Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The New Network

I grew up with three networks: NBC, ABC, and CBS. Fox came along later. Then cable drew me away from the networks and, today, I rarely set my TiVo to network programming. Websites such as YouTube and Blinkx are networks for the new attention spans. But, the first "network" that comes to mind for most today is their network of friends (online and off).

When describing their success drawing young people to Atlanta, the president of the city's Chamber of Commerce recently told the NY Times:

“What we’re seeing is the jury of the most skeptical age group in America has looked at Atlanta’s character and likes it,” Sam A. Williams, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, said.

But Mr. Williams acknowledged the difficulty of replicating that phenomenon on purpose.

Had the chamber tried to advertise Atlanta, he said, “we might have screwed it up —because they’re much more trusting of their own network than they are of any marketing campaign.”

“You can’t fake it here,” he said. “You either do it or you don’t.”


Slapping a logo, jingle, and a tagline on a city undermines the objectives of the branding effort to begin with. A sense of place needs to be real, not manufactured.

Chicago has done a great job by carefully choosing development that fits its artistic heritage. Millennium Park, for example, vibrantly appeals to both tourist and native. Unlike my neck of the woods in San Francisco, where the biggest tourist areas are anathemas to locals (Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39), Chicago successfully blends the needs of both and leverages the visions of Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas in the process.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Godin's Guacamole

The people who effect change these days are the influencers who pay attention and care enough to tell others. Blogging is one of their most potent tools as they curate ideas, products, services, and what's right and wrong with society. I predict that it will be the blogs, for example, that uncover the scandal of what's in the packaged foods we eat. One of my recent posts included the unfortunate trend of marketers spinning food as healthy when it has no basis other than being marginally better than the even worse choices.

Seth Godin's latest post strikes a similar tone by sharing the ingredient statement for Kraft's Guacamole. Glad to see it.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Don’t fight the power shift, embrace it!

Sitting in Apple’s new Fifth Avenue store at 1am a few weeks ago, it struck me that the people were not shopping as much as just being. The space felt more like a progressive public library or piazza, than a retail store. Rather than controlling the experience, Apple simply facilitates it. There’s clearly something quite different here. People are free to surf the net, take photos (something that would get you kicked out of most retail stores), and simply use the space and the tools as they wish. The transparency of the building’s fa├žade is an apt metaphor for the open and welcoming energy of the store. By facilitating the experience and then stepping back, Apple has created stores that really are more like fashionable rec centers.

So, how can your business create a community that will, in turn, breed more community?

I don’t believe the answer is a superficial one. Apple stores are not just retail entertainment. People at the Apple store were engaged through their own productivity and discovery, not just because the elevator is a beautiful clear cylinder. But, let’s not underestimate the power of the Apple brand image. Just as every aspect of its computers and iPods is thoughtfully designed, the stores are beautifully designed and visitors feel cool by being part of that cool image.

Of course, Apple’s advertising plays into this aura of hipness. But, Apple’s brand building retail strategy demonstrates the need to focus on far more than advertising to bond consumers to brands. With audiences scattering due to infinite media choices, marketers are scrambling to find the right places to put their ad dollars. But, instead of focusing on the tactics of dealing with these ever-fragmenting audiences, marketers should really be concentrating on the vast shift in the elements of influence and trust. The changing media is just the symptom. What’s really behind the fact people are watching YouTube instead of network TV is a new consumer behavior that regards overt marketing messages as noise and the actions of those they trust as gospel.

The confluence of several trends contributes to the shift: increased number of media channels, the shear amount of limitless online content (products, ideas, news, and stimulation of every kind), corporate and political scandals that breed cynicism, and a new consumer who has quickly adapted to the power of knowledge through collective research and peer review.

Rather than moving advertising money around to scattershot marketing messages, marketers should take the time to understand—even embrace—this new consumer behavior. All marketers should ask themselves:

How can I share control of my brand with my audience?

It can begin with small gestures like letting consumers vote on what the next M&Ms color should be. Or, it could take the form of letting a customer of a professional services firm set the fee structure to reward positive results.

