If Memory Serves

30 04 2012

In many regards, it is 1999 all over again. Or maybe 1849. There’s another gold rush going on, only this time it does not involve real gold, nor does it involve e-commerce site. And while some might argue that it’s really all just about fool’s gold, let me remind you that Facebook paid a cool billion dollars for Instagram a couple of weeks ago.

Yeah, I keep bringing that up a lot lately. There must be a reason.

My curiosity was piqued when I read over the weekend about Remember.com, a startup that focuses on crowdsourced memories. The idea is for users to submit their own memories about persons, events, places, etc., and in the process create a commons of perspectives and shared experiences.

I like the idea.

It’s not like the Indiana duo behind Remember.com hasn’t…um…had some forgettable experiences along the way. Like when they had this great idea to use a timeline of sorts to organize and help chronicle these things. Facebook kind of stole that thunder when it gave everyone a Timeline.

Remember.com may also suffer from people not being able to wrap their minds around it. In some regards, it sounds like a gentler more conversational Wikipedia. But it is more than this, because many of the contributors may in fact know one another. But then, even though the experience was shared, you may not know a soul out there.

I can see this online repository of memories to elicit great outpourings of content, be it text, pics or video. To be sure, these experiences may wind up being very esoteric and narrow in focus (like the graduating class at a particular school). But then again, it could also be downright cathartic for millions. Think about the possibilities if we had this site right after 9-1-1.

At present, the site is in beta, and is limited to the founders’ alma mater, De Pauw University in Greencastle Indiana, but anyone can join. But getting traction with it is one of those fax machine dilemmas. The guy who owned the first one could not reap any value until there were others with similar machines. Otherwise, it’ll kind of be like talking to yourself.

Still, I am bullish on this idea. Sure, we probably could engineer the current Facebook for similar purposes, but it would likely be limited to just a private group or page, but not with as much visual impact. And that is why I do like Remember.com, because it has potential to be an acquisition by someone, be it FB, Google, Apple, etc.

Which is another way of saying that, just because the semester is drawing to a close, there’s no reason my students should put away their thinking caps. As Remember’s founder noted, once they get the content part figured out, then commerce will follow.

Or a buy out (my two cents). Wouldn’t you love to be there for that party? I bet you’d remember that.

Dr “And Don’t You Forget It!” Gerlich

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Au Naturel

29 04 2012

We live in a consumer world in which there is great confusion. Words and phrases are often just marketingspeak. Occasionally the FDA will weigh in and demand that some of these words and phrases conform to established meanings, measures, etc. But until there is mass consumer confusion, the FDA tends to shy away from such interventions.

Like with the word “natural.” What the heck does this mean? Does it mean organic? Does it mean that the food has not been genetically modified? What? You tell me.

Because for all intents and purposes, it could just as easily have dirt in it. Dirt is pretty natural, you know. Just ask the folks at Kellogg’s, owner of the Kashi brand of “healthy” products, and you’ll see the trouble the word “natural” can cause.

Kellogg’s contends that “natural” means it is minimally processed and free of all artificial ingredients.” This alone will get you into Whole Foods. Some consumers, though, reply that it also means “organic” and not genetically modified. Same word, different interpretations. And no arbitrator to settle the score. Enter social media.

It all started when a Rhode Island grocer pulled the product from its shelves, arguing that Kellogg was being less than transparent in its packaging claims. A photograph went viral, and, well…you know the rest. Facebook pages are now littered with the detritus of consumer angst.

Here’s the problem: Kellogg did nothing wrong. Technically, that is. The word is not regulated, and so whatever the marketer wants “natural” to mean, that’s what it means. I bet Starbucks thought the same thing when they used crushed beetles for food coloring a few weeks ago. In fact, I know they did.

But in spite of the fact that I am a never-say-die free market capitalist, I do think that companies must live by a higher standard, and standard that lives by full disclosure. In other words, the sin of omission can be just as bad as one of commission. There was no lying involved…just failure to communicate everything. And it doesn’t take market researchers with the intelligence of rocket scientists to figure out that the word “natural” is one of the most misunderstood words on the shelf.

Which, from my side of the street, does not give a company permission to exploit it.

Sure, there is much to be said for consumer responsibility, which means that we bear the burden of knowing anything and everything that may be relevant to our lives. And far be it from me to even hint at wanting a nanny state in which we are protected not only from companies, but from each other. That would be a terrible place to live.

I just think that a company as big as Kellogg would find hiding behind the stained cloak of all-natural to be a little beneath its dignity. I’d like a bowl of honesty in the morning, with a healthy sprinkling of full disclosure for taste.

