Sunday, September 27, 2009

It's All About the Bling.

The accessorization of the consumer electronics market.

It’s not news to anyone that the era of function-first shopping is over. The past 20 years have seen a consumer metamorphosis from the “what can it do for me” sensibilities of our parents and grandparents to the fashion-forward, “what does it say about me” focus of the 21st century consumer.

Certainly status and appearance have always been a factor in product development and retail merchandising, but only recently have we seen it become the focus across so many product categories. The automotive industry, for instance is old hat at designing and developing products that sell not only for their function and reliability, but give their owners a sense of status, ideally above their actual position in life. The consumer electronics industry, on the other hand has only recently come to the realization that style, appearance, and the perception of cool that surrounds a product are often times more important its features in getting consumers to bite.

As with many aspects of life over the span of the 20th century, our retail motivations have shifted toward the superficial. Many in today’s sea of younger and younger consumers are more interested in how a product looks “on” them than how it works for them. They prefer to have the latest rather than the greatest. This has no doubt been a boon for manufacturers who have reaped the benefits of short-lived trends and a reduced consumer longevity requirement from their products. Dominating the playing field, for a split-second or for the entire game has become about being the next big thing – and changing frequently enough to hold that position. Though there are still many good products out there, the game is more about the mystique of the product than it ever has been.

Apple, its iPod and iPhone are perfect examples of this trend in buyership. In both cases, Apple set out to redefine what cool was in an already crowded category. First they did what any good R & D department would do given this task; they took an already solid idea and made some improvements. Then they did what Apple does better than any other company in the electronics world – they set out down marketing and P.R. avenues specifically designed to turn their products into fashion accessories. This simple approach resulted in two products that were new in neither concept nor execution, but have come to define mobile electronics over the past decade.

Granted the development of both “iProducts” resulted in devices that leapt far enough ahead of the competition that even more than a decade later, the catch-up game is still afoot. Despite this fact, the real magic was in the marketing. Apple didn’t simply box them up and sell them into the retail channel. They turned them into icons among their target customers. Overnight, far more based on fashion and fun than anything feature-related, these two category-leading products became cool-o-meters for everyone listening to music on the go or talking on a cell phone. This is becoming the trend in industry after industry. Features and function are positioned secondary to the products image – the cool factor.

As an art director, I’ve spent the past two decades watching, dissecting, and comparing anything and everything I see that could be considered marketing (this habit is both a blessing and a curse according to my wife). Packaging seems to be the most obviously transformed (and transforming) medium out there. I have watched a slow decline in the informational, more utilitarian package, where unique selling point (USP), strong feature bulles, and lifestyle are critical to the traditional “packaging formula.” These ubiquitous, packaging 101 elements are being cast aside in favor of image and presentation. The box on the shelf is no longer an advertisement for the product, outlining the benefits of its ownership, it is a portrait of the consumer who will buy it.

In today’s retail isles, consumers aren’t interested in reading more than they absolutely have to. They walk down the isle scanning the products available to them, and pick up the one that does two things best (this is Important): matches their predetermined price point, and looks like it costs more. Since I’ve been working in the world of mobile accessories for the past few years, and am most familiar with the details of the category, I’ll use Bluetooth headsets as my example.

For all practical purposes Bluetooth headsets are wireless communication devices that are meant to make life easier and safer for the user. For all non-practical purposes, Bluetooth headsets are jewelry; accessories to be worn and coveted by others. There are still those who buy electronics for practical reasons, but they are no longer the majority. More often these days the reason behind a given purchase is the ability to display or announce that purchase. 1080P HDTVs are a prime example of this. Does it really make the experience twice as good – or does the buyer just want to be able to say he has the biggest, highest resolution television in the neighborhood?

I digress. Back to Bluetooth.

There are currently three tiers of Bluetooth headsets found at any comprehensive electronics retailer. There are the low cost products; designed, packaged and displayed for the no nonsense bargain hunter who is just interested in getting a headset in their ear for under $40. From a functional and a marketing perspective these products are all but irrelevant, but because this market exists and will always exist, it is requisite that manufacturers develop a skew or two for this tier (though I challenge you to find a $40 Jawbone or BlueAnt headset).

