Monthly Archives: June 2018

Eating At Mom’s

This Foodie Friday, I’d like you to think of your favorite restaurants. How many of them are national chains and how many of them are family-owned? How many of them serve “fancy” food and how many of them serve great versions of something you might find on your grandmother’s table? I’m willing to bet that most of your favorites are local and cook what your Italian or Chinese or Jewish grandmother might make.

Independent restaurants are growing twice as fast as chains, and there are reasons for this, according to Pentallect a research firm. Consumers rate independent restaurants as more superior on 12 of 15 attributes studied. Consumers see the independents as sharing consumers’ values and offering quality food and better service. They’re special, community-oriented and offering personalized service.

There’s a breakfast joint I go to. It’s a little cafe in the small downtown area here. Yes, there are franchised diners, Waffle Houses, and the breakfast offerings of many chains around, but you’ll find me eating at this place for precisely the reasons found in the study. Two visits and from then on I’ve been greeted as if I’ve lived here forever. I’m asked about my golf game and Michigan Football. The food is quite good but not at all fancy. What does this have to do with your business?

Unless they’re going out for a big, fancy meal, I think people like to feel as if they’re eating at Mom’s. It’s nice when you’re traveling that you can count on a chain to offer you exactly the same experience no matter what but the food is usually bland, a dumbed-down example of the good stuff. Pastrami at Subway? No thanks. You need to convey both the authenticity and good feeling one gets when pulling up a chair at a great local joint. It’s not fancy, it’s just good. You’re welcomed as family and not with some script developed back at corporate. Let your customers take their time. I find I’m rarely rushed at a local place while the chains are focused on “turns.” Would Mom kick you away from the table?

How does your business make customers feel like family? How are your products different from what the big guys offer? How are they better? Those are the things that I’ll bet make the local joint you thought of when I asked the question your favorite. How can you be that for your customers?

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints, Thinking Aloud

Can We Distinguish Fact From Fiction?

How good are you at distinguishing fact from fiction? As I’ve written before, I think that is one of the two most important things anyone can learn in their professional (and personal) lives, with the ability to express your thinking clearly orally and in writing being the other. The folks over at The Pew Research Center studied whether members of the public can recognize news as factual – something that’s capable of being proved or disproved by objective evidence – or as an opinion that reflects the beliefs and values of whoever expressed it. The results aren’t particularly surprising but they also are a good reminder to any of us in business.

First, the results. I’m summarizing here but you really should read the entire study – it’s fascinating and gets to a lot of what’s going on in the country today:

The main portion of the study, which measured the public’s ability to distinguish between five factual statements and five opinion statements, found that a majority of Americans correctly identified at least three of the five statements in each set. But this result is only a little better than random guesses. Far fewer Americans got all five correct, and roughly a quarter got most or all wrong. Even more revealing is that certain Americans do far better at parsing through this content than others. Those with high political awareness, those who are very digitally savvy and those who place high levels of trust in the news media are better able than others to accurately identify news-related statements as factual or opinion…Republicans and Democrats were more likely to classify both factual and opinion statements as factual when they appealed most to their side.

In other words, confirmation bias comes in quite a bit of the time.  I raise this because I think it happens all the time in business as well. We receive data that doesn’t support the direction in which we’re taking the business but we reject it as biased. We get complaints from customers but dismiss them as opinion even when there are facts to support the customer’s unhappiness. It all comes back to what the study measured – many of us can’t distinguish fact from fiction.

We need to pay attention to the source of what we’re hearing. Does the data come from an unbiased, third party or is it an opinion? Is the person who is telling you something doing so based on first-hand experience or are they just repeating something they’ve heard elsewhere? Do multiple sources independently report the same information (not quoting one another, in other words) or are you basing a business decision on a single source? If you’ve spent any time in business, you know that even “trusted” sources – your analytics, your financial reports and others – can be manipulated. Always seek the unvarnished, fact-based truth and learn to ignore opinion unless it’s labeled as such. It’s hard to do that, but you’re up to the task, right?

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Filed under Reality checks, Consulting, Huh?

Growing Older But Not Up

Jimmy Buffett wrong a song almost 40 years ago called “Growing Older But Not Up.” He wrote the song after breaking his leg in a charity softball game while running the bases. It’s a song I think about fairly often as I’m aging.

Our bodies grow older and change but we still think we’re eternally 25 and able to do all of the silly things we did then without consequences. We sometimes fail to recognize that we’ve changed and we need to deal with the world differently:

Though my mind is quite flexible
These brittle bones don’t bend.

