Tag Archives: Business model

Pumpkin Spice

This Foodie Friday, we’re taking a leap ahead into Fall, and if Fall means one thing to most people, it’s pumpkin spice. I know – you were thinking football, but no, my guess is that far more people are affected by the pumpkin spice thing than the pigskin thing. It’s a relatively recent development as spice companies didn’t actually make “pumpkin pie spice” until the 1950s and that became “pumpkin spice” in the 1960s. Some candle company began marketing a pumpkin spice candle in 1995, Starbucks picked up the flavor after many small coffee shops did, and the rest is food history.

Today, I saw what might be the last straw in the craze: Pumpkin Spice Spam. This is not a joke – it will be available only online and there are already cans of it out in the wild. Apparently, it doesn’t taste too bad – kind of like breakfast sausage. While I’m generally a believer in the “anything worth doing is worth overdoing” philosophy, I think we just might have hit our limits here, although one might wonder where that limit lies after pumpkin spice hummus, Four Loko, Pringles, gum, and vodka, to name only a few of the products that are out there.

There is a serious business point to be made here. Pumpkin spice is a flavor and a scent, and of course, you can add either of those things to a product to make it seasonally relevant, at least to some people. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should which is the broader business point. There are often moments in business when we’re confronted with what some might call opportunities while others might see them as dilemmas. A bank might be able to make more money if it charges its own customers a fee to use their own ATMs or to have a debit card. That’s a bad idea.

There was a great piece published years ago called “Companies and the Customers Who Hate Them.” It talked about charging penalties and fees especially in the cell phone, cable, and banking industries. It concluded:

One of the most influential propositions in marketing is that customer satisfaction begets loyalty, and loyalty begets profits. Why, then, do so many companies infuriate their customers by binding them with contracts, bleeding them with fees, confounding them with fine print, and otherwise penalizing them for their business? Because, unfortunately, it pays. Companies have found that confused and ill-informed customers, who often end up making poor purchasing decisions, can be highly profitable indeed.

I don’t think that adding pumpkin spice to an already good product is on a level with some of the outrageous fees we’re charged as consumers but it illustrates the point that just because we can do something in business doesn’t mean that we should. Not only do you run the risk of having seasonal merchandise go unsold (unhappy retailers!) but also of having customers question your sanity. Neither is good business in my book. Yours?

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Filed under food, Huh?, Reality checks

Looking In The Horse’s Mouth

As you might have read the other day, I had a birthday. It was lovely, thank you, and in addition to numerous phone calls, texts, and social media shout-outs, I received a bunch of emails from companies sending me “gifts.” Yes, in quotes.

I’ve written before (in fact, just a couple of months ago) about the gifts many companies “give” us. I also wrote about how nothing is free several years ago, so my rant today isn’t exactly new ground. However, I think it’s an important enough thought for those of us in business that it bears repeating. I also am happy to point out how two companies got it right.

The vast majority of the emailed birthday greetings contained an offer that generally read “Happy Birthday! He’s a gift of $15 off on your next order.” Sometimes it was a percentage discount but you get the idea. I had to spend money to take advantage of the offer, and I had a limited window in which to do so, generally 30 days.

Let’s unpack that. First, what if I don’t need your product or service in the next month? I mean, a discount on an oil change is fine but I just had my oil changed (at your shop, by the way – you should know that). You’re revoking my gift because I was just in? Second, what if my typical order is a lot more than your general average order value, something else you should know if you’re actually on top of your data and not just auto sending something based on a birthday you have on file. Shouldn’t I get a bigger “gift” since I’m a more valuable customer? I got one restaurant that I go to infrequently sending me a $15 “reward” on my birthday that I could redeem only by installing and using their app and dining there. That would be in the next 30 days, of course. To which party is that a gift?

I’m a believer that gifts need to be unconditional. You should be giving because you want to and not because you expect something in return. Two offers I received actually met this criterion. The good folks at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema sent me a free movie ticket. That’s it. I’m not obligated to buy food or drinks, I don’t have to bring a friend. I can redeem it via their app but I don’t have to – just present some ID and my account information at the box office. The gas chain I use frequently sent me a coupon for 200 bonus rewards points. I just have to have it scanned the next time I visit and they will be added to my account. I can redeem those points along with the others in my account for free stuff – gift cards, food, etc. And 200 points is significant – it’s what you’d get from spending about $25 with them. No strings attached. Happy Birthday!

It’s nice (and important) that we surprise our customers with gifts, whether that’s content, discounts, or something else. We need to do so without strings because those strings are quite visible and will harm the customer’s opinion of us, not enhance it. As I wrote in June, A gift involves altruism. If there is an ulterior motive lying within, it’s not a gift, right?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Huh?

