fund raising needs of non-profits.  The Red Cross offers CPR, lifeguard and babysitting training classes. TOMS® provides a free pair of shoes to those in need around the globe for each pair is sells to consumers who like the brand’s look and fit as well as the company’s purpose.

Selling data generated from the free offering is the final strategy on my list. LinkedIn is sponsoring a contest to ID ways to use its database to advance economic development. I suspect LinkedIn is looking for new business opportunities.

How might free work in your business model?

November 18, 2014, 10:14 pm

Is your scope too narrow or broad?

Deciding what is inside and outside the scope of your business is a vital strategic decision.

Deciding what is inside and outside the scope of your business is a vital strategic decision.

All too often, companies take the scope of their offerings as a given, delaying changes that make the organization ripe for disruption. Kodak stuck with “film” as its core business while competitor FugiFilm Holdings, Inc. accepted the inevitability of digital replacing film. Fugi transformed its business by leveraging its chemical and processing capabilities into liquid crystal displays and beauty products. The change was traumatic -– thousands lost their jobs -– but, unlike Kodak,  Fugi company exists and is growing.

The WSJ is full of change-in-scope decisions. HP is splitting into two parts, enterprise solutions on one side, printers and PCs on the other. Unless HP can make a go of 3-D printing, I expect Lenovo or Dell will acquire the printing/PC unit as computing shifts to mobile devices.  IBM is harvesting its more commodity-like businesses to double down on mobile, software and the cloud. HP and IBM exits from commodity markets make financial sense, but I for one feel a sense of lost opportunity. Apple integrates a broadening set of offerings in ways that reinforce its value promise. Why can’t IBM or HP?

P&G is doubling down on its leading consumer brands where differentiating innovation holds promise, selling off about half of its brand treasure chest including smaller, less successful or slower growing brands. For example, it is selling its Duracell brand (batteries) to Warren Buffet. Kraft is taking similar steps. In 2012, it put its fast-moving snack brands like Oreo into a new business called Mondelez International, and the remaining slower-moving grocery brands like Oscar Mayer into Kraft Foods Group, Inc. Apparently SG&A synergies are not as great for share price as showing Wall Street a rapidly growing business.

The right offering breadth is one that benefits your customers, creates hard-to-copy advantages, truly lowers your costs, or creates a stronger defense against rivals. In the past wider was usually better. But with today’s external sourcing of business services, breadth no longer necessarily lowers costs. Furthermore, the complexity of a broad offering can make your company react too slowly to change.  In Medtronic’s acquisition of Covidien and Thermo Fisher’s of Life Technologies, scope is dramatically expanded. Leaders of the acquiring companies should focus on innovation and revenue synergies and not just eliminating duplication. Post acquisition cost cutting too often squeezes innovative juices from the acquired company and emboldens niche competitors.

I recently met with Damian McKinney, founder and CEO of McKinney Advisory Group (MAG), a real estate company that provides a strong example of how to expand scope. MAG has expanded beyond tenant representation to include brokerage, asset management, portfolio management, investment analysis, development services, legal services, project-management, and workplace optimization consulting. With this broad scope, MAG can serve as an expert (outsourced) real estate department for its clients.

MAG also takes a holistic approach to client needs. Following the 2008 downturn, a client seeking leased space mentioned they were having trouble attracting the interest of Wall Street in a $10-20M loan for expansion. “Our client saw money needs, and we saw an opportunity to bring clean tech jobs and a global customer base to a community,” McKinney stated. “We helped them raise $99M in development benefits from a competitive process involving 30 states for their new location. The publicity led Wall Street to their door, with attractive loan offers from patient capital providers.”

MAG has expanded its scope in yet a third way, empowering its brokers to give back to the San Diego community. Associates have 8 hours a month to volunteer alone or as a group. MAG also hosts an annual charity event that introduces area non-profits to its clients. RSVPs fill up quickly for the sold-out event where each guest is given $100 to give to one of the invited non-profits, non-profits with whom MAG associates have volunteered. “Our annual events help leaders think about causes they feel passionately about. They leave thinking about how they might use their time, talent and treasure to make a difference, just as we try to do as a firm,” said McKinney. And non-profits often leave the event with introductions to future board members and donors. Efforts like these make it easy for MAG to attract and retain employees who bring their full engagement, not just their bodies, to work each day.