Apple does it by allowing customers to feel the space in Apple stores is theirs.

What a brand means to people and how that meaning is established and nurtured helps delineate the truly great brands. Inspiring a blog posting that extols the meaning of your brand is far more potent marketing than placing a banner ad.

Of course, Apple still owns its brand, but it is sharing the experience in ways that allows it to avoid the pitfalls of companies that are still just trying to figure out where to advertise.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Who to trust?

How fragile is trust? Everywhere you turn, there’s another lie exposed. I don’t think there are more liars today, it’s just easier to expose them. People now have the power to combat those that mislead, helping others wade through the din of marketing noise. There’s a new generation of muckrakers helping us decipher fact from fiction.

In the last post, I referenced an NY Times article about a supermarket chain that has adopted a nutrition ranking system. Hannaford Brothers of New England shows the courage to take on those who supply its livelihood with its “Guiding Stars” program. The goal is to help its customers eliminate any confusion regarding manufacturers’ health claims. The one to three star rating identifies good, better, and best relative to criteria set by an advisory panel of nutritionists and one doctor. A 3-star food has “more vitamins, minerals and/or whole grains and less trans fats, saturated fats, cholesterol, added sugars and/or added sodium.”

What’s most interesting about this Guiding Stars program is that Hannaford is NOT a “natural” grocer like Wild Oats or Whole Foods. For its 150 stores, it chooses to carry the wide array of products found in most grocery stores. In fact, 77 percent of the 27,000 products Hannaford evaluated are awarded no Guiding Stars at all.

By drawing attention to the healthy products, Hannaford is curating in a way that proves it has the customer’s best interest at heart. And, the chain is doing so with objectivity. So much so, that it has faced criticism from the very brands it sells:

''We don't like the idea that there are good and bad foods out there, and these sort of arbitrary rating systems,'' said John Faulkner, director of brand communication at the Campbell Soup Company. The Healthy Request line of soup, he said, was ''aligned with the government definition of what healthy is.''

A lot of brands meet only the very minimum standards provided by the government–a government heavily lobbied by food manufacturers. For a major chain to take such a definitive stand is just more evidence that the curator effect is radically changing how companies relate to their customers.

Food manufacturers are in a tough spot at the moment. As they race to pull out all the science-driven ingredients developed for the convenience generation, they expose themselves as the culprits. If hydrogenated fats are so bad, then why have they used them for so long? The answer? Shelf life. And, that’s the other problem these companies face. Current distribution processes account for very long shelf lives. Manufacturers can ship far and wide and load retailers up on promoted items for long periods. Time’s been on their side.

But times are changing. So companies like Pepsico retool existing products while also developing and buying brands that cater to the monumental shift in consumer attitudes. These brands carry none of the parentage of the manufacturer. Small and authentic now trumps large and omnipotent.

I suspect the most trusted brand names in 10 years will either be tiny, obscure brands at the moment or ones which don’t even exist yet. Undoubtedly, certain mega-brands will decline as curators help us distinguish between truth and smoke screen (again, please see Richard Edelman’s mea culpa).

The power is now in the hands of the retailers and the consumers. And curators like Hannaford will multiply, exposing us to long hidden truths about what we’ve been eating. Companies that embrace the shift to transparency will be the winners. So, big companies are doing what they can to act and think small.

Take Pepsico. Recently they developed and started selling a new beverage in Whole Foods called Fuelosophy, but of course the product label makes no mention at all of Pepsi’s parentage.

Here’s what our good friend Steve Gundrum, ceo of Mattson, told AdAge:
(NOTE: only subscribers can view the full article)

"Every company I work with is designing products distinctively different than regular grocery products to appeal to the natural-foods channel," said Steve Gundrum, president-CEO of product-development firm Mattson.

To do so, giant marketers need to change their thinking. Mr. Gundrum said Whole Foods is "not a reseller of branded package-goods like other retailers. They're really a curator of brands and products that fit their consumers' lifestyle" -- which means consumers trust products carried at Whole Foods and are willing to pay far higher prices for them.

