Tag Archives: Business and Economy

Sampuru

This Foodie Friday, the topic is sampuru. No, you probably don’t call anything by that name but you’ve seen it. It’s the fake food you often see in the lobby or window of Japanese restaurants. Great sampuru is incredibly realistic and can negate the need even to look at a menu. Like many seemingly simple things (such as making the rice for sushi), sampuru artists require years of training.

Typically for this space, as I was thinking about sampuru, a business thought came to me. Fake, plastic food has its business counterpart although they’re not called sampuru. I call them empty suits, but I’m not sure we should limit the term to people.

Your typical empty suit, like great fake food, gives the appearance of being real and nourishing. The reality is that they look great but can be toxic if ingested. In fact, I think they’re easier to spot than great sampuru. Ask an empty suit for an opinion and it will either be the same as either the boss’s or of whomever in the room they’re trying to please if they have an opinion at all. You see, empty suits rarely have enough knowledge about a topic to give a well-reasoned opinion about anything. They may rattle off a number of industry buzzwords but if you try to dissect what it is they’re saying it becomes obvious that, as Gertrude Stein said about Oakland, there’s no there there.

Oddly enough, I think entire businesses can be sampuru. Coincidentally, I ate at a Japanese restaurant the other evening that I would call an empty suit. It looked fine – a sushi bar, teppanyaki tables, etc., but the food was nondescript, the service was lackadaisical, and the teppan chef I saw was just barely going through the motions. It was a sampuru – a plastic model of a business that looked like the real thing but wasn’t even close to being it.

We need to make sure our businesses don’t fall into the trap of being sampuru – of looking like we’re fresh and flourishing when, in fact, we’re dead and toxic. As executives, we need to stay informed and not be afraid to offer our own opinions about things. We’ll be wrong sometimes but by being true to ourselves maybe we’ll also advance the conversation to new, more profitable ground. You with me?

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Filed under food, Thinking Aloud

Upon A Solid Foundation

Chuck Berry passed this weekend. When I heard the news I mentioned it to a younger friend who asked “who?” That made me a little sad, but it also made me think about today’s topic, as did a couple of other things that transpired over the last few days.

Publicity photo of Chuck Berry.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First, Mr. Berry. Chuck Berry, as you might have learned over the last couple of days of news, is one of the founding fathers of rock and roll. While you might not know him if you’re younger than about 50, you certainly know his music. Johnny B. Goode is a song any young rock musician has played, and it was a concert standard of dozens of bands from The Grateful Dead to Jimi Hendrix to The Rolling Stones. The Beatles had hits with Roll Over Beethoven and Rock And Roll Music. Many other bands either had hits covering one of his songs or stealing one of his songs and making one of their own out of it (The Beach Boys Surfin’ USA is Sweet Little Sixteen reworked, for example).

Anyone who has strapped on an electric guitar and rocked out sits on the shoulders of Chuck Berry, among others. Heck, he was a big enough influence on this kid that when I got my first electric guitar as I turned 13, I wanted a Gibson ES-335, the kind that Chuck Berry played.

It’s not just music history that got me thinking. The men’s and women’s golf tours each played tournaments this weekend that saluted key individuals in their history. The LPGA played the Founders Cup, which was established to honor the 13 original Founders of the LPGA. Several of those women are still living and sat by the 18th green. As the players finished, each one went to thank the founders personally. The PGA Tour contested The Arnold Palmer Invitational, a tournament hosted in years past by Mr. Palmer but which has morphed into a tribute to one of the men who made professional golf what it is today. Which leads to today’s topic.

What each of these things reminds us is that none of us stand alone in business. Our success rests upon a solid foundation, one that was built by many people. Our parents, our teachers, and our mentors in business are the obvious ones. There were also those who preceded us in our field, blazing the trail and making mistakes so that we don’t have to. You might wake up with a great idea for a new business or product, but I guarantee the seeds were planted by those who went before.

Maybe today is a good day to think about and examine the foundation upon which our success rests? It’s an even better idea to thank someone who built yours, don’t you think?

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Filed under Thinking Aloud, What's Going On

How Do You Know?

There is an old joke about the greatest inventions of all time. The last one mentioned is the thermos, which can keep soup hot on a cold day and water cold on a hot day. When asked why that makes it the greatest invention of all time, the respondent asks “how does it know?”

