Friday, January 28, 2011

Wal-Mart: Is anything different?

I'm going to begin this post with a confession.  I do not like Wal-Mart.

There are some arguably good points from a consumer point of view: chances are there is a Wal-Mart in your town or city, and if not, more than likely there is one in a city nearby.  They have low prices (frequently lower than competitors) and a wide variety of brands and products available on their shelves.  I know relatives who go to Wal-Mart specifically for one item knowing they will find it at the lowest price.  This, despite the fact they’d probably rather spend those 15 minutes in a walk-in freezer than in the store’s aisles.  And don’t worry about not finding what you are looking for because the aisles are identically situated in every store it seems.  No matter what Wal-Mart you go to, the total experience is consistent: same store format, same signs, same layout.  

Equally, there are some things I don't like about Wal-Mart.  Everyone knows about how Wal-Mart squeezes their suppliers, pitting them against each other in a war to provide Wal-Mart with the lowest price.  When you have the kind of purchasing power Wal-Mart has, you can do this.  Good business or poor ethics?  It is a tough call, but either way it does not incline me to want to shop there (no matter how low a price they might advertise).  Also, I don't like the consistency of the stores.   The samey-blandness of it all is numbing.  Wal-Mart is not alone in standardizing their stores (look at any big box or electronics giant to see the same type of work) but they somehow feel more numbing than the others.  

However, the biggest problem I have with Wal-Mart is the way it makes me feel.  The way a consumer interacts with your brand, and the experience they have during that interaction, define the way your brand will be perceived and evaluated.  And Wal-Mart makes me feel 'dumbed down'.  The greeters, the over-sized sale stickers and even the way the store is set up... the experience is enough to make me want to leave, preferably as soon as possible.  Sometimes, it feels as though you're being treated like a child and this demeaning tone makes me think twice about even going inside.

Over the last little while, Wal-Mart has been displaying efforts to change their brand: they have a new logo, having gotten rid of that grating, condescending and often bouncing smiley-face.  Their adverts depict young professionals living fun and exciting lives.  They are trying to paint themselves as a friendlier, nicer and 'greener' Wal-mart.  With the news of 40 superstores headed for north of the border, I wanted to know if the re-brand was a success.

In my opinion, it was not.

The stores are the same.  Sure, the signs have changed and the font might be different but the store still feels exactly the same.  The products they sell are the same products they used to sell.  Everything that turned me off the Wal-Mart brand is still there for everyone to see, and my experience walking into the store still left me wishing it would end, and fast: the greeters, the signs, the layout, the blandness and the distinct feeling of 'dumbing down'. Even their business practices do not appear to have changed: NACS reports that Wal-Mart still abides by the same supplier philosophy as before: "Anybody who can deliver opening price point [goods] for us will become a vendor -- anybody who can't, can leave".  I was only in the store for about 15 minutes, but it only took me a fraction of that to realize that this was still the old Wal-Mart we know and questionably love.

I feel that what Wal-Mart has done is a cardinal sin in branding: changing a brand is more than changing your letterhead.  It is not about changing the font of your name or the colour schemes of your signs in the brave hope that the rest of the branding issues will change themselves.  This has lead me two a couple of conclusions: 1) The Re-Brand has failed because they didn’t address the changes that need to take place for a re-brand or 2) They thought that a cuter, cuddlier and friendlier name font and advertizing would be enough to complete the transformation into the brand they wanted to become.

Bottom line then is clear; they both end up in the same result.

You don't change the wallpaper because you're bored of it, or because you want to change things up.  Branding is about crafting an experience for the consumer: what do they think of you, how do they experience your services, what do you mean to them.  It is your company's or product's personality and goes deeper than the colour of the curtains.  Re-branding is part of an overall transformation of your brand strategy, and includes so much more than a logo.  So far as I can tell, Wal-Mart's re-branding has not been intertwined with any new positioning or marketing strategy and their new campaigns have left me with one final experience: disappointment.

***Author’s Note***

Special thanks to Kayla Kneisel for her reviewing help on this posting.  I am going to be trying to get some of her thoughts and ideas here in the form of some guest postings.  She’s a brilliant marketer and I look forward to reading some of her viewpoints!

