The Conversational Brand

2 09 2012

There’s an old adage in business that says retailers follow rooftops. Build houses and apartments, and the retailers will follow. It makes perfect sense, because people need to eat and buy clothes, and retailers need customers. It may sound chicken-and-egg, but if you do it the other way around, the retailer will likely founder.

A corollary is quickly becoming established in social media. Companies follow clicks. We have seen how thousands of companies, organizations and individuals have embraced Facebook and Twitter (and, once upon a time, musicians on MySpace). Even corporate YouTube channels have become de rigeur. But that’s all old hat now, because the new hot spots are in the fringe-but-growing suburbs.

Take Instagram, for example. The quirky throwback to Polaroid has captured the curiosity of many an iPhoneographer (be sure to use a cool retro filter with a dollop of tilt-shift). Fort Collins CO-based New Belgium Brewing Company has been using Instagram as a way to colorfully feature its products, and in a way that sneaks right in under consumer advertising radar. JUmp over to Pinterest and the same thing is happening. While the Pinterest crowd is about 85:15 women to men, smart companies are figuring out how to appeal to the legions of females actively pinning recipes, home decor, clothing and more to this highly social bookmarking site.

And now the latest site to attract corporate interest is Spotify, the music listening (and sharing) site that appears all over our Facebook News Feed. “Nick Gerlich is listing to Storyville Radio on Spotify” is what my Timeline now says as I write this blog (“You gotta dig some Austin blues to understand,” he says).

This all became news to me last night while escorting my 14-year-old daughter to the Urban Outfitters store on Albuquerque’s Central Ave. While she tried on every top and skirt in the store, I busied myself looking at the wacky collection of books and kitsch (ever notice how UO has an almost juvenile fascination with anything bearing the F-word?), and stumbled upon a sign at the cash-wrap saying “We’re on Spotify!”

Instant conversation starter!

The clerk was not busy, so I engaged him in conversation. Yes, Spotify has its own fave artists and playlists, and they are all part of the branding of Urban Outfitters.

“So is this music I hear right now from your Spotify site?” I asked.

“Yes it is,” Mr. Tattoed-in-a-Tank-Top beamed. (“How is this guy ever gonna get a real job?” I thought to myself.)

Trick question. Either he was wrong, or they were violating the law and Spotify’s Terms of Service. Turns out the folks at BMI and ASCAP don’t like the public broadcast of their music without payment of royalty fees. It would be nice on paper to plant earworms and send folks home, but it’s not quite that easy without first paying the piper.

But I digress, for there’s a broader point to be made. You see, branding these days is not about companies telling you who they are, but rather it is a conversation…between you, me and the company. And this conversation is playing out on the social graph. It’s an organic process, one that must be cultivated carefully like a friendship. Gobe forever are the one-way Brand-to-Customer monologues of old.

As for Spotify playlists, they give customers a chance to see inside to the personality of the brand, but it also gives us all a chance to interact, applaud the music, or tell them we think their tunage sucks. More importantly, they also give folks a chance to continue the conversation…the interaction…whenever and wherever. Dig that Spotify playlist? Fire up that app on your phone and jam away. Stop by sometime and buy something, too.

So important have Spotify accounts become that President Obama launched one in January of this year. You, too, can rock out to the Prez’ favorite tunes, or at least the songs his staff think will resonate with voters.

If you recall, in 2008 the Obama team kicked McCain’s rear primarily on the basis of social media acumen. McCain was still trying to figure out email, while Obama was stirring up a tweet storm. This time around, the GOP has figured out a lot, and Mr. Romney also has his own On The Road campaign channel on Spotify.

The tough thing about all of this is that Marketing communication is infinitely more nuanced than it ever was, and with those nuances come the risk of falling into a pothole. A Marketing staffer who only knows traditional media may as well look into cashing out that 401(k) and settling in Florida. This thing is changing every day, and while Spotify is the newest kid in town, I suspect that by this time next year the hype will be directed to a site the likes of which we haven’t yet heard.

But the conversation goes on, regardless of the channel. Keep talking to me, baby. I need to vote. I need to shop. And I want to engage with you.

Dr “The Beat Goes On” Gerlich

Reality Check

3 07 2012

Just in case reality hasn’t already bitten you, get ready for more. Lots more. The new reality will be augmented reality.

In case you missed all the hoopla about Google Glasses, the notion is rather simple (albeit tech-laden to the hilt): take what the user sees, and augment it with additional information. Tons of information.