Dr “And A Cup Of Organic Soy Milk, Please” Gerlich





The New Beerista

29 04 2012

As much as I love stretching myself into unknown marketing territories, sometimes I find that the more I look for new, the more I bump into the old.

Like the idea of extending one’s brand name into product categories in which the company has zero experience. Case in point: Starbucks and its foray into beer and wine.

SBUX has made a splendid recovery from its over-expansion, and has now gained valuable shelf space in supermarkets. It has line-extended itself successfully with Via, which is single-pack servings of instant coffee, and also opened its first juicery this year. So why not move into other liquid beverages?

I can see the temptation. SBUX figures it knows all things wet. But serving wine and beer is not the same as serving coffee. Or juice. First of all, there’s that nasty little technicality known as a liquor license. Oh, and never mind that SBUX outlets are often populated by young people in the evening, so I see a conflict with adult beverages and not-so-adult patrons in a common area. I also recognize that coffee is primarily a morning beverage, and beer and wine after work, so on paper it makes sense to try to get more people in during a time when overall coffee sales may be lower (not counting students cramming for tests).

But sometimes adding products simply because they are of the same general species does not always make good sense. Never mind that SBUX is trying valiantly to increase revenues, and better utilize facilities. The broader question is whether people will think of Starbucks when they want a beer or glass of wine after the theatre tonight.

And I think not.

Now I will be the first to admit that sometimes exceptions occur. McDonald’s all but invented fast-food breakfast when it dared deviate from hamburgers. But I can point to a slew of McFaux Pas as well…like the McSteak sandwich.

Wendy’s failed miserably with two separate chains under its corporate umbrella (which is a little safer in that it does not bring down the flagship, but is still costly). Sisters Fried Chicken was a crispy flop in the 80s, and Baja Fresh has struggled to hold a tortilla to Chipotle.

There really is a lot to be said for sticking to what one knows best. For the life of me, I can’t see SBUX succeeding with beer and wine, just like folks really didn’t dig their breakfast sandwiches either. Critics can argue that you can’t blame a guy for trying, but you can blame them for barking up the wrong beverage container. After all, coffee is their cup of tea.

Dr “Make Mine A Venti” Gerlich





Write Place, Right Time

27 04 2012

The end of another semester is drawing nigh. Once again, my students have had to embrace (abhor, ignore…pick your own negative word here) my missives otherwise known as The Daily Blog. People often ask me why I write. I tell them I do it because my alter ego is a journalist (sometimes it’s a rock star, but only when Nickelback is playing). I get paid to write. Why not?

Of course, it really isn’t all that simple.

I love to tell the story of my Dad the Accountant pulling me aside after my junior year of high school (um…that would be about the time disco was hot and leisure suits were in…or is it the other way around?). I had been a staff writer on the Rebel Rouser, the newspaper at my high school. I loved journalism. I loved writing. I wanted to be the next Pulitzer Prize winner.

But Dad the Accountant intervened. “Son, there’s no money in Journalism. You need to be in Business.”

Turns out Dad was much smarter than I had given credit. In fact, he was down right prescient, given the recent posts we saw all over Facebook this week that Journalism is one of the 13 most useless college majors. Score one for parents.

I love you, Dad. You saved my life. I guess.

Thus began my evolution into a Marketing kind of guy, for in this field I can still be creative (and rewarded for it), but also have a fighting chance for meeting my Dad’s expectations of me.

I took a Marketing class in high school. Majored in it at undergrad. Got an MBA emphasis in it. And then decided I loved it so much, hung around for a doctorate. I was 30 years old, and still never had a real job until I landed at WTAMU in 1989.

But the frustrated writer within was bound to break free, and in 2004 I started writing for my students. A lot. Every. Single. Day. No doubt there are graduates walking around who have now taken vows of illiteracy to make up for all the reading they had to do for me. Sixteen hundred blogs later, the well has not run dry. It’s fun, and is the highlight of my day…far more so than the dry academic articles I write to fulfill my research requirements.

Which explains how and why I found myself last night at The Palace Coffee Company in Canyon at a Texas Panhandle Writers gathering, hosted by Jason Boyett and Shawn Smucker. Jason is a former WT grad and friend; Shawn is a friend of Jason’s, and touring the country with his family. Both are full-time professional writers. Books. Ghostwriting. Ghost-tweeting and -FBing. Whatever. Anything that requires words.

And the ten of us who came out got to hear how it is possible to carve out a living via the written word. Shawn’s latest e-book, Building A Life Out Of Words, chronicles how he came to leave “traditional” employment, and instead take a giant leap of faith (literally and figuratively) that required him to follow a still, small voice.

Interestingly, as Shawn and Jason pointed out, it is actually easier now than ever to make a living as a writer (13 Useless Majors aside), thanks to social media, blogs and e-books. Both spend enormous amounts of time each day online and hunkered over a keyboard, pecking away words that people will buy.