Another example of the retooling of existing brands, are Pepsi’s Tostitos. On the packaging of two of its 13 types of Tostitos (the Blue and Yellow Corn Restaurant Style chips), Pepsi screams “NATURAL” across the top in big letters. But if you take a closer look at the nutritional content, you’ll see that the product delivers 6 grams of fat in every ounce (that’s 10% of the recommended daily allowance—just for a bag of chips!).

How can a simple consumer make any sense of so many nuanced product choices and arcane nutritional claims?

Well, Pepsico itself is seemingly lending a hand. It has developed what appears to be similar to the Hannaford Guiding Stars program. As part of its Smart Spot program, the company applies a green “Smart Choices Made Easy” graphic on dozens of its products. The company is also completely transparent about the criteria necessary to achieve a Smart Spot. There are three criteria, and the most important aspect of these criteria is that each is separated by “or” not “and.”

The Smart Spot criteria for food is:

Contains no more than 30% of calories from fat, no more than 1 gram of saturated fat and zero trans fats, contains no more than 60 mg of cholesterol and 480 mg of sodium, contains 10% or more of Daily Value (DV) of one or more of the following: Vitamin A, C, iron, calcium, protein, or fiber, and contains no more than 25 percent of calories from added sugar unless the product contains 10 percent DV of fiber*,


delivers a functional benefit via natural or fortified ingredients proven to be efficacious,


is reduced in calories, fat, sugar or sodium by at least 25% compared to base product or other appropriate reference product*

*Includes review by nutrition technology group

Again, the magic is in the conjunction OR. The third criterion essentially translates to: “we tell consumers this product is a nutritionally smart choice simply because we sell something that’s significantly worse.” As long as there’s a more evil counterpart, the real nutritional criteria go out the window (not that 480 mg of sodium is so great – you have to be at 140 mg to be called Low Sodium.

So, here are a few “smart choices” with their ingredient statements:

Gatorade® Endurance Formula Instant Mix:

Cap’n Crunch’s Swirled Berries® Cereal

Baked Cheetos® Crunchy Cheese Flavored Snacks


What’s so smart about consuming those ingredients?

Hannaford has a handle on the Curator Effect and will be a force in bringing about positive change. The manufacturers will whine and continue with the faux-healthy adjustments to their products, but the shift is real and more companies should have the courage to lead the change rather than obfuscate and mislead. In fact, as Hannaford demonstrates, this strategy can differentiate a company by deepening brand meaning and trust.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Age of Authenticity

We’ve entered the age of authenticity. Marketers can no longer rely on consumers believing what they hear. The curator effect cuts both ways. We reward the sincere and expose the disingenuous.

So, what about the food industry’s trend toward healthier products? I fear that screaming “natural,” “organic,” or “multi-grain” gives consumers permission to indulge in these so-called healthier products. But, organic sugar is still sugar and natural junk food is still junk.
This is part of the dark side of the organic trend. It’s great that toxic chemicals are being pulled out of our food supply. But let us not allow “organic” to become synonymous with healthy as it will fuel consumption of those disingenuous brands that are merely waving the organic flag and wrapping themselves in deceiving labels.

The good news is that, as people curate on behalf of each other, brands that obfuscate the truth can be easily exposed. Recently, Wal-Mart’s PR firm, Edelman, was uncovered as the true players behind the Working Families for Walmart blog. The “wiki” nature of the world these days quickly rights wrongs as evidenced by Richard Edelman’s mea culpa. The effect of the curator teaches these companies important lessons.

You can’t fake authenticity. This doesn’t mean a brand is doomed if it doesn’t have a real Ben and Jerry behind it, but it’s increasingly more important that it tell the truth. Sounds silly to say, but truth hasn’t been a plentiful commodity in the marketing world. The old school holdouts that sprinkle a few whole grains into its product and scream “MULTI-GRAIN” will be found out and, if justice is served, tarred and feathered by the visible persuaders.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Toyota's Yaris Embodies the Curator Effect

The evolution of the Toyota brand is one of the best examples of the Curator Effect. Rather than stretching a master brand to the point of dilution, it demonstrates its grasp of its limitations. Instead of attempting to upscale the brand beyond credibility, it launched Lexus. Knowing that the Toyota brand doesn’t (and shouldn’t) have the street cred to appeal to urban youth, it launched Scion.

