Category Archives: experiential

Turning the page on publishing

Stitched Panorama

If you are in the book publishing business right now you might be bracing yourself for an HMV-like end, but it seems to me that publishers still have options and if they make the right choices the end, however it arrives, could still be a long way off.

Those of you who followed my campaign a couple of years ago to try to persuade HMV that there was life after i-Tunes will know that I can’t resist a challenge.  That exercise saw me gathering a bunch of marketing folks with fertile minds on a kind of LinkedIn crowd-sourcing basis and trying to persuade the HMV CEO to listen to a few ideas we had on reviving their business.  I’ll leave you to judge for yourself what his rejection of our offer says about the relationship between success and the “open to ideas” philosophy that I have always promoted.

I’m struck by the similarities between the publishing and music industries.  Both are victims of the digital onslaught.  Technology has provided an alternative to their physical products, everyone is an author these days (even me), pretty well anybody can get published, readers don’t have to leave home to buy a book and last week you could buy any of the UK’s top 10 selling books online for 78pence!  This latter fact is a symptom of another phenomenon, the tendency of business in other sectors, in this case Sony, to give away the publishers’ raison d’etre, in their pursuit of sales of their own dedicated hardware eg tablets.

Publishing also has a similar structure to the music business.  There are publishers like Harper Collins who own numerous brands, they each support many authors and their books are distributed through physical stores and on-line.  Three levels of the business, each of which is under attack.

There are two keys to the future of the book business. The first is brand. It seems to me that publishers have been very slow to develop the brands they own. There are few sectors where brands measure up to the description “community” more than those of a publisher. You’ll know if you’ve been on this blog before that I believe all brands to be, by definition, communities and publishers’ brands are far more readily represented as communities than food products or cosmetics, yet, when I look at publishing houses I can’t see much evidence of them either recognising this or exploiting their good fortune.

The second key is the physical retailers. The front line book stores are suffering the same pressure from e-commerce that HMV did. Businesses like Waterstones are probably making a better job of competing than the music retailer did, but they have a long way to go before they maximise their assetts and even further before they could claim to have a model that will sustain them in the future. Like HMV, physical booksellers need to be more radical in their thinking. Instead of adapting their current model they should be experimenting with complete, ground-up rethinks. My worry is that, again like HMV, they are failing to recognise not just the requirement for such radical thinking, but the urgency with which they need to get on with it.

They might take a leaf out of the book of Ralph Halpern. When he headed up Burton Group he was said to have twenty or so retail formats on test in pilot stores at any one time. It worked for him and I firmly believe that, like any product manufacturer, retailers need think at least two store generations ahead in order to ensure continued success. John Selfridge taught us that retail is about entertainment and bookselling, more than most other sectors, is firmly in the entertainment sector. This means that bookstore owners have to ask themselves, “are my customers looking forward to their next visit to my store in the way they would a football match, concert or theatre?” Sadly most retailers I come across set their bar far too low in this respect. Customers should be feeling like a young lover about their next date with you.

Actually record shops used to be like that, In fact record shops used to be real communities too. I remember hanging out in a record store in Birmingham each Friday when albums were traditionally released, sampling the new stuff and discussing it with the store guys and anybody else who felt like chiming in. You could spend hours at a time in there and I often did. Come to think of it, there was a musical instrument store up the road from the record store with a similar vibe. I met Ozzie Osbourne and Tony Iommi from a new band Black Sabbath there once and they invited me to their gig that evening in the back of a pub in town (Now that dates me!) These days I can get the same kick from a visit to a bike shop like 718 Cyclery in Brooklyn. All these stores are interesting and engaging in their different ways. That’s missing in a lot of retailers these days and its where the answer could lie for retail book stores.

Its not surprising that some of the thoughts I had on HMV apply equally well to bookstores, but these in turn were based on a train of thought I evolved with a mobile phone operator a few years previously. A growing number of retail sub-sectors have to understand that they need to approach selling from a new direction, engaging customers in other areas of their lives creating an environment and establishing conversations into which a sales message can be introduced.

In a similar fashion, a few years back I created a magazine for Philips comprising features on successful projects in highly specialised business sectors. The features were compelling to the target market, but more than that, by ensuring that they were each written as a showcase for specific Philips products and concluded with a call to action and a contact device, we turned an entertaining magazine into a powerful sales tool that is still doing the numbers. I’ve also created community projects for manufacturers and service providers. Introducing products and services to consumers in the context of other areas of their personal lives engages them on an entirely different level. This I believe is how bookstores need to start thinking. Its not new of course. Its commonplace in the US for bookstores to be incorporated into coffee shops or restaurants, an idea that has been adopted in parts of Europe and even the Middle East (I have such a venue close to where I currently live in Bahrain).

While the front-line would benefit from radical thinking, publishers need to start making things easier for themselves and instead of engaging head-on in a battle with digital and e-tail that they just won’t win, turn the page and focus on the aspects of their business that their competitors just don’t have. They need to tighten up their brand definitions, get a better grip on their customers and start building relationships with them based on something other than price. Forget readings and signings, they aren’t sufficiently radical to make the difference that this sector needs.

Keep it fresh – the recipe for restaurant brand success

I was chatting yesterday with a chap who runs a load of restaurants … and I mean A LOAD!  Among the topics of our conversation were the “good old days” when the sophistocated man-about-my-neck-of-the-woods, out to cut a dash, took his “bird” to a Berni Inn.  In those days of course there were, by today’s standards, limited options for the young stud out to impress  – Wimpy, Berni Inns, the local pub where you might get that French delicacy “chicken-in-a-basket”, one of the emerging Chinese restaurants, and independents from Joe’s Caf to the more aspirational, Gino or Carlo’s.

