Although the travel industry maintains a reputation less than glowing, most of us still love to travel; despite the headaches that hotel chains and airlines can often cause they are indeed a necessary evil. The travel industry is filled with repeat customer business, with many choices for the consumer. Yet there are only a handful of companies in this industry that seem to understand and value that. While planning our summer vacation in Europe last year, my fiance and I were hit with fees for using points, substantial airline blackout dates and less than inviting hotel rooms at prominent chains. So as we begin the honeymoon planning, we are both wary.In my last job, I spent five years traveling from NY to Bentonville, AR, visiting the Wal-Mart corporate office to pitch my wares. Every other week I flew the same airline, and visited the same hotel, staying loyal to a number of companies. Yet when it came time to reap the rewards of being a valued customer, it seems that it can be hit or miss depending on who’s at the other end of the phone. Although all calls are “recorded to ensure quality customer service”, I’m not entirely convinced it’s working.

Both my fiance and I learned very quickly that it was often a better use of our time to hang up on these “customer service experts”, roll the dice, and call again. There were times we called back (and hung up) four or five times before reaching someone seemingly more helpful. This means that 75%-80% of the time we were not happy, which translates into a lot of dialing and a lot of frustration.

My fiance, who’s been a loyal Starwood member for years, decided to go this route for honeymoon planning. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that she was right, they are indeed an exceptional group- based on my small sampling so far. It took only took one phone call to Starwood to reach the very helpful Marcella Cabrera. Most good businesses teach employees to smile when they talk on a phone. They know that a smile changes your attitude for the better, as well as the inflections in your voice. Even though we were miles away, we knew that Marcella was answering every question we asked her with a smile.

Service businesses are a people business, and the travel industry is no different. All customer service representatives can pick up the phone when it rings. The real difference is what they say and how they say it. Marcella Cabrera at Starwood didn’t just pick up the phone, she helped create a relationship between her company and a customer that will last for years… all with just one phone call.

In our mind, Marcella Cabrera is the star at Starwood.

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Category killers have been around for a long time. Wal-Mart (WMT) hurt all sorts of businesses over the last three decades, and when Home Depot (HD) and Lowe’s (LOW) came along many neighborhood hardware stores were forced to close.

There are however, many stores that have competed and thrived in the Wal-Mart / Home Depot world. This is not their story, though I may choose to write about them at a later date.

This is the story of two local coffee/tea shops that have not only competed with Starbucks (SBUX), their Category Killer, they’ve thrived.

First some quick stats on Starbucks, taken from their 2005 Annual Report: Stores: 10,500+

-Employees: 100,000+
-Store openings 2005: 1,672
-Projected store openings 2006: 1,800
-Global Presence: 37 Countries
-2005 Revenue: $6.4 billion

With over 10,500 stores around the world, and most of them in the United States, it’s hard not to pass a Starbucks during your daily routine. In Manhattan, there seems to be a Starbucks on almost every block… and they’re all packed with customers!

In Brooklyn, just minutes from Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge, their are two very hot neighborhoods; Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights. You would think that these neighborhoods would be packed with Starbucks stores, but they’re not. There are a few but they’ve been out-flanked by two local coffee/tea shops: Le Petite Cafe and The Tea Lounge.

What these neighborhood shops have done is fill a niche that Starbucks can’t fill… or won’t fill, because it doesn’t fit in the Cookie Cutter design that has made them successful.

Le Petite Cafe, with only one location has grown from a small coffee shop to a mid-sized restaurant. The interior design is very beautiful and incredibly unique. Features include:

-Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” from the Sistine Chapel, painted on the ceiling.
-A toy train traveling around the cafe about a foot from the ceiling.
-A built-in waterfall located in a beautiful outdoor space.

The Tea Lounge, on the other hand just opened it’s third location in Brooklyn. The feel of their stores is much more relaxed than both Starbucks or Le Petite Cafe. Highlights include:

-A young, “hip” staff. Often tattooed… always nice.
-“Lived-in” furniture (sometimes so lived in there are holes in the couches).
-Comfy couches everywhere.

As you can see, both Le Petite Cafe and The Tea Lounge have found a niche that differs themselves from Starbucks. They also offer great service… and great quality.

It’s not easy to survive if you’re competing with a category killer. However, if you’re able to find a niche and provide equal or better service… your business might not just be surviving… it might be thriving!

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Borat the movie, was released this weekend and topped the weekend box office with record-setting ticket
sales of $26.4 million in the U.S. and Canada at only 837 theaters.

