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Monday, November 15, 2010

Small business failure, a lack of appreciation for the competition

Many small businesses are started because of a dislike for the competition. But how many of those small business people actually think about the things their competition is doing right? It takes a thorough investigation into everything that is happening in the industry to succeed in business.

I just read an incredibly insightful article in Wired about Ticketmaster, aka: the evil empire that "everyone" hates. You know, that company that charges you $10-20 in fees for a $15 event ticket. I'm guessing that many small ticketing start-ups began because of their frustration with the extraordinary fees, and lack of creativity of the market giant. But how many of them appreciated what Ticketmaster can do better than anyone?

I'm not playing devil's advocate here, as I believe the cannibalistic nature of the excessive fees is long-term bad for both venues and performers. But what is true is that your small business will not succeed if you haven't evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of your competition. Will your upstart ticketing company be able to handle millions of tickets sold this week without system failure? Can you lock down 40,000+ seat venues in your market? Do you need to?

Not every business must be able to topple the giant in their industry, but there is a need to truly understand your competition, how you're similar, and different. You must know what your place is in the market, and understand what challenges your competition hands you. I worked with a small upstart recently who boasted the ways they were doing something no one else in the industry was focused on. Problem was, the positive things they were doing were indeed exactly the same as the rest, while the only unique elements of their business were not desired by their customers. They were preparing for a take-over of an industry, when in reality all they were equipped for was a small slice of a pie that was firmly controlled by their competition.

Get to know your competition. Discover what you can do better, and know what they do better than you. Learn from their expertise and hardships to get where they are.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Pork Council believes people prefer fairy tales?

Intellectual property disputes have always been one of my greatest passions, as well as frustrations. So many complexities taken into consideration to decide who has rights to what brand name or tagline. It can be exhilarating if you're into that sort of thing. Other times it can be downright frustrating. Then other times it can be hysterical.

ThinkGeek, an online marketer of technology accessories, comical shirts, and other hysterical parody products, posted an April Fools joke product for "Canned Unicorn Meat." Anyone with an ounce of common sense would know this is a joke, and curious parties who attempted to purchase the product got a message that they had just fallen for an April Fools gag. Everyone got a good laugh out of it, everyone except for the National Pork Board.

In the advertisement for mythical meat product, ThinkGeek used the phrase "The new white meat" and several sites referred to the product as "the other white meat." The National Pork Board had their lawyers send a cease & desist letter, pointing out that THE OTHER WHITE MEAT is a registered trademark of the National Pork Board and ThinkGeek's use of the term is an infringement and dilution of  their trademark rights.

Trademarks are a way to distinguish that the product in question comes from a unique source. That way, we know whether we're buying Hormel's authentic SPAM product, and not an off-label spiced ham meat byproduct. Trademarks are important to help consumers know they are buying the authentic product that they prefer. If another company attempted to call their spiced ham canned meat SPAM, Hormel could interject and bring legal action against the offending company.

I don't believe any consumers saw the canned unicorn meat and truly believed it was a viable replacement for pork. This was not a true threat to the National Pork Board, nor was it something damaging to the public's love of pig-derived meats. The real threat to the National Pork Board are the counselors to the board who thought it would be a good idea to pay thousands on the drafting of a legal document asking ThinkGeek to stop using the similar taglines to sell their competing meat (which never existed in the first place). Instead, they spent a lot of time and money to provide comic fodder for the masses so we could mock the National Pork Board and Faege & Benson, the attorneys who sent the C&D letter.

Before you react to what you believe is a trademark violation, take a moment to consider whether there is a real threat to your business. It's probably wise to consult with someone other than your trigger-happy lawyers before you dump dollars into starting a fight that doesn't really exist. I'd gladly save you the several thousands of dollars and embarrassment.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

I do exist

Just thought I'd drop a post to apologize for the lack of writing anything here for over a month.

Let's just say, it's been busy, surreal, and exciting lately.

