Playing The Long Game

One of my favorite movies is The Sting. It’s the story of how two men run a long con. That, as defined by The Urban Dictionary, is:

A con-job that requires a certain amount of effort and as a namesake, is usually in it for the long haul. Gaining someone’s trust for a number of months and then when the stake is in your court and you have their complete trust–taking advantage of it. Usually denotes relationship status or high-level business partnerships.

In less evil terms, the protagonists are playing the long game. They are less focused on short term success as they keep their eyes on the rich reward gained over the long term. I’m a big believer in playing the long game, both in business and in life. Let’s address the business part here.

English: Marshmallows

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The folks at MIT‘/Sloane did a study about the digital maturity of various businesses. One thing that they found to be true of digitally mature organizations was:

Their strategic planning horizons are consistently longer than those of less digitally mature organizations, with nearly 30% looking out five years or more versus only 13% for the least digitally mature organizations. Their digital strategies focus on both technology and core business capabilities.

I’m always surprised at how many organizations have a short-term focus and which then wonder why they’re not gaining on their long-term goals. I’m not advocating spending time creating a 10-year plan or even a 5-year plan. I think seeing that far over the horizon is pretty much impossible in these times of rapid change. But I do think every business needs to have some long-term goals and a focus on meeting them while ignoring some of the short-term things that might cloud your vision.

Maybe you’ve heard of The Marshmallow Experiment. A researcher put young children in a room with a marshmallow for 15 minutes, telling the kids that they would get a second marshmallow if the first was still there when the researcher returned. What’s interesting about this is that the researcher did follow up studies with the kids over the next 40 years. He found that the kids who chose to delay gratification (and get a second marshmallow!) did better in life. They had higher SAT scores, lower obesity, better social skills, and lower levels of substance abuse. They were playing the long game, even at 5. Are you?

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Thanks For Nothing

I get emails all the time urging me to win something. In a previous life, I used to send those emails as well. Because of that, I became very well acquainted with the rules that govern sweepstakes and contests. I’ve had multiple lawyers explain the three-legged stool of chance/prize/consideration to me on more than one occasion, and I’ve never run afoul of the gaming laws either here in the US or in Canada.

I thought about those rules as I reviewed an email from an electronics company this morning. The email urges me to “Get Rewarded For Sharing Your Opinion.” I had a couple of immediate thoughts that might just be pertinent to your business, whether you’re running a contest or not (BTW, I know the difference between a “contest” and a “sweepstakes” but I’m lumping them together today, OK (damn lawyers…))?

My first thought was to wonder if asking someone to write a review isn’t consideration? We used to wonder if asking for a photo or a video as part of an entry constituted consideration. My take is that even if it’s not deemed to be such by a lawyer, it is still asking someone to take some time and write a review. For some of us, writing is like breathing but for many people, cranking out a couple of hundred coherent words is grueling. Asking them to do so for a CHANCE to win a $500 gift card with nothing else as a consolation (a coupon, you cheap bastards?) seems like an unfair trade-off.

More importantly, the headline on the company‘s landing page is “Your Thoughts, Our Thanks?” Really? Unless you dive deeply into the fine print of the rules, you might not realize that unless your review contains a very specific phrase it won’t be counted as a contest entry. That won’t, of course, stop the company from using it in advertising and by entering, you’ve signed away all rights to it as well as the right to contest the company’s use of it and your name.

The bigger point is that the company is positioning this as a “win-win“:

Write an honest review and you’ll automatically be entered for a chance to win $500*. How’s that for a win-win?

It’s not, actually, You win. You get the content you can use to sell your products. A consumer might win but the vast majority of them will send off the review and get bupkis, maybe not even an entry if they haven’t read the rules carefully. You’re awarding cards every two months (and by the way, your entry doesn’t count after the two month period in which it was received). $3,000 over the course of a year for an important type of social proof – consumer reviews seems awfully cheap on your part, particularly when most of what you’re selling costs hundreds of dollars.

We can’t ask our customers for something beyond buying our products without offering something in return. Don’t hype a relatively low-level reward that’s not universally available to everyone supporting your brand when all you’re really offering is a fuzzy “thank you.” Your thanks? Thanks for nothing in this case. Do you agree?