Symptoms, Diseases, And The Long Term

We’re into that time of the year when corporations are reporting their results for the last quarter. I tend to look at any single quarter’s results as a data point and since I’m a believer in watching things through the lens of the long-term, I mostly ignore anything strongly negative or positive unless it’s part of a long-term trend.

I’m sure it’s not a shock to any of you that the cable TV provider business is in a downward trend. I’ve written about this before and you might be one of the millions of folks who have cut their cable cord and gone pure streaming or supplement your streaming with an HD antenna to get your local TV over the air (everything old is new again!). Charter Communications is one of those cable TV providers who is watching their user base deteriorate. This last quarter, the company’s video customers sank by 150,000 subscribers, now totaling 15.8 million. At the same time, their Internet customers grew 221,000 to a total of 24.2 million, which also mirrors what’s going on elsewhere and the aforementioned trends. At the same time, these distributors are getting hit with increased costs for programming – what the cable networks charge the delivery guys to carry their programming (and in theory, the availability of which is why people pay for cable in the first place).

What the CEO said in making the results announcement, however, doesn’t mirror other CEO’s thinking and that’s what I want to highlight today:

Asked why the company doesn’t raise prices to cover increased programming costs, CEO Tom Rutledge said, “If you do a 10% programming price increase and lose 10% of your customers, you don’t really get anywhere and yet you’ve alienated a lot of people. In fact, that’s actually happening and has been happening. I expect continuous fighting for the foreseeable future.”

Mr. Rutledge gets it.  He is not confusing a symptom (customer loss amid increasing costs) with the disease (a rapidly changing business model reflecting consumer resentment at the high monthly out of pocket costs). Rasing prices would, in my opinion, accelerate the negative trend. It would stabilize earnings and make investors happy in the short term, but it’s not sustainable and would ultimately result in disaster.

More of us in business need to think that way. What’s a symptom and what’s the disease it reflects? What’s the right play for the long term even if it hurts in the short term? Does that make sense?

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Filed under Consulting, Reality checks

Intentional Mislabeling

Let’s start with a question this Foodie Friday. If I offered you two carrots, one of which was had a label that said “non-GMO” and the other didn’t, which carrot would you choose? “GMO” as I’m sure you know means that this food wasn’t made from genetically modified crops. Would that make a difference in your selection?

It’s a trick question, actually. There are no genetically modified carrots in the marketplace, at least not yet. Neither are there GMO strawberries. That won’t stop you from finding carrots or strawberries labeled as non-GMO though. You’ve also probably seen that many chickens are labeled as “raised without antibiotics” while others don’t bear that label. Does that influence your thinking? It shouldn’t: antibiotics have been banned on chicken farms for over a decade.

Some labels in food can be horribly misleading while others are not. “Organic”, for example, really does mean that the food was grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizer. It’s a legal term meaning that there are penalties for its misuse. You might think that non-GMO foods are organic and, therefore, better for you. Unless they also say they are organic, non-GMO foods are conventionally grown using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

Why I bring this up in a business blog is that the misuse of these and other terms in marketing is not due to confusion about them. It’s due to the willful deception of the consumer by an unscrupulous marketer who at best is just jumping on a bandwagon and at worst is looking to charge more for an inferior product. Your “cage-free” chicken still lives indoors in a jammed coop and those “free-range” chickens for which you pay a premium probably haven’t been outside either. It just means that they have access to go outside if they can find and get through one of the few doors in the henhouse.

I’m a fan of clear, enforceable labels in all products, not just food. What the hell does “skin organics? mean on a cosmetics label? Chemical-free sunscreen? Not possible, yet some brands are labeled just that way. The labels don’t write themselves and as marketing people, we need to hold our customers’ interests paramount. Their health too since it’s rather difficult to get a dead consumer to buy much of anything. Make sense?

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints, Huh?

No Strings

It’s Foodie Friday and it’s also the first day of Summer. Actually, it’s felt like July down here in the Carolinas since May, but I digress. In honor of the day, Dairy Queen is giving out coupons for a free soft serve ice cream cone. Yum! What better way to celebrate the new season?

Well, not to be the one to look a gift horse in the mouth, but of course, there are strings attached. You see, in order to get said free cone you need to purchase something else at DQ. Not that I’d generally mind doing so but that little bit of fine print sort of chills my enthusiasm (see what I did there?). Oh yeah, one other thing – in order to get the coupon you need to have installed the DQ app on your phone. I mean, who doesn’t want yet another app tracking you, sending data to who knows where, taking up room on your phone and hitting you up with “big announcements” every hour or so?

