The Subtle but Significant Impact of Elegance

Posted on 07. Mar, 2012 by

Reading a blog post last night by a company called Nest, I was reminded of just how difficult, yet powerfully compelling elegant products can be. Nest is a thermostat that is incredibly easy to use, yet extremely sophisticated in its ability to detect your home energy preferences and save you money, without you having to do the learning and the work. This is a company that knows why it is in business and has solved the most pressing issues around why people need a thermostat in the first place.

While their competitors are adding features to complicate their products and frustrate their customers, Nest solves the fundamental problem of in-home climate energy management in the most elegant possible way. I not only applaud their solution, I’ve put my name on the waiting list (they are currently sold out).

It’s hard to avoid the temptation of adding features and instead focus on reducing the complexity of what you do to its ultimate simplicity. This discipline, to stay focused on why you went into business in the first place and deliver the most elegant solution/experience possible, has its rewards. Apple and, particularly the iPhone, is a great example of the rewards creating with elegance in mind can bring. 

Unfortunately few companies are able to succeed in producing elegant products or services. The temptation of adding new and exciting features more often than not results in products that are too complicated, bulky and expensive. I recommend reading In Pursuit of Elegance, by Matthew May. This book makes a compelling and example filled case for why it is worth the effort to pursue elegance in product and service development. Those few who have brought discipline to their core business and focused their energies on making the complex simple, instead of making the simple complex, have a serious competitive edge. I call it the elegance advantage, and if you can get there, you will enjoy the advantages too.

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Amazon just gets it!

Posted on 05. Jan, 2012 by

Amazon had another record holiday season as Best Buy and Sears did not. It might be easy to explain this away on convenience or tax advantages, but there are equally valid disadvantages to online only retail. Amazon is a winner because they get the customer perspective and have innovated around the obstacles to an online only retail model. In short, they have built their business, systems and processes to deliver an exceptional customer experience.

On the other hand, Best Buy has never gotten the customer perspective. For a time it was enough to have all of the shiny new tech products under one roof for people to come in and play with, choose from a wide selection and walk out with a new favorite toy in hand. But, Best Buy has always put its perspective first and they are paying for it now.  They talk about their competitive disadvantage to companies like Amazon, but in reality no one was in a better position to deliver an incredible customer experience. If being brick and mortar is such a disadvantage how do you explain the sardine can like crowds over at the Apple store?

As the customer enjoys an ever expanding range of options for how they learn about, shop for, buy and receive product, one strategy is sure to fail: whining. If you want to compete, you better figure out how to give the customer a great experience. One built from the customer point of view.

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Give Them Badges

Posted on 07. Apr, 2010 by

One of my favorite lines from the classic film Blazing Saddles is when the Mexican bandit proclaims “badges, we don’t need no stinking badges”. But in real life, we do need badges. Badges help to shape who we are and how we want to be perceived in the public sphere.

People want to belong….belong to an idea, a vision, a story, a culture, a cause. Here’s the important thing for marketers, we want the world to know that we belong. Bumper stickers, T-shirts, clothing labels, the coffee we drink, and the smart phone we carry…all say something about us.

Give them a badge. If you have a story – something people want to belong to – make it easy for them to identify themselves with your story. This is the real genius behind Tom’s Shoes.  But, it is also why Apple was able to sell more than 300,000 iPads on the first day. For Apple users, there has never been a bigger or better badge than the new iPad. It screams, “I am Apple”. It is uniquely visible when carried around, when used in public places or when an email is sent with a signature that reads, “sent form my iPad”.

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A Magical and Revolutionary Product

Posted on 03. Apr, 2010 by

The iPad is finally here. Whether you are an Apple fan or not, If you’re paying attention you should appreciate the significance of today.

From where I sit, the iPad will be a huge success and it marks the beginning of the second iteration (following smart phones) of post PC personal productivity tools. These next generation tools are being built for a world where the internet is the operating system, applications run on the cloud, and widgets and browsers are your access points.  In my mind, there is no contest between a local application using local resources and local data and a simple, lightweight tool that packs all the power of the universe into an intuitive little interface. Smart phones, pads and yet-to-be-designed products that leverage the net will quickly begin replacing PCs as our primary tools for getting things done and staying connected.

In the massive lines formed outside Apple stores around the world, there is a significant, if unconscious, shift occurring – a shift from the PC era to the internet device era.  When the internet becomes the operating system, things change….hope you’re ready.

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Incrementalism Vs. Innovation

Posted on 30. Mar, 2010 by

I came across an interesting post today.  With today’s accelerating pace of change, incrementalism just isn’t going to work anymore. Every organization needs to create an environment that encourages….maybe even forces innovation.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Drastic expectations reinforce the declaration of innovation and the innovation goals. If people realize that just doing what everyone else in the market is doing is not enough, then they will respond. Average expectations about the company encourage people to think and act averagely. Drastic expectations encourage people to think innovatively and act like entrepreneurs.

You can read the full post here -  Blogging Innovation, Mar 2010

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Back to School

Posted on 22. Mar, 2010 by

I often come across digital, cross-media campaigns where the marketers behind the campaign have simply missed the point. They’ve basically slapped a digital bow on an analog campaign.