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Generically Speaking

This Foodie Friday, I’ve been thinking about store brands. Some of them – such as the Costco vodka really being Grey Goose at under half the price – are the stuff of legend. Other places – such as Trader Joe’s – have built entire enterprises on top of their own brands which are basically repackaged and rebranded versions of mainstream products. It’s well-known, for example, that TJ’s pita chips are made by Frito-Lay, who puts Stacy’s pita chips in TJ’s packages. Of course, you can buy a  6oz bag of Trader Joe’s Pita Chips for $1.99 whereas a 7.33oz bag of Stacy’s Simply Naked Pita Chips sells for $2.99 or more.

An example of a Trader Joe's storefront.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many of Walmart‘s Great Value branded products are just name brands rebranded. Most people can’t tell the difference between the name brand and the store brand, although in fairness, every so often the store will have the manufacturer make a minor change (a little less lemon, a little more salt) so they’re not identical products. Still, In 2012, Consumer Reports did a test. They found:

In comparing store-brand and name-brand versions of 19 products, our savings ranged from 5 percent (frozen lasagna) to 60 percent (ice cream). Many of those store brands were also as tasty as the alternative. Our sensory experts found that the store brand and name brand tied in 10 cases, the name brand won in eight cases, and the store brand won once.

So why do people continue to pay more for the same product? The easy answer is marketing. Name brands spend an awful lot of money each year to influence consumers’ perception of their products. Some of it is mistrust, particularly when it comes to store-branded drugs. Even though the law says that generic medication contains the same active ingredient as the name brand (yes, I know generic brands may have different inactive ingredients that can make them behave differently), people spend more for branded pain relievers, antacids, and other types of drugs. It’s interesting that studies show that chefs and pharmacists tend to buy generic food and drugs, respectively.

I think a good chunk of why people tend to spend the extra money has to do with experience. They expect that a brand name will provide a quality, consistent product experience. In instances where others are seeing what products are being used (guests in your home, coworkers in an office), the brand name is more socially acceptable. Finally, over time, brand names build loyalty. Once again, we end up at the cost/value equation, but we always need to remember that value isn’t just measured in dollars and cents.

I buy a lot of generics or store brands. There are, however, some things for which I pay extra because I do perceive a difference. Still, knowing that most of what’s at Trader Joe’s or Walmart or Costco is the same as what’s at the supermarket (but less expensive!) lets me splurge on those things with a clear conscience. The question for those of us that market is how we get consumers to see the value that goes along with our brand.

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Intellectual Laziness

I’m sure your Twitter and/or Facebook feeds are filled with articles and discussions from and among your friends. Mine certainly are, and what strikes me about many of them is how intellectually lazy they’ve become. That’s odd, since most of my friends are anything but. They tend to be smart and able to see nuance, yet my feeds are filled with blanket generalizations and narrow perspectives, not to mention the unchallenged fake news.

I think that laziness is becoming more pervasive in business too. Maybe it’s that our brains have been taken over by the manner in which we think in the social media space or maybe it’s just easier to paint with broad strokes since there is so much information coming at us every single day. I think that’s a rationalization. More importantly, it’s dangerous.

When we make use of generalizations and blanket statements we negate things that don’t fit into the underlying assumptions, schemas, and stereotypes of our business. This intellectual laziness is also used to maintain the status quo.

Think about how often a good idea has been crushed by someone using the words “always” or “never.” Those terms are overly broad and prevent new thinking about old problems. instead, we’d all be better served by maintaining a beginner’s mind and listening more than we speak.  It’s pretty much truism that you’ll learn more from listening than you will from talking. Taking what we hear and synthesizing new ideas in the context of the business environment is how we move forward. More importantly, it’s the antithesis of being intellectually lazy.

I think people who are intellectually lazy are toxic both in business and in the world at large. I’m making more use of lists in my social feeds to weed out those toxic folks so I can enjoy the critical thinking of others and make myself a little smarter each day. You?

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Eclipsing Our Sun

By now you’ve probably heard that there will be a total solar eclipse in two weeks (August 21).  This will be the first total solar eclipse (when the moon moves directly between Earth and the sun) visible in the United States in nearly four decades.

English: Total Solar eclipse 1999 in France. *...

(Wikipedia)

During the eclipse, the 70-mile-wide shadow cast by the moon will darken the skies from Oregon to South Carolina, according to Space.com. What makes this eclipse notable is how accessible it will be to many people since the path of most total eclipses falls over water or unpopulated regions of the planet. This event will go down as the first total solar eclipse whose path of totality stays completely in the United States since 1776. Too bad it didn’t happen on July 4!

Total solar eclipses supposedly have happened at notable times in history. Jesus’ crucifixion, Mohammed‘s birth, and King Henry I‘s death all coincided with a total eclipse. I’m not here to speculate on why those or other events happened simultaneously with a disruption in the Sun’s presence. Instead, I want to focus on a business thought that came to me as I thought about other effects an eclipse has.

