Category Archives: Huh?

How About A Bowl Of Sugar?

Foodie Friday, and this week I’m revved up about a food issue which also raises an issue with every business. You are probably aware that there is an epidemic of diabetes in this country. According to the Centers For Disease Control, 1 in 3 adults in this country has pre-diabetes (elevated blood sugar) and over 9% actually have the disease. This incidence is much higher here in the South with some states having well over 11% of the population affected. Having spent a few years here I can tell you that there is a lot of sweet tea and other sugar-added foods sold everywhere.

What’s got me off on this rant today is what I would call yet another nail in the coffin of those who will contract the disease. Apparently, some genius at Post Cereals felt it would be a good idea to make a cereal named after Sour Patch Kids, a candy. I guess we can commend them for dropping all pretense for most breakfast cereals being anything other than candy and just calling it what it is. You think I’m hyperbolizing? You can literally pour a bowl of some breakfast cereals and half of what you pour is pure sugar. Golden Crips cereal (called Sugar Crisp when I was a kid) is almost 52% sugar. Honey Smacks (formerly Sugar Smacks) is over 55%. You would be better off feeding your kid a Snickers bar – it’s only 45% sugar.

There is a greater question here for anyone in business. Post isn’t the only company doing this. General Mills sells cereal with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups on the front. I refuse to believe that the folks at Post or General Mills don’t have an understanding that what they’re selling is fostering an epidemic. It’s easy for them to shrug their shoulders and say “well, responsible parents will let their kids eat this only in moderation.” So why change the names of the aforementioned cereals to delete “sugar? Why isn’t the nutritional information for Reese’s Puffs on the General Mills website? These are dangerous products, folks, and they raise the greater business question. Should we make products that we know are doing great harm? Just because we can do something, should we? Isn’t it possible to sell the healthier alternatives you already make to kids and stop pushing something that you know puts these kids on the road to diabetes?

It doesn’t have to be that way. When scientists discovered a hole in the ozone layer and attributed it to the use of CFC’s, many companies that used CFC’s as the propellant in their spray products changed to something else. The products are less dangerous and the hole is healing. Having a conscience to go along with having a bottom line isn’t inconsistent nor bad business. It’s quite the opposite. Selling kids bowls of sugar under the guise of “making your day better” really is a sad way to make a buck, don’t you think?

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Filed under food, Huh?, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

Carrying Yourself Like A Pro

I went to see my parents last week and my Dad and I got to talking about business as we often do. In the course of the conversation, we got into how things are different today from when I broke into the business world and not all for the better. No, today isn’t another chapter in “Keith Is A Cranky Old Man”, but please bear with me if I sound like one along the way. Like the proverbial pile of pony crap, there’s a pony in here someplace.

When I got into business and for the first 20 years I was there, things weren’t all that different from when my Dad was in the same business. The business model was the same and the processes for conducting business was pretty much the same. He was more of the “Mad Men” era than I was although I caught the very end of it in many ways. Things started to change two decades in – they got faster, more complicated and far less personal than when he was a TV guy.

One thing that didn’t change was you had to learn how to carry yourself like a pro. You had to learn how to interact with clients. You had to learn how to dress and to drink (yes, three-martini lunches were real). The older sales types would rib us younger guys mercilessly but they were training us, much as professional athletes will mess with rookies even as they’re teaching them how to dress and behave. I feel as if that’s gone today in many ways and I’m not a fan.

What’s changed now, another two decades in, is that there is so much unprofessional behavior that I’m beyond angry – I’m kind of sad. People who I barely know will ask me to make an introduction to someone they know I know. It seems as if many younger people operate in a transactional way – what can you do for me – rather than on an interpersonal way. Carrying themselves with character and decency seems a foreign notion. Showing up on time and dressed for business (not in a tie, not in a suit, but not in jeans and a T-shirt either) when you have a meeting are foreign notions.

The people who don’t need loans are the ones to whom banks want to give them. I always tried to look like I didn’t need a loan when I went in to ask for one. I carried the same thinking into my business life. Look successful. Carry yourself as if you are and understand the metrics that identify you as successful in your job. Be a pro. Don’t whine. Pitch in. Care about others and the team as much as you do yourself. Is all of that short for grow up?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Huh?, Thinking Aloud

Going Negative

It’s a bit less than a week before Election Day and I, for one, can’t wait for the elections to be over. That will mean that the political ads will end too, and that can’t happen soon enough.

Putting aside politics, the vast bulk of these ads are horrible marketing. One thing that marketers learned long ago doesn’t work is badmouthing your competition; yet damn near every ad I see across the multitude of channels I watch and stream is 30 seconds of negativity. These folks spend their allotted time distorting positions, taking things out of context, and flat-out lying in many cases. The candidate-produced ads are bad and the PAC-produced ads are even worse. You’d think they’d stop. In 2007, the Journal Of Politics did a study of negative ads. They found:

…that negative ads tended to be more memorable than positive ones but that they did not affect voter choice. People were no less likely to turn out to the polls or to decide against voting for a candidate who was attacked in an ad.