The individual shopping on price alone is often just looking to get a Bluetooth headset. Peroid. Because you’re always cooler when you have a Bluetooth in your ear. This purchase is therefore made based on the cool factor – but only in the most superficial way. Unless their boss has required them to use a Bluetooth for safety reasons, or they are just that safety conscious naturally, this customer is shopping based on looks. The coolest headset within their price range, according to their individual taste, is what they will purchase. Simple. Doesn’t require a lot of marketing savvy or fancy embellishments. Show the product, state the features, and do it on the cheap.

The premium products represent a minority of the overall shelf space but inevitably dominate it with their injection molded packages draped in foil and embossing; these typically ring up between $90 and $149. They inevitably set the category’s tone in many ways.

The premium customer is one of two people. They either walk in knowing they want a specific headset regardless of price (for form or function reasons), or they are seduced up the price scale by the museum-quality packaging and Design Award-worthy hardware that defines this tier. Those manufacturers who have made the choice to focus on this tier understand that their target is looking for the next big thing and they are often not concerned with price. Their formula is simple as well, but much more refined, create a solid performing product with exceptional aesthetic appeal, then package it in a way that makes it look the part of a $129 headset. This means stripping away big bold feature statements and bullet points that would make their product seem defensive, as if it had to give the buyer a laundry list of reasons to buy it. Instead, a primary feature or two are whispered in small, graphically pleasing text on the front, and the rest are relegated to 10 pt text on the rear.

Then there is the “everything in between” tier. This is the space where many of the major brands like Motorola, Samsung, Jabra, and Plantronics live and compete. It represents the vast majority of the available products and a wide variety of tactical approaches to package development and design. It also represents the most complicated, difficult and opportunity laden tier in the category.

A few of these manufacturers don’t venture into the premium tier, but they are all amply represented in the low. As for form and function, there are many quality performers in this group, some of which are on equal footing with much higher priced products (I’ve seen the data), but for some reason their creators insist on throwing them into this middle mix.

Following Apple’s macro example on a micro level, the high tier products have it right. They all manage to display their hardware in a way that increases its presence, they don’t crowd their boxes with bullet points and lifestyle image, and above all, what verbiage they do include on their packages assumes that their consumer is at least as intelligent as they are. By doing this, they are transcending simple retail presentation and selling the customer an image; a perception; the idea of status and quality. Because of this, when put to the spreadsheet, they don’t necessarily have to outperform their lower priced competitors to outsell them – and they always attract more attention. Ask any mobile electronics connoisseur if they know Jawbone. Whether they own one or not, they’ll gush and say how cool they are.

My point is this – if these middle tier “nobody’s” hope to compete and truly demonstrate their selling capabilities against their “diamond studded” upper tier competitors, they should stop trying to gain the lead within their tier and follow by example. Next time they revamp their look, they should take a look up the pricing scale and also rethink their approach. Whether this means truly stepping up to the plate with higher quality materials and passing that expense on to the consumer, or simply taking a step back and looking at how they can streamline and simplify their existing form factors to better convey a sense of intelligence and quality, I’m not sure – that’s for the individual manufacturer to decide. Until they do this, they will continue to swim unnoticed in the sea of mid-tier headsets that are their competitors.


Next time your browsing your local strip center, stop into an AT&T outlet. They have recently redesigned their internal branding scheme to include repackaging those Bluetooth headsets they offer (from various manufacturers). Oh, the $90 plus big boys still retain their original manufacturer packaging (and all of the consumer awe that accompanies it), but everyone else has received a facelift ala the latest AT&T brand direction. These simple orange, white and transparent packages are elegant, intelligent, and when compared to the upper tier headset packages, offer a very cost effective and competitive presence. Way to go AT&T.

If a manufacturer would introduce this level of thought, sophistication, and innovation to their Best Buy or Walmart skews, a front-runner in the mid-tier Bluetooth retail channel might just emerge.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Selecting the Right Agency Partner

Selecting an advertising agency or freelance resource means finding not only the best product for your money but a resource that listens to your specific situation and applies solutions specific to your business. When you set out to find that creative match, there are many things to consider.

Results >
Peruse the client list. Examine their work samples. Ask about the results generated by the work and if you feel it's necessary ask for proof. Make sure you understand their billing and rate structure. It's your money on the table – and any reputable resource will gladly provide this information.

Accountability >
As a career Creative Director, I pride myself in NOT specializing. Working with and experiencing clients from many industries helps me stay fresh and constantly re-examine the specific methods I use to identify the right solutions. My client experience spans a broad range, from large accounts to comparatively small ones, including sole proprietorships.

