Sunday, December 21, 2008

Communications in the Time of Crisis

As part of their communication strategy in the auto bail out controversy, General Motors has a website - GM Facts and Fiction - addressing facts and myths about the company.

The home page starts laying out plain facts: "General Motors is the best-selling automaker in the U.S., "M’s brands [...] are ranked above industry average as measured by 2008 J.D. Power Initial Quality", etc.

Then, another section of the site follows the scheme myth - fact. Myths about GM are grouped into 5 categories and for each of them there is a response, backed up with data ("GM doesn’t make cars that people want to buy", "General Motors has far too many people working for it","GM designs are uninspiring", etc.). The site even allows visitors to submit myths they might have heard.

It is not available anymore but some weeks ago there were messages addressed to different audiences. I might not remember it perfectly but I think there were specific sections with answers for auto workers, consumers and suppliers. I am a big fan of profiling users in order to increase relevance in the message, so i do not understand why this technique disappeared from the site.

To complete the picture, there are FAQs, latest news and general information on the auto industry.

There are twenty seven (27!) myths. Obviously they are all highly detrimental. Given that the firm refutes them, it would be interesting to know what triggers such amount of bad perception amongst the general public. My point is, what is the role that this fact - widespread negative consumer perception- plays in GM having to recur to a bail out. Twenty seven (at least) false and extremely harmful beliefs have been lurking who knows for how long before the firm started giving facts to counter attack them...

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Bus shelters come to life...

This weekend I have experienced Chicago's extreme temperatures. While waiting for the bus in Michigan Avenue I had the chance to take a close look at one of those marketing gimmicks that press and magazines inevitable write about - just like this article in the NYT -.

Inside the bus shelter, above Kraft's Stove Top stuffing poster, there was a set of lights supposed to provide heat to bus passengers while waiting for their ride to arrive. It didn't work that well although, as I said temperature was quite low...

Some call it experiential marketing, others categorize it within guerrilla marketing. Although there might be interesting implications regarding the user experience (for example, the fact that brand attributes might be projected out of their natural environment), for me these gimmicks are just that. Ways of obtaining free media coverage. It is a quite effective technique I must admit: it is an unexpected event, crafted around a story ... good raw material for journalists. Good ROI for the product manager. Good PR for the brand. Good PR for the agency.

The following picture is a previous summertime iteration made of artificial lawn. Also spotted in Chicago, in 2008. Who would have told me I will be blogging about it? :)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Words of wisdom coming from Chicago

"Gratefulness is the soil in which Joy thrives"
Seen in a billboard at the Salvation Army in Chicago

A good friend spotted this one. I must say I am grateful to her.
And, hey, this dot connects with Thanksgiving celebrations. Right on time.

Innovation in online social networks

The innovation consulting firm Doblin has a powerful framework that identifies the Ten Types of Innovation by breaking business structure into four categories: Finance, Processes, Offerings and Delivery. It is quite interesting looking at different industries to see where in their business structure innovation is taking place.

Online social networks have brought significant product innovation: thanks to the power of the Internet they primarily enhance offline activities: connecting and sharing with friends or members of a community (facebook, myspace...pets included -dogster-), building and maintaining career-related relationships (linkedIn)... To a great extent they have enabled new behaviors, expanding and creating markets along the way. Think of the implications of "befriending" 1.000 people in myspace, or the fact that teenagers spend way more time checking their facebook than actually "living offline". Beyond the numerous product system innovations (for example Facebook offering IM messaging), in the last months we are witnessing network and alliances innovations. Online social networking sites are becoming platforms for other entities to provide their services. LinkedIn has recently launched applications a la Facebook.