While campaign consultants seem to think that these ads work, science proves otherwise. Of course, there are many folks out there who don’t believe in science but that’s another screed…

It’s bad marketing. Going negative makes you look petty and unprofessional. Playing up your strengths always works better than bashing a competitor’s weaknesses. Good marketers explain how they are going to solve your problems. I think good politicians should do that too. I don’t want “small” people representing me. If you can’t run on your positions and your solutions, then how am I to trust that you can outperform the one running against you?

This applies to your business as well, obviously. Do you see a lot of non-political negative ads? No, you don’t. There are many good reasons for that. Do you see a lot of false claims in non-political ads? You sure don’t – there are laws against it. The FTC Act prohibits unfair or deceptive advertising in any medium. That is, advertising must tell the truth and not mislead consumers. A claim can be misleading if relevant information is left out or if the claim implies something that’s not true. It seems to me that many political ads do just that, unfortunately.

Politicians may be brands, but they sure don’t advertise as if they were. Going negative isn’t particularly helpful in non-political marketing and it’s just as bad in politics. That’s one man’s opinion. What’s yours?

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Ethics And Profits

A bit of a rant today. Suppose you had a friend who lied about things. Maybe they told you that they had a great way to help your business when, in fact, their plan was to use your money to build up their own business. Maybe you gave them money to invest and they lied about the returns. Maybe you tell them information about yourself that you don’t really want public and they tell people anyway. Maybe you let them use your phone or your computer for a few minutes and they installed malware that spied on your constantly. Some friend, right?

Welcome to doing business with Facebook.

Now before you accuse me of hyperbole, let me remind you of the incredible breaches of trust that Facebook has committed over the years. If you look up “Facebook apologizes,” you get over 17 million results. They, like many companies, seem to be focused on one thing: shareholders. As one person put it in speaking about the fall of Sears:

“What’s happened is that shareholders’ interests have squeezed out other stakeholders,” said Arthur C. Martinez, who ran Sears during the 1990s and was credited with a turnaround. “The mantra is shareholders above all else.”

What happens to workers doesn’t matter. Amazon gave raises with one hand and took away stock grants with the other. What happens to partners doesn’t matter. Facebook begged marketers to use their platform to distribute content and then, once the platform had grown to an unimaginable size, cut off marketers who didn’t pay them from access to their audience. What happens to users doesn’t matter. Alphabet, Google’s parent, has over 88% of mobile apps gathering data for them whether users know it or not. Ever wonder how the ads Google serves you with a search seem to tie to something you were doing on a news or productivity app that had nothing to do with Google or search or even ads? Here’s a study that will explain it.

Why is it so hard to follow a moral compass to profitability for many companies? If the bulk of non-tech people truly understood how their data is gathered and used, they’d go back to flip phones. Why not put your customers first and treat them as you’d expect to be treated as a customer? Why not reward employees so that they’re doing better as you’re doing better? Why not put partners’ interests on a level footing with your own so that deals are equitable and profitable for you both? Why not allow vendors to make an honest profit? Without those four things – customers, employees, partners, and vendors – what the shareholders have will be worthless pieces of paper and not an interest in a profitable, growing enterprise.

My friends don’t lie to me and I don’t lie to them. We’ve had our share of messy moments because of that but we’re still friends because of that honesty. We need ethical standards in business every bit as much as we need profits; probably more so. OK, rant over, but do me a favor and think about that, won’t you?

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Woebuck

Sad news about Sears today. An American institution, they filed for bankruptcy in order to restructure the company. They will close 142 unprofitable stores near the end of the year. Liquidation sales at these stores are expected to begin shortly. This is in addition to the previously announced closure of 46 unprofitable stores that is expected to be completed by next month.

The press release says that “The Chapter 11 process will give Holdings the flexibility to strengthen its balance sheet, enabling the Company to accelerate its strategic transformation, continue right-sizing its operating model, and return to profitability.” I guess the question I’d ask is what the heck has taken so long? When I was a kid, the Sears catalog was a 500-page wish book. Everything from clothing to tools to appliances and damn near anything else was in the catalog or the store. At one point you could even buy a prefabricated house kit. They sold great appliances (built by Whirlpool) and even better tools (also built by others). They did very smart things like label grades of product “good” “better” and “best” using brand names.  They were Amazon long before Amazon was a gleam in Jeff Bezos’ eye.

So what happened? Well, technology did but that’s only part of the story. This is a perfect example of what can happen when any of us fail to recognize the fundamental changes happening in business – all business. Obviously, online commerce happened but Sears was in decline in the early 1990’s as Walmart took over the title of largest US retailer. Then the little wave became a tsunami, as consumers fundamentally changed their behavior, becoming more price sensitive, doing more research and shopping online, and the shift away from the mall sped up.

You might not remember this, but Sears was an investor in Prodigy, one of the original online services. They jumped out of the digital service in 1996, however. One can only wonder what might have been had they stuck with it and learned from it. Even though walled-garden services died as the internet grew, there was a lot to learn. Remember that Amazon didn’t begin to sell beyond books until around 2000. Why did they bail? To get back to what they knew best – retail (they also sold off their interest in brokerages and real estate companies they owned).

