What Wireless Providers Have Learned from Razor Manufacturers

What on earth could these two things have to do with each other? Marketing...

To watch TV over the past couple of months, one would think that the wireless phone and data providers in the US have undertaken a massive effort to improve their coverage and data speeds across the country. The four largest American providers; Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile have saturated the market recently with advertising claiming “blazingly fast” speeds on the nation’s first/fastest/most reliable/most advanced 4G networks.

Whether through Verizon’s copious use of lighting bolts and Hans Zimmer-esque music…

AT&T’s belief that depressed-looking cubicle workers with obnoxious laughs are amusingly convincing…

Sprint’s surreal, text-driven landscapes (replete with funky, get-stuck-in-your-head music)…

Or T-Mobile’s slanderous, Apple-derivative, hot chick vs. nerd ads…

…they all seem hell-bent on convincing anyone trying to watch four whole quarters of a football game that their dumb old iPhone, Blackberry, or Droid is horribly outdated and must be replaced immediately.

It took 12 years from 1991 to 2003, and billions of dollars spent during an economic boom to upgrade from 2G (20 Kbit/sec) to the very first 3G network (a more than 100x speed increase to 3.84Mbit/sec or more). 3G itself did not receive widespread adoption until 2007-08 when the development of new handsets with larger screens made the speed usable. And now we are being told that over about 2 years, during a severe recession, the same carriers have upgraded their networks to a place that is worthy of being called ‘4G’.

The reality is that not one of these carriers is actually offering a 4G network. In fact, not one provider in the world is offering one. 4G (officially a ‘4th Generation’ network) is described by the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) as a network that allows mobile devices to exchange data at or over 100Mbit/sec, and this technology does not exist yet for the public. In comparison, an 802.11G wifi network, which many people still have in their homes if they haven’t updated their wireless routers in a couple of years, runs at 54Mbit/sec; barely half the speed of a true 4G network.

Verizon currently boasts the ‘fastest’ 4G network available in the US. It’s average speed? 8 to 9 Mbit/sec, a paltry 2.3x increase over minimum 3G speeds and less than 1/10 the officially required speed.

What do all of those numbers really mean? Basically it means that wireless providers have rediscovered the best marketing tactic since ‘buy one get one free’. Namely that 4 is better than 3, and soon, 5 will be better than 4. It doesn’t matter if the data substantiates their claims or not. If Verizon says they have a 4G network, and are willing to put more than $3 Billion (their projected 2011 ad budget) into convincing the public that its true, reality is of little consequence. And soon, Sprint or T-Mobile, or one of the smaller providers will decide that they can win more customers if they have a 5G network, and the battle will start all over again on a new playing field. This idea, as a marketing strategy, has been around forever, but it was proven successful in its modern iteration by a somewhat unlikely source; razors.

Gillette 1904 Safety Razor Replica

The modern safety razor was invented in 1904 by King C. Gillette, and consisted of a single disposable blade set against a steel plate that exposed a very slim portion of the edge. MIT graduate William Nickerson perfected the production technique for thin, cheap blades and sales grew steadily before the US Army issued a Gillette razor to every soldier in WWI, essentially cementing the company as the premier shaving brand in the US.

Companies entered and left the market without dramatically altering the design of the system until 1965, when Gillette itself introduced the first replaceable cartridge razor, the Techmatic, followed by the first 2-blade cartridge razor, the Trac II, in 1971. Anyone who has paid any attention since is aware of what has happened… Two blades became standard, so a third was introduced. Schick responded with a 4th blade, which Gillette countered by adding a 5th and placing a 6th on the reverse side for ‘precision trimming’, whatever that means.

The escalating race for blades was so insane that a parody commercial for a 3-blade razor on Saturday Night Live in 1975 turned into a strangely accurate prediction of what was to come. And the situation got so ludicrously predictable, that a February 2010 press release was big news because it announced that Gillette’s newest razor system DID NOT have any more blades. Of course the official argument from all the parties involved was that more blades produced a cleaner, closer shave with less irritation (a non-scientific assessment that is often disputed, like here and here) but the reality is that marketing executives made the leap that 3 must be better than 2, 4 better than 3, and so on, and as usual, bigger meant better and American consumers validated their assumption.