All of this innovation revolves around strengthening the offering, but I think we still need to see more advancements regarding relevance and differentiation. Relevance is a big theme I will touch on in another post. Regarding differentiation, more than in a feature creep, I believe in the intangible: services, customer experience, brand image.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Make-Up and Burritos


Burrito bar at Chipotle

Eyeshadow palette (iStock photo)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Something is rotten in Technoland

Interesting data on frustation and the use of technology. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project
  • "Nearly half (48%) of adults who use the internet or have a cell phone say they usually need someone else to set up a new device up for them or show them how to use it."
  • When technology fails 60% of users feel impatient, 48% discouraged and 40% confused.
  • 15% of the users is unable to find a solution. It is shocking that only a meager 2% of those who found a solution found it online.
That is a lot of frustration for an industry aimed at simplifying our lives, isn't it?. These data say a lot about messy interfaces. An interesting question is: does the interface have to be necessarily complicated in the early adoption phase of a product? As an advocate of effective , transparent communication I do not think so. Ask Apple.

The survey findings resonate with me to a great extent. I never understood why setting up an Internet connection almost required computer science expertise or why Windows punished me with having to go through a help file as engaging as the telephone directory. The following is a great example regarding macros (there should be a graduate program on Microsoft macros' error messages)

Click to enlarge. Would you ever read it?
By the way, clicking OK didn't make things better...
it was just an informational error message, not actionable whatsoever

I guess Windows Vista sorted out some of this problems. They lost me as a client way before Vista was launched.

In this post I have just pinpointed the conclusions that strike me the most in the survey. It is worth taking a quick look at the rest of the study.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Mice and books

One good example of a message that sticks, found at the Environmental Design Library at UC Berkeley:

It really stands out. The message is more likely to engage people and be remembered as compared to the traditionally "authoritarian" NO FOOD, NO DRINKS IN THE LIBRARY. It happens to follow pretty nicely the Made to Stick (*) "SUCCES" checklist:
- Simple: food attracts mice. Mice destroy books. Crystal clear.
- Unexpected: at the entrance of a library you expect a big poster with a red forbidden symbol crossing a cup and a sandwich icon, or just a NO FOOD, NO DRINKS printout, but NOT an alert to avoid feeding mice.
- Concrete: the message is quite mistakes here
- Credible: well it's posted by the library guys, they know about this stuff, right? Besides they give us a very compelling reason why we should not bring food into the library instead of the usual Don't do it. Period.
- Emotional: unless you are a ruthless human being, thinking of ruined books hurts.
- Story: again there is a strong visual component here. We picture the mice, or the varmints, or the critters, destroying the books...that visualization is like a little movie playing in our head, easy to remember and engaging.
(*) Made to Stick is a book by Chip and Dan Heath on "Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die". I highly recommend it. Their blog is pretty cool too.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Low hanging post

One of the things that gets my attention as a non-native English speaker is how profusely certain business terms are used, especially amongst consultants, bankers and MBA folks in general:

- "Our sales strategy will start with the low hanging fruit"
- "
Let's keep the ball rolling and proceed with the market research"
- "Costs are 40% according to preliminary back-of-the-envelope calculations"

Why all these expressions stick? My theory is that they are all very visual and visual language tends to work with a high percentage of the population. A low hanging fruit is quite a descriptive metaphor, isn't it? We can almost see and grab the opportunity with our hands... Some of the expressions are highly kinesthetic, the ball rolling or ideas bubbling up to the top, but I haven't found many purely auditory terms.

Low hanging fruit

Given their descriptive strength this expressions become usual business terms. Everybody uses them until they become cliches and loose all of their communication power.

My favorite one: "Dude, you look like you drank from the Kool-Aid"

Dreamforce and's secret potion

There are many factors that help explain's success. For the sake of clarity let's explain that in a world where expensive proprietary software solutions with low customer adoption were the norm, turned the tables by delivering easy-to-use enterprise software on the web under a pay-as-you-go subscription model. The end of software.
Marc Benioff,'s CEO, is an absolute genius pitching the big picture and building the "No software" story against the dark, old software "evil" guys. The Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) market would not be the same without this Star Wars-like communication strategy. No wonder's software development platform is called Yes, may the "force" be with you. and...the evil guys

From a marketing perspective I think one of's most differential features is its customer-centricity. Let me approach it this time from the point of view of communication: corporate software companies sell Duh!. Here are a couple of random snapshots about how SAP and Oracle "sell" their CRM through their websites.