When we fall into the moon’s shadow, birds think it’s night and stop chirping, the temperature falls, and things not usually visible become clear. The Sun’s corona, which is the Sun’s upper atmosphere, is clearly visible, as are many stars and planets often obscured at night by moonlight or all the lights turned on automatically on the ground. If you look around you, you might even see a 360-degree sunset as well. What does this have to do with business?

We all have our business “sun.” It might be our process, it might be our boss or coworkers, it might be the favorite customers that illuminate our days, provide warmth, and make survival possible, Every once in a while, however, it’s not a bad idea to precipitate an eclipse of some sort. As with the upcoming event, doing so will often make things visible that your business sun obscures. Maybe your reliance on that sun or suns is stopping you from seeing things about them or opportunities beyond them. What do you think?

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Eating With Your Eyes

It’s Foodie Friday, and today’s topic is the thought that we “eat with our eyes.” While sometimes you can smell food coming, most often our eyes are the first sensory organ we use as part of eating. It’s why many cooking shows (Chopped, Top Chef, etc.) grade dishes not only on taste and creativity but also how the dish is plated and its visual appeal. Since the rise of Instagram, eating with our eyes has taken on an entirely new dimension. As The Verge reported:

For years now, Instagram has sat at the center of trends in food and beverages. Rainbow-colored “unicorn foods” are often designed with Instagram in mind…Now some entrepreneurs are taking the idea a step further, designing their physical spaces in the hopes of inspiring the maximum number of photos. They’re commissioning neon signs bearing modestly sly double entendres, painting elaborate murals of tropical wildlife, and embedding floor tiles with branded greetings — all in the hopes that their guests will post them.

I’d encourage you to read the full piece, but it does raise a business thought in my mind. I did a little search for “love decor, food sucks” and got over 2.5 million results. In the course of helping people eat with their eyes and/or to gain social virality, many of these places have forgotten their primary mission: to cook great food. “Going viral” isn’t a strategy. While it may increase your visibility, as Chipotle will tell you, so will an e-coli outbreak. Gaining followers and visibility is ideally a reflection of the quality of what you’re doing.

Designing any business or product so that visual appeal is its primary focus is designing for failure. Yes, it’s smart marketing, but as with any marketing, there as to be, as Gertrude Stein said, a there there. We might eat with our eyes, but ultimately we want something more substantial than a great visual. None of us should forget that our customers may come based on good marketing, but they stay because of great a great product or service. Don’t you agree?

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Staying Alinged

One thing that bad golfers do (and I’m speaking from personal experience here) is to misalign themselves. They might point the clubface at their target but they fail to get their hips, shoulders, and knees properly aligned. When they go to hit the shot, inevitably the ball goes someplace other than where the golfer desires.
I thought of that this morning as I read the results of a study on marketing compensation. Conducted by MediaPost, the study found that:

Agencies and their clients are far apart in terms of what they deem to be the most fair method of compensation, according to findings of a survey of advertiser and agency execs conducted recently by Advertiser Perceptions for MediaPost. While labor-based fees are the No. 1 method preferred by agencies (45%), incentive methods were the top choice among marketers (40%).

You might not be a marketing agency or a marketer, but there is something to be taken from that for whatever business you’re in. Think of a car’s four wheels. When they’re properly aligned, the car is easy to hold on the course you set. If one wheel is out of alignment, the car pulls left or right and you’re constantly having to fight to keep it heading where you want.

Your business is no different. Your goals and your customers’ goals have to be in alignment. So too do yours and your team’s. Being paid fairly is a critical part of the employer/employee relationship, and no one is going to do their best work if they feel like they’ve been treated unfairly. I’ve known agencies who’ve resigned clients because they felt that they were losing money servicing the account. I actually had a client who hired me to complete a project over a few weeks. When I presented the completed work in a little over a week, they asked to reduce what I was being paid since “it didn’t take as long as we thought.” In that case, it was my fault for not being sure that their expectations (how long it would take and the value of that time) were in alignment with how I did the work and the value of the project regardless of the time spent. Sure, I could have sat on the completed work until it was due, but that has no benefit to my client and only helps me justify what they’re paying.

All the wheels need to be aligned. The club face and your body need to be aligned. The goals and expectations of everyone in your organization need to be aligned, and that alignment must extend to your customers as well. Hard to do sometimes, but always worth it, right?

 

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Filed under Consulting, Huh?