However now, Gillette and Schick have been left high and dry. For decades, their customers have been groomed to believe that another blade meant a better product until we suddenly became aware that we were waiting for a razor with 6 blades and we began to call them on their bluff. They are still the only two major players in the game, but neither have any idea where to go next because the product cycle has to start all over again and they have to convince us that a new, currently unknown, set of criteria is what separates the good from the bad.

Both cell phones and razors bring us the core of the issue; creating products for good marketing strategies vs. creating marketing strategies for good products.

In both the examples above, the genesis of the idea was a good product. A razor with blades that did not need to be manually sharpened and provided a safe, clean shave, and a mobile communication device that allowed the user to do far more than simply make phone calls were both industry revelations that provided new experiences for consumers.

Over time however, a lack of innovation, or simply a lack of patience to allow for innovation, shifted corporate power from the hands of the product developer to the hands of the marketing team. Billions were spent on the assumption that C had to be better than B since B was better than A. With regard to the razor market, we are finally seeing a tempering of corporate enthusiasm for ‘bigger = better’, but only after they had exhausted nearly every derivative possibility and came dangerously close to becoming a joke to their own customers.

True innovation, whether in the creation of new products or the freshening of old ones, is the only way to capture and hold the attention of consumers. When a proposed marketing tactic dictates the development of new products, it can only be a matter of time before the bottom drops out, and the customer becomes aware that they are being deceived. In all honesty, this 4G, 5G, 6G strategy will work in the short term. Profits will continue to rise, someone will get promoted, a CEO will get a ridiculous severance package, and the battle for wireless supremacy will elevate to another level. But somewhere along the way, customers will realize that their 7G network really isn’t all that much better than their 6G, or for that matter their 4G, and the wireless providers too, will be left high and dry, searching for the next innovative product to build a marketing strategy around.

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New Commenting Rules

We have been a little crazy here kick starting a few new projects, but new blog posts are on their way, I promise!

We don’t get a ton of readership here yet (working on it), but we do seem to be getting a lot of spammers so from now on we are going to ask you to comment with meaningful things to say as well as repeat a word at the beginning of your first-ever post so that we know you aren’t a robot and we can add you to our system! You will see what we mean in a couple of days when the next post comes out, but essentially there will be a short disclaimer at the end of each post that says something like:

“What do you think? If you wish to leave a comment below and you have never commented on our blog before, please begin your post by typing ‘howdy doody!’ so that we can add you to our list of approved commenters. Thanks!”

Then, if this is your first post on our blog your post would look something like:

“Howdy Doody!

Thanks for the absolutely brilliant, eye opening article! You must share DNA with Einstein!!!”

FYI, Intense amounts of flattery will get your comment approved much faster. Just kidding… but not really…

Sorry for the new rules but spammers are getting clever and its getting tough to tell who is real and who isn’t. Thanks!

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The Case for Including Product Design in the Branding Process

Depending on where and when you’re from, Abraham Kaplan / Abraham Maslow / Mark Twain / Lao Tzu / Betty White once said ‘To a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail’, and never is this more apropos than when talking about branding. Grown out of the need for advertising agencies to execute logos and visuals meant to help tell one company apart from another, branding is to this day thought of as a graphic medium. Though to be fair, I suppose ‘To a man with a licensed copy of the Adobe Creative Suite, every branding assignment looks like a graphic design project’ just doesn’t quite have the same ring to it…

Evolution within the branding industry has prompted the inclusion of web development, media creation, retail design, and structural packaging among other niche practices, however these disciplines, despite their sometimes physical nature, tend to be post-development adaptations of a brand’s visual and verbal language. That these executions are not often considered when developing the initial brand strategy and design vocabulary should, and will be discussed on this blog (stay tuned), but the primary focus of this post is that one key piece of the puzzle of often left out all together; the product.