You probably face that question all the time in your business. How do you know? More specifically, how can you be sure that you’re in touch with what your customers really want? Maybe you think as Steve Jobs did: customers don’t know what they want until you show them. Here’s the unfortunate truth: you’re not Steve. He may have had a wonderfully intuitive gift for understanding what it was that customers wanted (although there are several examples of him being wrong several times along the way) but you probably don’t.

We can’t spend our time in business finding solutions for problems that don’t exist nor can we build products for which there is no demand. You might not have heard of any companies that do that. The reason is that they’re out of business.

We need to listen to our customers and to the market. We don’t need to spend a lot of money to do so. Analytics are a form of listening and the data doesn’t lie. There are numerous free survey tools available. If you have social media presences (and what business doesn’t?), you are getting feedback on a regular basis, as you are if you have commenting turned on for your blog posts. Maybe you have listings on any number of review sites such as Yelp or TripAdvisor. Do you review those for insights into what it is your customers are thinking?

Make stuff people want. Fall in love with your customers and their needs and not with today’s version of what it is you’re offering. Move quickly to get closer to your customers’ ideal product. Ask them about things and listen to the answers. That’s how you know. OK?

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Filed under Consulting, Helpful Hints

How To Cure A Headache

My introduction to the business side of media came when I was a teenager. My dad was a television rep who sold time to ad agencies. Broadcasting Magazine showed up every week and once in a while, he’d have a Nielsen book in his briefcase for me to peruse. From my perspective, the business seemed pretty simple. The seller and buyer agreed on a price based on how many people they thought might be watching and how narrowly defined the parameters were with respect to when the ad could run. In other words, they negotiated and measured based on ratings, rate, and rotation.

Drawing "THE CLUSTER HEADACHE" Subti...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I actually followed my father into the media business, not much had changed. Sure, the numbers were more demographically-based instead of on household counts, but the business was pretty much the 3 R’s. Not anymore. In fact, a recent study by ID Comms found that most advertisers see media as a complex headache. It is pretty overwhelming now, both from the perspective of available media options as well as the addition of digital channels such as social media. The fact that a huge percentage of media is now bought programmatically through systems that are often rife with fraud and lacking in transparency adds to the headache.

I don’t think it’s the complexity of the media world that’s causing the headache. I think it’s a misplaced emphasis on buying efficiency at the expense of both strategic thinking and measuring results on things other than easily-manipulated metrics such as CPM. If a campaign makes the cash register ring, it’s effective. If it doesn’t, what good is it to have delivered something useless in a highly-efficient manner?

I’ve spoken with friends on both the sales and buying side of the equation. There seems to be universal frustration but not much in the way of solutions. It really needs to come from the people who control the purses – the clients. They need to stop thinking about CPM’s as a measure of efficiency (at least when it comes to digital, anyway) and place a lot more emphasis on strategy. Is the register ringing? Is the phone? Are there more interactions on social even if the number of “likes” isn’t rising? Is there a buzz about your brand? Those are the modern metrics that are relevant in the long-term and that kind of thinking can cure a media headache many folks are now experiencing. You agree?

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Filed under Consulting, digital media, Thinking Aloud

It’s In Your Head

I want to spend a minute on the most basic food thing this Foodie Friday: taste. After all, no matter how well a dish looks or smells, ultimately it’s how it tastes that matters.

You probably know that we perceive 5 basic tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, savory, and sour. There are receptors on our tongues for each of those flavors and how those flavors interact along with things such as “mouth-feel” and smell create our overall impression of the dish. To a certain extent, the ability to accurately detect these flavors helps us survive. After all, most things that taste bitter aren’t great for you while most things that taste sweet won’t kill you (ok, too much sugar will, but sweet things generally contain energy and that helps us survive).

What you might not realize is that those sensors aren’t really how we taste. It isn’t until the brain gives meaning to what the sensors are perceiving that we taste. As you can see in the video below, it’s possible to rewire the brain so that bitter foods taste sweet or vice versa. Give it a watch – it’s under a minute:

What does this have to do with your business? We forget sometimes that it’s not until customers assign meaning to what we put out there that messages are delivered. People hear things differently from how we intend. For example, Snapchat put out filters that offended certain ethnicities. That certainly wasn’t their intention but their failure to get out of their own heads and into those of others caused a problem and a very public humiliation. We have to be open to looking at everything we put out there through the eyes of others and be willing to rewire the message just as the scientists rewired the brains in the videos.

