Poor HMV. Not only do they have to contend with a nasty case of the old bankruptcy. They also have to endure various half-competent criticisms leveled at their supposedly myopic management, kitchen sink merchandising, and absence of ‘passion.‘
I can’t say I have a lot of sympathy for the fallen giants of the British high street, but I do find a lot of the criticism to be lacking a constructive side. Yes, the majority of dearly departed high-street stalwarts were just a bunch of cartelized warehouse operators. And yes, the retail game has been reduced to a commercial ‘who blinks first.’
What’s important to note is that the diversification that seems to upset a lot of analysts was a sensible transitional move for a business that for ages has been selling a very narrow range of merchandise, while the core market for that traditional product was experiencing staggering erosion.
There was little wrong with HMV’s strategy. HMV Live and HMV Tickets were both good candidate building blocks for a broader, more stable customer relationship and commercial platform. The problem was executional. Neither of these initiatives, nor HMV’s (often self-destructive) merchandising choices (iPods in their stores) could deliver the revenues fast and thick enough for the business to refinance or service debt. The end.
What stands out for me in all of this is the public’s reaction over HMV’s demise. It has been far more heartfelt than for most other businesses who met the same fate. And justifiably so – it was a British institution in the truest sense, with real cultural significance for anybody who’s ever sacrificed their lunch money in the name of a record, tape or a cd.
So while the company braces for a deeply demoralising restructuring and the inevitable distress-sale fiasco, I think it’s worth taking note of the one asset that holds the greatest promise – its brand. While it may have suffered in the over-diversified last days of its business, the recent public outcry is a testament to the fact that it matters hugely to a huge amount of people. And HMV are not alone in this. Many formerly well-regarded brands have come out of bankruptcy to meet one of two certain fates – they are either forever consigned to history, or (on a less dignified note) end up stuck in perpetual digital mediocrity (see Littlewoods, Woolworths, Zavvi and many others besides.) A select few graduate to adoptive foreign investor families, but they truly belong to a different category altogether (see Land Rover.)
There is no reason why the recently orphaned brands of the high street can’t make a meaningful return and get a lease of life that is more than just digital window-dressing and SEO-milking. HMV can set a powerful precedent by providing a truly comprehensive service – one that draws compelling connections between the different products it offers – be it music, live gigs, exclusive experiences or music patronage. It is a brand with significant cultural roots and a sphere of influence that covers almost the entire value chain – from artists, to labels, merchandise and gigs. All the key enablers are there. It can be done right, provided that the entity which acquires HMV has the necessary courage, sophistication and will to make it the success it deserves to be.
Percentage of Logos Containing Leaves By Industry (C) Emblemetric
Ever wondered how has the percentage of logos containing leaves changed cince the 1950s? Wonder no more - Emblemetric has the answer, but the answer isn’t entirely surprising, it’s just a neat way to demonstrate the growth of corporate greenwashing.
My fortuitously early professional encounter with product innovation has had one lasting benefit – it demystified what has since become a very fashionable term. I never got the chance to internalise the concept of innovation. Every day I’d have a hundred and one things to do just to stay afloat, none of which involved reading the beautifully crafted, poorly disguised PR stories that are bread and butter for FastCompany, PSFK and Inc.
I am pleased I never gained exposure to these stories, because the notion that innovation is elegant, structured and infinitely replicable would have confused me to no end. And even though some great innovations have introduced simplicity, elegance and quality to our lives (Apple’s products being the most obvious ones), a beautifully crafted product, service or experience alone does not constitute innovation. Profitability does.
It is difficult to think of an example more appropriate than Ryanair – by this measure they’d be one of the most innovative airlines in the world. They have over 3bn in cash reserves. They fly three times more passengers than BA, despite constant criticism of their furtive attempts to charge for the privilege of common courtesy. But is it this really innovation or fanatical frugality? Many might disagree, but I think there are many reasons to celebrate the flawed, ruthless and brave genius of Ryanair.
Firstly, and most obviously, the advertising. Crude, tasteless, consistently inconsistent and incredibly effective. Judging by the content and style of Ryanair advertising it’s easy to imagine that instead of an advertising budget they have a damages budget. And justifiably so. When one of their most high-profile ad aberrations angered Sarkozy and Bruni, Ryanair were ordered to pay £40k (€50k) for the trouble. Where would £40k get you in terms of traditional creativity? Not much beyond a YouTube video from some self-appointed ‘viral hot shop’. And what ad agencies are denied in fees, junior ad execs save on Ryanair flights to Ibiza.