McKinney’s daughter Rachael, who heads the marketing and corporate social responsibility efforts of MAG, says it best. “If you give yourself a bigger box to work in, you can do different things. You can also reach more people – partners, universities, non-profits that can then add value to your offering to your clients.”

How does your scope benefit your customers and earn your employees’ loyalty? What else (or less) should you be doing?

October 28, 2014, 8:43 pm

You are shouting so loudly I cannot hear you

A general focuses on the battlefield and where the enemy is coming from, while the soldier in the foxhole keeps his sight within a 10-yard perimeter. In a similar vein, business leaders must understand the lay of a more expansive external environment while others define and execute day-to-day tactics. Leaders supply fresh strategic insights by connecting the dots between things they observe, read or hear about to identify patterns and themes. It’s called conceptual thinking. Let’s see how it works.

Strategists regularly connect the dots to surface important patterns.  Photo is Reconstruction #050814 by San Diego artist Scott Polach

Strategists regularly connect the dots to surface important patterns.
Photo is Reconstruction #050814 by San Diego artist Scott Polach

Three articles caught my eye in one day’s news. In the first article, The Council of Public Relations Firms was reported to be reinventing itself and the PR profession as traditional PR strategies of media relations and placement backfire in an era of consumer-generated social media. The profession made sense when NBC could reach 1/3 of US TV viewers. Now there are thousands of stations and networks and multiple platforms for viewing.

Frank Bruni of the NYT wrote about the bombardment of our visual and audio space by corporate messages, from sports arenas to music venues to TV show product placements. He ends by predicting our iconic bridges will be renamed after corporate sponsors. (In my mind, I envisioned a US President taking the oath of office surrounded by corporate logos and Super PAC names who influenced the election, but I digress.)

And in the final article – actually it was a 2-page ad – Whole Foods claimed that value is about values. Your purchases should advance values you hold dear, the ad copy stated. Amazing what the addition of the letter “s” is to an overused word – value – does. Value references profits (value maximization) and how far your dollar stretches. (“Save more. Live better,” promises Walmart.) “Values,” on the other hand, references the principles we hold dear – that matter, no matter what.

What is the theme connecting these dots in my mind? Values-based business models will break through the communications clutter and earn our attention and dollars, thereby disrupting industries.

Let’s look at disruption and why values-based disruption can work.

We work in an era of disruption. Only 57 of the original Fortune 500 are around and according to serial entrepreneur Jay Samit, the Fortune 500 in 5 years will be full of companies whose products and services do not yet exist. For example, Uber, he noted at the recent OnMedia conference in NYC, will leverage its platform by summoning driverless cars to our door.

In the tech world, disruption succeeds when new technology advances:

  • Cost savings (digital versus printed newspapers);
  • Speed (business intelligence software versus IT department coding);
  • Ease (messaging versus e-mails, phone photos versus standalone cameras); or,
  • First time capabilities (mobile computing).

Values-based disruption happens the same way.

Cost: Values-based business models can lower societal costs by reducing or eliminating adverse externalities, which are the costs companies impose on non-customers through corporate actions. Walmart’s low pay and poor health insurance policies cost local governments billions. Not so Costco, which offers all its employees a living wage. Buying from Costco versus Walmart will save your community money.

Speed & Ease: Values-based companies allow consumers to change the world more rapidly and easily than through volunteer efforts alone. Why buy Kate Spade flats when buying a Toms pair will also clothe a shoeless child? With the growth in apps and social media, we increasingly know about the practices of companies we buy from. Purchasing goods and services from organizations whose values you support is a daily way to slowly change the world, and feel good in the process.

Capabilities: Values-based innovation also encourages fresh approaches to societal problems by leveraging business capabilities. Boeing buys sheet metal from the manufacturing arm of Seattle-based Pioneer Human Services, which “serves individuals on the margins of society, helping them to become more successful through housing, employment, training, treatment, counseling, and re-entry programs.” Greyston Bakery sells award-winning baked goods produced by hard-to-employ workers, with profits funding low-income housing and childcare solutions. College grads are flocking to social enterprises and socially minded businesses to find meaningful work.

