What does failure mean to you?  Chances are the first thing you think of isn’t good.  Standard definitions of failure include omission of occurrence or performance” and “a lack of success”. Great twentieth failures include disasters like the space shuttle Challenger, Chernobyl and the Titanic. Lately, the expression “FAIL” has increasingly become the way to sum up almost any bad situation in a single syllable (an epic fail in my opinion).

In many corners of the business world, failure is not rewarded or encouraged.  Failure can be expensive and if not managed, can damage a company’s reputation.  It doesn’t support the short term, high performance expectations of the average publicly traded company.  Of course, if you are an above average organization; one that has established a reputation as an innovative leader, failure is likely a valuable and necessary component of your continued success.

To most people,  the name “Honda” probably suggests “cars”, but at it’s core, Honda is an engine company.  Their engines drive cars, motorcycles, lawn equipment, watercraft, and jets (yes jets).  They are also the only provider of engines to the Indy Racing League, but that honor was only achieved through some spectacular failures.  Honda is one of those innovative companies that understands the importance of failing and learning from it.  It’s baked into their culture.  This company-produced film gives us an open and honest look at some failures from Honda drivers, designers and engineers and how they draw upon failure to motivate them to succeed.

So,  do you view failure as an omission or an opportunity?

If I didn’t fall down from time to time I’d never learn” – Ki Theory: Holiday Heart

Winning Against the Big Guys: Ukrops

Ukrop’s is a 28 store, family-owned grocery chain based in Richmond, VA.  All of their stores are located in central Virginia, mostly in Richmond, so you’ve probably not ever heard of them.  That’s too bad because Ukrop’s is a very unique retailer.  Over the last four decades, Ukrop’s has steadily grown to dominate the central VA grocery marketplace, competing easily against much larger regional and national chains.  Instead of taking the “lowest price” approach, Ukrop’s has always focused on delivering a great customer experience.  Ever since Joe Ukrop opened the first store in 1937, the operating philosophy has always been “treat customers, associates and suppliers as they personally want to be treated.” That attention to the customer experience coupled with a history of innovation and community engagement has built incredibly strong brand loyalty.  In this post, I’m going to share some of things Ukrop’s has done to build their brand.

Customer Focus Differentiators

Ukrop’s does things for their customers that I’ve never seen at any other grocery chain.  They’re little things, but as I’ve said before, it’s the little things that differentiate you from your competition.  Things like:

  • Ukrop’s employees carry your groceries out to your car and load them for you.  By the way, don’t bother tipping them.  They won’t accept it.
  • If you get to the checkout counter and realize you have forgotten your wallet, don’t worry.  In most cases, Ukrop’s says to take the groceries and pay them next time you come in.
  • Ukrop’s provides in-store “Tot Spots” in their larger stores.  Parents can leave their child at the “Tot Spot” while they shop.
  • Ukrop’s listens and responds to individual customers.  Each store has a Customer Requests board prominently displayed at the front of each store.  Have feedback or want the store to carry a new product?  Simply write down your request and put it up on the board using a refrigerator magnet.  Each note is read and replied to within a week.  The next time you come into the store, check the board for your note and the reply.  I once asked for a specific flavor of ice cream.  The product was in the freezer the very next week.

Marketplace Innovator

Ukrop’s has a history of grocery industry innovations that have allowed them to differentiate their brand.

  • Like most Americans, you probably carry around some kind of supermarket discount card, but I bet you didn’t know that the very first supermarket card program in the US was launched in 1985 at Ukrop’s as part of a Citicorp Point-of-Sale initiative.  Ukrop’s saw huge potential in being able to identify their customers by name and understanding purchase behavior of it’s best customers.
  • Research conducted during the mid-1980s revealed that changing consumer demographics and lifestyles indicated a growing demand for convenient, restaurant-quality food. Demonstrating their “sense and respond” competency, Ukrop’s decided to tap into the demand and further differentiate themselves from competitors. The result was one of the grocery industry’s most lauded success stories of the late 20th century.  Ukrop’s already had experience with a central bakery, having purchased a well known local bakery to supply bakery items to to their stores.  The bakery gave them some experience with manufacturing and logistics.  Leveraging that experience, Ukrop’s decided to create a 10,000 sq-ft “central kitchen” to package chilled prepared food, which consumers could then re-heat.  On Halloween 1989, the company’s prepared foods line debuted, featuring ten items that included twice-baked potatoes, lasagna, and macaroni and cheese. By 1994, the roster of prepared foods had swelled to a rotating list of 125 items. Ukrop’s foray into prepared foods became the talk of the industry, accounting for nearly 15 percent of the chain’s total sales and adding further incentive to shop at Ukrop’s.
  • Don’t feel like cooking? Ukrop’s added an in-store grill to their larger stores in the late 1990’s.  The grill serves everything from sandwiches to stir fried Asian dishes to steaks.  Of course, the ingredients for all the menu items are available in the store.
  • Ukrops’ latest innovation is a partnership with a local gas station operator called Fuelperks.  Capitalizing on the concern over rapidly rising gasoline prices, the program rewards Valued Customer Cardholders with a 10 cent per gallon discount (up to 20 gallons) for every $50 spent.