Then there is Ryanair’s extravagant chairman, Monsieur O’Leary – a man who has proudly dedicated every fibre of his being to delivering rock-bottom prices to customers. He is famous for obtaining the taxi licence required to use the bus lane on his way to an office as comfortable as your average Ryanair flight. He is a vocal proponent of his empire, spreading ill-advised but memorable quips on subjects such as global warming: “It is absolutely bizarre that the people who can’t tell us what the fucking weather is next Tuesday can predict with absolute precision what the fucking global temperatures will be in 100 years’ time. It’s horseshit.” Charming.
Finally, and most importantly, Ryanair have committed the ultimate act of strategic subversion. They have embraced commodification in a world where everybody and their dog are trying to fight it. Mr. O’Leary has made the world realise that the experience of flying is as overinflated as its price. Back in the 1950s when consumer aviation started taking off, air travel was the preserve of the upper classes, and the service standard was suitably high. Someone would carry your bags onto the airplane, while you are chauffeured to the aircraft. A flirtatious attendant will pop open a bottle of the perfect accompaniment for your three course meal, all the while the pilot cracks jokes on the intercom during a flight that often lasted twice as long as it does today.
The world has moved on, airlines haven’t, and Ryanair is reaping the rewards. There are more people flying than ever, in an industry designed for the few. So why should passengers pay for a level of service that they don’t normally get, expect, or need on a flight which lasts1.2 hours on average?
While it’s difficult to defend Ryanair’s customer service perpetrations, it’s impossible to deny them the status of a true innovator – they have consistently resisted convention and have become incredibly successful by doing so. The absence of a wooly, new-age business lesson from their story doesn’t make their success less relevant, it reaffirms it.
Does exactly what it says on the tin. A comprehensive collection of different scenes from Seinfeld exemplifying key economic principles. Full of econ and of Seinfeld — impossible to improve in other words. A must for any econ nerd and nerds in general. Also on the signaling properties of nerddom – check out this fab NYTimes article.
You know you must be doing something right when one of the world’s most disturbed and peevish governments locks you up for no good reason. Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei gets many things right, and he is presently suffering the sadly inevitable consequences of his actions. His disruptive genius is not restricted to just fine art and pissing off the Chinese government. In fact almost every business and aspiring social entrepreneur can take a leaf out of his book.
Ai Weiwei – Fuck you White House, 1999
After all the unprecedented free flow of information that’s upsetting China is also responsible for the change in people’s relationships with brands and the companies behind them. Which is why most business people would agree that doing the right thing is beginning to take priority over saying the right thing.
Ai Weiwei has managed to skilfully balance the two in his recent exhibition at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. The artwork entitled ‘Sunflower Seeds’ consists of 100 million hand-crafted porcelain replicas of sunflower seeds. Aesthetically the installation wins on a number of levels – it commands an awesome sense of scale as well as an oddly inviting pull – like a soft pebbled beach that beckons you to run barefoot through it.
Ai Weiwei – Sunflower Seeds, Tate Modern
Conceptually it goes even further. It bridges China’s ancient tradition of porcelain craft with the modern China we all know and love – the global capital of mass production and brand replicas galore.
So much for the saying bit. It’s the doing that makes this special. In the creation of his work Ai Weiwei employed people from the village of Jingdezhen – a community of porcelain craftsmen dating back to the Han Dynasty. In the 5 painstaking years it took for ‘Sunflower seeds’ to be created the artist generated revenue streams for the locals, united the community around their shared past and brought them international recognition.
We needn’t look further than Damien Hirst to see just how big an innovation this is for the category. In the ultimate act of creative subversion Damien Hirst made a virtue out of the commercial success of his art empire. A move symptomatic of the absurd commercialisation of art in general, culminating in his legendary Sotheby’s sale at the height of the global recession.
In the ultimate act of creative self-effacement Ai Weiwei made a virtue out of the fact that good ideas have many authors. Not only did he create a work of art that effectively gives back to the Jingdezhen community – he also did a superb communication job by consolidating 11,000 years of Chinese culture in an engaging and compelling story.
Can communications agencies help clients achieve such a great balance between saying and doing? Can they reach the same levels of critical acclaim and category innovation? Influencing business behaviour to resolve a communications task is not only painful (it’s rare that a creative agency would ever spend enough time at the client’s top tables to cut through the inevitable political barriers that get in the way of internal change.) It is also incredibly backward – the truth is that the comms world is experiencing the ripple effect of a much bigger discourse – one that demands creating shared value for multiple stakeholders. What’s more not all such interventions make for a good comms story. The fact that Wal-Mart re-routed hundreds of delivery trucks, cutting down its carbon footprint is just not that big of a story.