By connecting the dots I can better understand why the single bottom line of today – profits – will increasingly become a triple bottom line of profits, planet and people. If you want to be heard by customers and young talent, think about values, not just value.

In any case, regularly look for patterns across seemingly unrelated topics. And when you see an outcome that you cannot understand, work backwards to try to explain it. You’ll be preparing your mind for our increasingly complex economy in which strategic thinking is a competitive advantage.

© Plantes Company, LLC 2014

October 15, 2014, 7:35 pm

The right way for a company to be audacious

Are you on the bold or impudent side of being audacious as a brand?

Are you on the bold or impudent side of brand audacity?

The word audacity comes to mind when I think of the fine line brand leaders must walk. Audacious actions can mean bold and courageous, which will build brand awareness and positive feelings. Audacious can also refer to impudent or cheeky, detracting from the brand’s image.

Financial considerations create the fine line for brands. Strong brands generate price premiums, leading managers to ask, “How do we grow this brand?” But you do not want your growth strategies to muddle your brand’s image, hence the challenge for moving forward.

Showing us the right way to be audacious in its brand strategy is Dove Soap’s advertising, using “real” women in its commercials. They are a sharp contrast to the picture-perfect models most often used in the health & beauty industry marketing. Dove broke ranks by showing women of all sizes and complexions. It also offered a compelling TV advertisement in which an illustrator captured a woman’s image in two ways: as she described herself and as he saw her. The ad demonstrates the contrast between women’s true beauty and their self-identities, which often (and sadly) focus on their flaws. Dove’s advertising was an audacious statement that resonated with consumers and earned deserving accolades.

Outdoor apparel and equipment manufacturer Patagonia Inc. is another example of the right kind of audacity.  Patagonia is known for its reliable, cool and sustainable clothing. On Black Friday last year—a peak times for holiday shopping—the company asked its customers to refrain from buying new products but instead to embrace repair. Patagonia partnered with iFixIt, a website of free repair manuals, to help its customers learn how to stretch the life of clothing, luggage and gear. Patagonia also runs a repair store of its own, another proof point for its brand.

For each good example of audacious, however, there are a dozen or more examples of leaders whose impudent-type audacity has led them down the wrong path, and their brand is paying the price.

Take Amazon, for example. Perhaps through over-confidence fueled by its growing e-book monopoly, the company curtailed the pre-publication sales, delayed shipments and removed the “buy button” for some authors. The reason? A pricing dispute with publisher Hatchette. The fight is hurting Amazon’s brand image with readers and especially writers. TV comedy show host Steven Colbert, himself a Hatchette author, showed that he could match Amazon’s publicity engine. By talking about the dispute on his TV show and asking viewers to pre-order Edan Lepucki’s upcoming novel ‘California’ from independent booksellers, he catalyzed the book’s sales. (E.g., it placed #1 on the largest independent seller Powell’s Books list.) Every action has a reaction, a principle that Amazon forgot.

Or how about AIG, the 2008 recipient of a US government bailout investment over twenty times AIG’s then market value? The company that “protects us” had the audacity to recently sue the US over terms on its loan. AIG, in my opinion, joins the ranks of Goldman Sachs who sold assets to clients that it itself had bet against.

Whole Foods’ initial dominance in the organic food market gave it the audacity to charge prices that earned it the reputation of “Whole Paycheck.” It is now trying to earn back market share with lower prices as organic food goes mainstream.

The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal apparently are so confident that they can do anything they want that they are letting their editorial perspectives determine what goes on news pages, through their choice of headlines and what to include or exclude from stories. Trust in their journalistic integrity is falling. (And please don’t get me started about Fox “News.”)

And Uber’s form of audacity—deciding to “take on government” versus work with regulatory bodies from the start—created its public relations and regulatory mess. Uber could have offered its services to cab companies as well as independent drivers, securing more of the market in the process. Sure, the social media buzz might have been less notable; but its fight with government has given rise to many stories that, at least for this consumer, reduced trust in Uber drivers and their insurance coverage.  At a minimum, its actions have given rise to a competitor offering women drivers for women passengers.

My take is that brands are a sacred, hard-earned trust with customers, which is why we refer to their value as “brand equity,” not “brand margin.” As in any relationship requiring trust, consistency in behavior is vital. Mistakes require apologies. And managers’ should be careful about thinking through actions that will build equity not risk it.