"SAP maintains status as leader in CRM solutions"

"Differentiate for strategic advantage with the latest release of Siebel CRM 8.1.1"

Well, sells to corporations too, but they talk to people. Whether you are the CEO or the CIO, messaging is clear and straight-forward. Especially they are really good at talking to the people who are going to use their product 8 hours a day. Customer success stories play a key role in's communication strategy. Testimonials are pervasive all through their website. They are prominently displayed at events such as Dreamforce or Tour de Force. The "CRM Success Heroes" campaign is not on anymore, but the following screenshots can still give a you a bit of a taste of the difference in communication styles.

"Join the crowd. The trusted choice of 47,700 companies"

"Now can run my corporate website? Wow... Mike Wolverton. Cathedral Partners"

Dreamforce is a perfect example of the importance that the end user has for the company. I was there last Monday and I could witness the amount of resources dedicated to make this annual reunion with customers a blast. Impressive keynotes, sessions and workshops, training, demos... And on top of it, they throw a party with the Foo Fighters.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Definition of courage

"Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway"
John Wayne

I took the quote from metacool, one of my favorite blogs

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Notes on high performing teams

An MBA provides numerous opportunities to exercise teamwork. Having the time to reflect on all these team experiences is very gratifying and has given me a new perspective on what makes for an outstanding team.

The problem with teamwork is that we all think we know it all. Who does not consider himself an excellent team worker? So before sharing my personal views, let me lay out the basics as they were enunciated by Jane Creech in one of our New Product Development classes:

A team is a group of people who are committed to a common purpose, whose interdependence requires coordinated effort, and who hold themselves mutually accountable for results.

This is a team. In fact, the "A team"

There are four critical ingredients... (which by the way remind me of the congruence model of organizational behavior: people, tasks, formal and informal organization)
  1. Goals - Individual and collective goals | Metrics
  2. Roles - Deliverables | Accountabilities | Norms | Expectations
  3. Procedures - Meeting effectiveness | Decision Making | Communication and Confidentiality inside/outside the team
  4. Relationships - Interpersonal effectiveness skills
...and six characteristics of high performing teams
  1. Alignment - A deep sense of vision or purpose that is shared among team members
  2. Team Effectiveness - Strong internal processes that allow coordinated efforts, such as shared values, trust, open communication, flexibility, and decision making
  3. Empowerment - Feeling empowered to do what is necessary; personal and collective power
  4. Passion - High and sustained levels of energy, enthusiasm, excitement, and confidence
  5. Commitment - Deep allegiance to the purpose of the team and to each other
  6. Results - Accomplishing outstanding results based on high standards
Now, what does make a difference for me?
  • Clarity of goals and alignment rely heavily in setting expectations amongst the team members with complete transparency from day one. Open communication ensures transparency moving forward.
  • Team effectiveness. Given the time constraints and different projects my classmates and I are enrolled in, feeling that the team is getting stuff done is key. Having a well-defined facilitator role, someone able to integrate points of view, to get people to speak out and share their opinions helps boosting performance. I am personally making use of different group productivity tools (specifically online shared documents, calendars and sites / wikis), that reduce the amount of time the team devotes to "non-core" activities.
  • Accountable flexibility. All team members are held accountable for their responsibilities. When there is trust and good communication I enjoy allowing for some wiggle room to keep things fresh and open to change.
  • This is quite personal too, but achieving quality outputs along the way is for me a perfect excuse for celebration, reinforcing team spirit and the commitment to pursue the common vision.
the "listening component"

I have mentioned communication several times. I could never stress enough the importance of communication. The world is full of unknown or ill-communicated good intentions. Nevertheless communication is a two-way road and often times we forget the listening component.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Innovation communities

OK, this post is going to be "drafty-ish" but a bad post is better than no post at all, right? Today, I attended a lecture in the Open Innovation Speaker Series at UC Berkeley. Stephen Benson from Innovation Exchange explained, amongst many other interesting things, how innovation can happen around platforms and software, events and communities. He quoted Chris Townsend (Forrester) regarding these three innovation archetypes.