Hopefully.

Case in point: Shawn used Amazon’s CreateSpace to format his latest book, and then post to Amazon’s marketplace. I downloaded it last night, and read half of it during my nightly fit of insomnia.

While both also have printed books in their repertoire, I think they both understand that e-books (and especially via the self-publishing model) allow the greatest opportunity for authors to pay the bills. Whereas a printed book might net a 5-10% payment, self-publishing at Amazon can yield up to a 70% royalty.

Sell enough $4 e-books at 70%, and it will indeed pay the mortgage.

My two hours with Jason, Shawn and the other writers in the room left me with nothing but encouragement, as well as admiration. I do not regret for a moment having changed direction at my Dad’s admonition, but another part of me thinks that maybe, just maybe, I need to toss my manuscripts in the ring and see what happens. Jason and Shawn know how to work the social graph to their advantage. Oh, and one other important thing: they know how to write. I have read all of Jason’s books, and now look forward to plowing through Shawn’s. With a little luck and courage, maybe I will one day find my own words available at Amazon.

In the mean time, I hope that Dad won’t be offended if I deviate a little from my career path and do the thing I always wanted to do. It’s not like I’m leaving here anyway. My life has been long enough (and the career successful enough) that I can afford to have fun with other outlets. Nope, it’s nowhere near as gutsy as what Jason and Shawn are doing. They are the heroes in this saga; I’m just happy to be able to live in two worlds.

And that is probably something worth blogging home about. Dad, are you reading?

Dr “Word Up” Gerlich





Coming Home To Roozt

26 04 2012

After 15 years of teaching e-commerce and developing websites, it takes a lot these days to get my attention. After all, nearly everything has been done before. Some good. Plenty of bad. And a lot in-between. Anything and everything that could possibly be sold has been programmed (literally) to fit into a 2-dimensional space.

But when I read about Roozt, I knew I was on to something different. Roozt is to social goods as Etsy is to crafts, essentially an online bazaar of all things and entrepreneurs seeking to do good things for the world.

For consumers with a conscience, often finding out a company, and then locating the products, are the hardest steps in making one’s dollars go where the needs are. Sure, you could hop in a car and drive to the nearest Big College Town, where you will likely find a shop or two selling fair trade products. But this is inefficient at best, and horribly time-consuming and expensive at worst.

But what I like most about Roozt is that it inexplicably ties social media into the equation. The more you post and share your purchases, the more you are rewarded with credits and badges. OK, the badges may be ephemeral, kind of like the ones I have earned on the Untappd app by drinking exotic microbrews, but they are bragging rights. With frequent and judicious social shopping, you could wind up king or queen of all that is good.

Roozt is a perfect fit for Generation Y, the oft-misunderstood (or simply not understood at all) cohort also known as the Millennials. Born between 1982 and 2000, Millennials have demonstrated a much higher social consciousness than other generations. It helps explain their fascinations with TOMS shoes and its BOGO program, as well as a host of other brands built around the idea of doing unto others (Project 7 comes to mind).

And I like it.

I will be the first to say that I do not always seek out such products. I will also go on record as stating that I am not always willing to possibly pay more for something just because I have been guilted into it. I would rather donate directly to a cause rather than by virtue of buying a product that, at least perceptually, costs more. But if someone wants to participate voluntarily in helping others via the product vehicle, then I will not stand in the way. I am more of a classical economist, preferring to let the market settle on its own prices, and charities operating separately.

But I may just be getting old. This marriage of commerce and charity is innovative, and speaks to the desires of an entire generation. For that I give Roozt high praise. By tying brands to specific causes, and aggregating an enormous selection, Roozt helps make it fashionable to be caring. It’s a new way of looking at an old problem, and if the greater good is served, then who am I to complain?

Score one point for getting this old guy’s attention.

Dr “The Tire Tread Sandals Do Look Pretty Cool” Gerlich





Uncaged At Burger King

25 04 2012

In this era of social media and instantaneous dissemination of information (good or bad), companies are starting to awaken to the possibility that they might be the next ones to be affected by PR gone viral. Starbucks felt the pinch when it was revealed they were using crushed beetles as food coloring. Lowe’s and Susan G Komen endured the wrath of a social graph set ablaze in controversy. McDonald’s flopped miserably when it tried to create its own hashtag.

And these are just examples from the last four months.

So when I read this morning that Burger King is going to start using only cage-free eggs and pork in its restaurants, I raised my arm to give them a high five. This is the kind of thing that can be leveraged for so much good, and allows BK to stay ahead of the bad, whatever and whenever that may be. If you don’t believe me, take a look at this story about caged hens. Yeah, you wouldn’t want this kind of stuff being pinned to your business, would you?