How is your brand being “audacious”?

September 24, 2014, 4:57 pm

Lessons from a food truck for dogs

These dogs are heartbroken because their owners did not take them to Milo Kitchen's doggie food truck.

These dogs are heartbroken because their owners did not take them to Milo Kitchen’s doggie food truck.

There are so many lessons in the innovative Milo’s Kitchen®  “food truck for dogs” campaign, let me count the ways. (Yes, you read my words correctly: a food truck, like the outdoor food trucks that populate downtown streets at lunch and public events, serving dogs rather than people.) Milo’s Kitchen is a popular brand of dog treats from Big Heart Pet Brands, parent of the even better-known brand Milk-Bone®.

The purpose of the dog food truck is to “connect with pet parents and bring the nation’s ‘gour-mutts’ their first authentic food truck experience, including free home-style dog treats, a ‘doggie selfie’ photo booth, and a backyard-style lapdog lounge,” according to the PR release.

I hope you laughed. I did and I am not even a pet person. Milo’s Kitchen on the other hand is probably uncorking the bottles to celebrate. The 200,000+ treat truck visitors in 15 cities generated a dramatic increase in brand awareness and affinity and more than 450 local, national and global national media spots, including an NBC Nightly News news clip, according to Ann Murray of PR Hacker who is a publicist for Milo’s Kitchen.

What are the strategy lessons to learn?

Know your customer. Most pet owners go gaga over their pets. The US pet industry is $58.5 billion, up from $44.3 billion in 2008. There are high-end pet burial services, spas, and now resorts to house dogs in style when owners travel. My home-town (San Diego) Humane Society and Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is a $17 M and growing non-profit. It received close to $10 M in gifts, bequests and planned gifts in 2013, making it one of the county’s largest non-profits. “Sadly, it’s easier to raise money for animals than for hospitals,” a wealthy philanthropist once told me. Knowing this about pets, why not allow customers’ beloved dogs to experience food trucks, which (human) foodies have grown to love as a recent NYT article discusses.

Engage in activities that reinforce your brand promise. Milo’s Kitchen and its sister brand are based on the premise that dogs deserve the same quality food experience that humans enjoy.  Happier and healthier dogs are the result. A local doggie food truck is a great line extension that reinforces the Milo Kitchen brand’s value promise.

Meet your customers in action. The food truck lets Milo’s Kitchen employees meet pets and their owners in a fun setting. Retailers with “concept stores,” like Duluth Trading do the same. No matter how powerful digital marketing becomes, face-to-face encounters with customers engaged with your product will remain a powerful market research tool.

Experiential marketing is where marketing is headed.  “As we live more of our life on-line, we yearn for and invest more time in off-line experiences,” according to Lauren Christianson, an account and project manager with Cunning®, an experiential marketing agency in NYC. (Disclosure: I am related to Lauren.)  Experiential marketing is not promotional marketing, where inexpensive logo-bearing items are handed out as a brand reminder. Experiential marketing creates live events that let you truly experience the brand and learn its story, building brand fans.

Promotional marketing is when Cricket Wireless hands out key chains with its name at a music event. Experiential marketing is what Cunning creates at the same event for its client Ketel One® Vodka. Cunning builds a modern interpretation of a windmill as the facade to the venue, representing the De Nolet windmill (the tallest of its kind) and copper-pot stills (a brand distinction) at Ketel One’s distillery in Holland. Inside the building, visitors learn the story of a brand inspired by over 300 years of craftsmanship and born from 10 generations of family distilling expertise. Talented mixologists at a cocktail station create custom vodka drinks with fresh ingredients. A tasting table for educational sessions allows visitors to compare Ketel One’s taste to other popular vodkas. A generations gallery of the family behind Ketel One tells the brand’s story while live music performances that appeal to the brand’s target audience draw crowds.

Get the difference? Experiential marketing creates true fans and drives social media and news, so vital in today’s cluttered marketplace. Promotional marketing creates “stuff” that is often thrown away. Dog food trucks and Ketel One Vodka’s festival experience are both stellar examples of marketing strategy at its best.

How can you embrace these lessons with your brand?