The Other Bottom Line

Ukrop’s is perhaps best known for their community involvement.  Each year they commit to giving at least 10% of their pretax profits back to the communities they serve. They sponsor many local events including the Monument Avenue 10K and the upcoming Richmond Folk Festival, but perhaps their biggest community program is the Golden Gift.  Started in 1987, the program allows customers to designate a local non-profit organization.  It might me a charity or perhaps your kid’s school. Each year, Ukrop’s allocates an amount to the Golden Gift fund.  This year it was $400,000.  During February and March, Ukrop’s awards each customer with a Golden Gift point for each dollar spent.  At the end of March, the fund is allocated to the customer’s designee based on points accumulated.  The customer then receives a certificate that they can give to their non-profit which can bee redeemed for cash.  Since inception, the program has given back $11.6 million!

These are just a few of the many things that have helps build the Ukrop’s brand.  By putting customers and community first and through innovative ideas that have redefined the grocery store, they have been able to stand the test of time.

Do you own or work for a local or regional retailer?  Having a hard time competing against the big guys?  Perhaps you can take some lessons from Ukrop’s.

Starbucks The Way I See It: “Save Our Starbucks”

Starbucks recently announced they will be closing 600 US company-operated stores.  The company said 70% of the cafes slated for closure had opened after the start of 2006. The chief financial officer, Pete Bocian, said that meant Starbucks would close 19% of all US company-operated stores that opened in the past two years.

A funny thing happened on the way to closing these 600 Starbucks locations. Now that the customers closest to the targeted locations (see map) have learned about the impending closure of their local store, many have rallied for the “Save our Starbucks” campaign. They are writing letters, making phone calls and signing petitions begging the company to reconsider the decision.  People have even commented on some of my earlier Starbucks posts, asking the chain to not close their store.

Starbucks’ profits may not be so great right now, but they do have something that many companies can only dream of: Customers who are passionate about their brand.  Yet with their latest cost cutting decision, Starbucks is turning them into passionately unhappy customers.  You see, these folks who are willing to pay $4.00 for a latte on a regular basis, have become quite attached to “their” local Starbucks. Sure there is probably one a few miles away (on across the street, depending on where you are), but to frequent customers, these are not “Their” Starbucks. They have an attachment to the local store. They know the Baristas who make their drink just like they like it (and contrary to Howard Schultz’ direction, consistency isn’t that common).

It’s unfortunate that the necessary cost cutting is coming at the expense of customers, but what else is Starbucks to do?  While I can’t claim to know the facts regarding the financial analysis behind the decision, I might suggest a few alternative cost cutting ideas.

Take a Closer Look at Existing Store Saturation.

When Starbucks announced the closing, the CFO said a Starbucks store’s revenue dropped 25 to 30 % when a new one opened nearby.  There are no closings planned for my city, yet I am amazed by the saturation of Starbucks outlets in my area.  Within three miles of my house, I have no less than ten Starbucks outlets to choose from (including Target, Kroger, & Barnes & Noble locations).  There are two company owned stores and a Barnes & Noble outlet which are literally across the street from each other.  In a move that seems to go against the CFO’s comments, Starbuck’s is building yet another cafe with a drive-thru on the same corner.  This ain’t Manhattan folks.  This is downtown Short Pump, VA; hardly a bustling metropolis, and four Starbucks within walking distance seems a bit unnecessary .

Starbuck’s Card Rewards

I think the incentives-based Starbucks prepaid card is a highly innovative idea to cut operating costs.  Like most retail today, most Starbucks transactions have historically been tendered using a credit card or cash.  Both have expenses (fees and operating overhead).  By getting customers to use prepaid cards, Starbucks lowers their transaction costs and it get more cash into their hands sooner.  That cash can be held in interest-bearing accounts generating income for the company.  In return for customers Registering the cards, Starbucks is offering a number of perks including free WiFi access and free beverage upgrades (syrups, etc).  I think this is where Starbucks may be giving up too much.  My sugar-free vanilla, breve (half & half) latte in Richmond, VA is around $4.00, but when I pay with the Starbucks card, I get the syrup and breve upgrades for free saving me $.70.  That’s more than 20% off.  The way I see it, my profitability as a customer has gone down and my transaction volume has stayed about the same.  Again, I don’t have the financial analysis behind this plan, but instinctively, it seems like they are leaving money on the table.