The product itself is the strongest and usually longest-lasting consumer touchpoint with which to reinforce a brand’s unique positioning. As if blind to the tremendous opportunity being wasted, products are almost always designed and put into production long before any branding team is set to the task of creating a compelling story out of them. Even the most progressive executives see the product as an expression of the company’s expertise while they see the branding as the compelling argument for purchase. Very few companies (Apple, MINI, Ikea, Muji, and Bang & Olufson to name a few) allow their brand positioning to directly influence the design and development of new products.

This is unfortunate since real product design goes so far beyond the visual language created for the item or line of items. Modern industrial designers are being trained to carefully consider human factors, user experience, innovative problem solving, and advanced production techniques as well as the development of a unique aesthetic. While always concerned with the way a product looks, the profession as a whole rejects the notion that the engineering department must create and package the technology so that the designer can shell it to look as though it belongs. It is the experiential elements of a product (form factor, usability, interface, materiality, features) that communicate volumes about the brand it comes from and need to be carefully crafted to match the strategic position.

Consider a company like OXO. Their mission is to create ‘innovative consumer products that make everyday living easier.’ They understand the value that competent industrial design brings to the table and have based their entire brand on the notion. Their products all share a similar aesthetic yet at their core they are created to solve problems. The brand is not known for their logo, or their use of fresh white graphics, or clean product photography, or sans-serif type. It is known for rounded, easy to hold, nice to look at shapes, a high degree of functionality, and a dedication to making things that work.

OXO's product line defines the company's brand identity.

Then consider a brand in stark contrast with them such as HP. While comparing computers to kitchenware may seem like apples and oranges (no pun intended, I swear) their contrasting brand strategies make perfect foils for each other. Whereas OXO has developed a strategic position, created products that strictly adhere to it, and built a brand around them, HP attempts to stay market competitive by creating a rival product for every trendy piece of hardware being sold on the shelves. Their strategic position is officially ‘Let’s do amazing’, which in and of itself is rather vague, but the experiences conjured up by the thought of ‘AMAZING’ are not supported by any of their offerings. In the end, HP is creating a myriad of medium-low to medium-high end products that share no aesthetic linkage, no common user interface, no consumer-centric attributes, and do not support the brand positioning, however weak it may be.

HP's product line simply confuses it.

The bottom line is that if you were to ask a die-hard OXO customer what it means to own their products you would get a very clear answer revolving around the concepts of ease of use, personal sensitivity, and aesthetic consideration. In contrast it would be rather difficult to even find a die-hard HP customer, and even if you did, the primary factors contributing to their loyalty would probably come down to price and availability, neither of which are compelling attributes to build a brand around. What HP is lacking is a thread that ties together all of their products and reinforces a particularly ownable aspect of their brand.

This is not to say that the product itself always needs to be the physical inspiration for the brand’s vocabulary a la OXO, but it does at very least need to embody the spirit of the brand’s positioning. Take a company like Zappos for example. For them, the product is not the shoe, it’s the delivery of the shoe and the customer service that follows it. The brand is predicated upon a no hassle chain of communication and distribution that gets your order to your door in days instead of weeks and allows you to return anything you want, at any time, with no additional shipping cost. And while the web presence and advertising define a visual language for the company, it is the customer’s experience with the product that embodies the brand.

As a graduate of an industrial design program, it is tempting to think that products are my hammer with which to deal with nails, but I don’t believe that this is the case. Innovative graphics are a vital part of the development of a well-received brand, and it is not their inclusion into the lexicon of branding that I take issue with. Rather, it is the exclusion of product development. Industrial designers must become aware of the power their profession has within the world of branding and work with open-minded consultancies and clients to develop innovative new strategies for product integration into brand positionings. It is only when companies begin to understand the influence that their products have over the perception of their brand that they will be able to start creating truly whole experiences.

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Treat Your Employees as Brand Ambassadors

and sometimes a perk is simply being left alone to do your job
The perks of a job can often offset the nature of it.

When I was in high school, the best part time job a kid could have was working at Starbucks. Forget for a moment how hard they have been hit by the recession, because at the time $4.99 for a coffee didn’t seem so ridiculous. Why? Well the lattes tasted pretty good, and money seemed to grow on trees, but in my mind half of that cost was going right back their employees (my friends). A Starbucks ‘Barista’ made a decent wage and got benefits to boot!