By comparison, today’s aspiring roue is spoilt for choice.  Not only has there been a proliferation of independent eateries of all palates and ethnicities, the number of restaurant chains is enough to set plates spinning and because each one is desperate to establish a point-of-difference, today’s eating experience has become as much an entertainment as the date – especially if you have my luck!

I used to frequent Alastair Little’s restaurant in Frith Street, Soho where the man himself once told me that the average restaurant had a life of around three years, after which you had to reinvent yourself.  These days that rule of thumb at least hasn’t changed.  If you watch Gordon Ramsey’s antics on TV, you’ll know that the key to restaurant success is to devise a unique theme and then exploit it to the full.  This lesson has been adopted by all the big chains since TGI Friday’s, who recognised that while a new restaurant format will always add novelty value to an entertaining theme, for the punter, even the most compelling theme is great for two, or maybe three visits.  After that, unless something changes, you’ll find them asking “so what now?”.  If the answer is “nothing” they’ll be beating a path to the next food entertainment experience.  The “novelty effect” may also compensate for a few deficiencies, which gives you a narrow window of opportunity to iron out those niggly operational issues, but “narrow” is the important word here.  Pretty soon, its back to reality.

What we are talking about here is brand development and I love the restaurant business because it offers one of the clearest demonstrations of the concept of “brand community” and “brandships”, which has been my personal cause celebre for many years.

For a restaurateur this isn’t just a case of introducing new things to the menu, although that plays its part, you have to continually tweak other elements too.  Data management comes into play here as you define your segments and start to manage them.  You’ll have customer-segments, day-segments and seasonal demands that will probably all be heading in different directions out from your central theme and the devices you use to manage your community will be as diverse as these segments.  Starbucks discovered early on that day-segments demand different music and its a no-brainer that restaurant day-segments require different food, but that’s not only to accommodate the traditional meal variations, but different customer types – for instance, pensioners and young moms in the morning and groups of youngsters in the evening.

Its also not enough just to make changes, you have to make sure everyone recognises them.  I was in a chain restaurant recently that had a number of USPs and had introduced new items to its list, but none of them were highlighted.  That’s an ommission no operator can afford to make, but the ways in which you publicise development are as many and varied as your segments.  I don’t belive that Face book and Twitter are the panacea that some marketers suggest they are, but we are talking social networking here and while grannies don’t Tweet much, (unless you squeeze them really hard!) if you have a “youth” segment you can use this medium intelligently to drive awareness of the changes and maintain the freshness of your brand.  Press Relations and grass roots events will play their part in heightening awareness of your brand and its freshness, as will viral, personal appearances, demonstrations and good, old-fashioned advertising and PoS, plus, don’t forget your floor staff – dif’rent folks, dif’rent strokes!

Like any brand community a restaurant brand is a constantly evolving thing with opportunities for maximum customer involvement and engagement at every level that no operator can afford to miss.  Who do you think is making the most of their community?

Experiential – Giving a consumer-facing business, business cred

There’s increasing emphasis lately on what’s called “experiential marketing”, but like many things in our marketing world there’s nothing new about it – apart from the name.  These things just used to be referred to as “promotions” and looking through my archive of case studies that fall readily into the “experiential” category, I’m reassured to see that there have always been clients who recognise the value of this kind of initiative and are good them.

Take a client of mine from 2002/3.  A telco from Central Europe, now absorbed by a global operator, that had made headlines for having built a powerful and successful (by any measure) consumer-based brand and was trying to build on the values that had made them so successful with private subscribers and repeat that success in the business sector.

Our target was successful, entrepreneurial businesses, which in a developing market meant SME’s and Sole Traders.  We found a dozen (who we nicknamed “The Daring Dozen”) that had already succeeded and produced a book of case studies and a series of ten-minute TV programmes profiling each.  National TV, eager for local content were happy to run these in pre-evening-news slots.  We then launched a national campaign called “The Thirteenth Chair” throwing down the gauntlet to would-be entrepreneurs to take their place alongside these successful small businesses.

The red swivel-chair that we used throughout, photographed empty and in a spot-light, became the campaign icon and the key competition and the book was promoted through trade associations, on the telco’s web site, in their stores, using viral and press media with  links at the end of the TV segments, and in the book, to the campaign web site where candidates could register and subscribe to the campaign pack.  The mechanic was straightforward enough.  Candidates completed a business plan using a template that we provided and each submission went through a short-listing process, culminating in a chosen few being invited to a “show and tell” like “Dragon’s Den” where a panel, made up from the twelve original entrepreneurs and representatives of my client, voted to contribute to financing to one of the plans.

From there the winning candidate was filmed as their business evolved throughout the next twelve months.  Press coverage was phenomenal during the run-up and after the award was announced and we were almost fighting applications off with a stick (although, as you might expect from a developing market, there were rather a lot of “spoiled applications”).

Was it one of those “big ideas” that I tend to ramble on about? – Well, yes, I guess it might qualify.  Could you repeat this event in a more mature market? – Probably not, certainly at the level of investment we were making back then, but with the new mobile technologies that are now available, there would be a whole lot of additional elements and valuable mileage to be gained if you could.  It just goes to show that “experiential marketing” isn’t something that was just invented and I’m sure that it will be with us, whatever its called, for a long time yet.