In retail (and food retail is no different), you normally want to get the customer to upgrade their purchase  (“would you like fries and a drink with that?”. “Have you considered the extended warranty?”).  That’s often where the biggest margin is and the Starbucks upgrades are no exception.  By giving it away it’s like saying the fries and drink are on the house.  It’s really not necessary because you already have me as a regular customer. and I’m going to order the same drink on a regular basis whether you give me the syrup or not.

What are your thoughts?  What alternative cost cutting ideas would you explore if you were Starbucks?

Starbucks – The Way I See It:

In February, I wrote part one of this series in conjunction the Re-Experiencing Starbucks project started by Becky Carroll and Jay Ehret. Over the next year, Becky and Jay are going to write a series of posts which analyze the current Starbucks experience, make suggestions for improvement, and then compare at the end of the year. Readers are invited to contribute with comments and suggestions.

It’s been nearly two months since Starbucks closed all of their stores for a nationwide in-store education and training event and reopened promising to transform the customer experience with newly energized partners.  I can only speak for my local stores, but I have not seen any difference.  My grande sugar-free vanilla breve latte tastes pretty much like it always did, which is to say that it’s generally good, but with occasional inconsistencies, depending on which barista makes it.  Ok, so perhaps the event was in fact a PR event.  Starbucks certainly got lots of free publicity as a result.

Last month at their annual meeting, Starbucks announced a laundry list of new initiatives designed to transform the customer experience including a new brewing and espresso machines, a rewards program and a new unique coffee blend (Pike Place Roast) which will be hand scooped and ground in store.  Starbucks also took a page out of Dell’s playbook by launching

Involving Customers in the Innovation Process

Like Dell’s Ideastorm, is an online community idea market where customers are encouraged to suggest and vote on ideas for improving the Starbucks experience.  A team of 40 “Idea Partners” is responsible for reviewing, commenting on and consolidating the entries and for presenting “most popular and most innovative ideas that are the best fit for Starbucks” to key decision makers.

I’m a big proponent of Open Innovation.  Inviting your customers to help design the experience gives company insiders fantastic perspective on real customer needs and desires.  It also goes a long way in helping to ensure that the ideas and innovations that are selected are ones that will resonate with customers.  The reason most companies haven’t eagerly adopted an Open Innovation program is that it requires giving up control.  If a company asks for feedback and customers speak loud and clear the brand needs to be prepared to act.  If they don’t, they risk damaging the relationship with their most engaged customers.

GoodNews / Bad News

The good news is that Starbucks is asking customers to participate in the process.  The bad news is that the site looks like a collection improvements that are already in the their marketing plan.  The “Ideas in Action” section lists those ideas that are being taken forward.  Almost every idea listed in this section is either something that Starbucks announced when they launched the site (Wi-Fi, Rewards, Pikes Peak Roast) or already had in test markets (Splash Sticks, Bite-sized pastries).  Authenticity is what’s lacking.  I applaud Starbucks taking the bold move of involving customers in conversations about the experience.  They need to resist trying to control the conversation if they want to be seen as genuinely caring about what the customer has to say.

Amazon TextBuyIt

textbuyit1.jpgWhen you are shopping over the web, its very easy to compare prices through multiple browser tabs, but comparison shopping is not so easy to do in a brick & mortar store. Browsing e-commerce sites using most cell phone browsers is a painful experience. Text messaging on the other hand is a very easy task on most cell phones and for younger cell phone users, “texting” is the primary method of communication.

With that as the backdrop, Amazon is once again showing that it “gets it” and in the process, has created a new competitive advantage against traditional retailers. TextBuyIt is an innovative new service which lets people text the name of a product, its description or its UPC or ISBN to 262966 (that’s “Amazon” on the keypad) from anywhere their cellphones work — including from inside physical stores.

If Amazon stocks matching items, the service returns two results at a time. Shoppers can immediately buy one of the first two the selections by texting back the number “1” or “2,” or they can ask for more by texting the letter “M.”

New TextBuyIt customers will be prompted to enter the e-mail address associated with their existing Amazon account plus a shipping zip code. The service then calls them and walks through the checkout process using an automated voice system. Shoppers get confirmation by text message and e-mail.

From there, the customers can check on order status on Amazon’s website.

Why This is Disruptive

Say you’re out shopping at the mall and see some new, expensive thing that you just gotta have. Historically, you have had no way of knowing whether the price is good or not. By allowing you to send a simple short text message to initiate an order, Amazon has just empowered you with comparative price information to make a fact-based decision about the purchase in the physical marketplace and in the process, have inserted themselves into the middle of your purchase process in hopes of steering your dollars in their direction

This is a clear “Make It Easy for Me” differentiator targeted squarely at younger, text-message-oriented consumers. It is also a wake up call for traditional retailers already impacted by the information empowered consumer. Your competitor is now actively competing with you inside your four walls.