A quick Google search for Borat first brings up the Unofficial Borat Homepage and then a Borat listing in Wikipedia. Wikipedia? Is Borat so important to our culture that it deserves a Wikipedia listing, or has Sacha Baron Cohen, the real actor that plays Borat, using Wikipedia as a marketing tool?

The Wikipedia listing covers a lot of information on Borat including a fictional biography, which I highly recommend reading, and links to Mr. Cohen’s other characters; Ali G and Bruno. All of this information expands on the characters and builds public awareness.

What a great marketing tool… an encyclopedia.

Here are other examples of questionable items listed in Wikipedia. Should they really be listed in an encyclopedia, or are they using Wikipedia as a marketing tool… or both?

-Though Apple’s (AAPL) IPod may deserve a listing for creating a revolution, does it’s competitors; Samsung YEPP and Sandisk SANSA?

-Did the George Foreman Grill change a market or just George Foreman’s career?

-Tom’s of Maine was one of the first successful natural personal care product lines. What market did Speedstick and Degree deodorant pioneer?

-Slim-fast helped it’s customers reduce their weight, but is it encyclopedia material?

Wikipedia is fully aware of companies using their service as a marketing tool. A lookup for the Magic Bullet, an “As Seen on TV” product, produces the following message before the listing:
“The current version of the article or section reads like an advertisement”.*

For another take on this subject see “Using Wikipedia for Marketing“, and article from Rohit Bhargava’s blog: Influential Interactive Marketing. Rohit Bhargava is the Vice President of Interactive Marketing for Ogilvy Public Relations.

So what are you waiting for? Get your product up on Wikipedia!

*As of January 8, 2007 the Wikipedia article for “Magic Bullet” was revised and the advertisement warning was removed.

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Apple's Got Vision

February 5, 2007 | Leave a Comment

Steve Jobs will go down in history as one of the world’s greatest marketers.

He didn’t invent the Graphical User Interface (GUI), the mouse or the trackball. Digital music players and cell phones were selling for years before Apple (AAPL) introduced
their versions. But Jobs made them better and easier to use.

What Steve Jobs has is vision. The CEO of Apple Inc. knows what consumers want and knows how to make it simple. (For our article “Apple: Keeping things Simple” click here)

He saw the Graphical User Interface and mouse at Xerox PARC and made them commercially successful products with his Macintosh computer. The trackball was licensed from Logitech and introduced in the Apple Powerbook.

As for digital music players and cell phones, do I really need to talk about the iPod and the recently introduced iPhone?

Even NEXT Technologies, the company he started after leaving Apple in 1985 was bought by Apple and its technology was used to create many great products including OS X.

If you were at MacWorld 2007 and saw the iPhone unveiled, you were surrounded by a record audience and loud applause for every other word out of Steve Jobs’ mouth. But it wasn’t always like that. I recently found a video on YouTube announcing the first iPod in 2001. You can watch it by clicking on the link below. There is a small audience and
almost no applause. The audience, which of course is filled with experts in the technology industry, had no idea that the iPod was going to be the hit it became, as well as disrupt the music industry. They never imagined that you could squeeze your entire music collection into a handheld device, as well as videos. And now you can even make phone calls!

But did even the great Steve Jobs realize that his iPod would be the hit it became? Did Steve Jobs have the vision to see the Video iPod or the iPhone when he released the original iPod in 2001?

If he did, would he have named the software that connects the iPod to your computer: iTunes?

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Under the reign of David Glass, Wal-Mart (WMT) invested in technology that would let them run the world’s largest retailer from the once small town of Bentonville AR. This  technology allowed them to optimize the profit per square inch of every corner, every shelf and every peghook in the store. Clipstrips added to this profitability by utilizing off-shelf space, and sidekicks drove sales at the end of every run.

But it seems the times they are a-changing’.

In an effort to create a more shopable environment, Wal-Mart is changing the layout of the Pharmacy section. Clipstrips have been removed, Gondola heights have come down, and there is now open space for customers to lounge in.

Open space?!? Lounging?!? In a Wal-Mart?!?

Obviously this impacts every vendor in the store, since there is less real estate to hold product. If the test is successful, you can be sure this format will flow through to every corner of the store.

If this sounds a little like Target, it’s for good reason. This new format seems to be the brain child of Wal-Mart’s recently promoted CMO, John Fleming. Mr. Fleming spent 19 years with the department stores division (Dayton Hudson and Marshall Fields) of Target Corp (TGT). There he held a variety of positions, including senior vice president of merchandising for the fashion divisions. He then came to Wal-Mart and grew Walmart.com into one of the country’s top three destinations for online shopping.