My point is a broader one that just beating up on Dairy Queen. I’ve always had an issue with seemingly benevolent marketing or charitable offers that are really self-serving. You know what I mean. How many offers have you seen for “buy this and we’ll make a donation to this worthy cause”? If the cause is so great, why don’t you just make the donation? Then there are those “free” offers that cost you in other ways. Opera, the browser company, offered “free” VPN a couple of years ago. Of course, you had to agree to let them track your usage and share the data with third parties.  Sure, it’s supposedly completely anonymized but if it includes a device identifier of any sort or location data, it’s not hard to merge it with other data.

Gift horses may, in fact, be Trojan Horses too. There are way too many “free” offers that are really scams. We’ve all seen the “free” product that involved paying shipping and handling charges that are detailed in tiny print and quite costly. Then there are the “free” products that require you to hand over a credit card, ostensibly so that if you make any “optional” purchases it’s a seamless transaction or maybe they’ve enrolled you in something that will charge you monthly once your “free” period is up. Illegal? Actually no, if it’s disclosed (you read all the mouse-type every time, don’t you). Shady as hell? You bet.

If you’re going to make free offers or do something nice for your customer, do so without strings. A gift involves altruism. If there is an ulterior motive lying within, it’s not a gift, right?

 

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Filed under Consulting, food, Helpful Hints, Huh?

Vendors And Partners

President Reagan has been quoted as saying “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” are the most terrifying words in the English language. One phrase I used to hear a lot that was just as terrifying to me was “we want to be your (fill in the blank) partner.” That could be a tech partner or a marketing partner or whatever. The thing was that most people have a tremendous amount of difficulty distinguishing between a partner and a vendor. The sad truth is that very few people or organizations that you’re in business with want to be the former and that’s a shame. Vendors are a dime a dozen while good partners are rare.

How do I distinguish between the two? Vendors send you bills while you usually end up sending a partner their share of your joint profits. Vendors come into your office and tell you how great their product or service is, even if you’re using it or them. They tell you their story and ignore yours.  Instead of telling you what they are doing for you specifically, they tell you about the latest success story they’ve had, usually with some other “partner” of theirs.

It’s always easy to spot the vendors and the potential partners almost from the second they walk in the door. Partners will talk about you and your situation and tell you specifically how they can help. They’ll ask for reasonable compensation but also volunteer to share in the upside because they believe in their product and its ability to help you. Vendors come in with a canned, generic pitch. Their rates are fixed in stone and they don’t share the risk and so don’t have any interest in sharing the rewards.

I’ve always felt that my goals and those of my business partners were very much aligned. I can’t say the same of many of the vendors I’ve worked with over the years. I’ve also always tried to do business with my consulting clients and franchise candidates in that way – as a good partner and resource rather than as a vendor. Is that a difference without a distinction? Not in my book. How about in yours?

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Filed under Consulting, Thinking Aloud

Misaligned Interests

Did you happen to hear about (or read!) the NY Times article on how a young man got “sucked into the vortex” of radical videos on YouTube? It’s an interesting and scary read. It’s about how a person goes to YouTube to watch a video on one thing and ends up multiple videos later watching something completely different and often dangerous.

As the article says:

YouTube has been a godsend for hyper-partisans on all sides. It has allowed them to bypass traditional gatekeepers and broadcast their views to mainstream audiences and has helped once-obscure commentators build lucrative media businesses.

As usual, we’re not here to rant about the politics of these videos. It’s just as easy for the videos to be dangerous and non-political and even though YouTube specifically bans harmful or dangerous content, they can’t catch everything.

The real issue here is YouTube’s – and many other platforms’ – business model. They make money by keeping you engaged and the way that they do that is often via a recommendation engine. That engine uses an algorithm that rewards videos that have lengthy watch times by promoting them more often. Of course, the more engaged you are, the more ads you’ll see and that’s really the problem. Most of the popular platforms follow that business model and their interests don’t necessarily align with yours. They all have some sort of algorithm which on YouTube, as the article says, is

the software that determines which videos appear on users’ home pages and inside the “Up Next” sidebar next to a video that is playing. The algorithm is responsible for more than 70 percent of all time spent on the site.

Of course, you can turn off the recommendations. You can also delete your search history, pausing it going forward, and your watch history which will prevent the algorithm from determining what you usually watch. If you haven’t hidden the video suggestions (it’s in your settings) at least you’ll see lots of pretty neutral offerings. More importantly, you’ll take back control and realign their interests with yours.

It would be easy for YouTube and others to prevent a host of problems by killing off the recommendation engine but they never will because it’s the thing that drives their business model. In a perfect world, every business’ interests would align perfectly with those of their customers. Maybe it’s because the big platforms are out of alignment with us that there is so much anger directed toward them?

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Filed under digital media, Huh?