[From USAToday]

Collaboration and the Power of Social Networks

collaboration.jpgUpdate:  I’ve had some interesting responses to this post in the past week.  A couple of interviews are scheduled and Geoff Livingston over at The Buzz Bin asked me to do a guest blogger recap which should come out this week.  Thanks for your ideas and keep ’em coming!!

Testing…. Testing… is this thing on?? Good! Every day, we hear about the power of social networks to…

  • share new ideas
  • make a difference through charity
  • connect people with common interests
  • enable long-distance collaboration

This is truly the Age of Conversation and there is much to talk about. Thanks to the social networks that I have been participating in over the last 18 months, I have “met” and had conversations with more interesting people from around the world than I ever imagined. As LinkedIn demonstrates, the real power comes the fact that the people in your network also have networks. I may have 100 friends but if each of them has 100 friends, then I potentially have 10,000 friends and this enables ideas to spread very quickly. Given that potential, I would like to take my extended network for a test drive to see what it can do.

A few weeks ago, I told you about a small IT consulting business called Impact Makers. Started by Michael Pirron, a Richmond, VA Social Entrepreneur, Impact Makers is “competitive social venture,” a for-profit business model with a nonprofit mission. The idea is simple –

Create a company that works to make profits, but instead of being based on maximizing shareholder value it’s based on maximizing community value.

To my knowledge, this is a new and unique business model. It is a nonstock corporation overseen by a volunteer board of directors. Its books are open to the public, its officers earn salaries but no equity, and all profits are donated to charitable partners. Those partners must be nonprofit organizations that meet four criteria: They must be secular, nonpolitical, local and have a philosophy of helping people help themselves. For its first charity, Impact Makers chose Safe Harbor, a Henrico County-based advocacy organization for victims of domestic violence.

Steal this business model, please!

While Pirron wants prove that the model works through Impact Makers, his larger objective is seeing the business model spread. He wants people to steal the idea, refine it, apply it to other types of business and create community value in as many places as possible. After writing about Impact Makers and connecting them with some of my readers who also participate in Social Entrepreneurship, Pirron asked if I would help with “marketing” the company’s business model and concepts through social media. In other words, get the “Conversation” started.

That’s where you, the people in my network, come in. I would like your help by suggesting ways to communicate the concept and by communicating it to people in your networks that might find it interesting or even actionable. There are lots of ways to get involved:

  • Share the idea with people in your networks. Have a conversation about it.
  • Interview Michael Pirron for your blog or podcast
  • Connect Michael with other prominent bloggers/podcasters who focus on innovative business models or social causes
  • Suggest ways to effectively communicate Impact Makers’ message to non-profits and academia

Get the idea? Take a look at my previous post and Impact Makers’ website for a quick overview of the company. Then use the comment box to let me know what you think. If you want to contact me for a “conversation”, my e-mail address is here.

What is Innovation?

3is_innovation.jpgLast week, Jon Burg asked a simple question on his blog Future Visions. The question was

“What does innovation truly mean?”

I’m sure all of you can come up with a definition, but if you are like me, it might require a little thought. For most of us, Innovation is not an everyday concept that we can immediately describe with a consistent Webster’s definition (Frankly, I think the Webster’s definition misses the mark). For me, Innovation falls more in the “I know it when I see it” category, but after a little consideration, I was able to come up with my definition.

So did lots of people who weighed in with their definitions. Some thoughtfully, some humorously, but all adding a voice to the discussion resulting in a better understanding of the idea. Jon posted a summary of the discussion here. It’s well worth the read.

I commented on Jon’s follow-up post that people often believe they all understand a concept or idea similarly, but when you ask each to describe it, you see a beautiful diversity in their interpretations. That diversity gives depth and clarity to the idea.

The Social Entrepreneur


As part of my ongoing job search (BTW, are you hiring?), I met Michael Pirron this afternoon. Michael has a distinguished educational and professional background with a focus in Information Technology and has worked around the world in various consulting roles. Last year, Michael created a new company called Impact Makers, which to my knowledge and his, has a very unique business model. I also think it may be disruptive (more on that later).

As Michael explained to me, there are generally two types of social enterprise in the US today:

  1. A nonprofit who generates their own revenue stream by operating for-profit businesses to support their service delivery to the community. The problem with this model is that most nonprofits lack the capacity and the experience to run a competitive business venture.
  2. A for-profit business that gives a small percentage of their profits to fund nonprofits (i.e. Ethos Water or Newman’s Own brand). The problem with this model is that the shareholders can, at any time, decide to stop the program or sell the company.

Impact Makers has introduced a new model where a partnership is formed between one nonprofit entity (Impact Makers’ Management and IT Consulting Services) focusing on generating income in the for-profit marketplace, and a nonprofit partner who is delivering services to the community. Impact Makers not only donates it’s profits, but also provides consulting services to the partner, allowing it to focus with greater effectiveness and efficiency on its core competency – delivering community services.