If your project requires a full-scale, nationwide, multi-media advertising campaign, you’ll need a realistic budget and an ad agency that possesses the experience and resources to manage an account on that scale. On the other hand, not all projects require the use of a full-fledged agency. If we meet and I feel that your needs are beyond my capabilities or you require a service that I'm unable to readily provide - I'll be the first to let you know. I have a wide range of outsourcing relationships that help me to service all but the largest clients, but I realize there are times when a prospect would be best served elsewhere. This realistic look at my capabilities and bandwidth keeps me from getting in over my head and keeps my clients and prospects on the road that will best serve them. I also give all of my clients the flexibility to manage their own process at the level they prefer. What does that mean? If you, as a client prefer to use your own printer or coordinate in order to allow you to produce portions of your campaign in-house, I'll work with you. Too many agency's take an all-or-nothing approach to their work which tends to limit the clients input and flexibility throughout the process.

Quality Creative >
Over time, agencies often begin to develop a certain "look" or "tone" in their work, reflecting the aesthetics and subjective preferences of in-house creative folks. When reviewing a portfolio, you should feel enthusiastic about the work you see, and at least a portion of the creative work should be in a style appropriate to your needs, expectations and personal taste. Also, keep in mind that creative work is successful only in so far as it produces results for your business.

I strongly believe that, while creative delivery plays a role in every marketing effort, it should always take a back seat to strategic thinking. The development of a company's collateral or their advertising should not be approached like an artist's canvas. There is almost never room for creativity-for-creativity's-sake. Every typeface, every image, every headline should speak to the target and be a part of the overall delivery and goal of the specific project.

Though I pride myself in the skill-set I've developed over my career, I'm not too proud to seek quality outside resources when necessary. Depending on the needs of the project, I may draw on the expertise of a wide range of outside talent. I work cooperatively with many gifted art directors, copywriters, designers, photographers, web designers, printers, illustrators, and PR writers.

Testimonials & References >
If you're on the fence about who you want to work with, ask for a few client references. Barring any sort of non-compete agreements, an agency should provide you with at least a couple of folks you can contact as references. Call them and ask some pointed questions: Is the client satisfied with the work produced? Does the client think the work was a good value and investment? Were there any particular problems encountered when working with the agency? The more knowledge you have, the better equipped you will be to make the right choice.

Personality Counts >
Determine who your contact will be and if you’ll be working directly with other members of the staff. Meet these people to get a sense for whether your personalities mesh, if your contacts communicate effectively and if you will be able to reach them in a timely manner.

I hope this short tutorial helps to give you a better perspective on selecting the best agency or creative resource for your needs.

Happy Marketing - j

Friday, August 21, 2009

"I can't afford to advertise during a recession!"

So-called business guru Peter Drucker once said, "Only two things make business money - marketing and innovation. Everything else is an expense."

Having a great and innovative product or service and not marketing it is like owning a sports car and never putting gas in it. You need to fill the tank on a regular basic or you won't get very far.

During down times, marketing is often the first budget slashed. This can actually cause more harm than the recession alone. If your marketing efforts were bringing in a certain level of sales, and those numbers began to drop as the economy slowed, killing your advertising will certainly take them unnecessarily lower. The customers are still out there - and unless you have a truly boutique product, they are still buying – just at a reduced rate.

My advice to clients during a slump is that we sit down and evaluate what we're doing and what we've done in the past. We identify the initiatives that produced the most bang for the buck, and adjust the budget and strategy to focus on repeating those results. If targeted direct mail was a great, inexpensive way of reaching a specific target segment – we repeat it. If banner ads or print placement in a specific publication did the job, then we shift in that direction.

Studies show that companies that don't succumb to the knee-jerk slashing of their advertising budgets during these times actually tend to see growth – which only makes sense to me. Think about it. If the norm is to reduce or eliminate advertising expenses during a recession, the playing field is empty. There are fewer voices competing for the customer's eyes and ears, and new customers can likely be had without having to work quite so hard to beat out your competition.

Don't get me wrong, the problems inherent with a financial slow down can't be ignored, and I'm not suggesting that you proceed, business-as-usual through these tough times. I'm simply saying that with a bit of thought, and some focused planning and execution, your marketing could turn a bust into a boom.

Happy marketing - j

Friday, July 31, 2009

Looking ForWords

My blog in progress...