So, when wearing Google Glasses, imagine getting little pop-ups along the top of your frame indicating what business is just around the next corner, what’s on sale, and when happy hour is.

Wait. We’ve already seen this kind of stuff in movies, documentaries and futuristic YouTube clips before. It’s just that this is no longer pie-in-the-sky; it is reality.

Like the new shopping assistant app being developed by IBM Research. While still months away from deployment, the app-in-concept works marvelously, and opens the door for a zillion marketing opportunities.

It will work like this: A shopper enters a store, and downloads the branded app for that chain. Next, the user inputs key desirables (e.g., like oragnic, vegetarian, kosher, etc.). The user can then stroll the aisles, letting the camera scan a product array for items that match the consumer’s interests.

And, of course, product suggestions will pop up. But this is where the marketing people enter the story. It is the perfect time to start pitching featured products, as well as make suggestions for a complementary item over in Aisle 7 that would go well with the current item.

In fact, the more information the user provides, the better the store can market its goods and services. Cha-ching.

Naturally, critics will scoff once more and cry foul, because at the surface it might look like an insidious plot to hijack customer wallets. But it is completely opt-in, and customers do stand to benefit. After all, if I can scan an entire row of soups and instantly find out which ones are based on vegetable stock rather than beef or chicken, my life will be easier. And happier.

All the more reason to embrace the paradigm shift I have been harping on throughout this term: the future is in mobile. I’m just not sure about those glasses yet. I really don’t like the idea of stepping out in front of truck while I am busy reading a pop-up deal at the nearest Triple-D hole in the wall.

Dr “I Can See Clearly Now” Gerlich

Students And Their Phones

3 07 2012

I think I must be one of only a few professors who allow students to use their phones while in class.

Of course, I must add a side note clarifying that I seldom, if ever, actually teach in a classroom. But when I do (and if I ever do again), phones are allowed. I know that SXSW attendees tweet with reckless abandon throughout speeches; it is likewise OK if my students are updating statuses, tweeting, texting or surfing the web.

Except on tests.

I think my lax policy stems from the fact that I use my phone wherever I go also. Multitasking is my middle name. As long as it does not disturb others around me,then I am OK with it (and with you doing it as well). I don’t use it in movie theatres (the light is annoying), but many other places are fair game. Oh, and for the record, I try to not use it when in the company of other people (such as dinner), unless there is an absolute emergency.

Notice also that not once did I say a thing about talking on the phone. No, I am referring to using it for its myriad other purposes. If my 14-year-old is reflective of her cohort, talking is so lame anyway. No one actually talks on phone these days, Dad.

The fact of the matter is that college students are in a relationship with their smartphones. Judging by Mashable’s Infographic, they would essentially be lost without them.

The implications are huge, because as today’s college students grow older and are replaced with yet another generation of tech addicts, it means that there will be an increasing number of people for whom living and using the phone (for whatever purpose) are synonymous. It will be up to businesses to figure out how to speak to a growing number of people for whom television and computers have less and less relevance.

Which is another way of saying that the future invariably holds much more marketing coming at all of us via our smartphones. It may be the only weay some companies have of reaching their target markets.

Does this mean that advertising budgets must increase? No, not at all. As each new communication medium has come along, it simply means the advertising pie gets sliced into ever smaller pieces. And businesses will have to decide how to allocate their budget dollars.

This does not necessarily mean that more and more companies are going to start shifting money from traditional media to social. In fact, it may not happen at all, depending on the company, their product(s), and the effectiveness of the advertising vehicle. Earlier this year, General Motors decided to cease advertising on social media, and instead take a more old-school approach. But while they have ditched Facebook’s paid ads, it doesn’t mean a thing about their free corporate Pages.

As I have too many times lately, why pay for something when you can get it for free?

Still, the general trend will continue to be toward smartphone advertising (in one form or another), because that is where people’s eyeballs are glued. And if you do find yourself in one of my rare campus courses, use it freely but with discretion. I mean, unless you happen to receive a really compelling coupon or something, at which point I may have to confiscate your phone.

Dr “Professor’s Perogative” Gerlich

London Calling

3 07 2012

I remember watching the 1968 Summer Olympics that were hosted by Mexico City. My family and I would gather around the 19″ black-and-white television in the basement den my parents had built. That Olympiad is remembered today for the Black Power salute, which at the time came amid much racial strife here in the States. The reception was fuzzy at best, yet I marveled at the notion of being able to watch coverage that originated all…the…way…down in Mexico.

Go ahead and give a bored-to-tears 21C slow clap.