Amen, brother. He was 34 when he wrote that and he says he’s still behaving badly at 71 though to a far lesser degree. The only constant is change, right? I think so, although I wonder sometimes if many in business recognize that this country is changing as it grows older too. I mean that literally. The country is aging, and it’s probably one of the most important changes affecting everyone in business. My generation, the baby boomers, are living longer, the birth rate is down among younger people, and we’re an older population. Here’s a tidbit:

Census figures show that fewer than 17 percent of U.S. counties reported a decrease in median age from April 2010 to July 2017, with the majority of those counties clustered in the Midwest. Nationally, the median age rose to 38.0 years in 2017, up from 37.2 years in 2000.

Doesn’t sound like much of a change but it represents the reason why we see many more ads for drugs (older folks are generally sicker), bigger cars, retirement accounts, and other things. So the question to you is how are you preparing for, and dealing with, the demographic changes that are happening? We’re becoming a more diverse nation too but that’s a much more complicated answer than focusing on age.

You have a couple of choices. You can reexamine your product mix and see if it appeals to people over 50. I’m not sure that Facebook thought it was a senior product but that’s what it has become as young folks are using it less and less. If it has appeal, maybe you need to be targeting that older segment, or at least testing.

The other choice is to deny the change. You’d be like Jimmy, trying to pursue things that reality makes less possible. Your heart and mind might be the right place but your market has changed and you need to adjust your thinking. We can all complain about the changes to the market but we can’t reverse them. Make sense?

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Filed under Thinking Aloud, What's Going On

Old Bay Bacon

It’s Foodie Friday! A friend of mine made some bacon a while back that might have been the best bacon I’ve ever had. It wasn’t so much that it was a nice thick cut nor that it had been perfectly cooked although both were true. Something had been added to the bacon that enhanced its overall porkiness (bacon fans know what I mean) and threw in some extra flavors for good measure. I was smitten.

I asked what was done and the answer was Old Bay. Yes, that Old Bay, the one you have hiding in the back of your spice rack to add to the shrimp and crabs you never quite get around to boiling. While the chef used the same technique I do for bacon (400-degree oven, bacon on a sheet pan for 20 minutes or so, maybe on a rack if you’re feeling ambitious about clean-up), they had sprinkled the raw bacon with Old Bay. It was transformative.

You might not be familiar with Old Bay if you don’t live here in the eastern U.S. It’s a spice blend long associated with Baltimore. Invented in 1940 by a German immigrant fleeing the Nazis, it became ubiquitous in the Chesapeake area and is one of my favorite spice blends. Celery salt, mustard, pepper, bay leaves, cloves, pimento, ginger, mace, cardamom, cinnamon, and paprika – 18 spices in all – make up this magic dust.

There’s a business point or two to be made here. First, we can’t be afraid to try new uses for old products or people. I would never have thought to put Old Bay on bacon but it’s magic. Maybe you haven’t asked a senior member of your staff to do UX testing on your new digital presence, but why wouldn’t you? If someone who, in theory, is less adept at the digital world can appreciate what you’ve done, odds are that your real target will like it as well. Or take an old product like a tape that was invented to keep ammo cases dry, change the color, and voila! Duct tape. Or maybe a heart medicine that had an unusual side effect in many men and suddenly, Viagra.

Second, to my knowledge, Old Bay’s recipe has never been changed. There’s always a tendency out there to tinker with successful products through line extensions or even wholesale revamps of the product. Resist it. Look at Craig’s List – it’s still pretty much the same as it was when it launched 23 years ago. No bells and whistles, no streaming video, just classifieds and a whole lot of success. Create new things but don’t dilute the brand and don’t ever jeopardize the cash cow. There is Old Bay flavoring in many products, but the core product – the spice blend – has never changed.

Sprinkle a little Old Bay on something – bacon, a Bloody Mary, popcorn, almost anything – and remind yourself that greatness can endure even as we find new ways to incorporate it into our businesses.

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Filed under food, Thinking Aloud

Known Side Effects

I watch a lot of news on TV. If you do that, you are inundated with ads for drugs that promise to cure everything from asthma to zits and everything in between. One thing that most of these ads have in common is that a significant percentage of each ad drones on and on about potential known side effects. The side effects often are quite serious and death is sometimes one of them. Then again, I guess death cures the disease.

I thought about side effects this morning as I was reading my usual collection of articles about the media and marketing businesses. There have been an awful lot of changes, some for the good, many for the bad. Nearly every one of them has some side effects too. On a most basic level, it’s great to stay in touch with family and friends via social media, but a known side effect is the reduction or disappearance of your privacy. It’s wonderful to have a communications device on you but a known side effect is that you’re tracked everywhere by your phone provider and everything you do with that device is watched and recorded. But those aren’t business issues.

Take, for example, what’s going on in TV sales at the moment. The digital revolution brought with it programmatic buying and selling. In theory, this made the entire process quick and way more efficient. It also had the side effect of advertisers and publishers paying huge “tech taxes”, fees to the providers of the technology that runs the process. Another side effect is rampant fraud and an overall increase in the number of bad actors who suddenly found a way into what had been a relatively closed process.