Now, its Yaris brand goes a step further with a media plan that includes a significant online effort. Its virtual test drive lets the visitor customize the car, download free stuff, and virtually drive through one of six hip neighborhoods in the country. Every aspect of the experience reinforces the brand’s indie positioning. You can click on stores in the neighborhoods to learn about retailers that share the values of the target audience, find the best taco stands, and browse independent book stores.

This literal curation of like-minded brands confidently shares the space with other aspirational brands to create an immersive environment. Toyota shares Yaris with visitors by giving them the power to affect the experience. It shares the brand with its ecosystem of brands that position Yaris by association. It also creates real buzz within these style-influencing neighborhoods. If you know the neighborhoods, it gives the brand local appeal. If you don’t know them, it creates an aspiration. Owning a Yaris delivers a piece of the lifestyle and that lifestyle is unambiguous.

The Curator Effect is far more powerful and lasting than any 30-second commercial.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Cheerios Goes Fruity

It’s easy to see the role we all take as curators on behalf of each other. Peer review sites play an obvious curatorial role. Retail stores such as Apple and Whole Foods curate physical retail spaces for their customers.

But can a single product brand be a curator?

The primary tenets for a successful curator are:
- know your audience intimately
- have a clear, consistent, relevant, and sustainable point-of-view
- challenge the audience beyond their comfort level (i.e., innovate)
- create experiences so rewarding that you build loyalty

Let’s take a look at a venerable brand that has fended off competitors for decades. It has also spawned six successful line extensions.

The brand is Cheerios, one of the only cereals whose appeal spans from infants to adults. Against the criteria above, I think Cheerios knows its audience, innovates by adding new flavors and has created tremendous brand loyalty.

But has the brand stuck to a clear point-of-view that consumers can trust?

Released just last month, Fruity Cheerios is the brand’s seventh extension. And of course, some have claimed the company’s gone too far. One blogger spelled it out rather clearly: Cheerios has become “sugar sellout.” But has it, really?

Fruity Cheerios still boasts that it has “25% less sugar than the leading fruity cereal.”

That’s a difference of 14g versus 9g of sugar (It’s worth noting that Fruit Loops has a line extension called Fruit Loops 1/3 Less Sugar, but it’s not the leading SKU). Here’s the important question: Does going after Fruit Loops undermine Cheerios’ credibility as a provider of healthy breakfasts?

What would likely surprise the critics is that Cheerios’ earlier line extensions actually have even MORE sugar than Fruity Cheerios:

Frosted Cheerios: 13g* (1995)
Apple Cinnamon Cheerios: 13g* (1988)
Berry Burst Cheerios: 11g* (2003)
Yogurt Burst Cheerios: 11g* (2005)
Fruity Cheerios: 9g* (2006)
Honey Nut Cheerios: 9g (1979)
Regular Cheerios: 1g

* delineates the more recent extensions
(dates obtained from Wikipedia)

Unlike those other extensions, Fruity Cheerios cereal actually looks like a famous sugary cereal. Consumers know that. And in marketing, perception is far more potent than reality, so the folks marketing Fruity Cheerios hit the health message extremely hard with a brand manager’s dream, a laundry list of attributes, all on the front panel:

whole grain, naturally flavored, real fruit juice, and 25% less sugar

That’s the rational stuff. On the emotional side, they also distance themselves from Toucan Sam and his pirate pals. The Fruity Cheerios package design leans more toward contemporary pop art than sugary kids cereal (notwithstanding the brand manager’s need to junk it up with things like the biggest “New” snipe in history… as a former brand manager, I say this with empathy).

Most striking is the advertising. I’ve seen the introductory spot about six times, all during primetime (not during Saturday morning cartoons). Kids do star in the spot, but the environment is so wondrous and innocent that adults will be swept up in its lack of commercial pretence. Kids jump onto giant cereal pieces floating in milk life live preservers. All to Donovan’s angelic tune “Happiness Runs.”