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Future of Celebrity Endorsements... Is there one?

Are celebrity endorsements dead for 2011?

I wouldn't be surprised.

We all know the power of celebrities and reference groups when it comes to influencing purchasing decisions.  Whether we like it or not, people are influenced by those who they respect, look up to or want to emulate.  I know I am guilty as charged: anyone my age probably remembers wanting one of those silly three-ski sleds, more than likely because Brett Hull was all over their advertisements.  What does Brett Hull have to do with sleds?  Not much, but did it increase sales?  You bet it did.

So clearly there is a case to be made that celebrity endorsements are a great tool for influencing buying decisions.  But there is no such thing as a 'free lunch', and using celebrity star power has it's drawbacks.  It's all about losing control and risk.

Using a celebrity can be beneficial: associating yourself with a successful celebrity means associating your brand with a successful brand.  Finding fit between your brand and that of a celebrity is key.  However, when you decide to use a celebrity to be the face of your product (or in many cases the face of your entire company), you are losing control over some or all of your brand.  The strength, integrity and success of your brand is now intertwined with a brand over which you have zero control.  This loss of control doesn't necessarily mean you're in trouble, but it could if you do not properly assess the risk you're undertaking.  What is the risk that our celebrity will go out and do something stupid?  Get involved in something embarrassing, illegal... etc?

In it's most basic form:  what is the risk we're gonna end up with mud on our faces?  Even the most squeaky clean celebrities have been found fallible (we need only look at Tiger Woods for proof). 

Marketers certainly understand these costs and risks, and yet celebrity endorsements have still made recent successes.  So why do I think the days of the Brett Hull's and Tiger's are over?  Information.  We as consumers have access to more information and news than ever before.  This has led to an increasingly skeptical consumer base; we're skeptical about claims on performance, price and features.  I have discussed this before, but I haven't discussed how consumers are more knowledgeable and skeptical of their celebrities.  I was stunned how quickly the news of a Cadillac hitting a hydrant rocketed around the world, and how quickly an immaculate brand built over years was destroyed in just days.  Stunned how some inappropriate text messages from an NFL superstar became national news.  Even the smallest conflict or issue can explode into a massive smear against someone, growing exponentially and doing irreversible damage to both the individual and the companies they represent.  No one can claim to control the animal that is the Internet, and it's ability to magnify and spread any information.

In today's growing world of cell phone cameras, smart-phones and internet, celebrities are more under the spotlight now then they have ever been.  Given the current amount of information, the speed with which it travels and then saturates an area, how can a marketer take a risk on a celebrity? You'd have to be prepared to take on not only the lost of control and individual risk, but the additional risk of celebrity attention and study.  I'm not say that as of tomorrow, celebrity endorsements will end.  But I am saying that as companies because more risk-adverse and brand-aware, and as the risk of using celebrities increases with it, we'll see a decline in the use of celebrity endorsements.

I don't think we'll see many more "Be a Tiger" slogans in the future, as celebrity endorsement is going to become an "out-of-bounds" for marketers.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Ringing in the New Year

It's amazing to see just how much of the consumer mobile phone market is dominated by the smart phone.  It should come as no surprise that as smart-enabled devices become more available, better serviced and (importantly) less expensive, that more and more people would have them.  A number of years ago, phones like the Blackberry were owned by few: the fortunate, corporate executives and my Dad.  Now, almost every single member of my family has one of some vintage.  We had enough of them that Blackberries alone covered the entire table at the door of the family get-together.  In the past couple months, I caved in and upgraded my mobile device to a Blackerry and I haven't looked backward since.  I am glued to my Bold the same way Christmas stuffing glued to my stomach.  The shift is clear: smart phones are no longer reserved for business-types or the lucky, but are now a tool for a wide-variety of users.  Everyone from high-school (dare I say middle?) to the retired have some kind of smart phone, and use them frequently to update, post, share, like, tweet, comment, poke and upload.