TV buying and selling are suddenly undergoing the same sort of change. Having sold TV for many pre-digital years, I think many of the same side effects will manifest themselves as the closed, carefully run process opens up. Of course, the biggest side effect will be yet another purge of salespeople and the failure of many rep firms. As eMarketer reported:

Overall, 46% of respondents felt that the tech advancements happening in the TV industry are a threat to their organization’s existence. Again, the fear was highest among reps, with 87% saying that tech changes threaten their firm. There is no doubt concern that the expansion of programmatic TV could extinguish traditional methods of brokering inventory.

TV reps as coal miners? Who would have thought that? Then there are the so-called influencers. The movement to trusted voices as sources of product information is, I believe, generally a good one. The problem is that word “trust.” Fake reviews run rampant. Since influence is often measured by the number of followers, fake followers and/or bought followers are a massive problem. The side effects of establishing trust are numerous and can potentially make the marketing challenge worse if they’re ignored. 

The cure is sometimes worse than the disease. It’s worth remembering that and searching out the possible side effects as we make our marketing and media plans. It’s great to become more efficient but not at the expense of killing the patient. Make sense?

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Filed under digital media, Thinking Aloud

The World Cup Of Business

The biggest sporting event on the planet began its final phase last week. Soccer’s World Cup, which began its qualifying process over three years ago, is down to the final 32 teams and will crown a champion over the next month.

I’ve been very lucky in my life to attend almost every big sporting event at one time or another but nothing compares to this tournament. For those of you less familiar with the world football scene, The World Cup is national teams playing one another. Football (it’s only called soccer here in the U.S.) is by far the sport played everywhere and it incites passion like no other. What’s most interesting about this is that most of the world football leagues are very international in composition. A club might have half its players from the “home” country but an equal number who play for a different national team.

Take, for example, the Spain/Portugal match of the other day. Cristiano Ronaldo is Portugal’s star and is beloved there but he plays for Real Madrid in the Spanish League (La Liga) and is equally beloved there. Some of the players on the Spanish team are his club teammates but they were tasked with stopping him the other day.

What does any of this have to do with your business? If you’ve ever worked in a medium to a large company you’ve probably seen the internecine warfare that often develops between departments. The sales department might be fighting with finance, marketing might not have any love for research, and legal often has nasty things to say about everyone. I liken it to a national league. All the clubs (departments) live in one country (business) but they are extremely competitive and want to be seen as the winners. There has to come a time, however, when the rivalries take a back seat to the “national” interest, in this case, The World Cup; in the case of a business, maybe it’s when other businesses or marketplace circumstances (countries) are on the attack and the entire enterprise is threatened.

Part of managing in an environment where the departments are extremely competitive is keeping the mindset nationally-focused and not club-focused. You need to let your team know that undermining another area serves no common purpose. It’s dangerous and unproductive. Set a World Cup mentality and then try to inspire the same sort of national fervor that the tournament does. You with me?

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Filed under Consulting, Helpful Hints

Help Wanted

It’s June, the month of newly-minted college graduates entering the workforce. There will be a fair amount of job-seeking going on and today I want to spend a minute to reflect on a few things I’ve learned over the years both about finding a job and filling one.

First, finding one. Obviously, the way the job market works has changed since I graduated college several decades ago. Job websites and LinkedIn didn’t exist and the process is way more efficient now. The problem is that so has the nature of work because business itself has been reshaped. The disintermediation of almost everything has meant the nature of hiring needs has changed. Retail jobs have moved from store clerks to engineers who help with online inventory management, customer experience, and other jobs that didn’t exist in the retail sector back in the day. Ride-sharing has created a different sort of cab driver (a popular job for many when we couldn’t get other work), one that doesn’t require a hack license but does require that you have access to a car.

What hasn’t changed about looking for that entry-level job is that you need to have a willingness to do damn near anything. My first job was making slides for presentations at a trade group. Yes, I was an honors graduate with degrees in English and Education and I had no interest in making slides: I wanted to write. I also wanted to eat and to get my foot in the door. I’m always surprised when I talk with a young person who feels many entry jobs are beneath them.

The other thing that hasn’t changed, and this applies to both sides of the hiring desk, is the skills required. I always looked for people who were smart, who could express that intelligence both orally and in the written communication we had, and who seemed like self-starters. Those candidates are the ones who will learn on the job and perform, and I have many examples of that in my hiring. I’d add to the list that the candidate should be able to handle disruptions well. Every business has been or will be disrupted and, therefore, the nature of every job will change as well. Society and business are constantly getting more efficient – more things will be available to more people for lower overall costs – so the hiring and job-seeking processes need to mirror that. Does yours?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, What's Going On