Only time will tell if reducing inventories and promotional programs, and creating lounging areas, will generate higher profit margins. But one thing is sure… the times they are a-changing’ in Bentonville, AR.

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I’m sure you’ve seen the commercials. A well spoken British man explains why most vacuum cleaners just don’t work properly, nd then introduces his version; “The first  vacuum cleaner that doesn’t lose suction”.

James Dyson shook up the world of vacuum cleaners in the early 1990’s when he perfected his “bagless” vacuum. He offered this new technology to other manufacturers but they all turned him down. The idea of a “bagless” vacuum would disrupt the repeat business of selling vacuum cleaner bags to consumers. It was a $500 million dollar business and Dyson’s technology would essentially make them obsolete. It didn’t matter that Dyson’s cyclonic technology was superior to the current bagged versions; the manufacturer’s believed it would hurt their bottom line.

This is not uncommon in the world of business. A well-established industry gets complacent and doesn’t innovate, while consumers with no other choice get frustrated.  Then along comes another company with a better product that disrupts the market.

Some examples are:

-Japanese cars offering better quality and disrupting the American auto industry.
-Digital cameras disrupted the film industry.
-Discount airlines lowering prices and disrupting the airline industry.
-Natural food retailer Whole Foods disrupting the grocery industry.
-Clif Bar disrupted the Power Bar industry with a natural alternative.
-Select Comfort disrupting the mattress industry with its high quality adjustable air mattress.

Some complacent companies will actually buy patents and bury them so they can’t be used against them. In reference to Dyson’s technology Hoover’s Vice President for Europe, Mike Rutter, said on UK national TV: “I do regret that Hoover as a company did not take the product technology off Dyson; it would have lain on the shelf and not been used”.

Though the vacuum may be his most well known invention, Dyson has created other products as well, which you can find on his website. James Dyson is clearly brilliant and so are his designs. I believe his most famous quote says it best; “I just want things to work properly”.

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Is Creepy In?

October 31, 2006 | Leave a Comment

It’s been over a year since Charles Schwab (SCHW) introduced their “Talk to Chuck” campaign, and I believe the results are mixed.

Additionally, it’s only been five months since HP (HPQ) launched their “The Computer is Personal Again” campaign and I have no idea how it’s doing.

What I do know is that they both chose “unique” graphics to get their message across, and I’m not so sure they chose the right graphics.

Let’s talk to Chuck first:

The branding of the campaign consists of two components: The “Talk to Chuck” slogan, and the unique graphics of their television ads; a technique called Rotoscoping created by Bob Sabiston.

Let’s take each one separately:
1) “Talk to Chuck”: Brilliant! I love it! The “Talk to Chuck” slogan adds a human factor to this company and removes the stodginess of Wall Street. It’s easy to remember, and when I say I’ve “talked to Chuck” at business dinners, people know it’s Charles Schwab.

2) Rotoscoped Commercial: Just because something is “cool”, “new” or “unique” doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for your brand and that’s how I feel about Mr. Sabiston’s graphics and Charles Schwab.

Schwab Rotoscope exampleRotoscoping has worked well in the past and has been featured in movies and music videos. When a small Norwegian band named A-ha used it in their music video; “Take on Me” in 1986, it won six MTV Video Music awards and was nominated for best video of the year at the American Music Awards. Not bad for a relatively unknown band. But not so good for an established financial firm.

Though the look is “cool”, it’s also a little creepy, and I don’t believe Schwab wants to be perceived as creepy. And honestly… when I watch the commercials they just look weird to me.

As for HP, their ad agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners needed a typeface for the campaign and was inspired by the soft covers of Jonathan Safran Foer’s books; “Everything Is Illuminated” and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: A Novel“.

HP Personal LogoThe look was created by Jonathan Gray, otherwise known as Gray318, and I do believe they look a little Tim Burtonesque… creepy. Even the colors chosen, Orange, Black and Blue are Halloween like.

Is creepy the new “in” look? Is weird the emotion you want to evoke when customers think of your brand?

Schwab and HP… lose the look!

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This week Steve Jobs at Apple announced movie downloads from their very popular iTunes service.

Like most people with iPods, I spent days (or maybe weeks) copying my Audio CD’s to my computer. Now I have my entire CD collection on my computer, along with movie’s I’ve downloaded from iTunes, for a total of over 40GB of data. However, unlike the music downloads, you cannot legally burn the movies to DVD for watching on your TV.