Last year, I was fortunate to visit London with two colleagues and a couple of dozen students. We were treated to tours of the Olympic village, and got to see first hand how $16 billion can be used to host what amounts to the world’s largest sporting event. In a few short weeks, the entire world will be watching the Summer Olympics, not on miserable little black-and-white televisions, but state-of-the-art flat panels.

And mobile apps and online..

NBC, the Official Broadcaster of the Olympics (or whatever their title is), is pushing 3500 hours of live streaming video to a special website as well as mobile apps. Which is another way of saying that NBC is making sure we’ll be able to watch from wherever.

Dang. Too bad they don’t have curling in the Summer Olympics. I’d be all over that.

But NBC is also adding a huge social component to its coverage, which has both positive and negative implications. As we all know, using social media is the fastest way to attract bees to honey. Their admission of turning this into a Twitter Olympics says that NBC is committed to putting international athletics into the hands of everyone.

But it also says that NBC really does not understand social media, because these things can get out of hand. When Alan Wurtzel said, “…and we’re going to spend a lot of time trying to understand how people are connecting with each other, and what it means,” he was really saying, “We have no idea what’s going to happen here, but we think it could be big.”

Yeah, like inviting matches to a refinery.

NBC had better tread carefully, because Twitter is the internet’s loose cannon. Lowe’s learned this the hard way last December when it canceled its ads on TLC’s All-American Muslim,” and Twitterers created the #loweshatesmuslims hashtag. The same thing happened after Susan G. Komen made its bonehead move earlier this year. Oh, and when McDonald’s put its own hashtag on the griddle and served it between two buns.

Einsteins, all of them.

As long as NBC social media managers monitor things, they might be able to utilize social media for its strengths. But if Twitter users around the world unite for a gigantic bitchfest over who won or lost the gold, it’s a riot waiting to happen. And faster than Usain Bolt can run the hundred meter.

While I praise NBC for pushing the limits this year, I have to say a silent prayer for them. This one could be tricky.

Kinda makes watching it in black-and-white sound like a pretty good proposition after all.

Dr “Medal Head” Gerlich

Keep On Truckin’

3 07 2012

There haven’t been too many years since the Kogi BBQ trucks started popping up all over Los Angeles. They took the city by storm, bringing somewhat upscale and certainly trendy food to the downtown office crowd. Social media played a big role, as the trucks would be in different locations on different days, and at different times. Like all good things from California, the idea got traction and sped around the country. The result is that nearly every US city of any size has one or more taco trucks cruising the streets.

But savvy entrepreneurs quickly surmised the strengths of these mobile restaurants. They have relatively low overhead, and allow a vendor to have many locations at once, even if it is with only one truck. Move around every few hours, and it’s like having a storefront all over town. Today, everything from fashion to follicles are getting the mobile treatment. In fact, one of my former students, a 1993 grad, recently launched Mobiltique, which for now makes the rounds in a trailer towed behind a large SUV. It’s the same idea that Kogi had, but with a fashion flair.

And it is a great idea.

For entrepreneurs short on cash, a truck can be much cheaper to operate than leasing (or owning) a store. Hours of operation are pretty much dictated by your initiative, and as long as zoning ordinances don’t limit your operations, you can do business freely. (Naturally, check with City Hall before you try this.)

Combine the benefits of social media and a fully-functional e-commerce website, and suddenly this is a powerful business proposition.

But wait. Haven’t trucks and even bicycles been used for years as retail stores? Of course they have. I remember the Good Humor Ice Cream man in my Chicago neighborhood peddling (and pedaling) coolness on hot summer days. Vans and small trucks continue the tradition to this day, but I have also seen push carts in some areas as well (like the beach). And what about the Snap-On Tools truck? While this is technically not retail, it makes sales calls and deliveries to auto shops just like Kogi brings tacos curbside.

Which is another way of saying that maybe this isn’t such a new idea after all. At the risk of sounding sexist, women have been having Tupperware and lingerie parties for decades. There’s probably no point in trying this with the guys, because someone would bring beer, and before long everyone would be in front of a television watching the game. We’re bad that way.

But for my former student and the many others delivering the goods in trucks, I say keep on truckin’. It’s the new old fashioned way, and it proves once more there really is nothing new under the sun. Maybe just better ways of doing it.

And the next time I’m in LA, I’m going to track down Kogi. Taco ’bout a clever business model.