Is this model disruptive? I think so for two reasons:

  1. In today’s marketplace, companies are increasingly concerned with the other bottom lines – environmental and social responsibility. Major companies frequently use vendors to provide services like IT consulting. A company that chooses to use a vendor like Impact Makers gets top talent at competitive rates, but instead of generating profits for the vendor, they are directly funding a community service provider and that gives a vendor like Impact Makers a competitive advantage.
  2. Individuals working outside of non-profit systems do not have many opportunities to make a substantial difference in their community. They might volunteer occasionally or donate money to charities, but unless you are Bill Gates, you probably don’t have the resources to contribute on the scale of funding a program. Under this model, employees receive competitive salaries while their profit generated from their work directly contributes to improving the community.

This second point, the ability for individuals to have a bigger social responsibility impact, struck me as being analogous to what has happened in a number of other other industries where power has shifted to individuals, thereby giving them a voice and disrupting the status quo.

Impact Makers does not have capital lying around with which to build their business. Instead, Michael is relying on networks and contacts to get contracts. Impact Makers currently has one service delivery partner, a local organization called Safe Harbor which provides confidential shelters for abused women and children. Over time, Michael would like to see other professional service industries adopt his model, should it prove successful. There really isn’t a limit to the types of businesses that could adopt this model. I don’t normally use this blog to promote a business, but I was so impressed with Michael’s model that I wanted to share it. I don’t have a huge number of regular readers, but when you consider the reach of the people I do have conversations with, both here and on Twitter, the reach can be pretty big.

What do you think about this idea? If you like it and have a blog, consider telling your readers about it. Do you have clients who need Management or IT services? Tell them about Impact Makers. If you want to learn more about it, contact Michael ((804) 212-5056 or ), and tell him I sent you.

Four Foundational Innovation Lessons From Apple


Just saying you are focusing on innovation and spending a big chunk of change on “being innovative” does not automatically lead to innovation success. Lots of CEOs have jumped on the innovation bandwagon in the last few years declaring, like Ford Motor Copmany, that Innovation is their new mission. Most of those companies, like Ford, have not seen their business improve as a result and some have started to curtail their investment in innovation. The problem, as I see it, is that these CEOs have latched on to the idea of innovation as some sort of magic bullet. With lots of fanfare they tell the organization to “start innovating” and then get frustrated when the billion dollar winning ideas don’t materialize fast enough. Soon, innovation in the organization goes the way of previous magic bullets like Six Sigma or TQM.

Still, there are companies like Toyota and Apple who have seen great success as a result of their innovative ideas. What makes them different? For these companies, innovation is not a program layered onto the existing organizational framework. It’s not just a marketing pitch. It’s not a subset of your top talent sequestered in a room for a couple of days a week to come up with the next big idea. It’s just part of their chemistry. It’s ingrained in their culture.

This past June, The Economist ran a story on innovation at Apple and highlighted four lessons that other companies can learn from the “master of innovation”.

  1. Innovation can come from without as well as within: Not all innovation has to be manufactured from scratch. Apple didn’t invent the MP3 player or the mobile phone, they just redesigned them. Oftentimes it is stitching ideas together to make a more seamless experience that is more important.
  2. Designing new products around the needs of the user: The Swiss Arm Knife may have been a great innovation, but don’t believe that a product will sell itself if you can force enough features into it. Focus instead on fewer features that are developed around the needs of the users and executed in an intuitive way. In other words, make you product more “experiential”.
  3. Sometimes ignore what the market says it wants today: While it’s important to listen to your customers, don’t limit yourself to what they are asking for. Nintendo proved this to be true last year with the introduction of the Wii with its motion-sensitive controller. The market had been saying more realistic graphics, HD output, etc. Nintendo went for a better experience through the human interface and disrupted the competition in the process. Consumers did not ask for the MP3 player, the microwave oven or any number of other innovative products that we can’t live without today but, relating back to lesson #2, we did have needs and companies that had a keen understanding of those needs and the ability to leverage new, disrupting technologies, were able to translate those needs into innovative products.NextUp › Edit — WordPress
  4. Fail wisely: Don’t stigmatize failure. Failure leads to learning and should be tolerated, even encouraged where risks can be minimized. The article points out that before the Macintosh, Apple had the Lisa failure and that the iPhone was born out of the music phone that Apple produced in conjunction with Motorola.  While my former employer’s innovation program had it’s flaws, this was one component that was understood and embraced. “Fail Early and Fail Often” was the mantra. The idea was to be constantly looking for and testing many innovative ideas, knowing that most of them will not make it past the first business acumen checkpoint. That’s ok. It’s better to kill of the ideas that are not going to fly and learn from that failure as you move on to the next idea.

Will these basic concepts make you a successful innovator? Not necessarily, but I think they are foundational. What other innovation lessons do you believe are foundational?