At the time I thought ‘Gosh, Starbucks sure is a swell company!’ (yes that’s how I spoke at 17) and today, I still think they are a swell company. Is their product incredibly overpriced? Most certainly! But every time I walk into a Starbucks, no matter where in the world it is, I know I will be getting a quality product, in a comfortable environment, served by incredibly genial people. Which brings me back to my point; Starbucks has found a way to incentivize pleasantry. By offering a wage and benefits package that few can compete with they are not only able to select the absolute best candidates for the job, but most of the time their employees actually like where they work. Happy employees create an above average consumer experience, and an above average consumer experience allows them to charge a premium price for a rather average product.

By treating their Baristas less like employees and more like brand ambassadors, they have upgraded the status of working for the company. They know that they are providing employment to people in transition (whose goal is a full time job at Starbucks by the time they are 35?), yet rather than treat them like a corporate burden (I’m looking at you Dunkin’ Donuts) they treat them like a valuable part of the company and it shows in every facet of the consumer experience.

This is a lesson that too many companies refuse to learn. Look at the deluge of unhelpful, overseas call centers over the past decade. The technicians, when not unintelligible, follow a predetermined script while sounding miserable, and more often than not are unable to solve whichever problems one might be having. By treating their employees as an afterthought and going with the lowest bidder, many companies have devalued their brands to the point where their product prices were forced lower to compensate for the poor service their customers were receiving.

People provide a face for an organization (no pun intended). Whether it is a retail store, restaurant, phone based service, or online entity; empowered employees make all the difference. Allow them to make decisions for themselves. Every time a clerk has to go to a manager for approval, or a technician has to get their supervisor on the phone they are essentially saying ‘I don’t get paid enough to deal with your problem’. By giving each and every member of your organization the approval to do anything and everything in their power to rectify a situation it sends a message to the customer. Your business will make more in newfound customer loyalty than they will lose fixing problems.

The stories of Nordstrom’s return policy are the stuff of legend. They will take anything back without a receipt. And I mean ANYTHING. Rumor has it someone once returned a set of snow tires. (For those of you who don’t know, Nordstrom doesn’t sell snow tires.) For all I know this tall tale could have been spread by a very savvy marketing consultancy working for the retailer, but the fact remains that for every one person that tries to return something outrageous, thousands purchase clothing and accessories comforted by the knowledge that they can return it at any time with or without a receipt, and without the sales staff having to get approval and send them to another department.

In an age where lawsuits and bureaucracy are the corporate norm, the responsibilities of the average employee have been reduced to such a level that an attentive child could accomplish them. Companies who are willing to let well-trained employees represent them in the public eye almost always benefit in the long run. Even in the internet age, a friendly conversation with the guy behind the counter can still define the perception of a company in a way that a screen never can.

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The Environmental Dilemma

How does an environmentally responsible innovator reconcile with the truth that branding is all about amplifying the consumption cycle?

As a somewhat loyal user of Apple products for the last decade, I was understandably excited by the recent launch of the iPhone 4. Reception issues notwithstanding, I am a big fan of the slightly more geometric, less bar-of-soap like design, as well as the thick aluminum band around the outside. But I was struck, in a moment of reflection, about how easily I divorce the problems we as a global community face, from the repercussions of my own personal desires. I see the great Pacific garbage patch as an indictment of our wasteful consumerist culture, and the BP oil spill as a horrifying reminder of the crude, dirty underpinnings of a system which fights every step forward with reassurance that 3 steps back are necessary and normal. Yet when I see a beautifully designed new product, I can’t help but be overcome with a desire for it.

As the owner of a branding company, it can be difficult to reconcile the fact that we strive to be environmentally responsible, socially progressive innovators, with the fact that our industry is often seen as a tool for amplifying the consumption cycle. Our goal is to create just the type of desire in others that the new iPhone created in me. And it can be a struggle to support and encourage such a wasteful system on a daily basis.

This article is not meant to be soapbox from which to preach about environmental activism, but the fact remains that we simply cannot continue to discard old goods in favor of new ones when the old ones wind up in piles in a landfill. The environmental, and social damage caused by such behavior must be curtailed if we want any chance of continuing to produce life-changing products and services.