My feeling is that this is not THE sign that Cheerios has diluted its brand image by lowering its standards. It’s merely ONE of the signs. But, this one is far more evident because this one looks like Fruit Loops. You can’t fault the strategy, though. The Cheerios juggernaut is ever powerful and it has kept its original flagship Cheerios true to the promise. These line extensions give people (and parents) the warm fuzzies of “Cheerios” with the hedonic pleasure of sugar. The powerful equity of Cheerios masks the fact that the majority of the SKUs are sugar cereals.

It’s a great example of the Curator Effect in that people trust the flagship to the extent that consumers transfer that good feeling to anything endorsed by them. Think of Quaker. The flagship is natural, simple oats. Too much of the rest of the vast line is nothing short of junk food.

Still, powerful equity builds trust that halos over to anything that shares the same parentage. The Curator Effect is not always used for good. Don’t even get me started on Pepsi’s Smart Spot . I’ll leave that for a future post.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Brand Ecosystems

I've spoken of the brand ecosystem that Apple provides -- that they stock directly competitive products right next to their own. This tells consumers that Apple has their best interests in mind and is happiest when their customers are happy. This is where the power of the Curator Effect is best leveraged. When consumers trust a brand's authenticity, they look to it in ways that extend beyond its single product category. What other brands have the confidence to share the brandscape with competitors (beyond the obvious private label offerings of retailers)?

Progressive Auto Insurance


Thursday, October 05, 2006

Curated Consumption

Awhile back, Trendwatching.com posted this piece on what they call Curated Consumption. It speaks to the rapidly growing number of books, blogs, opinion sites, and magazines editing the vast array of product choices in the world. It touches upon the fact that consumers are open to brands they trust curating on their behalf.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Curator Economy Article

I wrote a precursor to this concept called Curator Economy of this concept that was published on TalentZoo.com in early 2005.

Saturday, September 09, 2006


Marketing began with word-of-mouth before we had the media tools to communicate with millions at time. Then, with radio and television, marketing became one-way communication where marketers controlled your expectations of their products. Today, we are reconnected — just as we were connected before mass communication. But, this time, geography has little to do with that connection. Instead, we're joined by shared values, shared experiences, and an aspiration to emulate cultural figures we admire.

The power of influencers is not new. But the tools we now have to instantly disseminate opinions and the way that changes consumer behavior is a revolution. As the amount of information and content continues to expand in infinite directions, our reliance on curators increases.

At this early stage, the abstract for this concept is as follows:

1. The Burden of Choice
- how we got here

**UPDATE** : backdrop of confluence of trends

2. Who are the Curators?
- is Yahoo! a curator or just an organizer? What about Google?
- can a brand be a curator?
- are we all curators for the slice of content we know best?

3. Decline of the Master Brand and the Rise of the Curator Brand
- unlimited brand expansion leads to dilution and the biggest brands eventually fall on their own weight
- Toyotasaw this early and resisted the temptation to extend the nameplate to the luxury and urban youth market (thus: Lexus and Scion)
- Volkswagen missed this and lost its way with the Phaeton

4. Find Your Niche (RULE)
- dramatic shift from one-sized-fits-all to a focus on managing a portfolio of niche brands

5. Share the Brand (RULE)
- transparency is rewarded with connection and loyalty

6. Create an Ecosystem of Partner Brands (RULE)
- Apple stores showcase complementary and competitive brand right next to theirs
- Sony stores are the GAP of consumer electronics and close themselves off from other brands
- A curator looks to enhance your experience, brings forth things that challenge convention, and values the emotional connection over the quick sale

7. Courting the Curator/Influencer (RULE)
- in addition to brand partnering, we must also court the curators with authentic and open disclosure
- Bryan Singer interrupted shooting Superman Returns to fly around the world to demonstrate his authentic passion for the character at Comic-con in San Diego

8. **UPDATED**: Authentic/Real (RULE)