No Fright in this Night

As Halloween descends upon us, images of copious amounts of candy corn and miniature chocolates, vampires and werewolves, and children roaming moonlit streets on a brisk autumn evening are conjured. The latest scary movie (this season, it’s the fourth installment of the Paranormal Activity franchise) hits the theaters, and in 2012, some real life drama is even injected with the arrival of the “Frankenstorm.” Amidst all the storylines, the second largest consumer holiday on the calendar, after Christmas, is an alluring holiday not just for the American public, but for business, where an entire economy is built upon our love for the spooky day.

According to the National Retail Federation, 148 million Americans take part in the festivities each year. It’s not just the candy companies who love this time of year. In its 2010 “Halloween Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey,” the Federation found that we spend an average of $66.28 per person on costumes and decorations in addition to sweets, a number which can be expected to increase as the weaker economy that has slowed consumer spending over the past few years continues to recover.

Temporary Halloween stores selling costumes and other kitsch out of available retail space pop up all over the country, and established retailers rush to expand their offerings and ad campaigns to include the Halloween theme ahead of the 31st. Another trend taking flight is restaurants, bars, and clubs cashing in by charging cover and marking up drinks during Halloween parties. Millions of dollars are at stake, and everyone wants a piece of the pumpkin pie.

The fascination with the holiday that leads us to so easily open our wallets has much to do with escapism and relief from the everyday mundane. Putting on a costume and reveling in the night is a way to forget about work and other stresses. Businesses have capitalized on our love affair with this particular celebration, but supporting a quirky little niche of the economy is all the more reason to put on our zombie makeup and enjoy being someone else for an evening.

Good Design is Invaluable

It has been said over and over again; as technology progresses, it is changing the game, fueling the kind of new innovations that are currently driving the market. The assertion that technology has lifted entrepreneurship, startups, and new businesses of all sizes to new heights is mostly true, but an oft-forgotten but highly crucial aspect of any new business in this day in age is the quality of its design.

Product design has always been a fairly important part of business that offer material goods, but today more than ever, design has risen to stand on equal ground with the practical concept and actual functionality of a product. It is surprising that it took us this long to get to a point where design has become so important; designers are really responsible for figuring out how a human will interface with a product, beginning with visuals and considering details down to the form and feel of the materials. If a designer does their job just right, the result is generally far better than simply selling on the idea of the product itself.

And so it has come to pass that design has been integrated with not just the creation of a product, but its marketing as well. The aesthetic of the product often informs the look and message of the print or video advertisement that promotes it, the language of the copy that describes it, and the mindset of the consumers who covet it. In the modern marketplace, a new product simply cannot succeed without strong design. Furthermore, exceptionally good design alone can help a less-than-optimal product succeed regardless of the quality of its functionality.

Customers are unconsciously far more design-minded than in previous generations. Through increased exposure to media, especially online, the public’s perceptions of innovation are inextricably linked with design.

Braun was among the first companies to actively bring design to the forefront of its products and marketing. The company’s designs for some of its early electric appliances and devices have shaped trends in the industry for more than half a century.  Many have even half-jokingly accused Apple, the undisputed current king of product design, for stealing Braun’s design aesthetics in the creation of some of its most popular product offerings. But Apple isn’t the only company to see value in putting design forward. Its largest competitor, Microsoft, is preparing to launch its answer to the successful iPad, a line of “Surface” tablets, powered by the new Windows 8, a particularly design-oriented operating system. This pair’s current strategies shine a light on the connection between design and business in the current economy. The most obvious lesson is that design-forward products stoke consumer interest and demand higher prices and higher competition.

As our consumer culture becomes even more design oriented, look for design departments’ budgets to increase and the conversation between designers and marketers to intensify. If businesses can manage to compliment the latest innovations with brilliant designs, the future looks bright.

Don’t Talk the Talk

More than just resonating through pop culture and slowly destroying productivity, social media has undoubtedly altered the way we communicate and the way we react. Businesses have recently felt the pressure to change strategies to brand themselves effectively in the paradigm that social media has established. Creating the right kind of message is an integral part of designing effective PR and customer relationship management strategies, but greater business strategies in this day and age also rely heavily on the effectiveness of a marketing message; essentially, it’s up to marketers to position a brand with the new breed of target audiences in order to succeed.