I, personally, am only able to sleep at night knowing that those of us in the branding world have the ability to affect real changes in culture from the inside out. We must be acknowledge that we are a large part of the landfill mentality, and use our position as consultants to change the way companies think about products and their lifecycles. We must advocate a change of corporate mindset as necessary to maintaining a competitive edge within a market.

Historically, humans have developed ways in every social hierarchy to display their level of influence to both their competition and potential partners, and most often it was the consumption of resources that acted as what Geoffrey Miller calls a ‘fitness indicator’ to others. To obtain and dispose of wealth, whether it be food, clothing, fuel, or any other consumable item was a pure indicator of a person’s status, and power. Miller cites that ‘conspicuous consumption’ was the means by which people in power differentiated themselves from those around them.

This cultural mindset, which has existed since apes first picked up rocks and started using them as tools, has finally started to shift in a way that is quickly reversing the trend. No longer is the blind utilization of resources seen as a luxurious and enviable practice. The cool-factor of Humvees has given way to that of the Mini. Sustainable cork and cotton shoes hold higher social values than those made of alligator skin. Companies that produce goods that take a high environmental toll no longer command the luxury prices they once did, while herbal tea bars, sustainable goods, and eco friendly packaging have become the new luxury standard. In time, we may achieve a society where those who consume the least enjoy a level of status once reserved for those who displayed their wealth through the quantities they could afford to waste.

Of course society is not always quick to make polar shifts of this magnitude, and there are certainly those that cling to the ideas of wealth and status on which they were raised, but the upside of this particular movement is that it is difficult to find fault with. Even global warming dissenters still have trouble espousing the benefits of clear cutting forests, or filling landfills with acres of toxic plastic, and those who have held on to things like once-popular gas-guzzling daily drivers for their style and entertainment value are finding that the envy they once felt from those around them is being replaced with disgust. The societal pressure to reduce ones environmental impact is not absolute, but it is increasing more rapidly than anyone expected.

Which brings us once again to the opportunities this presents as branding professionals to both develop new and innovative ways to capture public attention and make a positive environmental change at the same time. The truth of the matter is that eco-friendly business practices are not a trend, they are an opportunity. Trends can live or die by the whims of the public, and the green movement has proven to be more of a fundamental change in our purchasing behavior. We are presented with what has the potential to be the most dramatic shift in the perception of goods in centuries, and we are just now figuring out how to capitalize on it.

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How avoiding risk amplifies it

(and what smart branding can do to help eliminate it)

Without risk there is no reward. Often quoted, yet rarely taken to heart, such sentiments echo throughout corporate boardrooms, being spouted right now by a team deliberating between beige and taupe for the housing on a new line of air-fresheners. The vast majority of companies grossly misunderstand the concept of risk, believing that resisting change avoids it, while exploring the unproven takes on far too much of it. The dogma of not fixing what ‘aint broke permeates within our culture so deeply, that describing a company as ‘innovative’ has been softened to the point of including those who are barely meeting the demands of their customers.

In retrospect, which really exemplified taking a risk? Developing something new, or sticking with something old?

The corporate world is deeply ingrained within a broken system of gentle product evolution. Business revolves around the yearly freshening of an existing object or service rather than around trying to create new solutions to old problems. Large companies utilize extensive market research and consumer testing to provide exhaustive data to support what everyone already knows, or at most, divine whether existing customers prefer the same thing they already own in blue or green. The desire to create new ideas that fundamentally solve problems has been lost by the great majority of businesses, who believe that risks like these are simply not worth taking.

This opinion is, of course, bolstered by the one industry that was not beyond taking on substantial amounts of risk over the past few decades, however I’m not talking about the kind of risk incurred when loaning a 25 year old making $37k a year $1.2 million for a house in Orange County, or the type of risk incurred when blindly investing billions on the promise of fantastic returns. Rather I’m talking about the type of risk a company takes on when making the decision to add or remove products, begin a massive ad campaign, or establish itself as a forward thinking leader within it’s market. I am talking about calculated risk.