This is an excellent summary from Investopedia:

It would be easy to read this story as a triumph of e-commerce, or to reflect on the irony that Sears was a first-mover when it came to online shopping, with its proto-internet joint venture Prodigy. But even recently, Sears has been ahead of the curve in that area. According to Bloomberg, Lampert “showered” the online division with resources while the rest meleed over a shrinking pie.

Nor did competition with Amazon alone precipitate Sears’ decline. When sales and profits began to fade, in the mid-2000s, other big box retailers—particularly Walmart—were thriving. In 2011, the year Sears lost over $3.1 billion, Walmart made $17.1 billion.

Perhaps the might-have-been next Warren Buffett should have listened to the original, who told University of Kansas students in 2005, “Eddie is a very smart guy, but putting Kmart and Sears together is a tough hand. Turning around a retailer that has been slipping for a long time would be very difficult. Can you think of an example of a retailer that was successfully turned around?”

This is a story of a series of failures. It’s also a cautionary tale to any of us who live and work in these changing times. Brick and mortar stores still make up the vast majority of retail sales in this country yet the country’s largest retailers failed. Greed? Ignorance? Stupidity? What are your thoughts?

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Why Don’t They Answer The Phone?

I wrote last week about the new area in which I’ve begun consulting. Thank you, by the way, to all of you who both read the announcement and sent along your support.

The bulk of the people to whom I speak about investing in a franchise come to me via a system of ads. Some of the ads promote a specific brand and others just speak to the great opportunity buying into a franchise affords someone who is looking to work for themselves. Both types of ads generate leads. These are people who fill out a form and ask to be contacted. With me so far?

What’s struck me after contacting nearly 100 of these respondents is how few of them actually respond. I realize not everyone is going to answer the phone, but if they don’t, I leave a polite voicemail and send them an email as well. Obviously, they’ve provided the information. Most don’t respond to either, even to say “hey, I was bored late one night and I filled this out but I’m not really interested.”

You should know that I’m not selling them anything. My services are free. Like a realtor, I’m paid by the seller; in this case, the franchisor. Once I get them on the telephone, it takes only about 10 minutes for me to assess their needs and to figure out how we should proceed, so this process is neither time-consuming nor costly. They’ve taken the time to start the process yet they hit the brakes before it even gets going.

What’s the point for your business? Sometimes customers know they have a need but they’re afraid of solving the problem. For any of us, change is hard. For people who are unhappy with their lives, it can be crippling to believe that there is a better way on the other end of the phone or through the door to your business. In my case, most of these people want to change their lives somehow and I think they were channeling that when they filled out the form. When change came knocking at their door (or calling their phones), the fear kicked in. Any business faces that to a certain extent. Why don’t people go for physicals? Putting aside the cost, I think in part it’s because they don’t feel bad and they don’t want to know if something is wrong. If the states didn’t mandate auto inspections, how many people would routinely have a mechanic give it the once over as preventative maintenance?

Part of what we need to do as good businesspeople is to guide our customers. They may be fearful or reluctant. Remember that they wouldn’t be at your door if they didn’t have a problem big or small that they need to be solved. Your job (and mine) is to help them with that solution and a better life. Make sense?

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Mental Images, Mental Mistakes

Shut your eyes and picture the typical “All-American” family. Go ahead, I’ll wait. OK – have that picture in your mind? What does it show? Mom, Dad, and a couple of kids? My guess is that if you’re Caucasian so is your picture, and I’ll bet the typical family is also quite heterosexual.

Here’s the problem with your mental image. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, only one in four American families matches that description. That was almost a decade ago and I think we’re all aware of the changes that have been happening with respect to familial, and societal, composition.

If you’re in marketing, that mental picture has some fairly important implications. It might impact how you make creative for your campaigns, how you plan your media, and how those decisions provide relevance and meaning to consumers. For an example, the folks at HP brought together 13 Chicago families of different races, ethnicities, ages, genders and sexual orientations. They were split up and another group of people was asked to reassemble the families.

Guess how many people could put the families back together? Exactly none. In general, they tried to find groupings of the same race, different gender, and heterosexual. Oops. But this has implications even for those of you out there who aren’t in marketing. It speaks to the broader issue of preconceived notions and how we can’t just form opinions without adequate evidence. Some folks are seemingly determined never to let the facts get in the way of a good story, whether they’re reporting something to their boss or just ranting among their friends. It’s really a bad idea.

How often do a new employee or a business prospect walk into the room and you make a snap judgment before they’ve even uttered a word? We all do it, unfortunately. In fact, it’s sort of a “truism” that hiring decisions are made quickly. Well, according to a research study, some of the interviewers did make snap decisions about candidates. Roughly 5% of decisions were made within the first minute of the interview, and nearly 30% within five minutes. I think that has to do with the preconceived notions in the interviewers’ minds about who they saw in the job as well as who they saw in front of them.

Rip up those mental pictures as best you can. Do the research, seek the facts. and THEN form the pictures. Ready, fire, aim rarely works, don’t you think?

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