Case in point: A couple of days ago, my nephew received a personalized mailer from a university (he’s off to college next year). The campaign also included a personalized landing page for response. The campaign knew his name, and made a point of letting him know they did. Unfortunately, they didn’t seem to know anything else about him. Nor, did they attempt to initiate a relationship that would allow them to learn. For example, one of his most important selection criteria is his ability to play Lacrosse. This university will never know that Lacrosse is a dealmaker or breaker for him. Instead, they used his name, in several clever ways, at the top of an online brochure.

Here’s the lesson: digital  media requires a different marketing model, a different mindset. Digital is about engaging in conversations that create value for both parties. Companies must learn to use these powerful technologies to drive relevant interactions with their customers, and move beyond the “novelty” in these new tools to make sales.

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You’ve Been Niched

Posted on 17. Mar, 2010 by

As the pace of change continues to accelerate, an interesting phenomena is occurring. Employees (and former employees) are seeing what their employers are doing, learning what the market needs, and finding opportunity in the gap.Because of the pace of change, any fidelity to the status quo quickly becomes an anchor, constraining a company’s ability to adapt and compete.  Consequently, alert and frustrated professionals are striking out on their own. Armed only with the belief they can do it better, and a genuine desire to innovate and create new value, they are winning customers and chipping away at once reliable business models. In nearly all cases, the new venture is more narrowly focused then it’s predecessor and is able to operate at a fraction of the costs.

Though there are a number of factors driving change, the incredible growth in niched and hyper-niched businesses is a remarkable and unique phenomena of the new economy. And, it stands in stark contrast to the mass consolidation that marked the end of the old economy.

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Windsurfing, R/C Planes, Wii and How User-Driven Innovation is Changing the World

Posted on 12. Mar, 2010 by

The concept of “open” in the new economy is about much more than just open-source software development. It crosses virtually all industries and is really about:

· ‘Leading users’ creating remarkable product or service innovation

· Collaboration with other leading users to perfect the innovation

· Disseminate innovation across the broader user community

· Building community participation in ongoing product advancement

In his free ebook, Democratizing Innovation, Eric von Hippel opens with an example of user-driven innovation from the 1970s – the development of foot straps for windsurfing boards. I found this a fascinating example of how the most advanced users of any given product may begin tinkering with or modifying the original product to get more out of it. What I wanted to know was, how is ‘leading user’ capacity and desire to innovate playing out in the new economy?

Following are two examples that I just discovered, courtesy of Chris Brogan and TED. The first is the application of Lego Mindstorms to create a control system and autopilot capability for a do-it-yourself areal drone or UAV. Not long ago, UAV’s where the very expensive and exclusive domain of the military. But because one GeekDad (Chris Anderson) decided to push the boundaries on both Mindstorms and r/c model airplanes, we now have a commercially viable auto-pilot system for $24.95.

In the second example, Johnny Lee, a TED Conference Speaker, creates a sophisticated interactive whiteboard, and a 3-D tracking technology based on the Nintendo Wii remote. He has taken a $3,000 product (an interactive whiteboard) and recreated nearly all of it’s benefits, for about $50. The extraordinary thing here is how quickly his innovation was disseminated across the net (more than a million YouTube views in the first week) and how many other users have engaged in the conversation to educate other potential users, further adapt the original innovation, or come up with other tangential innovations.

“Open”, my friends, is part of the new paradigm. It’s impact on our lives will only grow as, culturally, we seek more meaningful ways to engage with a connected world.

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Boxy But Safe

Posted on 12. Mar, 2010 by

Following on my post “Rich Corinthian Leather” from February, I thought it would be useful to spend a little more time on authenticity and why it matters.

When it comes to authenticity, as the saying goes, you know it when you see it.  But, certainly what it is not is made up ads and packaging  to ‘stylize’ a mediocre product or service, with the intent of having it appear to be something more than it actually is.

But, does authenticity necessarily mean exposing the whole naked truth? The 1990 film, Crazy People takes a look at raw authenticity in a very amusing way.

In real life, this approach probably wouldn’t work. So, where do you draw the line between highlighting value and the unauthentic? I think Melissa Pierce does a nice job explaining ‘appropriate’ authenticity in the following video post.

The point is, we must always try to do our best and put our best foot forward. But, this is where the line gets a little grey. Where does preparation, planning and presentation leave the realm of the authentic and become disingenuous? I think it comes down to intent – creating additional value or putting lipstick on a pig.

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What’s the Value in Customer Experience?

Posted on 22. Feb, 2010 by

Why have frequent travelers – those who’ve worked for years to earn miles and build status – walked away from United, Delta, American, etc. to stand in line with the average Joe at Southwest? How is it that Zappos is growing and extending its product portfolio in the midst of a global recession? What is it about Nixon (the watch company, not the former president) that has allowed it created a cultish following amongst its customers? The answer to all of these: customer experience.

Customer experience isn’t defined top-down or implemented through policy manuals. It’s the product of a different way of looking at company, employee and customer relationships – a perspective shaped by common interests vs. conflicting interests. It’s about opening communications channels, listening, eliminating friction, trusting your employees and trusting your customers.

Great customer experience simply doesn’t work in an old economy model. Average products (or services), mass produced for average people and largely differentiated through advertising spin, simply cannot afford this kind of relationship with employees or customers.

Though it may be difficult to quantify return in the short run, delivering great customer experience is the weapon by which you can make your old economy competitors irrelevant.

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