Deeper digital immersion in our everyday lives, where everything is fast-paced and information flows quickly and freely, has forced marketing to fundamentally change to adapt. The increased speed of dialogue exchange online means that the time allotted for “elevator pitching” has shrunk considerably.  Traditionally, this would mean a focus on frontloading as much attention-grabbing material in a pitch, or risking distraction and disinterest. Now, the structure of visual and language cues has changed completely – consumers are no longer captivated by marketing ‘speak,’ but actively dismiss messages that contain buzz words and immediate calls-to-action.

This modern consumer is highly attuned to the kind of messaging that has been thrown their way over the course of the last 50 years of marketing. But this is not necessarily a bad thing; social media has forced messaging to change, but it has changed for the better.

People today are looking to engage in conversations and build trust to ultimately drive their purchase behaviors. Because this dialogue is a two-way street rather than a unidirectional assault of marketing messages, the result is an opportunity for marketers to create stronger, more personal relationships with consumers when designing and executing a campaign. Businesses that promote authenticity are highly successful in this new paradigm, although the other extreme, where some companies swear or otherwise push boundaries of decency in advertising, doesn’t work well. Messaging can be fun and authentic without crossing these lines.

Companies must focus on a more integrated approach that speaks to a wide spectrum, reaching peers, industry influencers, and most importantly, customers in a manner that aligns with not just a company’s brand identity and resources, but its goals and objectives. Marketing jargon is effectively dead, but if more companies successfully transition to the new lingo, we will be listening closer than ever before.

Is Search Dead?

A long, long time ago, a brand new concept known as the ‘World Wide Web’ was emerging into the public eye. The idea of an interconnected network of information was novel, and the possibilities limitless, but the web lacked the organization necessary to make it really work. “Surfing” the web was all that could be done; users literally clicked across the web from hyperlink to hyperlink in search of a particular page, or with no real direction at all. That all changed in 1995, when Yahoo! began sorting through the mess to put websites into categorical directories that could help users find what they were looking for. Later, Google came along and fundamentally changed the way users interacted with the web with the introduction of a functional search engine. Suddenly, the web was more than an ocean full of disorganized information floating around; we were now armed with a high-tech fishing rod that could pluck out exactly what we needed.

Today, the booming multi-platform app economy is changing the way we interface with the internet and search. Apps now dominate our information intake, as internet users digest increasingly more data from their mobile devices. Rather than searching the web for a movie time at a local theater, we now pull up our convenient movie app. We check sports scores from a specific app with its own experience. Need to convert that Metric measurement to Imperial units? There most certainly IS an app for that.

But the reality is that the huge wave of apps has us stuck back in the pre-search ocean again. The near future will bring apps built into every device in our lives – our TVs, our cars, and our refrigerators are already starting to adopt the technology, so we are never more than a few finger taps away from the information we crave. The iTunes App Store, Google Play, and the Windows Marketplace all resemble a frenzied bazaar, with noisy developers hawking their wares. Since apps have taken over, the challenge has shifted from learning what users are looking for to designing a system for getting it to them.

Classic search engines assume that the user expresses their intent with a search query, but searching through apps requires a different type of mentality. What search terms would one enter to find the popular game app Angry Birds? “Shoot birds at pigs?” Search engines assume you are looking for information, but in the app economy, the approach has always had to be different. The standard thus far has been to categorize, a la early Yahoo!, and allow people to simply narrow down what they are looking for.

There are some startup companies trying to create app search engines to try and keep up with the more than half a million apps currently available to consumers. With as many as 60% of iOS applications having never been downloaded, there definitely needs to be a better way to deliver results, or innovative new businesses and their backers releasing new apps will continue to face a major challenge of how to be found. Despite all the progress forward, when search is made obsolete, we can’t regress to just ‘surfing’ in the new internet landscape.

There’s Money in the (Fresh) Market

In 2012, with consumers focused more intently than ever before on health and lifestyle, the world is buying more organic food than ever before, swallowing the extra dollars in an effort to eat better and protect the environment. According to The Organic Trade Association, sales of organic foods totaled $29.3 billion in 2011, but a recent report from Stanford University found that organic food may not be worth the extra cost.