(image courtesy of Getty Images)

Can A Stapler Have a Blog (and be entertaining)???

custom_swingline.jpgA few weeks ago, there was lots of buzz about Delta using Twitter as a marketing channel. Regardless of whether it was sanctioned or not, it was an innovative idea that attempted to put a human face on a company whose industry is not known for being customer friendly. Alas, the Delta Twitter uttered its last Tweet on May 15 and hasn’t been heard from since. Two weeks ago, David Armano asked “Can anyone think of a brand who is actively using Twitter (somewhat effectively)?“. Beyond news outlets like CNN, BBC and the NY Times, I couldn’t think of any brands that were using Twitter. I did a quick search on The Google, but found nothing.

The next day, I received a notice that I had a new friend on Twitter. I went to their profile page to see who it was and noticed that one of their other friends was Red Swingline.

If you’ve seen the movie “Office Space“, you know about the Red Swingline stapler and its prominent role in the movie’s plot. You may not have known that Swingline did not make a red stapler when “Office Space” was made, but they do now due to the demand created by the film. The Tweets from Red Swingline are echoed from a blog by the same name. It’s not really a blog but rather an entertaining set of one-liners purportedly written by the stapler. Things like:

Look at you with you’re little fingers typing. You are not red like me! You are not a stapler!

I dream of large stacks of paper. I awake in a sweat.

[stapler haiku] I wish I had legs / then I could fly kites in Spring. / Instead, I staple /

The “blog” features links to Amazon for purchasing the stapler, the movie, and other Office Space stuff. The content is entertaining, especially if you are a fan of the movie, but it gets a bit repetitive after a few days. It is advertising and the message is simple: “I’m Red and I Staple”.

I’m pretty sure this is not the work of Swingline or Amazon, but rather of an entrepreneur who maintains other sites like “Success in 30 Days” and “Pink Ribbon Search”. The point is that either of them could have just as easily set this up. Red Swingline does not engage in a conversation like the Delta Twitter did, but it is a creative use of social media for marketing.

Innovation and Co-Creation at Adidas

A friend send this link to a video about the new mi Adidas Innovation Center in Paris.  Adidas, which was one of the early brands in SecondLife, is demonstrating their innovation abilities in the real world with this new store.  The have blended Entertainment, Education, Co-Creation, and 3D-Virtual technologies into an exciting, interactive retail experience.

From CoolHunting:

With just a few steps walking and running on a catwalk-style scanner, foot and pressure sensors analyze shape, size and pressure points. Customers enter details like color and accents on a large touch screen. An interactive “virtual mirror” (recently on Gizmodo), allows the user to try on their personalized shoe (or any other shoe) without taking off their own. And last but not least, the new scan table picks up RFID technology embedded in the shoes to display specific product information.

The purpose of the store is two-fold.  Adidas has always been about innovation and they want to use this retail platform to showcase that.  They also want to attract a younger demographic and believe the highly interactive nature of the store will be appealing to younger customers who have “been brought up on video games”.

Is all this technology to sell sneakers just a gimmick?  I don’t think so.  Look across the sports world today and you will see that technology has been incorporated everywhere in an attempt to boost performance.  And it’s not just for the pros.  The biggest market for sports technology are the amateurs who want to excel in their particular sports passion.  Everything from real-time vital signs monitoring to the latest in golf club design is eagerly scooped up by the sports enthusiasts.  If you are in the sports shoe business, an interactive, technology-based experience store might be just the ticket to driving brand engagement.

How Will We Live in 30 Years?

Pieter Ardinois visited NextUp today and, as I always do, I went to his blog to check it out.   He has some really great posts about imagination, creativity and new media and I recommend that you read some of them.  He also pointed me to a short film that was made in 1967 by PhilCo-Ford simply entitled “1999 AD”.  It provided an imaginative view of how the “instant society of tomorrow” would live.  They got the basic concepts right: e-commerce, e-mail, e-banking; but some of the tools used are based on the way things were done at the time (letters were generally handwritten so no QWERTY keyboard, just knobs and a handwriting digitizer). Interesting that they did envision flat panel monitors and fast personal printers.  

What stikes me the most about this film is the realization that people in 1999 would be connected and that connectivity would be a major factor in how we would live our lives.  Pieter makes this great observation about the implications for today:

To understand where we’re heading to, it’s really important not to focus on the techniques. We can’t get past short term imagination. It’s important to abstract the possibilities and imagine the impact those possibilities could have on our lives. Imagine that people back in 1967 started to think what impact the global connectivity could have on their daily lives. Not the fact that they could pay bills online, not the fact that they could by a nice shirt, but the abstraction of that all: the fact that they could share knowledge.  When we’re trying to get a grip on the future, I think we need to abstract the habits from their material context and focus on the possibilities. When using those possibilities to design a solution instead of creating a product to a known solution, we’re creating the future.