I would argue that the concept underpinning the fear of risk is inherently backwards, and that not taking on what is commonly considered ‘risk’ is the riskiest move of all. Risk is not synonymous with danger, rather it is a concept assigned to the unproven. The quest to scientifically predict what is essentially an emotionally driven public reaction has resulted in a stalemate where companies find themselves between a rock and a hard place; between a market that is constantly pushing them forward, and an analytical nature that prevents them from being the first to take the leap on their own.

Those that wait to be pushed become entrenched within their own product lines and marketing tactics, and are unable to adapt to changing marketing conditions. Over time they begin to lack the brand support to launch the type of innovative ideas necessary to emerge as a market leader. CEOs must disenthrall themselves with where they as a company have already been and embrace where they must go.

Of course in an era of intense investor scrutiny, such actions are easier said than done. Financial markets, in general, are fond of speeches about long-term vision as long as they are accompanied by short-term profits. Many businesses have had their grandiose plans for innovative market dominance dashed by 2% lower than expected profits in the month of April. Such is the backlash about minor market corrections that immediate, and short-term action is required to produce above average results the following month in order to preserve the jobs of those in charge. Under such immense financial pressure to perform, it is often easier to be predictably mediocre than to be unpredictable at all.

And while predictably mediocre may not have been so easy to achieve over the past two years, the risk aversion mentality is not symptomatic of a faltering economy. Businesses are just as likely to rest on their laurels during a bubble as tighten their belts and hunker down after a burst. It is usually only when a company is in trouble that they finally begin to understand how taking risks might have helped them to avoid their faltering situation.

For example, the US auto manufacturers have spent 30+ years avoiding risk by continuing to produce products that fell decades behind their competition in terms of design, finish, engineering, safety, and reliability. They survived solely on a ‘Buy American’ attitude and an aging population of loyal customers, neither of which was able to sustain them as they became further and further out of touch with the desires of the market. It is only now, when they lack the time and capital to do something about it, that they are beginning to understand that taking risks is not just how you stay on top of your competition, but in some aspects simply keep pace with them.

One of the reasons we see the desire to innovate only in times of desperate need is that for unprepared companies, it tends to alter business models. Brands that historically do not innovate cannot begin doing so without dramatically adjusting the way they are perceived by their customers. When the status quo is changed, it is often seen as a desperate maneuver, and customers flock to what they consider to be more stable companies or brands. Think pizza places selling tacos or gas stations selling DVDs.

Risk adoption must be made a part of a business’s culture BEFORE they have no other choice. And the only way to prepare companies for the uncertainty of risk taking is in the way that we brand them. We believe in branding companies around an idea that embodies how they would like their customers to feel rather than build a brand around a product or group of products. This strategy essentially gives a business carte-blanche when it comes to capitalizing on new opportunities as long as they don’t stray too far from the core of their brand strategy. A store that prides itself on selling nails simply cannot support selling screws no matter how much demand there seems to be, whereas a store built upon the idea of providing customers with the best fastener for the job can sell nails, screws, bolts, tape, glue and anything else they want without stretching their brand too thin.

Now is the time when companies should be taking a look at their brands and asking themselves if they are prepared to take on the risk necessary to emerge from a recessed economy as profitable. As cash flow is returning to the economy, the conditions are becoming more and more right for businesses to start considering brand migration strategies. By rapidly evolving from a brand which values their products to a brand that values their customers, modern companies can position themselves as brands whose clientele expects them to take risks, and rewards them when they do.

Of course there is still some risk involved in taking risks. A frozen food company exploring the seafood-flavored breakfast pancake market may not find success no matter how their brand is positioned.

Crabcakes?

Actually it could work if I could find someone who makes tartar sauce syrup...

Successful innovation and risk taking requires an intelligent design and development process that establishes a need and creates an exciting new method for satisfying it. Consumers respond to companies that they believe have their best interests in mind, and a brand that is continuously developing and releasing new ideas will strike a chord with them. With this type of relationship, successes become loudly congratulated and missteps become easily forgiven, a situation that takes much of the risk out of risk taking.

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