After studying more than 40 years worth of research comparing organic and conventional foods, the Stanford scientists determined that organic fruits and vegetables were generally no more nutritious.

The study drew quick response from individuals like Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, who disagrees with the study, citing his own experience as an organic farmer. But his disagreement, like the foods his stores sell, is only natural. Organics fetch prices roughly 25% higher than conventional foods, depending on the crop and time of year. The price premium doesn’t seem to be hurting Whole Foods’ stock. The company has outgained the S&P 500 threefold in so far this year.

In reality, the evidence for the superiority of organic food is mostly anecdotal and is based largely on assumptions and wishful thinking. The way that the media treat “green” issues and glorify healthy lifestyles is largely responsible for the notion that organic is always better. But being “natural” or “organic” does not make a food safer, nor does being synthetically treated necessarily make one unsafe. Organics do not offer special protection against disease, nor, as the study suggests, are they any “healthier” than food produced by conventional farming. Organic farming is not necessarily better for the environment than conventional farming – organics may not even be free from the pesticides and harmful chemicals we fear so much. There are over 20 chemicals commonly used in the growing and processing of organic crops that are approved by the US Organic Standards.

Many claim to be able to tell the difference in taste, but the bottom line is that fresher is always better. Organic produce that travels thousands of miles to market is inferior to the same produce from local farmers, organic or not.

The moral is not to malign organic foods are inferior or harmful, but the industry has grown incredibly quickly and deserves scrutiny as we decide the future of our food culture. Organic foods are a name, a movement, an ethos. The marketing machine behind agriculture has capitalized on the health revolution in the US, selling consumers on the image of the small farmer and the fit lifestyle. Next time you are in the checkout line, just remember that chomping into that delicious $2 apple is part of a $29 billion dollar proposition.

It’s a Marketer’s World

Hop in the time machine and travel back 20 years to the period leading up to the Dot-com boom. As we moved towards the late 90’s, opportunities for innovation and reinvention on the web seemed limitless. The business world was suddenly and drastically altered by changes in the technological landscape. Innovation was king as skepticism gave way to excitement – nobody wanted to be left behind in the frenzy of new businesses popping up. Of course, business fundamentals eventually reasserted themselves, and the bubble burst in the first years of the new millennium, leaving thousands of businesses scratching their heads as to what had just happened.

Fast forward a decade, and technology has taken another several leaps forward. Innovation is alive, but despite the possibilities for forward thinking in a more interconnected world, industry is currently focused on the business of marketing. Thanks to the advent of the social web, businesses are now more mindful of the importance of understanding how to sell over what to sell, a concept plucked straight from the birth of modern advertising in the middle part of the 20th century.

Today, marketing departments are larger than IT, and they are growing at a faster rate. Marketing budgets are growing so fast, that by 2017, the average CMO is expected to spend more on IT than the same organizations’ CIO. Tech-centric initiatives like digital advertising, social media campaigns, and mobile marketing budgets are skyrocketing. Marketing departments are even taking over the responsibilities of choosing and managing technology providers and understanding customer intelligence and analytics. So, are IT departments doomed to fade away completely as their role is diminished further and further?

In reality, the changes in practice have been the result of a shift in perception about the functions of CIOs and IT departments. Most organizations presently view IT as a means to increase productivity and efficiency, rather than through the traditional lens as a source of innovation and new business directives. Today, innovation’s place is in the drivers’ seat of newly amplified marketing efforts. It is a powerful way to deal with an increasingly crowded and noisy marketplace. The enlarged budgets and widened responsibilities of marketing departments include room for innovators.

As a result of this paradigm shift, the world of IT is on a path to be split into two distinct groups, the conventional infrastructure providers and the new innovation partners. In an abruptly changing environment, CIOs must answer the call to push business forward through the mechanics of innovative marketing, or simply be left behind.

The NFL: A Brand Juggernaut

Ask a stranger on the street to name the CEO of a prominent Fortune 100 company. Then ask them who plays quarterback for the New England Patriots on Sundays. The positions are fundamentally similar; both are qualified individuals chosen to lead an organization to success, yet you are likely to receive a puzzled look for one, and a knowing answer for the other.