How will we live in 30 years?? Given my age, I only hope to be living comfortably and healthy with my mind still sharp.  But what about my daughter and her children?  In a world of rapidly accelerating, discontinuous change, we are so busy trying to keep up that we can hardly image what things will be like in 30 years.  How will we live, work, get from place to place, be entertained, conduct commerce, communicate?  How will “local” be defined (actually, thats a good question for today). 

What are your abstract ideas on what the future will look like in 30 years???

Bonus trivia question: do you know who is playing the part of the dad??

Thoughts on Walt Disney World – Part 1


I’ve been computer-free for the last week spending time with the family at Walt Disney World, hence the absence of new posts. I was Twittering throughout the trip, much to the dismay of my wife and daughter, and even raised the ire of our waitress at the Prime Time Cafe (more on that later). You can go to my Twitter page (see link in the sidebar) if you want to relive my vacation tweet by tweet.

Disney is one of the world’s greatest marketers and their parks and resorts make great case studies in a number of areas including engagement and customer experience design, marketing and new media. Over the next couple of days, I’m going to discuss some of my recent experiences, both good and bad.

Surprise & Delight

Every year, Disney selects a theme and aligns all of their park and resort operations around it. This year, is”The Year of A Million Dreams” and to help “make your dreams come true”, Disney is having their cast members randomly give out over a million “dreams” including chances to spend the night in Cinderella’s castle, “Dream Fastpass” badges which gives you unlimited access to all major attractions bypassing the waiting line and a Grand Marshall Tour of Disney parks around the world.

There are no contests to enter, or disclosing of contact information. Someone just walks up to you and makes you a winner. You just need to be in the right place at the right time and even the cast members don’t know the when, where or what of the giveaway until just before it happens. I met several people who were given dream Fastpass badges and they were ecstatic about it. The really enjoyed telling their stories to anyone who would listen. And consider how much fun it is for the cast members to be able to execute the giveaways. That has to help with cast member engagement. Surprising & Delighting your customers is an important ingredient in the creating great experiences that your customers will tell others about.

Make Individuals Feel Special

Speaking of engagement, Disney cast members are almost universally programmed to react to badges that special guests wear, My daughter had her 13th birthday while we were there and so we went to the City hall in the Magic Kingdom to get a birthday badge. From that moment on, virtually every cast member that we encountered made it a point to wish her a happy birthday. Every table service restaurant that we went to, brought out a birthday cupcake without us having to ask. Of course, my daughter loved the attention so much that she continued to wear the badge long after her birthday. This is a great example of how to make a customer feel special without having to spend a lot of financial capital.

Reward Me For My Patronage

At Disney, different levels of commitment come with different perks. For example, purchasing an annual pass (which is roughly the cost of 8 days in the parks), gets you some serious discounts on Disney Resort hotels. Staying at Disney resort hotels comes with their own set of rewards, not the least of which is convenience. A couple of years ago, Disney started offering Extra Magic Hours at the parks for guests staying at Disney hotels. The program gets you into the parks an hour earlier and allows you to stay up to 2 hours after closing. Disney gets 3 additional hours of access to your wallet and you get a couple of extra rides on your favorite attraction. To the uninitiated, this is a pretty good reason to stay on Disney property. If you are a regular guest like I am, you know the real secret is to stay away from the park that has early entry because that’s where the crowds are going to be. With this program, Disney rewards their Resort guests with a tangible benefit.

Tomorrow, I’ll get into some other topics like how Disney is involving the customer in co-creating the experience. In the meantime, think about the experiences you create for your customers. Do you Surprise & Delight? Do you make your customers feel special? Do you reward them for their patronage? If you do, great. If you don’t, perhaps you should take a trip to Disney World and learn a few lessons from Walt and Mickey.

Part 2 of this series is here.

The New Delta


A few weeks ago, there was considerable buzz about the Delta Airlines Twitter page. There were initial hopes that Delta might actually be behind it. In the end, it appeared to have been a Delta employee, but whether he/she was acting alone or for the company is not known. The page has been quiet for 2 weeks so one can assume that the experiment is over. That said, It looks like Delta is trying some new ways of connecting with their customers and adding value to the travel experience.

Today, I was invited to check out their new microsite: Siteseer Travelcast. It contains short video travelcasts of featured destinations presented by delta employees. Think about the air travel experience. It’s generally unpleasant. You do it for the destination. When you are traveling to an unfamiliar place, its great to get suggestions from people who have been there on what to do, where to eat, etc. Does Delta have untapped assets that they could use to provide this guidance to their customers? You bet they do! Flight attendants, pilots, ground crew live in most of Delta’s featured destinations and know the landscape. Now I am not naive enough to believe that there isn’t some “paid for” placement of advertising for the shops and restaurants presented in some of these videos. Nevertheless, I’m getting some really useful information presented with a human face, and that helps me to engage with the brand.