A small personal experience with which to close. I went to a local moonshine distillery and sampled some of their product. It was a clear liquid and I thought it would taste like other clear spirits. Instead, it tasted much like Scotch, which makes sense since it was distilled from the same grains, despite the color. People routinely think highly of cheap wines placed in bottles from more expensive wines. We need to make sure that the sensors we stimulate with our messages convey the meanings we intend. Perception is reality and our intention needs to be aligned with our customers’ perception.

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Filed under Consulting, food

Foaming At the Mouth

This Foodie Friday, let’s talk about foams for a minute. Food foams, that is, and not the thick ones such as whipped cream, marshmallows, or even cake. I mean the foams that have come out of molecular gastronomy and are made out of mushrooms or parmesan cheese or just about anything else. Throw some stabilizing agent (agar, lecithin,etc.) into a liquid, grab the old immersion blender and voila: foam.

Let me give you two prominent cooks takes on them. The first is Gordon Ramsay:

If I want foam I will stick to my bubble bath after the end of a long week. Watching foam sit on a plate and 30 seconds later it starts to disintegrate and it starts to look like toxic scum on a stagnant pool of crap. I don’t want to eat foams. It’s not good.

Then there is Alton Brown‘s take:

Don’t think you can replace cooking technique with throwing a bunch of flavors on top of something. Any more than you can making it into a caviar. Or making it into a foam. If I live the rest of my culinary life without a seeing another foam, I’ll be OK. I’m sick to death of foam. What does foam do? Cover our bad cooking, by and large.

I must admit that I’m not particularly a fan of foams on my plate but I find the above two quotes of interest to us today because each also contains a business point. Chef Ramsay rightfully points out that when customers purchase a product they expect it to perform and endure. If you have kids, you know the experience of toys being destroyed by lunch time on Christmas. It’s almost as if the toy makers never put the thing into the hands of a 4-year-old to test endurance. But many of us have had the same experience with tech toys and other products. We need to build our products and services to last.

The second quote points out that customers aren’t easily distracted. A nicely flavored foam can’t hide a poorly cooked protein underneath it. It’s great that we design digital products and physical products to look nice but consumers value substance over style in the long run. Just as diners order the protein and not the foam, consumers are focused on the main promise the product is making and not on how pretty it is.

Foams add flavor without adding substance. I think we all need a lot more substance in this world. You?

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Filed under food, Thinking Aloud

Innovating On Top Of Imitating

Let’s start today with something written by someone significantly smarter about business than yours truly:

In spite of the extraordinary outpouring of totally and partially new products and new ways of doing things that we are witnessing today, by far the greatest flow of newness is not innovation at all. Rather, it is imitation. A simple look around us will, I think, quickly show that imitation is not only more abundant than innovation, but actually a much more prevalent road to business growth and profits.

Right? That wasn’t written recently, however. It’s from a piece written in 1966 for The Harvard Business Review by Theodore Levitt. If you’re a businessperson and you don’t know who he is you might want to do a little research. His classic piece Marketing Myopia has been one of the foundations upon which I base my business thinking. It argues that businesses will do better in the end if they concentrate on meeting customers’ needs rather than on selling products. Amen.

That’s not our topic today, however. What caught my eye was a piece about how What’sApp was imitating Snapchat‘s disappearing content feature that lets users share photos, videos, and GIFs that disappear after 24 hours. You might be aware that Instagram – also owned by Facebook – did the same copying last summer with Stories. Facebook itself is doing the same thing. In Snapchat it seems as if we have a company who innovates beautifully but does so in a way that simply blazes a trail that others follow shortly thereafter. Facebook, in this case, is the imitator. Apple is a classic imitator. They will let others innovate and learn from the success or failure of those innovations, refining them and making them better. One could argue that for a while, the entire Japanese manufacturing economy was based on that principle – innovative imitation.

As Professor Levitt wrote, there is nothing wrong with that. While every company needs to do some innovating, “no single company can afford even to try to be first in everything in its field. The costs are too great; and imagination, energy, and management know-how are too evenly distributed within industries.” The question for any of us is when do we need to dig deep and innovate vs. when should we be looking to what others are doing nicely and make it better? You might surprise yourself if you can put your business ego aside and focus on solving customers’ problems better than anyone else can, even if it’s just by doing innovating on top of imitating someone else. Clear?

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