Dr “I’ll Take Two To Go” Gerlich

Don’t Look At Me That Way

26 06 2012

I laughed when Google let it slip that they were developing Google Glasses, eyewear that has full smartphone functionality. Slip on these shades, and you’ll be able to surf the internet. Tilt and snap your head, and you will have just scrolled and clicked.

And perhaps walked in front of a New York taxi driver hellbent on getting a big tip.

But apparently all this futuristic thinking has caused others to…um…think even more about it. Today came news that a German designer has conceptualized Instaglasses. Imagine the possibilities. Rather than have to d-r-a-g out your smartphone, enter a security code, tap an app and shoot the pic (hoping the subject has not moved a half mile by then), wearers could simply touch a small button on the bridge of the frame. A small camera on one corner of the frame captures the image. Click! Add filter. Post.

Ansel Adams never had it so easy.

While the coolness factor may be high, there are still some unanswered questions. Will these glasses require a data plan on my cell phone account? Or will I need to be near wifi to actually use them? Is there any memory onboard, or is this strictly a one trick pony?

And what about the general creepiness factor? I can only imagine having to fear every shade-wearing person I meet in public may in fact be posting my awesome likeness to Instagram. OK, boo and hiss all you want to. It could just as easily be your awesomeness.

By now you probably see my point. It is one thing to surreptitiously sneak your phone out of a pocket or purse, and craftily steal a picture of an unwitting subject. Isn’t this how gets its fill of pictures anyway? But if it as simple as hiding behind shades, turning in someone’s general direction, tapping the bridge of your specs, and voila! they’re on the internet, just watch out.

And you thought Instagram was popular before all this. You ain’t seen nothing yet.

I am still trying to figure out how in the world this could somehow be leveraged for business benefit (perhaps one of my enterprising students can figure out this puzzle), but until then, I suspect the creeper-stalker meter is going to be in the red zone. Can someone please start thinking a little more carefully about these new gadgets? And while you are pondering this, I need to go ask that woman over there why she keeps fidgeting with her glasses. It’,s making me nervous.

Dr “Say Cheese” Gerlich

Just Checking

22 06 2012

After I received my drivers license and became preoccupied with sowing the wild oats of a misspent youth, my parents still required me to check in. Of course, back then we did not have cell phones. It meant that I had to either use the phone at a friend’s house, or be sure to carry a dime with me.

You know. Pay phones. Those were the original mobile phones, because it meant you weren’t at home.

Today, “checking in” has an entirely new meaning, thanks first to the likes of Gowalla and FourSquare, and more recently Facebook and GetGlue. The social graph is alive with posts from our friends who are apparently living far more exciting lives than are we.

But now there’s another twist on the check in, one that involves shopping. Checkpoints is a mobile app that rewards users with points for checking in at stores and for examining products. Check in at the store as soon as you walk in, and then the app takes over, telling you specific products to seek out. Of course, we can cross-post to Facebook and Twitter, and rewards can be redeemed in a multitude of locations.

And if you are on the same wavelength as me, your initial response might be, “Oh my God, this is GENIUS!”

This is better than paid product placements. It is better than the new Tivo/Paypal point-and-click TV ads. Why? Because it puts products in your hands that you might not have otherwise ever given the time of day. You behold it. You scan it. You engage with it. And hopefully, you put it in your basket.

Checkpoints has been used primarily with new consumer product introductions, mostly because it is a great way to acquaint shoppers with something they may not have even heard about yet. It can be used with any product, though. As long as manufacturers are willing to pony up money to Checkpoints, any product can be featured.

The cynic in me, though, says that shoppers go to Target because they already have a shopping list, and do not have time to merrily waltz around the store scanning every item that Checkpoints tells them to find. The vulgar side of me says that shoppers may even be whoring themselves for the possibility of a free meal at Chili’s. I guess if you’re hungry you might do anything, but the last thing I want to do is go on a Checkpoints Scavenger hunt.

Still, for those who are willing to participate, it truly is a genius plan. Gaining product trial is a daunting task for marketers. Giving stuff away in sample sizes is costly. But enticing people to actively look for your product helps overcome some of those roadblocks. Maybe scanning the item results in an instant coupon, thereby giving instant gratification. Perhaps it causes you to add the item to your choice set for future consideration. Maybe you will one day purchase it.

For those without a smartphone, though, Checkpoints is a moot point. That leaves out 50-percent of the US population. You’re on your own, pal.

And while I seldom have time to just be entertained at the store, I think I am game for a test drive…all in the name of research, of course. Something tells me that this thing could take off, in spite of my naysaying. I’ll meet you over in Aisle 7.

Dr “By The Buy” Gerlich