A couple years ago now, my good friend Shaminda introduced me to an up-and-coming marketing tool: the barcode.  It was an application called ScanLife and using your smart phone camera, you could take a picture of a barcode and be instantly directed to web content linked to that barcode.  At the time, I thought this was an incredible tool and to be clear, I still think it is.  The ability to give a consumer all the details and information you want, without using what precious traditional advertising space you have for it, is great.  Even better than using the internet as a supplemental source of information is to use it as a primary source of interaction and information.  For example, Expedia includes a barcode on your itinerary so you can quickly scan your own itinerary to find out if your flights are on time.  Companies are using barcodes as a way of herding consumers towards competitions and ballot forms.  Barcodes are transforming the way marketers can reach consumers, but also how they can interact with consumers.

I am the #1 fan of barcodes.  BUT, I feel there are one too many companies jumping on the bandwagon than perhaps should.  So here is a short (and by no means exhaustive) list of good uses and questionable uses of barcodes:

Good uses
  1. More information - You've got a sign/billboard/poster and there are some details you want the consumer to know about.  For example, you're a university and your poster is about a program you're trying to get some interest in.  However, you clearly can't put a prospectus on your poster.  Here's a good place to give a barcode, linking a consumer to the website where a full prospectus is housed.  Another example: you've got a video game or movie you want to advertise, including a trailer.  On traditional, non-television screen media, this is impossible.  However, if you put a barcode-link to the trailer on the internet, you're able to stream this media to the consumer.  In this application, the barcode is essentially an internet link that's more convenient and nothing more. 
  2. Interactive information - See my Expedia experience for a solid example.  Here's another great example of this: increasingly, wines are coming with barcodes on their label to direct consumers to a website providing them with food-pairing suggestions for their wine.  Some food products are doing similar things, providing barcodes to recipe or serving ideas.  Brilliant.
  3. Contests/Sweepstakes - You've got a promotional contest and you want to direct consumers to the entry page.  Consumers are then going to follow your barcode knowing exactly what they are going to and why.  Good focus for using a barcode.
Questionable uses

  1. Too much more information - Don't treat a barcode as an extension of your advertising.  Your message should be clear and concise enough to convey your message without needing a barcode.  By all means, barcode-away for supplemental or extra information, but keep your key message on the traditional media.
  2. Don't repeat - The purpose of the barcode, in my view, is to supply additional information which without the barcode, would not be possible.  Some companies, worryingly, are simply using a barcode to direct consumers to another version of the same advert.  Consumers are using your barcode seeking new information, not stuff they've already seen.  If you're seen as just noise, or just using a barcode because you can, consumers will know it and tune you out.
  3. Location, Location, Location - Be smart about where you are using your barcodes.  Billboard sign in a downtown or urban area is brilliant.  This includes everything from big-building top signs to posters in bus-shelters.  However, putting a barcode on a subway train may not be so good.  Firstly, being a subway, passengers are going to be spending 99% of their time underground and lack the reception to follow your barcode link.  Secondly, assuming you have reception, taking a picture of a barcode is nearly impossible because you're too busy a) hanging on b) carrying something c) bundled up or d) too crowded to pull out your phone.  Thirdly, assuming you have reception, not doing a) through d) and don't feel silly taking a picture of something just above someone else's head, have you ever tried to take a clear, blur-free image of something with in a moving vehicle?  Subway: bad idea. Another questionable location are the sides of the road on highways.  Drivers have enough to worry about and enough distractions without wanting to try and take a clear picture of a barcode at 100km/h.  That, and it being illegal in many places to have your phone in your hand.  My last example of a bad place to put a barcode is on the internet.  Why?  Why make someone pull out their phone, select the correct application, take a picture and then force them to view your content on a 2 inch screen?  Unless you're directing someone to a mobile-only media, just use a link.  Please.
There is one last use what I am not so sure on: mystery media.  I think that this use is more of a double-edged sword than the others.  Using a barcode on its own could lead to interest due to the mystery of what the barcode is linking too.  This curiosity could lead to some traffic, but it can go the other way too.  Newspapers, such as Metro, seem to like using a barcode to replace putting a story into their newspaper.  I am assuming that these stories are less important than the ones included in actual print, but they still wanted to try and include them in their paper.  I am not so sure this works: I have yet to see someone take a picture of a newspaper barcode to read more of the newspaper and secondly, if it's a fourth-string news story, why would I want to read it anyway?

Barcodes are great, but please use them responsibly.  And stop taking pictures of just above my head, it's awkward and I don't like it.