The referee scandal that characterized the first 3 weeks of the 2012 NFL season was a reminder that behind the games, the media blitz, and rabid fandom, the NFL and other pro sports leagues are simply businesses. The absence of the usual referee corps was due to a dispute between the league and the Referees’ Association, essentially a labor dispute. The whole fiasco was a blow to the NFL’s pristine brand, one that sets it apart from the MLB, NBA, NHL, and others.

That brand is incredibly valuable. If the NFL could be equated to other companies, it would easily fall into the Fortune 500, with more than $9B in annual revenues. So how does football manage to be such big business?

Take a look at the model: First, the league offers fans a quality product, as it is designed to keep competition at the highest level. The NFL draft works in inverse order, giving the worst performing teams the first pick of the best new players entering the league each year. Second, a large portion of each team’s revenue from ticket sales, merchandise, sponsorships and TV deals is shared with the other teams. One franchise’s losing season and poor revenues is offset by another team’s bumper year, meaning the business is well-hedged. Finally, there is a limit on player salaries, known as the cap. The players earned a more than respectable average salary of $1.8M last year, but thanks to the hard cap, team owners’ expenses in terms of paying their employees are minimal.

Business is good. Although ticket sales have slightly declined since 2007, TV viewership and licensing are near all time highs. Each February, the NFL’s incredible portfolio culminates when the league puts on the greatest media spectacle of the year, the Super Bowl. Record audiences worldwide consistently tune in to watch the sport’s signature event, leading advertisers to spend nearly $2 billion on the night over the last 10 years. Not many businesses take in that much revenue in a year, let alone a single day. Out of the 31 privately owned franchises (the Green Bay Packers are technically publicly-owned) 16 NFL owners are members of the billionaire’s club.

It is the impeccable branding of the NFL that transforms a humble game into an entertainment juggernaut that is engrained into American culture. The NFL’s business practices, as in the case of the referee debacle, are often less than favorable and frequently abhorrent, but the brand keeps fans in blissful ignorance of the fact that it is a moneymaking powerhouse behind all the emotional appeal. When the league neared a lockout before the start of the 2011 season, we learned that fans were so entrenched in the brand that even if the NFL willingly shut its doors, its customers would still come knocking. The NFL is built like one of its own powerful linebackers; a true juggernaut.

Creating Brand Unity to Fight Cancer

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Although the campaign to raise awareness for the disease, which constitutes nearly a quarter of all cancers affecting women, is decades old, it’s message has never been clearer, and support for the effort has never been stronger. Advocacy for coping with and ultimately defeating breast cancer has grown into a large-scale social movement that commands the attention of big brands, calling them to contribute to causes that are greater than their own business.

This movement is an example of how not-for-profit organizations actually achieve brand advocacy from the companies who sponsor or honor the cause.

Each year, the efforts to combat the #2 killer of women culminate in a month where awareness of the disease is pushed to the forefront of the nation’s attention. Businesses of all sizes join the millions of individuals who dedicate their time, money, and effort to show their support for victims and survivors. In this particular month, buildings across the country will be brightly lit with pink, the NFL’s players will don pink gloves, cleats, and captains patches, and other organizations will show their support with more symbolic use of the distinctive color. Workplaces and public spaces everywhere will be filled with people wearing pink clothing or proudly pinning on the iconic ribbon. The list of corporate sponsors for one of the month’s signature annual events, the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, illustrates how many large and influential brands also answer to the responsibility to address such greater causes.

These brands forego their own unique value to answer this call to contribute to the greater good. As the Breast Cancer Awareness brand is strengthened, sponsors adopt its core values and tone while extending their own influence through cooperation with other prominent brands. The result is a mutually beneficial relationship and an amplified, unified message. For sponsors, contributing to a cause strengthens brand image, deepens community networks, and caters to a fiercely loyal niche market. Moreover, employees of these companies generally take on the corporate sense of duty as their own, serving to extend not just the company’s reach, but creating more advocates and extending the brand for the movement as well.

Brands of all sizes are clearly motivated by the opportunity to join a unique brand awareness cycle while doing some good. Sponsorship or at least participation in these worthwhile undertakings certainly isn’t mandatory, but brands that take hold of the initiative will benefit and make a positive impact in the process. With this mutual support, causes like the fight against Breast Cancer are significantly bolstered, a win for everyone.