It is not much different from fast-casual rival Chipotle’s commitment to Food With Integrity (locally-grown when possible, ethically-raised animals, and fairness to farmers). You can almost taste the difference.

OK, I might be exaggerating, and I do happen to love me some Chipotle whenever I get out of A-Town. It’s just that Food With Integrity screams goodness. I am sure that BK is hoping grab a handful of that benefit as they figure out how to accept their new ranking as third in the fast-food biz.

And it is a good call. By implication, McDonald’s and Wendy’s must not be too concerned about this, or else they would have beaten BK to the punch. BK is hoping that when you stop in, you remember that at least their eggs and pork offerings were raised ethically; similarly, if you happen to dine with the other guys, you will recall with each and every bite that those poor animals no doubt suffered. Confined, in the case of hens, to 67 square inches of living space.

Holy cow, this is beginning to sound like a PETA rant.

But you see where I am going, right? BK need not invoke the name of the most militant animal rights organization on the planet. All they have to do is show how BK is concerned, and those other bad boys just don’t care.

Taco Bell may think outside the bun, but props to BK for thinking outside the cage. The animals will surely thank you.

Dr “Throw Away The Key” Gerlich





Fading Fast

25 04 2012

I have a bunch of old gadgets in the barn and in the attic. Some are things I have bought at antique stores; others are items I culled when we moved Mom and Dad into a retirement center. And some of them are things that have grown useless not just in my lifetime, but in the last 10 years. An early Rio MP3 player (held a whopping 128MB of music!). External hard drives and jump drives that couldn’t carry my lunch, much less my work. Cordless phones. Old cell phones. Rotary phones. You name it. I have a gadget museum in the making.

But before you deride me for being a hoarder (actually, I prefer technostalgic), consider that the list of entries into my forthcoming museum is growing faster and faster with each passing year. The rate of change is itself changing, rendering the stuff we own mere ephemera in an era marked by shelf lives measured in months, not years and decades. It is now possible to become a Luddite by simply not paying attention. And it is also possible our kids will not recognize any of the things we once held dear.

For example, there are eight things the Facebook generation will not buy. Things I use today, and have for years, but quickly fading from standard usage.

While presented in a Top 8 countdown fashion, I think these are really all just put out for our collective pondering on the eves of their extinction: Television, desaktop PCs, cigarettes, land line phones, cars, newspapers, beer, and email.

Hold on a sec there. Beer? How’d that get in there?

Turns out we are witnessing the “lightening” of American beer drinkers. Of course, we beer snobs have been ballyhooing this trend for several decades (mass-produced American lagers are only so much swill), but now it’s getting even closer to water. But taste preferences are what they are, and marketers would be remiss if they did not attempt to serve them. We thus wind up with new watery brews touting 55 calories or thereabout that look like they’ve had a little food coloring added. If some of my 20-something students can help explain this fascination to me, I am all ears.

As for cigarettes, I am all too happy to see the decline in young adults smoking. No point in belaboring this one. Smoking is bad, bad, bad.

The rest of the lot, though, consists primarily of tech products. Notice that cars made the list (and recall that I blogged about this recently). While young adults love their gadgets, apparently it is becoming increasingly cool to go retro when it comes to transportation. Hey, honk if you love mass transit.

Everything else, though, is rather predictable. TV is so 20th century. Why watch TV when you have streaming Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, YouTube, et al? Does anyone actually watch live television anyway? TVs are just another anchor…not much unlike desktop PCs. If it can’t be taken with you, then young adults probably don’t want it at all.

Which is another way of saying that even laptops are at the outer limit. Smartphones and tablets are becoming the de facto tools of the trade.

Toss in land lines, newspapers, and email, and you have replaced the way we old folks communicate and learn about things.

But I bet none of my students are arguing with the list at this point, for they have been ushering in these changes. It’s my kids about who I am thinking. At 11 and 14, I doubt neither have ever had ink smudges on their fingers from handling my daily newspaper. They occasionally here a strange ringing in the house, and know that Mom and Dad pick up a very different kind of telephone. And in the case of my oldest kid, I know she never checks the email account I set up for her some 8 years ago. She prefers texting and FBing.

But as an exercise in future forecasting I think it would be fun if my students predicted what items will be next to fall into disfavor. What are the things that you do that your kids will scoff at? And what will be the next items to go into the museum my kids will have to curate after I am gone?

And the snicker that just emanated from my office? That would be me, recognizing that I just typed this on a desktop PC. Crap. Try as I might to be young and hip, I guess I am still chained to a little bit of my past. Can I interest anyone in an answering machine?

Dr “Leave Me A Message” Gerlich