But what happens if my computer crashes?

iTunes offers a backup function to CD’s, but backing up 40GB of data will be time consuming and almost as boring as the days I spent copying my Audio CD’s.

I can keep the original CD’s, but that takes up space. And what about the music and movies I purchased from iTunes? All that money spent… is it really gone?

This is just another good reason to backup your data regularly… and I mean all your data. Not just your music and movies… your spreadsheets, Word documents, and everything else on your computer.

Historically, this has not been convenient. For years it has been recommended that you back up your data to CD’s… but that’s when I had a few megabytes of data. Now we’re talking about gigabytes, and a lot of them.

Then came on-line backup services, Xdrive, iBackup, etc, but they’re pretty expensive for the average user. On average it would cost around $50 a month to backup my iTunes library… $600 a year!

Recently, one company rewrote the book on on-line backups. They saw a great opportunity in a market that was unreasonable and took advantage of it.

Carbonite, offers unlimited on-line data backups for $5 a month. This is not a typo. Carbonite backups up all your data… iTunes, My Documents, everything except applications and system files, to it’s secure servers.

This means if your computer crashes or your home is destroyed in a fire or flood, your data is absolutely safe at Carbonite.

Besides the unbelievable low price of $5 a month, Carbonite breaks another rule of current on-line backup services… they keep it simple.

Much like Apple has been successful by creating simple products that work, Carbonite’s backup software is the simplest I’ve every used. Just run the install program and it works. Carbonite will automatically start backing up your data. You can easily choose what folders or files you don’t want to backup, otherwise you can rest assured that your data is safe. Carbonite’s website says that it “Never slows down your computer or Internet”, and I’ve found that to be true.

Just be warned that initially backing up 40 gigs of data took my computer approximately three weeks. But I was able to use my computer all that time and once it was backup up, Carbonite only copied files that were added or changed.

When I first saw this I thought it was too good too be true. Are these guys for real? Can I trust my data with them? However, they went the extra mile and received certification from BBB On-line, and convinced Staples that their service was secure and their business practices honorable. These two little logos (BBB and Staples) on the Carbonite website made me feel better about them… it was a great marketing move.

Carbonite clearly rewrote the rules for on-line backup by offering a simple solution at a very reasonable price. If you cherish your data, music and movies, you now have no excuse for not backing them up.

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Thousands of blogs and news sites are trying to guess what Steve Jobs will unveil at the Apple’s (AAPL) Special Press Event in San Francisco tomorrow.

A new wide screen video iPod… a movie download service to complement the new iPod… the new iPhone… whatever it is, one thing for sure, Apple will not disappoint.

Apple can’t disappoint. Since the introduction of the iMac, Apple has earned a reputation for attractive designs and powerful branding and buzz. This finely, tuned Marketing machine knows that they can’t hold an event, unless it’s an EVENT.

Apple Showtime InvitationThey’re able to create frenzy by sending out a simple invitation that has their logo and two words “It’s Showtime”. Who else could create a buzz with such a simple message?

But hasn’t that been the attraction of Apple all along; Simple products that work well.

Steve Jobs has always emphasized the importance of design, and focused on creating products that are simple to operate and have simple, aesthetic appeal. The iMac and the iPod (with iTunes), are the two products that put Apple back on the map and both fit this criteria.

Even the Apple logo, a picture of an Apple with a bite taken out of it… is simple.

Apple BillboardWhen marketing the iPod, Apple went the simple route. Silhouettes of people dancing to music got the iPod message across in all languages since no words were necessary. And the print campaign didn’t need to have anything more than the silhouette, the Apple logo, and the word “iPod”.

Apple iPod on Train

Though Steve Job’s is the master of creating simple, beautiful products… figuring out what consumers want is not always that simple. But Jobs seems to have that figured out as well.

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I only know two things about search engine marketing:

1) I don’t know much.

2) I know the expert.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to attend a live seminar given by Mike Moran, one of the authors of: Search Engine Marketing, inc.

Mike is an IBM (IBM) Distinguished Engineer and the Manager of Site Architecture for ibm.com, IBM’s customer-facing Web site.  His knowledge of this subject is enormous and he communicates it in a way that is easy for anyone to understand. He outlines how optimizing your website for search engines is the responsibility of both the Marketing Department and your Web Master, while providing real-life examples of how this was accomplished at IBM.

His seminar was so helpful, that I acquired his book within an hour after it ended!

Wait… I just realized their are two more things I know about search engine marketing:

1) Buy this Book: Search Engine Marketing, inc.

2) Visit this website: www.mikemoran.com

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