I'm composing some thoughts, and plan to be back at it very soon. Until then, consider this:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
 - Robert Frost 
Next time you hit the road, try a different path than your usual. Think about consumer behavior, and the response from major corporations. What do you see on every major highway? McDonalds, Subway, Starbucks. Occasionally there's something different, but you see a lot of the same. What hidden treasure lies just beneath your nose? It could make all the difference. 

Friday, March 26, 2010

Coke Zero: A brand promise meant to be broken?

The Brandgym blog recently discussed how hard it is to topple a leader brand in a specific segment. They compared the "men's" calorie-free cola category battle between leading brand Pepsi Max, and the runner up Coke Zero. As they describe, Pepsi Max certainly has a stronger name, great advertising, and clearly stands for the market of men's calorie free soft drinks. But there is one fatal flaw I believe makes a major difference.

Coke Zero makes the claim "Real Coke taste, zero calories." This is the central message in all of their advertising. Yet am I the only person who believes the two drinks taste nothing alike?

The brand promises to taste exactly like Coca-Cola, but one taste tells you otherwise. A brand cannot succeed if the brand promise is not met. The Coca-Cola Company would be wise to focus on Coke Zero as a unique product on its own, just like Pepsi does with Max.

With your brand, you must be what you are, or change the product to deliver that promise. Lying about your product leads to disappointment, and is not a road to success.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Social Media is the new journal of personal history


Every historic movie about an individual begins with a diary. That written record of the person's life, challenges, and perspectives. Before paper, we had cave drawings, and tales written in pottery. Somewhere in the 20th century we seemed to lose this tradition of story-telling and leaving a legacy for the next generations. Very few people saw the passing of their grandparents and great-grandparents followed by a discovery of a journal that gave more insight into who they were and what they thought about.

With the loss of that written word, I feel we lose a bit of where we came from, and who we can be. The fast-paced consumerism lifestyle prevents us from stepping back from the world and writing down our perspectives. Even when we find the time, we worry if something is politically correct to say, and we keep that thought to ourselves where it will die. Sure, some thoughts should be kept to oneself and be forgotten.

Social networks can be that written and visual history of your life, which can be shared and remembered. Let your innermost thoughts spread for everyone to enjoy and get to know you better. Show the younger generations to come that our challenges are nothing new, and that they can learn from what was done before them to make the world better. Don't fear what you post will be read by your family, embrace the fact that they can get to know you better and be part of your life.

And perhaps, one day in the future a movie will be made about you which begins with the reading of a Twitter stream. Be immortal.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Follow the big guy to failure

If you run a small retail store, you need to know that you are not Walmart. Your restaurant is not McDonalds. Unless of course you are one of these, or another major national chain, you shouldn't plan your marketing like they do. Too often, when a business owner wants to attract customers, they turn to the methods they see most, television, radio, print, billboards, etc. These are all effective methods of advertising, for the right business. These are major budget-breakers if they are reaching out to people who are not potential customers.

Take some time to identify your target customers, and how many customers you can actually serve. Then market to them, not everyone.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Learn from your losses

I've been spending a bit of time unsubscribing lately. I love to read, I'm a news junkie, and I love to see what others have to say about the state of the marketing industry. But there can be too much information, especially when so much of it seems like exactly the same message. Not to pick on this group, but can you really have a daily column about marketing to mom's? Do you need to tell people about your packaging conference every day?

But the interesting thing is that of all the email subscriptions I cancelled, only one asked me why I was done with their newsletter. This is an opportunity to understand how you can make your product better, but instead of putting in a simple question on the unsubscribe form, they just lose a customer and never know why.

Most businesses don't get the opportunity to hear a final word from a lost customer. They just go away. If you are sending an email newsletter, don't annoy an already annoyed customer by trying to mine them for a long survey, but ask one simple question:

We'd like to know why you're unsubscribing is it because:
a) I have too many emails
b) I don't find value in your content
c) I've changed jobs, & this is no longer relevant to me
d) It's not you, it's me

Craft an easy question, offer simple solutions to gain information, and if you see a trend that there's something wrong with your content, change it. Whatever you do, don't forget to learn from your losses.