© Plantes Company, 2014

September 9, 2014, 6:51 pm

Apple Watch newest “watching industry” entry

The "watching Industry" will only grow.

The “watching” industry will only grow.

First, let me admit my bias. I wear a gorgeous 14k gold Swiss watch everywhere but in the water. The thought of replacing it with an Apple Watch would, for me, feel like replacing a great dinner with brightly colored and beautifully shaped nutritional tablets. Was that why Apple’s share price failed to rise following Apple Watch’s debut today?

Still, the Apple Watch may find a great market if we shake off the history of “the watch,” a noun denoting a time-telling device, and avoid viewing it as a wrist smart phone. Instead, let’s think about the new entrant as a “situational mobile solution for watching” (the verb). What are some of the situations in which an Apple Watch could provide significant customer value?

Exercise. I carry my iPhone when I run to track my miles, speed, elevations, etc. I would welcome a wrist solution for running, hiking, swimming and biking. With mapping solutions that give me more freedom to wander and concurrent analytics that would encourage me to try harder,  this consumer is ready to buy Apple Watch Sports.

Diagnosis. My mother is in an assisted care environment following a series of small strokes whose cause we have yet to identify despite many imaging and cardiovascular tests. A wrist-worn device that provided effortless, continuous monitoring could help her physicians.

Hospital monitoring. Hospital monitoring is clumsy and by its design keeps patients less mobile than their health and mood require.  Who wouldn’t want to replace cumbersome wires with a smaller, portable device?

Home-health monitoring. Many start-ups are focused on home health: tracking post-procedure data to reduce re-admissions through early alerts; collecting and providing pre-procedure information to enhance procedure success rates; managing chronic diseases like diabetes or heart failure to avoid hospital admissions. Moving these tools from a phone platform to a wearable watch would greatly enhance convenience.

Workplace safety. An Apple Watch could provide data on exposure to pollutants and poisons, location-specific safety warnings and other worker health-related warnings.

There are other situations, known (e.g., calendar reminders) and to-be-discovered. But the multitude of situations also underscores the key challenges to a “device for watching.” Can the small screen size challenge be overcome? Can a single design address all situations? In the case of smart phones, apps enable us to customize. It appears this is the case with the Apple Watch.

I am optimistic for Apple, a corporation whose value promise is to reduce frustration and add desired convenience and functionality to our lives. Just as with Apple’s iPod and iPhone, Watch enters a market where many others have made attempts and fallen short of what technology and design might enable (Google, Microsoft and Samsung as examples).

With the phone market maturing, it makes sense that Apple is moving into the next computing platform. Whereas Apple’s ambitions were huge in music and phones, being patient with narrow applications at the outset may be the right way to enter the “watching” industry.

Another emerging platform for “watching” is Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAV), mobile sensing and computing solutions that let users easily and economically see from above eye level (think drones carrying cameras, with flight paths and filming controlled through software). So claimed Chris Anderson, former Editor-in-Chief of Wired Magazine from ’01 to ’12 and author of The Long Tail, Free and Makers at a recent San Diego CommNexus event. As co-founder and CEO of 3D Robotics, he aims to bring the power of UAV technology to the mainstream market.

Choice of initial markets was critical to 3D Robotics’ success, as I suspect will be true for the Apple Watch. Owing to FAA regulations for commercial use of drones, private property offered the best markets for 3D Robotics products, with agriculture (the largest industry in the globe) and construction (the second largest) key targets. For example, a UAV can identify which specific locations of a farm field have a pesticide problem, allowing for spot use of pesticides, thereby reducing pesticide costs and crop loss (the latter totaling $28 billion annually in the US according to Anderson). 3D Robotic’s open-source software platform for planning, controlling and monitoring all aspects of a flight enables rapid software improvements by its community of users; 3D Robotics then monetizes the platform by selling the UAV devices to service providers.  Its 28,000-and-growing worldwide customer base is served by only 180 employees, demonstrating that 3D Robotics has made smart market choices.

Apple’s soon-to-be released Watch and 3D Robotics UAVs are two examples of the “watching” industry. Heavy equipment that senses, like GE’s airline engines, which collect and use data used to improve fuel efficiency, are other members.

What will be next?

©Plantes Company, 2014