Inevitably the agencies who manage to achieve this delicate balance will rock a few client/partner apple carts, but I reckon it’s only about half as bad as being a political prisoner in China.
If anything tops Ashley Madison‘s controversial proposition is its advertising, the most recent example of which recently crowned the hideous Old Street roundabout in London last week. The ad manages to spectacularly miss the point on three accounts, all exponentially damaging. It is a low-rent execution of a low-rent proposition aimed at a low-rent audience.
You can’t fault the business concept, it is clever, but badly framed. Selling this as infidelity just consigns the idea back to hundreds of years of meticulously recorded physical and emotional cruelty. Visually the ad doesn’t do anything that a phone booth calling card wouldn’t do, which leads to the final, and perhaps most crucial point: it speaks to the wrong audience.
Strategically, this couldn’t possibly be a ploy to attract millions of sexually under-serviced single individuals. The integrity of the product and the business model would be compromised beyond repair. After all, legitimising an extramarital relationship by taking part of Ashley Madison must surely require a bigger intellectual investment than simply nipping off to the strip bar or calling up a hooker. Looking at the kind of stuff that Tilda Swindon dabbles in shows that people who commit to open relationships tend to rationalise their behaviour differently, or might at least aspire to do so. In any case, this intimate choice should be discretely acknowledged, celebrated and rewarded, not crudely exposed on the city’s biggest roundabout.
I know this blog post might read a bit like spam, but I think Waitrose’s new marketing push to match 1000 branded products with Tesco is a terrific challenge. UK’s most expensive supermarket is beyond well positioned for a price-matching showdown – even if the customer uptake from the promotion doesn’t pay off, Waitrose can counterbalance it by pricing up in the more inelastic, upper end of their product range.
Despite their legendary consumer database and near-scientific segmentation prowess Tesco still cannot afford that luxury, its average basket being nearly half that of Waitrose.
And while Waitrose continues to grow their brand meaningfully through innovations such as the Leckford Farm, what is infinitely smart about the 1000 branded product price-match (yes it is a pun) is that it can beat Tesco at their own customer-centric game cheaply, in real time, for every willing shopper.
If I were Tesco I’d be reasonably worried.
Pure genius, via Russell Davies.
I have been talking to tons of clever industry people and understandably, digital was a topic that cropped up with an alarming frequency.
As the much professed shift from interruptive to interactive comms takes place, a lot of brands seem to have taken to digital with enviable ease. They have become highly desirable benchmarks in the eyes of both clients and agencies. But do brands really need to ‘embrace’ digital? This rather indiscriminate attitude towards the deceptively cost-effective medium has been advanced for far too long. Just like not all brands are born equal, not all of them are suited to live online, or be interacted with.
Does it really matter that your brand has an augmented reality app, then? I mean really? The best use of AR I have seen so far, is one that is executionally unremarkable, but practically spot-on. Ray Ban used AR to fit out a pair of sunglasses on your face. It is simple and makes sense. Nothing more than that.
Seductive technological advances aside, a host of clients and agencies seem to also find comfort in the quantitative promise of the internet. 100% click-through rates, six-digit visitor counts, and high-dwell time seem to be the order of the day. What seems far less accounted for, is the fact that all this quantitative data is qualitative in nature. In other words – the internet is open-ended, it lacks the constraints that make quant data meaningful. There are as many navigation options as there are web destinations. And yet we continue to mistake clicks for interaction. At best, such ‘measurements of success’ are meticulous post rationalisations. The fact that every single click is accounted for, does not mean we can affect it.
I think planners and clients alike need to step back and look at the bigger picture. As everyone and their dog know, the democratization of media is undoubtedly the best thing to happen, since the invention of the printing press. It has also created a chaotic, incomprehensible mess of what marketers liked to tell clients was a fairly straightforward and controllable world. A mess very similar to what a Russian economic planner would have seen in the 1970s, when confronted with the key constructs of free markets – self-interest, unfettered greed and lack of centralised control. We all know which model worked and which remained a utopia.
We need to master just what aspect of the brands we care for are apportioned as interactive, what is anchored in traditional storytelling and what is left as open-ended. In other words – less planned but planned well.