Siteseer is only one element of Delta’s new customer focused approach. On their website is a link to another microsite that discusses all of the innovations they are currently testing. Things like zoned seating, language lessons, RFID baggage tags, restaurant buzzers, etc. It also has a place for you to leave your ideas or travel tips and the plan is for the site to evolve into a truly collaborative forum: represents a whole new way for Delta to connect with the global community and, ultimately, redefine the travel experience. Out of the gate, this site will serve as an informative tool, tracking all the exciting changes going on with us and showcasing travel tips and ideas from people like you.

Very soon, though, it will evolve into something truly collaborative—truly revolutionary.

We envision a forum for open, honest dialogue between airline and air traveler. A place where your ideas may very well influence how we operate in the future. And a stockpile of user-generated tips that will make travel more enjoyable and sane for us all.

All of this is really good stuff and I applaud Delta on the steps they are taking. From a Sense & Respond standpoint, they are really reaching out to Sense what their customers want them to be. The challenge will be for them to consistently deliver all of these great new innovations while at the same time, getting the basics right. I have not flown on Delta in over a year. Perhaps you have. Have you noticed a difference in Delta?

A Clean Slate is a Beautiful Thing


I typically don’t write about my professional life, but today is different.  After 23 years as an IT professional for a Circuit City Stores, my position was eliminated.  For the first time in 23 years, I am going to be actively seeking employment.  With today’s revelation, came a dark rainbow of negative emotions: frustration, anger, uncertainty, fear, sadness.   Over the course of the day, I reflected on those feelings, the pros and cons of my former job and the implications of the event.

Where I’ve Been

If you have explored my blog, you may know that my “day job” has been management of IT development.  Not very sexy stuff and frankly, not a very creative outlet for the stuff I am passionate about.  Nevertheless, after 23 years, you can get really comfortable with a 3 mile commute, a good salary, and lots of longtime friends, so I have never seriously looked elsewhere. 

About 2 years ago, I was asked to join an internal innovation team.  This cross-functional team, made up of all sorts of people with other day jobs, was given time and resources to design and test as many new ideas as they could come up with.   Recognized as someone who was never content with the status quo and who frequently pointed out opportunities to improve the customer experience, I was later invited to join a special team who worked with company execs and Gary Hamel’s consulting firm, Strategos, to develop an new strategic framework for the company. 

What I Learned

It was the most invigorating 10 months of my career.  I learned how to synthesize consumer insights, emerging trends, orthodoxies and competencies into a differentiating strategic architecture.  I researched and developed 7 year forecasts for consumer technology, social trends, retail store design, and the American retail workforce..  The team delivered several solid proposals, all of which had differentiating customer experience models, and eventually selected one to move forward with.

It was during these last few years of Innovation and Strategy work that I really discovered my passion and point of view around delivering great customer experiences.  It’s also when I became acutely aware of the shift of power from supplier to customer, and the need for companies to start using social media tools and other emerging channels like virtual worlds to engage their customers and employees in conversations.   These are the things I had become passionate about.  IT Management was my job and one was getting in the way of the other. 

 Who I’ve Met Along the Way

The same social media tools that can enable this amazing conversation with customers and employees has also allowed me to make connections and share insights with like-minded people all over the world.  A few months back, David Armano wrote a “emotion” piece entitled “Shared Experiences”.  In it, he asked if the digital relationships that we are forming through social media can ever be as close those we create through actual interaction.  I think they can.  I watch the banter between digital friends on Twitter.  I learn what people like, what they eat, what makes them laugh, their musical tastes, their kids names; and I share the same about myself.   Those of us who have adopted these vehicles of personal publication tend to share our thoughts much more freely than those who haven’t.

When I Twittered about getting laid off this morning, I was both surprised and delighted by the replies and offers to help from my digital friends.  You know who you are and I really appreciate you reaching out.  Though most of us have never met, I really do consider you my friends.

Clean Slate

Now before this post careens completely out of control (is it too late?), I think I need to get to the point.  I was dealing with all sorts of negative feelings this morning, but why?  Was it because I wasn’t going to be managing financial applications development projects any more?  Or perhaps I was going to miss that next meeting where we go over, in excruciating detail, why one team needs to adjust a testing schedule? 


These are the uninspiring elements of my former day job that were a necessity because I had not taken the time to look for other opportunities where I could do work that I really cared about.  Now I’m sitting here with a clean slate and it’s a beautiful thing.  I have been given the opportunity to find something new to do; something that I want to do.  The negative feelings from this morning are being offset with optimism, excitement, hope, happiness.

Having to find a new job is a challenge.  Contemplating a career change after so long is daunting, especially when you don’t really have a resume that reflects what you want to do.  My newfound positivity might erode in the coming weeks if the opportunities don’t pan out.  But for now I feel really good.  I love new challenges, I know what I am passionate about, and I know that I have a network of new, like-minded friends, who’s opinions I respect, ready and willing to help.