Innovation Exchange and Innocentive are examples of innovation communities. Companies post their innovation challenges in these online innovators' meeting places hoping for someone to "crack" their problem. Alpheus Bingham, from Innocentive, also in this speaker series two weeks ago, gave some clues on why there is a high level of user engagement regardless of the low probability of actually "cracking" the problem. He compared it to a lottery ticket: just a couple of bucks for, yes, only a remote dream, but...we all love to dream if it is that cheap.

Salesforce Ideas, and other providers of software solutions for ideas / innovation, works under the platform archetype although there is something cool about the event you can generate with it (see the myStarbucksIdea execution. Given the strategic turnaround that the company is facing, this initiative received interesting coverage in the media)

I have just bumped into a piece of news about one innovation event, the 2008 IdeaFestival in Louisville, Ky. The festival "brings together creative thinkers from different disciplines to connect ideas in science, the arts, design, business, film, technology and education."

Cross-fertilization seems to be a key ingredient in the innovation magic potion and mixing is one of the premises of this blog. Hopefully I will bring in the diversity of my readers' comments to spice up the mix.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Art and instinct

"The task of the artist is to make the human being uncomfortable, and yet we are drawn to a great work by involuntary chemistry, like a hound getting a scent; the dog isn't free, it can't do otherwise, it gets the scent and instinct does the rest"
Lucian Freud

Monday, October 13, 2008

Dot #2: Home made packaging

This is the "brown bag" in which I got my chocolate croissant at the Sun 'n' Buns bakery in Morro Bay last Saturday.

Someone has taken the effort to hand-write the bakery name, a sun and the sign of peace, with color markers. This is an example of a home made packaging that converted a simple chocolate croissant in a memorable experience.

Along this lines, The Glenrothes single malt Scotch Whisky also follows this path of treating each packaging as something unique.

Check out their website, it's a perfect example of neat design, careful æsthetics and brand consistency. Navigation is super easy: have you noticed in the age security-check that the cursor jumps automatically to the next field??...

Hand-written labels and individual care paid to small batches is a common denominator in other hi-scale spirit brands: Jack Daniel's or Woodford Reserve Bourbon, "handcrafted in small batches", for example.

The Glenrothes, by the way, matures in Sherry-seasoned Spanish oak casks... that dot connects with my home country!

Dot #1: The power of the moment

Last Oct 1st I attended a lecture by Mr. Tetsuya Kaida, General Manager of the Business Revolution Corporate Value Project Department of Toyota Motor Corporation, where, by the way, I met IDEO's Tom Kelley.
Amongst other many enlightening insights about Japanese culture, I learned how one infinitesimal moment can define the impact that an event has upon us. Translated to business terms, successful products are able to create a personal dialog with the customer through a consciously designed point of interaction, one intense moment that captures the essence of the product. Mr. Kaida's example was the Pocky cookies.

First you open the packaging. This process is elegant and seamless. The outer carton remains intact. Then you pull out the cookie which is covered in chocolate except for a tiny portion at its very tip. Result: you can hold in your fingers without getting all messed up. That delicate moment defines an excellent product that is likely to remain in your memory as a gratifying experience.

The power of the moment explains other successful "product moments": the fresh scent coming out of a detergent bottle or starting up a MacBook for the first time, just to name a couple.

Kick-off post

I have postponed this inaugural post for a long time. Although I still do not know very well what is this blog all about, let me apply one of my summer learnings at and one of the teachings in my recently started New Product Development course at Haas: get a prototype and iterate until you get it right.

Quoting my 7 year-old cousin and godson: "A jugar" *

* translator's note: Let's play

Monday, February 18, 2008